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I Won't Remember That: Failures of the Episodic Formula

Telltale Games has really struck gold with its episodic adventure-game formula. Far from being an anomaly, The Walking Dead paved the way for a whole new genre of narrative-based games that have seen the company grow prodigiously in size, scope, and ambition. From Game of Thrones to Minecraft, Telltale has become the go-to studio for video game adaptations that don’t suck.

For all its rampant success, though, Telltale has frequently stumbled on one particular point: its release schedule. Originally, each episodic season was supposed to release a new episode once a month. The Walking Dead kicked off this way, but by the third episode Telltale had to extend it out to two months, and from then on the rhythm of releases was lost entirely. Four months separated the first and second episodes of The Wolf Among Us, with a similar delay affecting the second episode of Tales From The Borderlands. Now, it’s a pleasant surprise when a new instalment arrives within the thirty-day target.


The tardiness isn’t due to laziness or negligence on Telltale’s part; making games is difficult enough even without such a tight schedule. Perhaps, as some have claimed, the studio has simply bitten off more than it can chew. With announcements of partnerships and license acquisitions popping off left, right, and centre, it seems like Telltale is focused more on the long term than the short.

Admittedly, Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 2 opens with a nod and a wink towards its unplanned delay. Smart use of a rough situation.

And that’s where the episodic formula breaks down. The main benefit of slicing a game into discrete chunks is enhancing and extending player investment; the cliffhanger endings spark speculation and build anticipation for the next entry. Make the wait between episodes too long, though, and players are likely to forget both the story and the game entirely. Since Telltale’s games rely almost exclusively on their narratives, letting the stories stagnate is essentially a death sentence. It’s the same phenomenon that makes it hard to return to an unfinished game after putting it down. Trying to recall all the ins and outs of the plot, character names and their motivations, and why any of it should matter is a daunting task. Often it’s easier to simply start fresh with something that doesn’t require a revisionist history lesson.


For me, Tales From The Borderlands was the straw that broke my back. Episode 1 was fantastic, but by the time Episode 2 finally rolled out, I’d forgotten every character except the brilliant Loader Bot. I’ll take some of the blame, as I have an atrocious memory, but the confusion that reigned for a good chunk of my time with the second episode marred my enjoyment enough to prompt a new resolution: don’t touch an episodic game until all episodes have been released. I put down Tales From The Borderlands until the last episode came out just a couple of weeks ago, and replayed the entire game from the start. It made all the difference. With no need to plumb the depths of my mind to keep plot threads straight, I was free to sit back and savour the wise-cracks. I finished the season in the span of a few days, and for me that was definitely the way to do it. Especially since Telltale likes dropping callbacks to earlier episodes and throwing your decisions back in your face, having all of it fresh in your mind adds extra weight to the experience. For a genre predicated on player choice, it’s vital to feel like your actions matter.

So, this is how I’m going to play episodic games from now on. I’ve been dying to jump into Life Is Strange, but only now that season one has finished am I going to pick it up. Blues and Bullets looks right up my alley too, but I’m happy to wait to guarantee myself the best experience. I’m glad other people prefer the piecemeal approach, as I suspect many episodic games couldn’t exist as fully budgeted titles. Nevertheless, for my own sake I’m going to play the long game. I find it’s a lot more fun.

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