There’s no doubt that Telltale Games has been doing incredible things lately, with the second season adaptation of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and again recently with Tales from the Borderlands. The developer has caused even more recent stirrings with the announcement that the wildly popular Minecraft will be getting the telltale Telltale treatment.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that more than a few people were overjoyed when the studio announced they’d managed to nab the rights to adapt Game of Thrones, the hit US tv show based on author George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll have to show me the rock that you’ve been living under. Episode I was recently released. Episode II is scheduled for January 2015. Episodes 3-6 are as yet TBA. But after winning a clutch of awards with their previous work, the weight of expectation surrounding Telltale’s latest adaptation brings with it no small amount of pressure. Can Telltale possibly live up to such demands?
Yes and no.
Telltale Games’ take on the series opens at The Twins, the home of treacherous House Frey, just at the start of the infamous Red Wedding. If, for some ungodly reason you’ve missed out, here’s the Red Wedding for your review (you might want to ensure you’re not eating breakfast at this point).
I shouldn’t have to spell it out, but I will: S.P.O.I.L.E.R A.L.E.R.T!
The temptation to cast players a member of House Stark may have been tempting, but would have also brought in no small number of continuity concerns and run the risk of treading on TV writers’ toes. So in Telltale’s Game of Thrones, you play as different members of House Forrester – a House whose members have been loyal bannermen to the Starks of Winterfell for many generations, operating from the seat of their house located at Ironrath.The Forreseters are masters of working with Ironwood, a natural resource so-named thanks to its uncanny ability to take huge amounts of punishment without breaking. As you might expect, having seven kingdoms all fighting it out to claim a throne means that their services are in great demand.
These demands bring with them no small degree of pressure of course, and make the family a high-profile target. He who controls the Ironwood controls the war effort, and so after a long time spent enjoying relative obscurity, House Forrester finds itself thrust right into the middle of the war tearing Westeros apart.
Telltale breathes life into its story, and the multiple perspectives expected by fans, by splitting the narrative between three very different characters. You’ll experience the stories of Gared Tuttle, a squire to Lord Gregor Forrester; Mira Forrester, elder daughter of the house who serves are Margery Tyrell’s handmaiden in King’s Landing; and young Lord Ethan Forrester, third born son of his house. With House Stark crumbling, and Robb Stark’s war in the Riverlands all but washed away in a river of blood, the Forresters face the destruction of their house as Lord Bolton seeks to wrest control of the Ironwood for upstart bastard and all-round spoiled brat, King Joffrey – who is, and always has been, the single best cautionary tale about the dangers of incest.
When I wrote before about Telltale’s recent take on the Borderlands universe, I mentioned that the weight of the decision making seemed a lot lighter, and much less serious, than prior Telltale games. The nature of Game of Thrones by itself brings back the kind of gut-wrenching decisions we wrestled with in The Walking Dead. As Queen Cersei is fond of saying, “When you play the game of thrones, you play to win”: a lesson that Ned Stark failed to heed, before his head was unfortunately removed from his neck.
Perhaps it has to do with the subject matter in determining how difficult the decision making can be in these episodic games, though The Wolf Among Us shows that Telltale is certainly capable of weaving an original story which manages to expand on an established setting and provide newfound depth to beloved characters. Telltale has a knack for presenting compelling either/or scenarios where neither is an option that you want to choose, but know that you have to make some kind a decision. When you get used to choosing the least damaging option, you realize just how crucial these turning points can be. Iron from Ice is a good reminder of their talents, although one which spends the majority of its time feeling as though it’s simply a set-up for a payoff to come further down the line.
If you’re a fan of the series, be it the books, the HBO show – or both – you know that Ramsay Snow is a complete and total ass. No one likes the crazy Flayed Man (and if you do, you might want to get your head checked). When Ramsay comes to Ironrath to demand that young Lord Forrester “bend the knee” to his father Lord Bolton, the new Warden of the North, you sour inside but you also know that you are walking a finely-honed sword edge. Do you welcome the bastard Snow in your hall and treat him like a Lord, or do you make him wait at your front gate and meet him with a garrison of guards at your back (possibly the wiser option)? One shows diplomacy but maybe weakness; the other shows power, but might spark a confrontation that your House can ill afford.
