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Let’s Get Serial: Episodic Video Games

/ Apr 28th, 2015 1 Comment

Life is Strange Episode One: Chrysalis (PS4) Review

Various videogames over the last few decades have favored a serialized format to deliver content. However, it is only recently that the practice has become more wide spread. Instead of smaller, independent developers utilizing the episodic format, larger publishers have dipped their toes into the serialized waters.

With an obvious growing interest in episodic content, there are a few questions to ask. Does interest from bigger companies signal an inevitable abuse of the format? What advantages does an episodic format confer onto videogames? Can all game genres adapt a compartmentalized model?

Television vs. Film

It’s no secret television is in a golden age, a renaissance if you will. Television is rapidly becoming the medium to tell longer intricate, complex narratives. The quality of current TV shows can rival most movies, and that quality isn’t simply isolated to HBO, as it previously had been. Outside of outlandish, over-the-top spectacles like Furious 7 or the rare masterful artistic expression like Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), it is hard to justify spending two to three hours of your life in a theater when you can binge watch something on Netflix or Hulu.

The episodic format and the sheer volume of choices make watching TV shows a more accessible option. Looking at the narrative advantage television’s serialized nature confers, it isn’t hard to see how that extends to videogames.

Forward to Adventure!

If any developer has proven the viability and potential for success in episodic games, it is Telltale Games. Telltale Games has made episodic video games over the last decade, creating adventure games based on licensed properties. But it wasn’t until Telltale released The Walking Dead: Season One in 2012 that both the developer and the episodic format gained momentum.

The Walking Dead’s serial approach made each episode extremely uncomfortable and harrowing, while players’ choices had consequences on the narrative. The cliffhanger endings made players crave the next episode to see what happened to Lee, Clem and the other survivors. If the game was a singular experience, the same effect wouldn’t be achieved. The wait between episodes added drama and tension to the narrative that would be diffused by a singular campaign.

The Walking Dead: Season One

You can just feel your heart in your throat.

It is the popularity and success of The Walking Dead that made others put their trust in Telltale Games. Since The Walking Dead: Season One, Telltale has released popular episodic adventure games based on other high profile licenses, including Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones. The episodic approach has allowed the developer to craft compelling game experiences that focus on player choice, clever action-adventure gameplay, smart dialogue, excellent characterization and complex narratives.

The success of Telltale’s recent episodic games and its season pass model for selling games hasn’t been unnoticed. While the episodic format isn’t exploding, there have a number of recent games that have took the approach. It is one thing for smaller, independent developers to make a certain type of game, but when the bigger publishers and developers start aping the idea, then it becomes a thing.

Life is Strange

Dramatic confrontations.

Recently, Square Enix entered into the episodic adventure market with Life is Strange, from developer Dontnod Entertainment. Despite its rough edges, the game has proven to resonate with fans due to its similarities to Gone Home. The episodic format allows the game to tell a compelling tale with its unique time-based mechanic. But what really proves a serialized approach has its place among triple-A titles is Resident Evil: Revelations 2.

Capcom’s episodic survival-horror game demonstrates the versatility the approach has. Revelations 2 is easily one of the best Resident Evil games in years. It is the episodic nature of the game that pushes it over the edge. The narrative is well written as a whole, with the two different time periods blending together for a more complex story.

Resident Evil Revelations 2

Some intense stuff is about to happen here.

Each episode is also compelling on its own. Moments in each story are memorable, and the characterization of Moira and Barry’s relationship builds throughout the episodes. Revelations 2’s survival-horror gameplay also benefits greatly from an episodic approach because it forces each episode to have concentrated moments of actual terror and tension. It is the most successful blend of action and survival-horror the series has experienced since Resident Evil 4. Revitalizing the Resident Evil series may be the best endorsement to serialized games thus far.

With bigger publishers testing the episodic waters, there are obvious things to be concerned about.

Complications and Contradictions

Naturally, if the big boys start sniffing around, the main concern is gouging players. The season pass model for episodic games has worked out well so far. Even though the wait between episodes is protracted, the season pass price tag isn’t too worrisome. If bigger publishers begin charging higher prices for a season pass, it will obviously go against what makes the format work. Since you are paying for future content up front, you shouldn’t have to pay a premium for a portion of a game with a promise of future content. If players’ wallets aren’t abused, there are a huge number of benefits for games using an episodic format.

Bayonetta 2

Waiting months to continue playing an action game would be no fun.

Obviously, not all genres are created equal. Resident Evil: Revelations 2 proved the approach can work for more than just adventure games. Yet some games just aren’t suited for the format, regardless of its perks. A first-person shooter wouldn’t work in episodic bursts, just like open-world games would be awful if they were segmented into portions. Action games utilize chapters, but waiting for episodes to release over time would be interminable. While certain genres wouldn’t work with the format, approaching them with the same eye for episodic games would help create smarter narratives and end gameplay lulls.

Loose Ends

While the format isn’t right for every type of game, episodic content offers huge benefits to the genres receptive to it. In terms of storytelling, an episodic approach allows for better narratives and smarter pacing and writing without all the filler of a continuous story. When the focus is on making each part compelling on its own, it will help make a stronger overarching story. Gameplay becomes more digestible without getting lost in a bloated run time, and specific moments become more memorable. The overall mechanics are distilled down into a concise, succinct expression.

The major issue with episodic games is the long wait between episodes, which can kill momentum and interest. Additionally, it is difficult to maintain quality throughout many individual episodes while still trying to make the parts add up to one whole. Despite those issues, the reward for episodic content in terms of storytelling and gameplay are hard to ignore.


Kalvin Martinez

Kalvin Martinez

Senior Editor at Gaming Illustrated
Kalvin Martinez studied Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He writes reviews, prose and filthy limericks. While he is Orange County born, he now resides in Portland, OR. He is still wondering what it would be like to work at a real police department. Follow Kalvin on Twitter @freepartysubs
Kalvin Martinez

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One response to “Let’s Get Serial: Episodic Video Games”

  1. Monkey Zoo says:

    I think you’ve got this totally wrong. People do not like the episodic approach taken by TV, which is why people are now doing full season binges getting through whole seasons over a day or two.

    Episodic games content is purely for the studios. It’s not about what gamers want. It’s about studios not having to invest the full upfront cost of developing a complete title. The episodic game format also ends up costing you more, as a consumer.

    There is way too much “this is what people like”. That’s BS. It’s being told what we like, and having to smile and be grateful.

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