Stay tuned for the next poorly written episode

Clive Thompson has a column up at Wired about the potential for episodic video games. He says TV is a better model for video games than movies, for a host of reasons.

I think he’s right for the most part. It’s much easier to digest a five-hour game than a 40-hour one. Developers can improve graphics and physics as they go along, rather than waiting until the whole thing is perfect. Gameplay can change from episode to episode.

But in terms of story, episodic games won’t see the benefits of serial narrative until the writing and acting drastically improve. Thompson writes:

Dickens soon discovered that he could now do innovative things with his story. His characters’ personalities could be developed not through single, central scenes, but through a dozen glimpses over a long stretch of time. Serial narrative also changed the way audiences relate to characters. When we focus on movie characters for two solid hours, they become epic heroes; when we encounter TV characters every week for years on end, they become old friends. There’s an intimacy to episodic stories, and it’s all the more intensified in a game because you literally go through hell with these folks.

The problem is that in most video games, characters’ personalities aren’t developed at all. And when they are, it’s via cliched dialogue or plot points. I haven’t played Half Life 2 and Episode 1 — which he says feature “Alyx, one of the spunkiest and best-acted virtual characters I’ve ever seen” — but except maybe for Psychonauts, I’ve never played a video game that came close to giving me a character whom I wanted to keep spending time with, like I do with Vince Chase or Homer or Borat.

Because they don’t have as high costs or the pressure of a release date, episodic games would be a great way for developers to experiment with improving the writing and narrative. But the nature and structure of episodic content won’t automatically solve the underlying problems.

– June 19, 2006

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