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  • Writer's pictureNathan Savant

Quest Layers in Avatar The Last Airbender

After my recent explorations of quest design structure in various games, and trying to apply that to various films and tv shows, I have boiled a quest down into these three component pieces:

Subject: Self/Other/Object

Action: Relocate/Act Upon/Defend

Modifier: Time/Status/Repeat/Prevented

I’ll go ahead and briefly explain those terms now. The subject is whatever the quest is about, either the player, another person, or anything else. The action is what you’re doing, and it’s either moving something, taking literally any action on something (such as destroying it, throwing it, breaking it, etc), and defend just means you’re preventing someone else taking an action on that something. And then modifiers are just that you have an amount of time to accomplish the task, or you have to do the task under some status effect (like being sick or blinded), or that you have to do the task more than once (like laps in a race, for example), or that something is preventing you (lack of info or even a literal wall) and you must overcome that obstacle to achieve the quest. As best as I can tell this covers basically every quest, but if you do happen to find another one to throw into this list, leave a comment!

So after coming up with this, I then confirmed that theory by walking through the quest design of each episode of Avatar The Last Airbender:

So why did I do this?

Avatar is an epic story in the classic format for such things, about a group of people who are working towards completing a difficult task over a long period of time, including many locations and sub-quests along the way to the main one. On top of that, each season focuses on a single subsection of the overall quest, and does so with a simple, clear goal in mind. This structure is similar to any other epic you would turn into an open world RPG game or an MMO, such as your Lord of the Rings, Illiad, Beowulf, etc.

What did I learn?

Primarily three things.

  1. Most of the quests in this tv show (and I strongly suspect this is true of other shows), are based on psychological and social goals and conflicts. In other words, Aang will be trying to reach the other side of a canyon, only to run across a group of people who need his help. While the mechanic of moving across the canyon is trivial for Aang, the conflict will come from social factors. In fact, even Aang’s main quest of “Kill Ozai” becomes a social/psychological conflict when Aang realizes he’s avoided killing anyone thus far in his journey.

  1. The conflicts in this show (and again I suspect this is true of others), are often based on opposing goals. In other words, Aang’s goal will be to retrieve a frozen swamp frog, while his opponents will be trying to capture him, and this conflict of goals provides interest to the story.

  1. Then I also learned that most of the quests in this show, and this is definitely true of many other stories, are self-motivated. In other words, no one told the protagonist to do anything, it was an internal decision that was enticed due to interesting surroundings in some form. Basically, you’re walking through a forest and stumble over an enemy camp before getting saved by a band of scrappy rebels who you now want to get to know.

What do I conclude from all this?

I was going to explain my conclusions in a long series of paragraphs explaining various points, but I’ve instead decided to walk through a single episode of Avatar and map it out like a video game quest. I believe this will demonstrate what I think about all of the above.

The episode we’re going to look at it Season 1 Episode 14, The Fortuneteller. In this episode the gang is hanging around a river, when they meet a man who is being attacked by a bear. The gang helps him and then finds out about his nearby village where a fortuneteller lives. They go to this village and spend the rest of the episode there, eventually saving that village from an erupting volcano that sits nearby.

I’ve drawn this crude map of the village, the river, and the volcano, as well as an indicator for their intended destination, the north pole.

So let’s go ahead and put a quest marker down for this episode. The quest in this episode is “Travel To The North Pole”, if this were a video game, that’s what would be written as the most important quest for our heroes to accomplish at the time this episode begins. I’m going to pop a quest marker down right there on the north pole indicator to represent that.

So that quest marker is the central conflict for this entire season. They get it in episode 1&2 and they have it until episode 19. Now, at the start of this episode, the gang is just camping by the river, no particular pressing need to do anything nearby, this is just an arbitrary forest with a convenient water source. When the man and the bear show up, that does not change at all, except that now they have some interesting information. The man was not scared of the bear because he had been told that he would be safe on his journey, and he believed this implicitly. Now the gang is interested, something has happened that has given them an internal motivation to uncover a nearby mystery, and they set off to do that.

