Toiling away through the dark and peculiar hours of the night, we think about a lot of things to do with life, the universe, and everything. Plus other stuff too. Lately we’ve been giving a lot of thought to the different ways games can deliver a narrative and we’ve been giving the pleasure of our attention to episodic content and the various ways it has been used in existing games.
One of the first examples of an episodic format in games was in the Half-Life series, which aimed to released additional chapters of the life of Gordon Freeman built on the same engine as Half-Life 2. The idea was that, as the engine and the difficult technical work was complete, creating enough content for a new chapter should be a fairly trivial job compared to building a new game from scratch. Valve originally claimed it would be a matter of months between episodes.
The developers worked hard, but Valve’s trademark ambition meant it ended up being more like a year and a half between episodes. The fans enjoyed what was put out, though, and everyone was wondering how long they would have to wait for the next chapter. Episode Three, however, is missing in action, with no word from Valve if they’re even working on it, more than five years later.
Obviously, Valve’s promises of quick episodic content ended up falling a bit short, but the idea was popular with other game developers, with other companies picking up the format. Probably the most successful example of a developer who mostly works in episodic content is Telltale Games, who have almost single-handedly revived the adventure game genre.
Telltale have worked with lots of different franchises and several different flavours of the adventure game format (usually puzzle heavy), but their recent interpretation of “The Walking Dead” really stands out as an exceptional way of delivering a narrative. The game takes place over five episodes, with each episode having its own self-contained series of events while still providing an overall narrative for the whole season. The game keeps the mechanics fairly simple so that the player isn’t distracted while focusing on current events and whatever is currently motivating the protagonist. This works really well, immersing the player in the role of Lee Everett and keeping the action flowing at a decent pace.
The main selling point of The Walking Dead is giving the player tough moral choices and then making the player deal with the consequences of these actions for the rest of the season, so they can really see how his or her actions affect the game world and the protagonist’s relationship with the other characters. Unlike many games, the choices don’t boil down to simple good/evil decisions – instead, the player has to make decisions like how to ration out a limited food supply, how much you want to explain to the eight year old girl in your care or even who to try and save in a dangerous situation when there isn’t enough time to help everybody.
Another game that dabbles in episodic content is LA Noire, which features “cases,” where the player, a detective, must investigate the evidence left behind after a crime and find out the truth. This neatly cuts up the game into discrete chunks and also allows Rockstar to sell extra cases as downloadable content and have them fit into the existing game narrative. None of the cases usually take too long to play through so this also has the added advantage of giving the player a natural stopping point when playing, much like the end of an episode in a TV drama. As each episode is fairly self-contained, the player doesn’t necessarily need to know much about the previous episode to follow what’s going on, so the story can be experiences as a casual pace.
All of the above games let the player play the games at their own pace, taking in the story as quickly or as slowly as they like. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft take a different approach: all players inhabit the same world and the world itself changes for all players simultaneously as story events happen.
For example, if a character in Warcraft dies in the ongoing plot, then he will be completely removed from the world, even for players who only start playing after this event. Often, big events will happen that can dramatically alter the state of the world itself, with terrain moving around or towns changing hands according to player interaction. Because the game is played entirely online, this gives Blizzard a lot of power in molding the game world as they see fit and knowing that all the players will always be on the same page. It also lets them create a real sense of a changing world over time, helping the world to feel less static and more alive.
So that’s four methods of delivering episode content from the screen to a player’s face. What episodes have you been playing recently? Have you come across any particularly interesting ways of telling a story?