Game Of Thrones: Sea­son One

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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.

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