Type of game: Interactive movie / point and click graphic adventure
Developed & Published by: Telltale Games
Year: Episodic release dates from December 2014 – November 2015.
Played on: Steam
Westeros: there are certainly more festive and joyful destinations in which to spend your Christmas vacation. This game proved absorbing, challenging and emotionally devastating, but a jolly experience it certainly was not. But, while my real-life December proved unseasonably – even alarmingly – warm, a large chunk of this episodic interactive adventure game is set frozen north so at least I got a White Christmas!
There was also a lot to be said for the opportunity the break afforded me to play all six episodes in quick succession. Like all their episodic adventure games, Telltale’s Game of Thrones was released at intervals from December 2014 to November 2015. Releasing in parts like this – usually with a cliffhanger ending to each – mirrors the format of popular TV shows, allowing space between episodes for reflection and discussion and, of course, ratcheting up anticipation for the next instalment. I can see why they do it. Telltale’s phenomenally good Tales From the Borderlands was my 2015 game of the year and, after a slightly delayed start, with that one I played each episode as it was released. There, I did actually appreciate being forced to wait and make the deliciously entertaining story last. While Telltale’s signature relationship web-spinning and complex moral decisions were still a key component, the plot and characters in Tales from the Borderlands were – just like its distinctive, cel-shaded art style – still rather cartoonish and larger than life. So, even with lengthy gaps between the episodes, it was easy to remember the choices I’d made and the truths and lies I’d peddled.
Telltale’s Game of Thrones is just as true to the spirit of Westeros as Tales… was to Pandora, which makes it an altogether more subtle, bleak and sombre affair. The cast is large, with 5 playable characters plus a whole host of supporting figures, both familiar faces from the HBO show and new personalities. There’s also a lot of negotiating to be done, with multiple identities, names, promises and lies to remember, particularly in the King’s Landing sections of the story. For this reason I think I would have struggled if I’d tackled each episode months apart. But played intensively, an episode a day over the course of a week this builds into an immersive and gut-wrenching (often literally) narrative that feels extremely true to the world George R.R. Martin has created – a verdict that applies as much to the flaws of that world as to its many strengths.
The game’s action weaves cleverly around key events from the HBO TV show and therefore contains massive spoilers for season 3 and season 4. This review will replicate those spoilers but it doesn’t give away the specifics of this game’s actual plot. By the way, if you consider “several beloved main characters die in this” to be a spoiler then I’ll assume you’re probably not a Game of Thrones fan.
What’s the story?
Game of Thrones, a Telltale Games Series follows the fortunes of the Forresters, a minor Northern house whose livelihood comes from the harvesting and crafting of ironwood, a material that is, as its name suggests, singularly strong and incombustible. Mentioned only fleetingly in the books, Telltale are free to craft new characters for House Forrester offering a decent variety in terms of both temperament and environment. Key figures are noble Rodrik, firstborn son and heir to the House; Asher, the second son now in exile and making a life as sellsword after his hotheaded passions nearly took the family to war; and Mira, the eldest daughter, in service at King’s Landing, a handmaiden to the anticipated future queen Margaery Tyrell. The more junior Forresters are twins, Tallia and Ethon, thrust into the adult world much sooner than is fair, and young Ryon. Finally there is low-born Gared Tuttle, who serves faithfully as a Forrester squire until his path leads him North to the Wall.
The game’s tone is set from the opening scene which begins on a seemingly positive note only to sour in the most extreme and brutal manner. Lord Forrester and his men are toasting and celebrating a wedding, and young Gared receives some rewarding news. Except, fans of the books or show will quickly recognise the location and realise with a sickeningly jolt precisely which wedding this is. Yes, that one. The Red one. As bannermen to Robb Stark, the wedding guest who is about to be betrayed and brutally slaughtered, the prospects for the Forresters are not rosy. The aftermath of the massacre leaves the Northern political landscape very much changed. Roose Bolton and his sadistic son Ramsay now hold power, and the Forrester lands and people are no longer protected from their longstanding enemies the Whitehills. The player controls various surviving members of the house as they attempt to preserve their name, their stronghold, Ironrath, and often simply their lives.
