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Save adventure games, ban Half-Life

Episodic gaming is an issue which is very close to my heart as a writer, journalist and gamer. As a writer, I love the way that episodic distribution opens up a whole new way of writing for games, while as a journalist it was an essay on the problems of episodic game developments which got me this job and as a gamer I simply look forward to the promise of more regular, interactive stories in an episodic format.

But, that said, I hate episodic gaming. I hate it to the core.

Part of the reason is that the majority of bigger episodic titles, such as Half-Life 2 Episodes and SiN Episodes, the first heavyweights in episodic gaming, have proven to be utterly disappointing. Not only has Half-life 2: Episode Two suffered repeated setbacks, but SiN episodes was officially cancelled after only one instalment.

"I often compare myself to an abused housewife..."

My major beef with these games in particular though is that they promised the earth, but in reality only really delivered a few hours of gaming - essentially a very short retail game which normally would be faulted for its brevity. There has been no evidence of the promised innovations, such as community guided storylines (granted though, these two games have barely had a chance to incorporate this) and the major perk of having smaller but more regular releases has been proven utterly false. Games are smaller, but not more regular.

Despite my anger at these games though, I still have faith in the episodic gaming concept and I still ardently defend it in our community. It seems confusing at first – that I hate episodic games but still defend the idea behind them – and I often compare myself to an abused housewife in this regard (not that the experiences are at all similar, I just have a crappy imagination); I know I'm being abused by developers and publishers, but I just can't bring myself to leave them because, somewhere deep down, I still love them.

So, why do I still love episodic distribution, despite all that it's done to me?

Well, my reasons are simple. Firstly, just the concept of episodic gaming is exciting if you stop to think about it. All the clever tricks Ritual and Valve have talked about, but not really followed through on, are actually possible to implement. It would be easy, for example, to take SiN Episodes (or should that just be SiN Episode?) and use the included stats system to upload more than just a report on how many secrets gamers found.

If this system was re-tooled to study and inform developers on what players do in certain situations – such as whether they abandon hostages to chase baddies or not – then this information could be used to make future instalments more enjoyable for gamers. Cliff-hanger endings could then lead into a set of customised openings, chosen from a selection of two of three possibilities in the next episode where lines of dialogue are replaced based on what the game reports you did last time. Jessica Cannon would therefore know whether to tell you off or not in Episode 2, based on what you did in the previous episode. Features like this would make games seem much more interactive, doubly replayable and are simple enough that they can be easily implemented.

"The concept of episodic gaming is exciting if you stop to think about it."

The second reason I love episodic gaming is that it allows a whole new style of writing to be introduced to a game. Playing through a retail game like Half-Life 2 is all well and good, but there's only really one cliffhanger in it, which is right at the end. Every other cliff hanger in the game can easily be got around by players just pushing on to the next level, something which actually encourages them to burst through the game as fast as possible if the game is well written.

With episodic gaming though, a staggered release really lets writers build up cinematic crescendos if they want – one thing Marc Laidlaw has done very well in Half-Life 2 Episodes – so that the games become more exciting. Unlike other games where I'd normally just play for a bit longer to find out what happens, an episodic game like Half-Life 2: Episode One leaves me wondering for months (too many months, actually) about what happens to Alyx in Episode Two. That kind of anticipation is fun all on its own, if the dosage is right.

Unfortunately, the dosage isn't right and gamers are left going cold-turkey between instalments of Gordon Freeman's adventure.

This issue with irregular release dates is often seen as a problem with episodic games by the gaming community at large and it's certainly the one which I see members of our community citing as the reason they don't like episodic distribution; the episodes take too long to develop and are too far apart to really be enjoyable.





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Joe Martin

Unfortunately for the medium, this is a bit of a misconception. When trying to think of all the episodic games that are available, most people will list both Half-Life 2 and SiN before staring blankly and stopping, but in reality there are a hell of a lot of episodic games which have continued onwards across entire seasons of well-written instalments but which are unfortunately forgotten as people focus on the triple-A mega-franchises which dominate the market.

Games like Penumbra: Overture and Sam and Max show that there is a definite ability to produce high-quality and regular episodic adventures in a certain genre.

Which brings me to the main reason I love the episodic concept: I love adventure games. Those who follow bit-tech closely will know how my love of gaming began when I was introduced to Guybrush Threepwood in The Secret of Monkey Island, so it won't be a surprise for me to reiterate my love of the adventure game genre.

Often considered to be completely and utterly dead since the awesome Grim Fandango, which I recently reintroduced into the office, the adventure game genre has seen less than a handful of decent releases in years past. However, recently the genre has undergone a mild resurrection thanks to the episodic format allowing budding writers and developers to create smaller games that don't cost the earth thanks to low production values.

"Adventure games, unlike first person shooters, don't require engine revisions and stunning graphics."

The other advantage for adventure games in the episodic format is that they can be quickly developed with a professional team and a committed staff writer. Adventure games, unlike first person shooters, don't require engine revisions and stunning graphics. All they need is an engaging story, an occasional smattering of humour and a rudimentary 3D engine if they want to be really swanky.

These simplified requirements mean that a game can only really fall behind in the event of writer's block, which isn't a problem when you have a chance community-driven outcomes. Half-Life 2 Episodes meanwhile has suffered delay after delay as each episode attempts to incorporate something new into the next instalment - whether it be character emotions or cinematic physics and wide-open spaces, elements which are obviously important in a genre where cutting edge graphics are largely considered the most important aspect of the game.

It's this notion which I cling to desperately on the lonely nights when I await HL2: Ep 2; the idea that episodic gaming is a good thing which is being continually misunderstood by gamers who focus on first person shooters, a genre singularly unsuited to an episodic format thanks to pressure to look gorgeous.

Unfortunately, I also nightly worry that episodic adventure games won't reach mass audiences thanks to the opinion of customers being swayed by the constant delays and cancellations of FPS episodes. In this scenario adventure game episodes never get a chance to thrive the way I hope they will. That's why I've chosen this as the topic for my column - to try and re-educate gamers who are annoyed with episodic content and show them that there is a chance for episodic gaming to work and, if we can all just encourage the right developers enough, then we may well see the restoration of a lost genre at the same time.

The quickest way to do this of course would be to boycott Half-Life 2: Episode Two and put pressure on adventure game makers to switch to an episodic format. Yeah, like that's going to happen.

Still, if enough of us let Valve know how disappointed we are with FPS episodic games and that the genre is clearly more suited to single, larger releases then maybe we'll see Valve return to making Half-Life 3 as a larger release and not a series of mini-episodes which inevitably cost more but give less. That, or maybe they'll learn to stick to regular deadlines.

Who knows though, maybe Superman listens to my nightly prayers: maybe Ron Gilbert will buy up the rights and make Monkey Island 5 in an episodic format, though for that to happen we'd all have to donate lots of monies to a re-motivated Gilbert and then buys lots of copies of the Sam and Max episodes, which have just become available over Steam.

Well? What are you waiting for?.