All At Once – A Case Against Episodic Games

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The 2015 GOTY winner, according to a panel of drunk people at my apartment recently.

Over the New Year’s holiday, I had some friends over for a few drinks, a chance to catch-up and reflect on the previous year, and to pay good money to watch two men beat the hell out of each other. All in all, a fun night. As tends to happen at any social event I attend, the conversation often turned to video games. The pros and cons of Fallout 4 mostly dominated the night, and I learned that the room was in near-unanimous agreement that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was the game of the year.

Though the conversation ebbed and flowed over hours of drinks (and the occasional Star Wars tangent), one topic kept recurring – the HD-remake of Final Fantasy VII. I have never been much of a Final Fantasy fan, so my knowledge of the remake was limited, at best. What struck me was that those who were fans of the franchise had varying degrees of love for the original release, ranging from “good, not great” to “one of the best games ever made.” Yet despite these differing opinions, one thing they could all agree on was the episodic nature of the HD-remake felt like little more than a money grab.

As an outsider, this attitude puzzled me. Sure, releasing the long-awaited, much-requested remake in parts does scream cash grab, but how much could it really ruin the game? Other than cost to the consumer, I couldn’t see any reason as to why it shouldn’t be released in episodic format, and I kept circling back to a two-part series I wrote on this very issue (Part One, Part Two). More games should be released in an episodic format, I argued, to allow developers to correct flaws or respond to player feedback, and also to give gamers a chance to focus more closely on each episode and reflect on the events that transpired, instead of rushing through the game all at once.

But it wasn’t until the drinks had settled and everyone left my apartment in shambles that I began to understand why so many fans were upset at developer Square Enix. Despite my pleas to developers to consider an episodic release schedule for games, there are certain games that would actually fare worse if they were to release in parts, and Final Fantasy VII is one of those games, and for one important reason – world building. Because of the high-profile nature of this release, and the fact that more games are being released in this format, it’s crucial to understand how certain games may falter if they were released piece by piece.

The Practical Case For Final Fantasy VII

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The remake of Final Fantasy VII has been a long time coming for many fans, but will the game end up being what they asked for?

I won’t spend much time on the specific case of Final Fantasy VII, since I have played perhaps fifteen or so minutes of the original before deciding that it just wasn’t for me. But I did reach out to fans of the game to ask them, other than cost, what negative impact could be inflicted onto the game were it to release in parts. Instead of in-depth analysis on the potential problems an episodic release could cause, I received clarity as to why fans were so adamant for an HD-remake. When I asked Theory of Gaming co-founder Nick Olsen if he was a fan of the original, his response shined a light on the true reason of the remake – “I was [a fan] when I first played it. Tried again in the last two to three years, and the polygons made my eyes bleed.”

This attitude surprised me, since both Nick and I take pride in our platform-agnostic stance when it comes to video games. To us, it rarely matters what platform a game releases on, or how it looks – we’ll play great games anytime, anywhere. However, the key word is “rarely,” and if Nick were to make an exception, Final Fantasy VII certainly makes a strong argument.

There’s a lot to unpack here, especially regarding the visuals. To summarize – they did not age well. Additionally, the art style comes across as cartoonish, which does not mesh well with a dramatic story about politics and terrorism. Sure enough, after digging around a few forums and asking a few more friends, the graphics became the single biggest reason for an HD-remake. Not the gameplay (although this, too, would be improved with stronger visuals), or the story – just the graphics.

So how does episodic gaming impact the game negatively if all fans are after is the same game but with modern visuals? There is a concern among fans, and at this stage of the game’s development it is a completely rational concern, that this game is not being made for them, but for a new audience. Square Enix is calling this version of the game a remake, and they mean more than just the visuals, and in order for them to find the most success with this remake, they feel it is imperative to release it in pieces. Doing so would, fans argue, fundamentally change the game, because the original was not released in this format (although it did span multiple discs), and would result in a version of the game the fans simply didn’t ask for.

While that might make good business sense, the argument begins to fall apart when you analyze what types of games would not work well within the episodic structure. It’s easy to say Final Fantasy VII won’t work because it’s a remake of a game that wasn’t released with this method, but there are other issues to consider when deciding if a game can be made in episodic format.

World Building vs. Scene Setting

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Although it inspired my original series on episodic gaming, Mass Effect 3 is the type of game that would be hindered if it were released in that format.

When I initially wrote the article arguing for episodic games, my inspiration was the DLC released for Mass Effect 3. I argued that these pieces of content were akin to episodes, but since they were released well after the original game, many people did not play them, as they moved on to other games (which is a shame, because the DLC for Mass Effect 3 not only enriches the story tremendously, but it’s some of the best I’ve ever played). In this regard, I argued that Mass Effect 3 would have benefitted from being released in the manner of a Telltale game, so everyone could have benefitted from this content, and not just the most dedicated fans.

