Errant Signal – Life is Strange (Spoilers)

By Shamus
on Mar 25, 2015
Filed under:
Movies


Link (YouTube)

I understand the thinking behind episodic games. Like Chris says in the video: It’s like a mini-series or a season of a TV show. It makes a lot of sense to release games like this. It especially makes sense for low or mid-budget titles that don’t have a lot of marketing money. If you release the whole thing at once, the game will come and go in a few weeks. No matter how good it is, once it’s over, it’s over. But if you release it in episodes then the conversation keeps going. The game can stay fresh and relevant for months.

Even better, the team is able to make adjustments based on community feedback without needing to do slow and expensive Valve-style playtesting. If the writer puts in the funny throwaway character Maurice into episode one and the internet turns him into a meme, the devs can react to that. Maybe give Maurice some additional screentime in the later episodes. Or if players really hate him, then pull him from future episodes. Or tone him down.

I certainly can’t judge. Nearly everything I do here is or was part of a series. The Diecast. Spoiler Warning. Good Robot. DM of the Rings. Every programming series. Every let’s play. If I put up 10k words all in one day, it’s too much. Some people will hit the back button because they don’t have that kind of time and were just looking for something to read over their coffee break. Even among those that do read it, there will likely be some skimming. And there’s no way we could do the whole 10k novella justice in the comments. Lots of stuff will be glossed over. And then I don’t have any content for the next 9 days, because I’m writing the next 10k epic.

But if I do 1,000 words a day for ten days, nearly everyone will read it. There will be less skimming. Each point will get more attention in the comments. And I’ll have content for ten days. This is a better way to portion out content, assuming the material allows for it. And I think most of us would rather have something easy to digest every day than a massive reading assignment every fortnight.

But while I understand the thinking behind episodic content from an artistic and business sense, it really runs counter to my gaming habits. And I think a big part of it is that often episodic games don’t feel like “episodes” in the TV sense. They tend to end on annoying cliffhangers. The devs are so worried we’re not going to play the next installment that they deny us a satisfying resolution to this installment.

I think a big part of this is that I’ve had some bitter experiences with episodic content that have put me off the whole idea. Yeah, everyone talks about the stupid cliffhanger at the end of Half-Life 2 Episode 2. But that was hardly the first. Eight years ago I said of Dreamfall:

I’m sure fans of the game will be quick to point out that this is the second act in a three-act play. Great. The first installment came out in 1999. Adventure games and budgets being what they are, there is no guarantee that the next game will even be made. And even if it is, I don’t really care to wait for it. In another seven years I’ll be 42, my oldest daughter will be getting ready to turn 16, and I will only have a vague memory of what happened in this game. Unlike a book or a movie, I probably won’t be able to go back and play this installment, either. Will I need to surf around, hunting for some Windows XP emulator? I had some trouble getting the game to run right on today’s equipment. I can only imagine the challenge of getting it to run on some machine built in 2013, just so I can go back and familiarize myself with all of the various characters and plotlines.

I care about the story now because I’ve been playing it. I won’t care about it then. Seven years is a long time.

I was right. It’s been eight years, and I don’t remember anything about the events of Dreamfall except that I was annoyed and mildly pissed off when it ended. Dreamfall Chapters is out, and I don’t have the slightest desire to play it. I mean, I don’t even have a guarantee it will be properly resolved this time. Maybe I’ll trudge through a few more hours of game to meet a bunch of new characters so I can watch them all die just before the closing credits. If I wanted to put up with that kind of bullshit I’d go watch Game of Thrones.

The point is: There’s nothing wrong with episodic games, but I dislike them anyway.

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From the Archives:

  1. Purple Library Guy says:

    Bottom line here seems to be, time matters. Telling the next story installment the following night worked very well for Scheherazade; I think if she’d told the Sultan he’d have to wait 7 years her head would have been off.

    • Alexander The 1st says:

      “I will tell you the next part of the story soon.”

      Or

      “I will tell you the next part of the story when it’s ready.”

      • Wide And Nerdy says:

        If we really want to parallel it.

        “I’m not done working on the next story yet but its going to be so good. In this installment, the hero takes the fight to the genie homeworld and we finally get to learn their origin. And his carpet will be big enough for his entire squad. But I’m scaling back the wishes in this installment. They were OP. “

  2. incunabulum says:

    Marurice

    I’m imagining the character as a japanese cat who only speaks in lolcatz.

