A good story can be tough to add to, but a great expansion can show new sides to a conflict, follow up on themes from the original, or just continue the tale without the weight of being a full sequel. Their events may directly follow the main game’s story, or it may stand on its own while adding to what the original said.
This week, let’s discuss our favorite story expansions, and what they add to their original game. Are their any expansions that wholly changed your opinion on their base game?
Oblivion’s Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles expansions were revelatory, as a console player. You can just add cool stuff to games? I can put more time into Oblivion? It doesn’t hurt that Knights of the Nine is excellent, grabbing onto a relatively minor part of Tamriel (religion) and weaving a whole tale around it. And just talking about the Shivering Isles makes me want to download Oblivon again.
Skyrim also brought some real expansion heat. Dawnguard brought Serana, arguably Skyrim’s best companion (her lead writer is a cool Twitter follow if you like Jesuit-style theology and random video game trivia - probably a Venn diagram of checks notes me) but the story about Serana and her family is one that still holds up a decade later (true of much of Skyrim, honestly). And then there’s Dragonborn, featuring a frankly astonishing amount of content. You like Dwemer history? You like Morrowind politics? You like slightly-baked sounding nth-dimensional tentacle monsters who need a favor? Dragonborn has you covered.
Probably the best story expansion that I can think of is Neverwinter Nights 2’s Throne of the Betrayer expansion because 1) it’s a really tremendous counterpoint to an extremely safe and unremarkable RPG and; 2) it’s a stealth Planescape sequel in terms of tone and design.
I’m a bleak guy, a goth weirdo. So I love it when my body is inhabited by the soul of a hungry god that promises untold power in return for the consumption of others.
Throne of the Betrayer probably has the best RPG writing since Planescape. The tone is bizarre and cosmological, all of the characters come at player from weird angles. It’s really good! I haven’t played Disco Elysium yet but until then I can safely say it’s the best traditional role playing experience you can have that wasn’t made in the 90s.
The Knife of Dunwall and Brigmore Witches are excellent standalone experiences that take much of what’s already great about Dishonored and give an extra twist. But more importantly, the perspective they bring relative to the original narrative makes each piece exponentially more compelling. I think Prey is my favourite standalone Arkane experience, but what Dishonored does as a series is something special imo. (That said Mooncrash tho………)
Calling KoD and BW essential probably does a disservice to the already very good experience that is Dis1 alone, but they truly elevate the whole package to a different level.
I have been toying with the idea of revisiting Oblivion and yo Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles both stand at the forefront of my fond memories of that game. I have dumped more hours into Skyrim than I can count (in large part due to modding), but 1000% Oblivion and it’s expansions caught me at a specific age to give me so many of those “you can do this in games???” moments.
The Witcher 3 was already a great game, but what elevated it to being maybe my favorite game of the last decade was the Hearts of Stone expansion (and Blood and Wine was also quite nice, if not as good). All the best combat encounters are in the first expansion, all the most clever story twists, the most terrifying moments of being overwhelmed by a power greater than your own, even the best romance scene - sorry Yen, cheating on you there.
One of my favorite story expansions was for Prince of Persia (2008). That game was premised on the titular Prince coming upon a kingdom under a terrible curse, and teams up with the Princess of the land to undo the damage wrought. Throughout the game, the two become close and fall in love. The climax of the main game is the Prince having to decide if he is ok sacrificing the Princess to undo the curse, and selfishly chooses to keep her alive at the cost of the people of the kingdom. Note that this was five years before The Last of Us was lauded for a very similar story.
Anyway, the expansion takes place right after the ill-fated decision and deals with the fallout. The lovers’ relationship falters as the Princess cannot forgive the Prince for condemning her people, and the Prince cannot understand why she does not appreciate his devotion to her. Their relationship shattered, they end up going separate ways as two broken people.
The game was very much panned at the time, but I think it holds up better than reviews at time would admit. It’s gorgeous, has really fun platforming and combat, and the story elevates the experience so much. Though the epilogue DLC is technically optional and the narrative works fine without it, the way it shows a relationship falling apart in real time is something few games have attempted, let alone succeeded at. If you haven’t played the game or the DLC, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Honestly, a lot of my critiques of Skyrim (which is a strong contender for my favorite video game ever) come from the subtle little things Oblivion did better from a world-building perspective.
Gonna go kinda long on Skyrim and Oblivion because it's Friday afternoon and therefore garbage time
This comparison is actually kind of interesting in light of the renewed “approachability” discourse around Elden Ring and Horizon: Forbidden West because I think this difference is where “trusting the player” is 100% correct.
One can start the Thieves Guild quest in Oblivion in one of three ways:
- You steal something and go to jail, and you get a note passed to you telling you of a meeting you should attend.
- You get a beggar’s approval rating above 70, which unlocks a dialog option that tells you about the meeting.
- You already know where the meeting is, you wait in the bushes, and you sneak out.
In Skyrim, it is literally one of the main quests.
You join the Fighters Guild in Oblivion by…walking into a random building (as you do - it’s a Bethesda game) and they ask if you want to join.
