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A Wild Sheep Chase

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"Previously on (insert episodic game here)..."


Way back in the early 00’s, developers became enamoured with the idea of episodic content. It was a dream everybody could believe in. Well, believe in more than, say, the VR storage system in the Michael Douglas/Demi Moore turkey, Disclosure.

Skip forward to the 10’s, and the dream has become something of a struggle. It’s still alive, but entangled in a conundrum. Its realisation is a stylistic approach, at best.

By now, we’re aware that videogames aim for a visual acceptance through the cinematic portrayal of events, but structurally, they share more in common with long form television shows. Alan Wake has become the poster boy of episodic gaming, with its “TV box set” style. Yet, it’s certainly not the first. As we’ll see, it’s just one example in how television has been increasingly influential, even so far as overtaking cinema, in that area of storytelling.

Whilst developers set their sights on the big screen, strong narrative titles do tend to suffer from a “dead air” syndrome. The length of game, and its need to constantly engage, far surpasses the run time of your average cinematic experience. It cuts off when the player has decided to have enough, rather than when an act, or a break, dictates such actions.

Episodic gaming is a strange beast that, once employed correctly, delivers an intensity that wouldn’t normally be there. A perfect example was having to wait mere weeks for the resolution to Alan Wake’s predicament in The Signal.

Telltale Games have done a decent job with its monthly narratives. Sam & Max: Season One is a far cry from The Devil’s Playhouse, where the later disposed of the tenuously connected mini-adventure format, in favour for the ebb and flow dynamics of one larger arc, peppered with cliff-hangers and call-backs.

The reason why The Devil’s Playhouse works so well, in that regard, is because Telltale Games plan entire seasons, in advance. They dedicate themselves to reworking minor issues, rather than total reinvention; all confined by a monthly deadline.

It’s a balance of feedback and self-imposed restriction; a working approach that was mishandled by the original champions of episodic gaming, Valve.

Seeing the Half Life 2: Episode trilogy as a scheduled series, like The Blair Witch Project before it, probably would have made a huge impact on our gaming habits. Instead, it shook faith in what episodic gaming could achieve.

Episodes wasn’t to be because Valve had approached each instalment as separate entities, influenced by their improvements to the Source Engine. They failed to think like real show-runners; people who have entire seasons planned out before production. Valve gave up on the idea, and reminded us that to emulate outside media, you have to treat your own in a similar fashion.

Luckily for Valve, they’re the popular choice; an ideas factory that gets by on constant innovations. The same can’t be said for Ritual Entertainment’s SiN: Episodes, though.

SiN never had the popularity of Half Life, and to buy into a similar episodic fashion was a risky business. It bombed; not enough people were interested in seeing the vision through to the end. Maybe, David Cage realised such risks, after consolidating his episodic vision for Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy into an interactive movie.

It’s hard to test the waters if nobody is willing to take the plunge, but there’s nothing that says developers/publishers can’t treat the selection process like television executives, either. Going back to Telltale’s successes, it was fascinating to see them set up a “pilot season”; the end result being the deliciously surreal Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent.

Obviously, the digital domain is the right way to go, and faith on both sides can get a product a long way.

Sony bungled it with Siren: Blood Curse. It had the suitable narrative, but it was never immensely popular. It didn’t help that Sony released the entire game as a hard copy within months; defeating the entire point, and losing face in the process.

BioWare had hopes for building small bridges between larger titles. Yet, they never ran with it after Mass Effect: Bring Down The Sky. Accessibility was probably the major factor; a sequel had to involve everyone, including those who didn’t buy the DLC.

Money does eventually play a big part in how seasons and episodes are formed. After the initial sales figures, Remedy were reluctant to refer to each Alan Wake game as a “season”, but they’re still more than happy to use the medium for their storytelling gains; as we’ve seen with American Nightmare. As it should be, episodic gaming is not solely about buying instalments, but how we assimilate that structure, be it one game or a series.

Episodic gaming works, and not just for the television tie-ins of 24: The Game, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary/Judgement Rites, The X-Files, and Lost: Via Domus.

Deadly Premonition’s narrative plays heavily on shocking conclusions, recaps and “Previously...” montages. Despite being a bad game, Alone in the Dark 5 circumvented its problems with DVD menus. L.A. Noire’s cop drama was akin to Dragnet, or to some, a mini-movie marathon.

It doesn’t even have to end in specific genres, such as survival horror or adventures.

Resonance of Fate is an underrated tactical JRPG that deserved a little more recognition on release. It shares more in common with Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and Outlaw Star than it ever does with its RPG peers; focusing on characters and relationships in a tightly directed fashion. It shouldn’t work, but it does, railing against the predictable conventions of the epic quest.

There was a time when television played fast and dirty; still does for the majority. Recently, shows become more sophisticated, with an understanding that viewers wanting to invest in more than one-shot tales. It’s now working towards its potential, increasing its advantages over Hollywood.

Video games have taken television’s old mantle. The industry finds itself filling a hole, hungry to prove itself, before it implodes.

Whilst, it’s not a case of following in exact footsteps, or having an all-encompassing outlook for every title (that would be strange), if it strives to understand the beauty of the small screen, and not be strangled by money, then video games might just have a better chance against the critics of narrative, and create better immersions in the process.

And who wouldn’t want to be on the edge of their seat, week in, week out, when that debate gears up?
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About Stephen Turnerone of us since 6:10 AM on 07.15.2009

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