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Doctor Who's Effect on Narrative and Episodic Storytelling

The hit science fiction show Doctor Who is the foundation for today's discussion on episodic storytelling and what game designers can learn about how the show has altered its narrative structure and pacing over the years.

Pacing is one of the biggest problems with telling a story in a visual media and a constant problem with video games who either bloat things out or are finished too quickly. And one area that has had nothing but trouble in writing effective stories would be episodic games. For today's post, I want look at the pacing of Doctor Who and how the show has dealt with episodic narratives over the years and what designers can learn from it.

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Old and New Who:

Doctor Who for those of you who haven't heard of it is a BBC science fiction series that is one of the longest running shows ever and recently celebrated its 50 year anniversary. To talk about why the show is popular is way beyond the scope of this post but I want to focus on what's considered "old" and "new" Doctor Who.

The show ran from the early 60s to mid 80s which are considered the old style before disappearing until the 90s with a TV movie and then formally returning in the '00s with the new style.  The major difference between these two periods comes down to how the episodes were paced. In the old style, episodes ran 30 minutes but told stories broken into multiple parts with a regular story lasting four parts or two hours of run time (counting commercials.) New Doctor Who on the other hand keeps to telling stories across one hour with rare two hour episodes.

Now looking at these two, new episodes last longer than individual old styled ones, but the older episodes were able to tell more in depth stories with good and bad consequences.

Packing in Stories:

The amount of story that you can show is obviously dependent on the time frame that you have to tell it in. And there is a major difference between when you only have 30 minutes per episode vs. 1 hour. You would think that an hour per episode offers more freedom to tell a story than 30 minutes but it's actually the opposite.

The reason is that it's very hard to tell one engaging story and fill an hour's worth of an episode and this is why many hour long shows feature B and even C stories -- stories that happen to side characters that may or may not be dependent on the main cast to fill up the remaining time.

With the 30 minute limit, you as a writer can't delve too much into other stories not related to the plot and it also gives you the opportunity to write stories that are different and meant to be told on a small scale . And if the story needs to be expanded on, it's far easier to break down a 3 hour story into 30 minute chunks than it is to take a story and stretch it out across 3 hour long segments.

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Doctor Who's charm can be credited to the writing and various actors who have played the title role over the years.

Looking at old Doctor Who, the serials expand a lot on the world and different characters compared to episodes today that are generally faster paced.

And again, even though an older episode would really equal a two parter today, the pacing is the affected element. There is a lot more world building and character interactions spread out across one completed story of old Doctor Who compared to the new style but there is a downside.

Older episodes do feature a lot of lore building with the specific characters to that serial, but a lot of it really is ancillary to the story or what's happening to the main characters which the faster pace of new episodes don't have to worry about as much. While it's great that they can expand and build out these stories, outside of the impact on the major characters, each serial's situation is self contained and those side characters and situations will never be seen again (with exception to major characters.)

Now I've spent close to 600 words talking about a TV show and it's time to bring this back to the Game Industry and what we can benefit from this comparison.

Episodic Explanation:

One area that video games can learn from Doctor Who's pacing would be the adventure genre and specifically what game developers have been trying to accomplish with episodic storytelling.

We have to ignore talking about series built around one game at a time (Assassin's Creed, Bioshock, Call of Duty, etc) as the stories are meant to be self contained within each title as opposed to be working on a multi game plan from the get-go.

Episodic gameplay/storytelling was the buzz phrase a few years back just as Telltale was getting into things with the Sam and Max seasons. The pitch was that episodic storytelling would allow game designers to tell fleshed out stories across multiple seasons much like the serials of older shows or as in today's example Doctor Who.

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Part of Telltale's problem has been effectively pacing their stories across multiple episodes with The Wolf Among Us especially having a weak middle.

But the problem was that didn't happen and I would go as far to say that Telltale despite boasting it the most with their seasons have failed the hardest in delivering true episodic storytelling for the most part.

The problem I have is that the stories that they are telling with The Walking Dead, Borderlands, The Wolf Among Us etc, don't feel like the massive stories that they are supposed to be. Each episode in a season takes place in different environments, meeting different people but there is very little growth when it comes to how the story plays out.

With The Walking Dead season one; every episode took place somewhere different with the plot focused entirely on Lee and Clementine and not on their situation itself. While Lee and Clementine were fleshed out, everyone else never really became part of the story which was also due to having to write the story if certain characters died.

The Wolf Among Us got the closest from what I've played from Telltale to delivering a localized story in a single setting but it still ran into narrative issues with how little the player actually affected things. I just have this feeling from playing the Telltale seasons that they don't have long term series plans for these stories and part of that problem is with the Game Industry itself.

It would be incredibility risky to say that you're going to tell a story across 10+ games and bank on people paying and sticking through to the end. Case in point the Sin episodes which were supposed to be a multi game series that only lasted one episode. And this is why the Telltale seasons stick to around 5 episodes to have enough to tell a compact story while not having to spend a lot of money on a massive season that may or may not sell well.

While it can be said that the older Doctor Who serials may have spent too much time on lore and side character building in each serial, they at least gave their characters and situations room to breathe.  And their stories again were on average between two and two and a half hours per serial. With Telltale, it's all about moving from one scene to the next and moving along at a blistering pace and despite having five episodes, there's not a huge amount of storytelling (either localized to the episode or to the season's plot) and development going on.

With that said, I want to return to a series that did episodic gameplay the best and one I've talked about before -- The Blackwell series.

Narrative Breakdown:

(I'm not going to be spoiling the series for this post so you can safety read on.)

Blackwell's story took place over five games with each title lasting about 2 to 3 hours give or take. When I spoke with designer/writer Dave Gilbert, he talked about how the original plan was to have Blackwell be just one really long game but due to the time and money involved he had to split it into these episodes/games which I think works better.

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Blackwell's narrative was properly paced out having been originally designed for one game which was then split into the five we have now.

Each episode has the main cast dealing with a specific case that has both old and new characters in it. Within each episode you had the localized plot of that specific episode while the game moved the larger plot of the lives of the two main characters forward.

The episodes were largely self contained but there were callbacks to characters and events in subsequent episodes. And the most important part is that because of the original plan of one big game, it meant that the Blackwell series as a whole was written with an end to it.

That last part is an important element of episodic storytelling as you need to have some idea of an ending to your story in order to properly pace it out. This is why many TV shows that try to tell multi season stories always have a contingency to answer the season's questions in the season finale encase it has to be a series finale if the show isn't picked up for another season.

Mass Effect's trilogy is another great example as Bioware knew from the start that they wanted a story told across three games and wrote and paced the narrative out between them. This is what makes episodic storytelling in games so difficult as you need to write them in the sense that the story should already be figured out and establish a beginning, middle and an end to it that will then be broken into multiple parts.

Another example would be the Phoenix Wright series which fits perfectly here. Each game release comes with five cases that feature standalone stories that have characters and situations tied to the overall game or season wide narrative.

One of my more insane ideas I have is for an episodic game with one main character across multiple seasons worth of plots. It's an idea that I've been thinking about for some time but not one that I've written down as it would be too demanding to even attempt on my own. And as a final point taking this back to Doctor Who for a second, it would be amazing to see someone try to create an episodic series like Doctor Who which is full of self contained episodic narratives, season wide stories and the long term story of the characters themselves.

Writing an effective narrative for your game requires an understanding of both the pace and the time frame that you have to tell the story in. And while we've only focused on episodic stories for now, there is still more to talk about when focusing on a story set to just one title but this post has definitely gone on long enough.

( For more posts on game design and the industry along with weekly podcasts, check out Game-Wisdom)

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