21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Dynamic Storytelling in Episodic Videogames

Rebekah Cunningham

Life is Strange Episode 3, “Chaos Theory” – Frank Bowers and Beans. Screenshot taken 3rd December 2019.

As Frank – a blonde, bearded, and very angry man – stands up, yelling “I WAS EATING THOSE BEANS!” before taking a tumble to the floor of the diner, I am reminded of why I am writing this article.

Frank Bowers is a character in the 2015 adventure videogame Life is Strange (LiS), and he is just one example of how serialisation in videogames – and particularly in episodic games such as LiS – indicates how videogames are becoming increasingly dynamic and reciprocal. That is, videogames and subsequent interactions create artefacts and experiences that are constantly changing (dynamic) and are altered by discourses between those who make and those who play these games (reciprocal). The significance of Frank, his relationship to beans, and what these things reveal about episodic videogames, seriality, and dynamism as a result of reciprocity are questions that I address in this article.

I use episodic videogames and their inherent seriality to demonstrate the wider aspects of reciprocity and dynamism in contemporary videogames, focusing on how continuous seriality in these types of games is a form of dynamism that is influenced by reciprocal feedback loops between developers (“game makers”) and players (“game consumers”). First, I establish the key terms of “episodic videogames” and “seriality” and explain how they intertwine, considering how this relationship helps to form a foundation of videogames as something that can be dynamic and reciprocal. Second, I present two examples of episodic games where elements of continuity are explicitly generated by community feedback, in a context of light-hearted meme-making (Life is Strange) and in a context of challenging instances of LGBTQ representation (Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey). I conclude with a discussion of how these examples are foundational to overarching issues in videogame discourse, development, and consumption. All games – regardless of type, style, or genre – engage in dynamic and reciprocal feedback loops, and an awareness of this should alter how we approach our discussions of these very changeable games.

What do I mean by “episodic videogames”? Rick Sanchez – former vice president of games network IGN – noted in 2007 that episodic games include three key features: “each episode stands as one but is part of a larger whole”; “each episode has a relatively short duration of play”; and “episodes are delivered over a regular schedule” that denotes a “season”. While games have evolved and publishing platforms have become increasingly digitised since Sanchez produced this definition, his general premise has persisted. Ultimately, episodic videogames split an overarching narrative into smaller “episodes” and are released periodically (usually over the course of several months), as opposed to videogames that are released and marketed as a singular object.

As with many theoretical and aesthetic terms, “seriality” is already accompanied by a mountain of varied definitions and conceptualisations. In this article, I mainly draw from Shane Denson and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann’s definition of the term, where “seriality” in videogames is principally a “type of continuation” (Denson and Jahn-Sudmann 2–3). More specifically, for Denson and Jahn-Sudmann serialization marks multiple forms of continuation: of a game’s external production (“sequels, prequels, remakes, hacks…”), internal construction (i.e. the procession of levels and worlds), and their situation in a broader cultural sphere (such as evolving technology and transmedia storytelling) (Denson and Jahn-Sudmann 2–3). I am particularly engaged with their idea that seriality marks a continuation of specific processes (storytelling, development, etc.), so this article frames “seriality” specifically as a form of continuation that can occur in multiple, varied ways. To add to their work, I also consider how human input (by both developers and players) affects videogame seriality, in that it is borne not just out of the production process (game-making) but also out of the conversations between game-makers and game-players about those games. This approach aligns with earlier theoretical thinking (applied to other forms of media), which consider seriality as constant continuation within an art object. Umberto Eco, for instance, explores the idea that serialised artworks repeat the same narrative and formal structures in ways that do not make them seem the same as what has come before in a form of continuation (167). Frank Kelleter – with a more distinct focus on television studies – claims that critics must be aware that they are dealing with a “moving target” with serial TV: just as with videogames, we must be aware that each episode of a television arc will continue to alter the meaning and storytelling of the series as a whole.

With these definitions in place, it appears that episodic games are necessarily serial. Episodic games have a “type of continuation” that is particularly overt and intelligible; they are produced and consumed in a way that fosters continuation, of both the videogame’s storytelling and its distribution. The use of the term “episodic” also readily evokes our cultural understanding of how television series produce smaller episodes that form a larger series arc [Note 1]. This set of connections subsequently allows us a better way to understand all videogames in an increasingly digitised world. By examining examples of episodic videogames altered over time (in a form of continuation) as a result of feedback, it becomes easier to take a next step of comprehending the reality of constant dynamism and reciprocity in non-episodic videogames. This, in turn, offers a foundation for reframing our approaches as both scholars and fans.

