To Be Continued – Structured Surprise In Episodic Games

While Telltale Games have been leading the charge for episodic games since 2006, it’s their recent shift to a more narrative focus to their games which has propelled them into the spotlight. While their Sam & Max series stuck to the traditional point & click adventure formula, their style of games have gradually evolved and experimented, but it’s their work on The Walking Dead and Fables that have been the bravest and boldest in nature by far.

In spite of the critical acclaim, I’ve found myself feeling a little burnt out as we reach episode four of The Wolf Among Us – don’t worry, there’s no spoilers here. It feels to me that the season should have had its stand out moment, its turning point, that one episode that sticks with you by now. Admittedly, The Walking Dead season one having such a moment in its fourth episode may have something to do with it, but here we are, with just one episode left and the game has dialed down for no good reason, ruining the overall pacing.

The problem is that Telltale have stuck with the same formula for each episode, where it picks up soon after the climax of the last one during a moment of comparative calm, before building up to some problem solving and a final action packed scene at the end. It’s very much the same in each episode, sticking far too rigidly to the traditional three act structure.

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It worked for the first season of The Walking Dead, because it was new and exciting, with every episode feeling very distinct from the last, but The Wolf Among Us is a more continual story. Rather than each episode being split into three acts, would it not be better for the series as a whole to feel like one continuing dialogue?

Perhaps it’s realted the manner in which these games are developed and distributed. There are gaps of over a month and sometimes two between each episode, during which time a lot of rewriting will take place and parts of the story are in flux. Putting the players into immediate danger may not be considered a viable option, even with a recap at the start, but I also don’t think they’re being brave enough to start an episode with an immediate danger.

Take Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias as an example. It’s already considered one of the greatest television episodes to ever air and one of my personal favourites of the show’s run, as it followed an action-packed climax of the previous episode by ramping it up even further, rather than backing down at the start and only picking up as the episode went on. Everything went a bit crazy in the first ten minutes, and there was a further sense of dread in every following scene.

Then again, perhaps that episode of Breaking Bad is just an isolated example; even Game of Thrones, which has been absolutely superb recently, abides by slowing things down before leading to and ending on a particularly climactic note, episode-by-episode. It’s only when looking back on these things – and you realise that all those moments which make you gasp are in the last ten minutes or so – that you see how formulaic the structure of an episode can be.

That’s just how cliffhangers work: you need something exciting at the end to make viewers or players immediately want the next episode, and perhaps more importantly, something that doesn’t leave their minds until the next episode is available. Telltale face an uphill struggle in this regard since, unlike the weekly turn over of TV shows which is already difficult, they have to recapture a player’s excitement and anticipation after potentially months.

We have to remember that shows and games aren’t all about those moments however, and that the character development weaved through the more subdued sections are the only way that they’ll really pay off. These interactive episodes have an advantage in that regard and Telltale have integrated a branching story by way of the choices that you see during play, but they don’t usually occur until after some dialogue has set up the moment for you.

Again, the structure of the game becomes clear, but this can be avoided. Why not start with a massive, story-altering choice? The decisions themselves don’t usually change things too much, but by having one major twist taking you by surprise in the heat of the moment, before any set-up, could make for a really interesting episode. In fact, though it didn’t quite follow through with it, the first season finale of The Walking Dead attempted to do just that.

Ultimately, abiding by certain rules is important, as it will otherwise end up being a bit of a mess, but The Wolf Among Us really isn’t surprising me now, and I’m wary of starting the next episode when the first half an hour could just be more set-up. It’s likely that the finale will change things – and I really hope it does – but I’m hoping that the writer’s to find the courage to leave us shocked from the start of an episode and right to the end, rather than sticking to the script.

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4 Comments

  1. I prefer TWAU to TWD personally, although I have been enjoying TWD Season 2 more than the first. There seems to be less decision making, but as a result I think the story flows much better with less interruptions.

    My biggest annoyance with episodic games such as this is the huge delay in releasing the next episode. It’s actually ruined the experience in some respects, since I’d forgotten minor details and who some characters’ names (which can be awkward when you’re thrown straight back in with the next episode). I think if it was fortnightly it would work much better – the games would maintain a higher profile for longer rather than dipping in and out of the news briefly, and people’s excitement would remain knowing they wouldn’t have to wait long for their next fix.

    • Couldn’t agree more with your second paragraph. The gaps between episodes are so far apart you do tend to forget certain story arcs or even characters – it’s very noticeable in TWD season 2 where certain characters appeared in episode 3 that we last saw in ‘300 Days’ but I genuinely didn’t notice until reading about them on tinternet later… Does spoil it somewhat. Kinda wish I’d waited til all the eps were out before diving in :-S

      • It’s a real shame, as the right gap between episodes could really make the model work well and be something to get excited about. However it’s no wonder most people are now opting to wait for these to be released as an entire game.

  2. Episodic stuff is wasted on me personally as I tend to wait until the game is finished before I pick it up. That said I loved how Resi Revelations and Alan Wake split up their chapters with “previously on…” cutscenes. They acted as logical stopping points and made me interested to fire the game up next time.

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