He’s on me before I realise I’ve been spotted. I curse myself for venturing this close to town but, with supplies running low, what other option was there? Not that keeping to the wilds was any safer – only two days ago I turned around to see three of them barrelling towards me. My pursuer’s face filling my field of vision, I brace myself for the inevitable.
“Greetings, stranger,” he says. “Can I interest you in an adventure?”
Being asked to rescue someone’s grandmother from a bandit cave might not sound like nightmare fuel but I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of dodging quests – ever since The Man With The Long Chin, a character from Teletext gaming mag Digitiser, punched someone for offering him a quest. This comedic revelation opened my mind to a world of possibilities. What if, instead of ending up with a laundry list of unfinished business, you could tell someone to shove their demands right up their Deepwater Hollow? Or, better yet, if you ran a mile whenever anyone looked like they were going to drag you into their affairs?
You could argue that quests are essential to establishing a fantasy world, but overloading the player with them erodes that world’s credibility; it paints a picture of a populace who can barely function without the intervention of an outsider. Skyrim is one of the worst offenders in this regard. At times it resembles Invasion of the Body Snatchers: an NPC catches sight of you, the cry goes up and before you know it you’ve got seventeen couriers shoving notes into your hand. You step into the pub for a quiet pint, and when you leave your quest log is big enough to bludgeon a dragon to death.
So I made it my mission to elude any would-be quest givers. When Aela the Huntress strode purposefully towards me, ready to compliment me on my shooting skills and discuss membership of the Companions, I broke into a sprint. She followed. I continued to run until, five tense minutes later, she finally broke off the chase. It was a satisfying victory but I knew there would be others, so I started scanning the horizon, fleeing at the first glimpse of a messenger. Vigilance was a small price to pay for the sheer joy of knowing that some other gullible idiot would have to retrieve the Cursed Tome of Zyxxyx from the Cave of Certain Death.
This brief experiment, fun as it was, only left me wanting more. What if there was a game just about avoiding quests, where your sole purpose is to traverse a fantasy realm without being lumbered with some potentially life-threatening tasks? All you want is to go home, but to do so you have to pass by villages where any stranger is seized upon as a potential saviour. Stealth mechanics would feature heavily, letting you hide in plain sight by disguising yourself as a villager or dive into a bush when you heard someone coming your way. Or, if you’d put enough points into speechcraft, you might even be able to talk yourself out of trouble.
“Hero? Me? I’m just a humble onion salesman, wandering home with his wares.” You’d be able to hear a pin drop while the villagers mulled this over, either leaving you in peace or chasing after you, screaming about their stolen Mahogany Claw. Your score would be inversely proportional to how many tasks the villagers had managed to foist upon you.
And for those skilled enough to completely elude the clutches of these hapless, needy idiots? Having nothing to do would never taste so sweet.