Here I return to the importance of Life is Stranges Frank. Frank’s bean-fuelled rage first appeared in May 2015, when “Chaos Theory”, episode three of the five-part videogame, was released. The protagonist, teenager Max Caulfield, has time-travelling abilities: translated into gameplay, Max’s player can choose from multiple actions and dialogue choices with other characters, but pressing the assigned button will allow Max (and the player) to rewind time by a small amount, to before a choice is made or an action occurs. This ability allows Max to acquire knowledge which she can subsequently use to obtain key information, or to make events happen at specific times for her benefit. As such, Max’s choices (and rewinding) are integral to the continuation of the story, but there are also narrative “dead-ends”, added purely for flavour. Frank’s bean dilemma is one such dead-end option: rather than choose to successfully distract Frank through conversation, Max’s player can choose to tip his plate of beans onto the floor, invoking his rage, but the outcome is ultimately a slapstick tumble to the floor and a provocation by the game to “try again” (“Chaos Theory”).

Conversations and jokes between players arose from this optional moment in LiS, with players seemingly delighting in the discord of a man getting extremely angry at the loss of his beans. Youtube videos were made to highlight this moment for other players, with one Youtube creator simply commenting “Frank. He was eating those beans.” (Safgaftsa). Similarly, an anonymous Reddit user made reference to an older Facebook meme, emulating a Facebook comment and posting as Frank, claiming that “I;m thinking about thos Beans” (Anonymous) [sic Note 2].

In terms of seriality, this bean-oriented example does not initially act as a continuation of either the story or the gameplay: it does not help the player towards the assigned goal of obtaining Frank’s keys. However, when the fan community began to engage with Frank’s reaction, and LiS’s developers responded, this instance of seriality became overt and a feedback loop between developers and players was formed. In Episode 5, “Polarized” (released in October 2015, five months after Episode 3), there is a preternatural sequence where Max is made to navigate a maze where people she has previously encountered are now trying to capture her. These characters only talk about the most prominent aspects of their relationship with Max as they patrol winding paths and walkways, their dialogue warping into a threatening manner as they make reference to Max’s choices in earlier episodes. Frank also appears in this maze sequence, yelling “Those were my beans, Max…Those were my f***ing beans!’. This indicates an acknowledgement by the developers that players would understand and appreciate this reference. Significantly, although the initial encounter with Frank and his beans is a dead-end option, it is afforded the same representation here in Episode 5 as other forced choices that are encountered throughout the game.

Life is Strange Episode 5, “Polarized” – Frank Bowers representation in the preternatural maze sequence. Screenshot taken 3 December 2019.

The serial recurrence of Frank’s beans also continues beyond the initial “series” of Life is Strange. In 2017, Dontnod Entertainment released a 3-episode prequel to the original LiS, titled Life is Strange: Before the Storm (LiS: BtS). Max is not the protagonist of this mini-series (her friend, Chloe Price, is), but the player encounters other characters from the original game, including Frank Bowers. In Episode 2 of LiS: BTS, Chloe finds herself in Frank’s RV: if the player explores the vehicle, they will find a cupboard filled with nothing but cans of beans and Chloe will comment, “that’s an insane amount of beans” (“Brave New World”). This is noted by journalist Allegra Frank as “bring[ing] back the series” best goof”. Dontnod developers completed a further feedback loop here: they introduced the initial “goof”, player reaction to the scene exacerbated the importance of this interaction, and this in turn encouraged the developers to echo this reference not only in later episodes but also in later games. Frank’s now-constant obsession with beans is an overt, if light-hearted, example of how player feedback can encourage seriality and subsequent dynamism in an episodic videogame. When the developers acknowledged this community fascination in the game itself, an example of simple meme-making became an example of dynamism as a result of reciprocity: it transformed an incidental narrative moment into a central aspect of Frank’s character. The developers altered their game(s) in order to foreground Frank’s relationship with beans, in a reciprocal gesture to a community that enjoyed the joke.


Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 2, “Brave New World” – Chloe finds beans in Frank’s RV. Screenshot taken 3 December 2019.

Frank in LiS is a straightforward example of community response resulting in specific developer choices, but there are also instances where key social responsibilities are at play in the negotiation between players and developers. The representation of queer romance in Ubisoft Quebec’s 2018 Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (AC:O) is one such example. This is an action adventure game set in Ancient Greece, initially published as non-episodic; that is, accessible as a full title on its initial release. The developer then released a three-part episodic DLC, “Legacy of the First Blade”, that acted as a continuation of the story in the main game. (DLCs, or downloadable content

