While the debate will likely rage on forever as to whether DLC should even exist or not, one thing is for sure: there are many expansions out there that have totally changed the game. In the last couple of generations there have been story expansions that provide such important context to the preceding or next game, it feels as though they are pretty much essential. Here are the DLCs that have had the most significant impact on the main series.
Spoilers have been avoided where possible, but regardless here's your SPOILER WARNING for all of the games listed.
By far the most recent entry on this list and the inspiration for it. Whether we like it or not, the narrative implications of Odyssey's latest DLC chapter are huge. It takes the sum total of the player's choices as Alexios or Kassandra — their orientation, their romantic tastes, the kind of life they imagine for the misthios — and forces it into a very linear situation. Though we've been promised opportunities to wrap the episode's bombshell reveal into our vision of the misthios when the third episode arrives, this entry will significantly reduce the sense of agency the player was supposedly given over the character in the main game.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion — Shivering Isles
At the end of Oblivion, the hero has pretty much seen it all, defeating a world-ending invasion from a gigantic Daedric lord by unlocking the power of an elder god. In terms of life goals, what could possibly top that?
Enter Shivering Isles, one of the most expansive DLCs of its era. It essentially sets the hero up to become a Daedric lord themselves, freeing another in the process. What's great about this reveal is that it subverts the usual issue with self-named protagonists in a fantasy series. If you saved the entire world in one game, why did your character disappear from history before the next? In the case of Skyrim, we have a narrative excuse for the disappearance of the Champion of Cyrodiil: they vanished from the mundane world, took on a new name and a new identity and joined the ancient pantheon of Daedric Lords. Knowing the conclusion of Shivering Isles completely changes the subtext of a certain Daedric Quest in Skyrim that you find in the dusty halls of the Blue Palace.
New Vegas contains some of my favourite DLCs of the last couple of decades, and though Lonesome Road is far from my favourite gameplay-wise it represents the conclusion of a mystery that completely changes our perspective on our amnesiac self-created protagonist. Hints are dropped throughout each of the significant DLC expansions that our blank-slate hero might not have been a simple unlucky courier after all, a breadcrumb trail that leads all the way to the Road. Once you see through the final explosive and dramatic showdown, your perception of the Courier will be noticeably different during your next playthrough of New Vegas.
PlayStation's super successful Spider-Man recently expanded into a three-episode DLC that simply provided more of the same in terms of gameplay. However it allowed us to meet new classic characters from the Spider-verse, as well as produce some impressive story moments. In particular, the third and final episode sets an important character from the main game on a pretty shocking path — one which we can only assume gets a dramatic resolution in a future sequel.
Mass Effect 2 has a veritable buffet of additional story content, and all of it has some merit. After Lair of the Shadow Broker we would have been forgiven for assuming that BioWare were finally done and ready to move on to Mass Effect 3, but then along came Arrival. This final story expansion isn't strictly essential to the plot of the second or third game and is probably the weakest in terms of gameplay. However it provides some harrowing decision making that shapes Shepard's subdued state throughout the final part of the trilogy. It also explains the fate of an entire alien civilisation, which has some ramifications in the next game.
Even without the recent Game Awards teaser, which will have been confusing for anyone who didn't play through Trespasser, the DLC is pretty much essential for anyone thrown by Inquisition's post-credits scene. Rather like the Witch Hunt DLC of the first game it allows the player to track down a controversial character and demand some answers for their actions. The answers given here aren't entirely satisfying but they are crucial for understanding where the series will go next, especially in light of that teaser.
Not every story-changing DLC necessarily gets it right, but we can't deny that it impacts the narrative. One of the most challenging parts of Fallout 3 was the act of sacrifice made at the end of the game, a game in which we may have built hundreds of hours of exploring, making friends and shaping the future. It's a tough moment in which you have to let go.
One that is completely invalidated by the existence of Broken Steel, which reveals that the player didn't get lethally irradiated after all. There's no compelling explanation for it, and the post-game missions you undertake aren't interesting enough to make it worthwhile. It's a bizarre decision to take the poignancy out of a game's ending. The main game's final act will forever be robbed of any potency in my subsequent playthroughs because I know it doesn't really mean anything.
Blood & Wine isn't entirely essential to the plot of the main game, and I'd lean towards Hearts of Stone as being the better narrative of the two major expansions. But the Witcher's journey to Toussaint gives the player a chance to pierce Geralt's emotional armour as he contemplates his life and role in the world, and his potential retirement. Meanwhile for fans of The Witcher universe extending to the books, there's a shocking return of a character who died pretty gruesomely well before the start of the video game narrative. This character turns out to be one of the highlights of the expansion, and their philosophical back-and-forth with Geralt right up to the final frame ties a wonderful bow on the entire Witcher 3 experience. It's now difficult to imagine The Witcher 3 without its coda.
The special thing about Awakening is that in many ways it helps to save the next game, Dragon Age II, from its own bizarre left-field narrative and structural choices. Awakening gives us a reason to care about a certain troublesome mage and his soul-bonded companion by introducing us to them individually, giving them an origin story that makes their reveal in the second game rewarding rather than baffling. In particular their debates about morality while travelling with you in Awakening inform the drastic decisions made towards the end of the second game, making their impact more emotional. I have fond memories of the second game only because Awakening built an emotional foundation for its characters and ideas.
Make no mistake, The Last of Us has a stand-out emotional narrative without the help of any downloadable extras, one that many studios are still struggling to emulate to this day. But the Left Behind expansion — a prequel — fills out Ellie's character in a way that fundamentally changes our perspective on the character, given the emotional ordeal that she has to suffer to eventually end up in Joel's care. While The Last of Us mainly focuses on Joel and the effect Ellie's companionship has on his internal struggles, Left Behind lets us compose our own story of what is truly going on in Ellie's mind as we play back through the original game, now that we have the context to explain her world-weary stares and her fear of getting close to anyone. It's almost essential. The story beats in The Last of Us Part 2's early trailers prove that Left Behind will likely inform the narrative as much as the base game will.
If this was an exhaustive list of not just the most story-essential DLC but the best DLC of all time, Lair of the Shadow Broker would still be fighting for a podium position, because it's a damn good piece of content regardless of its context.
For the purposes of this article though it's perhaps the purest example of a DLC essential to both the past and the future of the franchise, to the point where it feels like it should have been part of the main game in the first place. Without the full explanation given in Lair of the Shadow Broker, Liara's position and attitude change in Mass Effect 2 seems utterly bizarre and unfounded. Without playing Lair, Liara's appearance in Mass Effect 3 is almost laughable in its delivery; the DLC's huge final twist is instead delivered in a matter-of-fact line of exposition if your Shepard didn't fight alongside the asari during the second game.
More importantly, Liara is a key romantic opportunity in the first game and Shadow Broker gives the player the chance to rekindle that spark, one that is completely missing from 2 otherwise. Plenty of Mass Effect's DLC is interesting and enjoyable, but a playthrough of the Mass Effect series is simply incomplete without Lair of the Shadow Broker.
What are your thoughts on these story-changing DLCs? Did you enjoy them? Any others you would include? Should they all have been rolled up into the main game, or does their separation lend them some weight? Let us know in the comments!
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