The Best Stories-Within-Stories You May Have Missed
Like Russian nesting dolls, smaller stories can hide within a larger plot and require some prying to reach. Usually completely optional, if one takes the time to pause and read some scribbled notes or hasty wall graffiti, they can discover a subplot that often makes the world seem all the richer. Here are some examples of the best use of stories-within-stories in video games, and what their inclusion adds to the games themselves.
(Warning: minor spoilers for each game ahead)
The Lusty Argonian Maid – The Elder Scrolls
Scattered across the continent of Tamriel, the majority of its content lost to the ages, is the greatest romance novel of all time – that is, in the Skyrim universe. If players are so dedicated, they can scour the lands of Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, and Elder Scrolls Online to collect the pages of the tale of The Lusty Argonian Maid. Only two volumes can be collected, surmising the short entries in “Act IV Scene III, Continued” and “Act VII Scene II, Continued.” Players collect the eight pages, learning of the blossoming romance between the reptilian maid, Lifts-Her-Tail, and her employer, Crantius Colto. It has some not-so-discreet innuendos; including polishing a spear or kneading a loaf to stuff in an oven, but essentially they are just some saucy exchanges between the two characters. The long-deceased author is credited as Crassius Curio, prompting a healthy suspicion that The Lusty Argonian Maid may be a non-fictitious story given the name of the male character is so similar, or this might just be a self-inserted personal fantasy of his.
The tale of The Lusty Argonian Maid became so popular with players that it inspired numerous fan-fictions; it was adapted into a comic strip, the inspiration for cosplays, numerous YouTube videos, and some scandalous illustrations. No matter what the medium, it always ends with a bittersweet, “Plenty of time, my sweet. Plenty of time.”
The Story of Ish – The Last Of Us
Ish is an unseen character in The Last of Us, only expanded upon in a series of notes collected by Joel just outside and within a sewer system. The only image of him shown is a children's drawing with him and another man named Danny who are labeled as “our protectors.” What’s gathered is Ish spent some time at sea to avoid the infected on land, but ran out of supplies and came back. He decided the sewers were the safest place because of their maze of exits. He encounters a group and decides to let them know about the sewers and offers them safety within.
Joel and company stumble upon their makeshift community while traversing the sewers, set up with defenses and noise alarms with their own established house rules including necessary password entries and designated hiding spots for when an alarm would be tripped. Infected appear within the community, and Ellie notes, “I guess we know what happened to these people.” Included with the infected was a clicker, indicating they had been dead for a while since that variant of infected takes longer to incubate.
There are several notes throughout this portion of the game, but the most memorable is found as Joel enters a room with “they didn’t suffer” written across its floor. A quick glance to the left and you see several bodies covered with sheets, their size upsettingly small. Accompanying them is a larger male corpse, uncovered and rotting. A note is beside it, this time written by a fellow group member named Kyle. He says he got infected while trying to bar the door to protect him and some kids, and questions whether Ish and the others are still alive. It ends with the grim decision that “if it comes down to it, I’ll make it quick.” Two final notes lie outside the sewers, one written by Kyle and the other by Ish. After which, Ish is never heard from again throughout the rest of the game.
The piecemeal way in which Ish’s story is delivered to the player makes him feel as though he is as present as any other companion character. While you travel around the very sewers his precious community met its demise in, you can relate because you are encountering the very same dangers he faced. We get to see both a humorous and grieving side to Ish in the limited materials provided to us, humanizing him arguably more so than other characters that actually get screen time.
Doug Rattmann – Portal Series
It may feel like Chell is the only being with a heartbeat within the numerous test chambers in Portal, but in reality a second looms in the shadows watching her fervently. Doug Rattmann is a former Aperture Science employee, and was the only known survivor when GLaDOS flooded the facility with neurotoxin on bring your daughter to work day prior to the beginning of Portal. Rattmann, also called the Rat Man, is a paranoid schizophrenic who relies on medication to keep him sane, which isn’t readily available in the test chambers of Aperture Labs.
