Wednesday, August 26, 2015

When Should A Game Be Episodic?

Image courtesy of

Time is getting shorter for everyone. As technology progresses and entertainment becomes easier to obtain, it becomes much more difficult to portion out time for everything. So it's a natural progression for television shows, which are broken down into episodic chunks, to become more popular since they are easier to digest over small, broken out periods of time. Even games are moving in this direction. The popularity of episodic is on the rise, with talented developers like Telltale Games making engrossing stories that players can pick up over time. However, the trend is starting to move towards games that don't necessarily need this type of broken out form. So when is it right for a game to be episodic?

Defining an Episode
To answer this question, we need to get a better understanding of what an episode is, as well as some examples of episodic games. That sounds silly. Of course you know what an episode is. You're not an idiot, and neither am I, but for the sake of the argument, let's break it down. I'll be using Telltale's Walking Dead series as well as Capcom's Resident Evil Revelations 2 as examples of episodic games through out, but do not fret, for this article will be spoiler free.

Image courtesy of
An episode, according to Wikipedia, is "a coherent narrative unit within a larger dramatic work such as a film or television series." So an episode is meant to take a large dramatic work and break it down into cohesive narrative units for the consumer to take in. Simple enough. In this instance, all episodic games are adhering to the definition. So let's expand on this definition a bit by determining what makes an episode great and necessary for the larger dramatic work as a whole.

Miniature Narratives

The best episodes are put together well enough that they make sense on their own. I don't mean that all of the necessary information from previous episodes is shown to the consumer over and over again. That would be derivative. What I mean is that each episode has a narrative that drives forward the whole story while telling a small tale of it's own. When experiencing an episode, it needs to feel like it has a life of it's own that also moves the overarching story forward.

Image courtesy of
Telltale Games, for the most part, has mastered this art. The Walking Dead series is a great example of this. Each episode, in both Season 1 and Season 2, has it's own driving force for the characters. There's a small challenge that needs to be tackled, whether it's moving to a place of shelter or dealing with a new character who was introduced in the last episode. Playing any individual episode on it's own, you can experience a small story that ties into the overarching narrative of the Season, and if you so choose, leave the story there. This design makes it possible for players to jump into any episode and play it individually, without having to play those that came before it.

Revelations 2 is a little less successful at this. The overarching narrative is complex and broken down between two sets of characters with revelations (see what I did there?!) from the first episode effecting the player's understanding of what is happening in episode 2. The overarching narrative takes precedence over the idea of creating a 'mini-narrative' for each episode, requiring the player to play from the beginning. Though some would argue that the game is also not nearly as story heavy as something like Walking Dead, that is still not an excuse if you're game is telling a story in this episodic format.

Climaxing at the Right Time

Another quality of a great episode is the proper climax. The climax is supposed to be the point in which the mini-narrative of the episode combines with the overall narrative of the series, culminating in a eureka moment that not only ties everything you've learned back together, but also brings about some sort of event or situation that leaves you wanting more. Successful shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad utilize these moments very well, showcasing story altering events or strong character moments to keep the view back for more.

Image courtesy of USAToday.
The Walking Dead also does this very well. Some times the events are somber and slow to fit the hopelessness of the franchise, but often circumstances leave the player wanting to see what's coming next. You pine for the next event because you're invested in the characters and story. A good episodic climax fringes on characters and story, and not on game play, which is why The Walking Dead and other Telltale Games are successful with the episodic cliffhanger.

Revelations 2 is a perfect example of how to not create a cliffhanger. With so little narrative driving force within the game, it's hard to feel that desire for more when the game leaves you with so little to want. Most narrative parts are thrown into the beginning and the end of each episode, creating this game sandwich in which the player watches a small clip, plays the episode, and watches another small clip. There's no real character building in between, just game play. And there's nothing really wrong with that style. It works well for most major games, especially when the gameplay is satisfying, which, in Revelations 2's is not always the case. But when creating an episodic game, the whole point is to leave the player with a wanting for more, which requires a pull and a driving force. Sure there are mysteries in Revelations 2 to uncover, but because of the stilted flow of the game those mysteries are not uncovered until the very last episode, with nothing really happening in the middle.

Image courtesy of
Also, the game play does not lend itself to a strong climax. I said earlier that a good episodic climax fringes on characters and story, and for the most part that is true, but because video games are an interactive medium, it also can utilize the format to create interesting game play situation to keep the player wanting more. Changing up how combat feels, or introducing a new wrinkle into a formula the player already knows will not only keep him/her on his/her toes, but also can leave him/her with the same yearning for what's next that a narrative climax would leave. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Revelations 2, which often leaves the player with a shooting fest right before the movie that ends the episode.

Gaming's Episodic Advantage

The one thing that video games as a medium can gain from this format is the ability to reach more players. It's hard to sell a game for $60 to a player who may have never tried the franchise or genre and is uncertain about the purchase. It is far easier to sell the first part of a five part game for $7 so that the player can try it out for themselves. This is where episodic games are going to become very successful, and it's exciting to see where the possibilities can go. However, for this to work, each episode has to be a great representation of what the game is. 

This type of pricing is what makes episodic gaming so great.
Once again, this is where Telltale Games has nailed it. The Walking Dead's first episode (of either season) plays EXACTLY like the last episode of the season. There is no change in game play, so a player jumping in on any episode gets a feel for how the whole season plays as one game. Sure, it wouldn't be a sin to add some new mechanics to keep players interested. And yes, this is due to the nature of the Walking Dead and the fact that it is narrative-driven, but it's also a testament to the thought put into the game's design by the developer.

Revelations 2, on the other hand, plays very differently between Episode 1 and Episode 2. In the first episode, the game fringes completely on the survival horror vibe. Environments are crammed and often dark, which builds tension. Supplies are hard to come by and confronting enemies is challenging. It feels very much like older Resident Evil games, which is fantastic. But jump ahead to the second episode and everything changes. The environment opens up as the characters move out doors. Bullets can be found left and right as enemies come in swarms. It turns into a third person shooter, which is fine, except for the fact that it is completely different than the feel of Episode 1. The whole argument of making a game episodic to give more players a chance to taste the game and see if they like it is void if the game play and feel of the game change from episode to episode, because at that point you have to experience the whole in order to truly experience the game.

What I'm Trying to Say Is...

This article probably sounds like a rant against Revelations 2, and in a way it is, but not because I don't like the game, but rather I don't like the business practices of the company releasing it episodically without designing it to be episodic. The Walking Dead series is an excellent example of episodic games done well, where as Resident Evil Revelations 2 is not. Revelations 2 isn't a bad game, but it's not an episodic game. It's an example of a game that was broken apart in the hopes of grabbing more sales, which should be not the point of an episodic game. This is even more evident when you look at the development of the game, in which the game was finished and each chunk was released a week at a time in the hopes of showing just how episodic it is.

Developers and publishers should be embracing this format to create better, more interesting games and not as a cash grab. And we as consumers shouldn't be having any of it. This is a format just starting to grow, and with the right standards set in place, it could become one that flourishes.

No comments:

Post a Comment