We're supposedly in a new golden age for television drama. As our multiplexes increasingly play it safe with the comforting glow of franchise spectacle, television has snapped up the neglected adult audience. Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Game of Thrones et al give comfort to cineastes bemoaning the death knell of multi-layered adult storytelling in mainstream filmmaking.
The episodic distribution model has also become an increasingly appealing prospect for video games over the last few years, breathing new life into the once-unfashionable adventure genre in particular. Like a good TV drama, episodic releases give developers breathing room to create expansive plots, cliffhangers, and nuanced characterisations over multi-season arcs.
In an interview with Wired last year, Norwegian designer Ragnar Tørnquist opened up regarding the benefit of the episodic approach when discussing its use in Dreamfall Chapters, the long-awaited third instalment in his adventure series The Longest Journey. "With an episodic release, [we] love to see people talking and theorising, wondering what's going to happen next," he explained, while adding that the episodic model had added practical benefits for the Kickstarter-funded project, as the developers "can spend time polishing and really focusing on each individual episode as it's released".
Telltale Games have been the most successful proponents of the episodic format so far, setting out in 2004 under auspicious CEO Dan Connors' twin tenets that they should "never stray from story" and "never stray from small chunks of content released over time". It is a philosophy that has paid off in particular following the critical success of Telltale's take on comic books The Walking Dead, which will soon have a third season, and Fables, adapted as The Wolf Among Us.
The Californian company's penchant for licensed adaptations, most recently Game of Thrones, gives it an advantage in this arena, with a wealth of material to draw upon from pre-existing properties. In this regard, Telltale's newly announced project Minecraft: Story Mode should provide an interesting narrative challenge for the company in much the same way that, say, the writers of The Lego Movie probably faced as an adaptation of an unlikely IP with no real storyline to draw from.
Though episodic gaming has been around for years, the combination of Telltale's success and the rise of digital distribution have been the primary catalysts that have really allowed this approach to thrive financially. Now, even large publishers such as Capcom and Square Enix are getting in on the market with the recent releases of Resident Evil Revelations 2 and Life Is Strange respectively.
It will be interesting to see if such releases from triple-A publishers can influence a future where episodic gaming becomes as popular as TV shows compared to movies, particularly with the increasing prevalence of cloud-based game streaming.
Consumers may not have been completely ready for a game-streaming service such as the experience OnLive tried to provide when it launched stateside back in 2010, followed by a UK rollout in 2011. But as broadband speeds improve it is likely that this means of games content consumption becomes commonplace, with episodically released titles played in a similar fashion to how you watch shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant. The recent full release of the Gaikai-based PlayStation Now represents something of a prototypical "Netflix for Games", and other companies are likely to follow suit.
Nvidia are banking their entire console strategy on viable streaming support, with their announcement of the SHIELD console at the Game Developers Conference earlier in March, a sleek black box promising instant blockbuster gaming via the wonders of a low-latency piece of voodoo called the GRID. GRID game streaming via the SHIELD will offer two tiers of subscription, a basic one for 720p and 30fps streaming, and a premium GRID PLUS service at 1080p and 60fps.
Like Netflix or HBO, cloud-based services such as GRID and PS Now could kick-start interest in exclusive game series to bolster subscription rates and exclusivity. Imagine if Sony or Microsoft had subscription-based episodic game equivalents to shows like Orange Is the New Black, True Detective or Transparent? With Playstation Plus and Xbox Live already offering exclusive live action shows in the form of Powers and Halo: Nightfall, as well as the converse example of Amazon dipping its toes into the gaming market following its acquisition of companies such as Double Helix (Killer Instinct, Strider), it doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility.
The multi-award-winning 'Alien: Isolation' was one of 2014's best games – but could it have been better as an episodic title?
There is further scope for episodic gaming outside of Telltale's brand of TV show-like scheduled releases, too. Netflix releases all the episodes of its own shows at the same time, allowing viewers to watch them at their own pace. A similar approach to certain games could be attractive to busy gamers who might want to prioritise when and how they play without constraint. For example, if last year's lengthy Alien: Isolation had made its 18 chapters available from the start of play, perhaps more gamers might have seen it through to its conclusion. According to the game's current PSN trophy page on PS4, the number of players who completed the game, at any difficulty level, stands at only 16.7 percent.
The similarly lengthy survival horror title The Evil Within, which has 15 chapters and was released around the same time as Alien: Isolation, shows similar statistics: 17.3 percent of players completed the game on casual difficulty, while only 10.5 percent managed it at survival (normal) level.
Alien: Isolation is an excellent game, and The Evil Within a good one, but both possess a fairly high barrier to entry at times, even on their easier settings. It seems a shame for both free time-restricted gamers and hardworking developers that so many playthroughs remain incomplete. For plenty of players, of course, overcoming a challenge is still the primary draw of tackling any new title, but as the medium gets bigger and gamers get older, the accessibility that a "gaming box set" offers could become increasingly appealing.
Dara O'Briain considers games' difficulty problem (at 2:40)
Comedian Dara O'Briain touched on this point during an appearance on Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe in 2009, where he lamented gaming's status as the only art form that denies consumers access to their content for not being good enough at them. "Rarely will a book stop you and go, 'Are you understanding the book?' [And] if you buy a [CD] it doesn't go: 'Your dancing isn't good enough, dance again! Only then can you hear the rest of the album.'"
The Xbox 360 release Alone in the Dark (known as Alone in the Dark: Inferno on PS3) did give this a go back in 2008. O'Briain may have skipped it as it was pretty poor, but it did take a novel approach to level progression – players were able to skip difficult or uninteresting chapters of the game at any time, with unplayed portions summed up by a TV-style "Previously on…" recap. This box set approach was brave, but failed to take off elsewhere, perhaps in part due to the game's crippling technical issues. This unusual approach to level unlocking has rarely been revisited by big-budget boxed titles since.
The episodic approach doesn't always work out, of course. Quirky Xbox One-exclusive mystery D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die, while well-received critically, is currently hanging in stasis as something of a failed "pilot" given its lack of commercial success, selling only around 10,000 copies during its first month of release last year. The game's director, Hidetaka Suehiro – also known for 2010's Twin Peaks-influenced survival horror Deadly Premonition – has stated that the game's future would be in the hands of the fans, but at present it has stalled languorously after the release of two episodes of an advertised three-episode season.
It would be interesting to think of how D4 would have fared had it been released as part of a streaming service deal in a similar fashion to Netflix and Amazon shows, rather than as a Microsoft exclusive. Chances are the "Save D4" hashtag on Twitter might not have become necessary in this scenario, as all the episodes would had been available simultaneously, rather than following a broadcast-style timed-release model that seems outmoded in the digital sphere.
Telltale themselves were not exempt to the dangers of "cancellation", either: their first adventure game Bone: Out of Boneville, adapted from the wonderful Jeff Smith comic series, suffered from a similarly incomplete state, and only saw the release of two episodes in 2005 and 2006.
Episodic gaming has seen its ups and downs, but has also proven in the last few years its potential as more than just a broadcast-aping gimmick, offering exciting opportunities for both big-budget publishers willing to test out new franchises and shake up old ones that may have gone stale. Indie developers, meanwhile, are given increased scope on lower budgets through episodic distribution, focusing on quality initial episodes that effectively test the waters of public interest, while also freeing up the deadline and budget pressures that come with releasing a lengthier standalone product.
One way or another, the episodic model is only going to grow: be that through today's delivery methods, or the rise in on-demand gameplay via devices like the SHIELD. Potentially, the games industry will see its very own version of Netflix appear, and once it does you can bet competitors won't be far behind.