On Telltale and the failure of episodic gaming

The USE knife ON person action had disastrous consequences

Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands is, by all accounts, a funny and exciting adventure game that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but I’m not going to play it. Not yet anyway. I want to. I played The Wolf Among Us and both seasons of the Walking Dead and enjoyed them immensely, especially TWD’s sorely underlooked second season. I didn’t play any of these the first chance I had though. I waited until the final episodes were released and then played through whole seasons at once and enjoyed them all the more for it.

Telltale insist on using an episodic model despite their failure to regularly deliver. It’s harming the reception of their products and it’s surely harming their sales. Despite releasing to near universal acclaim from critics with its first episode, it was a whole four months before anyone was able to play the second part of The Wolf Among Us. This was terrible. Imagine waiting four months for the next episode in a season of the Game of Thrones TV show. Even the mid-season breaks that have recently become popular with American broadcasters only last about that long. Admittedly, after the shocking delay of the first episode the breaks never got longer than two months but by then the damage was done. Even then, I feel two months is too long for me to wait, especially when this isn’t guaranteed. The gap between releases varies a lot, occasionally getting as small as a month and a half. But even now, after all the problems with the model have been made clear, there are still huge gaps between the episodes of Tales from the Borderlands. The first episode released at the end of November last year and the third episode only released on the third of June this year. These episodes aren’t substantial 8 hour affairs like the Half Life 2 episodes. They’re typically 2-3 hours long, the length of a lot of Summer blockbusters.

The sizeable wait causes plenty of problems. For one, when players have to wait so long for more episodes with little indication of the next release date they lose interest in the series. They have nothing to anticipate. Not like when every fan and media outlet is waiting with bated breath for 9 o’clock on a Sunday to find out what hijinks Tyrion Lannister or Walter White will get up to. When the actual release date does roll around it’s met with mild surprise rather than excitement. People have already forgotten what they enjoyed about the previous one, as well as forgetting the choices they’d made or why they should care about the characters. When I play a whole season in one go I maintain my attachment to these characters. I’m less likely to make choices on a whim.

Clementine

Clementine might remember that but in three months I won’t.

On the topic of choices, it’s often been remarked that in Telltale’s games, and others of their ilk, your decisions are ultimately arbitrary. To an extent these complaints are valid. After I finish a Telltale season I tend to look to a wiki to see how events could have transpired if I’d acted differently. I’m usually a little disappointed. Most important events will happen regardless of what you choose to do. If you save someone’s life you’re often merely delaying their demise till a later episode, at least in The Walking Dead. For the most part though, these aren’t things you notice whilst playing the first time. Your unaware of the outcomes your actions could have had. The lack of impact didn’t hugely hamper my experience but I’m sure it would have done if I’d played each episode as they were released. The ‘watercooler moments’ that used to spring up after each episode of The Walking Dead’s first season actually brought the game’s flaws to the fore. It was easy to forgive that when it was the first time but the template hasn’t changed since. You have a problem when a person’s discussion of your product is actually detrimental to their enjoyment of it.

I’m sure that Telltale’s profits must be affected by their unreliable and prolonged release schedule. I’d happily pay full price for Game of Thrones or Tales from the Borderlands on release if it got me the whole season immediately but there’s no need to get the season pass now if I want to wait. If I buy it after the final episode releases then not only will I enjoy it more but it’ll also be cheaper. Tales from the Borderlands is only three out of five episodes in and has already been on sale multiple time and when it’s finally finished there’ll probably be another sale to celebrate that.

If the huge popularity of Netflix and other streaming services has taught us anything it’s that people like to consume media on their own terms, even if that means watching all of Orange is the New Black over a single weekend*. Netflix and Amazon are releasing whole seasons of new, exclusive shows at once. It  seems counter-intuitive at first but it’s clearly working for them. Games have tried to ape TV and cinema for so long, often to their detriment. It seems a shame for developers to want to move towards a traditional TV format when ‘television’, so to speak, itself is moving away from it.

People still care about Life is Strange. It helps that its release schedule is consistent.

Telltale weren’t the first to take a stab at episodic gaming, they’re just the most persistent. Valve attempted it with the Half Life 2 Episodes and we all know how that turned out. Despite making one good and one great extra slice of Half Life they dropped the idea and haven’t returned to the franchise or the model since. It doesn’t always go wrong, however. This year mega-publisher Capcom and small studio Dontnod Entertainment (backed by Square Enix) have had success with the model. Resident Evil Revelations 2 had a new episode every week for five weeks. Clearly the whole thing was ready before the first episode came out. The final episode was out long before the title could fall into irrelevance.

Life is Strange too maintains its momentum by reliably releasing every two months. The episodes are still too far apart for my tastes, I will enjoy it when the last episode is out. The dependable schedule has kept audiences caring about it. It no doubt also helps that Life is Strange avoids Telltale’s problem of the shattered illusion of choice by not even trying to cover it up. The game’s central mechanic allows you to rewind time and make a choice again after you’ve seen the consequences of a decision. Players can always see where a decision will take them, at least in the short term. It’s better than reading it in a wiki.

So the episodic format isn’t always wholly damning for games, but its flaws are clear and it seems to have much more benefit for the developer than the player. I would hope that in the future the declining success of post-Walking Dead Telltale will be enough to turn developers away from the idea, or that they will see the relative success of the model done right, as with Capcom and Dontnod, and learn from there.

*As a side note, I’d like to nominate OITNB to be the next franchise to get the Telltale treatment. It has to be a better choice than Minecraft, surely?

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