Review: Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives by Jeff Howard

Book: Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives
Author: Jeff Howard, academic and professor of game design
Year: 2008

Summary: Not recommended, unless you’re looking specifically for a lesson plan centered around classic Western quest narratives. Even then I think the book is unfortunately outdated.

Quests Book CoverIt’s not much of a secret that my favorite subject is the intersection between game design and narrative design, and back in the day I studied medieval literature, so I was definitely looking forward to reading Quests. On the surface it purports to be a text for game designers looking to add more meaning to their quest design, for academics to better understand how quests translate to games, and for students to practice design lessons. Unfortunately, I felt it failed at all three.

The book is printed large like a textbook, but only clocks in at 230 pages. The structure starts off with an introduction to the topic and several chapters covering the main elements that make up a quest: spaces, challenges, objects, and characters. Each chapter is further divided in half between theory – the underlying concepts from both game design and literary studies – and practice – which takes the form of very specific technical tutorials for implementing that portion of the quest in the Aurora engine from Neverwinter Nights.

Generally I think the book’s structure is solid and the division between theory and practice allowed me to skim the technical aspects, which I didn’t need, and focus on the theoretical ones. While the Aurora engine is old now and there’s better game development tools available to students for prototyping quests, I thought the lesson plan was fairly solid as a first game design project. However, it falls a bit short of challenging students to create meaningful quest content (it’s intended purpose) – instead I’d say it’s more of a technical introduction to building a quest with a checklist of game design elements.

From the theory half of the book, Quests‘s main thesis appears to be that quests are a structure in literature and an activity in games, and that we can learn from a cross-pollination of literary and game studies to make more meaningful quests in our games. The author backs this up fairly solidly with a dissection of the quest archetype in Gawain the Green Knight (among others) and comparing its structure to common quests in games such as Ultima and World of Warcraft. A quest involves goals, the collection of certain magical items, NPCs that represent quest givers, monsters or tasks that provide challenge, and a healthy dose of symbolism.

Unfortunately I felt the book was a failure. Its lessons on game design were very basic, more appropriate for a student audience than practicing designers. His explanations of quests in a literary sense did not provide much practical insight.

I believe the biggest flaw with Quests is that the book was untimely. A large portion of the introduction is devoted to defending against a ludology vs. narratology debate in academia, which in 2016 feels like beating a dead horse. The academic nature of the book leads to a lot of quotes and references to other academics, pitting their words against one another (particularly in the introduction) without much-needed context. I felt like much of the theory portions of Quests was spent arguing in defense of its thesis from a hypothetical reader than actually

(As an aside: the ludology versus narratology debate essentially boiled down to whether we can and should study games for their unique game-like properties (ludology) or use tools of analysis from other media, primarily film and literature (narratology).)

Austin Walker wrote a very good review of the book for First Person Scholar – I highly recommend it as he goes deeper into why the book feels so outdated compared to the modern landscape of meaningful game narratives.

From a game design standpoint, there was really nothing new I could take away. The author’s definition of quests narrowed down the possible content to a focus on a handful of medieval fantasy role-playing games with western cultural traditions – like Ultima – excluding Japanese role-playing games with obvious quest narratives or games from other genres (Call of Duty is certainly structured like a quest). The author is also quick to dismiss Diablo and other action-oriented RPGs from this limited view, giving readers even less opportunity to apply any insights widely.

I can’t really recommend the book for anyone – not academics, game designers, nor students. I think the topic – quest design – is still really relevant to game designers, but probably needs to be written from a much more practical point of view, and one that incorporates the wider palette of games that involve quest narratives.

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