However, there’s still no new quest marker here. The man never tells them to go to the village to meet the fortuneteller, they only ever decide to do that themselves. In fact, the man doesn’t even mark their map with the location of the village, he just continues on his journey and it’s implied that they follow him. So again, there’s no quest marker for this. There’s no indication of where to go or why, their quest has not changed at all in this story, they are just being interested by some strange events that have happened nearby. This would be sort of like finding a weird shrine somewhere in Skyrim, and deciding to enter the nearby cave, even though you’re supposed to be fighting dragons or whatever the main quest is about in that game (something I’m sure no one can relate to at all).

Ok, so now we’re in the village and we’re learning our futures and it’s causing all sorts of social dynamics to play out, but again. There’s no new quest marker happening. We spend half of the episode without having any particular reason to be doing anything here, aside from internal curiosity. And then something happens. Aang and Sokka get a pseudo quest to walk up to the mountain to get a flower, and while doing that, discover that the volcano is going to erupt!

Now. I want to be clear, there’s STILL no new quest marker happening here. At least, there’s no official quest marker, Aang and Sokka only hear about the flower, they aren’t told to go retrieve it, they just do so because Aang thinks it will help him achieve his silent goal of dating Katara. Even internally there’s no official need for them to travel to this volcano. However, let’s be generous and work against the point I’m making a little bit and mark both the village and the mountain

Incidentally, if you want to be uncharitable to the point I’m trying to make, this village marker is also what you’d use if you wanted to put a marker down at the start of the episode for “Explore the village”. At any rate, now we have a goal in mind, and a quest for that goal. This happens at minute 16 of an episode that is 23 minutes long, INCLUDING ending credits. Basically, I think we can clearly agree that the quest portion of this episode is very minor. Even if you do include the “explore the village” quest that I mentioned, that happens at the 5 minute mark. Everything before this is basically just a long-winded quest description and we spend the 11 minutes after just wandering aimlessly in the village, getting our fortunes read.

All this hearkens back to my earlier point about most of the stories having to do with social/psychological issues rather than something we can represent in a video game quest. This also hearkens back to the point I made about conflicting goals, because the entire episode here is about a group of villagers who very pointedly do NOT want to act to save themselves, because they want to believe in the fortuneteller so desperately. Their goal works against Aang’s goal, and both goals are psycho-social in nature.

Now, after the fortune teller stuff has been explored, the rest of the episode is an action sequence where Aang rallies the town to dig trenches and redirect the lava, exciting stuff and certainly something we could model in a video game because it’s all about action. It’s not combat-oriented, so most video games would not have the verbs available to tell this story, but that’s another matter entirely, and one I’ve ranted about plenty enough in my past blog posts.

So at the end of this episode we have at most 3 quest markers, two of which in the same exact spot, applying to the entire village. None of which telling the “player” much of anything beyond “Hey! The interesting thing is over here!”.

Now. I think we can all agree this would be a boring quest, right? Imagine a video game version of this, you meet a guy in the forest, he tells you to go to the village, you do, you talk to a bunch of people, then you talk to the fortuneteller, then you talk to a bunch more people, including your companions, and now you’ve been reading for 20 minutes and doing absolutely nothing. Players don’t play games to read, something that’s pretty well known in game design at this point.

But what if we remove the quest from all this?

What do I mean by that, you ask? Well. Instead of treating the entire episode as a linear series of events to be copied, we identify which sections of this story are actually linear, and which are just the protagonists exploring as a player might. Now where I put a quest, you just have a village. In that village lives a fortuneteller, and if you happen to pass by that village, you might run into a man who is being entirely too chill about being attacked by a bear. Then, assuming you find that interesting, he’ll tell you there’s a town nearby with a fortuneteller you can bet your life on.

In town, assuming you show up there at all, you find a bunch of NPCs who all talk about the fortunes they received from the fortuneteller, how interesting! And we know you found it interesting, because you followed the bear man into the village in the first place. So now you can go get your own fortunes and, just like in the show, you are welcome to keep doing this as many times as you like, but also you don’t have to do that at all. In fact, you can just bypass this entire town and continue to the north pole, because we have not yet assigned you a task. For now, you’re just existing within a rich story world, we’re simply setting up an interesting scenario to explore if you should choose to do so. And then the kicker is that if the player DOES find this interesting and ends up talking to the fortuneteller enough, and ends up learning about the rare panda lilies that grow on the volcano, they can then trigger a quest to go retrieve the flower. This quest will end up triggering the volcano eruption sequence to start, and they’ll get a cool moment, though they won’t know that until they reach the summit and look inside.