But there is an often underrated aspect of games like Mass Effect that would make them terrible candidates for episodic gaming – world building. Specifically, the cities and central hubs the player inhabits are not just settings, but characters themselves, ones that grow and evolve as the game progresses, and it’s how that progression works that makes them unsuitable candidates for episodic gaming. In any game where the world is more than window dressing, developers build character and tone through sidequests. A perfect example comes from the first Mass Effect game, in a sidequest in which the player can help two researchers conduct their work by scanning Keepers, an alien race that maintains the Citadel, the central hub for all three Mass Effect games. This sidequest is not at all necessary to complete the main story, yet it allows gamers to learn the history of the Citadel, and to learn how it ties into the canon of Mass Effect. The Citadel plays a greater role than the player initially realizes, and as a result what was once scenery becomes a character, with a shady side and plenty of mystery. By the end of the game, the player learns that the Citadel is central to the story, and suddenly all those sidequests that had players running around from stores to bars to hospitals click into place – this setting is something the player must regain control over from the enemy, and seeing large portions of it destroyed elicits reactions from fans akin to seeing a squadmate being tortured or murdered. We care that the enemy has invaded the Citadel, because the Citadel is a character.

This characterization grows throughout the trilogy, and it’s possible because the player is allowed to take their time exploring the space and completing sidequests, something that is tricky to do in episodic games. The very nature of episodic games is to be linear, and the benefit of side quests is that the player gets to decide when to complete them, in which order and at their own pace. Removing side quests would mean that games whose worlds are central characters would lose the ability to build that characterization. That leads to another element of world building that would be hindered in episodic games – backtracking.

Seeing With New Eyes

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Backtracking is a powerful tool for world building, and it would be very difficult to pull off in an episodic game.

One of the storytelling elements unique to video games is the use of backtracking – revisiting an old area with new knowledge, allowing the player to access new information or complete new objectives in a space otherwise thought to be complete. It demonstrates the player’s progression from being a weak novice to a powerful force to be reckoned with. Backtracking is a powerful tool for any developer, but its power is entirely dependant on the strength of the world building.

One of the most famous uses of backtracking is Metroid Prime. Throughout Metroid Prime, players acquire new weapons or items that help them unlock new areas to explore, which lead to more items to collect, until players suddenly hit a brick wall – the door to the final boss fight is locked, and the keys needed to unlock it are scattered all over the world the player assumed they had conquered. The player is given clues as to where to find these hidden items, and is sent back out into the world, only to discover that one of the most crucial objects needed to complete the game was hiding in plain sight all this time. In addition, as players look for these keys, they realize how much of the world was actually hidden or blocked off to them, leading them to rediscover areas they thought they knew. Again, it builds a sense of progression, and creates a stronger bond between the player and the world.

While technically possible, few episodic games have figured out a way to implement backtracking (developers could have a later episode take place in the same space as one of the first episodes, and allow the players to use the knowledge and items gained over the course of the game to explore new areas). The issue, again, is the linear nature of episodic games, which block off previously completed sections of the game, preventing players from backtracking on their own, as is the case with Metroid Prime. This is where the whole idea of episodic gaming gets tricky, because episodic gaming works great for narrative-heavy games, but often games that focus on narrative also focus on world-building, and side quests and backtracking are two powerful methods for developers to utilize to accomplish those goals. Therefore, it’s crucial that developers understand what type of narrative-driven game they want to make. Does the world play a role beyond being a setting? If so, episodic gaming is likely not the answer. But if the setting is used as a vehicle to move the story from one point to the next, as is the case with Telltale’s The Walking Dead, then an episodic format works wonders.

Trying To Fit A Square Peg Into A Round Hole

Ultimately, that’s the issue fans of Final Fantasy VII should have with Square Enix’s insistence on releasing the game in pieces – the world of Final Fantasy VII is more than just a setting. The burden to make that world come alive and effect a new generation of gamers the way the original did is now on Square Enix’s shoulders, and it’s a burden they really shouldn’t have to bear.

I am still a firm believer in episodic gaming, but it can be more of a hinderance than a benefit if the setting is central to the game and the characters. Players need time to be able to explore these worlds at their own pace, and there are already tools and methods in place for developers to use toward this goal. But episodic gaming does not support those methods, and trying to force a game to be something it’s inherently not is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

There are other concerns developers should consider when choosing whether to take a traditional route or an episode format – games light in narrative might lose the player’s interest if the pieces are spaced out too far apart, and there is always the concern that releasing a game in pieces can be seen as nothing more than a money grab. But the world in which players will be going on grand adventures or meeting interesting, intriguing characters is the most important element to consider. If developers want that world to come alive, if they want players to care about it (or fear it), then players need time and space to establish that connection.