It’s 2:00 a.m. and I’m riveted to my computer screen. Yes, it’s long past my bedtime, but I’m caught up in the emotionally driven world of an episodic game. I started it just the day before, I can feel the conclusion nearing, and I can’t put the game down. Life is Strange might be laying it on a little thick with the teen melodrama, but I can’t help but be sucked in; like a well-written soap opera, it draws me in and keeps me hooked.
If today’s narrative-heavy games can get players staying up long hours to get the whole thing done in one or two sittings, the potential for immersive, you-are-the-hero virtual reality games is limitless. Longer games can stretch out the narrative over many hours and pack the story full of combat, puzzle-solving, and other elements that sometimes bloat an otherwise good story. Episodic games boil the story down to its essentials. Putting you in the shoes of a game’s protagonist, a virtual reality game loaded with emotion is a concentrated gut-punch (in the best way), showing the powerful storytelling capabilities of both episodic games and VR.
The episodic game trend is new and becoming increasingly pervasive, not only because it’s a gripping method of storytelling, but also because it’s just plain economical. Game development is expensive, and the shorter format of episodic releases can help developers stay on schedule and under budget without making compromises in story and gameplay. This is particularly true for developers working in new technology like virtual reality. But there are reasons beyond finance for why episodic games are a great way to tell powerful stories in VR.
Episodic Games Provide Bite-Sized Enjoyment
The episodic structure is perfect for people who love games but don’t have a lot of time to spare. While the story of The Witcher 3 is excellent, the time to beat it falls somewhere between 45 and over 150 hours, meaning players who don’t have much free time are going to grapple constantly with complex controls and crafting systems. Delivering long, involved stories as episodic games gives these players the plot and interactivity that make the medium great—in smaller pieces, rather than as a marathon.
Think where the idea springs from: we may not want to sit and watch a six-hour movie all in one sitting, but six hours of television is whole a different story (even when binge-watching). It gives us more opportunities for breaks, and lots of smaller satisfying storylines and climactic moments. You get all the satisfaction of completing a tale with less commitment.
Games are the same. It’s easier to stop after one episode of a game and wait until you have time for the next one than it is to stop a 40+ hour game in the middle without knowing when you’ll have time to pick it up again. Instead of re-learning every mechanic, an episodic game like Life is Strange keeps the mechanics relatively simple to prevent that learning curve, drawing you in with story and drama rather than something like Dark Souls’ toughness.
The shorter length of episodic games is also a boon for VR in particular, where motion sickness in players is always a potential problem. You don’t feel like you’re missing out on part of the experience if you play for a shorter period of time with an episodic game—after all, it’s a shorter story. So if you have an issue with virtual reality-induced motion sickness, episodic virtual reality is a great solution. The upcoming title Loading Human is the perfect example—the game is being developed episodically, but they’ve also changed the movement mechanics that often induce nausea, with the goal that players can enjoy the story and the experience without feeling ill.
Emotional, Arc-Driven Writing Steers Episodic Games
Because episodic stories are often told linearly over a longer time period, they let you experience character growth and change. While a non-linear game may go on for a long time, most focus on action and combat, with character and story coming second. Something like Skyrim can last hundreds of hours depending on how you play it, but your character experiences little growth, other than joining and supporting different factions. Having the entire game wide-open from the beginning restricts how a character can develop, lending more importance to worldbuilding over character, in the case of Skyrim. There are always exceptions, but most episodic stories, particularly in games, explore the changes and development of individual characters themselves.
In VR, being present in the story, literally, makes this emotional connection even more profound. When you’re interacting with characters firsthand, you see their emotions up close and respond to them in kind. When the often emotional stories in episodic games combine with the powerful ability of VR to put us directly into those dramatic arcs, you get a powerful storytelling experience unlike any other. You feel a character’s happiness or fear or grief. Playing through a story as an active participant, using your body and movement to interact, can take emotional storytelling to new levels.
Episodic Storytelling Suits Virtual Reality’s Unique Gaming Style
Arc-driven episodic games keep us on the edge of our seats (in just the right way). While many episodic games end on cliffhangers, they also show some level of character growth and story development over the course of an episode. Each episode feels like a chapter in a novel; it told a great story, but you’ll be left wanting more because you’re interested and invested in these characters. And in VR, you’ll be inside that novel, experiencing every interaction and dramatic element firsthand. While episodic releases may not be the industry standard at the moment, they have great potential for emotionally driven stories, particularly in VR, and games like Loading Human are pioneering that possibility.
With exceptional sci-fi storytelling and advanced virtual reality gameplay, check out the upcoming Loading Human. Preorder your copy today!