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This week on Bioshock 3, Abner Ryan, estranged great grandson of Andrew Ryan, visits the site of his father’s death, fighting through thousands of splicers to get there. And his beau, the beautiful Miss Wu, delves deeper into the mysteries of the now even more flooded corpse of Rapture. And next week, tune in for the bathhouse episode!

When we talk about episodic games, it’s usually in hushed, slurred voices, our words vile slanders. Episodic gaming is shit. That’s the refrain.

As an idea, it’s good: tap into the idea well of television, and tell stories that break down into smaller, easily digestible elements. On the development side, it makes game development costs more manageable by splitting the work up over time, and by creating a constant stream of revenue rather than making all the money at the end. Furthermore, changes can be made based on fan feedback on earlier episodes, resulting in more polished experiences. In general, episodic gaming allows for better games, both in terms of easing development and allowing for different plots to be told.

Yeah, it hasn’t worked out that way. The most famous watermark for episodic games, Half Life 2, stopped literally mid-sentence on Episode Two, with no conclusion forthcoming. Countless indies have released episodes of games and then never continued the series due to lack of fan support; some of these games might have had greater success if they were released as whole, complete objects.

On the successful side, though, we’ve had the Sam and Max series, which has gone for three seasons and has, regrettably, run into the problem that television shows do in later seasons: it’s gotten old. The first season was a well-balanced affair where it really felt like a paced television show, but the later seasons have been less cohesive and less impressive. Furthermore, we’ve seen some games like Disgaea which have attempted to be episodic in structure but which, obviously, aren’t episodic in release.

So how can episodic games truly work?

This week on Super Mario Brothers Super Adventure, Mario visits the Ice Kingdom and Luigi teaches a lecture at the Mario Bros. Soccer Academy! And Birdo’s got a big surprise for Yoshi…!

The most compelling aspects of an episodic structure lies in the ability to combine disparate ideas with a central unity. That is, each episode can tell its own independent story while remaining a part of a bigger whole. For instance, look at a television show like Avatar: The Last Airbender. Episodes feature massive internal tonal shifts: some are silly, some are deadly serious, some highlight action-packed kung-fu segments, and others have a lot of talking without much punching. They jump around between characters, try different things, and provide the viewer with variety, all building up to its point at the end.

Sam and Max had the major story arc, but it didn’t have the variety. The problem was that these stories were all the same: crimefighting duo finds a wacky situation, wises are cracked, and in the end the villain is defeated while another villain looks on. Cue evil laugh and credits scene backed by jazz. It’s a decent structure, but it is predictable and provides the player with little variety. We love repetition, but we need a certain degree of variety, a variety Sam and Max didn’t offer after its first season. For example, the most memorable games in the classic King’s Quest series were three, five, and six, the ones that had the most variable gameplay and which provided the most novel experiences to the player inside of its general framework. No one who’s played King’s Quest II particularly remembers it, but they all remember the third game because of its unique introductory structure: instead of being a king questing (hah) for his crown or his queen, instead you were a servant boy at the whim of an evil magician. The structural variance made it a more exciting experience.

An episodic game can shine by offering its player varied experiences; we know this from games like L.A. Noire, the most prominent recent game with this sort of structure. Episodic releases, so far, has provided more of the same. You buy the first episode, and if it’s successful enough the publisher takes it as a reason to greenlight another game with the same content but with different backgrounds. Sonic 4‘s first episode “succeeded”, so Sega decided to make another one. They didn’t even begin working until they realized it was a cash cow. There’s no reason for it to be an episodic series except that it gives them a good reason to make a “sequel”.

Half Life 2, gaming’s most famous episodic series, tried to do it right, but then Valve ditched the approach for shorter development cycles and creating platforms for content distribution. As it was going, Half Life 2 might have offered a good example of an episodic story, but it gave up the ghost too quickly.

It’s hard to envision a proper episodic series because one hasn’t happened yet. Games have had well structured episodic plots, but episodic releases present major challenges to developers: it’s significantly more work to make a series of episodes with varied gameplay than it is to turn a camera to another person in a television series. You need time and focus to develop completely new sections of a video game, a new playable character, and it would be a monstrous undertaking to try to make a truly high quality episodic experience.

On a very special episode of Civilization, the Huns invade the Chinese, and the French look on horrified. Is there anything they can do to help their former allies? Can they stop the insidious spread of Hinduism in their lands?

Where do I think that the first good episodic series will come? I feel like an independent developer who doesn’t overreach will figure this out and make a good, variable series. Something like an RPG can add layers of additional content to a basic leveling system, making it consistently more complex slowly, and it wouldn’t be very difficult to add in new characters. This is just speculation, but it seems to me that an episodic RPG in the Japanese tradition could do wonders to revive the genre.

Paradoxically, I think Starcraft 2 might also make good use of the episodic format by splitting its game up by races. We’ve only played the Terran faction so far, which wasn’t phenomenal, and as a whole it seems more like different seasons of a series than episodes, but it could offer enough variety to really keep each “episode” different and feeling new, which is the most important aspect of the structure.

As it is now, the episodic release structure is a good idea that hasn’t been hit out of the park yet. It’s an idea ripe for use, but one where we can’t cite a specific, actual example and say, “This game has made great use of the structure,” which is a shame.