How to Stick to the Main Plot and Avoid Getting Distracted by Side Quests

Have you ever sunk dozens of hours into a game and neglected the main plot the entire time? If you’re a big RPG player, this probably sounds familiar. You play through the tutorial, the introduction, and set off to explore a new world. Before you know it, you’re picking up side quest after side quest—a bounty here, a fetch quest there. Now, you’ve cleared all the fog of war and gotten to know every nook and cranny of the map. But during your exploration, you’ve neglected the main storyline entirely, so much so that you have a hard time talking to others about the game.

On top of that, you might trail off and start playing another game. Even though you always say you’re going to return to it and finish the game one day, it gathers dust on the shelf, abandoned. This has happened to me countless times. But recently, I’ve begun approaching games with the intent to beat them, and it’s felt so much better. I feel like I am making progress and getting more payoff—and I’m playing more games than ever. My backlog is still long, but it doesn’t feel as looming and overwhelming as it used to. And the best part is I don’t get distracted by meaningless side quests.

My strategy is simple, but before we get into it, I will say that this technique works for me. You may apply this thought process and find it doesn’t work for you—or maybe you enjoy the side quests more than the main quest. That is totally fine! The wonderful thing about gaming is the sheer variety in play style, so if what you’re doing works for you, great. Some games are even known for their excellent side quests, like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, so I don’t want to insinuate that all side quests are meaningless. I’ll get into this idea a little more later, so let’s start with the very basics first.

Majora's Mask

Pick a Game to Focus On

This is more of a logistical step, but for me, I have to pick a game I want to play over the course of a month. I have a demanding full-time job, so I can’t just play video games whenever I want. When I get home from work, I have other chores to attend to, which really limits my gaming time. I end up having maybe an hour or two at the very end of the day to dedicate to video games. This narrows the scope of games I can play, and I often hop from one to another without any long-term vision.

I recognized this fact of life in 2018. I had my Nintendo Switch for about a year at this point, and I also had a PS4. I was buying games for both systems, but I wasn’t really playing a lot of them. Some would sit in their cases untouched for weeks. I realized I had to change my approach to gaming if I ever wanted to finish anything, so I sat down to prioritize my gaming backlog.

I asked myself what games I wanted to play the most, including games I owned and games I knew were coming out later that year. I wrote them all down in a list and capped it at 10 entries. Then, I simply started playing the first game on the list. I didn’t set any timeline on how fast I should beat the game or anything like that—I just told myself I would play this game and this game alone whenever I had time to play video games.

Every day, I did exactly that, and it really helped me focus on one game over the long term, which allowed me to chip away at it without feeling pressured to finish it and move on to the next game. And it saved me money, because I didn’t feel the need to buy the next big video game unless I really wanted it and knew I had the time to dedicate to it.

I know there are a lot of people who play video games for more time than one hour a day, but this works well for me. I’ve found I can finish most games within a month on this schedule—sometimes faster! I started tracking how many games I beat in 2018, and I ended up at 17 games. In 2019, I beat 18 games. Not too shabby! But this is just the first step to achieving that goal.

Stick to the Main Quest

I told you my strategy was simple. In fact, it may sound so simple that you scoffed or rolled your eyes when reading these first two steps. But before I lose your attention, let me explain.

When I sit down to play a new game—especially a massive open world game—the first thing I want to do is discover all the game’s secrets. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a fantastic example. When I turned that game on and ran out of the cave as Link, my eyes were dazzled by the scale of the landscape. I wanted to comb through the forest and get to that horizon to see what else was out there for me to explore.

Breath of the Wild screenshot

But it’s easy to lose steam quickly when you’re carefully eyeing every inch of the map. In fact, this happened to me: I didn’t beat Breath of the Wild until a year and a half after I bought the game. At one point, I felt fatigued, because every time I’d boot up the game, I would walk around and complete every Korok seed challenge I could in an area. I’d walk from one edge of the map to the other, looking for secrets and hidden items. I would do simple side quests here and there. It got bad, to the point where I had only beaten one major dungeon after 75 hours of gameplay.

It was around this time that I set the game down and moved on to something else. I had lost all sense of momentum. This is one of the design flaws of an open world system—you can get so distracted by minutia that you forget the bigger picture. It’s funny, because the Zelda series sits on both ends of this spectrum. Some games in the series have such linear storylines that you lose the fun sense of discovery you get in open world games; and in the open world games, you lose the much-needed sense of progression to maintain your motivation to play.

