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The Sour Taste of Episodic Games

Telltale Games' Batman series

Imagine buying the first two hours of a 10-hour video game only to be forced to reach its conclusion a year later. Five years ago, I’d never heard of this marketing technique and probably would’ve been distracted by the latest entries in the Gears of War and Mass Effect franchises. But the art of selling and playing a video game completely changed thanks to one development studio, which opted for a higher-form of proactive, narrative gameplay driven by player choice. This formula has brought with it other development teams dabbling in a “pay now, hope for the best” kind of structure, where gamers have learned to expect disappointment from this newly-established genre.

This phenomenon exploded with The Walking Dead, released by Telltale Games back in 2012. Separating itself from the TV series of the same name, it took charge in delivering an entertaining point-and-click adventure in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The five-episode season released a couple of hours of goodness every few months, spanning from April 24 to November 20, 2012. An interesting brew of story, charm and gore spawned a second season (2013), with a third outing currently in the works; it was a winning formula with the success and following to boot.

So, of course, it was only natural for Telltale to expand their horizons with new franchises for their bread-and-butter genre. The Wolf Among Us, Tales From the Borderlands, Game of Thrones and Minecraft: Story Mode were all released during 2014 and’15. This made for a difficult juggling act and one that was fairly obvious; release windows widened and the overall quality fell.

Rhys and Fiona trouble
Tales From the Borderlands was in a spot of bother on more than a few occasions.

Tales From the Borderlands is a particular case in point. After hitting the ground running in Episode One: Zer0 Sum, we had to wait four months for the follow-up, Atlas Mugged, to drop. All the while, Telltale Games diverted our attention with a bi-monthly, six-episode season of Game of Thrones. For me, the back-and-forth political games and frequent character deaths detracted from my interest in Telltale’s custom storyline. On several occasions, you spent an entire chapter getting to know a character only to have them killed off in the same session – it’s the expected Thrones formula, but it just didn’t gel with the avenue of video games.

And it rubbed off on Tales From the Borderlands, too. Episodes became shorter and the quality dropped, so much so that the book-end chapters of the series – Episodes One and Five – contained almost all of the action and humour synonymous with the Borderlands name. The striking similarity between the cel-shaded graphics of Telltale Games and Gearbox Software made for an easy transition but, Episode Four: Escape Plan Bravo, contained nothing memorable (except for another awesome intro) for the entire 90 minutes. Its thin plot-related developments moved along at a snail’s pace and was a forgettable entry leading into the conclusion.

As chinks in the Telltale armour began to show, some new players came to the table. With some help from Square Enix, Dontnod Entertainment debuted their episodic series called Life Is Strange in late-January of 2015. I came across this game after completing all entries of Tales From the Borderlands and watching the string of Game of Thrones offerings from Telltale. As a whole package, Life Is Strange far exceeds the tired and drawn-out Game of Thrones plot and probably edges out the slapstick and action in Tales From the Borderlands, too.

But, once again, this relatively new formula of game proved it wasn’t always reliable. Frankly, the finale of Life Is Strange is awful, paling in comparison to the four episodes preceding. After a myriad of plot twists and meaningful character development, the final entry undoes all progression thanks to Max Caulfield’s aggressive use of her time travel abilities. Episode Five, titled “Polarized,” proved that while episodic titles succeed at dangling a discounted season pass in front of gamers, it doesn’t prepare us for failure within its future instalments; we’re mostly paying, and waiting for lengthy periods, for the majority of a game that hasn’t been released or even created yet.

Max and Chloe search
Life Is Strange has a surprisingly stimulating story with harder moral choices than your average episodic title.

I, for one, would be pretty annoyed if I’d bought the season pass for King’s Quest. Developed by The Odd Gentlemen and sold as a six-episode series, gamers are still awaiting chapter four after episode one was released over 12 months ago. It’s a long time between drinks and calls for some re-familarisation with every character and choice to remember what’s happened.

Apart from downloading its opening entry as a free-to-download Games With Gold title, King’s Quest barely made an impression on me. Its wayward level design made for a game to be played in short bursts, as I would often get lost and couldn’t fathom how to get to certain places. The episode felt long and drawn-out and just wasn’t much fun.

Ultimately, games like King’s Quest have been drowned out and are still overshadowed by Telltale Games and even more newcomers spruiking their wares. I’m not a Minecraft guy, so when Minecraft: Story Mode dropped in October 2015, I gave it wide berth. It was the usual five-episode tale but came with a questionable marketing ploy of an extra three episodes as downloadable content. Was this greedy? Because, for a paranoid and inquisitive gamer like myself, it sure as hell seemed like it. It also seemed these types of games were turning into bloody expensive ventures for something unknown and incomplete; $45AUD/$34USD for a regular season pass or $72AUD/$55USD for the “complete adventure”, including DLC.

My head also turned when catching wind of IO Interactive’s offering of episodic content in March this year. A special package, sold as “HITMAN: The Full Experience,” contained six discreet missions for Agent 47 in various locations as well as two additional game modes for a bit of variety. Was I impressed? Yes. Was I interested? Yes. Was it pricey? To the tune of $85AUD/$65USD, hell yes it was!

Agent 47 Sapienza
Does the content of episodic games reflect their bottom line? Are they overpriced or totally worth it?

Perhaps with popularity comes inflammatory prices. Consider Telltale Games’ latest episodic venture, Batman. Where the first entries of The Walking Dead would’ve only been a couple of bucks, assuming the role of Bruce Wayne for around two hours now starts at $10AUD ($8USD). Which is why I’m extremely comfortable simply waiting until late-2017 when the entire series reveals itself as a hit or miss. I’ll feel no sympathy for those who’ve snapped up season passes only to be let down by below-par entries filled with fluff and nonsensical choices leading to the same outcome.

Despite their infectious success, it’s time for a change. I’d much rather see developers actually release this episodic-style of game in a similar way that Remedy Entertainment did for Alan Wake. I prefer a single, heavily narrative-driven title broken up into parts over five separate games which just happen to share the same story.

To Telltale Games: There’s no problem with releasing one new title per year because at least we won’t be waiting 12 months for an ending. Otherwise (surprise, surprise) you’ll have your fingers in too many pies and, with three new episodic seasons expected throughout 2017, will struggle to create the same quality content that began with The Walking Dead: Season One.

To any potential newcomers: Think about price, think about timing and think about quality. No more scheduled periodic nonsense, please. Release your video games in one go so we can all sit back and appreciate them without having to remember what we did months and months beforehand.

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