With the recently concluded six-episode release of Telltale’s Game of Thrones (a game adaptation of the HBO series, rather than George R.R. Martin’s original Song of Ice and Fire novels), the company follows up on other adaptations of successful media properties – notably its successful Walking Dead games (adapting Robert Kirkman’s original comics, rather the AMC television series). Both properties make an odd choice for an interactive game adaptation, when you stop and think about it: after all, they are both pretty much based on the idea that most of the characters – including beloved protagonists – are doomed. Sure, it makes things interesting dramatically on screen and on the page, but in game terms it means that you are basically playing to lose. Where’s the fun in that?
The answer, in the case of Game of Thrones, is in the exact recreation of the HBO show’s world and atmosphere, and the chance gamers and fans get to interact with this world – even on a very limited basis (more on that later), and enjoy small triumphs throughout the game, even when the big picture seems grim. The game’s plot revolves around House Forrester – a minor noble house in Westeros, keepers of the continent’s Ironwood forest, briefly mentioned in Martin’s original novels but not referenced in the show (yet). Following the events of the infamous Red Wedding, the house finds itself in difficult position – as longtime supporters of Starks, the house loses both its Lord and heir-apparent in the massacre, and is now highly vulnerable to the hostilities of its rival, the Lannister-supporting house Bolton.
As the game begins, gamers take control of several characters belonging to the house – Ethan, the youngest Forrester child and now the house’s heir, Mira, one of the house’s daughters and a lady-in-waiting for Margaery Tyrell in King’s Landing, and Gared, a squire in the house’s service, sent to the wall because of a crime he did not commit and entrusted with a special mission that might determine the house’s fate. Being a Game of Thrones story, nobody – including protagonist – is safe from meeting his/her unhappy end, and in the course of the game gamers will find themselves bidding a tragic farewell to some of the characters they play, and taking control of new ones. One of these new protagonists (not a very big spoiler, as it is hinted in the opening episode and the character is introduced in the immediate following episode) is Asher – House Forrester’s prodigal son, exiled to a life of mercenary in Essos and now called back to save his family.
As noted above, the first thing that strikes gamers while playing Game of Thrones is just how accurately and beautifully the game captures the look of the show. The game takes place in three different geographic areas, and each is given a unique look which not only corresponds with the show’s settings but also emphasizes its atmosphere through the use of colors: the north is dominated by dark palette of green and grey, King’s Landing is dominated by sunny and bright shades of red and gold, and Essos is the home of harsh, hot yellow sands and brown rocks.
Characters from the show also appear throughout the game, well-designed and animated (although facial close-ups – while appropriately expressive – sometimes felt a little too blocky for my taste), delightfully voiced by the show’s cast. As expected, Peter Dinklage steals the show in his role as Tyrion Lannister, but there are surprises to be found here as well – Kit Harington has managed to make Jon Snow far more likeable in the game than he ever was in the show, in my opinion. The game’s cast of original NPCs is also impressive in terms of writing, design, animation and performance they all feel as they could have come directly from the show’s screenwriters’ word-processors, or for that matter, even Martin’s novels. I found myself particularly fond of the character of Beskha, Asher’s sister-in-arms, whose though-as-nails personality is a mere front for the emotional baggage she carries. I hope she’ll get a larger role (and maybe even become a playable character) in future sequels.
The game’s playable characters, on the other hand are… less impressive. They are well-written and well-performed as the others, but never shake the feeling that they are merely a poor-men’s imitation of the Starks – a family of straight, honest and honorable people who are clearly unfit to live (let alone rule) in the harsh world of Game of Thrones, making one wonder, at time, how they actually made it this far. Disappointingly, almost none of the playable characters, with one exception discussed below, truly develops or grows in term of personality in the course of the story, and at least one such characters feels amazingly shallow – Asher, who was exiled by his family and now called back to its rescue shows absolutely no misgivings about the prospect, happily taking the job and generally keeps on behaving as an easy-going punk. But even if they don’t feel very developed or original, the game’s protagonists are likeable and fun to play and the game defines them well through the choices they have to make and their interaction with the world that surrounds them. In one instance – which I personally felt was a high-point for the game – gamers take control of a handicapped characters, and the game’s interface gives them a very clear and painful impression of the difficulties that a handicapped person has to face. It is here that the game transcends beyond its story and surroundings, taking gamers outside their comfort zone and making them think about the real world as well, a commendable design choice on Telltale’s part.
