Forget Hollywood

James Haresign August 7, 2012 - 2:00 pm

Feature: Plenty of games have emulated Hollywood to great success (Uncharted springs to mind), but is it always the best way to go? We look at the games influenced by television, and how the episodic format is suited to videogames.

What do television and games have in common? Not a lot, I bet you’re thinking. And for years you’d be right. For years, games strived to match up to the film world, and when we started reaching that level people celebrated. Television, on the other hand, was mostly ignored. There was that short attempt at episodic gaming in the mid-2000s, then it went away, but now the TV-like presentation is back, as games are starting to look to the small screen for inspiration rather than the big one.

There was a lot of noise made about episodic gaming when it was first tried, but it didn’t really take off. Just mention episodes to any Half-Life fan and watch the vein in their temple start to pulsate. Apart from the still-waiting status of Episode 3, early efforts are a graveyard of failures, with Sin Episodes and Bone notably not even finishing their runs. Thanks to these it was a concept the industry dropped pretty quickly and everyone moved onto the more Hollywood-esque style games.

Well, everyone except Telltale Games. They made their entire name on titles released in an episodic manner. Bone may have failed the year before, but they’ve been coming strong since 2006′s Sam and Max Save The World to the currently running (and gaining great praise) The Walking Dead. They are the television model personified in games. An episode tells a story, then you have to wait for the next one, which tells its own tale while at the same time slowly progressing the ongoing plot that pays off in the finale. A few even receive multiple seasons, building on what has come before and tackling dangling plot threads.

Episodic binging

But who says the episodes have to be spaced out? In this world of DVD boxsets and Netflix, where we consume entire series in the shortest time possible, some companies are embracing the TV model as the way forward for games. Stephen van der Mescht, executive producer on Sleeping Dogs, recently said: “If you think about an open world experience as more of a TV show than a movie, and you think about some of the great TV shows like HBO or Showtime — anything like The Wire or Sopranos or The Shield, any of those kinds of shows — the approach that we’ve taken is that all of the characters in the game play a role in the story.”

Open world games are some of the most obvious, with their longer story lines and multiple characters, but two in particular really stand out: LA Noire and Driver: San Francisco. LA Noire has its hour-or-so long cases, each acting as a standalone episode, but like most police procedurals the romance and corruption plots develop further with each one, all building to an epic two hour finale where everything comes to a boil, ending with a surprise twist and questions that leave you waiting for the second season sequel.

Driver: San Francisco is even more blatant about it than Rockstar‘s detective-em-up. It actually feels like you’re playing a 70s cop show. Shots of Tanner and Jones driving around the Bay area making enquires look like they’re straight out of Starsky and Hutch. Then there’s the fact every time you start a mission you get a “Previously on Driver: San Francisco…” because the developers realise that you’ve probably been fannying about in the huge world since the last one. Even the side missions, which are quite removed from the main plot, flesh out the world more, showing how much of a hold villain Jericho has on the Bay Area’s underworld as well as providing a few laughs with recurring characters.

LOST in Translation

But what about games that don’t offer an entire city to roam at your pleasure? One thing that seperates the previous videogames from TV is that they still revolved around a single, central protagonist. Most TV shows may have you identify with a key character, but they follow the paths of multiple people, often using a different protagonist in individual episodes, interweaving them through to the end. LOST is a great example of this, with Jack, Sawyer, Locke, Kate, Sayeed, and many others all starring, each playing the protagonist at differing points of the story.

Heavy Rain takes this same approach, telling the story of its Origami Killer through the eyes of multiple characters. Ethan Mars may be the main protagonist, but the paths of journalist Madison Paige, Detective Norman Jayden, and Scott Shelby are equally important, each revealing new details of the plot, and allowing you to develop a personal connection with each character, rather than leaving them as mere signposts in your story.

Alan Wake is influenced by all manner of horror kings, from the novels of Stephen King to the films of Hitchcock, but its most immediate association is with television. Not only does it pay homage to the Twilight Zone with its own in-game parody Night Springs playing on every television in the fictional town of Bright Falls, but the small, seemingly idyllic town itself is heavily based on the setting of 90s mystery-thriller Twin Peaks.

The story is told as a series of episodes, often jumping between time-frames and locations between each, always leaving you on a cliffhanger – it’s typical television storytelling, making sure you’ve always got a reason to stick with Alan Wake as you crave that final payoff that reveals all.  There was even two extra episodes released as DLC, linking themselves to the main story but perfectly playable as separate entities.

Then there’s Halo 4‘s co-op, Spartan Ops, which has embraced the old episodic release schedule and  the very language of TV scheduling with a ‘season’ lasting ten weeks. It’s an interesting way forward for delivering co-op and if done right could be a defining point for episodic games. Ten instalments is far longer than anyone has tried before and this is only the first season. If they hook the campaign audience to sticking around like others do for multiplayer, episodic gaming could see a massive resurgence.

It’s heartening to see games try something other than the Hollywood blockbuster format – they’re capable of so much more than that and it seemed in the last few years it was something the big publishers had forgotten. Television is a good place to start.

Apart from anything else your average game lasts around about eight to ten hours which means they have more in common with the length of a miniseries like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones then they do the latest Michaexplosion Bay-athon. Dragging out Hollywood style story telling to that sort of timescale just doesn’t work well. Imagine trying to watch all three Transformers films back to back.

There’s only so much unrelated destruction that the brain can take before it starts leaking out your ears. Like van der Mescht mentions, good television builds up characters with complex stories while still having big pay off moments without having to wipe out a couple of small countries every two or three levels.

Hopefully this is just the beginning of developers not simply relying on big explosive set pieces to tell their story as more diversity will be good for all of us.

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