Interactive stories laser-targeted to keep you coming back
iOS, Mac, Apple TV
Free on Apple Arcade ($6.99/month)
Episode XOXO is a lightly interactive story game where you choose how the main character looks, dresses, and behaves. As far as I can tell, all eighteen stories centre on romance, each containing fifteen 5-10 minute episodes, and each following well-worn genre conventions (e.g. you’re actually a princess, friends to lovers, etc.)
The game looks like a bright, fun 2D cartoon. While the writing, settings, and even gameplay vary wildly between stories, some things remain the same. Firstly, everyone looks like they’re in their 20s because they’re constructed from a shared pool of character models and animation. Secondly, choices usually have three options spanning the classic asshole/normal/cool spectrum. And finally, those choices make little to no lasting difference to the plot or how other characters treat you.
Episode XOXO’s ease and approachability explains why smartphone games like it became so incredibly popular, enduring – and profitable. As an Apple Arcade title it lacks the ads and in-app purchases that “gate” access to desirable outfits and good choices in its free-to-play parent, Episode – Choose Your Story, but it wasn’t hard for me to see how fans could justify spending money in a game they might play for hours upon hours every week.
I played large chunks of two stories: Level Up, where you enter a video game tournament with a more-than-friend, and Suddenly Royal, which is exactly what it sounds like. Plus there’s a bonus story, which you’ll find at the end…
If you’ve ever wondered what you actually do in these games, what the choices are like, whether the stories are any good, and why they’re so popular, find out in this exhaustively detailed episode of Have You Played!
I am compelled to share the description for this story:
You’re a known gamer! Throw in a competition, an annoying partner, and underlying feelings, and you’ve got quite a mess. Will you be able to Level Up or will it be too much?
These are not words and sentences that any native English speaker would utter. I am convinced this story is either machine translated or AI generated – maybe both. The uncanny writing continues through the entire story but fails to detract from its pure, unadulterated, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it interpersonal drama, as cliched and predictable as it is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
You begin by customising your character’s look and name. By default, you’re a conventionally attractive young woman, but you can choose from endless hair styles, face settings, makeup styles, and skin tones. There are only four body types, however, three of them barely distinguishable and one plus-size; and very limited ways to make your face look older; I kept the default look and name (Elle).
Next, you choose whether you want to date men or women, and customise their look. This feels vaguely creepy.
Elle and her friend Maisy are selected to compete in the Level Up video game tournament in New York. Yay!
In Episode XOXO, dialogue and internal thoughts are conveyed one line at a time, but you can tap through as fast as you like. There’s no spoken dialogue, but there is constant background music and a few sound effects. It’s nowhere as good as a proper cartoon, with props frequently floating in the air and people moonwalking – but it’s not not a cartoon either, since lines are accompanied by character animations (e.g. dancing, shrugging, eyerolls) and scenes often involve zooms and pans.
Elle and Maisy share the news with their fans on a livestream; despite the crude visuals, it’s perfect for smartphones and done imaginatively. The writing, however, is painfully basic with a weird lack of contractions and generically geeky terms. Someone asks how she’s feeling. I choose “I hope we’ve trained enough”, the other option being “We’ve stacked things in our favour”. I’m reminded my choices will affect the story, which I refuse to believe is true.
Someone called Hayden crashes the livestream to say she’ll beat Elle; of course, Hayden is Elle’s dream partner. Maisy notes “Y’all could be the enemies to love trope personified if you wanted,” which is a sly thing to say and also a yet another sentence that no-one would ever say out loud.
Elle explains she used to be friends with Hayden; that’s why she got into video games. It’s a tricky revelation as I’m struggling to identify and role play as their person who I don’t know anything about. Hayden somehow appears at the door and I choose to challenge her to a game of Kicking Combat (yes) rather than keep arguing.