Rattmann isn’t seen in either Portal or Portal 2, however, he leaves behind various murals and paintings throughout the game in “dens and hidey-holes” of various test chambers. Like a rat, he lives in these dens and obsesses over Chell and her battle against GLaDOS. Some of his most memorable murals include one where “the cake is a lie” is scribbled continuously, referencing GLaDOS’ promise of cake when Chell finished the test chambers in Portal. Another is a drawing of Chell alongside a chart monitoring her behavior while she hyper sleeps. The rest of the murals are a combination of paintings and the scribbled notes of a madman.
Valve even released a graphic novel entitled Portal 2: Lab Rat that delved into some backstory of Rattmann. It states that after GLaDOS killed the remaining scientists, he hid and watched over Chell during the gameplay of Portal. He takes his remaining two pills he had been saving in order to think rationally as he follows Chell to the surface after her defeat of GLaDOS, and unhappily witnesses her unconscious body being dragged back into the test chambers. He feels guilty since he had put Chell to the top of the testing roster after GLaDOS released the neurotoxin, believing she could be the one to stop her. Therefore, he follows her back down into the chambers and finds her in cyro-sleep. He connects her cryo-chamber into the reserve power grid, thus saving her life since GLaDOS’ explosion destroyed the main power lines for the facility. While doing so, he is shot by a sentry bot and severely wounded.
Rattmann’s fate is unclear after the conclusion of Portal. When Portal 2 was our magazine cover in 2010, Valve said (starts 15:53) Rattmann survived GLaDOS’ destruction but Portal 2 would be taking place hundreds of years in the future and therefore he would have died before the start of the next game. However, in the 2011 Lab Rat comic it shows him climbing into a relaxation vault, making his death seem ambiguous. You can go check out that same relaxation vault in Portal 2, but you will find it empty.
Portal and Portal 2 are games that very much focus on the feeling of being alone. Therefore, when you stumble upon even a notion of another human presence it's both comforting and unsettling at the same time. Some of his murals are quite beautiful, but all are chaotic since his mind is drifting further and further away from reality. By having this madman lurk in the shadows, it spurs the player on to try and escape this place before Chell goes insane herself. Although Doug Rattmann is never seen (but you can hear him at one point) simply the notion of his presence inspires curiosity, so much so that Valve decided he had potential to star in his own graphic novel. Finding all of the Lab Rat’s dens is optional and admittedly difficult, but they give the claustrophobic test chambers of Aperture Labs just a smidgen more life.
Coming Up Next: A haunting tale from the bottom of the sea and the dark forces at the center of the Kingdom Hearts series...
Masha Lutz – BioShock/ BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea
Little Sisters were a crucial cog that kept the wheels of Rapture turning in the original BioShock. Since the ADAM producing sea slugs only accepted young girls as hosts, allowing ADAM production to increase 30 fold, suddenly the children were a lot more valuable than their childhoods. Frank Fontaine, a business and political charlatan and leader of the Rapture opposition, created the Little Sister’s Orphanage as a front so parents would give up their children that he would then biologically inject with the sea slugs to turn them into ADAM-pumping Little Sisters.
The background story of one Little Sister in particular is expanded upon in some audio diaries encountered by protagonist Jack in the Neptune’s Bounty chapter of the storyline. It was here that Fontaine first discovered the medical properties of the sea slugs, and where he set up his illegal smuggling ring disguised as a fishery.
The speaker in the audio diaries is Mariska Lutz, mother to a now Little Sister Masha Lutz. Mariska and her husband, Samuel, were a working-class couple in Rapture who had Masha taken away by Andrew Ryan’s men saying she was to be used to “save the city.” The first diary questions this action, and notes that Mariska has seen other little girls climbing around in the vents in Rapture and decides to place the audio diary just outside one in the hopes Masha would find it. Her voice is desperate and unhappy, as she asks Masha to try and meet them by giving her the four digit-code needed to enter her parent’s room.
