The main quest vs side quest dilemma is something that I've encountered while playing games like Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls, and most recently, Fallout 4. The dilemma arises because of the level of immersion and freedom these games offer, but at the same time, it can tear away at that sense of immersion which the developers worked so hard to create. Is it a necessary evil, or are there ways to get around it?
So what do I mean exactly by main quest vs side quest dilemma? Let me illustrate with an example. In the opening scenes of Skyrim (slight spoilers ahead), a sudden dragon attack decimates a heavily guarded town. It's the first dragon that has been seen in ages. In fact, it has been so long that most people consider dragons a myth. After your escape, you find yourself in a small, mostly defenseless little village called Riverwood, and are tasked with heading to the nearby city Whiterun to request guards be sent to Riverwood for protection.
Now, if you put yourself in your character's shoes, this is a very urgent task. That dragon is extremely fast. There is no time to waste. In this situation, if you really wanted to help the people of Riverwood, you'd head for Whiterun as soon as possible. But if you wander into the local shop to get supplies for your trip, you'll discover the shop has been robbed, and the owner requests that you track down the thief. Here is where the dilemma begins.
Do you - as the hero of this game - pursue the main quest objectives because the lives of many people are at stake, or do you - as a person playing a game - pursue this side objective because you wish to advance your character, find loot, and experience all the content of the game?
If you decide to follow the main quest, you'll be missing out on a lot of cool content. If you decide to do the side quest, how do you justify the fact that the hero of this game thought tracking down a thief was more important than warning an entire city that there's a raging dragon on the loose? This may not be an issue for people who don't care about immersion and narrative consistency, but for those of us who really like to get into our games, it's a struggle between remaining immersed and still experiencing everything these great immersive worlds have to offer.
Dealing with the Dilemma
Developers do sometimes use little tricks to help make it less of an issue. For example, in Morrowind, one of the main quest givers at one point tells you that you should find some work to do. Get yourself some equipment, and strengthen up a bit before continuing with your main objectives. In Mass Effect 3, you're given a Galactic Readiness rating. The more side quests you do, the higher your rating, the more able the galaxy is to defend itself from the invading Reapers. These types of tricks give the player an excuse to put off that all-important task for less important side missions in a way that keeps the narrative consistency. However, there can still be a nagging feeling that you've got more important things to do.
Another trick is to simply make it more difficult to do the main quest, encouraging the player to do some side quests and build up their character. Skyrim uses this to an extent. In Skyrim, If you follow the main quest objectives without any side quests or exploring, you'll most likely find the frost trolls on the path up to High Hrothgar to be a deterrent. This kind of trick, while effective, doesn't really solve the narrative inconsistency, it just makes the decision to pursue some side objectives easier. In fact, this trick has the potential to add more narrative inconsistency; I'm supposed to be the hero of this story, and I can't even kill a troll? How am I supposed to fight a dragon?
Another trick developers use is to make the main quest objectives really far away. This encourages the player to make some stops along the way. "I might as well check out this cave since it's right here." In my experience, this is a pretty effective technique. It kind of plays on my inclination to explore, but at the same time I feel like I'm still making progress toward my main objective.
Another way of mitigating the dilemma is to have a main goal that doesn't seem quite so urgent. In Mass Effect 3, literally all life in the galaxy is depending on you. In Skyrim, Alduin "the World Eater" is basically coming to destroy everything. These are about as urgent as you can get, making those side missions to help a guy find a sword seem really trivial. In Fallout 4, however, your main goal is to find your missing son. Yes, it's important, but it's not quite on the same level. So sure, I'll help these settlers while I'm out looking for clues to my son's whereabouts (though I have my limits, Preston!). I'm not sure if this was an intentional decision on Bethesda's part, but it did make it a little easier to justify putting off that main objective for a while.
So, what do you guys think of the main quest/side quest dilemma? What kind of tricks have you seen to minimize its effects? Which do you think is the best method? Let me know @HokieBriz.