Negative possibility space and weak quest design: how to improve with very little

[CONTAINS HEAVY SPOILERS …for a sidequest that a lot of you don’t mind much, but that I care, for symbolic reasons: “An Invitation”. You’ve been warned]

TL;DR: When you have an opportunity to make a quest actually significant by using very little, just do it.

This is a companion piece to this other topic that talked about the environmental storytelling and emergent encounters.

It is also less kind-worded than my previous diatribe, but it does come with positive suggestions.

First, I need to recap two concepts.

As I mentioned in another of my diatribes, “negative possibility space” is when the game creates expectations for the player, and those expectations are not met. Since we’re talking about quests, maybe we thought it would involve more challenge, or that would give some rewards, or a lore snippet. But then it gives us less than what we expected, or sometimes leaves us with barely more than nothing.

The other concept I need to recap is that there’s a principle so fundamental to games as a media that almost every definition of “videogame” will include, or at least will allude to: “meaningful choices”. Describing what that entails could take a while, but I’ll summarize two important aspects: ideally the choice has to be “informed” (i.e you need previous information to make your judgement) and it needs to have meaningful consequences (either something has to happen, or whatever happens or fails to happen has to allude to the choice you made).

So. Avoid negative possibility space (don’t fool the player into wasting their time) and value meaningful choices (make their decisions matter).

Now I’m gonna use an example of a quest that almost gets it right. Or at least has all of the chances at minimum cost. …But botches it.

With all that preamble, let’s go to what happens in “An Invitation”.

In this quest, you get a very mysterious invitation to an isolated place. When you arrive there, it gets dark, and there’s what looks like a sacrificial table, surrounded by corpses, all of them neatly organized and with apples on top of them. Remember that environmental storytelling, saying a lot of things with zero words? This is that in action. Perfect example.

The stranger asks you to step on top of the altar. A light shines out of the barn in front of you (you can draw your IR/X-ray-enabled goggles and you will get a silhouette at first, but then it just becomes a blur), then the doors close, and you’re dismissed. “You will be judged, and recalled later”.

This is good setup. It’s mysterious, it’s different from everything in the game so far, and frankly, it doesn’t really use any new assets. So far, so awesome.

Then you get a notification saying you should go back. But…it’s just… a message on the game saying that “a piece of paper and an apple appeared on your backpack telling you to go back”. …This felt less elaborate, because it could’ve been an in-game object, like a piece of paper and an apple on top of the Plundra (storage box) of the very first safe house you visit after a certain timer, instead of a “system message” saying “something appeared in your backpack, trust me”.

But anyway. The message you don’t see tells you to go back to the orchard.
And now the altar is different.

You have a ritual table (again, cleverly made only with pre-existing assets) that includes 4 apples on top of …cabbages, I think. And there’s a 5th cabbage, with no apple on top. You have a choice to make: “complete the ritual, or crush the ritual”

…Record scratch noise, full stop.


We so far have ZERO information about this. I saw no references to the “apple person” before, I saw no calling cards, there was barely any time between the previous stage of the quest and now. …Basically I have no information to make this decision (and remember, this is an autosaved game, meaning there’s no backtracking).

But okay. Let’s get this done with. I back up my save just in case, and choose to “finish the ritual”, putting the apple on top of the empty space. The door of the barn opens. And there I find…

…A 4c Walther PP. An extremely common gun, probably owned or replaced by the vast majority of players who are finishing this quest at this moment.

Before I tell about the rest of what’s in the barn, let me tell you what happens if you decide to interrupt the ritual: a bunch of hacked robots attack you, and then the quest ends. That’s it. It’s even more anticlimatic than the wimpy gun.

But let’s go inside the barn to analyze what else was handcrafted there for us, and how this quest was this short of being brilliant instead of disappointing.

Right after grabbing the gun, there’s a table with a heart made of apples; the calling card of this mysterious stranger.

It would’ve been nice to see this calling card a few times before as setup, but alas.

Then we go up the stepladder, to the balcony.

There you’ll find a sleeping bag surrounded by more apples, an assortment of odd things, meticulously organized in different geometric shapes, and notes about you, meaning this mysterious stranger who’s also good at hacking machines was actually spying on you for a while, and maybe wanted to work alongside you, but had some trust issues.