The second audio diary can be found in said room, where you sadly discover a couple embracing in death as numerous pills lie scattered around them along with a picture of their daughter Masha. A nearby TV flickers sporadically as you listen to another audio diary read again by a distraught Mariska who states they had seen Masha transformed into a Little Sister and extracting ADAM from a corpse near Fontaine Fisheries. When she was done Mariska says she then “walked off hand in hand with one of those awful golems,” referencing a Big Daddy.
A final audio diary can be found a little while later during the Arcadia chapter. The audio was recorded prior to the previous two, and Mariska states Masha was startled by a tree because she has never seen them before, meaning Masha was most likely born in Rapture and had never travelled to the surface.
Masha Lutz then appears on-screen in the the BioShock Infinite Burial at Sea DLC. She is found by Elizabeth in Dr. Li Suchong’s Free Clinic where Suchong had been working on forming a bond between Big Daddies and Little Sisters. Masha donates her ADAM to a dying Big Daddy, saving his life and forming a bond that would later establish the relationship seen in the first BioShock game.
There are a total of seven years between the release of BioShock and the Burial at Sea expansion, and it’s impressive 2K took the time to make sure things connected back to the original game when the BioShock Infinite characters made their way to Rapture. By giving Masha a name and a backstory, it allows you to view the Little Sisters firstly as innocent little girls who were stripped of their childhood. Encountering the bodies of Masha’s grieving and suicidal parents shows the aftermath Fontaine’s idea of “bettering the city” had first-hand. The background story of Masha forces the player to question their own sense of morality. It wouldn’t be surprising if the players who took the time to listen to Masha’s parent’s audio diaries were the same who decided they did not want to harvest the Little Sisters, and opted to save them instead.
Ansem Reports – Kingdom Hearts/Kingdom Hearts II
Scattered throughout Kingdom Hearts I and II are scraps of paper that make up the Ansem Reports, and once collected they shed some light on the beasts whose hearts are consumed by shadow. Ansem, or Ansem the Wise, was the sage-King of a Kingdom Hearts location called Radiant Garden. He tried to protect his people by studying the effects of darkness upon the “heart” of a person with a series of apprentices. However, he was exiled to the Realm of Darkness when that same darkness ended up corrupting his own heart. He renamed himself DiZ (Darkness in Zero) and appears in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and in Kingdom Hearts II.
Although all the reports are numbered under the title of Ansem Reports, only the first one was actually written by Ansem. In the second of his Secret Ansem Reports found in Kingdom Hearts II, Ansem says that he was unsure of where the remaining reports came from, and then later confirms that one of his apprentices Xehanort was the author. Xehanort wrote entries 2-10, and when he was transformed into a heartless he continued and wrote entries 11-13. In Kingdom Hearts II there are also the Secret Ansem Reports, which discuss the exile of Ansem as he tries to make sense of Sora’s connection with Kairi from an outsider’s perspective.
Primarily, these reports tell of the research gone into examining the heartless, which are the physical manifestations of the darkness that reside in people’s hearts. They also explain the plot of Kingdom Hearts II in very plain language, a story which can leave some players a little lost when dealing with the concepts of nobodies, or the empty shells left behind when a strong heart with no darkness leaves its body and soul.
Knowing the lore behind your enemies can allow a player to become more engrossed in its story, and Kingdom Hearts provides this optional lore to the player through these scattered scribblings. It also provides a secondary take on the plot of the games themselves, breaking down everything in almost a scientific method of observation and evaluation. Therefore, if a player finds themselves narratively lost at any point during the game, they have these reports as a backup for reference. In this way, all the resources needed to thoroughly understand the backstory of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II are fully accessible in game if a player happens to be more interested in its overall story as opposed to its combat.
Have you encountered a great hidden story that caught your attention that didn’t make our list? Let us know in the comments below.