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Suspense, Solidarity and Choice: How Episodic Games Have Changed Gaming

From marathoning my favorite shows to mentally sprinting through a newly acquired novel, a lot of my life involves getting as much content into my brain as possible. As one might expect, I consume video games in the same way I consume most media: excitedly and in large doses. Up until this point, most video games have risen to meet my needs of constant fulfillment.

Most, but not all.

Cue episodic games. By releasing their content in “episodes” as part of a greater “season,” they produce all of the same taunting, tantalizing feelings that waiting for the next Harry Potter book generated. As part of a generation where instant gratification is becoming more of the norm, games like these are increasingly throwing the proverbial wrench in my gaming plans.

Now I wouldn’t call this a completely new trend in gaming, as games have had plot divisions like “acts” or “chapters” before, such as Diablo, Dragon Age 2, and many other RPGs. However, the prevalence of episodic games is growing; they even have their own Steam category. The biggest, or perhaps most well-known, contributor to this growing trend is Telltale Games, which has provided such gems as Tales From the Borderlands, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and last week, The Walking Dead: Michonne.

One of the unexpected hits of 2015 was Dontnod’s 5-episode supernatural teen drama Life is Strange, about a girl investigating the disappearance of another girl while discovering she can rewind time.

While at first I didn’t know what to make of this game format, I was immediately hooked by the potential for truly compelling characters and stories. Much like the Game of Thrones show, it was time to get incredibly attached to and subsequently lose all of my favorite characters!

My first Telltale game was The Walking Dead, and I found that it allowed me to really feel the impact of the choices I was making, as they were happening constantly and relied on my focus and attention. I enjoyed feeling like I was an active part of the story being told, and it felt like a more in-depth point and click adventure.

However, not all was sunshine and rainbows with my first episodic experience. I soon reached the end of the first chapter and found myself in limbo.

What do I do now? How long would I need to wait to see what happened next? Did I only buy one-fifth of a game? The questions were quickly accumulating, and no answers were in sight. All I was left with was a cliffhanger and a chart letting me know what decisions I did and didn’t make.

What I now know is that bubbling and brewing of questions is part of what makes episodic games so interesting. While games with sequels can provide a similar cliffhanger ending, you are left with an entire game to contemplate, and no idea whether or not a sequel is truly following. In the case of episodic games, you have smaller portions to sate you until the next installment, but the promise (and usually a teaser) of more content soon.

It’s the episode fading away, the confrontation with your choices, and that excited feeling in your stomach that has lead to a whole new way to consume games.

By showing players what others have done when facing the same situation, these games allow for a feeling of solidarity in an otherwise solitary game. They have made a communal single-player experience possible within the game itself, as well as provided some great talking points for the gaming community beyond the confines of the game.

A look at how your choices compared to others’ in The Walking Dead

These games also allow for the possibility of a paced, chapter-based story which can lead to great build-up and something to look forward to every 4-6 weeks. Or, if you’re like me, it gives you enough time to make multiple playthroughs in preparation for whatever may come in the next installment. Plus, you always have the option to power through it once the game is completely released.

There is also some lovely, and uncommon, leeway to see whether or not you actually want to continue the game, making for a low-commitment investment into a new adventure. Perhaps the game didn’t enchant you enough for a full season pass, but maybe it did intrigue you enough to see what happens in the next chapter. The choice is yours, and ultimately that’s what episodic games seem to embody.

Whether or not episodic games are your preferred mode of gaming, having a kind of game with so much liberty to choose, and in so many ways, is truly exciting. They are emerging in so many different forms, and it looks like they are only becoming more popular as larger companies are following the trend (such as with the Final Fantasy VII remake and the new Hitman).

Only time will tell what the future holds for episodic games. I, for one, love to see their evolution right before my very eyes. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter holds—or more appropriately, I can wait, but only for a few weeks.

Rocio is an aspiring creative person, who spends her free days reading, playing board games, and practicing Quidditch. She thrives off of RPGs, salty food, and petting animals.
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Rocio is an aspiring creative person, who spends her free days reading, playing board games, and practicing Quidditch. She thrives off of RPGs, salty food, and petting animals.

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