Why infuriating fetch quests in games should take a hike

Here’s a history lesson. When God invented the Earth some time late in the 17th century, everything was perfect and brilliant. Adam, the only man alive, lived in a giant garden centre and had everything he could feasibly ever want, and it was exactly where he needed it. Then, on 5th January 1991, a crazy goat called Satan challenged Adam to throw an apple over a house for a bet. Adam’s wife, Eve, was in a lot of debt thanks to a Wonga loan gone wrong, and the pair were hurting for “a bit of scratch”. I’m sure you know the rest: Adam’s aim was terrible, the apple sailed through God’s bedroom window and ruined an almost-complete jigsaw of a long-necked horse.

Naturally the Big Man was livid, and banished Adam and Eve to live in the earthly craphole we’re all still stuck in to this day. No more garden centre, no more fat babies with harps, and (most pertinent) no longer would everything we desire be precisely where we wanted it. Instead, stuff went everywhere. Food is lodged up in trees, buried in the ground or locked up inside cows as “meat”. Want a car? Once, you could just conjure up a Skoda Octavia, but now we have to dig metal out of the ground and do all sorts of fiddly nonsense with factories and industry and whatnot. It’s a total bummer.

Humanity now has just one real purpose: move something from one place to the other. Food, cars, books, crates, money. All of it is wrongplaced and freightworthy, and we’re the forsaken idiots who have to deal with it.

The problem

This fundamental need for things to be elsewhere manifests in video games as that most maligned of tasks: the fetch quest. Whether it’s a blushing courtesan on a Venetian rooftop asking you to retrieve her missing swan egg, or a busty alien on a space station asking you to track down her necklace, or an ancient mummy who dropped his favourite ankh in a wheelie bin, fetch quests are the most tedious and unnecessary of virtual duties.

Online MMO and ruiner of lives World Of Warcraft may not have invented the things, but it certainly cemented their reputation as gaming’s biggest time wasters. Now every RPG from Mass Effect to Fallout inevitably has you retrieving random bits of garbage for absolute strangers, with the goal of padding out the main quest with endless distractions. These missions give no insight into the workings of the wider game world, add nothing to a story and usually present no challenge. They are the equivalent of a Jacob’s Cream Cracker: dry, boring and an impediment to spooning cottage cheese directly into your mouth.

The solution

Short of somehow appeasing the sulking deity who doomed us to this mess, we’re all stuck with nearly everything in the universe no longer being within arm’s reach. But while the second law of thermodynamics means that our belongings have a natural tendency to eventually get lost inside dungeons and behind sofa cushions, there are a few things we can do to mitigate the tedium of fetch. We can start with the ability to tell needy people to take a hike.

While technically optional, there’s a galling sense of social obligation that’s attached to any request to retrieve a lost object. So give us the option to respond in the negative, but in a way that still feels morally satisfying, narratively conclusive and gets rid of the hovering question mark above the quest giver’s head.

For example, a grieving widower asks you to trek five miles into a haunted jungle to find the diary of his dead wife, who fell down a well. Why not give us the option to say, “Oh, I’ve got your diary right here,” as you reach into your pocket and pull out your middle finger? From there, it would be nice to be able to offer to “read” to the man from this “diary”, folding out your index finger as if it were a page of the book, and then presenting the rude new configuration to the guy who had the temerity to ask you to go find his crap while you’re on a quest to save the galaxy. 

After doing this a few times, NPCs would be fearful of your scathing responses to pleas for help, and only dare bother you with the most interesting and wholesome of side-quests.

This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.