Recognizing this fact and trying to stay self-aware as a player can go a long way toward avoiding this sense of boredom. When I sit down to play a new game, I tell myself to focus on having fun. I set myself a goal: to beat the main storyline. Yes, I will take on side quests and explore on my own, but when I sense myself drifting off too far and starting to feel apathy toward the game, I have to right my course and head toward the next main quest objective.

You’d be amazed at how much this helps. You might say this is bad game design if the player needs to consciously course correct to enjoy the game to its fullest, but I don’t view it that way. I just know that my personality tends to side-track me, and I get focused on the details too much. But focusing on the main quest really helps, and to help you do that, you’ll need to recognize when to move on from tedious side quests.

Recognize When to Move on From Side Quests

Side quests can be great. Oblivion comes to mind, for instance. That game has some of the most memorable side quests ever. But not all side quests are equal. For every great side quest, there’s a dozen fetch quests. But how can you tell when you’re just wading through endless fodder or pursuing something worth seeing through?


My advice here is don’t sweat it too much. If you miss a side quest, it won’t be the end of the world. In fact, chances are the side quest won’t affect the main storyline at all, which is exactly why side quests are dangerous. Most side quests don’t move the story forward—they take your attention away from the momentum and focus it on monotonous, tedious filler. There’s nothing else that will exhaust your attention faster than side quests, and in a world with way too many video games to play, you don’t have any time or attention to waste.

Sometimes, side quests are essential to level up and gain experience. Baldur’s Gate is a great example of this. If you try to steamroll through the main storyline, you’ll hit a brick wall—and fast. So if you want to do side quests or feel like you need to grind a bit, that is totally fine. But if you start going down the rabbit hole, I recommend taking a step back. Think about the flow of the story. Are you feeling a bit bored? Do you feel like you’ve been completing missions for paltry rewards? Is your character way overpowered when you do play the main story?

If you say yes to any of the above questions, it could be a sign it’s time to move on and focus on the central quest. If you want to spend some downtime doing side quests, you can always do so later. But don’t be afraid to revive your energy and excitement by playing the main quest. Stories are structured specifically to ebb and flow. Let that rising action carry you when you feel tedium sink in.

And again, if you miss some truly excellent side quests, you can always go back and experience them later…most of the time.

Baldur's Gate

Resist the Urge to Check off Every Item

One of the reasons I get so obsessed with side quests is because I love the sensation of checking things off a list. I do this in my personal life and my work life. I love keeping to-do lists and seeing my progression. But one of the pitfalls of to-do lists is avoiding the more complex items in favor of easier tasks.

It might be much simpler to cross off one thing on your list than another, more important item, which makes you feel productive even if you’re really not being as productive as you could be. This can lead to you finishing a bunch of random tasks, feeling satisfied, and then getting slammed for missing a vital deadline. This is a very common time management mistake. You have to learn to focus on the big, more difficult items first, and then move on to the smaller items. This may not feel as satisfying in the short term, but you’ll end up using your time more wisely in the long run.

Naturally, I often get deeply into the idea of completing every game I start playing. But while I would love to do that, I just don’t have the time, and some games are truly ridiculous to complete. It takes all my willpower to resist checking off every uncompleted quest in my journal, but it’s a necessary sacrifice. I just have to tell myself the satisfaction of actually beating a game is greater than completing every side quest and not experiencing the main story.

Oddly enough, I have replaced this sensation with another list: my list of beaten games. In a way, I am still keeping track of something, it’s just not distracting side quests!

Revisit Skipped Quests Before (or After) the Last Boss

That about sums up my strategy for beating games and avoiding getting distracted by side quests. But I do want to reiterate that side quests can be very fulfilling. Some games go the extra mile and pepper side quests with humorous dialogue or twists, which may be worth your time. For instance, the Dragon Quest games come to mind here—I could read their dialogue all day, side quest or not (which is good, because there tends to be a lot of it!).

Dragon Quest screenshot

And if you find a side quest that seems like it will develop your character or a side character in an interesting way, by all means, follow through with it. Really, these tips apply to the side quests that are there to fill up space and extend the gaming experience needlessly. And there’s nothing wrong with returning to beat some side quests right before you face the last boss or immediately afterward, if your game allows it. Do what suits you best.

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is that enjoyment is the goal. Video games are meant to be fun (for the most part). These strategies help me stay on pace and avoid the dull moments in between the exciting flow and natural progression of a game’s storyline. This leads me to have more fun in the long run, and I get a greater satisfaction knowing that I’ve beaten a game from start to finish. If I really enjoyed the experience, I can always return and do the game the full justice of completing it.

What are your strategies for beating games? How’s your backlog looking? Let me know what you think in the comments below! I’m curious to see how everyone else approaches this subject.