What Makes A Good Sidequest?
Image: Nintendo Life

What's more important — saving the world from impending doom, or rescuing the cat that's stuck at the top of a tree? Depending on who you ask, they might give you an answer you won't expect.

I'm not saying that we should ignore the kitty cats at all, but when you're presented with the dilemma of missing a quest that's simply about rescuing a tiny creature or venturing into the unknown to save the entire world, well, one of them is a more urgent and tempting prospect. Common in RPGs, open-world games, and adventure titles, sidequests offer up a plethora of activities that see you doing everything from collecting seashells to defeating dragons. Think of a random activity, — delivering a takeaway, doing the laundry, getting a haircut — and it's probably been a sidequest before.

Not all sidequests are equal. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is often regarded as the king of the sidequest, while something like Xenoblade Chronicles has one excellent quest for every 20 fetch-quests with minimal rewards.

In my opinion, it's not what you do that makes the sidequest worth it, but what happens in those quests. How it immerses you in this fictional world and enhances your experience. Sometimes, I don't mind doing 20 minutes of fishing, just so long as there is a really poignant and emotional story at the end of it. Admittedly, I am a bit of an apologist when it comes to side missions, particularly with RPGs. We've heard my ramblings about Xenoblade Chronicles 3's sidequests enough. But there are so many different kinds, with different rewards, that everyone will have different feelings.

However, I do think there are consistent elements that make a 'good sidequest' — and I'm not talking about tangible, physical rewards. Here are a handful of things that I greatly value in video game sidequests. Beware of spoilers for the games I discuss...

Exploring new areas

Whether it involves unlocking a new area or actually exploring an area that otherwise looks pretty empty, I love a sidequest that gives me an excuse to dig into every nook and cranny of the world. Sometimes, I think I've scoured every blade of grass, but a quest will teach me otherwise.

How many times while playing Tears of the Kingdom did I think, "Oh, haven't I already been here?" Only to find that no, I hadn't, and there was a secret treasure chest waiting at the back of a cave for me this whole time. I'd either missed an entire pathway or just popped my head in only to dismiss it. Tears of the Kingdom might have the advantage of being set in the same Hyrule as Breath of the Wild, but these quests helped me to rediscover the joys of Hyrule and made me realise just how much the landscape has changed in subtle ways.

Skies of Arcadia is home to my favourite sidequests ever because they're all about exploring. You're an Air Pirate, after all, what else are you going to do? But there are two pretty unobtrusive quests that have you sail to every corner of the world. One has you discovering landmarks, while the other sees you recruit pirates to your crew of Blue Rogues. Some of the discoveries are tucked underneath islands and rock faces, and other times you'll have to soar above the high clouds to find travelling sky trains. And many potential crew members can be found hidden on islands way outside your normal sailing course.

Skies of Arcadia Legends
There's something there... — Image: SEGA

If the sidequests make you fall in love with the world, and help you become familiar with it, that's a victory in itself.

Changing the world

With this one, I don't mean 'changing the world' in the noble, heroic sense, but sidequests that actually affect and change the physical landscape of the world you're in.

I've taken a few swipes at Xenoblade Chronicles, but I think rebuilding Colony 6 is a real highlight of the game. This is a Colony that you see in ruins fairly early on in the game, but you spend hours upon hours revisiting it, carrying out simple fetch quests, fighting enemies, and recruiting new citizens, to help rebuild this town. The quests start off basic, but as buildings start to pop up and people start to migrate to the Colony, more involved quests — which see you help repair relationships and unlock new facilities and shops — begin to appear.

Breath of the Wild Tarrey Town
Humble beginnings — Image: Nintendo Life

Obviously, I can't talk about rebuilding towns without talking about Breath of the Wild and Tarrey Town. My love of this quest line has only gotten stronger since revisiting it in Tears of the Kingdom. I don't remember too many quests in that game — though I appreciate that many of them force me to stop and smell the roses — but Tarrey Town becomes your town. You have to put a fair amount of time into gathering resources and residents, and with every step of the quest, there's a visible difference to the little rock in the Akkala region.

Imagine not doing this quest and then jumping into Tears of the Kingdom. I can't.

Worldbuilding and lore

Sometimes, the reward at the end of a quest isn't the true reward. You'll often pick up a sidequest and be enamoured by its fantastic worldbuilding and writing, and how it fleshes out the game you're playing.

Tears of the Kingdom does a much better job with these kinds of quests than Breath of the Wild did, mostly because it splits optional quests into Side Quests, normal little quests with rewards, and Side Adventures, quests that focus on key NPCs, areas, and give you some lore and history of Hyrule and the Zonai. Everything at the Thyphlo Ruins, for example, drip feeds you details about the Zonai, not always directly. But it also builds upon an area you couldn't explore in Breath of the Wild.