This begins a minigame, and of course I have to choose my avatar’s costume. Next, I’m instructed to strike when I have an opportunity and evade when I can’t strike. The minigame repurposes Episode XOXO’s choice-based game engine by prompting me with something like “She’s [the enemy] is tensing her muscles” or “She’s looking at something behind my back” and you can either strike or duck down. Choose the right option and you knock down Hayden’s health one notch. There is no challenge whatsoever, but it succeeds in providing the absolute minimum simulacrum of being a beat ‘em up.
After the game, Elle calls it “Deadly Combat”, gesturing at the lack of continuity editor on this story. She has a chat with Maisy and her boyfriend Lyle, then I decide what wardrobe to take to New York (sweet, trendy, or cool, each with three outfits). Lyle calls with bad news: Maisy broke her wrist rollerblading. Oh no! Oddly, Maisy is smiling as they commiserate; it’s not as if there’s a lack of sad faces in Episode XOXO’s library so I’m chalking this one up to hurried art design.
Elle tries to find another partner, with no luck. She decides to tell the tournament “panel” she’s pulling out, the panel being a guy called Blake sitting in what looks like a school office. Hayden is already there, saying she wants to compete on her own without a partner. Blake says that’s not possible, Elle jumps in and says she’s her partner. I tell Hayden she needs me (the other option being “Admit you need her”) and Hayden gives in. TO BE CONTINUED!
Elle arrives in NY, shocked at the price of the hotel room, especially since she can’t split it with Maisy any more. Of course, Hayden arrives and says she’s sharing the room: “We’ll still have our own spaces, even though they’re connecting rooms.” Excuse me, Hayden, that’s not how Junior Suites work. I don’t have any choice to agree to this or not.
Naturally, Hayden blasts music, it’s rubber and glue etc etc. Elle and Hayden have a FaceTime with their mutual best friend, CJ, which is actually quite funny. I choose to sass Hayden back the next morning; I am quite sure this changes nothing in the story. My attention wanders; I go onto Discord and post a joke about John Gruber on three separate social networks, brush my teeth, then return. I choose hair, makeup, and a dress.
Cass (“one of the top players of Space Aspect”) is talking to Hayden at a tournament meet and greet and wants to see her later; she looks just like Maisy, I guess a result of the limited body types for characters. I decide not to interrupt them. Amazingly, because I chose my dream partner as being female, literally everyone in the competition is a woman; presumably half would’ve been male otherwise.
The whole thing is an interesting take on the mutability (or not) of gender roles, since I’m convinced the game’s dialogue, other than pronouns, is exactly the same as regards Hayden whether she’s male or female; Hayden’s clothes are also mostly coded as traditionally male, as we find out later on. This is not at all a game-breaking issue but it is curious to see it in practice so transparently.
We learn that tournament viewers can vote on their favourite gamer duo, who get to go out for a night on the town. Cass hopes she and Hayden will be voted favorite duo (uh, how?). Elle ponders how to get votes when she’s less famous than everyone else. Hayden tries to boost Elle’s confidence, suggesting she do behind the scenes livestreams and vlogs. “People would like that kind of content”. Elle reminds herself Hayden is one of the best players she knows and climbed up fast, something I am pretty sure I read verbatim in the previous episode.
Lacey proposes a friendly game of Space Aspect, which I do not get to play or see. Instead, I go back to the hotel to recover and find Hayden in her PJs. Elle stares at Hayden’s tattoos, embarrassed (they’re on her arms!! how is that embarrassing?!), and gets flustered. Elle does a livestream, answers questions about playing with Hayden, then says “let’s play some Space Aspect!” Once again, I do not get to play.
Elle has a Facetime with Maisy. I choose to say my time with Hayden has been better than I thought (alternative is “full of regrets, only regrets” which is pretty funny). Maisy reminds Elle of how she had a crush on Hayden once.
Elle and Hayden play a round of Space Aspect together (“level 5 is the hardest”); the crude art does not show Elle holding any kind of controller or input device. Hayden leans over Elle to show how to play. Romantic!
