The Future of Video Games Could Look a Lot Like Television

Game creators are experimenting with shorter, episodic stories.

Telltale Games

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.

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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.

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."

Switching to a free-to-play model, as many developers do, drastically changes the experience. Here, revenue is accrued through in-game advertisements and virtual goods—in-game products like new characters, costumes, and levels. But many of these ploys come off as tactless money-grubbing. It's easier to accept an advertisement for Expedia in, say, a virtual world meant to resemble a modern-day New York City than it is to hear someone try to sell you a time-share on your way down the dungeon to slay the evil dragon king (or even if you're flinging birds at pigs in outer space). As for virtual goods, game developers have come under a lot of flack recently for abusing unwitting or addicted players by offering so many sticks and carrots (a Daily Show report called the practice glorified drug-dealing).

As if in response to these pressures to offer a more cost-effective and streamlined package to gamers, just last week The Verge reported that Microsoft would be offering a new subscription-based model for its current-generation console, the Xbox 360, a rumor Microsoft itself confirmed yesterday with a more comprehensive break-down of its price model. Positioned as a competitor to Apple TV and other gaming services, the deal falls somewhere between a cable subscription and a phone contract. Customers would pay an initial fee of $99 followed by $15 dollars a month thereafter for two years for the console, a subscription to Xbox Live Gold (the Steam equivalent for the Xbox), and a few other perks, the largest rumor being that it will include some sort of cable service. But more important for a culture that's willing to spend a lot of money on leisure, however, is time. And this is where episodic games truly can be revolutionary. The game industry is increasingly polarized between developing super-cheap "casual games" that attract millions of users (see Angry Birds) and throwing the full weight of a blockbuster development team into games of epic proportions. Skyrim and Dark Souls, two games that topped all of the best-of charts last year, for instance,both boasted well over one hundred hours of playable material. Skyrim's developers even claimed that the game was meant to simply be endless. The implication for consumer taste is that you're fine spending 99 cents on a game you'll play on your morning commute. But if you spend more than 50 bucks, you damn well better be getting your money's worth—if "getting your money's worth" means being able to spend countless hours in front of the screen day after day.

This makes for a weird conflation of "time spent in front of the screen" with "quality." As my colleague Michael Thomsen recently argued in Slate, these "encyclopedia-length games" necessarily become redundant in their actual experience: "While each of these games offers a unique experience, they are identical in their offering of a seemingly endless amount of terrain to wander through." By serializing "serious games" of this caliber, long-form dramatic experiences can be doled out with more thought given to the lives of the people playing them.

So far, this seems to actually be working. Critics said The Walking Dead was a return-to-form for Telltale Games. IGN said it was "one of the Telltale game's best outings." The popular videogame site Kotaku ran a story listing all the ways the "game is better than the TV show."

That being said, The Walking Dead is a far cry from the kinds of games many self-professed gamers actually like to play. You don't wander around freely killing zombies and leveling up. There's little to compete with, and the game's controls are a simplistic "see something highlighted on the screen, click on it" affair. Some critics charge that this new type of media isn't even "gaming." Tom Bissell argued that L.A. Noire, a game with similar cinematic ambitions, was more similar at to a choose-your-own-adventure novel than a real videogame.

He may very well be right. But loosening the mechanical requirements of a game also makes it easier to enjoy for a general audience. A lot more people report playing L.A. Noire with their family and friends than, say, World of Warcraft. If games like L.A. Noire and The Walking Dead continue to be successful, it's not hard to envision a new medium entirely that lies somewhere on the border between videogames and television.

After all, just like RuPaul's Drag Race, more television is borrowing from the success of American Idol to invite a deeper sense of user engagement. We're probably a long way away from episodes of Breaking Bad asking, "WILL WALTER WHITE SAVE JANE, OR LEAVE HER TO DIE? TONIGHT, YOU DECIDE." And hopefully, we'll never get to that. But what we may see instead is completely novel experience, something where we all sit down together with a game and a screen—the 21st century's true campfire—and learn how to tell each other better stories.