Aeonite writes "Quests have always been a part of fantasy gaming; from the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft's myriad quest lines, quests have given players purpose beyond button-pressing and mindless grinding. Jeff Howard's Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narrative is an exploration of such quests in both literary and gaming contexts, comparing and contrasting their appearances in each medium and striving to bring the two worlds closer together by imbuing game quests with more meaning." Read below for the rest of Michael's reviewIn his preface, Howard first attempts to define quests, both in his own terms and with respect to the likes of Campbell and Frye. In short, a narrative quest is a "journey to attain a meaningful goal," such as one might find in The Odyssey, The Faerie Queene, or The Quest for the Holy Grail. Such quests are romantic, archetypal, and laden with meaning and purpose. On the contrary, a game quest is in Howard's words "an activity in which players must overcome challenges to reach a goal." The disparity in the language used here is clear, especially when Howard goes on to clarify game quests as being "about action that is meaningful to a player on the level of ideas..." Narrative quests are about meaningful goals; game quests are about meaningful action. Howard quotes Auden as saying that "the search for a lost button is not a quest," but is this not exactly the sort of quest we find in MMOs like WOW? Time-filling quests to give the player some sort of activity, to provide "meaningful play" in the absence of meaningful goals.
This inherent problem with quests in games is further touched upon in the introduction to the book, which explains that its own goal is to prove quests out as a bridge between games and narratives. "[I]nteractivity is a prerequisite of enactment but is not sufficient to produce it...," says Howard. "[E]nactment requires active, goal-directed effort, often in the form of balancing long-term and short-term goals." Campbell, Frye, Auden and Propp are all consulted and cited here, exploring their own takes on quests in terms of their place in the heroic monomyth, medieval romance, subjective personal experience, and a "sequence of defined transformations," respectively. However, the most enlightening point comes after an exploration of the history of quest games (from D&D through WOW) where, quoting Tronstad, the author explains that "the paradox of questing is that as soon as meaning is reached, the quest stops functioning as quest." The profusion of more-or-less meaningless quests in MMORPGs "causes the 'main quest' to disappear" according to Howard, who cites the "bleak scenario" of WOW as not being conducive to meaningful gameplay.
Given that challenge, the main portion of the book serves as a sort of lesson plan towards the creation of better, more meaningful quests in modern games. In Chapter 1, "Introduction to Quest Design," Howard asserts that designing meaningful action is key, and ample examples of symbolism and spiritual analogy tied to the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are offered. The following chapters each cover a different element of quest design, more or less aligned along the same breakdowns as one might find in a MUD codebase: w(or)ld, mob(ile), obj(ect) and the like. Each one is broken up into two sections: theory, and practice, the former covering Howard's thoughts on the topic, and the latter delving into practical examples of how to create that quest element using the Neverwinter Nights Aurora Toolset.
Chapter 2 covers the "Spaces of the Quest," providing a sort of primer on level design and world design, from dungeons and labyrinths to dreamlike allegorical spaces. Chapter 3 then focuses on "Characters," both NPC and PC alike, including a discussion of encounters, dialog trees, archetypes and some minor venom spat Fable-wards due to the presence in that game of characters literally named Mentor and Hero; perhaps worth mentioning in Fable's defense is that both Hero (of Hero and Leander fame) and Mentor (Odysseus' sagacious friend) are both legitimate names derived from Greek myth. But I digress.
