Game creators are experimenting with shorter, episodic stories.
Two unusual things happened last month in entertainment. First, RuPaul's Drag Race shocked viewers when the titular and historically autocratic host decided to put the season finale to a vote, rather than crown America's next drag superstar on her own. RuPaul ultimately did make the final call, but the choice was a swing in favor of using social media as a tool for audience participation. Reality television, like all forms of narrative television, relies largely on the pull and drama of its central characters. Telling people to vote with their tweets was granting the audience an illusion of authorial agency—a promise that with enough of their input, they could craft a new and presumably better conclusion.
On the other side of the pop-culture spectrum, Telltale Games released The Walking Dead, a videogame tie-in to the comic book and television series. A mid-level developer with a tarnished reputation for making adaptations of popular television and film franchises (their recent adaptation of Jurassic Park was called "a meandering tale of forgettable characters," and later Telltale employees were caught juking its stats on Metacritic), making a game based on a show that hasn't been kindly received didn't seem very promising.
None of this is terribly unique—lots of developers cash in with poorly made games rushed to market to suit a popular franchise. What's interesting is how it's being developed: As with some of their previous titles, Telltale Games is releasing the game episodically in five segments, each around two to three hours long. Storylines branch out from a common beginning in the backseat of a police car where you first assume the role of the game's protagonist and player character, Lee Everett.
Soon after, in typical zombie story fashion, chaos ensues. You wake up from a car crash, tapping a button repeatedly to extricate yourself from the tangle of glass and metal. There's a harrowing sequence where the cop that was escorting you to prison wakes up and tries to gnaw at your leg while you scramble out of your handcuffs and attempt to load a shotgun. You limp your way to a nearby house. Searching for food in the kitchen, you hear the answering machine play the last calls of a desperate mother trying to reach her child. Softly, the girl's voice crackles through a walkie-talkie. You begin to speak. The two of you take down the undead incarnation of her baby-sitter, and the relationship is sealed. She is your ward, wherever this adventure takes you.
After that, the story is largely up to you. Do you hide in the house until nightfall, or hope that daylight is safer? An old and grizzled farm-owner asks you, a younger black man, where you were going before the attack. Should you tell him the truth and stoke any number of bilious racial sentiments that have most likely survived the apocalypse? And more pressingly, whom should you save when the zombies return—the tech-savvy geek being pulled out of the window by the arms of the undead, or the quick-witted journalist who can handle a gun who's being dragged out of the room? It's impossible to say how far these choices will take you right now, but so far the promise remains that The Walking Dead could produce the same serialized dramatic heft of any good TV show.
The game industry has tried to break into a faster-paced cycle of development and distribution for quite some time. Steam, one of the largest platforms for distribution and digital rights management in the industry, was originally created by Valve Software with the promise that it could automatically update games with relevant software patches and new content. In reality, it was probably conceived of as an anti-piracy tool with some additional perks—by requiring players to register their game to a unique account, the whole problem of sharing or burning discs could be solved instantly. Half Life is the sort of title that fans will do anything for (including stage elaborate protests just to beg for more sequels), so Valve had a strong enough product to make the sale. The company assuaged gamers frustrated with this new restrictive form of DRM with the vague promise that it would allow for speedier patches and release of future Half Life episodes.
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This only sort of happened. Half Life 2 did come out in 2004 with the first-ever online product-activation requirement. Everybody loved it, and put up with Steam. It even received a few of the promised follow-up pieces. As if to herald this brave new world of videogames, they were titled "Episode One" and "Episode Two." But nothing else followed. Half Life 3 became the Yeti of modern videogames; hungry fans rabidly searched for hints about its existence, frantically posting them online as if to will them into being. Valve even released the next episode on Steam last month as a gleefully cruel April Fool's joke. The original promise escaped everyone's grasp.
Given how profitable the game industry has become in recent years, it might seem strange that game developers would be seeking alternative distribution models in the first place. But besides mammoth titles like Call of Duty that manage to net over a billion dollars in a record time, the picture isn't as rosy for the rest of the industry. Paying $60 dollars per package—not to mention the cost of consoles, other hardware, and related services—is an increasingly prohibitive venture for many gamers. As Chris Kohler of Wired put it in a recent editorial: "Videogames can't afford to cost this much."