In Episodic Games, Space Should Matter More Than Time

by G. Christopher Williams

23 June 2016

The most successful episodic games have mimicked television episodes. What could a purely game-like "episode" look like, though?
Hitman (SquareEnix, 2016) 

The word “episode” is derived from the Greek epeisodion, a word that emerges from the combination of two other Greek words eisod, an entrance, and odos, a road or way. The manner in which the word is used in English, to represent the idea of a situation or event in a larger narrative, draws on the idea of the word’s geographical roots. In some sense, an episode is a part of a larger path, a narrative path. It’s a point on a map, revealing a small part of a much larger picture.

The word, of course, is probably most commonly used in relation to television, with each part of a larger season of a television series being described as an “episode”. More recently, of course, the term has come in use to describe a particular distribution model for video games, in which smaller chunks of a larger game are released in small pieces incrementally over time.

Thus far, the most successful episodic video games have been ones that have been wed strongly to narrative, seemingly in line with the word’s origins, as a metaphor for a way of mapping narrative. Telltale Games’s Walking Dead series, released originally in 2012, is, perhaps, the first tremendously successful attempt at releasing a “whole” video game in this way, and it is very much a game whose chief draw is its story.

While, of course, The Walking Dead is a game, most of the time spent in the game is time spent witnessing and taking part in a story. Most of the interactive elements of the game involve making dialogue choices, choices that create pathways through the game’s narrative. However, The Walking Dead‘s success as a series of episodes is probably related in some way to the way in which the game hews towards television. Each episode constitutes a situation in a larger narrative. Cliffhangers serve as the hook for driving the player towards the next episode. We want to know what happens next.

I feel quite differently about playing the 2016 reboot of the Hitman series, a reboot of the game as an episodic experience. It is true that there is an overarching plot to Hitman, but I really couldn’t care less what happens next in that plot. What I want to know is what kind of game space that I will be encountering next.

Each episode of Hitman is set in a different location. The first episode takes place at a fashion show in Paris. The second episode takes place in a small seaside village in Italy, a town called Sapienza. The third episode takes place amid civil unrest and rioting in Marrakesh.

Each of these sequences do advance the narrative of Hitman and each one contains small stories about the characters within these spaces, but that simply isn’t the draw of playing each one. Instead, the pleasure of playing Hitman is in exploring a unique space and figuring out what can be accomplished within it.

Of course, the central focus of Hitman is to successfully assassinate targets. Each episode in the new game asks the player to kill two targets, constrained largely by the circumstances surrounding the place that those targets are located in and more specifically by the geography and architecture of those spaces.

Killing two targets in each episode can be accomplished reasonably quickly if one simply wishes to barrel through the level, as if the goal of playing the game is to move linearly from point A to point B, as one does when reading a book or watching a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, Hitman levels have always been intended to be played through multiple times. There are simple ways to kill targets, but the allure of the game is to pull off complex, stylish assassinations by experimenting with the various mechanisms in a level. In some sense, Hitman has always been less an action game than it is a series of murder puzzles, in which you need to come up with ways to solve little problems one at a time until you have concocted and executed some subtle scheme for getting away with a spectacular kill.

Sure, you can sneak up and garrote a target if you follow them around for awhile and patiently wait for the right moment. But setting up an “accidental” electrocution or explosion or making their death look like the result of food poisoning is far more interesting. In order to do so, though, these episodes focus the player on learning as much about the space that they occupy than anything else. One learns when certain people arrive and leave, when a television interview will occur and where, what a target’s favorite drink is and when is the most opportune moment to choke out a bartender, take his place, and then mix a cocktail that is two parts vermouth, one part brandy, and one part rat poison. One only comes to understand how to control these moments in time, though, by learning where things are and what parts of the environment can be used as a weapon to achieve your goal.

In this sense, Hitman feels less like an effort to merely borrow the idea of what an “episode” should be from television. Instead, it feels like an effort to make an episode based, not on narrative situations, but on situations that occur in a game space. In other words, this feels, not like an extension of televisual narrative, but like the creation of what a game episode uniquely could be, a new game situation, rather than a new narrative situation.

While storytelling games like The Walking Dead might feature more of what we have come to expect from what is meant by an “episode”, a situation that will move us along from one point in a story to the next, Hitman may parallel the more geographical origins of the term “episode”‘s actual meaning more closely. Hitman wants to open up spaces along a pathway, in which situations admittedly occur, but which are intended to be investigated, interacted with, and fully explored before experiencing the next one.

With its complex narrative pathing and exploration of dialogue as a vehicle for gameplay, The Walking Dead felt like an evolution of adventure gaming. However, with its focus on game mechanisms, level design, and multiple puzzles to solve within a game world, Hitman feels like an evolution of episodic gaming itself, offering a different definition of what an “episode” means in an interactive medium.

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