That’s a mouthful huh? Maybe they should’ve just gone with “Game of Thrones Season 1”. It worked with “The Walking Dead” just fine, didn’t it? Anyways, this is my verdict for Telltale’s first take on the Game of Thrones franchise.
Game of Thrones + Telltale = IMSOHAPPYOMG
I’ve been heavily into Game of Thrones since the TV show’s first season. I read the first book while watching season 1, finishing it before I even got to the last episode, and went on to read the rest of the released books. It’s been my escapist fiction of choice and the most engaging fictional universe since Harry Potter. When I heard that Telltale were making a companion game series, I was just overjoyed. If you’re like me, you should be very happy with the game that came out of it. The ASoIaF universe always felt like a perfect fit for the writing pedigree of Telltale, and I wasn’t disappointed. This might well be my favorite Telltale game so far.
The Forresters, an ancient house in the North has fallen on hard times thanks to the fall of the Starks. Ramsey Snow is the new Warden of the North, and setting your house up against the Whitehills, the rivals of the Forresters. Like the books, the story is told (and game is played) from the POV of multiple characters, all of which are trying their best to contribute to the survival of this house. You have young Ethan, the leader of the Forresters thanks to the death of his father and brother. Asher, his exiled older brother far away in Slaver’s Bay. Mira, who is a handmaiden of Margaery Tyrell down in King’s Landing and Gared Tuttle, a squire on a quest beyond the Wall. It’s a good set up, allowing you to experience many different locations of this world, as well as increasing the variety of problems posed. As Asher, there is a lot of combat since he is a mercenary. Mira has a ton of stuff on her plate navigating the difficult web of intrigue of King’s Landing. Gared’s story is quite the storybook quest for some mystical treasure and as Ethan you’re faced with the struggles of leadership.
Telltale’s most difficult moral dilemmas yet
More than with any previous Telltale game, the stakes feel exceedingly high here. You’re not just making decisions that can decide the fate of your character or a small rag-tag group of survivors, but an entire house and your family. The burden of responsibility weighs heavy, and the possibilities for things to go badly wrong are numerous. Try as you might, sometimes things go bad regardless of your efforts, and when these things happen, it’s frustrating, infuriating even, but always feels true to the Game of Thrones universe. You’re really fighting a losing battle, so better steel yourself for disappointment.
I think that some people will find a lot less fun playing the game than watching the show, because you’re even more invested into the outcomes in the game, even though all these characters you control aren’t from the main story. The Red Wedding was a shocking event, sure, but we were just sitting there rooting for the Starks. In the game though, when things go bad, there’s a feeling of direct responsibility on top of it all. I wonder if that’s just too much to bear for some people.
This game isn’t really about winning or losing, but about experiencing the struggle of the people in this world first hand, something that neither the books nor the TV show can offer. It’s difficult to take that mental step back though. The nagging doubt remains though whether your choices really have much of an effect. Telltale’s games have branching stories, but they don’t have that much, and a lot of it is clever smokes and mirrors. I suspect a second play through with a deliberately different style of play wouldn’t result in a much different story. Some people see this as a major negative, though for me it’s all about that first play through, and here Telltale have done a remarkable job of immersing you in the world.
Weaving the TV show into the game
On the style and presentation front, there’s a lot of good. It’s the same old engine, with some bad loading times, and it really feels dated at this point. But it’s impressive what Telltale are able to pull out of it. The game feels like a mini season of the show, where every episode has the iconic opening sequence of the sweeping view of Westers and Essos in board game style, but it’s rendered in the game’s engine. You can almost see the wink from the developers.
I was curious what the characters would look like. It was confirmed early on that the actor’s likenesses would be used in the game. You’ve got Margaery, Cersei, Jon Snow and so on, looking like the real actors, and see them interacting with new characters with the Telltale visual style. In the end, they did change the likenesses somewhat to a slightly more cartoonish look, and the new characters look a bit more realistic than in their other games. Yet there is still a jarring stylistic break sometimes. It’s weird, but you get over it quickly enough.
The trap that Telltale could have easily fallen in is to make use of the TV characters more than necessary. You do interact with them in some key scenes, but by and large the story’s focus is on the Forresters. So for example you are questioned by Cersei when playing Mira, but you don’t run into her all the time. I feel that in some moments they used them a bit too much as fan service, such as when Jon Snow is taking you aside for a heart-to-heart. Not unplausible, but not expected either.
I never paused a Telltale game as much as I did in this one. Every few minutes you’re posed with some really difficult choices to make. It’s all because you’re easily led to imagine all the worst-case scenarios. The books and TV show have taught me to be extra careful. It’s also really accommodating of role-play, presenting you with plausible, but expressive responses in dialog. Both go a long way to making you feel like you’re really in this world, playing the game of thrones. What pushes this game above The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us for me is the inherent appeal of the license and the upped stakes. I paused so much, because I was consistently torn between doing the right thing and the effective thing. I’d even go so far as to say that this constant struggle could be quite nerve straining. Binging on all episodes over a weekend or so would be too much for me.
Telltale has done a really good job here, and I’m looking forward to the second season.
In defense of Telltale’s business model
As you can see from the above review, I’m kind of a Telltale fanboy/apologist ever since playing the first season of The Walking Dead. None of the games they’ve made since then have been a disappointment. On the contrary I’ve been excitedly watching on as the company has taken on more and more projects. They’ve established themselves as a company that can reliably make successful games based on other’s IP’s.
It is silly to hate on a business model on principle. Even the much hated free-to-play model is not inherently bad. It’s about the product that gets made in the end. If the game’s good, who cares about the business model? On the trailer page for Telltale’s Batman game announcement there were some cynical comments, saying that Telltale are just “cashing in on existing properties and franchises”. Telltale are accused of being unoriginal, of making easy sales thanks to the strength of the franchises they make games for. All this ignores the fact that Telltale have earned the position they’re in right now thanks to the quality of the game’s they’ve made. The Walking Dead was a watershed moment for them, when they found the formula that played to their strengths, which is excellent, sophisticated character development and stories.
Admittedly, all the games they’ve made since then have been following this same formula, with the same engine, so they’re running into the danger of becoming stale. But they’ve done very well so far of incorporating the essence of the franchises they’ve adapted. The Walking Dead carried the same bleak atmosphere as the comics, The Wolf Among Us really did a great job at evoking a sense of place and mood with Fabletown (though I wasn’t familiar with the comics). And Game of Thrones felt like a perfect companion side story for the TV series. I’ve played the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands, and it has the same zany humor of the main games, even expanding its universe in a way that just wouldn’t work in the open world shooter format.
My point is, Telltale is a smart company that knows its strengths and just keeps making more. I do have my criticisms though. Their engine is technically lacking, they can’t produce at a consistent rate and yes, occasionally they don’t hit the right tone. They may even be unoriginal in some ways, but on the other hand, they’ve single-handedly created the narrative driven branching-storyline subgenre of adventures. Other companies are now getting into it, as seen with Life is Strange and the upcoming Oxenfree.