…This is an EXCELENT piece of worldbuilding, and there are so many interesting possibilities to go with it. …And yet somehow they went with an incredibly disappointing one (partly because of the forced uninformed decision, and partly because you only find out about these details if and when you finish the ritual).

…Here’s how I’d give it my shot at fixing this quest, going stage by stage but changing very little overall:

  1. The apple near the note that starts the quest should be well-emphasized as a calling card. Maybe the house has many apples, or there’s a basket of them around. Otherwise, you find the mysterious note like usual.

  2. The part until the orchard and the first encounter with the altar proceed exactly the same way. Same show of lights, same weird effects on your binoculars. You’ll wait for verdict.

  3. Here’s where things actually diverge: at your next random encounter with a pack of runners anywhere on the map, a weird prototype runner will rush towards the group and… fight them alongside you. Whether it survives the encounter or not, doesn’t matter. After the “battle won” message pops up, it’ll fizzle dead to the floor. You’ll notice it has an apple decal on its side (as far as I know this is technically trivial to do with event flags, plus a simple texture decal. It’s nothing too elaborate to implement, dev-side).

  4. After the encounter with the apple runner, in your next visit to any safe house, there will be a letter resting on top of your Plundra, with an apple on top (again, no new assets – and in case you miss it, it’ll be at your next Plundra, and so on, until you interact with it). You grab it, it tells you to go back to the orchard.

  5. The ritual table is there in the same way. The choice is also the same. But now you have hints that some apple-obsessed person with some link to machines is watching you, and it’s behind this ritual.

  6. a) You choose to complete the ritual. There’ll still be a gun for you, but it’ll either be a 5c Walther, or a 4c with 4c attachments (suppressor, magazine), or it’ll have a skin with an apple decal (which will permanently unlock that skin for the Walther PP, just like the Resistance Shotgun). Either option works. Everything else inside the orchard will look the same as it is currently in-game.

    b) You choose to disrupt the ritual. You’ll be attacked just like in the version in-game, but all the machines will have the apple decal. And after the last machine is defeated, the door will STILL open. You still get the gun/skin reward. But at the sleeping bag, the last line in the notes will be different: it’ll say “Cons: Passed the test. Has trust issues. Might need more work.”

  7. Much later in the game, when you least expect, you will see a bunch of apples arranged like a heart shape just like in the orchard (it can be in any safe house, in a random corner of the map, anywhere – it can even be in some place way out of the way, as long as at least some players find it). In the center of the apples, there’ll be some small gift, such as an Adrenaline Shot, or a weapon attachment. A small reminder about that quest you did long ago, symbolizing that the stranger, whoever they are, is still watching you.

  8. (Super optional) You might encounter another apple-decal runner fighting other runners, “mysterious-stranger-style”, at some random place and day. Very very low chance of happening. Maybe only happens one more time, whatever’s easier to code.

Some of you might have seen what I did there. With just a handful of changes that don’t cost a lot in development or writing, this would change a “weird and frustrating quest” to a “weird and memorable quest that stays in your mind”. Again, with very little effort.

Now multiply this by many other small quests like this (because there are many other sidequests in this game that could be much more with the same treatment).
That’s how you get stuff like New Vegas, or Nier Automata.

Oh, want another thing that would add to this quest, for almost free?

When I was strolling through the woods, I found this malfunctioning Hunter, standing still, doing nothing. Just standing somewhat close to a tree and a picnic table.

Ya know what would completely change the meaning of this robot, by changing almost nothing in the game?

An apple decal on the hull, and an apple left on top of the table.

This hunter already is part of an other quest.

That’s not correct. The apple murder mystery is one of the oldest untold stories of GZ. There are numerous references to him. That’s why they finally did these few missions. At least when the first missions starts you must have found one reference to him.

But I agree that the time between the stages of the questline was really short and that the message about the apple and a note in the backpack could have been made better. Your idea with a physical apple and a letter on a plundra (no matter which… Just once on the next you visit) is good.

And I agree that for every newer player the apple murder mystery isn’t such a great mystery. In my eyes it requires much exploration and that you should have found more of these locations than just one.
For people who just accidently found one of these locations the quest is just another quest.

