I Honestly Can't Tell If I'm Doing a Good Job Or Not: Telltale's Game of Thrones
Alternative title: I Honestly Don't Know What I Was Expecting.
Massive spoilers through the third season of Game of Thrones, and undoubtedly the fourth season soon, as the game is entrenched in the lore, violence, and political intrigue of the show. Without those three pillars, the game does not exist at all. The player is to take control of various members of House Forrester, a small Northern house famed for their Ironwood trees which are practically immune to flames. The game ominously promises that the decisions of one Forrester will affect the situations and safety of the other family members. After one episode, I do not doubt for a second that I've already made some massive mistakes that will come back to haunt me. (I will keep spoilers for the episode at a minimum, but please go play it!)
From the word go, the playable characters position as precarious (earned simply by existing in Westeros) shifts to downright fucked in a matter of moments. The Forresters are a Northern family, and thus historically sworn to the Starks. In the opening scene, we see several members of House Forrester -- Lord Forrester, the eldest son and heir Rodrick, plus their men to include playable character squire Gared Tuttle -- drinking and celebrating. They are sworn to Robb Stark, a fact that set tension locking my gut, and yet they are drinking, they are happy. Rodrick gladly (and perhaps a bit drunkenly) announces that he's to be in the vanguard. Vanguard of what? At this point, I'm almost sure of where I am, where Gared Tuttle and his happy compatriots are, and already I am seeking escape. Instead, they send the squires for wine. It isn't until we are nearly all the way across camp that the camera pans up to reveal the ominous shadow of the Twins. The Red Wedding, the in-game text helpfully reads, by way of a date.
The Red Wedding. With you, there, as a Stark supporter. The tone of the game is set in the first scene, and I don't know what else I was expecting from a Game of Thrones video game. Any game that opens with the scene that was the most brutal thing I've seen on television to date is not in the general vicinity of fucking around.
The game is high tension, far higher tension than any zombie threat (though Telltale's Walking Dead was heartbreaking), but the player might lose track of this if they've forgotten some of the nuances or even characters from the show. This episode serves to remind the player just what world they've stepped into. Game of Thrones excels at a subversion of what the audience has come to expect, and the game mirrors this theme expertly.
I've seen reviewers criticize this episode as boring, but I really must wonder if we were playing the same game. If anything, I would say that the game assumes that you've been paying attention, that if you are a fan of the show/books that you would come to play this game. There is no initiation for the casual fan, or for the person who had not seen or read anything of Game of Thrones, which I had been bracing to endure. Instead, Telltale does not patronize the player. They assume you've been paying attention, that you know what that means, and pushes through the story without holding the player's hand. "Lord Ramsay Snow is coming to see you," the game tells you. If you know who Ramsay Snow is, you'll be dreading that conversation since it is brought up early on. If you don't know who Ramsay Snow is, then the tension inherent in hearing the name will build much slower, or not at all.
Integrating characters with the same actors as the television show, Telltale's story pits the playable characters up against people in Westeros that I, playing as Stark supporters in the tumultuous and violent North, simply did not wish to cross paths with. Queen Regent Cersei Lannister was every bit as scornful in person as I expected, but I would gladly have met with Cersei again and again if it only meant that I would have to control a character in the same room as Ramsay Snow.
But even with the characters that you perhaps did want to meet -- Margery Tyrell and Tyrion Lannister -- there is an underlying threat. It is one thing to watch these two play the game of thrones, to cheer on their victories or laugh at their quips, but it is another thing entirely to be beholden to them or to make deals with them. It did not strike me until I was leaving the throne room with Tyrion beside me that every one in King's Landing would sleep well at night if they squashed my little noble, Mira Forrester, under their heel. She's a handmaiden, she's from the North, and her house is very close to being in outright disfavor. If I make decisions to make Margery and Tyrion happy, am I guaranteed safety any more than if I allied myself with Cersei? What are the odds that Tyrion would sell me out to get one over on his sister, or perhaps to protect Sansa Stark? The player is also in the uncomfortable position of knowing what is to come, that there is another wedding on the horizon, and it served to invoke a sense of dread within me about the coming storylines that I have not shaken. Instinct was to go for the helpful Tyrion over the extremely antagonistic Cersei, but it does not strike me as a wise alliance.
Telltale's Game of Thrones is every bit as violent and unforgiving as the real Game of Thrones. It does not shy away from the harder subjects, nor does it shy away from killing people off in what can only be called Game of Thrones style. It is violent and shocking, and Telltale has already convinced me of their ability to survive killing off multiple characters in their Walking Dead game. I am eager to see what is to come, after such a strong start. I would also appreciate it if Ramsay Snow would stay away from me for the remainder of the series. If I could never see him again, that would be fantastic (though Iwan Rheon does such a phenomenal job, as always).