How to Review Episodic Games: A New Hope
Episodic gaming has been around in some form as early as the late 70’s. However, it had largely been neglected for more standard forms of development and release. This thinking changed with the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and the rise of Telltale Games. Telltale has almost exclusively used the episodic format for their titles, and it has worked to their success.
Telltale has proven great games can be delivered in an episodic format. Despite having years to develop a system for reviewing episodic games, games media has stayed with the traditional review format for these titles. This traditional format does a disservice to readers and the games. So is there a better way to review these titles? There most certainly is!
There are two major player bases for the episodic genre. The first player always buys the entire season. The second waits to see how the season as a whole shapes up and decides whether or not to purchase. The people who intend to buy the entire season do not benefit from reviews, so reviews should be tailored towards the players waiting to see how the proceedings pan out.
The current review system evaluates each episode individually upon release, but it rarely evaluates the season as a whole. Why is this problematic? Well if you want to see how the entire season of The Walking Dead turned out, you have to research each episode’s review individually. Not only does this take a lot of time, but it rarely gives you a cohesive image of the season as a whole. Some seasons have lulls or slower episodes to either build tension or set up major events for future episodes.
For instance, the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands was zany. There were a lot of crazy and exciting things which occurred in the episode. Compared to Episode 1, Episode 2 is more restrained and a plateau episode. It is still good and some zaniness occurs, but it is obvious the episode is more reserved to further set the stage for future episodes. This is perfectly fine, and it is a great tactic to space out your water cooler moments with character and world building. Looking at the score differential between Episode One and Two, you might think there is a drop in quality. This is not the case. The second episode is simply a stage prep episode for what’s to come.
They deserve to be treated as a singular game instead of multiple entries in a franchise. Your perception of the entire season can change on a whim, depending on how the rest of the season turns out.
So why is this a problem? If the second episode is not as good as the first it deserves a lower score right? Not exactly. While each episode is released individually and sold individually (although I have yet to meet anyone who purchases them this way), they are all part of a cohesive whole: a single game divided into easily digestible chapters. As such, they deserve to be treated as a singular game instead of multiple entries in a franchise. Your perception of the entire season can change on a whim, depending on how the rest of the season turns out.
Remember The Walking Dead: Season Two? It had some highs and lows, which would be easy to overlook as a whole if the final episode knocked it out of the park like Season One did. In the end, I found myself disappointed with Season Two. On the other hand, The Wolf Among Us also had some issues. However, after playing through the season, I immediately recommended it to several friends. Sure it had awkward pacing at times, some strange character behavior, and under-utilized characters, but it was easy to overlook those flaws when evaluating the game as whole.
Depending on the rest of the season, my glowing opinion of Tales from the Borderlands and my negative opinion of Game of Thrones may change. The beauty of episodic games is how they are smaller portions of a whole. The way they are evaluated should reflect this.
A New Approach
I think the solution is a rather easy one, but it seems no one is doing it. When I reviewed The Wolf Among Us, I reviewed the season as a whole. Since I had just played through the entire season, it was easy to assess the game as a single meal instead of individual courses at a meal. But what about when sites need to keep up with each new episode’s release? Rather than simply reviewing the episodes in a traditional format, write an impressions post. In comparison to a review, an impressions post is more personal and less concerned with delivering a score. Being an impressions post, these posts should also eschew the beloved review score.
In comparison to a review, an impressions post is more personal and less concerned with delivering a score. Being an impressions post, these posts should also eschew the beloved review score.
I know. I know. Blasphemy right? However, along with writing a more impressions style post and abandoning reviews scores, the posts should evaluate the episodes as they relate to the entire season. Instead of simply appraising each individual episode as separate entities, the posts would detail how the entire season is coming along. How are things shaping up as a whole and paint of picture of the impressions of the season with each release instead of a definite review. As I mentioned before, one episode or moment can ruin an entire season of solid content in the same way a stupid twist can ruin an otherwise solid or decent (stretching that definition there, I know) film.
- Stop reviewing each episode as a singular game
- Refrain from assigning a score to episodes
- Write more impression-based posts instead of definite reviews
- Evaluate the episodes as they relate to the season as a whole
- Keep the consumer in mind
By altering the way we cover these games, we better assist the consumers who did not purchase the season beforehand. After all, aren’t we in the games media covering these games to help the consumer decide what is worth their hard-earned money? If there is a way we can better enlighten the player, should we not change the way we cover these games?
The suggestions I have outlined here are by no means the definitive way to cover these titles, I am sure someone more intelligent than me could devise something more appropriate. But we should rethink the way we cover these games to paint a better picture for consumers and also to do more justice to the games themselves.