So there should be map markers at the apple murder locations. Like a “???” that appears on the map at these locations when you visited them. Additionally there could be a related log entry about these locations and maybe a counter of how many locations you have found yet. Once you’ve found 1/3 of all these locations, the quest could start. Each stage could also guide you to the missing locations where you may have to read a note, grap an apple or just visit it to unlock the next hint or stage. Some steps could also be bound to the current time. Maybe you just can progress if you go somewhere at dawn, or dusk, or if the moon is up.

Just like a scavenger hunt.
But we shouldn’t just have to hunt quest markers. It’s like Gysbert once wrote… It would be nice if we would be guided through the mission with just little hints. A description of the surroundings, a street name, working with distances (go 500m northeast of a red church and you’ll find the next hint between a pile of rocks under a tree).

Know what I mean?


If you plan on making a lengthy feedback post about something in the game, please commit to more research before so you don’t end up looking ignorant.

The clues of the apple murderer have for a very long time been ingame as a form of easter egg, little pieces of worldbuilding, visual storytelling setpieces you’ve been able to find with every major update for a few years now. It’s first now that they actually connect with a mission.

The lone Hunter standing on the hill is part of the Landfall Update and the collectibles that further that backstory.

1 Like

The Growing Tree was first mentioned by Marja (from Östervik’s Civil Resistant group) In the 6th Motstandet Newsletter issue. See the quote below.

Btw: I never found that house, because I couldn’t find something that would indicate to the player this is where people should leave apples. A box with apples in it for example. But I looked for it…

The Hunter was the machine which FNIX used as an intermediary to talk to Tatatina on the hill as told in the Soviet dolls lore “My Country’s Power”.


Wasn’t that this house in Östervik?

Probably. But what I meant was, I looked for some (Apple) confirmation that this was the house, since there are more roads leading north out of Östervik.

The funny thing is that while from the point of view of long-time players experiencing this game in a meta-sense, almost like an ARG, and the quest finally being a “major milestone” in acknowledging the apple murderer, for a newcomer the experience is just a bunch of “wait, what? where does this comes from?”

And then we come back to my suggested changes; that would smooth things out for new players and not feel so jarring, as well as making things look like part of a bigger whole without, say, the player having to be a years-long veteran of the game that keeps track of the meta-conversations on the forums, reddit, etc etc.

Let me phrase that in another way: you cannot call new players “ignorant” if they don’t know community meta-lore that would explain a quest that, otherwise, makes little sense and feels anticlimactic.

As for the hunter, I just didn’t know. I bumped into it, thought it might have been part of something else, but it was an interesting setpiece to use as an example.

It’s not community meta-lore. It’s all over in the game world, various locations show hints towards the apple murderer and give strange clues as to what’s going on.

The mission itself is a little easter egg the devs have thrown in there to give it some more depth.
It is scripted to activate when you visit one of the aforementioned sites where the clues are.

I wonder if the trigger was set up a bit too specific or close to some site that doesn’t call the eye strongly enough (so you trip the trigger without actually noticing the hint in the background), because yesterday on Discord I was talking to a veteran player that haven’t bumped into this quest, not even once, and they’re in their 5th world so far.

That, plus the fact I myself encountered the quest kind of suddenly, made me think it was something with no context, instead of something that is already there around the world and has more hidden stuff about.

Interesting. From what I understand, the script activates a timer that counts down to the mission activating. I think it’s a few ingame hours so it seems a bit more random.

If they have ran into one of the scripted areas (most of the apple-murderer sites I reckon) and not had it activate that sounds like it could be a bug. :thinking:

For me it started just a few seconds or minutes after leaving the location…

My “invitation” mission sadly vanished with the last update. Possibly because I hadn’t finished it before, still had to return to the orchard but now it’s totally gone, no mission marker and not even in the mission list any more.

Oh… and any attempts to re-trigger the mission by visiting some of the locations failed… :man_shrugging:

For me, this quest only appeared in the fourth world for the first time and out of the blue after the February update where the home base disappeared.

We have gotten new worlds, but what we really needed was an option to re-pick up / replay separate missions by right-clicking on a mission start location or/and in the warboards, or something like that. We need the same with resetting weapon pickup completion per location, because those also sometimes fail to properly register. :coffee: