October 9, 2006
Episodic Storytelling in Games

CNN's financial section had an interesting commentary last week about how video games are going for a multi-title story arc, with episodic storytelling that builds in a somewhat serialized way.

The piece attributes the type of storytelling to the days of the Saturday matinee, when moviegoers would load the cinema on a weekly basis to see the next installment of various features. I have watched some of these, including some old Batman and Robin movie serials from the 1940s pitting them against the evil Wizard, in which each episode was presented at the theater with a cliffhanger ending.

Of course, television is where the episodic format became a main fixture, as television could easily deliver these types of thrills. For whatever reason (principally concerns of syndication and a desire to hook viewers without requiring prior knowledge), television did not develop this "serialized" part of episodic storytelling very strongly most of the time, aside from the soap opera genre, so that episodic has largely come to connote a lack of serialization by this point.

However, this type of continued and sustained storytelling started with the development of serialized fiction and then comic strips and comic books, among many others.

How could video games wedge itself into this long-standing tradition?

According to Chris Morris, game developers are looking to the Saturday matinee to create games that are a series of adventures that interlink, leading users to not only have added reasons to buy a title but a deeper and richer playing experience through a sustained narrative.

Morris writes that "2004 really kicked off the trend in earnest. Halo 2 left Xbox players hanging (and more than a few pretty ticked off) with the Master Chief, stowed aboard an empty ship, promising to "finish the fight" as the player learned an invasion of Earth was imminent." This is one of many examples of how cliffhanger endings have led viewers clamoring for the next game in a series.

Morris says that "players, who have been trained to expect 20 to 60 hours of gameplay per title, might reject the model, even though it's lower priced." The episodic titles, being shorter games in length, would be lower-priced.

For fans wanting to enter an immersive storyworld, though, and for those who believe games can sustain compelling stories, this seems to be a promising development.

CNN's parent company, Turner Broadcasting, is a partner in the Convergence Culture Consortium.

Thanks to Alice J. Robison here at CMS for passing this along.