Sixteen-year-old Rachel wakes up every morning and checks her Instagram and Twitter. She’s not interested in memes or selfies, but her business analytics and records. Rachel, who is having her last name withheld at the request of her mother, is a small-time content creator on the gaming platform Episode. She’s seen her peers rack up thousands of followers on social media, and that’s a level of success she desperately wants.
There are millions of young women between 13 and 25 on Episode. The app, which is dedicated to reading and creating stories, has quietly created a new generation of game developers. While some rise through word of mouth and enjoy the thrill of feedback, acclaim, and readers, others get featured on the front page of the app and earn money through their creations. But there’s an air of politics to the world of Episode that sometimes boils over into backlash and bullying.
Even as a small-time creator, Rachel has ambitions surrounding the stories she writes on the app. She works a part-time job in fast food, and she puts a portion of her paycheck toward commissioning art for her games. When she gets home from work, she organizes campaigns with other writers to plug each others’ work, or read drafts in progress. Rachel has passed the threshold from hobbyist to developer, and she’s not alone. Episode is slowly becoming a platform where young women pursue their own game development dreams, and build their own empires.
Lay of the land
When you open Episode, you’ll be greeted with featured stories, some of which are made by developer Pocket Gems, others which are chosen from the community. The developer-made titles are the most prominent, and they are the first titles to showcase new features and assets not available to the wider player base.
Episode allows players to tell their stories with simple visuals. You dress up your character, who is essentially a digital doll, and choose their hair, makeup, and facial features. The game is a mobile visual novel; my avatar moves through scripted scenarios, I select dialogue and action choices, and I watch my choices play out.
The tales found throughout Episode are often power fantasies aimed at young women. In Pocket Gems’ title The K*ss List, a pretty high school senior goes on a mission to overthrow the school’s ruthless bully by kissing the hottest singles in her classes. Love Life, meanwhile, puts me in the role of a young professional chasing her dream job in the big city — while finding true love along the way, of course.
Episode’s stories are packed with leather jacket bad boys from military schools who unexpectedly return to their hometowns, cigarettes in tow. The protagonist tames these rude dudes via flirting, dancing, and emotional vulnerability, but not before embarrassing a high school bully along the way. It’s a popular formula established by romance novels. In fact, some Episode stories started as romance novels and were rewritten and imported into the app.
Rachel admits that these stories “are like popcorn. They’re trashy and stupid, but that’s why they’re fun.” Another Episode reader I spoke to described them as “so-bad-they’re-good rom-coms. It’s hilarious to read stories where major plot points are introduced by naked characters and resolved by making out.”
Some of these stories are licensed, allowing you to romance stars like YouTuber Cameron Dallas, or they let play through known stories, like Mean Girls. Pocket Games’ most popular genre is romance, but the company has plans to branch out into fantasy, sci-fi, and thrillers.
Featured stories also have microtransactions that allow for premium choices. Many of these choices don’t affect the story: I can pay $2 to get a special dress or put a bitchy rival in her place with the perfect comeback, for example. These small microtransactions add up, though. If I unlock every course and path in a story, I can rack up a $30 bill pretty quickly — enough for Transistor or Shadowrun: Hong Kong on Steam.
These tales use in-game social pressure to encourage players to pay for microtransactions. Sure, you can turn down that paid tailored dress ... but your crush won’t praise you, and your friends will feel awkward. In one story, I am given a paid option to meet my crush at the train station before he leaves ... or take the free option of dodging through traffic, hitting red lights, and seeing his train leave without me.
On the surface, Episode is another app like Choices, Stories, or Storyscape. Small-scale visual novel apps are everywhere, and they’ve gained popularity with young women and on platforms like Tumblr. Anyone who has played mobile games has likely seen these games pop up in ads where players are offered wild choices in sexy scenarios, like finding your husband in an affair and choosing between “slap him” or “join them.” In reality, these apps tend to be toned down from these salacious advertisements.
Pocket Gems writes many of the featured stories, but when I scratch the surface, I find a host of unique and exciting visual novels being created by amateur developers. That’s where the app turns from a host of soap operas and romantic dramas into a platform where young women build their own visual novels, marketing their games and managing fan bases online.
In one Episode community story, I play as a cyberpunk mercenary solving a haunting. In another, I’m a New Mexican vampire fighting back against bigoted legislation. In a different one, I’ve been recruited by the CIA after getting embroiled in wild prep school politics. These stories are visually simple, but there’s imagination and drive in their premises.
Development and design
Some of the authors on Episode I spoke to had never played video games, others had sunk time into titles like Skyrim, Kingdom Hearts, The Sims, and Dragon Age: Origins.
S. Langdon, a featured author on the platform who boasts over 75,000 followers on Instagram, was one gamer who transitioned from traditional titles into Episode development. “I wanted to create a dramatic world where one’s morals were challenged and where choices had good and bad consequences,” she wrote over email.
Getting to create something that could improve on aspects of mainstream media was another bonus. One story, Haute as Hell, is an America’s Next Top Model parody that includes scenes of infidelity, betrayal, and even commentary on the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting.
