Designing Stories for Nonlinear Game Segments (or “Civic Planning for Side Quest City”)

It’s been a busy few months–I’ve been juggling multiple projects across multiple media and haven’t had the opportunity to blog much. I’ll be at the Game Developer’s Conference next week and hope to see some of y’all there. In the meantime, here’s a quick and dirty examination of an important subject: designing stories for nonlinear game segments. In other words, side quests.

While the details will vary significantly from product to product, it’s very common for role-playing games, open world action / adventures, and similar story-and-exploration-driven games to contain segments in which the player is suddenly given access to a large number of quests (we’ll call any small, linear piece of content a “quest”) that are available

a) in a nonlinear fashion (that is, they can be completed in any order, possibly with multiple quests active simultaneously);

b) with a degree of optionality (that is, some may not need to be completed at all);


c) in a context separate from the main storyline (even if the newly available quests must be completed to continue the main story, they could be removed from the narrative without causing fatal damage).

This is typically the moment where the world “opens up”–the player arrives in the game’s first big city, teeming with side quests and new areas to explore, or obtains a travel option allowing access anywhere on the game map.

Agency and Modularity

From a design perspective, such a segment provides a number of benefits. For starters, it’s an easy way to supply a powerful feeling of player agency–even in situations where the player must complete all side quests in order to continue the plot or to gain enough experience points to be effective against opponents, it still grants the player a sense of choice, a chance to prioritize and make decisions about the order of events (if not the events themselves). If some of the sides quests are genuinely optional or mutually exclusive, this feeling becomes much stronger.

It also adds an element of modularity to a game’s design. Modularity in narrative is worth a post on its own, but to put it simply: Game development is an inexact art, and no game ends up looking like its original blueprint. Sections of games will be cut or radically revised because they’re too expensive, too time-consuming to develop, or simply not enough fun to play. If the sections being cut are modular (“This side quest is really awful–let’s just take it out.”) then the task is much simpler than if they’re on the game’s critical path (“You know that whole final level in the zero gravity space station? It turns out our physics engine can’t handle it. Can we put it in Alaska instead?”)

Now let’s look at it from a narrative perspective. Your main plot rolls along nicely. It’s linear in a broad sense–maybe with branches, but overall it follows a clear path–and then your protagonist arrives in the City of One Thousand Side Quests.

What are those side quests about? And what must you be mindful of as you design and write them?

Types of Side Quests

Let’s take on subject matter first. Here are some of the things your side quests can focus on:

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Plot Point Deep Dive. The plot point deep dive can feel like the most natural approach–or at least the approach most similar to those used in direct, linear stories. In this sort of quest, we take one of the main story’s plot points, elaborate on the details, and progress it to the next stage required by the overarching plotline.

For example, if my game’s narrative is about stopping an urban gang war between the Elf Gang and the Dwarf Gang, a side quest in this style could be about reaching the Elf Gang leader and learning what his grievances are. I’ll need that knowledge when the main plot gets to the point of establishing peace. Another side quest might do the same for the Dwarf Gang.

The big downsides of the plot point deep dive are twofold: First, you may simply not have as many plot points to dive into as you have quests that need content–and if you overcomplicate your plot to provide extra fodder for side quests, you risk the player losing track of everything. Second, plot point deep dives tend to be required content and not particularly modular–if the quest is cut and the player never gets to interact with the Elf Gang and sympathize with its leader, will the player care about the gang war at all? Is the game badly damaged if the quest has to go?

Character Deep Dive. Similar to a plot point deep dive, but focused on the personal stories and motivations of major characters in the main story. These can help build an emotional connection between the player and the supporting cast–always a good thing–while still functioning more modularly than a plot point deep dive. (In fact, giving the player the choice of whether to work closely with a supporting NPC or reject the idea altogether is a powerful way of reinforcing emotional bonds.)

Care must be taken to ensure that character deep dives have stakes appropriate to the game’s tone and genre. In an RPG chronicling everyday life in high school, character deep dives could work fantastically as side quests, allowing the player to meet the family of his boyfriend, set up a romance between two classmates, and so forth. In an epic fantasy in which the world is on the verge of destruction, you’ll need a very good reason to have the player visit the home village of his mentor and resolve unfinished business from his past.

Worldbuilding. What’s an average person’s life like in a cyberpunk dystopia? How does Death Village get water in the post-apocalyptic wastes? Why does New Sodom City’s architecture involve so many gargoyles? What’s beyond the Kingdom of Murkotia’s borders? There’s much to be said for the immersive benefits of creating a well-rounded setting–it helps increase a player’s understanding of the setting’s characters and investment in a large-scale story’s outcome. Side quests are a perfect match for worldbuilding–such quests are quick enough that, individually, they won’t dilute the main plot and modular enough that they can be removed without much harm to the main story.

