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Way back in the early 00’s, developers became enamoured with the idea of episodic content. It was a dream everybody could believe in. Well, believe in more than, say, the VR storage system in the Michael Douglas/Demi Moore turkey, Disclosure.

Skip forward to the 10’s, and the dream has become something of a struggle. It’s still alive, but entangled in a conundrum. Its realisation is a stylistic approach, at best.

By now, we’re aware that videogames aim for a visual acceptance through the cinematic portrayal of events, but structurally, they share more in common with long form television shows. Alan Wake has become the poster boy of episodic gaming, with its “TV box set” style. Yet, it’s certainly not the first. As we’ll see, it’s just one example in how television has been increasingly influential, even so far as overtaking cinema, in that area of storytelling.

Whilst developers set their sights on the big screen, strong narrative titles do tend to suffer from a “dead air” syndrome. The length of game, and its need to constantly engage, far surpasses the run time of your average cinematic experience. It cuts off when the player has decided to have enough, rather than when an act, or a break, dictates such actions.

Episodic gaming is a strange beast that, once employed correctly, delivers an intensity that wouldn’t normally be there. A perfect example was having to wait mere weeks for the resolution to Alan Wake’s predicament in The Signal.

Telltale Games have done a decent job with its monthly narratives. Sam & Max: Season One is a far cry from The Devil’s Playhouse, where the later disposed of the tenuously connected mini-adventure format, in favour for the ebb and flow dynamics of one larger arc, peppered with cliff-hangers and call-backs.

The reason why The Devil’s Playhouse works so well, in that regard, is because Telltale Games plan entire seasons, in advance. They dedicate themselves to reworking minor issues, rather than total reinvention; all confined by a monthly deadline.

It’s a balance of feedback and self-imposed restriction; a working approach that was mishandled by the original champions of episodic gaming, Valve.

Seeing the Half Life 2: Episode trilogy as a scheduled series, like The Blair Witch Project before it, probably would have made a huge impact on our gaming habits. Instead, it shook faith in what episodic gaming could achieve.

Episodes wasn’t to be because Valve had approached each instalment as separate entities, influenced by their improvements to the Source Engine. They failed to think like real show-runners; people who have entire seasons planned out before production. Valve gave up on the idea, and reminded us that to emulate outside media, you have to treat your own in a similar fashion.

Luckily for Valve, they’re the popular choice; an ideas factory that gets by on constant innovations. The same can’t be said for Ritual Entertainment’s SiN: Episodes, though.

SiN never had the popularity of Half Life, and to buy into a similar episodic fashion was a risky business. It bombed; not enough people were interested in seeing the vision through to the end. Maybe, David Cage realised such risks, after consolidating his episodic vision for Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy into an interactive movie.

It’s hard to test the waters if nobody is willing to take the plunge, but there’s nothing that says developers/publishers can’t treat the selection process like television executives, either. Going back to Telltale’s successes, it was fascinating to see them set up a “pilot season”; the end result being the deliciously surreal Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent.

Obviously, the digital domain is the right way to go, and faith on both sides can get a product a long way.

Sony bungled it with Siren: Blood Curse. It had the suitable narrative, but it was never immensely popular. It didn’t help that Sony released the entire game as a hard copy within months; defeating the entire point, and losing face in the process.

BioWare had hopes for building small bridges between larger titles. Yet, they never ran with it after Mass Effect: Bring Down The Sky. Accessibility was probably the major factor; a sequel had to involve everyone, including those who didn’t buy the DLC.

Money does eventually play a big part in how seasons and episodes are formed. After the initial sales figures, Remedy were reluctant to refer to each Alan Wake game as a “season”, but they’re still more than happy to use the medium for their storytelling gains; as we’ve seen with American Nightmare. As it should be, episodic gaming is not solely about buying instalments, but how we assimilate that structure, be it one game or a series.

Episodic gaming works, and not just for the television tie-ins of 24: The Game, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary/Judgement Rites, The X-Files, and Lost: Via Domus.

Deadly Premonition’s narrative plays heavily on shocking conclusions, recaps and “Previously...” montages. Despite being a bad game, Alone in the Dark 5 circumvented its problems with DVD menus. L.A. Noire’s cop drama was akin to Dragnet, or to some, a mini-movie marathon.

It doesn’t even have to end in specific genres, such as survival horror or adventures.

Resonance of Fate is an underrated tactical JRPG that deserved a little more recognition on release. It shares more in common with Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and Outlaw Star than it ever does with its RPG peers; focusing on characters and relationships in a tightly directed fashion. It shouldn’t work, but it does, railing against the predictable conventions of the epic quest.

There was a time when television played fast and dirty; still does for the majority. Recently, shows become more sophisticated, with an understanding that viewers wanting to invest in more than one-shot tales. It’s now working towards its potential, increasing its advantages over Hollywood.

Video games have taken television’s old mantle. The industry finds itself filling a hole, hungry to prove itself, before it implodes.

