Side Quests and Immersion: Finding Serenity in Small Details
Author: Peter Cargill
Anyone who has played a game in the Arkham Franchise knows the constant struggle between continuing the story and exploring the world. And by exploring the world, I mean collecting the Riddler trophies that he has scattered around the world for no particular reason aside from to prove his intellectual superiority. To many hardcore gamers, those tropies are seen either as an unnecessary headache or as, well, a trophy to add to their long list of accolades. But to me, they’re something completely different. They force the player to explore the map – to go on patrol as Batman. And to me, that helps you to become Batman, and find some serenity in the search for completion. It makes you want to continue the story, and not just to unlock the glue grenade to unlock that one trophy that sits right outside of your reach.
To those unfamiliar with the Arkham Franchise (or those who never bothered with Riddler’s scavenger hunt), in each of the Arkham games, Riddler has scattered a series of trophies across the map that require the player to explore the world in ways the might not have if these trophies didn’t exist. These may require the player to explore a cliff wall or crawl through an air vent at a 45 degree angle, and some of them only come with the hint of needing to look through “a new perspective.” As such, these put the player in the shoes of The World’s Greatest Detective. After all, you could hardly let Riddler outsmart you.
Yet, these trophies serve an important purpose aside from that much desired 100%. While many achievement hunters will go out of their way to score a 45x multiplier with only a wooden sword equipped with the controller upside down while the game is in mirror mode to feel that sense of accomplishment, Riddler’s trophies force the player to merely explore the map and see things that the writers and developers have snuck in to create a more immersive Batman experience – and the same could be said for other games. Voxophones in Bioshock Infinite help create a world building experience, Benjamin Franklin’s notes in Assassin’s Creed III put the player in a position to better understand The Assassins, even collecting the books in Elder Scrolls: Skyrim allow for the players to be part of the world. And isn’t that why people play video games? For the immersive experience to allow us to escape from the world around us and be heroes or adventurers?
Exploring the world of the Arkham games puts the player in Batman’s shoes. It allows the player to venture into Crime Alley and see the chalk outline of Thomas and Martha Wayne (though, why that outline is still there decades later, I have no idea), or see posters of the now cancelled Flying Grayson’s act. They take the player from the top of abandoned ferris wheels to the very bottom of the sewer system (fortunately, the immersive experience doesn’t include smell). And at some point, for me at least, it makes me want to collect all of them to put Riddler away for good. Albeit, for me that urge was out of a sense of spite, wanting to punish him for making me spend countless additional hours crawling through air ducts or trying to land on top of a skyscraper. But whatever your reason for it is for taking Riddler down, one thing remains constant. It creates a synergistic experience where exploring the world immerses you into the story even more.
That isn’t to say, of course, that you must explore the world to fully enjoy the story. After all, you may accidentally glide past the chalk outlines and catch a glimpse of them, but you wouldn’t be able to experience the emotions that Batman has while paying respects in Crime Alley in Batman: Arkham City. And that to me is worth it. By simply following the story and even the side quests, you get to experience a full range of Batman’s emotions. But you never see him as truly vulnerable aside from in that moment when he gets down on his hands and knees, crying over the loss of his parents.
That, to me, is why it’s always worth it to explore the world of a video game. While games like Breath of the Wild or Skyrim are so open world that you can’t help but explore, the Arkham franchise is a small enough world that people may be tempted to not explore it. And in doing so, they miss out on the aspects that make Batman just like us – a regular person with deep emotions. While running from one side of the map to another to hunt down those trophies may be tedious, maybe it’s worth it to stop and smell the roses. Even if those roses happen to be next to your childhood trauma. You never know what hidden secret you may find out – about the game and about yourself.