  3. Zekiel says:

    I don’t like episodic gaming much either, partly for the very selfish reason that it means it takes longer for prices to come down to the point where I’m willing to pay for them. I’m moderately interested to play Broken Age – if it had all been released last year it’d probably be in sales at a price I’m willing to pay now. As it is, we’re still awaiting the 2nd installment and my guess is that therefore it’ll be another 12 months where its in Steam sales for an amount I’m willing to pay.

    Having said that Life is Strange looks like it’s doing it fairly well – the first episode was released in January iirc, the 2nd episode is just out, so there seems every chance it’ll all be released within the year. (The first episode was also priced exactly right for me given its rather interesting premise and lovely graphics – i.e. at just the level I’m willing to buy it at its no-sale price without being too worried if it turns out not to be my sort of game.)

    Having said that it looks like you can’t buy Episode 2 as a stand-alone which I find somewhat irritating.

    • Zekiel says:

      Also – the painfully slow release schedule combined with the short run-time is the main and only reason I haven’t yet started Kentucky Route Zero. Finish them already!

      • Zombie says:

        Geez, they STILL haven’t finished that game? Didn’t that come out like two years ago?

        • Zekiel says:

          It was Rock Paper Shotgun’s game of the year in 2013! the developer’s website says “the remaining two acts will be release throughout the next year or so”.

          And this for a game whose entire length is claimed (by the developers) to be “the length of a summer night”.

          And I really want it to be finished so I can play it all!

          • drmickhead says:

            The first two episodes were really, really good, and the atmosphere was just about the most satisfying I’ve ever felt while playing a game. But I played episodes 1 and 2 back to back, and episode 3 didn’t come out for months after. Now I feel that I have to play them all from the beginning again just to get into the atmosphere, and I don’t feel like doing that now, since who knows when 4 and 5 are coming out? It’s really unfortunate, but I still do have trust in the devs, since the first two episodes were that captivating.

    • WA says:

      The devs have said repeatedly they’re trying to make sure there’s roughly six weeks between episodes. The wait between Episodes 1 and 2 was about seven, so so far they’re on the right track.

      Also, they seem to use “Next Time on ‘Life is Strange'” as their main cliffhanger, allowing the first two episodes at least to be as relatively self-contained as a serialized story can be.

  4. Zekiel says:

    Personally I kinda liked Life is Strange Episode 1. I found the gameplay a bit awkward but I loved the environmental details in the world, I liked the fact its setting was one I’d never explored in a game before, and I thought it looked generally very lovely.

    The main problem I had was that I didn’t like Max all that much. I found her self-consciousness a bit wearing over time. Funny thing is, I’d have really identified with her about 10 years ago but now I kind of want to shake her and tell her not to be so insecure. Maybe she’ll develop confidence in future episodes as she plays with her new power. Contrarywise I liked Chloe, and Warren’s earnest dorkishness rang very true.

    Also, the ending was fantastic – reminded me of a bit of Magnolia that connects all the characters by an meterological event. I felt it was really quite moving.

  5. Thomas says:

    I’m really loving Life is Strange and Dreamfall Chapters at the moment. I think I get invested in a way that doesn’t really make me mind cliffhangers. I loved Dreamfall: The Longest Journey before I ever played Dreamfall Chapters (admittedly I played it knowing that chapters was going to exist).

    In particular the ending of episode 2 for Life is Strange is amazing. I’d talk about it more but I don’t really want to bury this in spoilers. But the short of it is they take away your time travel powers just before the most important moment in the game so far.

    Episode 2 might be a bit too linear for people, but it was linear in a way that worked for me. Again particularly the ending, I’m actually kind of curious because I was furiously rewinding time, willing to keep on doing it until Max had a stroke if necessary, trying to prevent that event from happening, and I wonder what the game does if you don’t do that. Does it freeze and force you to do it? Or does it just trigger the cutscene early?

    • ChristopherT says:

      The thing at the dorms? That was intense, but I was trying to help Kate throughout episodes 1 and 2, so it was pretty cool that all those little things got to have a pay off.

      About the toilet paper though, when in the beginning Stella (?) is in the dorm outside the bathroom and gets beamed with a roll of toilet paper, I don’t know if you’re supposed to be able to see it (game kind glitched up a bit I think) but I caught a glimpse of the girl who throws the toilet paper, and it looked like Max. Maybe just model reuse, that’s not supposed to be seen, but wth?

      • Thomas says:

        I had that glitch too :P Although it didn’t really twig that it was a Max model.

