The best video game sidequests are detours worth taking. They can be even more delightful than a good game’s main quests by their very nature of being optional. Bad sidequests are tedious filler that are best ignored. Those good ones, however, were made for you to find and enjoy, but only if you want to.
I found some great sidequests in Far Cry 5 early last year and just got back to finishing them in the last week, as I took a break from playing more recent releases. They’re called Prepper Stashes, and they amazed me. They’re a wonderful deviation from the series formula. These games are mostly about chaos, but each of these Prepper Stashes is a conundrum set in relatively calm crevices of these violent Far Cry worlds. They’re also coming back in a modified form in next week’s Far Cry New Dawn, a return I learned more about as I quizzed Ubisoft about how Far Cry 5’s superb Prepper Stashes came to be.
The big Far Cry games of late offer satisfying first-person shooting set in a vast, violent open world full of bases to raid, animals to fend off, and vehicles to commandeer. They have main missions and side tasks, but they deliver their best fun when players roam a map that is always on the verge of eruption. You stalk an enemy soldier only to get pounced on by a bear, rush to a Jeep to escape, get chased by an armed patrol helicopter, drive off a cliff, and dive into the sea. That’s the series’ thing. It’s cool.
Prepper Stashes are different. In Far Cry 5’s fictional Hope County, Montana, the towns and countryside are overrun by a violent, religious doomsday cult. Hidden throughout are hideouts made by “preppers”—people preparing to survive a catastrophe by building shelters and stockpiling necessities. The Prepper Stash missions involve accessing these hideouts, all of them abandoned and all of them initially blocked off by some sort of environmental puzzle. Or sometimes the prepper was trying to flee Hope, but they left their stash behind in a box that can’t easily be cracked open.
One Prepper Stash mission involves trying to access a hideout that’s been set up in the trestle of a massive steel bridge. You need to swing on a grappling hook underneath the bridge to get it.
Another presents you with a locked box on a lake shore. You need to follow a debris trail underwater to find the key.
Then there’s the one about trying to find a key eaten by one of the dogs living at an otherwise-abandoned summer camp. The clue you’re given is that the one of the dogs must have shat it out:
“In Far Cry 5 we wanted to encourage players to fully explore the world, and Prepper Stashes were created as a way to hide loot in specific locations and points of interest,” the game’s assistant level design director Alain Greco told me over email. Far Cry worlds are vast, but he and his colleagues at Ubisoft Montreal noticed that players wouldn’t wander into areas of the map where there wasn’t combat. “Level designers then started to add some ingredients to make the loot in these locations more challenging to get: for example, players had to push a vehicle to access a bunker, break crates to access hidden doors, or wingsuit into a rooftop to get rewards.”
Far Cry games are knocked for being formulaic to the point of being repetitive. If you’re not into, say, stealthily raiding a base filled with a dozen guards, a few explosive barrels, and a caged attack dog, then you’re going to be tired of these games before any one of them presents the tenth such base to take down. Some of us find the basic mechanics and the myriad ways attacking such a base can unfold to be fun enough, but the Prepper Stashes need no defense against monotony because they’re refreshingly varied. There’s a clever one set in an overstuffed garage and another in a toxic mine. Greco said the dog poop one is a team favorite, and that a fan favorite is the game’s Prepper Stash that involves a haunted house.
One of my favorites is called “Long-Range Lockpick,” which involves a lakeside building that is locked from within. It’s Greco’s favorite, too. “The main reason is that for this stash, we do not explicitly tell players what to do but just give them clues on how to resolve the puzzle,” he said. “The title, the notes, the enemy on the outer shore, the ladder, the zipline, the boat, the hidden sniper gun on the shed, the bullet holes on the building—every single ingredient used in this location points to the Prepper Stash, without giving away the solution of how to get it. I like how this Prepper Stash gives players agency, and provides them the foundation to create their own story, accomplish their own goal, and play their own way.”
One of the reasons I got back to Far Cry 5 in the last week is because I am fascinated by the fact that Ubisoft is releasing a sequel, Far Cry: New Dawn, next week, just 11 months after 5 came out. I’m curious how the game will connect to the original. It’s set 17 years later, after a disaster has transformed Hope. I figured I’d experience all of FC5’s story and then see how New Dawn references it, but as I went back I kept breaking from the main path to do more of these Prepper Stashes. That got me wondering if New Dawn would be making callbacks to that design features as well. It will, Greco said.
Prepper Stashes are evolving in the new game into something called Treasure Hunts. Greco said they differ from the Stashes in two ways. “First, on the gameplay side we are not holding players’ hand anymore. Treasure Hunts are much less objective-driven and much more demanding of players’ attention to detail and experimentation. Instead of asking players to ‘get the key’ and give them an objective marker, we are asking them to ‘find a way to get the key,’ and any means of doing this is valid. Increasing the challenge was in line with the overall goal of providing a more challenging experience in this harsh but beautiful world.”
Greco said New Dawn’s Treasure Hunts are also being used to provide glimpses to what happened to some key characters and locations from the previous game. The sidequests will reveal the fate of the fisherwoman Skylar, or of that big bridge that had that stash in its trestle. “With Far Cry New Dawn we were able to mix the familiar and novel in very exciting ways,” he said. “Each Treasure Hunt is unique, and the rewards you will get from them are invaluable to your progression through the game.”
It’s inevitable that a good new idea in a Ubisoft game will become part of the formula for the next. Prepper Stashes were a winner in Far Cry 5 and I’m looking forward to seeing what they become in New Dawn. Our violent pastimes can always benefit from some smartly-structured puzzle-solving calm.