PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Games

In Episodic Games, Space Should Matter More Than Time

Hitman (SquareEnix, 2016)

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

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.