The Walking Dead

From Telltale Games To The Walking Dead: Why Episodic Games Are On The Rise

Screen shot from The Walking Dead video game

While many of us learned about episodic games by playing Telltale Games from the mid-late 2000s, this format has been around in various forms since the early ’80s. Titles like Dunjonquest, Wizardry, Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, and Sorcerian were innovative for providing expansion-like episodes and/or being divided into small episodes that players could purchase to see the entire story.

Even though they’ve never held the spotlight like the FPS or RPG genre, episodic games recently became more common when a number of developers started churning out memorable, story-driven projects. The Walking Dead: Season One took the industry by storm when it was released a couple of years back, receiving wide critical acclaim and earning several Game of the Year awards.

The episodic model has continued rising in popularity thanks to more amazing titles boasting great stories. It’s still too early to say if they’ll remain a favorite or die down like many genres before. Either way, here are four reasons why people today enjoy episodic games so much.

1. Availability

Certain game types have trouble providing a consistent experience across platforms. For example, the controls on real-time strategy games on the PC provide much more precision and control than the controls on the same real-time strategy games on the smartphone. Similarly, you’re at a disadvantage playing a fighting game with a mouse and keyboard instead a console controller.

Tales of Monkey Island screenshot

Leading episodic games today, however, play almost the same on all platforms. Whether you have a iPad, PC, or a next-gen console, you’re getting the same experience with titles like The Wolf Among Us, Tales of Monkey Island, and more. Why can these games transcend platforms much better than other game types? One such reason is…

2. Approachable Gameplay

As the years go by, more and more people are identifying themselves as gamers. But top-selling game series like Assassin’s Creed or hot MOBA titles like League of Legends aren’t solely responsible for the growth in gamers. The gaming community is expanding thanks to mobile games that are very approachable, which means someone who didn’t play games before now has far more access to gameplay. Nintendo is also responsible for introducing video games to many people across the globe with their motion-controlled Wii console.

In other words, the easier it is to pick up a game, the more likely it is to have a lot of fans. This is true for most episodic games today since few of them are demanding in terms of button inputs, reaction time, etc. All it takes is a button press or two to make dialogue choices, move a character, and complete a quick-time event. Someone who is intimidated by input-demanding games will have no trouble checking out your average episodic title.

3. Enticing Business Model

Just five years ago no one could have imagined that free-to-play games would be raking in serious dough. Hits like Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, and Hearthstone have proven that people are willing to spend money on freemium content if they’re into the main game, which they downloaded for free. What’s interesting is that episodic games have a pretty similar business model as free-to-play games.

Hearthstone screen shot

For one, they both offer a taste of the game at no charge. It is now common for developers to make the first episode of their game for free. Gamers get invested enough into the story that they want to know what happens next, which means purchasing the following episode. These extra episodes come with small price tags that don’t feel too costly.

4. Story-driven Experiences

If there’s one thing history has shown us, it’s that people have always appreciated a good story. This is the reason why guys like Shakespeare and Homer are still remembered all these years later. It’s also the reason why so many people spend a lot of their time watching movies, binge-watching their favorite television series, or getting lost in a good book.

Since video games are interactive, they offer a narrative experience unlike any other. And while other genres are more than capable of telling an interesting tale, most would argue that episodic games are one of the best. Since the gameplay is simple, there’s more focus on the characters and how they interact and develop within game world. Having choice-driven dialogue and big player decisions that impact the story only serve to captivate the audience even more.

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10 Reasons The Walking Dead Got Good

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally published on November 26, 2014 to coincide with the season five midseason finale of The Walking Dead]

The Walking Dead takes its Christmas vacation this week with its midseason finale. So far, season five has been the best run of episodes yet. In fact, it’s been great, which is a surprise to anyone who watched the show in its earlier seasons.

Something happened near the end of season two and throughout season three, where the show started to find its legs and have glimmers of quality television. Season four was its coming-of-age, with the zombie series finally living up to its potential. Now, midway through season five, The Walking Dead and its stellar screenwriting has finally become appointment television, and The Walking Dead midseason finale is on everyone’s schedule.

The show always had some strong points—after all, we wouldn’t have watched it through its growing pains if it hadn’t. It had that badass opening theme by Bear McCreary. It had a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting. It had top-notch makeup effects and boasted the goriest violence on all of television. It had… well, that was about it.

Compared to the other AMC shows at the time—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and RubiconThe Walking Dead wasn’t exactly what people thought of when they referred to the new Golden Age of Television. But now the highest rated television show on cable can finally stand tall with, at the very least, its genre-show brethren Game of Thrones and Orphan Black. How did The Walking Dead get good? Here are ten reasons:

1. Characters Got Smarter

It makes sense that by season five, The Walking Dead’s characters started showing some of those delicious brains. In the world of the show, it’s been a few years since the zombie apocalypse, so most of the dummies and suckers of Georgia have been eaten or decapitated by eye-patched madmen. All that’s left is the cream of the crop. Smart characters make for great TV. There’s nothing more frustrating than yelling at your screen when someone does something stupid or goes into the wrong room. But when they’re doing exactly what you would do and still end up cornered and without options, nothing is more thrilling to watch.