What I liked
Most of all I liked the characters. It’s a testament to Telltale’s scriptwriters and their stellar cast of voice actors just how much I came to care about these new characters and their ultimate fortunes, which makes it all the more excruciating that those fortunes can only be described as “increasingly desperate.” Asher Forrester was a particular favourite of mine, not just because he’s dashing and witty and has a sexy beard but because his story, set in the desert lands and featuring many of the best quicktime action sequences, offered a welcome counterpoint to the more dialogue-heavy King’s Landing scenes and the increasing bleakness of the Ironrath segments. But it’s the divergent tone of each character’s story that makes the piece work so well as a whole. Mira’s journey rather echoes that of Sansa Stark: beginning as an idealistic ingénue and transforming via a series of rather nasty lessons into a much more sly politician. But it’s not just the Forresters who are appealing here. Telltale also craft some memorable support characters, including – pleasingly -several women who are allowed to shine in roles other than the too frequent mother, whore or wife-to-be / political bargaining pawn. These include the wildling outcast Sylvi and, my personal favourite, the female sellsword, Beshka who I would love to see more of.
What’s particularly interesting about this game is the way its strengths and weaknesses are so inextricable. For example, as a fan of both the books and TV show I found it, on the one hand, extremely satisfying to note how the story of House Forrester is woven around existing canonical events. One of the real appeals of George R.R. Martin’s world is how layered it feels: the books already follow a large cast of characters but always there is a sense that each action taken has repercussions that are wider still. This game reinforces that more panoramic perspective, offering a fresh take perspective on many key happenings, including yet another fateful wedding, that of Margaery and Joffrey. This scene is wonderfully done: Mira attends the party to pursue her own agenda, gathering information to try to sure up her family’s trade agreements, so the focus is on her and the eavesdropping she undertakes. Joffrey never even appears on screen, yet the wider context is unmistakable and serves only to further destabilise Mira’s already fragile position at court.
Several key characters from the HBO show appear in the game voiced by their original actors, among them Margaery, Cersei, Tyrion, Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton. Again it was quite enjoyable to interact with these major personalities (except Ramsay, it is never anything other than tense and distressing to interact with Ramsay). So many times while reading the books I’d found myself inwardly squirming and shouting at the characters “don’t say that, don’t promise that, do this, promise this instead.” Well, this game put me directly in its characters’ shoes, allowing me to find out firsthand just what I would do when asked, by Cersei for example, whether my loyalty was to Margaery or to the King. As usual for these types of games decisions are on a timer and let me tell you it was never long enough. I understand now just how easy it is to make bad decisions when under pressure. Seeing as the entire Game of Thrones saga can be viewed as a cavalcade of bad decisions, this game really is the perfect marriage of form and content. But we all know how deadly marriage can be in this setting…
What I didn’t like
While satisfying and ingenious on so many levels, the game’s close relationship with the larger GoT story is also the source of many of its problems. For a game that markets itself on choice-making, I felt remarkably powerless most of the time because the need to fit around book/show events frequently limited the possibilities on offer. The new characters, of course, are an open book and their fates (frequently their deaths) can take unexpected turns, but with characters like Tyrion and Jon, we know already how their stories will unfold, at that point in the larger story at least, and this removes much of the tension and the illusion of free will. At one point, for example, you have the option of stabbing Ramsay. With all the player character has seen and endured by then, I can see why he’d be tempted but you know you’d have to actually kill the bastard for it to be a successful strategy and, being such a major character, I also knew Ramsay couldn’t possibly die at this point, so I refrained. Meta-knowledge affected my decision-making so the overall experience was somewhat less authentic. Of course, I can’t really comment on how game play would feel for someone who isn’t a long term GoT fan – a little confusing I suspect. Unlike Tales From the Borderlands, which stands alone quite comfortably, this does feel like something that was made primarily to appeal to pre-existing fans of the franchise.
But even without specific meta-knowledge of the wider GoT arc, the plot here still feels restricted by it. There were a couple of points where decisions I made that felt hugely significant at the time turned out either to have no impact, or were forcefully reversed by events or characters beyond my control. I’m aware that choices on offer in Telltale Games are frequently more illusory than it first appears. The main focus of this type of interactive experience is YOUR journey as the player: how your choices affect you is more important than how they shape the overall narrative. Consider me suitably affected by my choices: I might have cried and cursed aloud on at least one occasion during the journey. Yet since the decisions to be made here are frequently so agonising it was frustrating to find that many of them had little to no effect on the final story. Mira and Gared’s trees in particular offer some of the best individual scenes, yet feel increasingly divorced from the main action.
