The devil's in the detours
Fun fact: the first Halo novel was published in 2001, and now you feel old. Supplementary material for games has been around for decades, but these days the medium is inundated with it. Now you can expect annualized novel releases to go along with every Assassin's Creed, and it's a surprise that Call of Duty DLC maps dont get their own comic books. Still, for the benefit of those uninterested in reading stuff, most of these tie-ins are fairly easy to ignore. In the end, anything they say can be easily picked up from the games they're based on.
... Weeeell sometimes. See, the more popular a franchise becomes, the more stock it tends to put into its side-offerings, hiding morsels of important, fresh info in those supposedly optional pages. So if you focus just on the games in such a series? You are going to be very, very confused. I'm here to help though, with this list of games with critical information hidden in tie-in material. Read up before you get too far behind.
Haytham became a Templar after his father's murder (Assassin's Creed: Forsaken)
Haytham is the black sheep of the Kenway family. A Templar caught between Edward and Connor, his Assassin father and son, he is undoubtedly the biggest killjoy at Assassin Christmas parties. This raises the question of how and why Haytham jumped ship, which is never answered in either Assassins Creed III or IV. That seems like a glaring oversight... until you read Assassin's Creed: Forsaken, where you find out that Haytham became a Templar following his father's brutal murder.
Taking place 13 years after the end of ACIV, Forsaken covers Haytham's life story from birth to death-by-spoiler. Turns out that on the eve of his tenth birthday, Templars stormed the Kenway home, murdered his father, kidnapped his sister, and blamed the Assassins for the whole thing. The leader of the Templars then takes Haytham under his wing, and by the time Haytham learns the truth in his 30's, hes too far down the rabbit hole to go back. Man, knowing that makes him seem a lot more sympathetic... which would have been good to know while playing the game but whatever.
The events of Halo happen because Cortana and Master Chief met (Halo: The Fall of Reach)
The combination of a virtually fathomless brain paired with indestructible brawn, Cortana and Master Chiefs partnership is critical to the Halo series from the start. The galaxy, not to mention the universe, owes a lot to those two, as it would have been obliterated more than a few times by now if they'd never paired up. In fact, according to the tie-in novel Halo: The Fall of Reach, the events of the Halo series (and the resulting non-destruction of the universe) only happen because these two met.
Covering both Master Chief (sorry, John-117) and Cortana's origin stories, Fall of Reach explains that Cortana is a flash-cloned copy of a prominent scientist, and Chief is the once-child-soldier she chooses to team up with. Nearly separated during a Covenant strike on the human settlement of Reach, they're able to escape due to Cortana's craftiness and Chief's pure gumption. Taking coordinates recovered by Chief on one of his missions, Cortana plugs the values into their ship and directs it to... Halo, thus kicking off the entirety of the series. Of course, that's the simplified version. You could fill a whole book covering everything that hapoh. Right.
Portal wouldn't have happened without Doug Rattmann (Portal: LAB RAT)
In case you ever wondered who you can thank and/or blame for "The cake is a lie!" look no further than Dr. Doug Rattmann. Not that you'd know who that is if you only played Portal, the game from which he originates, as it simply shows the creepy dens where his graffiti is scribbled. You only learn his true identity from the Portal comic book, LAB RAT, where you find out he's the only reason Chell gets to go toe-to-terabyte with GLaDOS at all.
Rattmann, one of the only Aperture scientists to survive GLaDOS' assault on the facility, is an unmedicated schizophrenic who carries on conversations with a companion cube (which... sounds familiar). But don't let his madness fool you. He's the one who broke into Aperture's data bank and moved Chell to the top of the test subject queue so that she could defeat GLaDOS. Plus, he also gets her cryo-bed running so she can survive the unknown amount of time that passes between Portal and Portal 2. So thank him for that, too. He's the reason the broken day counter is funny and not deeply tragic.
Final Fantasy VII's Advent Children is coherent (Final Fantasy VII: On the Way to a Smile)
Well here's an interesting one: tie-in material for the tie-in material! That's the most apt way to describe Final Fantasy VII's On the Way to a Smile. A short-story collection, it details the events that take place immediately prior to Advent Children, and does its best to plug the movie's many gushing plot holes.
The collection contains seven stories in total, each focusing on a different character who appears in Advent Children. Together they answer burning questions like where Denzel came from (orphaned by the Sector 7 plate collapse, rescued by Cloud), why Cloud went back to being mopey (survivors guilt), how Rufus is alive (convenient office escape hatch--yes really), what Kadaj and company even are (clones; its always clones), and where the hell the rest of the crew went (tl;dr soul-searching). The final story, Case of the Lifestream, is itself divided into two parts that focus on what the hell is going on with Sephiroth and Aerith respectively, making it an invaluable resource for VII fans. Only the Case of Barrett was officially translated to English though, so you'd best start digging up fan translations if you ever want to understand that movie.
