Episodic content in video games is nothing new. A scant seven years after the release of Pong in 1972 and Automated Simulation’s Dunjonquest series kicked off on the TRS-80 with Temple of Apshai. The definition of the concept, however, has changed in recent times. There was often a year or more separating episodes back then, likening the series more to a franchise of discrete entries rather than a series of quick, connected vignettes.
In its earliest incarnation, episodes were basically expansion packs. They were much shorter little epilogues to a longer, grander story. This is most clear in the add-on of scenarios for Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu that was simply called Xanadu Scenario II. It was simply a chunk of extra things to do, an idea further explored by the series with Sorcerian a year later.
Expansions, however, have come under fire for flying under the episodic banner. Then-vice president of content for GameTap Ricardo Sanchez laid out his Three Laws of Episodics in a D.I.C.E. Summit talk, three rules that would discredit expansion packs and so-called episodics like the Half-Life 2 episodes and Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
- Each episode stands alone but is part of a larger whole.
- Each episode has a relatively short duration of play.
- Episodes are delivered on a regular schedule over a defined, and relatively brief, period of time that makes up a season.
Combined, those concepts seem a bit familiar. In fact, they are what make up the basic building blocks of seasonal television programming, which is handy because that’s what episodic video games have come to resemble. Even the failed alternate reality game Majestic caught on to the seasonal and regular bits because developers Anim-X knew that those are the important parts.
While the success of TV shows are largely predicated on quality content, the meta structure of weekly episodes works in its favor. Each week, another brief but hopefully meaningful entry is made into the series and opens itself to two vital tenants of community: analysis and speculation. Episodes are necessarily short (relative to the season) so that fans can catch up easily and gives regular breaks in the overarching story so that they can extrapolate hopes and dreams into future fantasies. It aims for the ideal confluence of timing, impetus, and resolution so that all that goes on the day after is water cooler discussion.
A perfect example is this year’s The Walking Dead adventure game series from Telltale Games. Aside from the fact that it tells an amazing, grounded story with stellar characters and believable drama, it hits every necessary point for being episodic, and it works in its favor. Each episode takes somewhere around two or three hours to complete—a far cry from the 20 or so you’ll dump into Assassin’s Creed III or, well, Far Cry 3—and has its own encapsulated story of equally potent conflict and strife that fits within the season’s major through line. Each episode hits major points within itself that will trickle down to everything after it while informing things before it. It hits Lost-like levels of discussions after each release. What more can you ask for?
Maybe not much more, but it definitely gives it to you through its release schedule. Released every two months since April, it gives just the right amount of time for people to download, play, cry, discuss, weep again, and then speculate. If 45 minutes of TV can spawn a week’s worth of discussion and salivation until the following episode, it only makes sense that two and a half hours can hold down two months.
But it’s more than that. It’s the anticipation that a regular schedule creates. With the Half-Life 2 episodes, Valve’s “it’s done when it’s done” scheduling may work for quality assurance but it does nothing for fans’ waiting. The focus then becomes about delays and timetables and the like instead of speculating over what the next episode will break down and answer. By adhering to the regular bimonthly schedule, Telltale is able to lodge itself in a player’s brain for long after they’ve stopped playing since they know they’re a scant few days (or weeks) away from validating or refuting their hopes and fears.
Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops similarly works analogously to television. Over 10 episodes and 10 weeks, Spartan Ops tells a story about a team of Spartan IVs called Fireteam Crimson on the planet Requiem. It, however, is somewhat light on story, drama, and, from what I’ve seen, quality. But since it is on a weekly schedule, Spartan Ops still works because you only have to wait seven days until the next episode is out. Faith (and Legendary difficulty) can sustain most fans for that long regardless of objective quality. Spartan Ops is definitely fun to play, but its story is fairly lacking.
The first rule of episodic content is kind of a gimme. That’s just how good visual storytelling works. Every part of a movie or show or game must be able to be broken down into smaller, discrete chunks of drama. And episodes happen to be one of those units of drama, where its own content can be further rendered down to multiple developing plotlines. The last two are more relevant and perhaps most important to episodic games. You are building the community and the discussion from the inside out with each episode where every week or month or whatever you are aiming to create enough tension and anticipation to where you aren’t forgotten by the next episode. You have to know what you’re developing and who you’re developing for to sustain this cycle of fan froth to fan discourse.
And just like any good show, you should be able to marathon through its gamut and still enjoy it. Basically what I’m saying is if you haven’t played The Walking Dead, you should do so immediately. And then come find me because I still want to talk about it.