aitd6.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom returns to Alone in the Dark to get an enhanced perspective of Siren: Blood Curse and non-episodic episodic content.]

Episodic content is becoming less and less of a joke. It’s gone from being a way to make fun of Valve’s release schedule to a clever tool for developers looking to maintain interest in their titles long after release.

When it works, episodic content can create an interesting mix of video game and television sensibility. It allows customers to pay for their entertainment in relatively small installments, and make decisions regarding the quality of the product based on smaller (and cheaper) portions of the game.

What’s interesting about companies’ approaches to episodic content is how they are and aren’t engaging players’ notions of what “episodic content” means. It’s obvious that designers want us to anticipate the next installment of episodic content, just as they want us to appreciate the smaller, easily beatable portions of their game. What they don’t often capitalize on is the baggage that comes with the term “episodic.”

I am of course referring to TV shows, and the tropes and traditions they’ve created for themselves as they’ve evolved as an entertainment. I can’t be the only one who has memories of watching the first part of a two-part TV episode, realizing that I have to wait a whole week (or, God forbid, until the next season) for the conclusion. It’s incredibly vexing, but when you get that feeling of longing and frustration, you know that a show has its claws in deep.

aitd2.jpgNot Very Episodic, Actually
It’s truly mystifying then, when games produce a TV-like atmosphere, without the traditional TV wait-and-see moments. Alone in the Dark does this, and while it can be a puzzling decision at times, in the long run it’s a decision that makes sense.

In Alone in the Dark, the story follows Edward Carnby. As he tries to stop Central Park, New York City, and more from being destroyed by a malignant, supernatural force. The story itself may not be the newest thing under the sun, but the flavor that its presentation creates is definitely memorable.

As you aid Carnby in his struggle, the game is parceled into episodes, within larger chapters. Each episode can be fast-forwarded through (avoiding an annoying car chase, say), replayed, r even skipped, so long as you’ve unlocked the capability to do so. Admittedly, I can’t see a reason why you would want to skip any portion of a story-heavy game, but the option is there, and the ability to minutely control the level of a player’s involvement with a game should not be overlooked.

I was interested to notice that a lot of vicious reviews thought that this mechanic was good for only one thing: skipping most of the game. I’m not quite sure how writers arrived at this conclusion, because I saw it as a way to skip certain parts and come back to them, or replay very specific game segments to get achievements

What Alone in the Dark does well is something that a lot of people disagree upon, but I enjoyed the absolutely wonderful feature, “last time on Alone in the Dark.” Now, survival horror and action adventure games aren’t normally the games that cause me to quickly forget their plots. That’s normally a pleasure I reserve for lengthy JRPGs. However, it’s unrealistic to assume that players will be rolling through this game without any hitches, in one or two sittings.

It’s reassuring and grounding to see a quick, well-cut recap of the recent events within the story, just so you have context for whatever corner of Central Park you’re presently scouring for clues. It’s not only helpful, but also extremely evocative of those two-part TV episodes I mentioned earlier. It sets the stage for the mood of whatever scene you’re re-entering. Instead of hopping right into the middle of the action, you are quickly but effectively primed for whatever situation you may find yourself in, grave or no.

sbc1.jpgDocumentary TV Format Plus Ancient Curse Equals Siren
If Alone in the Dark is good at quickly preparing you for your return to the fight, Siren: Blood Curse does a great job of piquing your interest about the next installment. The game is even more minutely segmented than Alone in the Dark, with each chapter divided into a multitude of episodes. Most of them time, your perspective will change from episode to episode. At the end of one episode you’ll witness or trigger events that affect multiple characters, one or more of whom you’ll control in the next episode.

This lends the game an exciting level of tension and consequence: regardless of whether your temporary avatar survives the newest episode, there’s no guarantee that in trying to survive you’ll be doing the best thing for the rest of the PC’s. The “next time on” feature emphasizes this facet of the game’s tension. At the end of each chapter, you’ll be given a glimpse of the terror and possible death that awaits your companions or yourself.

This is obviously a device that finds special importance in Blood Curse. The multiple characters and narratives, combined with each character’s different abilities and limitations, are pretty confusing, especially as the game tries to find its footing early on. The cinema appended to each chapter, providing a brief, focused denouement to the episode’s events, is always just informative enough of what you can expect from the next stage. It doesn’t hurt that it always managed to pique my interest.

Of course, in the case of Blood Curse, it’s unclear why the developers released it in 12 separate downloadable chapters. Since all twelve episode were released simultaneously, it’s not as if the developers were releasing each chapter as it was finished. Likewise, as Alone in the Dark proved, it’s possible to release a completely traditional game from a purchasing and playing perspective, while still implementing the trappings of an episodic story. If Blood Curse had been released as one title, with its episodic window dressing and gimmicks intact, I would have enjoyed it just as much.

sbc4.jpgIf Not Next Week, Why Not Right Now?
Alone in the Dark’s system may be structurally and practically different from Blood Curse’s but both games are intent on evoking the aura of TV shows, while avoiding the week long wait between episodes. This isn’t a problem for me: I enjoy the dramatic angles that these games’ pretensions to televised drama afford the narrative. I like the in medias res sensation that arises from the mantle of televised drama worn by both games.

Still, it’s a strange match for Alone in the Dark, when all is said and done. Like I mentioned previously, the game’s story is hardly longwinded enough or convoluted enough to really need such a mechanic. Furthermore, there is nothing episodic about the narrative of Alone in the Dark, disregarding the episodic nature of gamers’ playtimes.

This assumed TV identity really does feel more natural on Blood Curse. There, the narrative is segmented already, and like a good TV show, concerns itself with presenting various disparate characters and situations, and then bringing them together.

I hope that more developers take a hint from Blood Curse, regardless of whether they present their games in an actually episodic format or not. I’m sure that there are more creative and interactive ways to leverage televisions (having episode cliffhangers with multiple choice endings – and thus multiple possibilities for the next episode – definitely comes to mind), but for now, I’d be happy if some other people out there besides Eden Games and SCE Japan will jump on the wagon.