Episodic gaming has always felt like an idea that was ahead of its time. For many players, it’s a compelling concept: story-driven games broken up into digestible chunks that you can play over the course of weeks or months. But the realities of game development and release schedules proved problematic. Telltale Games, the studio behind episodic hits like The Walking Dead and Batman, infamously collapsed as it struggled with the demands of releasing new episodes every month. Meanwhile, last year’s Life is Strange 2 was excellent but difficult to keep up with as chapters launched at an erratic pace, releasing every few months.
But with the advent of subscription services like Xbox Game Pass, episodic games may have finally found their moment.
I came to this realization while playing Tell Me Why on Xbox One, the latest release from French studio Dontnod, which is the same team behind the Life is Strange series. It’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from the studio: a mix of prestige drama TV and a classic point-and-click adventure game. Players control two twins living in a small town in Alaska, coming to grips with the death of their mother and her secretive life. It’s as emotional and gripping as the studio’s previous work, and there’s even an intriguing new superpower to play around with; the twins have a psychic connection, which they can use to talk to each other and relive old memories.
The story itself is great, and I’ve been hooked since the beginning. The first episode of Tell Me Why launched on August 27th, with new chapters coming out on a weekly basis. The third and final episode is out today. That cadence has proven to be particularly compelling; in the past, episodic games would typically release new chapters every month or two, making it hard to keep track of the story. Usually, I’d just wait until every episode was released and play through it in one go. But with Tell Me Why, knowing that a new episode would be out each week, I played differently, diving right in as soon as the next chapter released.
It’s a model that fits particularly well with a streaming service like Game Pass, which is increasingly starting to feel like the long-sought-after Netflix for games. The whole process is seamless: I don’t have to worry about buying new episodes or keeping track of my save. It all just works, so I can focus on enjoying the story.
The sales pitch for Game Pass has been access to Microsoft’s big exclusives; if you subscribe, you won’t have to buy a new Halo or Gears game, since they’re part of the service. But Microsoft has also done a great job of steadily building out Game Pass with a variety of different experiences. There are big online worlds like Destiny, survival games like Grounded, and classic arcade titles like Battletoads. There’s enough that Game Pass has become an important part of Microsoft’s next-gen strategy. When I eventually buy an Xbox Series X, there’s a strong chance I won’t actually buy any games for it. I’ll just play things on Game Pass.
Episodic games fit perfectly with this strategy. For one thing, they’re small, the kinds of experiences you can play in between bigger games. But their story-driven nature also means that they tackle different subjects — and, in turn, can appeal to new audiences — compared to traditional blockbusters. Dontnod has become particularly adept at this. The first two seasons of Life is Strange covered difficult topics like suicide and racism in a way that was both direct and sensitive, a rarity amongst mainstream games. Tell Me Why is attempting something similar with regards to its transgender lead character. Being on a growing service like Game Pass could open these kinds of games up to brand-new audiences.
Subscription services don’t necessarily solve every issue with episodic games. Releasing new games on a weekly or monthly basis is still a huge undertaking for any developer; Tell Me Why appears to have been already complete before the episodes started launching, which could be one solution. Aside from that, though, the two seem to be a perfect fit. As services like Game Pass become increasingly like their streaming television counterparts, games that blend interactivity with TV-style storytelling start to make a lot more sense. It took a few years, but the industry has finally caught up.