Our first big tournament event manifests as a minigame where you shoot aliens. You can skip it if you like, but you “won’t earn any gamer point”. The goal: shoot aliens when they’re distracted, dodge if they’re shooting, and when multiple aliens appear, keep shooting. Supposedly the choices were timed, not that I noticed. Once again, Elle’s avatar in the game was Elle but in a different costume, a bit like what 80s young adult fiction imagined future video games would be like when you were sucked into a computer. It was all very chunky: the aliens were cobbled out of existing character models but, e.g., missing noses; Elle’s gun was floating in the air in front of her; aliens vanish when shot, etc.
Of course, we win (well, I win). Cass makes a mean comment Elle flashes back to when she last had a soda at a bar with Hayden, who’s come to make a peace offering after being nasty to her in high school. They agree to make up due to their mutual best friend, CJ. I notice how Episode XOXO, basic in so many ways (someone is “holding” a lollipop that floats in front of their hands), has a seemingly limitless gestures and reactions to illustrate every possible mood – shyly hunched shoulders, eye rolls, nervous hand clasp, an arm protectively holding elbow. It works.
In the present day, Elle and Hayden go outside to admire the New York skyline. It’s cold, so Hayden gives her letterman jacket around Elle. Later, viewers on Elle’s livestream spot that she’s wearing Hayden’s jacket, and the next morning Elle wakes to her socials blowing up: Elle and Hayden have been voted as best duo! Cliffhanger!!
Elle and Hayden celebrate by jumping on her bed, at which point Elle belatedly realises Hayden is beautiful. I choose an outfit, hair, and makeup for her photo op, plus which poses to strike (e.g. flirty vs. cute).
Our duo go to a funfair with a photographer: dodgems, ferris wheel, games. None of it is interactive. Over a burger, Hayden says, “admit it, you like being with me” and various other bits of playful sarcasm that don’t work because it’s so flat. Hayden remembers Elle’s fave burger order. They have a heart to heart, Hayden praises Elle’s abilities. That’s it – boring!
Elle does an Insta video where she trains on a Quest of Legends “speed run” – but first, I have to pick a dress!
In a minigame, I’m told to “get the crystal”. I choose whether to go left or right in a forest – pick left. I meet a fairy, whom I can attack or ask what’s up. I do the latter – fairy stabs me and I die, ending the minigame. “Well, at least I know what not to do!” remarks Elle to her viewers.
Later, Elle notices her video has 12k likes and lots of nice comments (I really like the integration of social media in this story). But when she goes back to practice more, her bedazzled Epitrix Pro X controller is missing. Flashback: it was given to her by Hayden years ago, who signed up to a waiting list for it. Young Hayden offers to train Elle at gaming in a backhanded, antagonistic way. What a tiresome dynamic – are they really going to stretch this out for ten more episodes? Probably!
Elle tells Hayden she lost her controller; Hayden is quietly upset. “Little did I know this was the catalyst for what was to come” as we see a shadowy person take the controller somewhere. To be continued!!
There are ten more episodes in Level Up, but I suspect things won’t change beyond the formula already established, so I move on to…
This is, of course, one of a million takes on The Princess Diaries:
You find out you're the heir to the throne of a small European kingdom...but you're not sure you have what it takes to be a queen.
The writing is much better than Level Up but the presentation is less inspired, with no minigames other than a short fine art “quiz”. Once again, I can customise my look, name, and dream partner, but my character has to be a woman. Of course, Sarah (the default name) has the same thin, white look as Elle, in her early 20s.
Flashforward: You’re already a queen! You have to “decide” whether you want to be a queen, give up the crown, or you don’t know. Cute!
Four months, earlier in Philadelphia: Sarah is an overworked, underappreciated intern at a law firm. When visiting her parents (I’m pleased to see a bit of diversity with her mom being black), Patrizio, lawyer to the throne of Valais (“the wonderful European kingdom”) appears at the door. As the late king’s only daughter, Sarah must become king; of course, she was adopted. Sarah has none of it.
Shortly afterwards, Felipe, royal advisor to Valais, turns up to convince Sarah to come back – by any means necessary. Given that I already designed Felipe’s look as my dream partner a few minutes earlier, it’s kind of funny the game dispenses with suspense of knowing he’ll be a love interest, but I guess the designers have decided that wish fulfilment outweighs suspense.