2. Characters Got Deeper

Like late-90s video games, the characters of The Walking Dead finally jumped from two dimensions to three dimensions thanks to some key changes in the writing. Sometimes ensemble television shows have to start with broad stereotypes for the audience to keep up with the story, but it’s about time we started seeing different shades and depths to Rick, Daryl, and the rest. The last couple of seasons have focused as much if not more on character than plot, a sign of any great drama. Finding out that this band of survivors is actually made up of interesting individuals makes the choices they make that much more compelling.

3. Characters Got Names

Even better is that these added dimensions weren’t just added to the primary cast, but almost all of the ensemble as well. It’s hard to imagine that characters like Beth have been with the series since the beginning of season two, considering she didn’t get her own storyline until season four. Before that, Beth was just “Hershel’s Other Daughter.”

4. Plots Got Morally Ambiguous

Even from the very beginning, the question the series seemed to be asking was “What morals must we sacrifice to live in a new post-apocalyptic world order?” But the show struggled with ways to ask it. Even situations that seemed abhorrent, like having to murder Carol’s zombified little girl in season two, weren’t actually moral quandaries. She was no longer Carol’s little girl—she was a murderous zombie, just like the rest, and Rick realized she had to be put down hard and fast. But since then, the show has posed questions that don’t have clear right answers, and where no decision will end up a good decision but still need to be made. Characters must ask themselves what to do with hostages, who to leave behind, who must be sacrificed for the greater good. Watching smart, deep characters with names confront these moral quandaries makes for fantastic drama.

5. Plots Got Burned

The Walking Dead was typically as slow-paced as its title monsters. It even spent two episodes re-introducing us to The Governor in the middle of season four. Then, something happened. Actually, a lot happened. Quickly. The season ended with our heroes trapped in a boxcar prison by cannibals, looking like it would take several episodes for them to plan and execute their escape. It took less than one. Burning through plot is an extremely bold move for a series, as original plots are hard to come by. But it creates a thrilling sense that anything can happen and keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. While that long-term prison escape could’ve been fun, watching it go up in flames along with that plot thread was way more exciting.

6. Characters Got Quiet

Do you know how we knew The Walking Dead asked the question “What morals must we sacrifice to live in a new post-apocalypse world order?” Because characters always asked that, out loud. All the time. Along with anything else they were thinking. The Walking Dead wanted to be a character drama from the beginning—the problem was, it had no grasp of subtext, treating its audience as dumb as its zombies. Too busy showing us bloody intestines and brains, it was telling us everything else. Now characters keep it closer to the vest, and the audience actually has to work a little to infer what they’re thinking from their actions and context and from what they’re not saying. You know, like good shows do.

7. The Show Got Courage to Try New Things

For the most part, the first three seasons are very similar. While The Walking Dead still has some wing-spreading to do, it’s gotten bolder experimenting with its tone and other aspects, like the aforementioned plot-burning. One great example is introducing the trio of Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita. Rather than try to adapt these larger-than-life comic characters to the moody realistic tone of the show, The Walking Dead embraced their cartoonish styles and had fun with these three. It injected a great deal of levity into a show that desperately needed it.

8. Episodes Got Focus

Along with playing with tone and plot, The Walking Dead has switched up its structure. Season 3’s best episode followed only Rick, Michonne and Carl on a side mission, and the writers seemed to take notice of its positive reception. Many episodes of the last two seasons play as little movies, telling complete stories with just a few focused characters. Rather than switching back and forth between plots, audiences got deeper into characters’ heads and tension builds more consistently, such as in The Governor’s Season 4 two-parter. The show has also been smart enough to switch it up to an ensemble-type show when the plot needs to race ahead. It’s a careful balance The Walking Dead has finally gotten a handle on.

9. The Show Got Better Mood, Music, and Direction

While most of the show’s improvements have been in its writing, The Walking Dead has beefed up its already decent direction. The last two seasons have combined mood, music, and cinematography to create a show that is as artsy and poetic as top tier dramas like Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. While the show’s theme has always been one of its highlights, the show has also learned to use music better and to stronger effect, though it sometimes still suffers from the Unnecessary Sad Montage.

10. Carol

Carol started the show as a background character with an a-hole husband. Even when her daughter went missing and ended up killed, Carol still remained on the sidelines of the plot. But somewhere along the way, all the crap her character has taken turned into an amazing set of armor and Carol emerged as a fascinating, multidimensional character, even replacing Daryl as The Walking Dead’s resident badass. She’s smart, tough, sexy, and watching her do her thing is a highlight of the show. In just the last season and a half, Carol has executed a surrogate daughter, thrown herself off a cliff in a van, and single-handedly wiped out a cannibal fortress. Meanwhile, Rick farmed some tomatoes.

Seasons 4 and 5 may prove to be the creative peak of The Walking Dead. Will the show continue this momentum into season 6 and beyond? Or will it end up like so many of its characters–dead on its feet, shuffling aimlessly until it’s finally put out of its misery.