Tales From the Borderlands & Life is Strange

The Final Chapters of the Most Notable Episodic Games of the Year

Tales From the Borderlands
Tales From the Borderlands. Telltale Games

Have we fully embraced the concept of episodic gaming? While Telltale Games continues to make waves as one of the most forward-thinking and important studios in modern gaming, is anyone really following in their footsteps? Can they?

When Square-Enix announced that “Hitman” would be semi-episodic, releasing part of the game on a specific date with chapters rolling forth in the coming weeks, people lost their minds, and the game was delayed from this quarter. Sierra’s “King’s Quest” had a well-received first chapter, but now we eagerly await a second to see if it works. And then there’s Square-Enix and Dontnod’s “Life is Strange,” a unique adventure that has had some notable highs but ends on a disappointing low with its just-released final chapter. 

Meanwhile, Telltale continues to push forward, releasing “Minecraft: Story Mode” (arguably their first misstep) while closing the books on “Tales From the Borderlands” this month and “Game of Thrones” next month.

“Tales” is justly in the conversation for the 2015 Game of the Year, especially after a final chapter that stands with the best episodes ever produced by Telltale (including the best of “The Walking Dead,” still their flagship series in a lot of ways). And I have high hopes for the conclusion of “Game of Thrones” next month. Although “Tales From the Borderlands” has ended in a way that makes me think it will be very hard to top.

Why is “Vault of the Traveler,” the fifth and final chapter of “Tales From the Borderlands,” so effective? Scale. The writers of this series found a way to merge the human (and robot) stories at its core with something much bigger than them in a way that recalls the final chapter of “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” (and this thing has nearly as many endings, although they’re all satisfying).

While my “Tales” experience is different from yours—that’s the hook of a Telltale Game—most people will end up in the same general narrative, with a crew of allies fighting not just for treasure but for each other. Many of the questions of “Tales” are answered—who took Fiona and Rhys captive in the first place being a primary one, what’s in the vault, what’s Gortys’ role, etc.—but what’s remarkable about “Traveler” is its emotional impact.

There are unexpected heroes and surprising sacrifices, guided by choices you’ve made over the course of the game. This is fantastic writing, some of the best in any game in 2015, and it ends on such a beautiful note that I can’t wait for these characters to return in an (I hope) inevitable second season.

If exhilarated is the right word to describe how I felt at the end of “Tales From the Borderlands,” the opposite of that describes my final moments with “Life is Strange,” a truly odd game that we’ve been playing for most of 2015. If you’ve played through the other four chapters, you know that the last one ended on a cliffhanger with Max being kidnapped and Chloe being shot.

The final chapter picks up with Max being held hostage and tortured in a remarkably extended bit in which you have little to no control. There are long stretches where you have to listen to a psychopath who hasn’t really been much of a character until now, and you’re only given minor choices to guide the conversation. It’s narratively frustrating (and there’s some horrendous voice work to boot).

Choice feels like it has been removed not just from this opening act but from most of the end of “Life is Strange,” which gets weirder and weirder, and over which I often felt like I was just pushing a cut scene forward. “Life is Strange” had glimpses of brilliance—most often in its least narrative moments of character—but it ends with a display of what Telltale does right and this game does not. For episodic gaming to work, we need to feel authorship. We need to not just watch the episodes but write them.