Episodes is a cartoonish visual-novel library and I’ve spent more time and money on it than Fallout 4. Arguably had more fun, too, despite the most obnoxious free-to-play bullshit I’ve ever seen.
You’ll most likely recognise Episodes from its advertisements on Tumblr, which are so weird they’ve gone memetic and been shared more widely: usually two handsome young people at a life-changing decision, with the promise that You, the reader, can choose what happens next. Over time, these adverts have been getting markedly stranger: early ones suggested a sort of all-American soap opera, while the latest have included the Titanic, two astronauts (“You never told me you were married!” one says, with her hand on the “eject” lever) and Adam and Eve. This last one was the one that spurred me, while scrolling through Tumblr, to download Episodes and try it out.
What’s not obvious from the adverts is that, as well as a handful of “official” stories, Episodes hosts a sort of open interactive-fiction framework: anyone on the internet can put together and host their own story in the database, meaning that there are thousands out there, mostly, it seems, made by teenage girls. There are far too many to say general things about all of them, (and it would feel rather cruel to spend quite so much effort sporking a twelve-year-old’s fanfiction), so I focussed on the professionally-made stories: Campus Crush, Mean Girls: Senior Year, and the unquestioned titan of the medium: Demi Lovato: Path To Fame. You pick a story, create a character (mine was called “Smegma”, tee hee), and progress through the stories in the standard visual-novel manner, choosing dialog and watching the story play out through the medium of clumsy, prebuilt animations.
In Demi Lovato: Path To Fame, dear Smegma became a teenage YouTube musician and avid Demi Lovato fan. You, the player, guide her into winning a talent contest to become Ms Lovato’s opening act and taken with her and a cast of assorted tour stereotypes on a trip around America. The degree to which you control your character’s actions varies from story to story: in some all you control is your reaction to the railroad track you are dragged along, whereas Demi Lovato: Path To Fame (DL:PTF) allows you a reasonable amount of agency within the fixed framework – if you’ve played Telltale’s adventure games, its similar to that. Some choices are interesting (publically accuse a competitor of sabotage, or keep quiet and scheme to get revenge?) and some are completely exasperating: three options that are different lines of dialogue to blush and giggle at a creepy man’s unwanted advances? Others, gallingly, are locked off by your supply of Gems, Episode’s currency: if you haven’t purchased thirty gems with real money you can’t buy a VIP ticket and have to break in, for example. (The geniuses behind DL:PTF however, have mostly limited these choices to purely aesthetic ones.) This isn’t the only freemium bullshit: stories are broken into episodes (between two and thirty minutes depending on how generous the writer is) and you have to buy episodes with tickets. You get a new ticket every four hours or so, or you can buy more for around 20p each. I mean, I see the logic behind this, but it’s still horrible freemium bullshit.
To return to Demi Lovato: Path To Fame (and it’s sequel World Tour) – the vast majority of my time expenditure – the writing is surprisingly good, with moments of real comedy and an occasionally compelling plot. The story tracks the number of “Fans”, “Friends” and “Loves” you have and choices will frequently change this number – strict goals for fan counts keep the tension up. Neglecting your Friends (represented by another user-created character (“Fartina”)) or your romantic partner (who can be male or female, take that Telltale) will leave you with low scores in either of those areas, affecting what extra stories you unlock. We attempted to play Smegma as a hard-bitten fan-driven harridan, but the unexpected charisma of the minor characters forced us to stay nice to them- even when they make completely bullshit responses for the sake of Plot. An example would be Smegma’s sister, who seemed entirely endearing and supportive until the plot required something else, at which point she began demanding that we attend sweet sixteens, cheer meets, and such. She’s an overall misjudged character – it’s entirely reasonable not to leave your dream job on a world tour in order to fly across the Atlantic to see your sister’s local cheerleading contest, frankly, and no option exists to unrepentantly state this to the little snotrag.
(Of particular note here is Ms Lovato herself: I’m not familiar with her music or her career at all (was she in Camp Rock?) so I shan’t quibble with her characterisation as the avatar of all that is good and pure on this earth. Demi Lovato (or more likely a member of her PR team) has clearly been breathing down the neck of the writers, and Demi herself is wise, beatific, and beautiful: Smegma’s best friend, closest confidante, mentor, and guide. She dispenses good advice regularly, keeping Smegma focussed on all that is important in the music industry: fans, friends, and The Music. As I said, I have no reason to dispute this, though – I’ve never met her.)
Artistically it’s, well, not much cop, with a cartoonish style that reminds me of nothing so much as the “two guys sit on a sofa and play videogames” genre of webcomic. The animation is atrocious, with ridiculous canned movements stretching the characters in anatomically improbable ways. It gets rather endearing after a while: I can’t help but enjoy watching a character move slowly sideways offscreen while their arms and legs frantically pump at sprinting screen. One thing I suspect episodes could do with is a custom animation builder – it’s a little silly to see the DL:PTF team try and build a grand finale choreographed performance out of three canned “dance” animations, even if all three of them (wave arms, sway hips, jump and shout) are worthy entrances to a wedding-dance repertoire.
The music tends to be five-second snippets of chirpy generic pop (DL:PTF plays the same five-second snippets of three Demi songs over and over instead,) and the soundtrack, such as it is, is universally freestocksounds.ru quality. Technically it’s not fantastic, but passable – there were some long load times on my elderly iPad, and very occasional crashes. More serious was a bug which crashed the game whenever I tried to load the second episode of Campus Crush, though Campus Crush was terrible (in uninteresting ways) so I didn’t see this as a big deal.
If you hate teenage girl things – well, firstly you’re a joyless ghoul, and secondly you probably won’t enjoy Episodes. I couldn’t give it a wholehearted recommendation, but as mindless commute games go it’s endearing, and either so-good-its-bad or just good more often than it’s bad. I’d rather see this be the next wave of mobile games than the current rising tide of Game Of War reskins, and the advertisements don’t ask me to watch James Corden pretend to be a six-year-old, which is frankly far stranger than anything Episodes does… though if anyone finds the story with the astronauts, please let me know.