Generally speaking when we look at an artwork it is as a discrete unit. For sure there are the vast webs of connections (say, with culture, tradition, other instances in the same oeuvre, genre and so and so on) that mean no artwork is a cultural island. But in practical everyday terms we tend to talk about this or that work which is more or less strictly bounded: here is my opinion on Volver, say, or Mahler’s Third Symphony; here is my thinking about this or that aspect of Psycho. Leaving aside for a moment whether even this approach is sensible, things get extremely complicated with artworks that are part of a series, that come, as it were, in parts. A lot of television is like that and I spend a lot of time puzzling over what difference it makes to say that I’m working on, for example, The Sopranos rather than Goodfellas. An immediate difficulty is the vastness of the difference in creative input – many writers, directors for one, only few for the latter; then there is the sheer difference in scale in terms of running time.
Stanley Cavell considered such matters a long while ago in an essay called, ‘The Fact of Television’ (one that has had little impact on the field of television studies) where he thinks through some of the differences between assessing television and film:
To say that masterpieces among movies reveal the medium of film is to say that this revelation is the business of individual works, and that these works have the status analogous to traditional works of art: they last beyond their immediate occasions; their rewards bear up under repeated viewings; they lend themselves to the same pitch of critical scrutiny as do any of the works we care about most seriously. This seems not to be true of individual works of television. What is memorable, treasurable, criticisable, is not primarily the individual work, but the program, the format, not this or that day of “I Love Lucy,” but the program as such. (Themes Out of School, 239)
Now I know a number of readers are immediately thinking about episodes and editions of television shows that they could draw on to refute Cavell. (I immediately think of Darin Morgan’s X-Files episode ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’, but as if there weren’t enough problems in terms of critical approach I’ve granted creative ownership to the writer rather than director, producer or the actors.) And there are ‘individual works’ that remain outstanding such as Stephen Poliakoff’s 1980 TV ‘play’ Caught on a Train. But, if the consequences of thinking of television as art is at least vaguely problematic in the way Cavell suggests, thinking about videogames in such terms adds a further puzzling dimension.
Earlier this month the games company Valve released the second episode of its Half-Life 2 series. That is, the second episode of a game that was already a sequel to the 1998 first person shooter Half-Life. The idea of calling the extension of a gameworld’s narrative scope an ‘episode’ is something quite new – most of the time such extensions are designated ‘expansions’ because what they do is expand the narrative and gameplay of already familiar gameworlds. Valve’s decision to badge their expansions as episodes (which began with the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 1 last year) is a signal that the narrative promise of their games – the plot, revelations about character, etc. – is sufficiently attractive to warrant a designation that evokes the developing narratives of the serial form. It also allows each episode to incorporate technical improvements (such as enhancements to game design and graphics) that keep pace with the ever expanding processing power of consoles and personal computers. It remains to be seen whether Valve’s approach will be adopted by others, but in the meantime this is one of the issues that I hope will stimulate further debate on this site.