Opinion: Telltale's episodic formula isn't always the way to go
Spoiler alert: This article contains major plot details concerning the events of the first season of The Wolf Among Us.
Over ninety Game of the Year awards don’t lie: people loved the first season of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. The game helped give a much-needed boost to the adventure genre, and it pushed Telltale into the ranks of top developers. So it was no surprise the studio would attempt to repeat that formula with other franchises. The first season of The Wolf Among Us, based on the comic book series Fables, has just concluded, and Telltale is currently working on Tales from the Borderlands and a Game of Thrones adaption. Given the positive reception of the second season of The Walking Dead, Telltale looks to be producing more great work with that property -- but is episodic gameplay the route they should continue to take for all of their games? Is there ever a point where episodic gameplay stops working?
The problems among us
When The Wolf Among Us was announced, I was ecstatic for a new adventure from Telltale Games. I didn’t know much about Bill Willingham’s Fables, but The Wolf Among Us proved to be inviting to old and new fans alike. Despite my immediate fondness for the lore, as I continued to play the new episodes of The Wolf Among Us I always felt as though there was something missing from the title. Bigby’s saga was never quite as gripping as The Walking Dead. At times I felt there was too much filler— one entire episode felt downright unnecessary, in fact. These concerns continued until the Wolf season finale brought everything into perspective and changed my opinion of the season as a whole.
But why, what happened?
In the finale of The Wolf Among Us, after you've presumably caught the culprit for the Fabletown murders and dealt out appropriate justice, there's an epilogue in which you have a talk with Narissa (The Little Mermaid). As the conversation unfolds strong hints are dropped surrounding the connection between her and the first murder victim, Faith. In the end, Narissa reveals she lied about certain aspects of the case, all in the hopes that Bigby would ultimately arrest the plague of Fabletown.
Given that information, it’s then left up to the player to decide how they feel about Narissa's revelation; you can either have “Faith” in her—as the first episode in the season is elegantly titled—or begin to doubt everything and conclude that she may have “Cried Wolf,” as the last episode is named. One jaw-dropping moment later and you’re left in a limbo of unanswered questions:. Who exactly is Narissa? How does Faith really play into all this? How does Faith’s fairy tale, Donkey Skin, relate to the case? With all these questions left hovering in the wind, the truly curious now have a reason to replay the entire season and experience the episodes in a whole new light.
It was all a wonderful bit of storytelling, but it was a shame I wasn't able to appreciate any of it until the very end of the season. That’s a risk Telltale took if fans decided to stop giving the game a shot after episode three (the season's low point). In fact, I didn't even notice the extent of the meta storytelling going on until I casually spoke to a few people about my gameplay choices!
What went wrong?
The first episode for The Wolf Among Us was released in October of 2013, followed by the second episode in February of 2014. After the third episode released on April 8th, Telltale was able to consistently release the following episodes on a per month basis. Still, once the season was finished that was a ten-month span of time in between the beginning and the end of the season. It was asking too much to hope that players recalled all the subtle hints made in the first episode after so much time, even when the game itself tried to make the clues clear in its recaps of the previous episodes. An exposition dump made in the final episode also provides critical context for the rest of the series, but couldn't have been revealed earlier without spoiling the story.
With the episodic gameplay structure and time gaps in between installments, I was at risk of missing out on a great story if I had given up on the series, and I would have ultimately written The Wolf Among Us off as something less than it was. The Wolf Among Us serves as a cautionary example of a game where the episodic formula detracts from the experience and endangers the game as a whole.
Why The Walking Dead works
The Walking Dead doesn't suffer from this problem because of the structure of its stories. The Wolf Among Us is a crime noir journey that carries with it the classic tropes of the genre: questions about morality, cynicism, and a core mystery to be solved. The Walking Dead is a tale of survival that examines what it means to be human. The mysterious elements in The Walking Dead are diversions rather than the core of the plot, and players know better than to expect complete answers.
In The Walking Dead, the core emotions and the desperate situation were more important than small plot details, which made catching up and understanding what was happening to Lee or Clementine months later fairly straightforward. Episode recaps frequently focused on relationships between characters -- who had been disappointed by your decisions, or who you may have let live or die -- rather that the intricate web of clues and lies of The Wolf Among Us.
Thanks to its detail-heavy, mystery-driven plot, even if The Wolf Among Us had released episodes consistently one month after the other from the beginning, it's likely the series would still have suffered from the same issues. Because of its episodic approach, there’s an element of seemingly unnecessary rummaging through what appear to be useless items for significant periods of time in the episodes leading up to the finale. Your actions finally make sense in episode five, but before that payoff it really feels as though you're encountering problems with the game's pacing and narrative. If Telltale had avoided the episodic structure for The Wolf Among Us and had instead presented it as one complete game, it would have been much easier to judge the story as one whole, complete package.
Other companies have explored episodic gameplay in their own ways too, the most prominent being 343 industries. With the launch of Halo 4, 343 industries introduced Spartan Ops: free weekly episodes that allowed up to four players to play through a story mission that took place six months after Master Chief’s Forerunners excursion. Used as a way to keep players coming back to Halo 4, a study by Raptr showed the episodes actually didn’t do much to help multiplayer retention. Obviously Telltale’s games and Halo 4 are drastically different in gameplay and cater to different audiences, but this may be another example of where episodic gameplay—even when the property is purposely designed to work for such an approach–just might not be the best fit.
With all that said, I can’t deny that I enjoyed The Wolf Among Us as a holistic journey, despite my misgivings regarding its separate parts. It’s also hard to deny the draws of episodic game storytelling. It leaves you in suspense just like a television season does. The time commitment required for the individual episodes is small and audience retention is usually high.
Episodic gaming is here to stay, and it is probable we will see other developers looking to copy Telltale's success. Hopefully designers considering the episodic structure consider its weaknesses as well as its strengths, and look to tell stories that really benefit from the formula.
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