“I wanted to create an inclusive story filled with diversity that shed light on people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, sexualities, gender identities, mental health issues and more,” she says. Haute as Hell was the first featured story to allow three romance routes: attracted to men, women, or both.
Featured stories are paid based off the YouTube model, with a flat rate paid out per read. Pocket Gems did not share the exact rate. One prolific Episode author has 55,000 followers on Instagram and 40 million view counts on her work. E R Gurney, a featured author I spoke to, has over 41,000 followers on Instagram. These aren’t unusual numbers for popular authors on the app.
Gurney is an unusual example of an Episode author — she’s 30 years old and academically trained in literature and theater.
Gurney’s Instagram page is a powerful tool that exists independently of her Episode profile. “I communicate with my readers, other authors, I promote my stories and share sneak peeks,” Gurney says. She also enjoys connecting with the “amazing” community around the game. “Immediate feedback is a huge boost. And when you have small errors or bits that don’t work so well, it’s like having hundreds of thousands of proofreaders who give you the best feedback for free.”
Even authors who haven’t been featured set up their own channels and work on building an audience with calls to action, adding fans into stories as extras, and sharing previews. These developers are learning how to build and retain audiences via ongoing creative work. Rachel’s mother, Claudia, mentions that as one of the largest reasons she supports her daughter’s passion. “It’ll look good on a resume some day.”
New this week on #Episode, Why Me? a collab with @sophiealice_insta! Find out what happens when you're forced to move in with the most popular boy in school! Will love blossom, or will you fall for the new kid in town instead? pic.twitter.com/l0BJokVBnA— Episode (@Episode) May 22, 2019
Drawbacks and limitations
While the Episode team is working on adding more tools for authors — minigames, tappable overlays, and added flexibility — content creators are working with imperfect tools and improvised solutions. Fans hack together the tools at their disposal to push the boundaries. Children are depicted by scaling down models. When fans want to represent something there isn’t a model for, like a text exchange, car, or close-up of hands, they mock the image up themselves and upload it.
Playing through the titles developed by Pocket Gems once gives the illusion of choices that matter and branching paths, but when you test that by playing through multiple times, that illusion wears off. This is why fans both delight in creating and playing the original stories made by other fans — the branching choices. There’s genuine skill and narrative design that go into many of these tales, even if they’re unpolished.
In one popular community story, my character was murdered because I intentionally made bad choices. In another, my wayward veteran sidekick perished at the end of the story. When I replayed the tale, and made different choices, I was able to keep him alive. Stories in which choices make major impacts are popular, and the most ambitious stories branch into several possible endings.
Risks and rancor
Last year, Rachel’s mother Claudia had to confiscate Rachel’s phone. Rachel had published a story on Episode that had gone over poorly with its readers. It was a romance written by an author who had never gone out on a date, Rachel sheepishly admits. The story was a whirlwind tale of bad boys, partying, pregnancy, and deception. Rachel agrees, in retrospect, that it was “embarrassing” and “extra.”
Rachel received some insulting messages online, and a group of authors with larger readerships had publicly mocked the story on Tumblr. Rachel fell into an obsessive loop of checking their profiles for any new insults. Claudia took her daughter’s phone away from a week, and the two had an unexpected conversation about how to deal with sudden, negative online fame and criticism.
Inviting an audience and a response is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, the messages are brief and brutal — “holy shit, learn to write” — but Rachel has learned to delete those right away.
One anonymous featured author said that it was difficult to read negative feedback. “If it’s your own story, you should be able to write what you want. It’s for fun,” they said. “I had people calling me a racist because an Indian character was too American. I saw people talking about how dumb the microtransactions were. That wasn’t my choice, don’t dump on me about it.”
Gurney has experienced similar messages. “The more you write and the more your story is trending, the more people who discover you, you’ll always get naysayers who pick at funny things,” she says. However, her age and life experience has her in a stronger position to deal with these messages. “I think because I’m a slightly older writer, I don’t really engage with the negativity and jealousy. I don’t want to rise to that. I’m just here to write stories and enjoy myself, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Artists in the Episode community also tend to feel social pressure. One artist, Renee, discussed the feeling of obligation. “I started doing work for my friends, and people really loved it. Now, I have people I don’t know telling me I’m a sellout, that I only do work for the popular people, that if I cared about the community I would do art for them. That’s hard. I don’t know how to deal with that, so I stopped posting my art.”
Langdon shared that she had some negative reviews from players who thought Haute as Hell didn’t represent diversity well enough, despite her efforts. But she also says that overall, the support from the community drowned that criticism out. “Players greatly appreciated the ability to choose their sexuality as well as the plot, diversity and love interests. Most of all, they simply had a lot of fun and would replay and choose different choices to see different outcomes.”
Even amateur writers like Rachel can receive community support and recognition. Rachel shyly shares a tale of receiving a message from a 14-year-old girl gushing about the latest love interest she had written. It was a piece of feedback she found touching.
“I like knowing that I’m writing things that matter to someone out there,” Rachel says. “I don’t really see myself as, like, a game developer or programmer or anything like that. I just want to make cool things and have people read them. Everything else is a bonus.”