The Evolution of Episodic Gaming

The comparison of viewable and interactive media is a frequent argument. Tim Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Games Matter, puts his foot down regarding the issue, firmly separating the two and their storytelling abilities. Asura’s Wrath challenges this argument and might deliver a solid retort.

The game doesn’t deliver on innovative gameplay but with an interesting story steeped in Eastern mythology and quite an engaging method of telling it. What sets Asura apart from other titles is the way it was made. The entire game is composed of episodes in the format of a Japanese anime TV show. There are two segments of gameplay nearing ten minutes each that are divided by commercial bumpers – the images flashed on the screen before and after the commercial break –  more memorably used in Samurai Champloo. Now there aren’t any actual commercials, but the effect is profound. Then, after the episode is over you get a small list of credits, a preview of the next episode, and the choice to return to the main menu or continue.

I personally think that this method of storytelling should be used more often. Not specifically the anime motif but the episodic composition. Imagine that instead of missions you had episodes that all ran about the same length. Longer missions you would simply make multi-parted episodes. This method of storytelling would allow for multiple writers to contribute to the same story in a unique way as well. Episodically structuring a game would also make sequels and DLC little more manageable.

More important than all of the industry implications are the benefits it would give us as gamers. A game built in episodes would make quick gaming extremely easy. Do you only have thirty minutes before you have to leave for work? Pop in Mass Effect 3 and play episode 12. Twenty minutes, save, done. Need to go somewhere but have no idea when a good saving point is coming? Now you know that it won’t be any more than twenty minutes away, depending on the game.

This fall Halo 4 is releasing with Spartan Ops; a weekly, episodic, co-op campaign. Each week we will get a short episode of a show and then five missions to go with it. Now, that isn’t exactly what Asura’s Wrath was, but the idea – the concept – is there. It will keep us, the players, coming back because we will want to see what’s next.

This episodic form will also help do away with the feeling of boredom that comes with lengthy stories. Instead of long periods of gameplay that become redundant and story that feels like its dragging, episodes are created differently. Watch any TV show and you will notice that every episode of any given show does three things every time. It introduces (or carries over) a particular problem, it shows you how the characters are going to deal with that issue this time, then it shows you whether or not or characters were successful. Each installment has to have its own story arc. Each episode has to be entertaining or you won’t come back.

The possibilities that this would open in the industry are nearly endless. What would it be like if big developers like Ubisoft, EA, and Activision adopted this structure? Some of their releases could resemble AMC and TNT, releasing Call of Duty Season 12 instead of a whole new game. Prices could be reduced because production costs would drop. How many people would buy Call of Duty if they were just twenty or thirty dollar seasons? Like I said, there will always be games that wouldn’t work this way. Open world games for instance, would transfer really poorly. But who knows? Maybe episodic gaming will be the birth of a new genre for RPGs.

How would you like it if some games switched over? Would you stop playing them or buy more of them because they would be easier to accommodate? And what games do you think are best suited for episodic release?