Television has changed a lot over the last couple of decades. No longer bound to the yoke of short run times and advertisements, TV shows have started becoming more like movies: Longer, more intricate, with a consistent story told between episodes. This was something that had been happening here and there before, but quickened once subscription-based networks started producing their own original content, most notably with the advent of the HBO drama The Sopranos. As Jon Blow argued convincingly, this shift was a natural consequence of changes in the medium. Nevertheless, while it’s interesting to note what made these changes possible, it’s also interesting to explore what made them desirable – or, alternately, what makes them undesirable, and why light sitcoms with no real substance are still very much alive.
What are the benefits of having a continuity that connects disparate episodes? Continuity implies a promise to the audience that the events portrayed are significant, are important. They reward the audience who wants to pay attention, who wants to understand in depth, by telling them that the things they notice now will turn out to be important later. This kind of memory has applications in games as well: The Walking Dead and other adventure games made by Telltale explicitly promise that the characters in the game will remember the choices you’ve made, which has the same significance as a show making a callback to a past event.
This style of importance through memory and continuity is interesting to contrast against gaming’s traditional way of signaling significance, providing a noteworthy challenge. Older games, the games that were played with quarters, relied almost exclusively on challenge to present themselves as worthwhile to the player — they were tests of skills that were worth mastering primarily because they were difficult to master. This also incidentally allowed them to harvest an awful lot of quarters — but as they say, “no quarter asked none given”.
In both cases there’s an implicit promise: If there’s an item or an event, it exists for a purpose. All guns are Chekhov’s guns – either, in games like The Walking Dead’s case, to go off at a moment of dramatic heightened tension, or, in most cases, to be a sweet gun you can use to shoot, well, probably Russians. There are no details which are irrelevant – though this shouldn’t be interpreted as a statement that games tend to be necessarily in any way restrained with their use of detail, just that that detail has some kind of relevance to the experience of the game.
However: Importance, significance, meaning, they don’t necessarily make art better, they just make it more complex, communicative, evocative. Sometimes that isn’t what we want. Sometimes we just want a sitcom, sometimes we just want to go where everyone knows our name. Triviality has its own value: Art without greater significance, without greater meaning, promises us that we can enjoy it without working, without being changed – and, though that might sound like a waste of time, sometimes time needs to be wasted. Sometimes we need to be able to enjoy art that makes room for us, rather than making room in ourselves for art.
Thus neither approach to creation is inherently better, but each comprise their own kind of promise: In one case, a promise of importance, a promise that everything in the story matters in one way or another, a promise that if you’re paying attention it will be worth your while; and, in the other, a promise of triviality, of frivolousness, a promise that even if you’re not paying close attention you can still have a good time, a promise to be there for you.
Problems tend to arise when these approaches mix. Arrested Development was a flop because it had high continuity and narrative importance while still being presented as a sitcom, a genre largely devoid of continuity and permanence. Farmville presents itself as full of continuity, importance, and permanence by triggering our gathering and hoarding instincts, while offering absolutely nothing of substance within the context of that continuity. Farmville asks you to take it seriously, but never gives anything back for your investment, while something like Arrested Development has lots to offer but seems to be asking too much on a casual glance.
There’s no shame in wanting to make something light and fluffy that will just make people happier and make their lives a bit more enjoyable, but if you’re doing that then you are seeking balance, a status quo: Bringing in grand narrative ideals of continuity and relevance will weigh down your lightness, no matter the actual content or message. There’s no shame in wanting to make something substantial, either! But if you want to tell a story that has weight and significance, it must change, and the changes from one moment must be reflected to the next.