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    this week's thoughts on seriality: part two (video games)

    My whole thinking on video games as a serial (as opposed to "series") format derives from two pieces published by Wired journalist Clive Thompson: "Tune In Next Week For Gaming Fun" and a later piece, "The Myth of the 40-Hour Gamer."

    "The Myth of the 40-Hour Gamer" sets up the problem: there exists a class of gamers who admire long-form narrative adventure titles and but struggle with finding the chunks of unbroken time necessary to complete them. Thompson discusses this along age lines: the hard-core gamers playing these puzzle games are clustered in the 6-to-17 age bracket (according to US consumer research organization The NPD Group), a group that Thompson describes as having "very few distractions and commitments." By contrast, adults, busy with jobs, family duties, and other obligations, are mostly bound to compress their gameplay into smaller bursts: an hour here, an hour there, maybe longer on an occasional indulgent weekend. Which means that unless you're committing to taking an full year to complete one of these games, you're likely to get only partially through before abandoning it.

    "Tune In Next Week For Gaming Fun" describes a possible solution: serialized, episodic games. Specifically Thompson looks at Valve Software's sequel to Half-Life and Half-Life 2, called (somewhat confusingly) Half-Life 2: Episode One, which is being released as the first part in a one-year "trilogy" and is designed to be played in a short burst, four or five hours instead of the whopping forty.

    Three installments in a year is still a good half a world away from the 20-odd installments modeled by television drama, but I think moving in this direction has a lot of potential benefits. As Thompson points out, some of these might be aesthetic:

    "Serial narrative ... lets writers create increasingly labyrinthine plots. Audience members can tolerate only so many twists and turns in a single, monolithic movie before they get confused. But in an episodic narrative, a writer can weave oodles of subplots -- because we've got months and years to puzzle them over. The tangled plots of Lost simply wouldn't be possible anywhere other than episodic TV. Now imagine how dense and twisty Half-Life or SiN could become if the game companies stretched them out to five, 10 or 50 episodes."

    There are adavantages to serialization from a capitalist point of view, too. In this article over at Gamasutra, Rick Sanchez unpacks some of the industry benefits:

    "[A] growing percentage of your potential audience might be more inclined to buy your product if they know the commitment is smaller, and if they like it, there is more where that came from ... The time and money commitment by the game player for a single episode in a series is small, so the hurdle to purchase is much lower than a $60 SKU. Build into your game the release schedule for future episodes or teasers for previously released episodes, and after you sell one episode to a consumer, you have a built in viral marketing tool and a shot at getting them to buy again. Music downloads trained the consumer to focus on tracks instead of albums, and that trend ultimately led the consumer to focus on TV episodes rather than seasons. It isn’t a huge leap to turn that trend around and get people to focus on buying additional episodes in a game series if we provide them the opportunity."

    Seems obvious enough, although I'd quibble with the notion that consumers are now focused "on TV episodes rather than seasons"—one of the side effects of the recent advancements in serial television is that "the season" has strengthened its identity as a coherent aesthetic unit. This is a textbook example of "bootstrapping" or "reciprocal feedback": as DVD technology made it more feasible to package and market an entire season of television, television creators began to make shows that rewarded complete-season viewing, which in turn made entire-season DVDs even more readily marketable. This is a phenomenon that is likely to still be in the process of development.

    That said, there are pitfalls here. Thompson's promise that video games could be more like Lost sounds less glowing than it once did, now that people are raising the question of how successfully Lost is managing its "oodles of subplots"—and we shouldn't forget that it's easier to count the ignominious deaths of once-promising serialized SF dramas than it is to count the fondly-remembered successes. Plus there seem to be signs of "narrative fatigue" among viewers: the 06-07 TV season is littered with the corpses of serialized shows that didn't make it). Having every show that ever aired at your fingertips is great, and it makes byzantine ongoing plotlines possible in a way that they haven't been in the past (soap operas being the possible exception here), but if you're only watching an hour or two of television a day it's no small thing to commit to watching an entire season of a TV show (or, at least hypothetically, to commit to playing the backlogged set of episodic video-games that constitute a complete arc).

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    Tuesday, January 09, 2007
    10:20 AM


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