Questioning the Quest
The Elder Scrolls Online asks a question of the community each week. These are designed to make you think and this one makes you think a little more than most.
A well dressed man appears in front of you. He offers you a fork, a staff and a block of cheese. He promises you a great reward if you choose one, take it to the next village over and plant it in the market square. Would you do it? What do you think would happen if you did?
This is a question that is really asking you about is the magic circle. Not the one that magicians join, but the one that defines your gaming world. According to Johan Huzinga, the magic circle is a space in which play takes place. These are spaces that are apart from the world at large in some way. This theory has been developed over time to apply to computer games by people such as Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in Rules of Play (2003) and Jesper Juul in Half Real. The magic circle, for the purpose of this discussion, is a place in which gaming rules apply.
When asked the question above, the answer you give would be different inside and outside the magic circle. Imagine the scenario above takes place while you are shopping in your local high street. The man is well dressed, and so this suggests he gives no visual indicators that he is untrustworthy or insane. His question, however, would be enough to convince you of one or more of a limited number of possibilities:
- He is, in fact, insane.
- He is playing some kind of elaborate trick on you.
- This is some form of psychological experiment.
- You are insane and have imagined him.
At no point would you consider the request to be as simple as it sounds. Even if you were convinced the reward would be worth it, you would be highly suspicious of the other potential consequences.
Now, imagine you are playing your favourite MMO. You are asked to complete this task either as a quest or an event of some kind. Your perceptions totally change. You assume:
- The request is reasonable. It doesn't require excessive effort.
- The reward will be desirable in some way.
- The consequences for you, the player, will be positive.
- The consequences for your character, in terms of lore or game mechanics, may be negative, but only in a very minor and temporary way.
At worst, you might be suspicious of the motives of the man in terms of the story the game is telling. If you have played the Imperial Agent story line in Star Wars: The Old Republic, for example, you will have quickly learnt to be suspicious of everything and everyone. It is highly unlikely that such suspicions will prevent you from accepting the task. On the contrary, you are more likely to do so in order to find out if you are right.
These are the rules of the game you play. The game always rewards you for completing quests and never delivers a penalty that is more than minor or temporary. You are in the magic circle.
Perhaps more interesting than simply acknowledging these assumptions, the question invites you to query them. What if one of them was not, in fact, true? What if the consequences were negative?
Imagine a scenario where accepting the quest meant you destroyed the village. This, in turn, caused NPCs to become hostile to you. They might put a bounty on your head for other players to gather. They might attack you on sight, making whole areas inaccessible to you. What if you could not ever undo the bad that you had done? Would you want to play this game as an MMO? With no save. Permanent negative consequences and no way to undo them?
Or, at a more basic level, what if this request was not a quest? This is hard to imagine. Almost all MMOs on the market rely on quests or quest-like mechanics. Guild Wars 2 attempted to remove them and found in its testing that people simply did not know what to do. In the end they added in NPCs who would give you a list of possible tasks to gain their affection which are, essentially, a kind of quest.
The question is not just a challenge to the concept of questing, but also a lore related reference. The well dressed man is almost certainly Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness.
Daedric Princes are powerful, god-like figures in the Elder Scrolls world. Sheogorath appears in various Elder Scrolls games. His disguise of a well dressed gentleman, seeking to lead the unsuspecting down the road to madness.
Sheogorath has a number of artifacts, including the staff known as the Wabbajack, and the Fork of Horripilation. The Wabbajack casts random spells. The Fork drains magical power from its user. There is also another Staff, called the Staff of the Everscamp, which summons creatures. And the cheese? Sheogorath just seems to have a thing for cheese.