Video Games are not Films. They are TV.

The most recent trend in video game storytelling is releasing the games in monthly chunks that are entirely concerned with advancing a narrative. This trend, of telling stories in interconnected […]

The most recent trend in video game storytelling is releasing the games in monthly chunks that are entirely concerned with advancing a narrative. This trend, of telling stories in interconnected semi-regular releases is meant to emulate the feeling of TV. And yet, as of right now, TV has moved closer and closer towards using the season as the main unit of storytelling (versus “the episode”)

The argument could be made, especially considering Telltale’s resolution to continue both The Walking Dead and the Wolf Among Us in a format akin to a TV season, that the season is still a valid construct that could apply to the critical discussion of these games. However, the emphasis on the season on TV in recent years is quite different than the one exhibited by The Walking Dead or Life is Strange. Stories like True Detective’s seasons are more like volumes of a book series, while told on regular weekly installments (equivalent to a book’s chapters) each one to be interconnected into a bigger whole.

Even that, is not quite an accurate description of the way episodic gaming feels like. This is because there’s a substantial difference in the way Life Is Strange or Telltale’s Game of Thrones unfold. These games are released on a monthly fashion on 3-4 hour installments, effectively building to a 15-17 hour whole, depending on how much do you want to explore the game’s world. Ideally, this model of release allows the player a modular amount of control on how they interact with the experience, adding a TV writer’s understanding of pacing in order to, hopefully, heighten tension and emotional investment.

And yet, I have to wonder if this mode of release matches how the experiences are supposed to feel in the player’s hands. After all, Life is Strange has proven to be a somewhat unwieldy beast, enthralling more and more because of what it is about than how it deals with its subject. Its approach to a coming of age story in a small town while coping with the natural consequences of age (and I’d argue the ever growing class gap) is often as wanting as it is on the ball. And yet, I suspect my own impatience with the game might simply be because I don’t quite see the story being told outside of the moment in which it is being told. And that this impatience might be soothed if I were to interact with a concrete whole.

Todd VanDerWerff at Vox suggests that Netflix’s all-at-once release model has substantially changed the way critics and regular viewers appreciate television. While he pre-emptively (and hopefully, incorrectly) mourns the death of the episode as the main unit of storytelling, an scenario where the number one priority is to provide a great story over a one hour basis rather than over a twelve hour basis, he also notes that many shows are substantially improved by the possibility of being able to let the story’s most annoying or confounding beats be resolved or re-approached with the benefit of more content being present, in order to assuage the viewer’s doubts.

In other words, this episode of Lost, featuring an uninteresting pair of diamond thieves might be uninteresting, but that episode of Lost, featuring a time travelling Scotsman trying to reach back to his one true love might just do the trick for you. And the fact that you’re only hours away instead of months away might certainly assuage your impatience. It’s natural, really. As media consumers, we’re naturally impatient and easy to please in equal measures. We’re willing to forgive terrible material if it appeals to us or confirms our biases. But the moment it forgets to do those things, we demand for it to do it again. Because of Netflix, the opportunities for our disappointments to be addressed are compressed rather than expanded across time. Effectively speaking, a story that was told through years could be told through hours or days, meaning that our investment is no longer about maintaining interest on regular yearly intervals but simply in hourly intervals (if at all! You can still drop a show in the middle of an episode)

This is all important because it demonstrates effectively why it is so easy to lose your patience with a game like Life is Strange, which after its stellar first episode sort of blunders and tries to wear many hats that often times don’t fit, while forcing the player to interact with fundamentally boring experiences (just ask anyone about the bottle puzzle at the junkyard in episode 2). Essentially every mistake is magnified by the fact that this is a bite sized chunk and the fact that you’re not going to come back to this game again for at least another month. As gamers, we are often invested in the idea of maximizing the joy out of every moment. We don’t have patience for loading screens or unnecessary cutscenes and I would argue this is an understandable way of approaching games, since things like these halt the flow of a game.

And yet at the same time, it’s probably easier to forgive Life is Strange’s flaws when placed in part of a bigger whole. The bottle puzzle is no longer 20% of the game. It’s 5% of the game, at best. Effectively, its moment-to-moment storytelling, reminiscent of American Horror Story, is salvaged by being put in perspective to a bigger whole. It’s the same with most video games. The Water Temple’s excessive complexity gets to you? That’s fine, you’re gonna deal with the Shadow temple later. But at the same time, this highlights the rather substantial problems with the way video games drink from movies rather than TV.

See, in feature length movies, the unit of storytelling, theoretically speaking, is the act. You ideally sharpen every act and try to make it coalesce with everything. In reality, because scenes and acts are just minutes, it’s easy for subpar material to shine through. It’s usually the case in comedy, where bad lines are forgiven because of the rapid-fire style at which jokes are supposed to come in. Effectively this is where video games sit. You’re expected to forgive bad exposition, terrible scenes or simply badly written/designed areas because the next area is Much More Interesting. You’re expected to go through the Bottle Puzzle in order to hang out with Chloe on the rails.

This is something that Telltale has expertly sanded over, to results that sometimes, feel Too Good and unbalance the scale. Playing Game of Thrones in particular, it often feels like watching a movie where the player consistently asks you to confirm you’re still watching. Hell, you can even technically not do that. You can simply just let the characters not talk and just make the relevant decisions yourself. If it were not for the fact that the games are deftly written and have a deep sense of humanity and drama, it would be a very tough sell. At the same time, it’s a risky move that’s unlikely to pay off any creative dividends for the company later on, as it continues to showcase its rather unique way of telling interactive stories.

But as games move on, it’s clear that there’s a huge emphasis on the idea of narrative video games sustaining narratives through multiple playthroughs, levels and chapters. The question is whether this is such a good idea. After all, some of our best games, like “Papers, Please” and “Depression Quest” are effective by not creating a set story to explore in an amount of time similar to a TV season but by creating a mood and giving the player the necessary tools to navigate the setting in such a way that they create the story, in a way not too dissimilar to board games.

And yet, I would argue that these games, as wonderfully crafted as they are, are not really friends for life. You won’t replay Depression Quest ten years from now. You probably will revisit The Walking Dead’s remarkable first season if it connected with you. Papers, Please, while an incredibly winning argument against bureaucracy and our societal tendencies towards simplifying people in dire need of help, will probably not be on your mind in ten, fifteen years. James Sunderland, on the other hand, will probably still make you question yourself during your times of grief and pain.
I feel that games’ interest on copying the best aspects of TV has been much more healthy than its interest in film. Big games like Mass Effect or Persona understand the values of creating a huge ensemble and just allowing you to watch their growth over time, which is what most TV these days does. Whereas the interest in copying film’s big budget cinematic action while removing the inherent thrill of the same by forcing you to interact with it in a minimal and non-risky way has been detrimental. And after all, it’s heavily appropriate that that’s how it turns out. A single successful TV show can entertain people and remain on their mind for decades. Video games only have to accomplish a fraction of that. I would say they are successful beyond their wildest dreams on their current form.