Last time, I reviewed Xenoblade Chronicles. To summarize: a very good game despite a large number of minor flaws (and some not so minor ones). I didn’t have time to talk about all the flaws in questions, however. I am not too interested in nitpicking, but there is one problem in particular I would like to discuss. It is actually a very common problem in RPGs; while Xenoblade exemplifies it perfectly, it is by no means the only game suffering from it.
I don’t know if there is an actual name for it, so I will simply call it “Endgame Time Dilation”.
Minor spoiler incoming (don’t worry, this is something that happens pretty early in the story). At some point in Xenoblade, there is a city that gets attacked and completely destroyed by the Mechon. This leads to the main sidequest of the game: “rebuilding Colony 6”. At first, Colony 6 is nothing more than a wasteland, but you can slowly rebuild it throughout the course of the game by bringing an arbitrary set of items to the NPC in charge of the reconstruction. You find those items in the wild or by killing certain monsters. Every time you bring the currently required items, new houses and building are rebuilt, and new NPCs come to inhabit the city. You can continue the reconstruction effort until you obtain the “Restore Colony 6 to Its Former Glory” achievement.
This is the only sidequest I went out of my way to finish. But many of the items you need can only be found at the end of the game, and some of them only spawn rarely. Some items can only be found in areas that become inaccessible after a certain point in the story, so if you missed them, your only option is to trade with NPCs. But they will only trade the specific thing you need after you have done enough (i.e. way too many) sidequests to increase the “area affinity” to a high level. I think you can see where this is going.
In most games, the best time to do sidequests is right before the “point of no return”; that’s generally right before fighting the final boss. It makes sense: doing them earlier would break the flow of the story, and you probably wouldn’t be able to find all the required items anyway (either because you haven’t accessed all the areas in the game, or because your level is too low to fight certain enemies). And you can’t do the sidequests later, because, well… by then the game is over. So we end up in this curious situation where the story comes to a halt right before the final confrontation. To put it simply: I had beaten all the enemies in my way, the story was wrapping up, and the characters were fully determined to put an end to the main antagonist’s evil purposes. All I had to do was go and defeat him. But instead of doing that, I spent days exploring the world, killing monsters, doing sidequests for NPCs (which mostly involved even more world exploring and monster killing), and trading junk, just because I was trying to find a Rabbit Diode or a Red Frontier or whatever arbitrary item I needed at the moment to continue rebuilding my city. As you can guess, things became really boring really fast. In the end, sure, I was proud of my achievement: the city looks really great when fully rebuilt and filled with people. Now, what was I supposed to do, again? Oh, right, beat the final boss. The situation was supposed to be urgent and climatic, and the characters were supposed to be completely determined to end the main conflict; but after days of being sidetracked, all the initial enthusiasm had faded away somewhat. To better understand it, imagine you’re binge-watching a TV series. You watch, say, all the episodes in a day or two, except for the last one. Then, you take a break. And you watch that last episode a month later. That would completely ruin the mood, wouldn’t it? This is what it feels when games suffer from this problem of Endgame Time Dilation.
But it only gets worse. The main antagonist was already one of the most problematic aspects of Xenoblade. Right before the end of the story, we know he wants to destroy all life in the world (for reasons that are either stupid, unclear, or both; take your pick). He is about to kill every living thing on the Bionis, and the characters have to stop him before it’s too late. Except it’s never going to be too late. You can take all the time you want to explore the world, you can fight as many monsters or collect as many items as you want, you can go and have a conversation with every single person in the universe if you feel like it. The main story won’t actually continue until you specifically go and meet the main antagonist yourself. The sense of threat is really diminished when the god-like world-destroying entity you need to defeat is perfectly content to sit around doing nothing until you feel like acknowledging him. And after all this time spent on sidequests and monster-killing, by the time I finally reached the final boss, I was so overleveled (i.e. I had become way too strong compared to the boss) that the fight was a complete joke. Beating him was merely a formality, and despite having to defeat his three forms (because JRPGs are obliged by law to have a final boss with multiple forms), it never felt like I was in any danger whatsoever. So it was a pretty anticlimactic ending, to say the least.
Now, as I said before, Xenoblade is far from being the only game to encounter those issues. Any game that allows the player to do sidequests before the point of no return runs the risk of making the final boss trivial and boring, not to mention destroying the flow of the story. But how can we avoid it? It would be interesting to examine a few games that have, in my opinion, managed to partially avoid the Endgame Time Dilation.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: MAJORA’S MASK
(Action-adventure / Nintendo / 2000 / N64)
This one is fairly well-known due to its recent remake on the 3DS. For those who don’t know, here is the gimmick in Majora’s Mask: in three days, the moon is going to crash, causing the end of the world. You have 72 hours to find a way to prevent it from happening, which, in game time, is actually 72 minutes. Of course, this is way too short to accomplish all your objectives. But you have an ocarina (the very one from the previous game, Ocarina of Time) and you can play the famous “Song of Time”. The song has the effect of sending back to the beginning of the first day. So, every time the third day is about to end, you have to “reset” your 72 hours, which essentially traps you in a three-day time loop. Yes, yet another game that uses time as its main mechanic!
