Life is Strange True Colors Hopefully Signals The End of Episodic Games

Life is Strange: True Colors Hopefully Signals The End of Episodic Games

Dan Webb

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the games industry – or just playing games for that matter – you’ll have seen a ridiculous number of trends come and go over the years. There was the cel-shaded trend, or the era of 3D games where they tried to shove that down our throats. There was the survival renaissance, the early access era, and the battle royale gold rush – the latter three are still running their course and might very well become industry mainstays. And, thanks to Telltale’s The Walking Dead in 2012, the trend for episodic games was born, whereby developers treated their narrative-orientated games like a weekly TV show… except it tended to be monthly at best, every quarter at worst.

It wasn’t just narrative-focused franchises that were looking at the episodic delivery method for their games, though. Everyone was trying to get in on the act - even established franchises like Resident Evil opted for an episodic format with its sequel to Resident Evil: Revelations. IO Interactive’s Hitman also went the same route, with fairly poor results. In fact, despite the brilliance that was Hitman (2016), you could argue that it never really received the credit it deserved due to the amount of people that passed it over because of its episodic nature.

The failing of the episodic format for Hitman (2016) and its poor sales effectively led to a breakdown in relations between Square Enix and IO Interactive, allowing IO Interactive to go ahead with a management buyout in 2017 – whereby the existing managers were able to purchase a controlling interest in the company and make the studio independent once again. That led to Hitman 2 thankfully returning to the traditional all-in-one-box release format in 2018.

While Hitman 2 had a pretty slow start, possibly due to the fact people assumed it was still episodic, it later recovered in the following months and years to perform admirably. So much so that when Hitman 3 launched in January of this year, the game's boxed version outsold its predecessor by 17%  during its launch week in the UK, and has performed “300% better commercially” than its 2018 predecessor (as of April 2021). In less than one week, Hitman 3 recouped its development costs. A true success story, if ever there was one. And hopefully, a lesson not to jump on bandwagons.

For Life is Strange, on the other hand – and those infamous Telltale games – the episodic format made a bit more sense at the time. You can kind of understand it. But with episodes frequently delayed – probably due to the fact that it’s increasingly complex to create a game episode on a specific schedule than it is to shoot a TV show – the cracks were starting to appear. Heck, the king of the episodic format, Telltale Games, saw its foundations crumble in mid-2018 with the majority of its staff being let go, eventually leading to the studio’s demise. Alas, that was reportedly down to mismanagement, with the developer spreading itself thin. But the decline of the sales of a procession of episodic series likely accelerated its downfall. The inescapable problem with episodic games is that you’ll always get diminishing returns – episode 1 is always going to outsell episode 2, and so on.

Sure, you could argue that the episodic release schedule allows for developers to spend extra development time on the latter episodes, and that otherwise, it would have effectively delayed the launch had it been an all-in-one affair. But that comes at a price.

Now, turning our attention back to the namesake of this article, Life is Strange: True Colors – which we reviewed this week – I would argue that True Colors, and the franchise, is in a much better place in adopting a classic all-in-one-box format.

I’ll admit, over the years I’ve been guilty of playing an episodic game and falling away after the first episode, regardless of its quality – Telltale’s Tales From the Borderlands is the perfect example for me. This all-upfront approach means that doesn’t happen. It means that developers, like Deck Nine, can experiment more with its games and not have to worry about that dreaded falloff before the story can even really begin. Life is Strange: True Colors is the perfect example of that. 

Deck Nine wasn’t forced into unnecessary over-the-top and outrageous moments held back for cliffhangers; and they weren’t left worrying whether people would return because they decided to mix things up in the middle – like it did with True Colors, to wondrous effect! Chapter 3 is an absolute doozy! Instead, it allowed the studio to tell a story at its own pace and not be forced into artificially manufacturing moments that might have short-term gains to the story (and to the player’s purchasing decisions), but could be a disaster in the grand scheme of things.

The developer can write shorter chapters, more unconventional chapters, it can mix up the formula - the writers are effectively granted a level of freedom that maybe wouldn’t have existed with an episodic format. Of course, Deck Nine still needed to tell a fantastic story and keep people interested, but were now able to do so without worrying about the business aspects of its decisions. Episodic gaming is like buying a book in chapters, spread apart over a few months – it just makes no sense in my eyes. And yes, I know you technically can do that, but I’m not sure that benefits anyone. “But Dan, episode one could be used as a demo,” I hear you say. Then why not just release a demo?

The truth is that Life is Strange: True Colors is a better game for not having to wait a month to see the next act, and in my case, partially forgetting what happened and who was doing what (despite a ‘previously’ recap). The story is strong enough on its own – as is the writing, the characters, the world, the music, and so on – that people will just want to see the end, organically. I’d wager that more people percentage-wise are going to see the end of True Colors than any other Life is Strange game (not including buying past games when episode 5 is out, of course. That doesn’t count).  We are in the era of gorging on our media whole, binging entire Netflix series in just a few days, and having a one-month break between episodes just gives us more of a chance to move onto something else and never come back.

Luckily, that’s not the case with Life is Strange: True Colors. You can consume it all in one go. Get washed up in the emotion, and then look back on the experience in a few hours, rather than in six month’s time. And for that, and all the other aforementioned reasons, I do hope that in the wake of Hitman’s post-episodic success, Life is Strange: True Colors signifies the end of the episodic format in gaming.

  • @Dan Webb, Good article, man... It was an interesting read. One thing I also think harmed episodic releases is you never knew if you were going to get burned when you dove into a series. You could commit to an episodic series and never know if everything would release. This almost happened with the final season of The Walking Dead. Another case is when an episodic series would end with an open ending, always intending to set up the next season, but it never gets a subsequent season. This happened with Wolf Among Us, A Game of Thrones, etc.

    Granted, those examples are from Telltale, but that could be said of any dev falling into the same situation whereby they don't release the remaining episodes or subsequent seasons to an open ending. Telltale was just the perfect case that really brought to light how a gamer can feel cheated committing to an episodic series, and the devs not seeing it through to the end.
  • I will always die on one hill in particular: I loved the episodic format of Hitman and I wish it had carried over to the sequels. I loved the wait and the anticipation each month for a brand new map and in the mean time I would dig so much into the previous level(s) more that I have done for both Hitman 2 and 3.
  • I wish games could be done in weekly episodic releases. I love Wolf Among Us and other TellTale games but they whole waiting, then pushed back is the biggest problem. But aren't we now in the most episodic releasing of games right now. We get a broken incomplete game and have to wait for a the next version that hopefully does something but requiring us to pay full up front and in most cases pay again for the complete game.
  • I liked the episonic releases. Granted thy could've had a quicker turn around between episodes, like one per month. It was good to tackle these games in elephant bites and nice that you couldn't just smash it out all at once, unless you waited of course, until they were all out. The price structure was nice too, only paying per episode if you chose to.
  • I also smoke of those favoring episodes in some cases. TT just made sense overall. Hitman is great example as just as above person commented I would really dig in to each level a lot more playing 10hrs a piece instead of per game…

    But to each their own, seems to me like our man Dann has way too many thing going for him to keep up focus on one thing for too long;-)
  • Just jumping straight into the comments after the Borderlands mention - you owe it to yourself to play the rest of the episodes. Seriously. Go play it! You need to experience the "fake" gunfight at least once.
  • @ViNyLek - That's very very true! Ha!
    @Ashleyc - Yeah, I really enjoyed the first episode as well! Maybe I'll return to it one day! (I have seen the fake gunfight though and you're right, it is excellent!)
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