I notice that like all good soap operas and reality TV, every episode begins by reprising the stinger from the previous ep: “Do I need to repeat myself? I’m Felipe Wagner, royal advisor to Valais, and I’m here to…” etc.
Sarah shows Felipe into her office at work – uh, how does she have an office, isn’t she an intern? She works until midnight with Felipe still patiently waiting. Peter, her boss, busts in demanding his notes. I can choose to say “you gave me a lot to do/I’m working as fast as I can/back off”; regardless, Felipe leaps to my defence. I say I can defend myself; Felipe apologises, says he will do as I command. I do not like these vibes!
He departs, leaving a note with a place to meet. I decide to meet him, and choose a new outfit (at midnight?). Sarah goes to his hotel, where he’s reading a book about Philadelphia. He confesses Valais isn’t doing well; since King Victor died, it’s no longer prospering. “A kingdom without a ruler, it’s left at the mercy of those without good intentions.” I have no choice – I have to go!!
Number of choices in this episode: 11
Felipe says Sarah’s employers have already agreed to let her go. Um, rude?! Felipe explains some facts about Valais to Sarah and her family with “childlike glee”, as if he were a simpleton.
On arrival at the palace in Valais, the maids dress her up, naturally. Sarah meets the royal private secretary, Mathilda, and quickly becomes overwhelmed. Felipe interjects, saying he needs to meet urgently, “I can feel his strong hands on me,” as he steers her outside. Inappropriate!
Felipe says he noticed Sarah struggling to breathe during the meeting; he’s that perceptive “when it comes to you”. I note this is sweet/observant/creepy. Felipe barely notices the remark. They walk around gardens, which his mother used to tend. Felipe and Sarah’s hands touch.
They head back inside to see Mathilda talking to a woman named Emilia. Emilia claims Sarah isn’t the queen!!
Emilia Von Brunner was married to the late king’s brother and possesses the same ageless look that almost all characters have in this game. At lunch, Emilia is annoyed that Sarah, a young woman without “training”, who’s never been to Valais, can be Queen. Welcome to hereditary rule, lady! “So the king was infatuated with some commoner, that doesn’t mean she can be queen.” Clearly not a Meghan stan.
Emilia, who looks like she’s 20, says her daughter Giulia, who also looks like she’s 20, would make for a better queen. Later, Giulia comes and apologises for her mother’s rudeness. Giulia: “Now tell me about America, is it as fascinating as in the movies?”
Most of the choices in this story, and probably the rest of Episode XOXO’s stories, are utterly inconsequential – Felipe pops in and asks to meet, I’m sure nothing I say will stop him. But of course, that isn’t what choices are about. Most of what we say in real life doesn’t have lasting consequences, it’s more an expression of your beliefs and attitude and emotions, so the fact that I can choose for Sarah to do one thing or another is more a way of me pretending that I’m imprinting my own attitudes on her; even on the most superficial level, role playing still works.
Sarah and Felipe go to her father’s secret library. Felipe says he knew her mother, who had to leave because the king’s parents wouldn’t let him marry a commoner. They talk about what it’s like to be in love. The next morning, I get woken up – there’s an important gallery event I have to attend! Not that exciting! TBC!!
Mathilda assures me I just have to turn up, look pretty, and talk about art – oh, and choose a dress. Felipe will come along to advise about the art, because apparently he knows everything.
At the gallery, Emilia announces Sarah knows so much about Valaisan art that she’ll give everyone a tour. This drama is so contrived I have to resist flinging my iPad away; surely everyone knows this new queen, who appeared all of two days ago, hasn’t actually been to Valais?! The problem with this story is that when you’re asked to consider how anything about the fictional world works, it completely falls apart.
This “tour” begins the simplest of minigames: I have to comment on four pieces of art, making one of three comments on each – smart, dismissive, stupid. I make the smart choices, everyone likes me. I am guessing that in the paid version of this story, only the dismissive and stupid comments are available for free and you have to pay real money or watch an ad to unlock the smart one.