        I did love the intensity of what happened at the climax, but it could probably have been a little better written. Reminding someone of all the horrible things people had done to them (which they didn’t know about), doesn’t seem like the best strategy :p

        On the other hand it sounds like if you don’t do those little things then the ending doesn’t turn out well… which is a pretty huge consequence that I wasn’t expecting the game to actually go through. I hope it’s true, it makes that moment even more tense

  6. ChristopherT says:

    I think what makes David interesting (even in just the first episode) is motivation. We don’t know why he’s doing what he does. I understand the assessment of power and control through photography, but looking back at episode one I didn’t quite feel his motivation was set. A lot of what he was doing could be because of a sense of protection, just rather inept.

    Yes, he has cameras throughout the house, but none in Chloe’s bedroom nor the bathroom, which while very thankful for that, also leads to a question of character. Does he not have a camera in Chloe’s room because he doesn’t care about her, or because he cares enough about giving her her own space not to put a spy cam in her room. Though some of his actions are contradictory, if Chloe passes off the joint as someone else’s David is upset about her being around people who have pot, his attention is shifted to those who would be a bad influence on her. But then, he can end up hitting her, and that’s not very caring, but then one can say he’s mad because of the missing gun (which Chloe took), either out of worry for her own safety, or because children shouldn’t have guns, or because the law, or because it’s his. Then he wants cameras set up around the school, power, control, could be a reason, but so could wanting to prevent another teen going missing, like Rachel Amber.

    Which, as said in Chris’s (having that name all my life I’m still not sure if I get the damn ‘s right) video a lot can be gained from the characters relationships to photography, and to Max, many characters can also help be defined by their relationship to Rachel Amber. It seems almost everyone at the school had some sort of relationship with Rachel Amber, from those who deface her missing posters, to classmates who simply admired her, she hung out with so many different people and each one has something to say about her, to the point that she can be seen as a fairly defined character, even though she’s not around, and she can act as a third point of view into these characters.

    • Thomas says:

      I’m pretty sure David is just motivated out of desire to protect. The thing is, he’s got a temper that he can’t control. In episode 2 he tries to apologise to you and tell you that he was only angry because he cares about Chloe and the people around you.

      But the apology almost immediately goes wrong because David can’t take contradiction. He responds sharply when Max doesn’t let him apologise like he wants to, Max snaps back at him, he gets angry that Max is snapping at him…

      You can imagine how much worse that is with someone like Chloe, who was already wanting to hate him for ‘replacing’ her Dad and isn’t exactly easy-going in the first place.

      Saying all that, I’m sure they’re trying to avoid making David too empathetic because he’s meant to be the red herring. We’re meant to think he’s a suspect and eventually it’ll turn out that he’s been trying to track down and capture the real suspect all along (he knows a lot more than he’s letting on).

      It’s the same with Nathan Prescott and Frank. There’s 3 characters we’re suspicious of (well 4 with the crazy caretaker) and they’re the least sympathetic because they’re trying to flag them as suspects.

      It makes me think that none of them will be guilty, or at least they’ve been forced into it by a third party.

  7. Thomas says:

    The one thing about Life is Strange, partly because of the different education systems in the US and UK, is I keep getting the sensation that a bunch of 16 year olds are walking around pretending to be university students.

    I don’t really know where Blackwell fits into the education system. In the UK, by the time you’re 18 you’ve finished school and gone to the next step, which is university. Blackwell seems to be some kind of school/college/uni hybrid?

    • ChristopherT says:

      In the first page of Max’s journal, dated July 10, 2013
      “I GOT INTO BLACKWELL ACADEMY, a unique and famous private school for seniors!”

      And with her 18th birthday just happening September, it would fit rather well into the US education as a standard last year of highschool, just a special school for the arts for that only takes those in their last year of highschool.

      We usually get out of high school 18-19 years old. Then if wanted can go into college. Though like Blackwell (fictional), we do have some alternative schools, where I’m from instead of going to highschool you can opt into a career training school thing, where you learn a craft like carpentry, automotive, and the sort

      • guy says:

        The US has a total of 13 years of pre-college education. The exact age at which people start can vary a bit; in my state people who have October and later birthdays start a year after people born earlier in that year, plus people can voluntarily delay and I knew a guy who was born in October but entered at the normal time via some shenanigans with a private school and then switching into a public school. I would not be surprised if a state has a deadline somewhere in September.

        Haven’t played the game myself, so I can’t speak to the specifics. I would generally assume someone who got into a school the year they turned 18 was going to college.

  8. Paul Spooner says:

    So, it seem that the core aspect of episodic content is that it requires a certain amount of narrative overhead for both the audience and the creators. The audience side you touched on (episodes keep people talking about the story, but if they get too far apart people stop caring).