Like the character deep dive, of course, stakes can be a concern. And unlike the character deep dive and the plot point deep dive, worldbuilding quests often have a less obvious hook–I already care about the main plot and main characters, but why am I even interested in Death Village’s water supply?

Thematic Counterpoints. Quests in this style don’t necessarily deal directly with the main story’s plot points, but add nuance by offering a different perspective. If your game is mostly about fighting evil demons, this sort of quest might involve a side story with a demon who just wants peace. These are easy to make modular, but too many of them won’t just add nuance–they’ll actively start to undercut your main plot!

Tonal Change of Pace. Similar to a thematic counterpoint, these are quests that give players a break from the game’s usual tone. Be very careful with these–the “funny side quest” in an otherwise serious story can be teeth-grindingly awful, undercutting the drama of the main plot and feeling like a writer’s indulgence. (Funny side quests in serious games aren’t impossible to do well, but be sure you know what you’re doing.) Tonal changes of pace don’t have to be about humor, though–a romantic side quest might fit just fine into a drama, and a superhero game with a single quest revolving around supernatural horror could fit the genre, offer some fresh air, and provide worldbuilding material as well.

Linear Forward Plot Movement. Or, “the side quest that cheats.” With branching lines and trickery, linear plot progression can be achieved through nonlinear quest selection. Suppose I’m doing side quests in order to build up my reputation to get an audience with the king (the next major plot point of the main story). It may be that, after every completed side quest, I’m told of how my reputation is spreading and the allies who’ve joined me–and that news is determined by the number of rather than which side quests I’ve completed.

Depending how elegantly this information is integrated into the side quests themselves (Am I receiving different dialogue from my handler depending on how many quests I’ve completed? Or is everything identical except for a post-quest screen?), this can become expensive to write, design, test, and so forth. And of course, it doesn’t necessarily give you content for your side quests, but only guides your approach.

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In all likelihood, you’ll mix and match the approaches above rather than relying on only one. In doing so, you’ll set the tone for the entire segment of gameplay. This challenge is unique to game narrative, but a comparison to episodic television can be useful.

Is your game 24–that is, purely serialized, effectively one clearly focused plotline running straight through and only broken up by episode or quest? Then you may not want a nonlinear segment at all, and if you do, you may want to focus solely on plot point deep dives.

Is your game The X-Files, interested in exploring a multitude of ideas and happy to do the occasional character-focused episode–or even a humor piece–but with an overarching story that’s often relegated to the background?

Is your game Friends, deeply interested in the state of character relationships but not really bothered by what particular events happen in what order?

While tight serialization is popular nowadays, older TV series are still especially useful as examples. “Nonlinearity” used to be a requirement for TV writing, when shows could be rerun in any order after being sold into syndication.

Questions, Pitfalls, and Takeaways

We’ve talked about approaches you can take for side quest design. But what are the big picture issues you need to consider as you put all the pieces together?

How will you remind the player of the main plot and characters? The further your side quests stray from your main plot and characters, the more you risk your player losing interest in or forgetting your core storyline. You can’t simply take a break from your story for 10 hours and expect the player to jump back in where she left off–especially since 10 hours of side quest gameplay may equate to weeks in the player’s real life. Are you regularly reiterating your key plots, characters, and themes in your side quests somehow? In cutscenes between side quests? Are you interspersing optional side quests with required main plot quests? Are your side quests so short you’re simply not worried? (See also “Subtlety and Narrative Design”.)

How will you maintain stakes and urgency? We touched on this above, so I won’t repeat myself. But the higher the stakes and the greater the urgency of your main plot, the more dissonance you’re generating when you send the player off to do side quests. If you want a high-stakes, high-urgency main plot, you must find a way to make your side quests play into it in a straightforward and obvious fashion; alternately, if you want a game with a rich array of side quests diverse in tone and content, you want a main plot that supports your design! (I touch on this in “Player and Player Character Motivation” as well.)

Consider your scale and your definition of a quest. Much of this discussion can be scaled up–what if each “side quest” is actually its own location with its own nested plot and array of side quests? This implementation is common in RPGs (“Go to these six planets before the invasion starts, and solve a variety of tasks on each.”), and while the end result won’t always be the same, you can use many of the same tools to design your macro-level quest set as for your micro-level one.

What should the player ultimately be feeling as she plays through Side Quest City? If your answer is, “I’d rather be playing the main plot,” then you probably have some adjustments to make. A nonlinear gameplay segment should be rich and rewarding in its own right–not in the same ways as a linear plot segment, but by providing something different and exciting. Don’t struggle against a design choice needlessly. Find your design’s strengths and play to those.