[The Spoony Bard is a new biweekly GameSetWatch column by writer James Bishop that probes the depths of the characters, dialogue and writing in video games. This week, it explores the problems of narrative downloadable content and what makes Minerva's Den succeed.]

Narrative downloadable content is something of a sticky wicket. It can be difficult to present an entire story in the format without leaving intentionally unresolved threads in the retail version of a given game. When presented that way, it’s not truly exploring a new story but merely resolving the beginnings of one from elsewhere which just feels like cheating.

To do it proper, the developer has to go into the project looking to craft an experience that exists within the realm of the game, adds to it in a non-game-breaking manner and manages to tell a compelling story while still remaining short enough—and within budget—to be considered DLC.

Many have come close to this elusive mark. The Behind Her Blue Flame DLC for Valkyria Chronicles is one example, though the dialogue is often horrendous. Regardless of whether that is acceptable and intended for the game, it can ruin any immersive feelings rather quickly. The Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC for Mass Effect 2 also comes close but stems from a thread left blowing in the wind in the retail game.

Which is why the newest add-on for BioShock 2, Minerva’s Den, comes as a breath of fresh air.

How Minerva's Den Gets It Right

Minerva’s Den functions more like a downloadable game than a piece of downloadable content. The only difference here is that you just so happen to need BioShock 2 to play it.

There are little nooks and crannies to explore, plasmids to upgrade and Little Sisters to harvest around every corner. This is not just some chunk of content hurled at the unsuspecting gamer looking for new weapons and powers; it’s a sophisticated masterpiece.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t new weapons and powers to fiddle around with either. The ion laser, Gravity Well plasmid and some new enemies all make their entrance during the add-on’s three levels. Charging money for what amounts to redistributed level designs has always felt a bit like a rip-off but there’s no hint here that anyone designing it was ever looking to simply fill their wallet.

If that were the case, it would have been easy enough to continue pumping out hastily modified assets for the multiplayer game. Up ‘til this point that’s exactly what they have done. Instead, Minerva’s Den introduces multiple new characters, including the power balances and relationships between them, ties in the atmosphere and purpose of Rapture and concludes in a most satisfying way all within a couple hours.

That is to say, the entire add-on might take a dedicated gamer four or five hours if they’re truly exploring things and feeling out the world they inhabit. Those who are willing to dig around and root out the little tidbits posted around the Den will be very pleased. The details that make Rapture, well, Rapture have not been forgotten.

That’s why BioShock 2’s newest add-on finally gets narrative downloadable content right. It isn’t trying to expand on BioShock 2, per se, since you play in an entirely new area of Rapture as Subject Sigma—versus playing as Jack in BioShock and Subject Delta in BioShock 2—and explore the world you’re confined to. Minerva’s Den expands the lore of the realm while also providing a complete, albeit encapsulated, story.

There is a well-defined exposition, climax and resolution. The fact that it is has three levels and all three major sections of dramatic structure should come as no surprise. The exact position of the climax can be argued, of course, but it works surprisingly well for the size and scope of the content.

The Problems With Narrative DLC

Downloadable content that has made an attempt at plot, story or narrative of any sort in the past have often been released as a confused, muddled and unsatisfying mess. This goes for both content released as an addition to the campaign mode and modules that exist outside of the regular single-player mode. Justifying the existence of narrative add-ons at all has become difficult due to this reason.

It also doesn’t help that many a developer has started planning for downloadable content long before their games release. In fact, the industry seems to be moving toward making larger AAA games into a service platform rather than a standalone affair. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing but this kind of planning can lead to excluding content that should otherwise be present in the retail version for much later.

As an example of exactly this, the Return to Ostagar DLC for Dragon Age: Origins isn’t much of a worthwhile adventure because it’s the conclusion to an introduction and climax from the retail game. Well, the adventure itself is worthwhile, if only to see the finality of it all, but the fact that the conclusion seems to have been purposefully excised from the vanilla game is another matter.

The player is at Ostagar, loses an epic battle that includes the death of some major non-player characters and ultimately ignores the site unless they purchase the content. The battle is left unresolved for anyone who decides to not pay for it. There’s not even an ambiguous resolution for those unfortunate souls. Ostagar simply doesn’t exist for them past a certain point in the game. Hiding this behind the barrier of payment is almost criminal as it’s where the story should have gone naturally.

This isn’t the only stumbling block that Dragon Age has hit with their DLC releases. Darkspawn Chronicles follows an alternate set of history from the viewpoint of—you guessed it—the darkspawn while Leliana’s Song is told as a framed narrative, in a way, from Leliana herself. Both have their own problems and are enjoyable enough. They just don’t contain a full plot in the same way as Minerva’s Den.

Minerva’s Den manages to gracefully avoid these pitfalls by offering a complete experience with a proverbial bow on top. If there is one qualm to be had, it’s that the pacing can seem a bit heavy-handed. Considering they’ve managed to fit an entire game into a few hours without shoehorning it, the pacing is more than forgivable. Especially since, from the telegram from Alan Turing to the named labels on the jarred slugs, every detail feels right.

From prologue to epilogue, the den and its inhabitants are like an encore of everything you ever loved about BioShock. Minerva’s Den is the short story to BioShock’s novel. With a nod at Atlas and a wink for Andrew Ryan, and maybe just a little Sander Cohen, this is possibly the most justified and well-made piece of narrative DLC to date.

[James Bishop is a freelance writer for various outlets, holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Indiana University Southeast and is not fond of the Oxford comma. He can be reached at jamesrollinbishop at gmail dot com.]