by Ben Fitzgerald
Note: Terry Randolph and Jake Rushing wrote a review of this game back in January, and their impressions were quite different from mine. I agree with many of the points they mentioned and I respect their opinions, but I did not come away with the same impression of the game as they did.
I’m going to be honest with you – I haven’t played Telltale’s Game of Thrones at all. I watched a Let’s Play of the first episode, but it makes very little difference with a game like this. You might think that’s not enough to make a judgment, but I do. I must warn you that this review is rife with spoilers, so if you haven’t played the game yet, you should read Terry and Jake’s article instead.
I admit that I am not really a fan of A Game of Thrones, but more of a passing admirer. I read the first book, but I couldn’t quite get into the second novel. I try to keep abreast of the latest updates with the series and am familiar with some of the comings and goings, but I am not intimately aware of all the influx of characters. I am, however, familiar with the tone and style of R. R. Martin’s writings, and I feel confident in my ability to contrast the narratives.
I’ll start with the good. The writers at Telltale are obviously talented. They are familiar with their source material, and they are adept at creating characters who feel lifelike and believable. I have watched the first episode of both Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead: Season 1 and their writing is consistently strong, though far more human in the latter title.
I enjoyed the throne room scene where Mira is interrogated by Cersei and Tyrion Lannister. The interaction felt very faithful to the characters, and I really enjoyed watching Tyrion. I found the writing elsewhere to be strong as well. I think they do a good job of allowing you as a player to mold the personalities of the playable characters to a degree. I also think the art style is quite suitable to the source material, and the graphics are, except for the occasional technical glitch, pretty good.
What Game of Thrones succeeded at was drawing me into their narrative, by beginning the game with the Red Wedding and by staging a diverse group of characters in challenging situations – Lord Ethan thrust into the role of governing his people; Lady Mira as handmaiden to the future queen; Gared as a squire of Forrester banished to the Gate. What the game failed to do was maintain my interest.
I’m not sure about the rest of the episodes, but the first game offered very minimal interactivity outside of dialogue, which renders it little more than an interactive movie. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, provided the plot and pacing are approached adequately. Unfortunately that is where Game of Thrones fails. The biggest rule of fiction is that the unfolding events in a narrative have to make sense. The biggest rule in a choice-and-consequence video game is that your choices have to amount to something. Iron and Ice failed on both counts.
All seemed well until the last act of chapter one. The writing was competent, and the story seemed pretty good. There was a pointless scene where Gared investigates a body mutilated by Ramsay Snow. As it didn’t advance the plot at all, it felt gratuitous. If you asked Lady Margaery to entreat her betrothed to assist House Forrester, she describes Joffrey’s rage to Mira the following day. To me, that subplot just felt really unnecessary. Joffrey Baratheon is the biggest tool in Westeros and everyone knows it. Why include a subplot that everyone knows is doomed to fail? But these are minor complaints that don’t really diminish the quality of the story.
The final act of the game concerns the ascension of Lord Ethan to the throne of Ironrath. You have a number of choices to make here, beginning with whether or not to pardon a criminal who blatantly confessed to his crimes. Following this, you need to choose between either Ser Royland or Duncan Tuttle as your Sentinel, or personal advisor. Most of the rest of the game is involved in deciding whom to appoint as your Sentinel and devising a strategy for dealing with Ramsay Snow, who approaches on behalf of the rival Whitehill family to settle your dispute. Depending on whose plan you side with during the council meeting (in my opinion, Ser Royland’s was better), the other party becomes so furious with you that they refuse to be at your side during the meeting with Ramsay, which feels like a pretty weak plot point.
“I am loyal to you, Lord Ethan, but if you side with Duncan Tuttle over me, I will behave like a spoiled child who didn’t get his way and pout in my bedroom.”
“I disagree with everything else you’ve said all day, but I’m just as petty as you are, Ser Royland. That goes double for me!”
Apparently, this is because whoever you don’t appoint as Sentinel turns out to be a traitor, and that is the reason for their absence. It still feels like a copout to me.
If you choose to follow Ser Royland’s advice, you meet Ramsay Snow at the gate; if you follow Duncan’s advice, you meet him in the Hall. Snow informs you that a garrison of twenty men from the Whitehill family will be stationed in Ironrath, and they burst into the court without invitation. What I want to know is how they managed to get in there in the first place. During the meeting with Snow at the gate, he and Lord Whitehill enter the gate and Snow’s garrison is left outside. So how, pray tell, did they manage to get in? It’s not like they could have climbed the gate undetected, or that the ensuing battle had they tried would have gone unnoticed by Ethan Forrester and Ramsay Snow. This is a plot hole big enough for twenty armed men to pass through, and that is unacceptable in good fiction.
After Snow’s garrison has teleported into the keep and burst into the throne room, Snow snatches Ethan’s sister Talia and threatens to take her with him. Afterwards, he stabs Ethan in the throat, saying he’s too confident for his liking. It doesn’t matter whether you are humble or haughty, respectful or proud. Your character is going to die, and all those choices you spent the last hour making end up feeling pretty pointless.
All this resembles the narrative zig-zag that pervades Martin’s works, but only superficially. Major characters in Martin’s world don’t die just because. They die as a result of their actions. Ned Stark met his fate directly as a result of the poor choices he made. Joffrey Baratheon was poisoned because he was the biggest ass in all of Westeros. Khal Drogo’s death comes largely as a result of Daenarys Targaryen’s misplaced faith in her handmaiden. Ethan Forrester, on the other hand, dies to expedite the plot, and that’s a bad way to die.
It’s not like the idea of meaningful choices in adventure games is somehow revolutionary, and that Telltale is trying to work out the kinks. Interplay’s excellent Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and Star Trek: Judgment Rites masterfully incorporated player choices into the game. Although the games consisted of self-contained episodes, the choices you made influenced the way the mission turned out, the type of response you received from Starfleet, and the final conversation at the end of the game. Some missions were dramatically different depending on how you played them, and bad decisions on your part could result in your death as well as the deaths of others. You could even botch a mission so bad that Starfleet Command would take away your ship, resulting in game over. At times, there were moral choices to be made, and the answers were not always black and white. For games made in the early 90s, the degree of freedom offered in approaching the stories was almost unheard-of.
I understand the narrative difficulties in crafting a second episode where one character may or may not live, but that is no justification for poor writing and storytelling. That doesn’t excuse the inattention to detail necessary to escalate the scene. It’s infuriating that the game spent all this time setting up a character only to unabashedly execute him an hour later. Snow is ruthless and reckless and his murder of Lord Forrester is hardly out of character, but the situation is still a pitiful setup: Snow is not stupid enough to publicly murder a lord in his own court unless he’s got some muscle behind him. Since those men could not have possibly entered the Forrester court unannounced, the scene feels so horribly improbable that it ruined the entire experience for me.
What is Telltale’s excuse? It’s not like these guys are new to this. Their two seasons of The Walking Dead offer ten episodes of breathtaking, heartbreaking narrative that at least allowed you some choice in who lives and dies (and I sure as hell hope Larry dies). According to what I’ve read, only two or three choices you make in Game of Thrones actually make a difference in the final outcome of the game. Maybe this will change in the second season, but should someone who paid $30 really have to wait another year and pay another $30 to see the results of their decisions? Even if the later episodes get better, the plot is still predicated on a flimsy narrative, and that is not the way to make a game. Game of Thrones is not Telltale’s finest hour.