Is episodic gaming here to stay?

In the last week, I’ve played through the first episode of Life is Strange and the second of Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Neither title messes with the established episodic convention too much – it has been largely accepted that adventure games, generally split into acts anyway, suit this model.

Yes, you can have issues sometimes where there’s an unnecessary gap right in the middle of a game (we’re looking at you, Broken Sword 5 and Broken Age, named so because they broke budget, broke in half, and broke some hearts in the process).

But right now, I love episodic gaming. Being able to sit down and play through a few hours once a month or two is a great way to ensure that I’ll actually finish the games, and it allows for a continued, on-going discussion. The first season of The Walking Dead, in particular, came as close to generating the same excitement that a good TV show generates every Monday when the episodes appear on iTunes or…you know, wherever you’re getting them from.

I love playing games like this (and boy does it make them easier to review), but episodic gaming outside of point and clicks has had a bit of a tumultuous history. You might recall, for example, a little game called Half-Life 2 that continued episodically after the initially release. We’re still waiting for a follow-up to Episode 2’s cliffhanger over seven years later. SiN Episodes debuted in 2006, back when people were still buying their PC games on discs, but episodes two through nine never came out. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – a game I had actually forgotten existed before I started writing this – was split in two as well, but this never really felt like anything more than a marketing ploy for a game that wasn’t particularly strong.

I love episodic gaming. Being able to sit down and play through a few hours once a month or two is a great way to ensure that I’ll actually finish the games, and it allows for a continued, on-going discussion.
Still, I find myself hopeful that episodic gaming will find its footing outside of the point and click genre. Between 2012 and 2013, I played through Deus Ex for a monthly column in PC PowerPlay, taking my time and engaging with the game as though it were being released episodically, stopping at points outlined by my editors at the end of each month. I loved playing the game this way.

Stopping and starting gave me so much more time to digest what made the game tick – I’d step back every month and really think about my experience in time for the next instalment. I’d grow nervous for the next section. I felt plugged into Deus Ex in a way few games manage, and I think playing it in fifteen instalments allowed me to form a much stronger critical analysis of the game.

This month sees the release of the episodic Resident Evil Revelations 2, split into five parts and delivered at a pace of one a week. This is a game I definitely have my eye on – Resident Evil 4, the series’ strongest instalment, was split into logical chapter breaks. It should be interesting to see how well this game handles it, whether stats and ammo carry between episodes, how this approach fosters engagement. More and more genres are trying things like this; on mobile platforms Republique is providing fans with an episodic stealth action game, and even Killer Instinct’s ‘seasons’ approach has worked better than one might expect. I’d love to see more workable episodic release structures emerge.

And just in case anyone has noticed the elephant in this particular room – yes, as a game critic, I’m going to get paid five times as much to review five episodes in a series as I would to write one review of a full game. Yes, that’s probably part of why I love episodic gaming. But beyond the pay, I really love being able to write about episodic structures, to let my critique and writing of a game unfurl over months, to have games in the back of my mind for full years rather than playing them through in a few days and writing something that’s meant to stand as a definitive statement on the full thing.

Do you like episodic gaming? Would you like to see more games branch out this way? Let us know.

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