Video gamers were the original binge-watchers.
Long before DVD boxed sets of TV shows and Netflix made marathon viewing a common way to digest seasons of television, game players were creating formative memories spending 30 or 40 hours on the couch finishing “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” Or maybe they were sitting at a desk for many nights in a row, desperate to get to the end of classic role-playing games such as “Fallout” or “Baldur’s Gate.”
Gamers are not great at delayed gratification. The launch last week of the new PlayStation 4 game console and this week’s Friday debut of the Xbox One are proof. Many gamers who feel they’ve waited an eternity for new console hardware pre-ordered one or both of the new systems sight-unseen to be the first to play a new generation of video games. A lot of the games themselves, at least the ones that still bother to include a compelling story, seem to get shorter and shorter.
Online, from the moment a game is released, gamers can find walk-throughs (hints and guides to get through a game), detailed videos showing every moment of a game from start to finish and plenty of spoiler discussion. And that’s after months of previews and early reviews in the gaming press. It’s very hard to be surprised by anything game-related anymore.
That may be one reason that lately I’ve been avoiding the already-well-chewed-upon blockbusters of the holiday season — your “Call of Duty: Ghosts,” your “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” mass-market hits — for smaller games rolling out at a very different pace.
More specifically, I’ve realized that I love episodic games, ones that make me wait for my next narrative fix and allow my brain to mull on what I’ve played and what might happen next.
Episodic games are not new. Game developers have in the past continued game narratives through sequels, expansion packs or downloadable content available after a game’s release. Valve Corp. famously decided to develop episodic follow-ups to one of its most famous games, “Half-Life 2.” In 2006, it released, “Half-Life 2: Episode One” and a year later, “Half-Life 2: Episode Two.”
And then? Nothing. We’ve spent six years waiting for an “Episode Three” or a proper sequel. Sometimes these things end in heartbreak.
Last year, my favorite gaming experience was “The Walking Dead” from Telltale Games, which unspooled over five gripping, emotional episodes from April to December. A second season of that game, continuing the story of pint-sized survivor Clementine, is due out before the end of the year to kick off another five episodes.
I’ll be playing that, alongside “The Wolf Among Us” (Rated M for Mature. $5 per episode, $15-$25 for the five-episode season on PC, Mac, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3), Telltale’s latest episodic effort. Based on the Vertigo graphic novel series “Fables,” it’s about fairy tale characters (Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, among others) living badly in New York City as exiles of their magic kingdom.
In “Faith,” the first episode released last month, Big Bad Wolf, or Bigby Wolf as he’s known in human form, is the sheriff, trying to maintain order in so-called Fabletown. It’s grisly and dark. Though these mythical creatures can take a beating, as evidenced in frequent fights between Wolf and the Woodsman from “Little Red Riding Hood,” they can be killed. And early on, it happens, leading Bigby into a twisty murder investigation. He interviews sneaky toads and beastly bartenders. He has very interesting conversations about the dysfunctional relationship between Beauty and Beast.
If you’ve seen the TV shows “Grimm” and “Once Upon A Time,” you get the idea. But the game’s strengths are its spectacularly stylized art style, which like “Walking Dead” feels like comic book panels brought to life, and superb voice acting and writing. “Walking Dead” was brilliant and devastating enough to bring me to tears by its Season One conclusion. It’s too early to tell if “Wolf Among Us” will be as compelling, but the first episode is solid and worth checking out. It ends on a cliffhanger and leaves you wanting more (and waiting).
The episodic format is especially perfect for a game I’ve quickly become obsessed with, “Kentucky Route Zero” ($25 for a five-episode season pass on PC, Mac and Linux, not rated). It’s about an old delivery man named Conway making what might be his last delivery via a mysterious underground highway in Kentucky. The game includes spooky, sometimes funny dialogue, a vague and minimalist art style and a mood that is so well-crafted it’s likely to give you goosebumps.
I don’t know exactly what’s happening in the first two episodes released so far of “Kentucky Route Zero.” I believe I may have been speaking to ghosts, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps Conway himself has already passed into the hereafter. There are children with huge wings flying to faraway forests, sad bluegrass music, flickering televisions playing shows about mysterious farms and a curiously bureaucratic office, the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces.
“Kentucky Route Zero” is the rare game that leaves you feeling uneasy without resorting to violence or cheap scares. It’s creepy, but it’s also beautiful, with clever narrative shifts and lovely writing. And the space between episodes (there won’t be an end to this story until sometime next year), leaves plenty of space for speculation and to revisit the first two acts. It’s the kind of delicious anticipation for uncharted territory I remember feeling when “Twin Peaks” debuted many years ago.
Is there a downside to these kinds of games? They tend to be on the short side, no more than a few quick hours of entertainment for a few bucks. The months-long wait to find out what happens next isn’t for everyone. Some gamers will prefer to wait until the seasons end and binge-play.
But if you enjoy having morsels to look forward to in your life, little rewards marked out in your future, these games are well worth the wait.
Find technology news, reviews and more on Omar L. Gallaga’s blog, Digital Savant, at austin360.com/digitalsavant.