That's right. Now you don't have to leave the idea of divided storytelling to your movie trilogies and television series, you can also enjoy it in a wide variety of games from franchises new and old! Did you ever finish a game with a cliffhanger ending and think "Wow! I really hope more games leave unresolved questions for the sequels!"? Well, through the joys of advancements in digital distribution (think: Steam), you too can quit playing that nice self-contained twelve to twenty hour blockbuster first-person shooter, and start playing the same game in three to five hour installments delivered over a year or more! Sound good? Read on for more about this great innovation!
The First-Person Shooter Example
Currently, the buzz about this stuff surrounds the gaming equivalent of the summer, action blockbuster movie: the summer, action first-person shooter games. So, when I mention the idea of episodic gameplay in this context, two games should come to mind: Half-Life 2 and SiN. For the former, the first of the planned trilogy of episodes comes after the critically acclaimed best game of 2004 (even if I had something to say about that). For the latter, it's a long-coming follow-up on one of the classic FPSs of yore -- which was, ironically, completely overshadowed by the original Half-Life... But that's neither here nor there. Both of these games released the first episodes of their planned series in the last month and a half and I have, indeed, played through both of these titles. I'm not trying to review the games for this article, though, so I'll leave any opinion on that out. What I will comment on is the presentation, flow, and plot of both of these episodes.
Though, as a mild digression, let me say that I've been disappointed on the whole with the way the blockbuster FPSs have handled plots in the last few years. I'm not sure when, but it's like it became cool to give players questions and then end the game with a cliffhanger that does nothing to address them (*cough*). The reason I bring this is up is because Half-Life 2 is standing right there on the throne for this offense alongside Halo 2. Apparently when a game gets popular, expansions and sequels are so expected that no real attention needs to be paid to any real contained plot. Some fantastic shooters are great without resorting to such cheesy "hook" techniques, though.
So, at least with the first episode of the Half-Life 2 expansions (I've got a problem just typing that), the story of the episode is a fairly big subject for me when I play it. The ending to Half-Life 2 resolved nothing, other than providing a fairly anticlimactic final "fight" that ended in a neat effect, that ended in the predictable appearance by a particular character in the series -- which is to say that when I beat the game, I felt the need to go throw a small pebble at Valve's office building as a symbolic act of spite. So, when I played HL2: Episode 1, the first thing I went in looking for was at least some semblance that Valve wasn't following the LOST story-telling methodology of throwing plot points against a well and performing voodoo rituals around a hatch at night with the hope that a logical conclusion arises from the flames. I didn't get that. Instead I got four-five hours of the exact same gameplay I remember from Half-Life 2. Except this time I experienced it with the highly-touted HDR upgrade to the Source engine. I'm sure there's a kid in Guam shouting, jumping, and dancing for joy at this idea. That child is not me. I'm the kid who's annoyed that he paid twenty bucks for the shorter, less enjoyable, and less complete experience of Episode 1... The same amount of money he paid for the first expansion pack for the original Half-Life. Which could have been given a full-price retail tag and I'd still be glad I made the investment.
For SiN: Episode 1, however, I'm a bit more forgiving of the situation. Ritual did an entirely decent job with the game's first outing in seven-eight years. The introduction is dull and confusing, there are only three weapons, and the game's performance is far worse while still not looking as good as Half-Life 2... But the gameplay mechanics it introduces, along with the pure action-packed goodness that it delivers after the first half-hour or so make me interested to see where the game goes. Now, that said, there really isn't much to the game on its own terms. The plot is thin overall, there is no multiplayer (though this is said to be coming later for anyone who bought this initial installment), and it's very obviously a game not intended to be enjoyed by people who just want twenty bucks of good fun with no overhang.
The necessity for a hook to keep players paying for more and more episodes in these series is obviously there. There needs to be a reason to force the consumer to the store (or the eStore, if that's your thing) for more, but both of these games handle this in the wrong way in my idealistic view of the industry. For these episodes, I'd like the hook to be that the gamers want to continue playing in these polished, well-paced short episodes just to experience new things, new weapons, and generally more of the same great gameplay they experiences in the previous episode(s). Instead, what I'm seeing with HL2: Episode 1 is little more than a map pack for the original game. With SiN: Episode 1, the pace is a bit off as is the overall content, but for the price I think it is an acceptable example of the idea of episodic gameplay.
There are some budgetary semantics of these two games which I could get into, such as how people are paying twenty dollars for an incomplete gaming experience which lasts for a mere four-five hours... But I don't believe I'll take the bait on that. Sure, when I paid the retail fifty dollars for F.E.A.R. I got twelve hours of gameplay with an very well-done plot with a clear beginning and ending (even with more than enough of a sequel/expansion hook in the last five seconds of the game). Oh, and F.E.A.R. has that incredibly enjoyable multiplayer mode that was included with it. And I still plan to buy the upcoming expansion pack despite all that just so I can play more even after such a complete experience.
The Shining Child
I never thought I'd say this, but: EA has the right idea with their treatment of Battlefield 2. In a recent entry, I briefly discussed my experiences with the BF2 booster packs. After they released the full Special Forces expansion pack (with the normal thirty-dollar price tag), EA went and released news that the future additions to the game would come in shorter installments for a ten dollar value. These installments, so far at least, each bring three new maps along with some various other additions to weaponry and vehicles. I've purchased both of these packs as well as the expansion, and I think the switch to the shorter, cheaper booster packs were actually a solid idea. They are integrated with the main game very well, the EA Downloader is a very well-working, functional digital distribution client (that doesn't need to be used for anything other than downloading the packages you want), and it's a generally well-polished package. There are a few problems with finding decent servers which support the booster packs, but that's more of a problem of player adoption rather than the execution of the packs themselves.
This method is all well and good in terms of general "episodic content," but it's also in a differently league than SiN and HL2:E1 are. Battlefield 2 is a game meant solely for online play. Sure there's a single-player mode, but it's kind of like playing a few rounds of Twister by yourself. Adding content to an online game doesn't require a lot of the considerations that have to go into single-player episodes. So, while I think that EA is definitely on the right track with this idea, it is also far easier for them to succeed in the online arena (something that I'll cover in Part 2 in greater detail).
The Conclusion, Part 1
There are a couple of other big examples I can think of that follow (or will follow) this episodic methodology, but there's not quite as much for me to say about them. There's Bone, a series of adventure game episodes based on the comics of the same name. There's also news that the new take on Alone in the Dark will also follow an episodic format (because nothing says horror like time-delayed releasing of episodes). The Bone idea I actually enjoy if solely because it pays homage to the idea of the comic books themselves. Not that I think it should be praised for taking one of the comic series' traits into the digital gaming realm, but the games seem to be receiving fairly positive acclaim, so woot. Alone in the Dark in an episodic format, though? Well... Mommy always said that if you didn't have anything to say, you should
Tomorrow, I'm going to look at the idea of episodic delivery under a slightly different circumstance: the MMORPG.