Storytelling is a delicate thing. People spend hours carefully crafting immersive, nuanced worlds within which to tell rich, character driven stories that rival feature films and hit TV shows. If pausing to answer the door can ruin a movie, then waiting over two months to continue a title can ruin a game.
I understand why episodic gaming is important to small development houses. It’s story-driven Early Access. They haven’t got a lot of money, and without micro-transactions and a constant stream of money coming in other than out-right sales, they’ve got to do something to keep the studio open for the time it takes to finish the game. Often, this is a very clear strategy as with the case of Broken Sword 5, but other times its marketed as an almost creative decision, as with The Walking Dead, and Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief.
I love adventure games, from classic 2D point and click titles like Monkey Island to AAA 3D offerings such as Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes series. The problem is, they require a lot of attention, patience, and for lack of a better phrase, a one-track-mind. There’s no way I can enjoy The Raven with Tweetdeck on the right monitor, and Facebook and Skype open on the left. I have to shut down. It’s just me and Zellner. Myself and Nico. Reams and reams of beautifully written dialogue are either scrawled across beautifully hand-painted set-pieces, or audibly plodded at the games own pace like a sort of interactive story-book. It requires a lot of attention, and a lot of investment.
That investment is costly. We’re busy. Not just games journalists, but everyone. There are more games around now than ever before, and with extended working ours and social politics blending the lines between work and play, life is a sort of endlessly sapping away at your senses. When we go on holiday, we pick a book, and we set ourselves the task of reading it. We’re assigning chunks of our lives to moments of tranquility; a time where we can actually afford a costly investment.
So we establish a train of thought. The characters grow on us, and we think about them when we’re away. When you’re reading a book, you begin to empathise with the people you’re reading about. Aptly put in Almost Human, empathy is about noticing when someone is missing, as much as noticing when they’re there. Anyone who’s read The Millennium Series of Swedish crime novels has darted around the characters, picking and choosing elements that suit them, likening them to themselves. Blomkvist has a polygamous relationship in a bustling work environment — that chimes to our repressed professional liberal sensitivities. How consistently intriguing, these characters are. And so they stick.
A good adventure game, film, or novel will absorb you. It’ll literally take over quite a large percentage of your brain. You’ll change with a good story, and that change won’t revert (sometimes it’ll never completely revert) until the story is over, and you’ve moved on. We love that about stories. That’s part of the investment. It can actually be quite a psychologically challenging aspect of good storytelling, digital or otherwise; the idea that a certain percentage of you is different, or on hold, or reserved, until it comes to a close. People who read frequently know this feeling, and it’s a feeling that sometimes consciously, but often subconsciously, determines when, where, and to what extent we read, or play games. Uni students know it all too well. I’m competent, I enjoy my subject matter, but when I’m in that world, I am someone other than my social self. This might seem a little over-the-top, but let me clarify.
Jumping into a series like The Walking Dead, or Broken Sword or all the aforementioned necessarily induces that clash of minds. If I have to shut Twitter, Skype, my phone, IRC, and Facebook down, I’m going to be gone for a while, completely immersed. My brain is now in that mode. My issue with episodic gaming is that getting into that mode is actually a relatively painful experience, made rewarding by the quality of storytelling and ultimate end. It’s preparation, and any procrastinator knows that preparation leads to browsing Imgur, or playing Civ 5. It’s intimidating.
The preparation for high-concept experiences is made less attractive by large gaps in the story. That was intense. I got through 3 hours, and now I’m hungry for more. I’m in the zone. Everything is still shut down, and it’s just me and the story. But no, the characters and memories fade whilst the developer works on the next pieces of the puzzle, and other games — even adventure games — take its place. New characters are established, and new worlds, opinions, views, and perspectives take place of the game prior. The game is erased, and so too is its replacement. Again, this makes preparation that much more intimidating. Pay-off is reduced, and it becomes almost impossible to pick up the story again once you slip back into the guy who’s not in that zone.
In the same way that I cannot read multiple (non-fiction) novels at once, I can’t enjoy multiple episodic adventure games in the same way. What’s more, the longer I’m away from the story, the less I empathize with the characters, and the more my memory of them fades. When the next segment is released, I find myself trying to scramble my emotions, thoughts and feelings together again, and ultimately fall short of how I felt as I played it. I find myself asking: “do I really have time for this right now? Is it really worth it? I could start a new adventure here…” I ultimately know that I’d love it again when I got back into it, but with such a long gap between then and now, the empathy has faded, and moving on seems a more attractive.