Spell It Out

I was playing GTA 5 this weekend, and one of the missions really reminded me of why I prefer game devs to just spell out what they expect you to do as a player.

The mission was technically a “side-quest” of a heist the main characters were setting up. This particular branch was to acquire a getaway vehicle, take it to a discreet location, then call Michael and let him know where it is. Not just any vehicle will do, but there are a million carjack opportunities in the game, so it didn’t take long to find one the game was satisfied with.

What did take an annoyingly long amount of time was figuring out A) where a “discreet” area was, and B) phoning the location in. Back alley? Not discreet. Docks? Not discreet. Area marked in green? Whoops, that’s an entirely different mission area. I tried calling Michael half a dozen times, but never got the option to “Mark the Location.” And I never knew whether that was because I wasn’t in a discreet location, or if I was but I had to be outside the vehicle to make the call, or if the quest was just fucking bugged.

There are a lot of challenges I enjoy in gaming. The one challenge type conspicuously absent from the list is being a goddamn mind reader. Or, more specifically, trying to figure out what the designers wanted players to do. Sometimes the issue is that I missed what would otherwise have been an obvious clue. Hey, it happens. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to wander around cluelessly for 15 minutes not playing the game. Give me a puzzle, and I’ll try to solve it. But I’m not going to fucking hunt for the puzzle, because I have zero faith in my ability to divine whether all the proper programming flags were set.

So, I looked the quest up. Turns out they wanted the car in a neighborhood area. Drove there, parked, and the option to Mark the Location came right up. Fantastic. If they could have just dropped some markers down on the map like they do with everything else in the game, I would have been done with this vanilla quest more than 20 minutes ago instead of it completely breaking the flow of my gaming session.

And looking at my experience with MMOs? Same sort of thing applies. I played WoW when it didn’t have quest givers on the minimap, when quest items didn’t sparkle, before addons highlighted quest areas, and when Thottbot was breaking new ground over Allakhazam (I think). You know what? I’ll say it: it sucked. Killing mobs and not knowing whether you were just unlucky with quest drops or if you were killing the wrong specie of bear sucks. Get lost in a cave sucks. The item you need to click on being the basement as you scour the other three floors fruitlessly sucks.

I’m not saying there can’t or shouldn’t be mysteries in a game. But it should never be a mystery that you are in a mystery. The difference between hunting for clues and being clueless is immense. It is the difference between playing a game and not.

Again, I have empathy for the players for whom their primary enjoyment is figuring shit out on their own. I hope there are addons or options for you to turn off all the quest tracking overlays. But if the designers want me to collect ten bear asses to complete a quest, that is my quest, not exploring the taxonomy of virtual Ursidae and/or their habitat. If you want me to stash a car somewhere “discreet,” you either tell me where that is, or allow me to stash it somewhere I think is discreet enough. Which was apparently 100 feet away from where GTA 5 said I couldn’t make the call.

Posted on March 7, 2016, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. 100% complete agreement here. I also love figuring things out in theory but one too many poorly written or vague quest descriptors and I ended up always using Google before spending more than a few moments looking for something.


    • Yep. It’s the worst when you actually know where you are supposed to go, but some programming flag hasn’t been tripped yet, and you’re stuck doing random things to try and trip the flag. Mission/quest requirements either need to be out there in black & white, or they need to be flexible enough to offer multiple success states.


  2. Interestingly enough, that was the only mission in GTA that I got stuck on in terms of direction, so if my memory is correct, it’s an exception rather an something that occasionally happens in the game.

    As for that kind of design, it just depends on the game. In GTA where everything else is marked? Not good. In a game where nothing is marked (vanilla WoW)? Totally fine.


    • Glad to hear that I wasn’t the only one who got stuck on that mission. All the others have indeed seemed straight-forward, which is why this one threw me for such a loop.

      And yes, if the game is structured such that it is hand-off, that’s fine. Consistency is key.


  3. Hehe, if you want a better example of this shit, try Ryzom missions. “Find material XXX” with no hint on where it could be AT ALL. Ah, and it’s a material, so it’s not visible until you prospect for it. And at low level, prospection has something like 10m range and 30 degree angle. Good luck :)

    BTW I’d love quest where I have to search, provided that the quest text actually gives hints on where to look. That would be a good use of landmarks, also.


  4. There’s advantages and disadvantages to that kind of semi-obscure quest design, but i definitely agree with you that i’m glad that it’s mostly a thing of the past. (By the way, anyone know where Mandriks wife is?!?),

    The one advantage the vague descriptions have is that it can increase immersion, since you need to read the quest text and look at the terrain to try and figure out where to go. Sadly, this requires the text to be VERY well written, so that it’s clear what you’re looking for, and it requires the player having trust in the designer of the quest so that they don’t just immediately go look up the quest on Wowhead or whatever. And even if all of those things click, the quest might STILL end up being too frustrating if it’s even the least bit unclear, and if the player has had that happen even once, they’re FAR more likely to just go to Wowhead the next time, since the trust has been broken.


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