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Majora’s mask (3D) has the best side quest system of any game i’ve ever played. Here’s why:

I played Majora's Mask for the first time on my 3ds and i feel the urge to share how much i have enjoyed this game.

First of all, a bit of context. I've been playing games for 20 years, but only recently i've started to go deeper analyzing the mechanics behind them and why i like them so much. That is to say that i'm no expert and this post aims to learn more, rather than to convince you of my opinions. I will also apologise in advance for my language, since English is not my mother tongue.

I loved Majora's Mask so much because i love to do side quests. It may sound a bit unpopular, but i'm the type of guy who won't finish the main story if all the side quests are not completed. Part of this may be caused by a completionism OCD, but on the other end i really enjoy doing side quests because i feel like i'm actively deciding what to do, instead of being guided.

Of all the games i've played, Majora's Mask has the best side-quest system ever. I'm not talking about the quality of the quests (i mean, it may still be true for me, but it's not the focus of this post). I refer to the way the game presents, organizes and guides you through them. I believe that it is the perfect spot between two systems i will now present, with their pros and cons.

1. The markers system: the game gives you the complete list of quests available and tells you exactly what you need to do and where you need to go. You all know this system, as it has been the most popular since, i believe, the ps3 era.

The markers system surely has some pros: first, it's perfect to keep complete track of what is going on, helping that completionist part that we all have in ourselves. Second, it may help designers to create more complex quests, as they don't have to worry about helping the player to find the way to completion, so they can only focus on the quest content. No wonders that the best games who adopt this system are mainly appreciated for the quality of the content they present to the player (The witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2).

The markers system has many cons, though, and is by far my least favourite to play. The main problem is that playing is not fun. The player is guided too much and is not stimulated to pay attention on what's happening. Thinking is not required to complete the quest, and even if you do, it will still looks like the game is just showing you the content, rather than you actively playing it. Most of the times i find myself doing this type of quests just because i have to do another chore on the list. I see these problems pointed out very often, so i don't think more words are needed in this regard.

One could argue that you can still play the way you want. In fact, many games allow you to modify the HUD, remove minimap or markers. The problem is removing them is not enough, because the quests are not designed to hint you towards your objective. Playing this way will result in frustration as you won't be able to find your objectives most of the time.

2. The hints system: there are no markers and no lists, the game gives you quests hiding them in the ordinary gameplay and gives you hints on how to progress. This system is mainly used by japanese games, from the early Zeldas to the more modern and much appreciated Soulslike.

The pros of this system can be derived from the cons of the previous one: completing these quests is fun and rewarding because you feel like you did it yourself. What i'd like to point out is that, apart from the side quests themselves, this kind of system makes the whole game much more interesting. If you know that you can get quests from any interaction you have with the world, you will be much more prone to explore and analyze it. This results also in an overall better quality of the quest, as i will try to prove with an example.

Let's say the quest is to bring milk from point A to point B. With the markers system, this would be considered a "fetch" quest: you will already know if you can deliver it, where and to whom. You will go straight to the place and complete it. With the hints system, the same exact content can turn into a much more fun and satisfying experience: you get the milk, but you don't know what to do with it. You will keep on with your main quest, while actively exploring every corner of the world looking for the solution. You will fail many times, which results in a very rewarding feeling when you actually find the destination. You will also read every single line of NPCs dialogue, questioning if what they are telling you, which looks like the ordinary game narrative, may have some connection to the quest you are following (i.e.: "over the hill there's a farmer, he may need help for…").

Now, the most important part of my discussion is that this system has some cons too.

First, the hints are usually received through dialogue, but the dialogues are not registered anywhere and are not always repeatable (usually npcs just repeat their last line). If you are not completely immersed into the game, maybe you play a couple of hours and then stop for a few days, chances are you are going to forget what the hint was, and end up not completing the quest.

Second, it's not always easy to distinguish between game narrative and hints. This is normally a good thing as it makes the player question himself about the world, but it can result in frustration: on one hand, if the player spends time trying to achieve an objective that he just misinterpreted because it's not in the game; on the other hand, if the player fails to recognize a quest and misses that content at the end of the game. (i will provide an example later to better explain this)

3. Bombers' notebook: where i'm going it's pretty clear at this point, the quest management system in Majora's Mask, the Bombers' notebook, it's the best of both worlds because it perfectly balances the two systems.

First, the notebook doesn't tell you exactly what to do and where to go (sometimes it's pretty close, but it still requires a bit of thinking or problem solving), but it keeps track of every hint you get. You don't have to write them down and you are not worried to forget anything.

Second, and most important, the quest progression is very clear: you know when you got a quest, when it moves to the next step, when it has finished. You only have to focus on completing the quest, solving that little problem the game has given you. Personally, i don't feel frustrated if i get stuck for hours or days on a quest, if i'm sure that there is a way to do it. I only feel frustrated when i find out that the time i spent was useless, because the quest was not available or i couldn't complete it at that point of the game.

Let's make one last example: in one of the quests, you have to use the telescope in the Observatory and look for a Deku-guy that is flying around and is landing into a hole. You go there and buy a heart piece, then he says something like "ooh, you found me! now i need to find another place for my business". This is not a hint for a new step in the quest, but only a dialogue for better context. Now, if this was Ocarina of time and i really wanted to complete all the quests, i would have probably spent hours trying to find his new location, only to end up frustrated finding out that the quest was over. With the Bombers' notebook, i was immediately sure that the quest was finished.

I know that the Bombers' notebook is designed in order to help players through the 3-day loop, but i think that it could perfectly work in every game. I really wish more games will adopt this approach: it's the reason why Majora's Mask is the only Zelda i've 100% without guides, the only Zelda i spent 60 hours in (except botw), being stuck multiple times but never feeling frustrated.

What's your opinion on this? I'm sure there will be more games who adopt similar systems, and i would love to know more.


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