Tears of the Kingdom Ring Ruins
What's changed, and what hasn't changed? — Image: Nintendo

I've talked a lot about Zelda, but I can't really ignore what might be the single best sidequest in the series — Anju and Kafei in Majora's Mask. This quest helps you engage with and understand the world of Termina more than anything else in Majora's Mask. The fact that it takes place over the entire three-day period really hammers home the emotional impact of the falling Moon, and actually gets you to consider the people of the town and their fate.

Character development

Character development is, for me, the beating heart of any story. I care more about individual character stories than I do about the overall plot machinations, and it's one of the reasons I often love sidequests.

I've already mentioned The Witcher 3 — it's basically the poster child for 'best sidequests', and for good reason. The Bloody Baron is typically one of the first things people rave about when talking about the quality of quests in The Witcher 3, and it's because it's absolutely incredible. This questline has you helping the aforementioned Baron search for his missing wife and daughter in exchange for information on Ciri's whereabouts. What unfolds is a complicated web of the Baron and his family. The Baron has not always been a good man — in fact, he's been pretty reprehensible. You can condemn him if you want, and make his life worse. But the Baron has also been through a lot of stuff, and your ability to empathise is put to the test.

The Witcher 3 The Baron
The Baron's story is just one of the many incredible threads in The Witcher 3 — Image: CD Projekt Red

A much older game, but another that involves choice and character is Chrono Trigger. Square's genre-defining RPG doesn't have many sidequests at all, and the game backloads all of them in the final hours, but all of them are pretty darn good.

But one short cutscene after restoring the forest, focusing on Lucca, is one of the game's single best moments. Lucca travels back in time to a fateful day in her past — when her mum lost the ability to use her legs. And a lot of people don't know that you can actually save her. Finding a password in the dream allows you to turn off the machine and change the course of history.

Tough enemies and superbosses

Admittedly, this one is a bit of an outlier on my list, but who doesn't love a good challenge? What could probably be considered the bread-and-butter of RPG sidequests, unique monsters, hunts, and extremely powerful bosses are always welcome.

Hunt boards are pretty common in modern-day RPGs — Final Fantasy XII is the first one I think of, and completing those leads to a superboss, Yiazmat, that has over 50 million HP. Pokémon Gold & Silver's Red fight, atop Mt. Silver, is pretty legendary — whether you think of it as a really hard fight or the true final boss doesn't matter, it's the most difficult and rewarding Pokémon battle we've ever seen. It's a superb reward for those of us who started our Pokémon journey back in Red & Blue, or Yellow.

Octopath Traveler II
A challenge awaits... — Image: Nintendo Life / Square Enix

A recent favourite of mine is Octopath Traveler II's secret boss, which like Pokémon's, is a little treat for those who played the first game. Somehow, this superboss is harder than the first game's, but the amount of fine-tuning, character-building, and thought you need to put into party composition is tantamount to victory in itself. And when you beat it? Honestly, nothing feels better.

Tying into the main story

By their very definition, sidequests are non-essential. But there are plenty that enrich your understanding of the main story and even add to it. I want to talk about Disco Elysium for this one. I could probably pick every single sidequest in this game, and I'm going to be as vague as possible with it. But if you've played the game, then you probably know what I'm getting at when I talk about the Cryptozoologist Morell.

Disco Elysium
Honestly, I could put Disco Elysium in almost every category here — Image: Nintendo Life / ZA/UM

There are four quests that come out of talking to Lena, the wheelchair-bound lady at the Whirling-in-Rags, and finding her husband, Morell. Kim's scepticism of Cryptozoology, paired with my Harry's playful flirting with the idea of being a Cryptozoologist myself, started off as an amusing diversion, but the emotional pay-off when you help Lena and reassure her is touching. You'll even get some help in your investigation along the way. It's a lot more than just amazing character and worldbuilding, though. I can't even talk about how incredible this sidequest really is because it ties into the end of the game. You're not missing out if you don't do it, but if you do, then you're in for a shock.

I also really enjoy quests that don't necessarily tie into the narrative, but justify their existence because of your character's occupation or your journey. Geralt could be picking up quests to get money to continue his hunt for Ciri in The Witcher 3; Lloyd and the SSS are part of the Crossbell Police Department in Trails from Zero and Trails to Azure, so they need to help the citizens.

What's the takeaway from all of this, then? Good writing is paramount. To me, it's not about what you do in a sidequest — what buttons you press, what objects you fetch, what activities you have to pursue, etc. — but what you see in the sidequest. The characters you meet, the secrets you uncover, the writing you encounter, and just how much it changes your attachment to the living and breathing world.

I know that won't be what everyone is looking for in a sidequest— and sometimes I also love just taking down an extremely powerful monster and getting a neat sword or something — but as long as I'm not collecting Rainbow Slugs or 50 of a single item for a basic prize, and I'm rewarded and respected for my time, then I'm happy.

What do you value in your sidequests? Vote in our poll below and let us know in the comments.

What makes a good sidequest to you? (590 votes)

  1. Exploring new areas13%
  2. Changing the world13%
  3. World-building and lore35%
  4. Character development22%
  5. Tough enemies and superbosses5%
  6. Ties to the main story8%
  7. Other (comment below!)4%