Recently, Capcom announced that it was making a sequel to the 3DS game Resident Evil Revelations and that this new game would miss both Nintendo platforms and instead focus on Sony and Microsoft systems. The original game was a hit on the 3DS, but faltered miserably when it was ported to consoles because of the whole ‘it’s a handheld game being upscaled’ thing. The more interesting announcement is that Capcom intends to make this an episodic game like Telltale’s largely successful The Walking Dead, only this one will involve a lot more guns and ridiculous plots undoubtably. I’ve seen mixed reactions to this announcement, but the main thrust seems to be negative. So, today, I’d like to look at the advantages and disadvantages to episodic content and how Capcom must tread a very thin line.
The original Resident Evil Revelations was already broken up into episodes even though it was sold as a full game. You were constantly jumping between protagonists, which was actually the worst part of the game. You see, you never got to feel any tension or attachment with characters or environments when you were blasting off to different locals with different nameless dudes throughout your experience. I remember thinking that Resident Evil Revelations could have been an excellent game if they had focused entirely on the main character, Jill Valentine, and cut all the rest of the chaff. However, this approach does work well with being cut to more digestible chunks.
Episodic content has its advantages. The primary one is that you can turn a video game from a movie-like experience to a television one. Since video game narratives tend to span many sequels this doesn’t undermine the narrative as much as you’d think. The big plus of this approach is a good developer can make each segment unique with its own arc and character development. It also allows for gameplay experimentation on a smaller scale. Most importantly, episodic content allows developers to get the game out quickly to users, but without it being an alpha build. You see, there is a trend in the industry nowadays to give public alphas out so that gamers are the ones play testing your game. It’s cheap and demeans the medium. I, personally, don’t have much respect for game developers who are willing to ship out a completely unfinished product and then tinker with it for years based on fan feedback. It’s even worse when they charge gamers for the privilege. On the other hand, each segment in an episodic game is totally finished. It’s just that the rest of the game isn’t. This allows a good developer time to think about the larger story arc and the implications of design choices all the way through. It also allows for some fan feedback to trickle in, which may allow them to modify future instalments.
But episodic content is not buttercups and rainbows. The biggest risk is that gamers will get bored and stop buying. As a publisher, when a gamer sets down the $60 for a video game, you’re safe. The money is in your pocket already. However, when you need the gamer to keep buying more content for you to get your investment back, things get a little hairy. If a gamer buys one or two episodes, finds they don’t like it then shoves off, the the publisher is in the lurch, which puts the developer in trouble and pressures them to provide an irresistible, overhyped purchase instead of providing the experience they wanted to give players. This is very difficult as gamers must be convinced to keep playing game months after they first got excited about it and stopped playing. However, the biggest problem with episodic content is that it is intrinsically jumpy. While each segment can be unique and that’s good, it also means that each segment can feel divorced from one another. The narrative can suffer because of this, and there is a temptation to just make the game a rotating collection of massive set pieces, which utterly ruins pacing.
With that out of the way, is Capcom ready to provide this experience effectively? I’m not sure to be perfectly honest. Capcom is awful at stories. All of their games, every single one of them have utterly insane and bafflingly written stories that work only as camp if you squint your eyes just right. This is not the developer to turn to if you want a powerful narrative and striking, self-contained chapters. Instead, this is the developer to turn to if you want complete nonsense. In addition, Capcom’s latest attempt to innovate with the Resident Evil series, Resident Evil 6, was an utter failure, partially because of the kitchen sink approach they used. If Capcom once again throws every cliche and convention at this game and hides behind the episodic nature of it, gamers could be in for another rocky ride. On the other hand, Resident Evil Revelations used a modified Resident Evil 4 control scheme, which meant that the combat was still very fun. By capturing fun combat, a sequel can work past these narrative woes. This is especially true if Capcom decides to approach each segment as a highly replayable gameplay experience rather than a tense build up and tight story experience. However, if they do that, they’ll lose fans of the original and old Resident Evil games, who loved the survival horror aspects of it.
This brings me to another problem with episodic content: it is generally incompatible with survival horror. Tiny, self-contained segments work better as roller coaster experiences, where the developer is taking you on a ride. Survival horror works better when players are left to explore and enjoy. Worrying about supplies works most effectively in longer games, or games that are so difficult and maze-like that they take a long time for a first-time gamer to play through. When you nix this in favour of short segments of shooting or running without giving players enough freedom, you risk nullifying the survival and horror aspect of the genre. Of course, this might not be billed as a survival horror game and my point will be moot. But fans expect a certain amount of the old genre to carry through, even if it’s not a lot, and Capcom can alienate if they don’t provide it.
So, I’m not sure if Capcom will be able to provide a good experience. They have a good game to base the experience on (the original Revelations), but Capcom’s general style will not feed into the narrative-centric approach used by most episodic content. They may eschew narrative for more of an arcade experience, but this will hurt any use of tension. Perhaps the worst case scenario is that Capcom does both like they did with the original Resident Evil Revelations and provides an uneven, jumpy experience with a hint of greatness that is never truly grasped.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer