Video game history is littered with titles where side content simply exists to rack up EXP, fill out item space and put hours on the clock. With an increased emphasis on vast open worlds, it feels like games are inflating with more and more content aiming to draw you away from the main campaign, yet it’s common for the fetch quest and a-to-b excursions to feel like hollow, unrewarding experiences. These worlds may often be huge, but they feel completely empty in character, leaving you cold when presented with the task of finding a generic NPC’s equally generic missing chickens.
This year, however, has seen many titles emerge in which side content has become an exciting prospect, establishing a new norm where side content can easily eclipse the main story in consuming your time, without a single hour feeling like a slog. This is how the following games (coincidentally all from Japan) successfully use side content to deepen their character arcs, offer light-hearted tonal shifts and bring far more joy to a game than you could ever imagine.
Gravity Rush 2
Gravity Rush 2 excellently expands on the original, making its perplexing world both bigger and fuller, mostly improved thanks to more rewarding side content. Gravity Rush only really allowed relief from its main story via challenge missions, which were often frustratingly cruel with completion requirements. The introduction of side missions feels like a simple fix to offer levity instead of struggle.
These side missions often see amnesiac protagonist Kat use her gravity shifting powers to complete insignificant task for the colourful roster of minor characters, often offering new ways to play around with these abilities, such as playing frisbee with a dog or chasing down another dog. Equally, the game regularly uses side missions to subvert gameplay expectations, sometimes stripping Kat of her powers for more atypical stealth and combat missions, including playing stunt double for a film studio that forces graceful precision in a game usually spent flinging a gravity-free Kat from island to island.
Side missions also offer an essential re-visitation of characters after a three-year time skip, where we get to learn about Newt and Echo’s relationship via demonic cult investigations and how Eujie has become more responsible for his father, Aujean, whose drinking habit leads to one of the most hilarious missions in the game as Kat rushes around to prevent him from sneaking into bars.
Speaking of hilarious sidequest, Yakuza 0’s substories are unapologetically wacky, especially in comparison to the Dojima family power struggles that defines the main story. Assisting a film set can lead to some hysterically dumb misunderstanding as you ‘jeer the props’ while attempts by Kiryu/Majima to solve the problems plaguing citizens can backfire with chuckle-worthy results.
Substories and building relationships also leads to plethora of hour-draining minigames, such as dancing, pocket racing and bowling, the latter of which pushes you to bowl three strikes if you want that goddamn chicken (shoutout Nuggets) on your real estate team. It’s possible to rack up 100+ hours on substories and minigames alone, with the upcoming remake of Yakuza’s first title, Yakuza Kiwami, likely offering a comparatively smaller scale that proves how gargantuan the constantly entertaining side content has become.
Persona 5 central draw may be its sleek turn-based battles through dazzling palaces, yet it’s a rare case of a game that commands you to delve deep into the side content on offer. With days going by without requiring anything of the phantom thieves, Joker can instead turn his attention to the wealth of side characters and talk out their individual problems, as the game leans hard into its slice-of-life anime influences.
It’s rare to gain such intimate knowledge of non-protagonist life within a game, but you go deep into Yoshida’s political career and assist in his gradual popularity rebirth, talk Ann (best girl) through her struggles against her modelling rival and see Tae get justice as she’s wronged by a heartless doctor. When building confidant bonds, you rarely come away remembering the reward, but rather the heart-warming tales of Persona 5’s colourful cast, undoubtedly leading to dread of these five words – “let’s not do that today.”
The existential dissection of human nature wouldn’t be as effective in Nier: Automata without the emotional gut punch consistently delivered by sidequest. The game spends its initial portion convincing you that the robots are products of alien invaders simply to be made into scrap metal, introducing you to bloodthirsty clownish enemies, yet that unravels with the introduction of Pascal’s peaceful machine village. Armed only with humanity, these robots repeat the same mistakes, make the same connections and feature the same personalities common in humans, the main story grazes that idea, but it’s via sidequest that this point really hits hard. Jean-Paul’s Melancholy introduces a robot with a penchant for intellectualism and a legion of fans, while Lost Girl has you determined to guide a robot to her brother in a touching family reunion. These robots have far more memorable human personality than most NPC’s and it’s impossible to not get invested in rectifying their crises.
Following one of the most distressing moments in the game, one sidequest – Gathering Keepsakes – offers a glimmer of emotional closure for 9S, assisted by a contemplative soundtrack, far more rewarding than any weapon, it feels like a moment that should occur in the main story, but instead acts as a treat for dedicated players. Nier: Automata proves that side content is rapidly matching the story in importance, refusing to invest the hours into them is a dumb move.