A short history, the present and future of episodic games

With so many games having been released recently in short episodes, some quicker than others, it’s maybe time to look back and forward to see what’s all the controversy is about or if this is really the future of gaming, a blessing or a curse.

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At the beginning…there was Telltale Games

It all started with Telltale Games of course, former members of the classic point-and-click adventures producing and now defunct LucasArts. First it was just a couple of comic book adaptations like Bone or Sam & Max, but the latter was so successful and imho even surpassed the original LA game that more seasons were produced, resulting in gaining the rights to movie licences like Back to the Future and Jurassic Park and finally leading to the much-praised The Walking Dead.

And it’s here that classic point-and-clickers would suddenly turn away, because there were too many action sequences and no real puzzles. Especially German players seem to have been so suprised that they wouldn’t attribute the term “adventure” to the series at all, which would also continue with the recent outings of The Wolf Among Us, another comic book adaptation, Tales from the Borderlands, a surprising comic spin-off take on Gearbox’ FPS games, and Game of Thrones, another strong TV and this time literary licence.

episodicgames_thewalkingdead

Short bursts of entertainment and emotions

But why the disappointment, why even hate? Of course it’s understandable that if one expects many puzzles like in the Tales of Monkey Island series, there’s bound to be the feeling of having been let down by the company. Seriously though, I personally think that what Telltale created was a new way of storytelling that was simply bound to happen. With so many games clocking in around the 10-50 or even 100 hours in case of RPGs, strategy titles, and less time available due to many real-life things, the business model is not only feasible, it’s to be applauded.

episodicgames_talesofmonkeyisland

Now the biggest concern about episodic content is of course when the instalments are to be released, and it’s here that the industry (not only Telltale) has to improve. Of course there’s a lot of time investment with bugfixing, audio recording, game design in general, but if one talks about the TV format applied to gaming in terms of publishing, one should be aware that the audience expects the game to continue in a reasonable time frame.

I can still remember playing the first season of The Walking Dead, and it certainly wasn’t easy at all to wait 2-3 months for the next episode. One usually already forgot what happened before. Of course one could replay the current episode (which was recommendable because of the choices involved), but it’s obviously a different experience. Telltale themselves admitted that their latest games should be played through in one go (obviously not in one sitting).

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A question of defining categories/genres or not

So is this what makes people and especially old-school adventure gamers angry with the publishing model? It made me thing of books which also sometimes ended with a cliffhanger or at least the frame story not being done yet. Maybe episodic gaming isn’t so different? The difference is probably that one is used to play through a complete game. It’s similar to the argument of having no genuine puzzles in Telltale games or in any other modern “adventure” games.

I don’t want to go into detail, but the whole categorization/genre definition argument is tiresome. Personally, I think that the Telltale games, but also other projects involving choices-based gameplay, are more of an adventure than many standard point-and-clickers provide. Of course I’ve played the comic LucasArts/Sierra classics or any other game because of some genuinely great inventory puzzles or out-of-this-world conundrums. But to be fair, I also played them because of the story and the characters. Even the old choose-your-own adventure books didn’t have puzzles in the strictest sense of the word, but were… well, adventures.

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What came, is and goes on?

So now that we have the whole discussion going, what has been released lately and what is still to come?

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Telltale Games has of course the biggest catalogue of projects in the works with the recent Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 2 – Atlas mugged and Game of Thrones: Episode 1: Iron from Ice continuing a 5 and starting a 6 episodes season. But Minecraft: Story Mode is also another interesting upcoming project, even for those who aren’t into building and destroying bricks.

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Of course there’s not only Telltale delivering the episodic gaming experience. Double Fine Productions also had a go, although a rather controversial one for backers, when it released the first episode of Broken Age. Adventure gamers were not happy, not happy at all. Still, despite the problematic two-parts story, there’s certainly enough love in the art direction and storytelling to be excited about the second and final episode, due for imminent release.

episodicgames_thedreammachine

In addition to the big titles (Resident Evil: Revelations 2 should also be mentioned here), there are smaller ones as well which aren’t any less engaging. Starting with Cockroach Inc‘s The Dream Machine, this claymation adventure game has been in the making for years, and with only the fifth chapter being released last year and one more to go, this is a slow burner, although it’s definitely worth playing despite some abstract puzzles.

episodicgames_thejourneydown

Then there’s SkyGoblin‘s The Journey Down having received the second episode and only one to go. The first chapter was already reviewed here and scored a 9/10, being a love letter to LucasArts adventures. So hopefully the conclusion will come sooner than in two years. Speaking of many years to come, maybe with the release of the Steam consoles, Valve will finally release Half-Life 2: Episode 3? Wishful thinking, but you can but dream…

episodicgames_lifeisstrange

DONTNOD Entertainment‘s Life is Strange should also get a mention here. Not having played it yet, I only heard and read good things about it, as it seems to bring the decision-making gameplay with mature storytelling to the foreground with some lovely visuals. Episode 2 should also be released soon.

Looking back at all the games I’ve covered and remembering all the ones I haven’t seems to be highlight the problem consumers face: what to choose? But then again, there are just so many different approaches to episodic storytelling that it’s exciting to keep track of them. So if you know any others or have suggestions of which games to cover next, please let me know, and I’ll try my best to give them the love and space they deserve :).

If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page :). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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7 Responses to A short history, the present and future of episodic games

  1. Love the telltale games and life is strange. The next episode of life is strange is out tomorrow and I can’t wait 🙂

    • nufafitc says:

      Same here. I don’t care if many old-school adventure gamer have a grudge against Telltale because they don’t rely on the puzzles anymore. I think the more serious games are better for that decision ;).
      Great to know, I might write a news about that, thanks for letting me know! It’s just so difficult to keep up with all these seasons :).

      • It certainly is. I am old school adventure gamer but I think the story is what matters most of all not the puzzle mechanic. 🙂

      • nufafitc says:

        Couldn’t have said it better ;). Unfortunately some people think completely differently. Has to to with change, I guess. Or maybe because the point-and-click genre was more or less dead before Runaway sort of revived it.
        But let’s be honest, it’s “point-and-click”: You point to something, you click on something, so by definition Telltale games are still point-and-click adventures ;). “Heavy Rain” might be controlled via gamepad, but I still think it’s a great adventure game because of the story, characters and general feeling of influencing the story. If one wants to get nasty against traditional point-and-click fans, one could say that most of the time puzzles get in the way of storytelling and that one follows a very linear path the developers want you to take, so there’s not much of “adventure” in it. Now I just duck and cover before the storm of naysayers starts ;).

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