In Skyrim, there’s a scripted sequence in front of Whiterun the first time you go (a very clever level design funnel sends you to the right spot) where you get to help Aela and friends take down a Giant and Aela asks you to come join the Companions. Very cool! Very cinematic! Aela and I celebrated our 10th anniversary in January! But the magic trick’s kinda obvious.
Etcetera. The point is, because Oblivion already incentivizes you to poke around in every nook and cranny, when it holds whole quest trees out there for you to find, it feels a lot more like you’re wandering into a cool thing in progress than Skyrim’s more amusement park approach with the giant signpost for where the rides are.
Don’t get me wrong: I want to ride the ride. Some subtle signposting (instead of Skyrim’s “I think he’s trying to summon the Dark Brotherhood!” maybe try “that kid seems like he’s in a bad way; somebody should talk to him” and then make a note of that in my quest log) is appreciated, but if you let me find the ride you want me to take, I bet I’ll enjoy it that much more.
Totally. I actually happen to be poking around in Breath of the Wild for the first time at the moment on my partner’s Switch, and a massive part of the appeal there is just how well it hides the seams and gives everything a little bit more of that wondrous magic. And that’s exactly what Oblivion does better than Skyrim.
Skyrim on-ramps you too quickly in a lot of cases, and that’s why there’s so many mods meant to address that (e.g., The Choice is Yours; mods that pace out the guild quests so you can’t become Guild Master by level 17, etc). Skyrim will drop a daedric quest in your pocket whether you like it or not (looking at you, Meridia).
I distinctly remember spending hours early on in Oblivion trying to steal steel weapons from the blacksmith in Bruma or the guardhouse in the imperial city because the game hadn’t yet hand-holded me into better gear. I got caught and sent to jail, and that’s awesome. I think I get a lot less of that emergent experience in Skyrim absent mods.
It’s funny you mention Breath of the Wild here, because that’s a game where I feel some of its decisions (around weather and weapon degradation specifically - I didn’t get very far before moving on to other games and have been meaning to give it another shot) disincentivized me from exploring. If I go that way and have to burn my Good Weapon, what am I going to do? If I burn all my resources going that way, what do I do? It’s part of the reason I find the Souls games intimidating; I feel like every step is a trade-off of some kind and that sort of tension isn’t how I like to experience games.
The first one that comes to mind for me is Lair of the Shadow Broker in Mass Effect 2.
ME2 will always hold a special place in my heart - I just loved spending time with that ragtag, Dirty Dozen-like group as we unravel a mystery and take on impossible odds that nobody really expects to survive. But it also tore me away from an old favorite from Mass Effect 2 - Liara T’Soni.
Lair of the Shadow Broker fixed that. Not only did I get to reunite with Liara, at least for a few hours, but I got to play through a kick-ass story of intrigue, spycraft, double-crosses, character development, and delicious lore reveals. Finding out who the Shadow Broker is, this mysterious character that’s been lurking in the background for two games, and then taking them down and discovering that the Shadow Broker is a title, not a person, and the current Shadow Broker just defeated the one before him, and then watching Liara - who starts the series as an awkward academic nerd - take her place as one of the most powerful people in the galaxy? Yeah, that’s the good shit.
I devoured all of the lore on Shadow Broker’s ship. Just om nom nom that shit up.
I came to say Lair of the Shadow Broker and @Gjallarsean beat me to it. Incredible expansion.
I’d also second the Dishonored expansions, as @DevJ brought up. I’ve always had a weird time with Dishonored: I’ve grown to really love it, but every time I first go through one of the games, I’m a little underwhelmed. I think it’s because the games play their cards so closely, refusing to easily reveal to the player just how flexible the narratives are. You can finish a level - or the whole game - and walk away thinking you saw everything it had to offer - or at most, believing that you took one path (say, stealthy, or pacifist) vs. another (combat, high body count). It was a long time before I discovered you could ‘break’ The Clockwork Mansion by getting into the mechanisms early and bypassing most of the scripted narrative of progressing through it normally or that in A Crack in the Slab there’s an entire third, better timeline based on your actions manipulating the past and which isn’t signposted with any objective markers.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that I’ve found the whole Dishonored experience cumulative, each game, expansion, mission, and playthrough adding to the whole, adding little snippets of lore and also greater understanding of how all the systems play off each other and the branching narrative. The Knife of Dunwall/Brigmore Witches were an early taste of that.
Certainly not my favourite story expansion, but one that indulges in a favourite trope: Assassin’s Creed 3: The Tyranny of King Washington. I think AC3 is underrated, but anyway, after spending so long with a setting and characters its often fun to do the alternate history/darkest timeline thing. Some of the details of it are hazy to me now but I vividly remember a sequence of sailing the Aquila - the first ship you got to control in an Assassin’s Creed - in a suicidal assault on Washington’s fleet. Looking back, I also think this was probably the first time the series went into into a more fantastical setting, which is something they’ve turned to more and more with the afterlife-focused expansions to Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla.