The grand finale of Telltale’s Game of Thrones was released last week, and after a few nights of thorough play, I saw those credits roll. While I enjoyed Telltale’s efforts to replicate what HBO’s Game of Thrones does, it doesn’t quite live up to the mark, and there’s no question that the books do it better. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean that playing through the six episodes of the game was a waste of time. I would not have continued to throw my money down had I not been invested this tale.
The episodes follow the events of both the book and the show in a tangential way, albeit later in the story’s development. The game begins with The Red Wedding, a pivotal point in the Game of Thrones narrative. It follows the story of House Forrester, a family briefly mentioned in Martin’s books but never expounded upon. The Forresters are what their name suggests. They tend and care for a forest of trees from their hold, Ironrath. The wood of these trees is said to be the strongest in all of Westeros, making the Ironwood Forest a priceless commodity. The Forrester clan are the only caretakers of this forest who fell the timber in a sustainable way. This is a surprisingly ecological approach to something in a world where greed is possibly worse than it is in current-era United States. People do any and every thing for money and power in Westeros, and finding pockets of humanity amidst that can be surprising.
The game features the Forresters from The Red Wedding up to and past The Purple Wedding. Subsequent seasons will likely feature events beyond that. In the scope of the show, that’s only season four. The Forresters bear more than a passing resemblance to the Starks of GoT’s main thread. Rodrik is an older version of Robb Stark, Gared is a less interesting version of Jon Snow, and Mira is Sansa post-Littlefinger tutelage (meaning she adopts a less successful version of manipulation). Asher is really the only one without a Stark equivalent, and even he can be likened to a less combat-savvy version of Daario Naharis,
I understand the appeal and perhaps necessity of mirroring characters from the books/show. It creates a tie to the narrative in a way that would be tricky, and also makes players feel like they’re involved in known events without altering the canon. I see the design decision there, I just don’t think it was the right decision. The characters are too similar. Telltale’s games are less games than interactive stories. Player agency is almost 75% decision based. What combat there is takes place in quick time events, and is both mildly frustrating and completely boring. Thus, there is no tension to pressing the right button at the right time, particularly when timing it right has minuscule effect. Due to the strong storytelling component of the the game, the story needs to stand on its own. At times, it does this. The parts about the North Grove, for instance, are interesting and very different from what you see in the books or show (yet?).
What I really would have loved to see in the narrative of this game is something outside expectation. Setting this game far before the events of the current story could have been really interesting. There are thousands of stories surrounding the monumental events of the books/show that the writers could have told. Would they have done it as well as Martin? Maybe not, but it would have been a more interesting effort. We already the story of a fallen House with the Starks. Telling the story of House Forrester’s basic destruction feels repetitive. Some other possibilities? Tell stories that we’ve had hints of but that Martin hasn’t elaborated. How about Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr? That may have been a more combat heavy tale, but it could have filled in a major gap. I even like the idea of expounding on a family like the Forresters, but without the multitude of copycat events. At the same time, I appreciated playing the game alongside that main narrative and even wish Telltale could have given players more indication of where the timelines crossed one another.
This brings me to my second large critique, and that’s the brutality inflicted on the Forresters. I understand and accept that Westeros is the most cutthroat land in fantasy existence. I’m fine with it. I take the deaths with a grain of salt, never attaching to anyone (aside from Arya, he kills her and I’m done). But man…Telltale has gone above and beyond with this one. It’s hopeless. There is very little redeeming about the story they’ve told. There are plenty of choices that the player makes, but they all appear pointless. As harsh as Westeros is, it’s almost fair in its survival of the fittest mentality. Play the game right (as in the game of politics), and you might come out ahead. There’s no coming out ahead in Telltale’s version. There’s only the chopping block. It’s depressing, and doesn’t make for a very rousing story. If there were a meaning to all this death and misery, I’d be less critical. Maybe Season 2 will offer up some reasons for why all the Forresters had to be chopped down? If so, I’m all ears.
I guess the question is, what does the game do right? Why did I continually anticipate the new episode? For one, it’s a great representation of the Westeros we see in the show. It even has the proper voice actors. Dinklage is as delightful in this game as he is in the show and Emilia Clarke every bit as commanding. The game itself is also beautiful, despite Telltale’s dated engine. There is a watercolor effect to the scenes that has no counterpart in any other Game of Thrones media I’ve seen, but it somehow works perfectly for the setting. It still feels like the show, even if it manages to feel like something different at the same time. The other voice acting is also great, possibly on par with the show stars. Natalie Dormer even manages to be less annoying in this game than in the show. I’m not sure how that happened.
Whenever I finish one of these Telltale seasons, I am always left wondering why more games fail to employ the storytelling constructs of The Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us. For everything I found wrong with the actual narrative of Game of Thrones, it’s still a better story than nearly any game outside of past Telltale yarns. But why is that? Why can’t games with wide, explorable worlds and engaging, fun action systems have stories as well-told and memorable as the Telltale games do? Games have tried. The Witcher 3 nearly pulls it off, and the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games have come extremely close as well. I think the open world nature of some games does limit their storytelling potential. The advantage of the Telltale structure is that it exists in a hallway, with the possibilities branching off into other hallways. When you make a decision, you are then guided down one of two paths, which themselves can branch off and so on. This limits possibilities because it allows the designers to direct you every step of the way. Yes, they can play around with how many branches there are, but in an open world game those branches are endless. There is no hallway, just open sky. The decisions I make in The Witcher seem only significant in my conversational choices and quest options, but do little to actually de- or reconstruct the world. Perhaps I’m asking for too much, too soon. If this year is any judge, games are on their way to this open world storytelling in a way that would have seem impossible when I was a child. Metal Gear Solid V comes close to providing an open world and a solid story, even if it lacks any kind of player choice.
If games are indeed on track to deliver Telltale’s excellent narrative with the mechanics that other games strive to deliver so well, I wonder where that leaves Telltale. Will there be a Telltale in five years? They don’t seem to be interested in updating their engine to include things like…fun combat or…natural movement, so can they exist in a world where other games are telling equally good stories, replete with player agency and world-changing consequences? It seems doubtful, no matter how many licenses they scoop up.
Until Season 2 arrives, I plan to re-visit Season 1 and see if any of my choices actually affect the final set-piece. They certainly didn’t in The Walking Dead’s first season, and that really upset me at the time. Even so, I’m eagerly anticipating another chapter because, frankly, I love being in Westeros, even if it means seeing everyone I like lose their heads.