“Episodic content” is a word that gets thrown around all too often these days, but if you…Nah, forget all that. If you want to hear about the state of episodic gaming today, you can check out my feature on the subject right here. This article is strictly about games, folks, and discussing which ones would work well if delivered in substantial episodic chunks. It’s by no means a definitive list, but it should serve as a solid jumping off point for an interesting and civil discussion. So let’s get started.
Number Five: Ratchet & Clank
This one is kind of a no-brainer, so long as you think big -- like big planets big. Since the Ratchet & Clank franchise puts a heavy emphasis on expansive platforming across the far reaches of deep space, it only seems natural to come up with stories that involve helping troubled planets deal with their issues. It would have a decidedly Star Trek-meets-Futurama-y feel to it, since each episode would involve visiting a new planet, complete with a new race of beings, new planet-specific weaponry/puzzles/environments, etc. Plus, the Ratchet & Clank games feature such fantastic and well crafted narratives that freeing Insomniac Games up to tell more bite-sized tales would end up being absolutely killer. "Tune in next time for another exciting adventure staring everyone's favorite interstellar duo, Ratchet and Clank!" Gold.
Number Four: Psychonauts
To be honest, Psychonauts deserves to be on any top five list. More to the point though, how cool would it be to follow Raz on individual cases as he starts his career as a Psychonaut? The game is basically a series of (brilliant) vignettes anyway, with each level taking place inside various people’s heads, so releasing “Psychotic Episodes” or “Therapy Sessions” (I just trademarked both of those, Double Fine!) would fit right in with the design of the original game. Granted, I would prefer a full blown sequel, since the first one is one of my favorite games of all time. But there’s something compelling about focusing on a single person’s psyche for the duration of a five to six hour “episode.”
Number Three: Bioshock
While I definitely enjoy the idea of sinking my teeth into 10-12 hour Bioshock games, I think Rapture is such an expansive and infinitely compelling setting that I think if you released kind of "Bouroughs of Rapture" episodes that focused on particular areas of the city, it would work really well. Fallout 3 did this kind of thing to great effect with its five DLC chapters. Plus, the story of Bioshock is so rich and it is filled with fascinating characters that I think there would be plenty of room to explore remote areas of the city, and perhaps even live through particularly interesting parts of Rapture’s history as it relates to those locations and its inhabitants. It could be kind of like a Halo 3: ODST structure where you come across certain audio diaries that cause you to relive that person’s story, and that way you could also find yourself playing through parts of Rapture well before the kelp hit the fan and the city fell apart. Strong narratives are key for making successful episodic content, so Bioshock would have no problem making that structure work.
Number Two: Left 4 Dead
“Whah!! Left 4 Dead 2 should have been DLC! Blah blah.” Yeah. We all know the ridiculous arguments against L4D2 being a full priced retail title, but I personally think it’s totally deserving of such a release. However, because the game is basically divided up into distinct chapters already, the idea of releasing new sections as episodes makes perfect sense. Each one would focus on a new band of survivors trying to make their way through hordes of the undead on their way to being rescued (or not). Since each episode would be its own mini-story, you could have some chapters that see your characters die at the end. While I’m usually against forced failure in game narratives, in this case, it would create a great sense of just how many stories are going on in the L4D universe, and how many of them don’t end up happily or successfully for the people involved in them. There are all sorts of possibilities that come from freeing the game from one over-arching story starring the same four characters. Plus, it would help players get a broader perspective on the game’s ultimate story, because you could jump around freely between locations in the narrative universe.
Number One: Grand Theft Auto V
Rockstar Games set a new bar for episodic gaming this year with its Grand Theft Auto IV DLC, The Lost & Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. And while GTA games have traditionally followed a single rags-to-riches figure over the course of a 12-15 hour story (if you didn’t engage in any open-world fun), these episodes proved that having a robust narrative and a game engine that supports telling sprawling city-based stories can lead to creating much more varied yet equally satisfying experiences that all fit within the tapestry of an overall crime saga.
So for GTA V, I’m think five distinct episodes (Episodes from Liberty City was just the beginning!). All interconnected, all representing a unique aspect of the larger tale being told (complete with episode specific content and design like the two GTA IV episodes). Rockstar has proven that once it has the technology in place, it’s capable of cranking out hefty amounts of content rather quickly. Lost & Damned and Gay Tony combined contain an insane amount of content, and both were released within a year and a half of GTA IV being released. If Rockstar goes into GTA V planning on an episodic structure, it could easily turn out five awesome stories released at regular intervals, and help create an even more epic narrative, because it would give the developers time to really invest in a number of different characters, and just tell a much richer and more epic story. And that’s an offer I don't think any gamer would refuse.