Chapter 4 explores "Objects," specifically those quest items that players seek out and gather on their quests. "[T]he drive to acquire objects in Everquest challenges literary understandings of games because players do not seek to interpret these objects," Wesp is quoted as saying here. The assumption seems to be that quests should strive to contain objects laden with meaning and symbolism, whether they be "rods of eight parts" that one must piece together or symbolic tattoos such as those found in Planescape: Torment. Certainly, many MMOs could learn a few lessons from this chapter, being as so many have players running around collecting feces, offal and skins. Indeed, the quests that send them off to do such things are explored in Chapter 5, "Challenges." Here Howard covers fetch/collect quests, kill quests, escort quests and the like, providing a somewhat awkward apology for kill quest proliferation by trying to compare kill grinding in games like WOW with the intense violence practiced by Odysseus. Of course, Odysseus was never sent on a quest to kill 12 Cyclopes to collect their eyes for a healing potion; once again, the difference between meaningful action and meaningful goals rears its ugly head. Indeed, Howard provides a somewhat telling example of an attempt to rectify this disparity in his scripting example, wherein he has King Arthur bestowing Gawain several keys to use on various chests so Gawain can open them in sequence to find objects hidden inside each which will help him on his quest. Surely there are examples of this sort of rote quest sequencing to be found in folklore and mythology; Russian mythology in particular is full of things done in threes. Yet one cannot help but feel that it makes the whole thing somewhat less epic in the retelling when a knight of the Round Table is reduced to playing puzzle games.
Chapter 6 of the book closes out the lesson plan with "Quests and Pedagogy," an example of how Howard used The Crying of Lot 49 with his own students to explore the nature of quests in a video game setting. This rather short chapter is followed by a Conclusion, summarizing what's come before, and then several lengthy Appendices: a guide to the Aurora Toolset; an excerpt from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and an excerpt from The Faerie Queene. An excellent Works Cited page (nearly as long as Chapter 6) and an adequate index close out the book. In total, the book weighs in at 248 pages, although 46 pages of that is introduction (15 more if you count Chapter 1) and over 80 pages is composed of conclusion, appendices and endmatter. Thus, about half of the book is either introduction or conclusion, frontmatter or endmatter, and this makes the book feel somewhat imbalanced, taking a long time to introduce and then back up the topic while spending not enough time (in my opinion) actually working through it. Howard's writing style is excellent and the subject matter worthy; I wish he had spent more time in his book's Act 2; perhaps he would have been able to extend his ideas even further than he does, striving not only to infuse quests with meaningful activity but with meaningful goals as well. Too much of game quest design is derived from the Latin origin of the word quest (which Howard tells us comes from questare, which means " to seek,") and not enough on the purpose of the quest, which is to have a heroic journey with a "Happily Ever After" at the end. Yet MMOs almost by definition require that many millions of players walk the exact same heroic path; would the epic tale of King Arthur be so epic if his round table had 10 million chairs, with ten million knights forever searching for their own copy of the Grail?
"Go and tell your master that we have been charged by God with a sacred quest," says King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. "If he will give us food and shelter for the night, he can join us in our quest for the Holy Grail."
"Well, I'll ask him, but I don't think he will be very keen," replies a French soldier. "Uh, he's already got one, you see."
Therein lies the problem: he's already got one, and so does everyone else. Because everyone has done the quest, and furthermore everyone wants to keep grinding for the +2 grail, which will no doubt be available in the next expansion, or perhaps in the Player's Handbook IV, or as an exclusive Dragon Magazine feature, available to subscribers of D&D Insider. Many (if not most) fantasy games can never have meaningful, magical quests where you get the vorpal sword and slay the Jabberwock and save the world, because their Sisyphean stories can never truly end; the Horde will always be at war with the Alliance, and the ring will never, ever make it to that volcano, and there will always be another supplement or sequel, another dungeon to raid, another hamlet of Hommlet to rescue. One telling Neverwinter Nights module is called Infinite Dungeons; the solitary hero has turned into the solitaire hero, ever grinding away. Sure, Odysseus had his wandering Odyssey as he searched for home, and Galahad took years to quest for the Holy Grail, but in each case they eventually found what they were looking for. Unfortunately, right now much of the game industry seems to generally be following the example of King Pellinore, endlessly pursuing his Questing Beast.
What Howard attempts to do with Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives is truly worthwhile, and I look forward to the dialog his book will inspire. He would have us re-examine the game quest in terms of the narrative quest, and apply those lessons to gaming. The book is well worth a read, both as a lesson plan for making the activity of questing more meaningful, as well as a first step towards giving games that rely heavily on quests — especially MMOS — more meaningful goals. If the game industry can pull that off, it will be an impressive feat, worthy of Sir Galahad himself. If not... well, there's always another 12 wolf pelts to collect.
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