Sadly, other interactions with game do not show this level of creativity, and in fact the game’s level of interactivity is generally very low. This criticism is often leveled at other games produced by the company, but it became a bigger problem for me with Game of Thrones because for all the game’s impressive recreation of show’s world, it almost never allows gamers to explore it. Gameplay literally drags gamers by the nose from one setting to the other in the precise order the game wants to them to go. If gamers are in a room and they are supposed to find an object, they won’t be allowed to leave before finding it (and trying to interact with other things in the room will prove to be a waste of time); if they are walking on a path, they can only go in one direction – forward – until they reach the point the game wants them to (any attempts at straying from the path don’t even trigger the generic “you can’t go there” message – your character will simply run into an invisible wall, literally). As Telltale often deals with established properties that have their own fanbases, it is perhaps understandable why they will want to simplify certain things for fans who are not necessarily experienced gamers, but there’s a line that separates “simplifying” from “dumbing down”, and Game of Thrones crosses this line in the wrong direction. Toward the end of the game, gamers will discover a new and rather fascinating part of Westeros that the show hasn’t revealed (yet?), but their way there will be riddled with too many obvious chores, many of them of the “go fetch” kind. I didn’t mind this kind of gameplay in the company’s The Walking Dead games, because there it felt related to the overall theme of daily survival; but in Game of Thrones the chores gamers perform often feel like busywork.
These chores, however, are far from being the only activity that gamers can expect in Game of Thrones. While thankfully absent of gratuitous displays of nudity and sex that typify the television show, the game stays very true to its source material in its displays of brutal violence, often providing gamers a very active role in it – in each episodes, gamers will have to rely on their weapons or mere muscles to get out of dangerous situations. These situations are resolved through “quick time events” where gamers have to move or strike in the direction the games points to, and be quick enough about it, or they lose – meaning that in most cases they experience a graphically-portrayed violent death, and in other cases they face negative consequences when it comes to the story (mostly in how other characters treat them). Though the battle sequences also feel limited in their interactivity – gamers never truly take individual action, but rather respond to what happens on the screen – they are also quite challenging in the first two episodes, as they require gamers to be very quick with the their fingers. Around the third episode, however, I felt the game became more forgiving, giving gamers with slower reflexes more response time (perhaps the company was responding to gamers’ feedback on the matter). Regardless, the battle sequences are violent and merciless, as you can expect from a Game of Thrones spin-off, contributing to the recreation of the show’s atmosphere in the game.
Other than the “go fetch” choirs and battle sequences, another play mode that gamers will experience (a lot) is conversations, and this is where Game of Thrones feels the most interactive. Gamers often engage in dialogue with NPCs, and given House Forrester’s ever-weakening position in the course of the game, most of these dialogues consist of desperate attempts to win favors from such NPCs, or making though decisions. It is here that the game’s insistence to keeping gamers on its narrative path fits well with the source material – as fans of the television show can expect, any attempt to conclude a negotiation with Ramsey Snow in a winning position or get on Cersei Lannister’s good side while she’s in a bad mood is doomed to fail – but other conversations, mostly with the game’s original cast of NPCs, offer a larger range of outcomes, and do make a difference when it comes to certain plot elements. They will make no difference, however, when it comes to the bigger picture: regardless of how many people gamers managed to get on their side, or who they chose to sacrifice, the game’s overall conclusion remains the same.
I’m still undecided about this conclusion, mostly because it is divided into two parts. One part concerns the story of one of the game’s protagonists, which ends with a fascinating discovery – but leaves gamers out cold as it concludes abruptly, barely connecting to the overall plot and providing no real sense of closure; the developers did practically everything other than putting a big “to be continued” notice here. The other part concerns all the other characters. It nicely ties everything together, bringing it all to an appropriately shocking end… only to push the reset button shortly afterwards, as if again telling gamers to go and buy the sequel. It’s a mix of excellent drama with a disappointing cop-out.
As an extension of the television show, Game of Thrones does an excellent job in bringing both fans and gamers alike its experience to a new medium. I just wish the developers would have taken greater advantage of this medium and allow a deeper experience than the one the game offers. Hopefully, future installments in the series will do better.