Gabs Tanner investigates the nature of the episodic video game, the origins, their place in the market, and what might just be a brand new way of telling stories.
Choose-your-own-adventure books were popular in the 80s and 90s. Readers had a choice of what to do and where to go at various points in the narrative; by turning to a specified page number, you, the reader, discovered the consequences of your actions, and with each turn of the page the story pulled you in, further and further. But of course, there is not a veteran of those books alive who didn’t at least at some point keep a finger between the pages and quickly flick back when met with a fatal error; most games nowadays offer no such escape-routes.
Episodic games are essentially a combination of television serials and choose-your-own-adventure-books, a merging of concepts that has made for a uniquely involving story-telling experience. Television serials tell a story over a small number of episodes (normally around 3-5), making use of cliff-hanger endings to grab the attention of the audience. In a similar fashion, episodic games tell a single story across 2-5 episodes. While television provides us with an episode per week, there is normally a wait of months or even years for each instalment of an episodic game. The story must therefore captivate its players for a lengthy time period, or risk a loss of interest. (Valve may have pushed it a bit too far with its 8 year gap and no further news on Half Life 3).
It was Telltale Games that really brought episodic games to people’s attention. The company started by producing story-heavy ‘point & click adventures’, like Sam & Max (2006-2010), but it was the shift to engaging players with moral choices within a popular comic book and television IP that got the company noticed with The Walking Dead in 2010.
In an interview with Colum Slevin, General Manager and Head of Studio at Telltale Games, we discussed how the episodic format in their games is fundamental to the company’s storytelling style. Not only does it bring anticipation between instalments but it boosts the importance of choice. ‘The choices you make in a Telltale game have a subtle and profound impact on the narrative you experience,’ said Slevin. ‘…and you might be surprised to learn how much a player’s choices influence their experience and the quality and flavour of the outcome they see.’
Each conversational choice has both immediate and long term consequences for the characters that surround the protagonist. Players are rewarded or punished for the person they choose to be – telling the truth could earn someone’s trust or make them extra weary of you for your difficult background. The games pull at our moral compass through impactful moral dilemmas, such as an early scenario in The Walking Dead which gives the player about 5 seconds to choose between saving the life of a child or a young adult. (After I choose to save the child, and the father of the dead man questioned why I hadn’t helped his son, I, as well as my character, was silenced by the weight of the choice I had made).
With episodic games’ focus on narrative, a common pitfall could be turning them into less of a game, and more of a story that you play, more like a ‘visual novel’. I ask Colum Slevin his response to people saying that Telltale produce ‘visual novels’ rather than games he said, ‘I think I would feel flattered and I would say, “Well-spotted” and “Thank you!”’. In eliminating the puzzle options, players are able to focus on the protagonist and their world, enjoying the story in peace.
For a puzzle-orientated experience, point-and-click adventures are known for having in-depth characters and world driven stories. The player controls the protagonist and has to explore the world, interacting with items and other characters to gain details of the story and solve puzzles. A number of items can be collected and combined in order to progress, such as finding a key and using it on a locked door.
Broken Age is an episodic point-and-click adventure, released by Double Fine across two Acts (in 2014 and 2015). The game uses an interesting double character narrative, where for one half of the game you control Vella (voiced by Masasa Moyo), who has been chosen as a potential sacrifice for a monster, while the other half follows Shay (voiced by Elijah Wood), who is sick of being babied by a spaceship’s motherly computer. Broken Age forces you to think like the characters in order to know what to do next. The player must note the characters’ attitude towards situations, for example Shay being bored and wanting to escape, which will only happen if you take action for/with him. However, Broken Age struggles with a common point-and-click problem, which is that difficult puzzles can interrupt the flow of the narrative. Desperately clicking on everything can lead to frustration, while pulling the player out of the characters and their world. Yet, overcoming challenging puzzles is satisfying and rewarded by progress in the story.
