Subplots and Side Stories
Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
Video Games and Side Stories
Game Discussed: Final Fantasy VI (Square-Enix, 1994)
Due to their interactive nature, video games narratives are the perfect vehicle for subplots and side stories. Unlike in movies and books, where every person experiences the story the same way, video games can be played a multitude of ways. While players who have no interest in subplots can focus entirely on the game’s core narrative—the content mandatory for completion—players who want to experience more of the world can explore optional subplots known as sidequests. Because these sidequests are not required for completion, they are often designed to have no impact on the main storyline. Instead, sidequests are used like literary and cinematic subplots, adding depth to the characters, the world, or the theme. Although these side stories are skippable by their nature, players are typically incentivized to complete them with the promise of powerful tools and equipment that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Some sidequests may even result in new characters joining the party, resulting in additional sidequests and story development.
While sidequests have grown in scope and quality in lockstep with game narratives, not all sidequests are created equal. One of the most common sidequest types, the fetch quest, is also the least complex (and least loved). In fetch quests, players are told to find a given amount of a certain type of object, then return it to the person who requested it. TVTropes describes these as FedEx quests, saying: “[The] people, places, and objects themselves are largely inconsequential — you’re just their mail carrier.”2 Although these quests can unlock useful skills and tools, players rarely find them enjoyable, as they don’t add anything to the story. Conversely, sidequests that add dimension to the characters and the setting are better received, as are stories that play with tone. An injection of humor into an otherwise dry gameplay segment can get players excited about a task, just as a descent into horror can bring them to the edge of their seats. Likewise, sharing insightful tidbits about the characters and the world can help them see the story in a new way, which strengthens the overall narrative. The very best sidequests will often do all of these things, adding depth and complexity to the playable world while breaking up the monotony of the current tone.
When searching for satisfying sidequests, one of the first genres to consider is the open-world game. Open-world games are a type of game that takes place in vast settings full of quests that can be completed in any order. While most open-world games have a core narrative that the player must experience to reach the end, most side quests are optional. Some of these quests are also affected by the player’s choices, which can have different outcomes that potentially change the main story. Just as an act of kindness at the end of a side quest may benefit the player down the line, an act of cruelty on the same quest may result in unforeseen hardships. Navigating these choices gives the player a sense of control over the story, thus strengthening the connection to the sidequests they choose.
Red Dead Redemption - 'I Know You'
Game Discussed: Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar, 2010)
One of the most popular open-world games with choice-driven sidequests is Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar, 2010), an action-adventure game set during the decline of frontier days in the American Southwest. In Red Dead Redemption, players take control of John Marston, an outlaw who must hunt down his old partners to save his wife and child. As Marston, players have the opportunity to take on numerous side quests, some of which give Marston a chance to make a moral choice. One such quest, entitled ‘I Know You’, pits the player against a mysterious stranger who seems to know Marston more than he should. After recounting some of Marston’s numerous misdeeds to his face, the stranger tests Marston’s character with two tasks: dissuading a man from cheating on his wife, and helping a nun in dire need of money. Players can either perform the tasks as requested or defy the strange man, giving the cheater money for the prostitute and robbing the nun of what little she has. Both choices have their rewards and drawbacks; each allows the player to decide what kind of man they want Marston to be.
Once the player has completed the tasks, the strange man informs Marston that he will one day be judged by a higher authority, then ponders a sunny patch of grass and remarks on what a fine spot it is. It’s in that spot where Marston fires three shots at the stranger’s back, and where all three shots miss. It’s also the spot where Marston, his wife, and his friend will be buried at the game’s end. This eerie foreshadowing enhances the already suspicious elements of the stranger’s character, like his uncanny knowledge of Marston’s life and his fixation on morality and judgment, and leaves players to question his true nature. It’s a shift towards the speculative for an otherwise realistic world, which adds a layer of depth to the main narrative. Thanks to this shift, as well as the emphasis on the theme of morality, this side quest still endures in the memories of players and fans today.
The Witcher III: Blood and Wine - 'Paperchase'
Game Discussed: The Witcher III: Blood and Wine (CD Projekt Red, 2016)
Red Dead Redemption isn’t the only open-world game to use tonal shifts to take its sidequests to the next level. The Witcher III (CD Projekt Red, 2015), an action-rpg set in a Slavic fantasy world, is full to the brim with sidequests. As Geralt of Rivia, a mercenary Witcher, players can travel from town to town and take on sidequests at their leisure. One unique sidequest available in the expansion, The Witcher III: Blood and Wine (2016), is a bizarre battle with bureaucracy called ‘Paperchase.’ In ‘Paperchase,’ Geralt learns that someone has placed a large sum of money in the Cianfanelli Bank in his name. All he has to do to earn it is pick it up.
This task proves to be more complicated than it seems, as the Cianfanelli Bank has declared Geralt to be legally dead. This clerical snafu forces the obviously-alive Geralt to request countless forms from various tellers, only to be brutally rebuffed at every turn. It’s a decidedly relatable dilemma for a story set in a fantastical past. It also shows a side of Geralt’s character that couldn’t come out in any other scenario: Witchers may be strong on the battlefield, but against bureaucracy, they’re as weak as anyone else. This character insight, coupled with the shift towards the modern, makes ‘Paperchase’ a standout in a game with many compelling sidequests.
Subplots and side stories come in all sorts of flavors, but the best ones often have a few traits in common: they develop the characters and their world, echo the main narrative’s theme, and play with tone without betraying it. When these traits appear in video game sidequests, they can transform simple fetch quests into compelling sub-stories that add depth to the core narrative. Writers who wish to incorporate subplots into their own stories can look to games like Red Dead Redemption and The Witcher III to see how they combine these traits, turning sidequests into subplots audiences are unlikely to forget.
1 Aristotle. Poetics (sec. 1450b). Perseus Digital Library.
2 TVTropes. Fetch Quest. 2004.
* Reference Footage (Final Fantasy VI): Brickroad’s Ridiculous Nonsense. “Final Fantasy VI • (23/50) • “Gotta wait for Shadow…” YouTube, 2018.
** Reference Footage (The Witcher III: Blood and Wine): XLetalis. “Witcher 3 🌟 BLOOD AND WINE 🌟 Paperchase: Geralt Annoyed at the Bank #25.” YouTube, 2016.
*** Reference Footage (Red Dead Redemption): GTA Series Videos. “I Know You (Good Choices) – Stranger Mission – Red Dead Redemption.” YouTube, 2010.
**** Additional Reference Footage (Red Dead Redemption): Game LORE Dash. “I know YOU – Red Dead Redemption LORE.” YouTube, 2018.