Whilst, it’s not a case of following in exact footsteps, or having an all-encompassing outlook for every title (that would be strange), if it strives to understand the beauty of the small screen, and not be strangled by money, then video games might just have a better chance against the critics of narrative, and create better immersions in the process.

And who wouldn’t want to be on the edge of their seat, week in, week out, when that debate gears up?

For all its low budget faults, and lack of ambition, there’s a mesmeric quality to Grasshopper Manufacture’s Michigan: Report From Hell. Your role is strictly supportive, as the only true requirement is to keep filming for a news network’s audience; complete with a simmering subtext concerning the current state of journalism, and the selfishness of our passive nature.

Fascinating as it sounds, Michigan is not the first (the similar, live action, the FEAR preceded it), or even the last, videogame to deal directly with our love of voyeurism. Yet, in an industry that increasingly assimilates the cinematic gaze with an interactive medium, rarely is the act dissected beyond a brief epiphany.

Voyeurism has been, ironically, pushed to the fringes of videogames.

Arguably, the obvious spotlight of voyeurism was at its strongest during the FMV era. Those titles were mostly a technological excuse to put film on to CD, and even though, it was deemed an evolutionary dead end, those years bore some broken delights, e.g. Night Trap, Double Switch, Psychic Detective, The X Files, and Voyeur.

The latter is an intriguing case of turning the passive gaze into an interactive investment, at its purest form. You play a private investigator, hired to dig the dirt on a presidential candidate’s associates, which quickly escalates into a potential Rear Window scenario.

All with the acting finesse of a Shannon Tweed erotic thriller.

The idea was that you watched a movie, with simultaneous scenes, and had to decide which ones were important for the narrative whole. In an effort to engage the player, the metaphorical carrot on a stick was introduced in the form of soft-core nudity and the need to zoom in on documents.

Night Trap wouldn’t have been remembered the way it was without the Scooby Doo events and multiple paths. As a by-product, Night Trap’s campiness did more harm than good to the serious discussion of voyeurism. It had an interesting concept, stalking the villains that, in turn, stalked their victims, but everybody talks about “that shower scene”, instead.

The X Files went further, thus proving that FMV was utilised in the wrong way, by handing full investigative reins over to the player. The first act involved Agent Wilmore staking out a warehouse, and accumulating footage for analysis. He even had to wait for lab results. Yet, for every glacial procedural, there was a tense situation; searching a truck cabin, before the owner came back.

It’s this rare balancing act, of watching in the shadows and taking chances in the open, which interests developers. It’s a formula that works well for players, too.

Tom Clancy titles, like Rainbow Six, always have a mission where one character is sent into a heavily guarded mansion, to place bugs and cameras on key objectives, without being seen. The problem with that is you never really see the fruits of your labour, unless, you’re stacking up outside a door, and marking targets for a tactical breach.

Information gathering doesn’t need to be relegated to intensive combat, though. Personally, a co-operative videogame based on wire-tapping would be an amazing prospect.

You can almost visualise the multiplayer aspect of character classes, working together to set up the perfect sting, gather information, and finally, burst into an explosive situation. A perfect formation of tense and release dynamics waiting to be experimented on.

Forget the idea of searching for the Citizen Kane of videogames, try The Wire, The Anderson Tapes, or The Lives of Others, instead.

The forthcoming Spy Party is a deadly game of Guess Who?, but from an indie developer. The fact it’s not another financially safe retro-platformer suggests people do want to explore the idea of surveillance in unexpected ways.

It’s reminiscent of Gregory Horror Show’s selling point of working out everyone’s routine, by following their daily schedule, preferably without being seen. Throw a spanner in the works with a curious staff member giving away your position, or a disgruntled guest out for your blood, and the whole process of spying becomes an intelligent slow burner; one that was published by Capcom, of all companies.

Certainly, there’s a reluctance to come up with such dedication for minimum gain, and yet, we experience voyeurism in many genres.

Players have watched others through a sniper scope, or a drone, on a mini-LCD screen, attached to a snake camera. They’ve also seen ghosts through magic cameras, spied on people’s routines (solely for FBI purposes, Zach), watched someone else’s survival through security cameras, and surveyed portals to other worlds.

In essence, we’ve observed the actions of others, human or AI, and shaped their fates with the press of a button; usually without them ever knowing.

Though, the act is one of patience, it doesn’t mean that the entire lead-up has to be time consuming, too. There just has to be enough enticement in any given situation, one that can be cut up and returned to on a regular basis; as was the case with Silent Hill 4: The Room and Forbidden Siren.

When voyeurism doesn’t work, it’s when the title is ambitious, and the element is diluted in a competition of ideas. As discussed, the times when we become aware of our “stop and stare” instinct, the games are intensive. They’re set in small locations or situations that aren’t always in the distance.

For all the manic release in a bank robbery during The Heist or Kane & Lynch: Fragile Alliance, there's the feeling that a more methodical approach awaits in the shadows.