It is clear that success in episodic games is produced via a balance of story and gameplay. Life is Strange (2015) is by independent company Dontnod entertainment (and produced by Square Enix). The story follows Max who, after watching someone get shot, finds that she can turn back time and change the past. This device places an interesting weight on each player decision, as you can change your choice – turn back the page – and get the immediate reactions of people, but there is no telling how it will affect things in the long run. The player has control of the protagonist’s movement for the majority of the time, and is rewarded for exploring the environment and talking to as many people as possible. This is interspersed by story cut-scenes and puzzles, where the player must experiment with time to change things that happened and progress in the gameplay – for example breaking the handle on a bucket of paint so it will fall on someone’s head. Life is Strange successfully uses the episodic format by giving the players choices that won’t have proper outcomes until later episodes, combined with intriguing cliff-hangers and an interesting story.
While the majority of episodic games use point-and-click adventures and the notion of the ‘visual novel’ as their foundation, there are companies attempting to change this. There is, after all, no reason why any style of game can’t work in an episodic format, so long as the story is engaging. This year Capcom released their third-person survival horror Resident Evil: Revelations 2, in 5 parts over a course of 5 weeks. Each episode is split into two parts where the player first controls Claire and Moira trying to escape and survive on an island, then plays as Barry 6 months later, who is trying to find them. There is a certain amount of intrigue throughout in the story but, unfortunately, the characters are just little too one dimensional to ever truly care about them. The game follows a traditional shooter formula, where progress through the levels is deterred by monsters, which must be shot, and small puzzles, such as finding the key to a door, or powering a generator.
The main problem with Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is that although the game, being already split up into chapters, works well in the episodic style, the story is not the main focus, and thus it is hard to justify it being an episodic game. This thought was confirmed when reading a recent Gamespot article (‘Capcom’s Philosophy Behind Resident Evil: Revelations 2 – “Wait, don’t shoot!’’’) and interview with producer Michiteru Okabe. Okabe admits that because the Resident Evil games already fitted with this relatively new way of producing games, Capcom wanted to see how well it would do in the market. In other words, the episodic format was a marketing test, and while this has not affected the game for Resident Evil fans, it is obvious that the episodic format has not been used for the right reasons.
A huge factor in episodic games is the community that surrounds them. As the episodes are being released there is always in-depth discussion about what might happen next in the series. There is therefore a lot of pressure for developers to match these expectations, yet still surprise players after such an extended wait between releases. In the Gamespot article, Michiteru Okabe mentioned how ‘One thing we want to do is try to foster communication between players who’re enjoying the game, see them exchanging ideas about how they felt about this week’s episode and what they think will happen next time.’ The choice to release an episodic game over the course of 5 weeks was done to keep the communication level high over that period of time, and thus reach more people, but sacrifice possibilities to listen to the community and make changes to the gameplay or story. When asking Colum Slevin about this process in regards to Telltale he responded, ‘We tell the story we set out to tell, but we certainly have our ear to the ground as far as what our players and fans are experiencing.’ It is important that developers keep their own vision while listening to fans and balance this with the timing of the release date.
As episodic games are starting to get more attention, it is only natural that more developers will begin producing content in this format. While some companies, AAA and independent alike, will see this structure as something new that will help them get noticed, this may result in a lack of story focus. However, companies like Dontnod explore the possibilities of the format, proving that there is still a lot of space to evolve the structure. When talking to Colum Slevin about the future of the episodic game market he mentioned how the gaming community needs as much variety as possible in order to provide players with the ideal consumer experience for them personally. ‘There is room for all scales and types of experiences in the market. More great stuff in whatever format means the users win, which is an ideal outcome. People are busier than ever and more inundated with content than ever, but quality rises to the top and episodic stories are a familiar and beloved storytelling medium that has tremendous application in the modern setting.’
There is an assumption that games require puzzles and intense combat sequences to be successful, which results in stifling the story. Episodic games bring a higher engagement with characters and the world through its focus on narrative and choice that makes us think about who we are as individuals. The episodic nature means that the chapter could end at any moment, upping the tension while players are left wanting more. Ultimately, the episodic format can be used in a lot of different ways and I look forward to seeing how companies find new ways to pull players into their worlds and stories.