    But there’s also the overhead for the writers, in the form of setting scenes and wrapping up. Every story needs a proper arc, and if you break up the story into little pieces, you end up spending lots more time on the ramp up and ramp down. That ends up taking away from the overall experience, and eliminates some complex possibilities entirely. Even worse, if you decide to forgo these bookends, the audience may end up feeling lost, or resenting cliffhangers, both of which wouldn’t be an issue if the story was presented as a monolithic whole.

    Anyway, just thought I’d mention that the audience is only half the story.

  9. If ever an episode of Errant Signal needed a “Previously, on Errant Signal” intro…

  10. Lanthanide says:

    Chris said “mute point” instead of “moot point”.

    I am disappoint.

  11. Primogenitor says:

    I think a lot of episodic games feel like just a “pilot” rather than a full series, but then developers and publishers don’t manage to convert the successful pilots into full series – usually because they treat each episode as a sequel rather than as expansion/DLC and don’t overlap the development times (at least, that what it seems like to an outsider).

  12. Zak McKracken says:

    So, series… I used to watch a lot of them back in the day, when most were not continuous but the order of the day was that after each episode there was a reset, with very few exceptions like the “Murdoch” episodes in McGyver (<- that's what "back in the day" is for me).
    Then the X files came and started teasing you at the end of every effing episode, even at the end of seasons, then made you wait for months in hopes of seeing whether that last bit made sense at all. That was pretty much the end of watching TV series for me. I don't want to commit to watching every single episode in order to be able to make sense of things.
    Then I did watch the new Battlestar Galactica, and after about 5 episodes, I realized that all the things I was being teased with at the beginning and end of every single instalment were just empty promises that would never be followed up, the whole thing just a trick to make me tune in because after having sunk so much time into the previous episodes, I wouldn't dare let that time go to waste by not seeing the big reveal (which I was told never really happened). That's it, I quit.

    So … I'm deeply sceptical about series, at least the ones where you can't miss an episode, and the content is diluted to no end, each part completely focused on triggering the viewer's sunk cost fallacy. Even with self-contained episodes, watching a series means spending a lot of time compared to a movie, which in this day and age, I barely have time for, ask my DVD shelf…
    Then again, it does make sense to have smaller instalments for a small developer, but I'd really like to know that a series will not just make me hungry for something that will never happen before I start watching/playing.

  13. sofawall says:

    Amusingly, a quick perusal of the Steam page for Dreamfall Chapters suggests that we are on part 2 of 5 of Dreamfall Chapters, itself part 3 of the series. Since it’s not done yet, does that mean we’re waiting on part 2.6 or something?

  14. General Karthos says:

    I am absolutely adoring the “Game of Thrones” episodic game, for the most part. I’m having much more fun with the interactions than the quicktime events, just as it was in “The Walking Dead”. I find myself wanting to go on to the next episode after every episode ends, but I’m content to wait a couple of months for the next episode to come out. (Or, seven weeks from last Wednesday, if the pattern holds.)

    I’m a varied gamer. Crank your (turn-based) strategy game up to maximum difficulty, and I’ll beat it in a 15-hour marathon session. But I also have a lot of fun with games like Plants vs. Zombies, Faerie Solitaire, Tetris, etc. So a game where I can take a two to three hour “episode” and complete it, then wait for a few months, and repeat is actually quite enjoyable to me. So are open-world (or semi-open-world) RPGs. I can see a seven or eight year delay between games would be a problem.

    But I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that if the next episode of Half-Life came out today, you’d pay whatever the asking price, Shamus. You’d be annoyed about the delay (I mean, you already obviously are, but if there were any sign of actual production I don’t know if you’d be more or less annoyed), but it’s one of the few games you actually LIKE. I somehow doubt you would complain quite as vociferously though, given that it’s a game you already enjoy.

    Of course, the complaining about the delay on the next episode of Half-Life has become a joke. There never will be a next episode. You may not have made peace with that, you may not have accepted it, but it’s a fact at this point. Which is too bad. I’m not a fan of shooters, but Half-Life was something special. Ah well… you can’t always get what you want.

    I’d like a new Master of Orion game that didn’t SUCK. Can’t always get what you want. The closest thing on tap is “Endless Space”, which is good, but not Master of Orion-y enough for my taste. I also, apparently, can’t always get what I want.

  15. Jeff says:

    Ugh, episodic games. I’ve refused to ever touch any of them ever since Penny Arcade switched from it’s cool comic-artwork-style in Episodes 1 and 2 to some stupid RPG Maker thing.

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