Hi there. My name is Max, and I do side quests in JRPGs.

I’ve never said it out loud before. It’s actually kind of liberating.

I think I was born this way. There was never a time when, if a Final Fantasy let me do something extraneous to the critical path, I would not do it. Even if it’s not congenital, my compulsion to aid imaginary villagers is certainly tied to some deep-seated psychological traits.

I’m a bit of a completionist, and that’s always the first pull. The urge to collect, and the inability to leave something undone. Over the years, this aspect of my personality has manifested in relatively normal ways: collecting baseball cards and comic books as a child (wholesome!); procrastinating on college essays, then pulling all nighters (inadvisable!); responding to emails as they come in, rather than letting that little red number on my iPhone grow (neurotic!). For me, a task left undone feels like the sword of Damocles.

QUEST

If the procrastination sounds counterintuitive, think of it as a pressure valve. When something is too big, too daunting to take care of in the usual fell swoop, I try to forget about it. Until I can’t. The desire to clear my slate is all about forgetting—or rather, being afraid to forget things, to disappoint, to not live up to others’ expectations. It’s the waking equivalent of dreaming you’re at school with your pants off. Oh, you never had that dream? How about the one where it’s the last day of the semester, and you realize you forgot about one of your classes? Just me, I guess.

Which came first, I wonder: the need to excel, or the satisfaction of escaping to a world where excelling, being special, is all but guaranteed? By any sane measure, the effort required of your average RPG hero doesn’t warrant much praise. Checking off tasks in a quest log is rote business, closer to reading email than to helping an old lady cross the street.

I realize I’ve just painted a terrifying self-portrait, and demeaned a venerable genre in our marginalized medium. Games can change the world, we’re told of late. They’re not passive escapism for the maladjusted. But it’s not really like that! I’m not really like that! I don’t sit there plucking keywords from the dialogue: “OK, 10 chickens, your sister in the forest. Got it.” Efficiency is not a virtue for Maxathon, the hero of the age. (If it was, he wouldn’t be off delivering poultry while Kefka poisons Doma Castle. Or whatever.)

SIDE QUEST

Wanting to tie up loose ends is a motivating factor, not an end in itself. No, I help people because I’m a genuinely nice guy. Believe me. I mean, if you can’t trust me, who can you trust? Nobody. And then where would you be? Holed up in your trailer clutching a golf club as you peer through a slat in the front door, because you don’t believe the Girl Scouts are just there to sell you cookies. And that ain’t healthy.

RPGs are like reality in this if nothing else: everybody has problems. And as a nice guy, I can help them with those problems. Sure, doing so is easy, but that’s not because it’s a matter of pressing buttons; it’s because the situations in games are solvable. Saving the world isn’t a slog through the mire of politics, but a straightforward quest to find the crystals. Even the most mundane of real world problems can be tangled webs of pain, and there’s rarely a thread to pull. Last week, someone put up some lost dog flyers in my neighborhood. In a game, I can help that person—the dog is bound to be in the cave, bravely fending off a goblin. In the real world, all I can do is feel sad and move on.Games let me pretend that what’s broken can be fixed, and that can be cathartic. Side quests are often derided as monotonous, repetitive, and unimaginative: “fetch quests.” This is a fair criticism. Yet that predictability can be relaxing, even freeing. It’s true that there’s no real challenge in it. Do what’s expected and you’ll never fail at the tasks put before you—like solving a sudoku puzzle, or, more charitably, a crossword.

If that puts you to sleep, I understand. For me, it’s meditative: I close my eyes and imagine a world where I can make order out of chaos. Where I can take control, instead of sometimes having none.

Control and predictability might be at the heart of it. I was most passionate about role-playing games in the early 1990s, at an age when life was scary and confusing: filled with rapidly evolving social rituals, increasing responsibility, and more hormones than blood coursing through my veins. Spending an hour wading through the surf, looking for the right kind of fish to nurse Cid back to health in Final Fantasy VI was the childhood equivalent of taking a mental health day. It allowed me to be someone else, somewhere else. It required focus. It provided the illusion of selflessness. And perhaps most importantly, it operated according to unspoken rules, so that I was on safe ground: I knew what was expected of me, and what to expect in return.

The most tired tropes are precisely the ones which clever creators subvert in interesting ways. Nier, the game that inspired this post, absolutely revels in the tediousness of its endless fetch quests. In doing so, it winks at the convention while taking the opportunity to tell smaller, slower stories which complicate and enrich the game’s themes. Eponymous hero Nier tries repeatedly to come to the aid of his world and its denizens, but his efforts are always swept away by fate or human fallibility. Sometimes these failures are tragic, and sometimes funny; very occasionally they are touching.

This video will do a much better job of making my point if you’ll just read this huge update from The Dark Id’s unbelievably good Let’s Play of Nier.

Sometimes the best that we can hope for is a moment of quiet understanding, which will probably come too late.