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The Case Against Episodic Games


I don’t like episodic games - games that split their story over multiple sub-games, including trilogies. So many episodic games are well written, brimming with awesomeness and then… they fall flat and leave a sour taste. Episodic games seem to lead a crescendo up to the penultimate moment and then let you down with such severity it feels like Mass Effect 3 striking from beyond the retcon. So developers, do not make episodic games. I know it may be easier than doing it all at once, but hear me out. Ok, maybe that’s too much to ask, but players – don’t buy an episodic game until it’s done, alright? I’ll demonstrate that it’s just better.  I get that between episodes you can speculate, share ideas, and revel in the geeking out over a game. I know, I did it with The Walking Dead Season 1. But then I played Life is Strange in one sitting and… well. It doesn’t compare.

Creating an episodic title means that the game’s writers must compartmentalize the plot. Each episode has to fit the commonly accepted narrative structure of beginning-middle-end that we all expect. Every episode must move toward a goal, whether it’s finding a boat and escape zombies or solving a murder mystery. This means lots and lots of plot twists to keep the journey toward that goal interesting. We expect plot twists within each episode, and expect to be kept on a cliffhanger ending until the very end. Episode by episode, this means that we come to expect a pattern, and eventually the magic wears off. Don’t try telling me that in The Walking Dead Season 2 you didn’t have at least one heartfelt chat where you thought ‘well, this is nice, so you’re going to die next.’ Episode by episode we get to reflect on this formula in the time between, and eventually it just becomes a bit predictable. When you play the game in one sitting, you don’t get that time to reflect, so you don’t see the twists coming and you don’t get time to become accustomed to reused plot devices. In playing the game at once, it makes the writing more surprising – and therefore better.

Secondly, players and the little critics within us all like to judge each episode individually. The effect of this is that we think of the game as a fragmented story, often sidelining the overall plot when we judge. For instance, a lot of people thought that Episode 5 of Life is Strange was hella bad, and I can understand why. It reused a lot of stuff, its final choice was disappointing if taken on its own, and all the timey-wimey logic broke down a bit. But taken as the climax of the whole game, I didn’t feel it was bad at all. I was enthralled; the emotional build-up from Episode 4 was still fresh. I had a mission in my head and I was set on accomplishing it, wonky time logic be damned. With that emotion built up, Episode 5 threw my mind about like a ragdoll and was all the better for it. Playing Episode 5 on its own, I can fully understand why someone would go ‘what the actual monkey bollocks is happening’ as you wonder about with reality changing over and over again. But with the state Episode 4 left me in, Episode 5 had that much more of a punch to it, and so when I came to that section I hadn’t the time to notice that it made no sense, and when I did begin to question it I hadn’t the will to care.

It’s also important to consider that between episodes we have time to cool off. But a good story rarely does that. For instance, SWTOR’s Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion doesn’t give the player a moment’s rest, Chapter 1 fires off plot twists faster than I can keep track. Then Chapter 2 is almost entirely a chat between the player and the antagonist with almost nothing going on, letting the player deal with the implications of the previous chapter’s events while still moving the plot along. But if I were to play the game with a gap between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 then I’d have already adjusted to the plot twists, and Chapter 2 would just feel weak. What is, in the grand scheme of the entire story, a relaxing lull in the action, can seem like lazy writing when that’s not the case. Taken as a piece of a whole story, weak episodes make perfect sense. They allow the player some security before the next plot twist shatters it. Playing a game with weeks between episodes doesn’t allow this, and makes us think that the writers are out of ideas when in fact they are prepping us for a major upheaval – but that doesn’t stop the bitching of the masses.

And finally, they hype the endings more than they require. With episodic games there is an expectation that everything you do is building to a final climax. We expect our choices in previous episodes to impact how this turns out regardless of whether that would make narrative sense. For instance, the final choice of Life is Strange is very binary, do X or do Y, regardless of your previous choices. To many, this was an affront – 4 episodes of greatness squandered by a Mass Effect 3 style ‘pick an ending’ gimmick. On its own, that choice is a rather pathetic ending. But when playing the episodes all at once, the greater narrative is still fresh in my head, so I can see why I have to make this choice. Everything I’ve done does indeed lead to that moment, but because of the story –and all of things I learned in previous episodes -  the choice I make is a simple one (but no less gut-wrenching) not because the writers are lazy, as losing the emotional punch of previous episodes might lead us to believe, but because it makes sense (well, as far as timey-wimey logic can ever make sense). This also encourages us to view games as being about the ending rather than about the journey – something that would hands down RUIN Life is Strange and the Mass Effect trilogy.

So please, buy your episodic games at once. And play them at once. To play a game piecemeal once every couple of months makes for a worse experience. You compartmentalize the story at its expense. You will think episodes are weak when they are actually offering a chance to relax. You will overhype the ending. You will forget the games’ logic. And most importantly, the emotions will wear off. But when you allow  a game to toss you about as Life is Strange and The Walking Dead did to me, then no bad ending will ever tarnish the experience. Leave episodes separate, and a bad ending ruins the game. Play these games at once and the ending, whatever it may be, feels bitter sweet – a great conclusion to a great story. So, don't play episodic games piece by piece, it is simply better to wait. 

Thanks to Wutangclam for help editing, you rock.

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About James Internet Egoone of us since 2:56 PM on 04.21.2015

Howdy! Welcome to the little corner of the internet that a part of me calls home. Here's some stuff about me.

Occupation: Student

Hobbies: Videogames, Chess, Philosophy

Interests: Law, Philosophy, Gaming

Chores: PC maintenance, Uni prep

Current Thought: Damn you Witcher 3! Damn you Crones to hell!

Favorite Game: KotOR 2 for reasons, but Witcher 3 is now joint first, bloody marvelous game.

Current Game: The Witcher 3

I am a fan of the written word as well as the spoken variety, so you'll find me doing a lot of written stuff. Every couple of days hopefully.

Here is a nifty list of what I think is my best stuff.

Destructoid C-Blogs
How Cities: Skylines Almost Screwed Up My Exam
Why the PR Man Can Lie
On Mods and Money
How Mass Effect Made Me Like Music
Questing For Immersion
An Afternoon With the SWG Emulator
How to Buy a game in 2015
Some Upbeat Thoughts on Bioware
The Pain of Playing Old Games
Why Citybuilders Are Not ABout Building Cities
On Valve's Inability to Follow The Law
Band of Bloggers: KotOR

Some Written Word on Game Design
Ambivalence and Not Caring

Front Paged Things
Bloggers Wanted: KotOR 2

Kotaku UK
The Best Zombie Game Out There

That covers the bio, right?

Oh, right - name. I'm James, in case you couldn't guess.