These kinds of decisions occur throughout the 2-hour running time, and show that the developer has lost none of its talent for crafting compelling choices while stretching itself across so many different properties. I won’t ruin them for you, but there were three distinct moments where I had to hit pause, sit back, and stare at the screen with fingers laced in rapt contemplation. In order to secure my House, I had to decide: which do I value more? Power, or safety? Which will best serve my House down the road? Will my decision now show weakness or wisdom, or will I not feel the ramifications of my choice until I least expect it? Even after careful consideration, in true Telltale style I wasn’t always pleased with the outcome, because it took a different path than what I thought might happen. Telltale knows how to tell a good story, which is no more apparent than it is in The Walking Dead‘s first season; but damn, they really nail it with Game of Thrones.
While previous titles The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales from the Borderlands all had a similar cel-shaded, comic-book-esque visual style, Game of Thrones departs from that and opts instead for a softer, digitally-painted look more in line with concept art. For the most part, it’s successful. The realm of Westeros lends itself to that particular style, and there are times when I was completely engrossed in examining the digital brush strokes that make up character faces, or the amount of detail that went into painting the background images. At times, Telltale’s work with recreating Westeros is like watching an oil painting come to life, and perfectly conforms with the franchise’s realm. It’s not always that accomplished; Tyrion’s waxen visage is about as convincing as actor Peter Dinklage’s delivery in Destiny. But for the most part, Telltale’s latest manages to rise above the limitations of a game engine that needs to scale well across a multitude of different platforms, even though the stylized approach somewhat subtracts from the dirt and grit we’ve come to expect from the setting.
Perhaps the game’s best asset – and one that I’m incredibly grateful wasn’t played to death – is the involvement of key canon characters. Granted, it’s impossible to make a good Game of Thrones title without including big stars like Peter Dinklage or Lena Headey; but while the focus here is on House Forrester, Telltale still treats us to glimpses of the larger characters within the universe. Machiavellian dwarf Tyrion is given particular attention, though we also spend time in the company of Margaery and ruthless ice-queen Cersei. It’s kind of like the videogame equivalent of classic British TV show Through the Keyhole, where audiences are given a glimpse of how the other half lives.
But wisely, the developer doesn’t overplay its hand, and treats these moments as a brief reward for a job well done while lending their interpreation authenticity. When we do see these big names, Telltale’s depictions of them are true to life, and the same actors breathe life into their digital counterparts in a way which grounds the game within the setting without feeling like they’re simply there to lend credibility. When the credits roll, the preview reel giving a glimpse of what’s to come in Episode 2, the wait to hear Kit Harrington reprise his role (cue fan girl squeals) as the brooding Jon Snow will have fans moist with anticipation.
Still, as intriguing as this first episode is, it isn’t without its failings. If I have to complain about one thing, it’s that after so many titles, the core gameplay remains much the same as the developer’s previous output and is starting to display the need for a shot in the arm. Occasionally, the story will pause while the player is directed to walk around examining objects, and having “[insert name here] will remember that” displayed on screen breaks immersion and pulls back the curtain on Telltale’s narrative trickery. And as interesting as this first chapter is, the reliance on players’ knowledge of the TV show could be offputting for those just wanting a decent slice of fantasy storytelling.
These shortcomings are so infuriating precisely because they are so easily fixed, and often the game’s events can feel superfluous and empty while the weight of exposition cuts through the atmosphere like a dagger through so much hot butter. I just wish Telltale would nix these moments and find a better way to incorporate whatever it is they’re trying to get across in those brief occasions where the player is required to walk around; often, they’re marred by odd camera angles and your player analogue twitches in odd directions, quelling your suspension of disbelief. And while the art-style is largely successful, familiar faces do tend to veer into the dreaded uncanny valley. So, Telltale, stop it; you’ve got one of the best things going with your formula, but these moments are a huge wrench in your great, churning machine, and take players out of the moment just enough to be a problem in an otherwise-absorbing experience. Stop relying on your existing tools, and trade them in for some new ones.
That all said, if you’re a fan of the series then there’s absolutely no reason on earth that you shouldn’t experience Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Fans of the developer’s previous work will most certainly enjoy it even if they’re not invested in the franchise, and while the studio hasn’t actually given us anything new or particularly innovative, the backdrop of GRRM’s iconic setting and rich cast of characters brings enough freshness to a familiar design formula that it’s worth the price of admission. Iron from Ice doesn’t take long to get through – about two hours, give or take – and the now-standard gameplay tropes and QTE events mean you won’t come across anything too difficult or challenging; but despite being burdened with the need to set up a grand narrative which does justice to the nation-spanning story of political backstabbing and inter-family fucking-over, Telltale largely succeeds in doing the license proud.