Despite a dearth of quality content on television these days, it is the primary medium of a great portion of the population for their consumption of narrative. It makes sense. The main way in which television content is delivered is through serials and long-running series, which gives them the edge over film when it comes to creating intricate plots and going in-depth with their characters. This length is a trait shared by novels and video games, but the latter rarely uses it to its full potential, squandering it with one action sequence after another, rather than using it to empower the story with profundity. When it comes to television, it often adopts a certain format of one episode leading to a culmination or cliffhanger that is to be resolved in the next, and this is the kind of narrative device that gaming could benefit from.
It was not so long ago that a spokesperson from Remedy Entertainment mused on the idea that the time is not right for episodic gaming, pointing to the way that consumers are interested primarily in the here and now, wanting the full experience immediately. This can’t really be argued, as the most instantly gratifying games are also among the highest selling every year. Slow-burning games are simply not as popular. But this is the kind of thinking that holds creativity and innovation back, and has no place in the modern industry with its focus on expansion and experimentation.
A number of different trends have arisen since the inception of this generation, the most fitting for the purpose of this article being the emergence of gaming as a strong storytelling medium and that of a widespread acceptance of digital distribution and downloadable content. The former allows gaming to emulate television series in its ambition, while the latter makes it viable. The writing would have to be adapted to the format, immediately engaging the player to make them want to purchase any further episodes, as well as revealing the characters and world differently from what we are used to, but this should not be a barrier to most competent developers.
Ignoring the potential for stories to shine, an episodic format would also be greatly advantageous to diversity in gameplay, as each episode could focus on introducing new mechanics, before attempting to merge them into the core gameplay of later ones. General quality could also see some improvements as developers take to heart consumer reaction and make alterations to the game as they go along. It may create some dissonance between the beginning and the end, but it would end up being a far stronger product. Furthermore, the cheaper, piecemeal offerings may be enough to interest gamers not willing to splurge the price of a full, new retail release on a game that is unproven, by giving them the chance to see if it is any good at the price of a rental, with the option of buying more as it becomes available.
And those that are allergic to, or unable to access, digital distribution methods would not be left out in the cold either, as such games could become available as a retail release, perhaps with additional content to excuse the lateness, once the entire compilation is available online. The allure is great and we’ve already seen a number of developers experiment with it. Even so, the idea isn’t without its shortcomings, primarily of projects suffering the same fate as Shenmue, failing to see completion due to high funding and poor returns.
Nevertheless, I believe the benefits outweigh this risk, as creativity always deserves to shine. Beyond this, the industry is expanding, seeking its boundaries and what better time than right now, when there is this sense of exploration among both creators and consumers to take us on a different route? The time for episodic gaming to boom is right now.