This panda lily quest would be the start of the actual quest chain, because at this point we want the player to follow a certain chain of events, but we’re only doing this because they have shown us that they are interested in this quest chain by talking to so many NPCs to learn more about the town and the people in it. This wasn’t something we assigned them to be interested in when they first ran into the bear guy, this was something they opted into willingly. And now, as a reward for that choice, they get a sequence where they get to save a village by fighting a whole dang volcano!! How cool is that?!

Now, immediately you might start to push back against this idea for two reasons that spring to my mind:

  1. What if they skip the quest and never see this content?!

  2. What if they would have chosen to see this content if they knew how interesting it would become later?

So let me address those. First off, games are entirely built on the idea of having a lot of content that is optional to experience. Mario 64 only requires 70 of its 120 stars in order to beat the game, meaning that the other 50 stars are “wasted” according to this same mentality. The purpose of games is to offer content the players will miss. If you don’t have any miss-able content, people say your game is “on rails” and you get bad review scores. The trick to designing a game well is that you fill the world of the game with things that are small enough that you can produce so much that the player leaves fulfilled no matter if they 100% it or not. In that way, this fortuneteller chain is impractical because of how much content it requires, but at the same time most of that content does end up being text, so it could be fairly cheap depending on how much of the volcano battle you can reuse in other places in your game

And for the second point I say: If you build a game where every player is forced to witness an event simply because it took a bunch of time to make, then you have made a film, not a game. Games are about having your own, unique experience. If you want to have the same experience as everyone else, go watch a movie instead. If you want to explore a world or an idea, that’s where games can shine. If you are a player experiencing FOMO, simply interact with other people who have played the game, and learn from them what parts of it have value to you. It’s ok not to see everything, it’s ok for there to be more game than you were aware. In fact, if I were part of an online community and heard someone telling stories about a cool thing I’d never seen, that would immediately make the game way cooler to my mind. I can even prove this statement, I have 100 hours devoted to Noita specifically because I started watching twitch streams and found out there’s so much more content in that game than I’d ever imagined, so I am living proof of this point, and the bulk of Twitch viewers would agree with me here.

The takeaway from all this is simple: A quest is more than a quest. A quest is the village that surrounds the quest, it is the nearby forest and all the people and animals within. Quests are your tentpole moments in your game, they’re your blockbusters sequences where you dump your budget to make something memorable.

I will argue, after having done this research, that games need FEWER quests and more living world elements like populated villages full of NPCs which will point you towards the nearest quest. If you’re going to give me a quest, make it a big deal. If you don’t need to give me a quest, don’t. Just let me live in your world, and make your world a place where I would want to live. I’d be happier with one quest per village, if that quest is to save that village from a freakin volcano, which I get to fight, because that’s just amazingly cool!! Meanwhile, the rest of my time in that village must also have value, but that value can easily come from me exploring and learning more about that village through talking to people, or doing quick fetch/kill quests as needed, assuming those smaller fetch/kill quests are in some way narratively relevant to the village and the impending volcano fight (ya know, like the panda lily fetch quest which leads directly to the event trigger that starts that whole chain).

If you need an example of how to build out an entire village without breaking your budget, look at Majora’s Mask. The villagers have set actions they are doing during the day, and while Majora makes them alter their tasks over time, you don’t need to do all that. What I’m pointing at here is just how the village feels alive on your first time entering. NPCs are wandering the village, following set routes, and they appear to have a purpose to their actions, as if they were living in that space, not just standing around waiting to be acted upon. These animations and actions are small and simple enough to be produced on a super fast schedule with technology 20 years ago, we can obviously repeat them much faster now. All of this is just a matter of planning a game around this type of thing, something most games choose not to do. And, of course, not every game needs all this anyway, I just want to highlight the possibility.

So in the end of all this, what I learned is primarily that if we want quests that tell stories on par with those found in other media, we do so by including information and world-building outside of the boundaries of the quest itself. The quest is just a task, the story need not be limited to just the process of accepting the quest, nor be explained only after having accepted the quest. We should allow quests to exist naturally as part of the world, whether the player engages with them or not. Even if the quest only exists in barks before the player clicks accept, just those barks will still make the world feel more alive than if they hadn’t been included.

And that’s all for me today. Thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment if you’ve got your own thoughts on how horribly wrong I am about all this.

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