This is what makes Majora’s Mask so effective. You cannot get sidetracked because the game is in real time, and the end of the world always happens after the third day. You can do sidequests, but the only point is the acquire items that will help you reach your main objectives (like, say, a better sword). Because while you keep most of your items when you go back to the past, all your other accomplishments are lost. You may have helped a few NPCs and solved their problems; but as soon as you use the Song of Time, they will have the exact same problems again, since the time loop has reset. In the end, there is really no risk of you loosing track of the main goal (you know, if the creepy moon wasn’t a good enough reminder).
Unfortunately, Majora’s Mask does run into the other problem I mentioned before: the final boss can be made too easy. If you do all the sidequests in the game, you can obtain the “Fierce Deity Mask”, which makes you hilariously overpowered. Maybe the final boss is challenging if you don’t have the Fierce Deity Mask; I wouldn’t know. Otherwise… well, I’m not sure “too easy” is even the right description. Here is how you beat the final boss: press Z to target it. Then press A until it’s dead. Optionally, you can look at the screen.
Still, it’s not exactly easy to get the Fierce Deity Mask, so I won’t hold it against the game. Incidentally, Majora’s Mask is in my opinion one of the greatest games ever made (it is admittedly a stressful game, though). So I can only recommend it.
FIRE EMBLEM 7
(Tactical RPG / Nintendo / 2003 / GBA)
I was going to say “the Fire Emblem series” until I realized it only really works this way in FE7. The game has sidequests, and you can access them if you meet certain requirements (for example, finishing a certain chapter in less than 15 turns). Immediately after finishing a chapter that can lead to a sidequest, you are given the option to do said sidequest or to ignore it. But you are only asked once: if you don’t go on that sidequest now, you won’t have another chance later. This means that sidequests are spread evenly over the course of the game, hence the flow of the story is never broken; you know you won’t have all the sidequests to deal with right before the final boss. In addition, while going on those side chapters does allow your characters to gain more experience, it still won’t trivialize the final boss. In Fire Emblem, there is only so much you can do to make individual characters stronger, and eventually they will reach their maximum level.
METAL GEAR SOLID
(Stealth / Konami / 1998~2015 / PS1~PS4)
Admittedly, this isn’t an RPG, but it’s still a good example. I chose Metal Gear Solid for the purpose of this paragraph, but obviously there are countless other games that would also qualify. The idea here is extreme linearity. In Metal Gear Solid, there aren’t really any sidequests. Sure, there are optional objectives, but overall they are pretty pointless since you cannot level up or get any stronger than you already are. There isn’t really any exploration to do, either (at least up to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes). You have one specific mission and you never deviate from the main plot.
It should be noted that while extreme linearity fixes the problems I mentioned above pretty drastically, it can make for a boring game. The Metal Gear Solid series is far from what I would call boring (what with the insane storyline and all), but generally speaking I’m of the opinion that it’s better for a game to have a least some degree of exploration as well as some sidequests (when it comes to story-driven games, anyway).
(Survival horror / Square / 1998 / PS1)
Again, this is only one example among many. The first Parasite Eve game is pretty similar to Metal Gear Solid in that there isn’t much in term of optional content. If I remember correctly, the only sidequest is the one involving the giant crab in the warehouse, which, honestly, is barely worth mentioning. For the most part, the game follows a linear story until the end. So, case closed? Not quite! There is in fact a pretty important bit of optional content; but you can only access it on a second playthrough. This is one of those games that require you to finish the story normally at least once before you can access the true ending.
The story of Parasite Eve takes place in Manhattan. When you visit the creepy hospital on your first playthrough, you will walk through a corridor with a window from which you can see the Chrysler Building. The building is even glowing red (covered in red goo, actually). For now, this is only a detail in the background, and there is nothing you can do to investigate any further. But on your second playthrough, you can actually go to the Chrysler Building. The idea is to ignore the normal progression of the story and instead, enter the building. When you reach the last floor, you meet the true final boss. This leads to many revelations that were not in the normal ending.
In the end, Parasite Eve manages not break the flow of the story; you will already have experienced a linear and self-contained story before the game allows you to go on a long sidequest. And when you do, you are rewarded with more reveals and a more definitive closure to that story you already experienced. Unfortunately… while the first playthrough clearly avoids the Endgame Time Dilation, the path to the true ending brings the problem back, full force. Just like its real-life version, the Chrysler Building has 77 floors, all of which you have to walk through. While I appreciate the desire for realism, I’m pretty sure the floors of the real Chrysler Building are not a succession of randomly generated mazes. Needless to say, this is the most tedious part of the game by far. You fight your way through 77 floors full of monsters, you cannot save your progress while inside the building, and you only get an elevator key once every ten floors (which allows you to quickly come back if you exit the building, but the elevator won’t bring you any higher than the floor where you found the last key.) After all that, the true ending is definitely deserved.
Those were just a few examples of games that tried to deal (intentionally or not) with the problem intrinsic to sidequests. There are definitely more examples that could be examined, but it doesn’t really seem like any game has come up with the perfect solution. Interactive storytelling is not easy, but it’s always interesting to see all the different ways in which game designers choose to approach the problem.
– Number 5