Afterwards, I confront Emilia, who feigns ignorance. When Sarah goes back to her bedroom, Giulia is looking through her stuff! TBC!!
With ten more episodes left, I’m impatient to see what else Episode XOXO has to offer, so I briefly tried a third and final story:
Your parents sent you to summer camp to teach you how to get over your social awkwardness, but you might just learn how to get in trouble and fall in love instead…
As usual, I could choose to date guys or girls; unusually, I could choose whether to be a man or woman. The story begins with my character, Aiden, whose sole defining trait is “social awkwardness”, being driven to summer camp. On arrival, the camp staff take all my electronic devices, which I’m outraged at in a genuinely funny way. In response to learning there’s a landline for emergencies, Aiden retorts, “Do you think I remember any of the numbers in my phone?!”
After choosing an outfit, Aiden surveys the camp attendees and morosely notes, “Everyone here is having fun… I’m not like them. I’m just too… socially awkward, I guess.” See what I mean?
Aiden spots a loner on the pier, a girl named Blake. She has a tattoo on her leg, like all the love interests apparently. Two camp regulars chastise me for not dancing. I’m rude/direct back at them. The camp staff tell Aiden off, remarking they were warned by my parents he was awkward. One of the regulars says, “Sorry, I didn’t know you were a loser.” Staff member: “Don’t apologise, you only tried making friends.” This is where the humour falls flat – the story is trying to be considerate about social anxiety but then has everyone else being cartoonishly cruel. It needs to be sillier or less silly.
I get sent to the Reflecting Cabin for a time out. Blake arrives shortly afterwards, for swearing. “Little did I know this is how I’d have a great summer…” etc. To be continued!
From a technical perspective, Episode XOXO is flawless, no doubt a product of many years of improvements. Not only is the app excellent at resuming from being in the background (most games are bad at this) but it constantly saves your progress; I force-quit the app and when I restarted it, it picked up from exactly where I left off. This sounds like basic stuff but it’s harder than you think, and essential if you’re competing with both books (perfect state memory) and games (very entertaining). And like books, you can play multiple stories at the same time.
Structurally, episodes are the perfect length for quick engagement at 5-10 minutes long, short enough to complete over a couple of subway stops. All the stories I saw had 15 episodes, which struck me as overlong; 8-10 eps would seem enough, but perhaps this was due to decisions inherited from Episode – Choose Your Story.
In some ways, it feels pointless to discuss Episode XOXO in favour of its phenomenally popular parent, an app that once made and may still make millions of dollars per month. In that app, some decisions and looks cost real money or require you to watch adverts. I believe the same was true for unlocking additional episodes. Emily Short wrote about this dynamic way back in 2017, far better than I can:
Choices [a very similar app to Episodes] uses its monetization to get out of having to balance the gameplay (or, perhaps, as a form of balance). Often there’s one option that’s clearly the best tactically or the most interesting for your character, and it costs money.
…Different stories use this feature in different ways. In The Freshman, your diamond unlocks tend to be for things that make your character behave in (mildly) sexually adventurous ways: wearing a bikini! Going upstairs with Chris! In Rules of Engagement, at least for the first few chapters, they’re more about getting your character to speak her mind to the ex who cheated on her and other unpleasant characters.
As Emily notes, it’s hard not to be amused or faintly appalled by how the narrative design of these games are warped by the demands of monetisation, the echoes of which are perfectly audible in Episode XOXO. And while it is probably apparent from my summaries, the stories largely reinforce traditional stereotypes about female beauty and worth, which themselves are exacerbated by the monetisation of exclusive looks.
Yet I can’t help but admire how its stories are so effectively engineered to keep players coming back; how, on occasion, its humour overcomes dubious AI interference and a lack of human editing; or how its designers can transcend its desperately limited art library to create imaginative visuals. That doesn’t mean I like Episode XOXO; it’s more that I admire the format and the craft that’s gone into it – which isn’t a small thing.
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