I’ve been playing games for 24 years. I started playing platform games as a child, slowly transitioning to harder games like Mega Man and Shinobi as I grew older. After that, I widened my gaming portfolio to playing shooters (Goldeneye, Perfect Dark), racing games (Mario Kart, Burnout), RPGs (Xenogears, Final Fantasy X), adventure games (The Legend of Zelda), and the classic horror titles (Resident Evil, Eternal Darkness).
Needless to say, I like nearly all genres of games. When Telltale Games released The Walking Dead, that was my first experience with an adventure game released episodically. Up until that point, I had never experienced anything like that before. The Walking Dead was a game that actually played differently according to the decisions that I made. Sometimes I would get the outcome I wanted, but other moments would result in tragic events that devastated me. No game had ever made me feel such a genuine sense of responsibility for my actions.
There have been games that feature a light and dark meter, or a karma system that would affect relationships and possibly the ending, but Telltale Games made every choice carry a burden, and often a heavy one. After that game, I became hooked on the format.
The Wolf Among Us masterfully brought players into a noir filled world full of intrigue, deception, action, mystery and shocking moments. Telltale Games has become the go-to developer for memorable episodic experiences.
Fun… One Episode At A Time
While most games that adopt this format usually seem to feature point and click gameplay with decision based mechanics, there have been some recent deviations regarding the formula. The brilliant Life is Strange utilizes a rewind feature that allows players to explore other options during moments that contain important decisions. At first glance, that gameplay mechanic feels like it cheats the experience, but in fact, rewinding time actually adds to the tension. Your immediate outcome may be more pleasing, but the long term effects can be detrimental in terms of your narrative. I’ve spent countless times debating my decisions and regretting them instantly.
Episodic games are entertaining, but one of the cool things about this type of game is that there really isn’t that much of a commitment needed to fully enjoy the experience. Compared to longer games like The Witcher 3 or most full retail releases that will last for hours on end, episodic games are short, sweet and rewarding play sessions. Each episode in a game that adopts this format will only take 90-120 minutes. Most episodes don’t contain filler, but instead are really engaging. Having an episode end on a cliffhanger emulates the feeling of watching your favorite show.
When a show ends with a bang, viewers eagerly await the next episode to see what will happen. This allows people to talk about what they saw and speculate on what will happen next. Episodic games do the same thing. There is usually a two month gap between each episode and that leaves the player wanting more.
Games like The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange usually end on such a cliffhanger that requires a game altering decision. I have spent hours discussing the ends of episode with friends and I suspect that this is what the creators planned from the beginning of development. Since there is a bi-monthly development cycle between episodes, we need a reason to keep us wanting the follow up episode.
The Full Priced Episodic Experience
Full retail games are starting to adopt the episodic approach in a way that is very appealing to me. The PlayStation 4 game Until Dawn is split into 10 chapters. When a new chapter begins, the game shows a “previously on Until Dawn” cutscene to recap the player on previous events. It feels very much like a TV show and it helps to allow players to take breaks when needed. Alan Wake also used this method to separate chapters which was a nice approach especially since the feel of the game emulated the show Twin Peaks.
One of the most recent retail games that provided gamers with an episodic like feel was Metal Gear Solid V. Each main mission of the game has opening credits which introduces the characters that are partaking in a particular mission. The writing staff, directors and producers are also shown. When a mission is completed, there are closing credits that come across the screen. Many games take a player from one mission to the next without a break, but with Metal Gear Solid V, players who don’t have that much time can finish a mission and take a break.
One upcoming game that actually weaves the episodic format into the narrative of the game is Quantum Break. There will be live action videos that bridge the gap between gameplay and cutscenes. By skipping these live action scenes, much of the story is missed in Quantum Break. Remedy is setting up a very cinematic world that plays very much like a TV show. With their cinematic experience, comes the opportunity to not over indulge in a game. One of my problems with huge RPGS is that I lose track of time. With the episodic format, players can rationalize their time.
Episodic games bring a unique style of storytelling to video games. What once started as a genre fitted for the digital format is starting to expand to the full priced retail games in terms of presentation. While not as visually stunning as a AAA game, episodic titles do have a unique and appealing feel to them. What sets these games apart from others are the choices, but also they way that they transition into the next episode. It’s also nice that episodic games are user friendly for players on a time limit. While games like Metal Gear Solid V, Alan Wake and Until Dawn don’t have the same effect as an episodic game in terms of making players wait (while shocked) for the next episode, these games are utilizing this format in interesting ways. When Quantum Break releases next year, the game will be the first title on consoles that will blend TV episodes and gameplay. While not truly episodic, it’s a step in the right direction. Episodic games are popular, but there is a whole new audience that can be reached thanks to these well known and favored games.