Game Of Thrones: Season One
Most games are power fantasies. Be the hero. Rule the world. Game Of Thrones is far less optimistic about your chances. It’s a series at its best and worst when it explores powerlessness instead – peaking when you get to truly experience the grinding gears of Westeros that squashed Ned Stark, but crushing in the regular reminders that this is Telltale’s story rather than yours. Failure usually has less to do with your poor choices than the increasingly tired fib that anything you choose particularly matters.
Game Of Thrones is a frustrating series. For the most part, it’s a disappointment, though some of that comes down to trying to recreate one of the world’s most expensive shows in polygon form. Telltale has generally skirted this in the past, focusing on converting comics (The Walking Dead, Sam & Max, Fables) or putting a heavily stylised spin on the likes of Back To The Future. Here, there’s no hiding behind some watercolour-style textures. In the acting, the pacing of it all, the opening titles that may as well be a Minecraft demake of the award-winning original, and everything in between, there’s a huge gulf between the show and the game.
What it does wisely do is carve out its own niche. Game Of Thrones is the story of House Forrester, a down-on-its-luck minor house that got one very quick mention in the books as being bannermen for House Stark. The Forresters are masters of Ironwood, a particularly tough variety of lumber that makes for almost impervious shields. Unfortunately, the death of their Lord Gregor, combined with their ending up on the wrong side in the War Of The Five Kings, puts them in a precarious position. To save their house, every family member will have to play a part – in the North, in King’s Landing, and across the Narrow Sea in Essos.
Much like the show and novels, this means several viewpoint characters. On the surface, most of the Forresters seem like straight copies of the Stark brood. Gregor is Ned Stark, whose death means disaster. Gared is Jon Snow, sent to the Wall. Rodrik is Robb, the military heir. In practice, they soon vary considerably. Mira Forrester, for instance, is the Sansa of the group, a handmaiden to Lady Margaery, and presented as the naïve innocent. Instead, she quickly proves herself as tough and resourceful as any Forrester, scheming with Tyrion and trying to find allies who can help defend them against their arch-rivals in the Ironwood trade.
Telltale handles the characters well, and brutally. The whole series is little but a trauma conga line for the lot of them. The opening episode features two of the best scenes: Mira facing Cersei Lannister in court, and having to balance loyalty to King Joffrey with loyalty to her mistress, and the rest of the family having to deal with a visit from Ramsay Snow, an easily amused psychopath with full authority to do whatever the hell he likes. How do you prepare for dinner with the Joker?
Far too often, though, the drama derives not from the choices you’re forced into by circumstance, but the limits of the dialogue options and episodic structure. It’s tragic to see Ned Stark put his trust in someone like Littlefinger, but to have to do the same purely because that’s how the story goes is infuriating. Game Of Thrones could so easily have borrowed inspiration from the likes of Sierra’s Conquests Of The Longbow, and have been about recruiting help, earning money, and winning favours to cash in down the road. Instead, everything is on rails and nothing really affects the overall sweep of the story. If you turn down the chance to kill someone, another character will simply do it instead. The longer all this goes on, the more it struggles. There’s so little hope that after a while it becomes hard to remain motivated. Much of the plot and writing also smacks more of something like Dragon Age than Game Of Thrones, particularly in later developments involving blood magic and buried secrets. Sometimes it’s let down by subtle things, like forgetting that as beloved as Tyrion is to the audience, he’s utterly despised by the characters in-universe, and so the odds of Mira trusting him are low. More often, though, it’s in sudden lurches from cunning politics to pantomime, such as a villain not simply revealing they were playing chessmaster, but outright flipping their Evil Switch to become a snarling, rapacious, self-sabotaging cartoon of themselves.
After so many Telltale titles, it almost goes without saying that there’s very little game underscoring any of this. More than in most, though, that needn’t have been a problem – Game Of Thrones is well suited for a dialogue-driven game. Twelve hours split into six episodes is more than enough time to see and tire of its mechanical limits, though, not least that while this is a series where anyone can die, it only counts if it’s officially time. Valar Morghulis… next episode.
Where it all really goes wrong is the finale. Here, almost every major choice is proven irrelevant and barely any plot threads are resolved. The Forresters’ fate is left completely in the air, with even the series’ biggest mystery – the secret of a magic grove in the North – going unrevealed. It’s not just a bad ending to the series, it’s an insulting cliffhanger for a story that has literally no excuse not to end conclusively and with far more ramifications based on player decision.
Not for the first time, Game Of Thrones feels like Telltale’s designers working in a straitjacket. Its moments of genius show what they can do, but the adherence to its stock template so rarely gives them the chance. This licence didn’t call out for the TV show in polygons. We have the TV show. Game Of Thrones was a chance to widen its scope in ways that only games can. Instead, Telltale chose to limit it, chasing a cinematic dragon that it was never going to catch.