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey “mark[ed] the first time romanceable characters have been included in such depth” (Tapsell), and the game allowed the choice of playing as a male or female protagonist (Alexios or Kassandra) and same-sex romance options. A week after the main game’s initial release, Creative Director of AC:O, Jonathan Dumount noted: “Since the story is choice-driven, we never force players in romantic situations they might not be comfortable with”, which “allows everybody to build the relationships they want” (Romano). However, this was disregarded in Episode 2 (“Shadow Heritage”) of “Legacy of the Hidden Blade”. Kotaku journalist Heather Alexandra outlined how this episode ended with the player protagonist having a child with a fixed character of the opposite sex, and commented that this “forced me to abandon my mercenary ways and have a baby, regardless of the decisions I had made”. Furthermore, the achievement that was unlocked after this story arc exacerbated the issue. An achievement (or trophy) is a metagame element to a videogame that denotes the player completing or achieving a certain task in the game. This particular achievement was initially titled “Growing Up”, which added to fan outcry, as Owen Good explains: some fans believed that the game “regarded being gay or childless as a youthful phase to grow out of”. These articles echoed the wider fan outcry and dismay occurring in Assassins Creed subreddits and forums (Good; Alexandra).

Developers at Ubisoft Quebec responded in two key ways. First, a statement released on the Ubisoft Community forums on behalf of Jonathan Dumount  acknowledged that “through your responses it is clear that we missed the mark” and “the clarity and motivation for this decision was poorly executed” (UbiPhobos). Dumount pledged to “work to do better […] so you can stay true to the character you have embodied throughout [AC:O’s story]” (UbiPhobos). Second, a month after the episode’s release, the developers altered the “forced romance” storyline through an updated patch. (A patch is a batch of code, pushed to the player’s version of the game through online platforms, which can add to and/or change parts of the game that were previously released.) Although the changed episode still ended with the player character having a child, the context was reframed so that the child could have been a result of an emotionless “continuation of their bloodline”, as opposed to the result of a romantic, straight relationship (Totilo). Furthermore, the achievement name was changed from “Growing Up” to “Blood of Leonidas” (Smith). While the stakes are far more serious here, this example echoes the response to Life is Strange in that the seriality of the episodic “Legacy of the Hidden Blade” was made overt as a result of fan feedback and developer response to this feedback. The game’s continued story was altered to act upon this feedback, though not to the satisfaction of everyone involved. In this case the change was made retroactively, the alteration a palimpsest over the previous developer decisions – unlike the linearity of Dontnod’s handling of Frank and his beans. Both examples, though, are overt instances of continuity, partially provoked by community involvement: in clear feedback loops,  developers have made reciprocal, dynamic changes to their games as a result of fan response.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Legacy of the Hidden Blade (Episode 2, “Shadow Heritage”) – Post-patch dialogue choice to either cement a romance or to assert that the main reason is to continue the bloodline of the protagonist. Screenshot taken 3 December 2019.

I conclude here by echoing Denson and Jahn-Sudmann’s call for more prolonged and intimate awareness and discussion of the serialization processes within videogame production, albeit with a particular focus on the social aspect of this process. As both scholars and fans of these objects, we must be attentive to videogames as continually changeable objects rather than fixed entities upon release, and the serialised narratives of episodic videogames provide a clear and compelling example of the potential implications of this reality. We must be attentive to these changes, otherwise we risk both misrepresenting the increasingly complex production processes at play and oversimplifying the impact of mutable games on our research: are we being rigorous if we do not consider how a game has, and may, change from its initial release? This analysis of episodic games as serialised forms of dynamism and reciprocity is only a foundation for a much broader, more complex area of study, where the logics of reciprocity and dynamism are now unavoidable across the gaming spectrum. Dynamism in videogame production and consumption is not only a matter of change resulting from a “one-after-the-other” linearity that “often mark a ‘before’, ‘after’, or a ‘meanwhile’” (Denson and Jahn-Sudmann, 2). As the example of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey shows, dynamism can also occur as an entangled mass, where “befores”, “afters” and “meanwhiles” constantly speak back to each other, interrogating and negotiating their place in the process of game making, game playing, and game discourse.

Citation

Rebekah Cunningham, “Dynamic Storytelling in Episodic Videogames” Alluvium, Vol. 7, No. 5 (2019): n. pag. Web. 15 December 2019, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.5.02

About the Author

Rebekah Cunningham is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, researching videogame dynamism and community reciprocity and its effects on videogame production and research. She co-created the Play/Pause network, which hosts seminars and events in the Midlands that explore a variety of themes and discussions around videogames and virtual reality.


Notes

[1] For more information on how the term “serial” has become its own fluid concept within Television Studies, I recommend Gavin Creeber’s Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen (2010).

[2] The original meme is of a Facebook comment on the Bush’s Bean brand, where the commenter simply claims in a misspelled, grammatically incorrect manner that “I;m thinking about thos Beans” (Dankey Kang).

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Anonymous. “R/Lifeisstrange – [NO SPOILERS] Frank’s Beans.” Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/lifeisstrange/comments/6s98mo/no_spoilers_franks_beans/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.

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