When Not to Sidequest

'Roleplaying Game' is one of those awkward genre labels meaning different things to different people. I don't have a good personal definition, but one element I consider to be at the core of RPGs is questing.

It's a little contrived, but somehow I love being bossed around and completing tasks for people. Preferably something more involved than being asked to kill ten wolves, but World of Warcraft is the only game I've played where grinding quests were quite so ridiculously blatant and over-used. Usually quests are a bit more interesting, and reveal pieces of the world and its inhabitants I wouldn't see otherwise.

I'll usually happily do whatever characters ask, even when it gets silly. I'm supposed to be on a critical mission, but apparently still have time to rescue someone's cat, or run an errand. I don't usually question it much. There's a time to question game conventions and motivations, and a time to just be satisfied that I'm enjoying myself.

Honestly, the core stories of many RPGs are generic and silly anyway. I adore Baldur's Gate, but I don't remember much about the main story. I do remember meeting mad wizards in the forest, reuniting lovers, the personalities of my companions, and a lot of other small moments. I find the real stories tucked away in sidequests and hidden corners of the game.

It is very unusual for me to find a quest and decide not to complete it, but it has happened. The main example I can think of was from Mass Effect 1.

The quest is known as Family Matter, and involves a couple found arguing on the Citadel streets. A pregnant woman is concerned about the risks involved in obtaining gene therapy for her unborn child, while her brother-in-law argues for how important that therapy is to avoid a possible genetic heart defect which had recently killed the baby's father. There is no clear advantage or disadvantage to taking one side over the other – the game itself is neutral with regard to right and wrong on this issue.

I'm prepared to accept that my Shepard is an unusually influential person. I'm not controlling just any old peon here. I am happy to believe she could say something about choices and genetics, and actually have it taken to heart. But that doesn't necessarily mean she would.

As Shepard I made life and death decisions constantly. The fate of entire species was regularly in my hands, and I was willing to take on that responsibility. I helped shaped the beliefs of my crew in addition to earning their respect.

But when faced with this particular choice I recoiled, and gaped at the choice in front of me. Advancements in genetic technology do come with more than their share of ethical questions, and weighting up benefits and disadvantages. I'm happy to see that tackled in a science fiction game, but not in such a throw-away scenario. I would never tell someone how to make a decision like that. I wouldn't advise a close friend, let alone a stranger on the street. It's not my place, and it's not my Shepard's place.

I went with the only other option available to me. Shepard threw her hands in the air, said 'To hell with this' and left them to it. In the process I knowingly sacrificed some easy Paragon or Renegade points, but there is no way I was willing to make that call.