The Game of Thrones TV adaptation, the pop culture behemoth that it is, seems an obvious match for Telltale’s episodic, story-driven style. Telltale’s game features an original story that ties in with the series, starting at the Red Wedding, starring their own Stark loyalists, House Forrester. After the death of their patriarch the house must fumble its way through the new order of things and try their best not to have their family tree felled by the rival Whitehill family. At this stage anyone not au fait with the story of Game of Thrones is probably lost, the game assumes knowledge of at least the first three seasons of the TV show and leans on the appeal recognisable faces and places.
Telltale goes further than simply sowing in popular characters however, it hops between characters, each of whom is designed to fill a specific niche, and each episode starts with that oh-so satisfying intro and the little cogs and models of all the places you’ll be visiting, just like the TV show. The problem is that all the effort that goes into making the game feel like the show ultimately works to the game’s detriment. Some of the cameos feel shoehorned in and even those that aren’t suffer from the fact that, by necessity, the game’s characters can’t make any lasting impression on them because, outside of the game, they don’t exist.
First let’s talk about what works. The meat of the story is the blood feud between House Forrester (the good guys) and House Whitehill (the bad guys) over control of the ironwood grove (the plot device). In this part of the game you play as the head of the house, either Ethan or Rodrik depending on the episode, trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. With clearly delineated sides and little interference from TV characters and events Telltale are able to flex their narrative muscles and tell a compelling tale of a minor noble house struggling to survive in the aftermath of the war of the five kings. It’s flawed but it’s here that choices feel the most weighty and meaningful, sadly this is only a quarter of the game.
At the other end of the quality scale is Gared Tuttle’s story. After his role in the intro Tuttle’s purpose in the series is to get sent to the Wall, because you can’t have Game of Thrones without going to the Wall, and then venture out beyond in search of the mysterious ‘North Grove’. Tuttle’s plot is pretty much divorced from the rest of the game (at least as far as season one is concerned) and seems to exist mostly so that the player can talk to Jon Snow for a bit and then pretend to be Jon Snow for a bit more, complete with ragtag friends, swearing vows and then wandering around wildling country. The North Grove itself strikes me as more Uncharted than Game of Thrones in all honesty, I’m pretty sure it only exists because in the TV series Bran Stark does weird magical stuff out in the middle of nowhere and Telltale is trying to cater to everyone.
Then there are the other two Forrester’s you get to play, Asher and Mira. Asher, the second son and bad boy of the family, is spending his time in the slaver cities fighting and wise-cracking. His story is about trying to raise an army to bring back to Westeros (sound familiar?) and he’s there so that Daenerys can look down her nose at you and you can meet the dragons. Asher is one of the more likeable characters and he does play a healthy part in the finale but for most of the story he’s irrelevant. The same is true of Mira, who’s crammed in as one of Margery Tyrell’s handmaidens, who gets to faff about in King’s Landing and really play the Game. Only what’s she’s really doing is providing cameo access galore to the Red Keep’s more important residents and showing the glaring contradiction between the appeal of a Game of Thrones game and the appeal of Telltale game.
To elaborate, a Telltale game is essentially a semi-interactive TV series, the story is linear and set in stone before you begin, you just get to tailor some of the details such as, in Mira’s case, how honest or devious she is. The appeal of a Game of Thrones game, at least as I see it, is to play the Game of Thrones, to try and navigate that pit of debauchery and deception and see how you fare. Mira’s whole story is exactly that, only it ends one way, with a single binary choice after she fails. From a story perspective this is very much in line with Game of Thrones, Mira, a total novice, is completely outplayed by more experienced and despicable players but as a game it’s deeply unsatisfying and leaves a very bitter aftertaste. It’s sad because up until the rug was pulled from under me Mira’s sections were the most enjoyable, irrelevant as they were.
It isn’t just Mira who suffers from this sort of thing, however, every story has these moments, whether it’s failing to impress Daenerys or disappointing Jon Snow, every character has failure written in which feels unsatisfying if you’re trying to avert it in a way that’s exacerbated by the setting, it feels wrong that a sly and ambitious Mira travels the same trajectory as a naive and loyal one. Perhaps the best way to put it is in comparison, Telltale’s The Walking Dead is also a story about losing, only in The Walking Dead there’s never any question about it, the question is how you interact with the other survivors, especially Clem, the child you sort of adopt, given that fact. Game of Thrones on the other hand is all about trying to avert losing, so when you do lose your previous choices feels meaningless where in The Walking Dead all the little choices along the way are the reason that game is meaningful.
Before we wrap up there are two more little things I want to cover. First is the game’s art style. The game is designed to look like an oil painting in motion and looks gorgeous, sometimes. Other times it looks like your graphics card has turned up to work concussed and hungover, I was sure the game had broken on a couple of occasions. It’s a shame because when it works it does look excellent. The second point is character death. This is a Game of Thrones title so, of course, people have to die, sometimes in unnecessarily horrible ways. Unfortunately most of the deaths feel unearned, existing more for shock value or because Game of Thrones seems to have a quota rather than for any narrative purpose.
When all is said and done Telltale knows how to spin a solid story and Game of Thrones delivers on that front. Unfortunately the hit and miss artistic style and conflict between mechanics and narrative ultimately left me feeling cold to the series and, unless you’re more forgiving than I am, I’d recommend looking for your Telltale fix elsewhere.