Orc Warchief Thrall is a rags-to-riches story (Warcraft Legends)
Warcraft doesn't sneak info into its tie-in material--it crams in as much as will fit and struggles to get the zipper closed. Much of the Crafts lore is covered exclusively in its 21 novels, six manga series, 11 comic books, and plethora of other side projects, only to be introduced into the games with little explanation. One of the best examples is Thrall, Warchief of the Orcs, who the games don't tell you started life as an orphan in a human internment camp.
According to the Warcraft Legends manga series, Thrall is rescued from beside the dead bodies of his parents as an infant and raised a warrior in a human prison camp. During his time there he develops human-like intelligence, which makes him both way smarter than the average Orc and desperate for freedom. Breaking out of his cage, he flees to the nearby mountains where he comes in contact with his own people, becomes a mighty shaman (wait...), redeems the Orcs in the eyes of the spirits (but...), succeeds Orgrim Doomhammer as Warchief (wait who...), and liberates his people from human enslavement. Yeah, and that's the simple version. Face the books yourself if you dare.
Shepard is alive because of Liara (Mass Effect: Redemption)
It's safe to say that the beginning of Mass Effect 2 is a bit... vague. Following an attack that wrecks the Normandy and blasts Shepard into the vacuum of space, s/he wakes up two years later in the middle of a lockdown with zero clue how s/he survived. There's a vague explanation involving Cerberus and the Lazarus Project, and a nod in Liara's direction, but not much besides. It's only through the Mass Effect: Redemption comic that it becomes clear how deeply Liara was involved.
Beginning a month after the Normandy's destruction, Redemption follows Liara's journey as she searches for Shepard's body. In the process she meets Feron, who becomes her partner in crime, and Miranda, with whom she makes a shaky pact to get Cerberus' support. So begins a dramatic journey as Liara struggles against the influence of the Shadow Broker and upsets the plans of the Reapers, ending with Shepard being left in the care of Cerberus' scientists for resurrection. And s/he won't remember a damn thing. Poor Liara, so underappreciated.
Ridley eats people to regenerate (Metroid manga)
There's enemies who won't die, there's enemies that just won't ****ing die goddamJFDL;AFDS, and then there's Ridley. Samus' forever foe, he has a nasty habit of coming back from violently explosive deaths. Plus, no amount of destruction can seem to get rid of him. While sometimes his immortality is helped along by robotic enhancements or cloning, neither of those is the true secret to his regeneration. That only comes up in the 2002 Metroid manga series, which establishes that his secret to youthful perfection is eating people.
Focusing on Samus' origin story, the manga series ruminates in particular on her rivalry with Ridley, as well as the pterodactyl pirate himself. At one point, having cornered Samus, Ridley goes into gory detail about how he was able to survive the damage he sustained on her home planet, saying he ate the bodies of the dead to reclaim biomass and heal himself. Given that he manages to mysteriously heal on various occasions, we can only assume that his primary means of escaping death is this continued consumption of homemade Soylent Green.
Team Fortress 2 has an extensive storyline and character development (All Team Fortress side material)
At first glance, you might think Team Fortress 2 is about shooting things and wearing hats. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It's about a grudge between brothers, nefarious organizations, robot armies, and shooting things and wearing hats. And if you want to learn about any of that (except the shooting and the hats--have we covered that part?), you'll have to look to the game's side material.
While more than one extended universe on this list could be called "extensive" (Warcraft and Mass Effect can fight over that crown), Team Fortress 2 is unique in that the game has no story at all, and every smidgen of plot comes from its supplementary works. With each comic or video Valve puts out to promote a new cranium-based adornment, more of the mercenaries' personalities are revealed, and additional threads are added to the oddly intriguing plot. It's all so twisty and turn-y that it's nearly impossible to summarize in a slide. Thankfully, you can get it all for free right here. You're welcome.
If you were a REAL fan, you'd know
While we can pinpoint critical tie-in exclusives 'til the Last Guardian novelization comes out, these are some of the biggest ones out there to help get you started. Planning on picking any of these up? Seen any yourself and up to assessing their quality? Or are you in the camp that says all tie-in-exclusive info should die in an all-inclusive blaze? Tell us in the comments below.
The trove of tie-ins is always ripe for plundering. Check out theTop 7 Best movie games you probably never played, or weep bitter tears over 12 cancelled movie tie-ins that could have been awesome and All Star Wars games are no longer canon uh oh.