Animation and gameplay
The art style here rather resembles an oil-painting. I found it a little off-putting at first, especially when it came to on-screen depictions of familiar HBO faces, who are instantly recognisable but can appear rather blank and wooden compared to the expressive eyes and faces we’re used to from the talented on-screen cast. The new characters are much more appealing and easy to accept, since I had no preconceptions about them. I found the art style growing on me as the series progressed. The fantasy-tinged beauty of the oil-like style feels particularly appropriate for Asher and Gared’s strands as both of these characters encounter more of the mythological side of the GoT universe. I even found myself pausing to screencap some of the snowy vistas beyond the Wall, which look particularly appealing rendered in this style.
Unfortunately movement can feel a little stilted here. Scenes where you control the characters and are free to explore the environment proceed at a glacial pace with all characters assuming a halting gait that feels believable when controlling the character who is lame, or even, arguably, for Mira in her restrictive floor-length gown but just plain wrong for a man of action like Asher. Luckily, these scenes are few and far between and the combat/escape scenes, which use the standard quicktime, dodge, duck and strike mechanics are much more fluid. If you die during one of these encounters you get the Valar Morghulis screen and the chance to try again but assuming you have reasonably quick reactions, these scenes tend to be more engaging than challenging. It’s the dialogue choices and political manoeuvrings where the real and permanent damage can be done.
I said in my introduction that Game of Thrones, a Telltale Games Series echoes the flaws of Martin’s saga as much as its strengths and nowhere is this more true than in the game’s final instalment, Episode 6 The Ice Dragon. Closure is not something we’ve come to expect from George R.R. Martin: with some characters’ fates left unknown, more complications and setbacks being introduced all the time and no new book in sight, GoT fans have got pretty well used to living with uncertainty. Telltale’s story wraps up – or rather, doesn’t – in a similar vein. There’s no doubt that much was deliberately left hanging in anticipation of another season. The last episode offers some memorable scenes and challenging decisions but when I realised that most of its threads couldn’t possibly even begin to be resolved some of its force was understandably lessened.
These kinds of graphical adventure games have prompted so much discussion of the ”yes but are they really games variety?” As a fan of the genre I’ve generally argued that they are games, albeit games for the mind more than the mouse-button. But for this particular example, I wager you’ll get more out of it if you approach it less as a game than as an interactive movie. You can affect the course of the narrative: I know from replaying that my first reaction ensured the death of the one major character who could otherwise have survived the finale. But overall it does feel that choices have less impact here than in many other games of this type. As gamers we’re used to being able to win: kill the boss, get the loot, rescue the princess, escape the dungeon, whatever. But, as is accurate for the GoT universe so far, there’s no real sense of victory to be enjoyed here, whatever path you take. “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die” as the well known line goes. Here it is possible for at least a couple of characters not to die (I’ll offer no guarantees about the rest of them) but not dying in these bleak circumstances really doesn’t feel very much like my usual definition of winning.
Happy it ain’t, but that continued bleakness is one of things that actually makes A Song of Ice and Fire feel like such a compellingly fresh cultural experience. Countless films, books and games have conditioned us to expect some kind of last minute saviour, the deus ex machina that stays the executioner’s hand. I knew such an intervention in this grisly universe was unlikely yet cultural conditioning is a powerful agent and right up until one characters’ final moments I continued desperately hoping for magic solution, so that dignity and survival did not have to be mutually exclusive options. I was disappointed. But you know what? If that magic rescue had come I probably would have been disappointed too, because however much I wanted it, it would have felt completely fake and incongruous in this setting.
While it isn’t Telltale’s best release, if you’re eagerly waiting for more of the HBO show, while pondering the increasingly distant release of The Winds of Winter then you could do much worse than picking up this 6 Episode interactive movie. The strength of Telltale’s game is that it really does immerse you in the setting and gives players a taste of just how challenging diplomacy under pressure can be and that’s an enlightening – though far from comfortable – experience to have. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and plenty more to make you squirm. If you know GoT you’ll know what to expect, and that isn’t a happy ending.
At the end of the game you get some voice-over from the established HBO actors, recapping each of your characters’ decisions and offering an overall description of your play-style. I found this quite a nice extra touch, and one that certainly made me want to try out different routes however little difference some of them may have on the overall narrative. As for me? Well my gut-reaction Forresters apparently fought with “Fierce Passion” which I suspect means I stayed pretty true to the spirit of the Starks. In other words we rarely compromised and mostly died. Westerosi life’s a bitch.