The Season of ‘Episodic Gaming’

I’m not into instant gratification. If you give me a cake, I’ll happily spread it over days, until it’s gone. If I instead binge on said cake, all the delicate flavours are lost and I’d feel sick. The life lesson here, to me, has always been ‘everything in moderation’.

Of course, I’m metaphorically describing episodic gaming (plus I’m hungry) and trying to explain its rising recognition as a viable piece of game design. We’re regularly being drip-fed these shorter, more contained experiences than the typical game, with vaster content available almost all at once. It’s a popular niche right now and seems to be becoming more mainstream, emulating the television serial format all of us recognise. Cinematic design was the previous industry darling plucked from the mainstream media, almost a decade back during the rise of Modern Warfare’s movie-like set pieces. Since then, it’s had a finger in every triple-A pie in some form for almost as long. Now, instead of borrowing from the silver screen, games are encroaching on the little box. Episodic gaming’s recent trend has given rise to the question of: will it spread across the whole of gaming, and can it change the way we consume video games?

One studio to use the format, Dontnod Entertainment, recently sent its first episode of Life Is Strange into the digital wild. Despite the different direction and tone, it fits into the mould of its most recognisable and predecessor in the genre, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. This game sparked a noticeable change in the industry, as Modern Warfare did with cinematography, basking in major success and wide praise that few have been able to replicate but still attempt to. It pushed the studio to the forefront of narrative driven games, with licensing deals struck with tons of recognisable brands, like the Minecraft franchise and also (unsurprisingly) have moved into the realm of television, with HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Despite the recent success, the format has been going a lot longer and began building up its popularity in Telltale’s own studio. The likes of Bone: Out from Boneville and Sam & Max Save The World set the framework for what we now recognise as a stereotypical episodic game. Usually separated into 5 or so episodes, involving an adventure, point-and-click style, where you pick up items, use them on the environment and talk to people to progress. These past examples, however, focused more on investigation and solving puzzles rather than more modern examples, such as The Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey and Tales from the Borderlands, which rely more on storytelling and making narrative choices.

It’s almost strange why developers would emulate TV trends in gaming, since the format is often seen as dated in the age of the internet, with instant access to everything. Why would we wait for new episodes? Well, because sometimes we need to be told no.

Games for decades have been rewarding players instantly for jump over a barrel, eating a ghost or shooting things. We’ve been taught for ages that we need more and we need it now. For our own good, sometimes players need to be to sit down and think about the game for moment. Serials are doing more than just delaying us. Again, things in moderation are sometimes better because we can savour them. Often the things we love the most are loved because we’ve spent time with them but, more so, without them. I binge watch stuff on Netflix and they’re rarely as memorable as the stuff that I’ve watched over the years. They start becoming a part of our lives, in a way, part of our wider culture, as you discuss them with friends, they’re on the news, advertised on a bus, people are making YouTube videos reviewing them, or Buzzfeed are writing a ‘Top 5 things in this series we never saw coming’ articles. They become more than a series to us.

The serial format has gripped audiences for ages and is a great way to package media into smaller, more enjoyable chunks. Newspapers were really the first to popularise serial stories centuries back, to keep their audience invested in buying the publication and it often worked. Sherlock Holmes had a regular series of stories in The Strand magazine for years, and he’s not done too badly. Frogware’s games based on Holmes show just how well the serial format fits into the gaming mould. For the last 13 years, this franchise has been pumping out original, novel-like games to mediocre acclaim, similar to the first Sherlock novels. It was only after the short stories that the character became popular and renowned in the Victorian era, and Frogwares’  latest release, Crime & Punishments: Sherlock Holmes, featuring 6 contained cases have had a much better reception partly because of that same effect. The faster-pace and freshness of constantly new situations and cases that Sherlock has to deal with hits a sweet spot. Sitcoms are similarly loved for their contained storylines. The Simpsons wouldn’t be as fun for a lot of people if they had to watch a whole season of it in one sitting. The Sam & Max games use episodes because they each encompass the classic sitcom style. Humorous locations, double acts, playing on stereotypes and subverting them, and of course putting the main characters in hilarious situations. Comedy is hard to write. The punchier the joke, the better, cut it up into something more manageable and memorable. That’s why the episodic format can be fantastic for so many reasons, the feeling of being able to go back and relive the experience is exciting. It’s all sorts of nostalgia, where the memories are more vivid because of it. I remember being genuinely excited each time a new episode of The Walking Dead was released. I talked about each one with friends, asking them who they saved, what would happen next and commenting on Clementine. Though they hadn’t seen the TV series or comics, it became a talking point, a reason to keep playing. That’s what developers are trying to appeal to, a social experience where they become a part of our daily habits.

Despite all this potential, there’s still a problem with how some perceive the design concept. We often presume that only adventure games work as episodes, but it’s untrue. Grand Theft Auto IV: Episodes from Liberty City was an unexpected surprise and, in many respects, were better received than the original. Episodic gaming has much more potential outside of pure adventure games than its given credit for. Fallout: New Vegas‘ DLC had separate stories hinted at a larger, more robust plot next to the main game but still kept their individuality. Whether you were breaking into a dead casino or fighting giant robot scorpions, each built up this mythical character, Ulysses, who was somehow involved in everything. Its success came about because of this seamless connection between the main game and the added DLC, and had obviously been planned during New Vegas’ development. This early planning allowed the developers to better integrate said content with the overall game, yet still keep them stand-alone experiences. In my mind, it’s one of the best examples of how to include episodic content in a game if its type.

Others have taken the TV serial more literal in their game. Alan Wake had such an approach, replicating television dramas/thrillers down to the “Previously on…” segments and frequent cliff-hangers. The main game still felt like a bog-standard affair, and the television riffs became gimmicky. It most effectively worked in the last two episodes, which were downloadable content and released in instalments. The vacancy of that content made the problems less obvious and the game more desirable to play than as a single package. This is the same failing of Asura’s Wrath, which has commonly been referred to as a ‘playable anime’. Its take on separate episodes was to emulate things like credit scenes as well, with influences from Naruto and Dragonball. It also fell down in the same places as Alan Wake. IGN’s former reviewer, Keza McDonald, explained “As an episodic download release Asura’s Wrath would be brilliant, but as a premium-priced game it can only be recommended with strong reservations.”

I find this to be true. Much of the problem is how episodic content is designed and then marketed to consumers. Though episodes are not foreign to basically any other media, when it comes to games, both consumers and developers are more wary. Making Alan Wake and Asura’s Wrath full retail releases was potentially damaging, as some of the magic that comes with slow, building tension was lost in instant gratification. It’s the danger of the boxset or Netflix. Mulling over The Walking Dead episodes as they slowly released, and became more desperate and depressing, just kept my me thinking about it.

Episodic design has a lot of potential in changing how we experience games. Levels could be sold as episodes are. Call of Duty’s campaign may one day be split up and sold like iTunes’ songs, or Assassin’s Creed’s memory fragments of the overarching story may be released every week, just like a TV show. Or we could be seeing what Resident Evil is doing right now, a series of encounters in cheaper-cost, bit-sized horror portions. The possibilities may be endless though not always popular. I can already hear the cries of controversy that have come before, like ‘paywalls’ and ‘premium content’. Regardless, I’m looking forward to the continuing adventures in Life Is Strange and hope that it’s an example of good episodic gaming.

But, everything in moderation.