A Change of Pace in Episodic Gaming

The problem when you craft an idea around a very good, very watchable, very easily accessible television show via Netflix is that you tend to keep watching episodes of said show. This is what I did with The West Wing in the after glow of writing a post last week about the possibility of a Telltale-Games-style version of that show (“Considering the Direction of the Telltale Style Adventure Game”, PopMatters, 14 January 2014). After hitting publish, I found myself continuing to think on certain aspects of what a West Wing adventure game would look like if Telltale designed one. Then at some point I was informed that Telltale had in fact done a Law & Order game that I had never heard of before. They’ve also done four CSI games that were published by Ubisoft. I haven’t played any of them, but now I am curious to see whether Telltale did anything with them or created old school adventure games using those particular licenses.

But back to The West Wing. I’ve been rewatching episodes while I multitask, and I’ve noticed something that games seem loath to do but that television is all too willing to do all the time. In addition to major story arcs, episodic television often includes small episodes about minor occurrences. Not everything has to be a hearing on the hill, shutting down the government, or assassinating a foreign terrorist organizer. Sometimes the characters are simply debating an issue, taking a meeting about the bill of the week, or assessing the fallout of a non-story. Video games don’t seem willing to do that.

In a video game, the fate of the world needs to always be at stake. The goal of a game has to be big, and the stakes have to be high for the player to care at all. Or at least that seems to be the thinking. And even those games that do focus on smaller scale fare only seem interested in the drama and pathos that can be extracted from the extreme situations of such a setting. Even Telltale is subject to this. All five episodes of The Walking Dead focus on big transition periods for the survivor group. We don’t get to see the day-to-day deterioration in the three months since Lee and company set up at the motel. The game skips ahead for the big events concerning the dairy and the bandits. Likewise, Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us is based on an intellectual property (the comic book series Fables) that has several hundred years of history of its various communities’ history to draw from, but only with the advent of a serial killer does the story start.

Indeed this particular approach to the serial could be something that it is a left over from the lineage of comic books. Rare is the comic in which any issue in the run doesn’t feature an important event in which big things are occurring. One of the reasons that I like Ultimate Spider-Man so much is that it takes the time to occasionally slip in an issue that simply deals with the mundane aspects of life and things of small consequence.

The media form with the biggest influence on video games, and not just in visual affectation, is film. While television and film are really two facets of the same medium, their approach to the form is very different. Films are big one-off events. If a story is made into a film, there had better be a good reason for it. Comic book movies always focus on big transition events in a hero’s life — their origin, their fall from grace, etc. — major changes in the status quo. Even comic books with their high stakes know to keep the status quo for a while and see what they can get out of a certain confluence of elements.

Each medium and media format has their own way of doing things, primarily based on audience expectations. Television shows are allowed more leeway in how big or how small they allow themselves to be. If one week was disappointing, than the next week can pick up the slack. Comic books are monthly and have a high price of admission in relation to other media so there are expectations that the content within will do something and not fritter time away. There are of course exceptions to all these stereotypical understandings of each of these mediums. Manga, for instance, are comics that are given more leeway for off chapters because of a weekly schedule and anthologized publications. Smaller art films are allowed to get away with the drama of small moments in people’s lives because of expectations. Television shows on premium networks with shorter seasons aren’t given the same benefit that broadcast television is with regards to breather episodes.

Likewise video games, depending on the scope and presentation of the game, are subject to their audience’s expectations of the material that they present. I do realize that some games have such downtime built into their structure, like every open world game ever made, but I’m talking about authored content. Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, or Bioshock Infinite need a certain level of power behind their narrative content. These are big games that have to deliver on certain audience expectations. They are also whole works meant to be consumed as such. And this is where we get back to Telltale.

In this hypothetical West Wing adventure game that I wish Tellatale was making, I’m wondering about the place of such “breather episodes,” episodes that may or may not advance character dynamics, plot threads, or whatnot. Episodes that exist in between bigger events or in the lead up to a big event, say a State of the Union speech, for which there wouldn’t need to be smaller scale episodes sprinkled in before that event.

We kind of already see this with Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero. The free, related prequel and intermission episodes of Limits and Demonstrations and The Entertainment act as in-between samplers in the same world and style as Kentucky Route Zero, but they are outside Conway’s odyssey through the back roads of Kentucky. They don’t effect the narrative, but inform it. They don’t display big events of significance to the larger story, but instead concern themselves with the drama of the small. The expectations are different because they are free and are labeled as a game demo and as a tech demo respectively.

A lot of ink is spilled about the sameness of the industry’s output, even among indies. I don’t wonder if what we need isn’t a change of content, but a change of pace and scope. Content will follow whatever reasonable expectations are. To move away from the need to highlight “events” that seems a part of Telltale’s The Walking Dead might be required for a game in the vein of The West Wing. It would be a game that would have to present smaller, cheaper episodes that are put out more frequently. With the same sets and character models used for all of them, it may be possible.