WARNING: Boy howdy there be some swearin’ here. You may want to turn back if you’re sensitive about that sort of thing.
I’d like to take a few moments to talk about subplots. I’d like to do this because my recent experiences with the video game ArcaniA (their capitalization, not mine), has made it very clear to me that sidequests in a video game and subplots in novels are not that much different.
Not only that, but there is one thing that can be devastating to any reader or gamer’s interest in your story: the daisy-chain subplot.
To whit: in ArcaniA, I needed access to a secret library. I don’t know why it was secret. Once I got in there it contained one plot point and a bunch of unnecessary bullshit. But I digress. I needed access to this secret library to acquire the aforementioned plot point.
Unfortunately, the only person who could give me permission to enter the library was the noble who ruled the castle the library was in. And his pansy ass just got kidnapped by orcs.
Okay, whatever. Save the noble, crack open the library.
So I schlep on over to the orc stronghold, which is a cave with a fence made of upright logs around its mouth. The orc guarding the gate in the fence is not only phenomenally dumb, he’s also an orc, which suggests that I should be able to take the nearest rock and bludgeon him to death with a modicum of effort.
This is not the case.
The orc decides he will let me, a human who rolled up out of the wilderness, into his people’s guarded hideout if I get him some fucking booze. I don’t even have a choice in this. It’s not like I went, oh yeah, let’s rock this shit Paragon style. I’m on plot rails the whole way. Choo choo, motherfucker.
So I go to talk to the only guy who is able to make this asshole some second-rate goblin hooch, an orc shaman living out in the boonies. Keep in mind that we are now two quests removed from the original objective. I need to get in the library, which means I have to save the noble, which means this stupid goddamned orc has to get his Two Buck Chuck.
I talk to the shaman. To the surprise of absolutely fucking nobody, the shaman ALSO has an errand for me to run. One of his orc buddies gone and got his green ass lost in the woods, but, lo and behold, the shaman doesn’t have enough fucks in the fuckfield behind his shed available, otherwise he’d go out and do it himself. I have to find the orc to get the booze to give to the other orc to enter the orc camp and save the noble. We’re getting in so deep here that the cast of Inception would start to think twice about going further.
Luckily, the other orc is really easy to find. He is literally right down the goddamned road, sitting in a sad little encampment of his own design.
Take a guess at whether the lost orc had a quest for me before he would return to the shaman’s hut.
I’d like to take a moment to say that this is one of the moments that particularly pained me during the unrelenting torture of this experience. I would have liked this particular quest if it had been completely standalone, because it contained a neat idea about this orc tribe having a folk belief: each orc must wear an amulet with their name inscribed on it, because it contains their soul. If they lose their amulet, they’re not longer Frogluk or whatever anymore, they’re just Frogluk’s Body. Because the soul is gone.
Which is REALLY COOL. But at this point I was starting to realize that surfacing from this string of sidequests was going to give me whatever the storytelling equivalent of the bends is, so my patience was wearing thin.
Incidentally, this is an example, in microcosm, of that fantasy heartbreaker thing I talked about a while back.
Anyway, clearly this guy needs his soul back before he can go home. Fair enough. We’ve all been there. I go out hunting for the jerk who swiped the orc’s amulet.
Once more, doesn’t take long to find the target. After a brief conversation, I kick the orc thief’s ass from hell to breakfast and demand the amulet. Now, in most games, the thief would be carrying the amulet. But that would be a cardinal sin in ArcaniA, because they need to pad their story in order to justify a release-day sale price of sixty smackers.
This means that the amulet is, instead, in a locked chest in a nearby cave. A cave that is, predictably, infested with horrible monsters. Now that we’re locked in some crumbling unconscious gestalt Limbo with Leonardo DiCaprio and Old Ken Watanabe, it’ll be easier for everybody if I just make a flow chart.
Yeah. That’s where we’re at. I’ll let you have a moment to allow that to sink in.
Now that you’re done staring at your screen in horror, I’d like to point out that if anybody handed you, or me, or any other sane person on this Godforsaken planet a book where, at some point, the protagonists have somehow become this divorced from the main plot, that book would be hurled against a wall with such destructive force that the scientists who constructed a fucking magnetic mass-driver for the Navy would be like, “Holy shit dude chill out.”
Thankfully, that was where the madness came to its conclusion. I was forced to retrace my steps in rapid succession, skipping through dialogue boxes because I had stopped giving a shit around the time I discovered I needed to find the lost orc.
So endeth the rage-y part of this post.
In a more reasonable tone of voice, I’d like to discuss the purpose of subplots—and of sidequests—when utilizing them in a story.
By definition, a subplot or sidequest is a diversion from the main storyline, a branch reaching out from a trunk, or a tributary wending its way from a river. They take the reader (and the writer!) to new places. They supply color and interesting marginalia.
But most importantly, a subplot or sidequest should, in some way, support the main plot. It offers extra information useful to the primary narrative, or it shows us something about a main character we wouldn’t have known otherwise, and so on. A subplot is a component, not a distraction. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that larger plots are really a series of subplots seamlessly linked together, forming one continuous narrative.
What ArcaniA is suffering from is a violation of that fundamental principle—the sidequest as support component rather than distraction. In some instances of this issue, it’s not super obvious, like how it takes time to notice if somebody put a solid color t-shirt on inside-out. In the case of ArcaniA, it’s more like somebody Sharpie’d a penis on to the game’s forehead and you literally cannot stop staring at it.
What pushes ArcaniA from “inside-out shirt” territory and directly into the Republic of Cockforeheadia is the half-assed implementation of those subplots.
Get some booze.
Find a guy.
Find another guy.
Go to a cave.
Find a thing.
And so on, ad nauseam.
With the exception of the bit with the soul-amulet, the sidequests are not interesting, entertaining, or even sensible in the context of the game’s reality. We have already established that the ArcaniA protagonist solves 99% of his problems with murder, so why does he decide, just this once, to get this orc some marshland moonshine? And from that point on, the quests are only connected tenuously, stacking one on another until they fall over and somebody, somewhere, snaps their Xbox controller in half.
Now, compare this with Dragon Age: Origins, which is a prime example of the plot-formed-of-subplots concept. At the outset, you have a handful of tasks you need to accomplish—basically, you have to convince a variety of different factions to honor an ancient treaty and join you in a stand against the hellbeasts rising from the underworld. If you don’t succeed, the realm is doomed.
In practice, recruiting each faction is a subplot—a diversion from what is technically the main story (stopping the Blight). Each group you need to help you has some bullshit happening that you have to fix for them so they can join the cause of saving the world. The big difference is that none of those sidequests/subplots feels like a departure from the story, because they aren’t. It’s clear you’re still in the same narrative. Your errands make sense in the greater context of things, and only rarely are you sent to collect bear asses. The quests for each faction are coherent, self-contained narratives that advance the main story as they are completed.
So here’s the takeaway: just like how a rock is made of rock molecules which are then made of atoms, which are then made of quarks and gluons, which are in turn, according to some modes of thought, made of even smaller, more exotic particles, all stories are really just made up of a bunch of other, shorter stories. What you want to do is make sure that those small stories blend together in such a way that the whole appears indivisible. Because that’s what quarks and atoms and molecules do. They bunch together and pretend to be rocks and calendars and things.
Follow the tao of the molecule, and your story won’t wind up with a dick on its face.