Forcing players to wait is one of the best weapons of Telltale's episodic games

There is no “right” way to play a game.

If you want to change the difficulty to easy, don’t listen to the people who say you’re not a real gamer. If you want to use a cheat code and just have fun, go for it. Life is too short to worry about being judged based on how you take part in this hobby we share.

That said, there are people who wait until the season of each Telltale adventure game is finished and gorge on the whole thing, running across cliffhangers like stones skipping on a lake.

This approach is appealing for a number of reasons, and many of us have been almost trained to wait for the trades of our favorite comic books or the full-season availability of our favorite shows before jumping in, but there is something lost in this approach when playing episodic games.

The power of choice

The ability for players to guide the story separates television and comic books from a "season" of Telltale's The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. We can at least partially change the outcome of each episode, and our actions guide each season from episode to episode. Fan reactions to characters and in-game choices may even help guide the development of the game as a whole.

The player has a certain amount of agency, both in terms of guiding the characters through each episode and by providing the developers with information via those choices. This leads to a conversation between the game and the player, as well as the player and the developer. Not to mention the discussions that happen between players about these choices and set pieces.

Watercooler talk about entertainment becomes much more interesting when you have some say about how things turn out, and you can compare notes with others who are playing the game.

Asking other Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us players to not only describe their choices but to explain why they did certain things is an interesting exercise, and people who might never consider themselves role-playing fans often find themselves making decisions based on what they think each character would do, leaving aside the decisions that might lead to the "best" winning condition.

Some people create arbitrary rules to ease this tension, and try to keep certain characters alive. Others know that they’re in a brutal environment and use intimidation and violence to get what they want. Others try to walk a line and squirm when the game puts them in a position to choose between two terrible options. Never has a company done so much with providing the player with layers of moral discomfort.

There is a section near the end of the first episode of Wolf Among Us where it feel as if you get to choose what kind of character Bigby Wolf will be, and of course the game helpfully lets you know when characters will remember your actions. The story may be a series of branching paths in reality, but it’s easy to fall for the illusion of true choice while playing, and to try on the skin of each character to get wrapped up in not only what they do but why they do it.

The power of waiting

This sort of ongoing discussion between players, the game, and the developer may not be important, or even interesting, for some players, but the number of players who never try this approach can be surprising. It's worth at least attempting if you're used to treating episodic content of any kind as a buffet, to be approached only when the next course is never more than a moment away.

The game can get stuck in your head like a thorn, forcing you to turn over your choices between episodes

The "gorge on the finished content" model of consumption, recently championed and supported by Netflix dumping entire seasons of their original programming online, doesn’t give the experience time to breathe and give back to the players. People have become content to remove themselves from the living game as it's released, only to step in when it's finished and inert.

The first episode of The Wolf Among Us ends on a brutal cliffhanger, and the act of turning that scene around in your head, trying to figure out what happened and what it means for the story, almost feels like part of the game play. The "did you SEE that?" discussion that takes place on gaming fora and between players adds so much to the experience. Waiting for your friends to finish each episode so you can discuss it can be just as hard as waiting for the next episode itself.

That sense of anticipation, of an experience that’s being drawn out and picked over between episodes, is lost when you wait until the season is over to play through the whole game in one sitting. The game can get stuck in your head like a thorn, forcing you to turn over your choices between episodes. It may not be comfortable, but it can make the experience much more satisfying for a longer period of time.

The cliffhangers and revelations lose punch when they’re merely a gateway into the next episode. The need to wait for the next chunk of the game adds to the excitement and anticipation, making the release of each episode feel like an event to be savored and enjoyed.

That sense of something exciting being released can be lost when you have every episode of the season on a disc and can jump straight from that shocking scene into the next episode. We're so used to never having to wait for our entertainment that we've lost the ability to find pleasure in that waiting, to having something be enhanced by anticipation.

There is no right way to play a game, but playing episodic games as they're released provides the player with very real emotional payoffs that are lost, or at least dulled, when the content is played in one long session. The second episode of The Wolf Among Us will be released tomorrow, and then the anticipation for episode three begins.

I can't wait.

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