Then again, maybe because of the fluidity of voyeurism, an act that permeates every videogame, it really is better off outside our mind’s eye, rather become a gimmick in the spotlight. We’ll never know, unless, people are willing to examine it in such naturally sinister detail.

Oh, FYI, if there’s ever a Sneakers multiplayer game, dibs on being Sydney Poitier.

“Friends?!! We’ve only been out together three times, and you’re already telling me you just want to be friends?!”

And so began a crazy obsession of mine. One that featured a Bogart-esque dog and a “rabbit-thing” chasing a Bigfoot across the tourist traps of America.

Without endlessly waxing nostalgia, Sam & Max Hit The Road is a perfect coalescence of my youthful interests. Growing up in the Welsh Valleys as an awkwardly dry outsider, I didn’t help my cause by discovering bands like Pavement, having an interest in noir, reading Image comics, drooling over Bettie Page and watching Nickelodeon on a (presumably stolen) satellite dish when everybody else settled for their lot. When you get down to brass tacks, a Welshman enamoured with American culture rather than his own roots is pretty absurd.

Yet it goes a long way in explaining why I adore Steve Purcell’s surrealist road trip and the way it trivialises glamorous infatuations. It’s reminiscent of my family outings to holiday camps and the vacuums of entertainment they became as I grew older. Sure, the targets are painted with broad strokes, but it’s a perfect representation of derivative tourism and invigoration through desperate diversification.

Personally, it’s a viewpoint the US fans of Hit The Road take for granted.

Sam and Max are thoroughly entrenched in US culture. Their world lies with corn dogs, ice lollies, guns, banjos, their beloved DeSoto, Dragnet-style vigilante justice and made up sports like “Fizzball”. Their actual job as Freelance Police is ultimately inconsequential, merely an excuse to exist in ‘exploitation’ surroundings. Only Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and The Adventures of Pete and Pete come to mind as suitable peers.

Hit The Road is a genuinely hilarious videogame and one I still find intelligently layered. To deconstruct the humour would be pretentious, but the reason why it works is the way it entwines puzzles with jokes.

Take the scene at The Mystery Vortex, for example. Max makes a throwaway comment about the area’s telekinesis being powered by huge magnets underground and Sam berates him for such nonsense. Low and behold however, just as you’ve nearly forgotten about the remark, they discover that Max is spot on with his assumptions and in turn, this becomes a new obstacle.

Puzzles in adventure games can kill the momentum instantly, especially in a comedy. Make one too tough and a humorous moment collapses amidst frustration, turning the payoff into a damp squib. It’s this sole reason why I’ve never rated Grim Fandango as a great comedy adventure. Controversial maybe, but many LucasArts adventures were unbalanced in a similar fashion. Sam & Max Hit The Road and Full Throttle have always been harangued for their simplicity, but that seems unfair.

Hit The Road is forthcoming with most solutions, but the whole point is that it’s an interactive comedy first and a brain-teaser second. Steve Purcell, creator of Sam & Max, understands the need for balance:

“You try to be aware of the amount of time you have players sitting and watching as opposed to interacting. Fortunately a lot of the humor came out of the way that the characters would respond to the player’s actions. Even observing something in the room could produce a funny response in which case the interactivity IS doing the work of the story”

Even if the puzzles were difficult first time around, Hit The Road wouldn’t stop you dead with an uncharacteristically cold response like Monkey Island. In fact, it encourages experimentation; opening up new avenues of observational one-liners though mistakes.

My personal favourite being, “This is a completely un-usable thing-a-ma-bob!”

As the 90’s came to a close, I became despondent replaying Hit The Road, knowing that after destroying half of America for the salvation of a Bigfoot tribe, it was truly the end of the Freelance Police’s adventures. Purcell had all but quit drawing them, the cartoon only lasted one season and the Americana I found to be unique in the Valleys became prevalent in everything outside my fishbowl town (hell, maybe it already was). It was weird transition and maybe that’s why Hit The Road has stayed with me for so long; a brilliant reminder of the things that shaped me as a person and as a writer.

The John Muir Song taught me the word “edutainment” after all.

That sadness eventually became a moot point when Telltale Games started making the Sam & Max series. As much as I’m equally obsessed with them, admittedly, they don’t have Hit The Road’s scattershot charm. The closest they came to recapturing the spirit was the amazing Abe Lincoln Must Die!

Hit The Road lacks some of the darker aspects of the comics (which have only just been explored in The Devil’s Playhouse) and is somewhat shallow, but I put it to you that most videogame humour is weak material and centred around forced-upon memes anyway. For that, Hit The Road entirely successful and a rarity in the way it creates comedy on its own terms.

After all, it’s a game featuring a Woody Allen lookalike being terrified by a fibreglass fish, eggplant carvings of celebrities, the horrors of country music, bungee jumping out of George Washington’s nose at Mount Rushmore, Gator Golf, The World’s Largest Ball of Twine, a rock that doesn’t look like its “Frog Rock” namesake and an obscure Talking Heads reference.

Are there any reasons why I wouldn’t want to make that trip again and again?

I can’t think of a reason not to, little buddies.