Joined: 08 May 2006
This post is being prompted by the fact that in the recent and not-so-recent past I have participated as a player in at least 3 different ARGs (that shall remain nameless) that have all incorporated some form of "episodic" storytelling into their structure. By 'episodic,' I mean that the ARG narrative is broken down into separate arcs of activities/stories/interactions that are relatively discrete, with one episode ending before the next episodic arc begins some time later. How self-contained each episode is varies across the particular ARG, but in general even when the events of current episode lead to some sense of 'ending,' there is still the premise that more of the larger narrative will be revealed in future episodes.
In principle, this could be a really good thing. Many ARGs want to tell complex, ambitious stories, and adopting an episodic structure can allow that very large story to be executed in smaller, more manageable chunks of narrative that might be easier to enter into and digest as a player, and to prepare and manage as a puppetmaster. Episodes require less commitment in terms of time and resources, on both ends. Plus, they are a familiar storytelling device, given the nature of episodic television and, of course, chapters in novels.
Here is the point of my post, however: In my personal experience as a player of these episodic ARGs, they have ultimately been highly unsatisfactory, with my feelings about them colored negatively by the fact that they have simply fizzled out rather than definitively ended. After an episode or two, there are vague promises of "to be continued," even as the forum threads languish in "Ephemeral," or even worse: "Archive." In these situations, my sense is that the PMs who are attempting these episodic ARGs have been perhaps too ambitious in their aims. They clearly want to tell these complex stories, yet somehow they lose their narrative momentum , or more likely, they run out of available time and/or resources to continue the ARG. This is understandable -- especially for grassroots/for-the-love-of-it ARGs, it takes tons of dedication and energy to keep these things going. However, I believe that human nature wants a sense of 'wrapping-up' in narratives, that there is a sense of conclusion and that the outcome is complete, even if it is ambiguous (see Lost, final episode). TV shows are cancelled mid-narrative all the time, and there is always an outcry from dedicated viewers who don't get to find out what happens next. The same phenomenon goes on in ARGs as well to varying extents -- perhaps in some cases even made stronger by the fact that ARG players see themselves as co-creators of the narrative, making it more puzzling/disappointing when that narrative fizzles out in the end.
My opinion on this matter: I would rather participate in a finite ARG with a complex, rich story that has a definite beginning, middle, and end, than in an episodic ARG with a complex, rich story that I never get to see the end of. The latter case feels like a disservice to my participation, despite whatever genuine enjoyment I may have had prior to this. PMs who attempt episodic ARGs should structure them in a way that the game could end full-stop after any given episode and there would be no sense for the players that they are missing out on what the game was "about." Then, when the next episode started up, it would be a pleasant surprise to find out that the story is continuing.
Joined: 21 Sep 2002
Funny you should mention this. I've been spending a bit of time the past few days thinking about episodic ARGs. And my thoughts were kind of bored hanging out by themselves. They like to run in circles when that happens. then they get dizzy and fall down. So yay! new thoughts for them to hang out with
I don't know, but I'm assuming, that one of the games you're talking about is Eldritch... this may surprise, but I agree! There were problems with Eldritch and they were, mostly, unintentional. Way back when we started, we wanted the absolute depth and potential of the universe to come through, but we also talked about how much we wanted each "book" to stand alone. I'm not sure where the line is there, but I am fairly sure we crossed it more than we should have. Looking back, I can see the distinct stories of each "book" but, for example, book 2 (the one with the WV trip) will always feel more like a chapter to me than a book. It's not for a lack of content or for a lack of a beginning/middle/end - it succeeded on both of those counts. It's more that it was so entrenched in universe story and even opened up a major plot line but didn't let you touch any of it. That wasn't very smart of us - it seemed smart at the time, but looking back not so much.
I think that another issue we faced is that we always knew there could be years in between books - that's why they were called "books". Yet, when you're in the midst of a project it becomes this consuming passion - you don't want it to end and you start thinking about where it will go in the future. You get excited. You start dropping in a few more big universe bits & pieces. You get even more excited. Then the game ends and more ideas come flowing. You talking about things more being more immediate. You promise to continue X or Y in the next one. You draw up plans and look at character arcs. And then the reality sets in and new projects come along. And all of your exciting new ideas just sit there percolating and there is nothing you can do.
The solution, of course, is a difficult one... you need to stick much more to your plans then you do with a stand alone game. It sounds so easy, but it is oh so not. You can't let yourself get carried away in the moment. Yet when you're on that crazy high of exhaustion and inspiration, it seems insane to not "go with it". And it's somewhat counter-intuitive because you think with this big universe that you have more room to play. In reality, you have to box yourself in or it's too easy to wand far afield.
I'd love to hear more thoughts on the challenges of episodic args... from you, from others, from people making em, from people playing em.
Unlike you, I haven't come to the conclusion that it's best to avoid episodic ARGs unless you can make each individual ARG come to a solid end. I don't disagree with you, necessarily, I just haven't gotten to that point yet. I think there's real power in the episodic model. I'm just not sure, exactly, how to best tap it.