It’s incredible what Telltale Games have achieved in the last few years. They’re a near universally respected studio, creating games whose storytelling brings to mind Pixar at their height, and somehow, they’ve done it entirely via licensed properties. At this stage, they could make a game adaptation of me pooping and it’d still be gripping entertainment - and my poops aren’t particularly entertaining. Luckily, their latest adaptation is far more high-profile than that - one of the highest-profile, in fact: HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Note that this is indeed HBO’s version of the saga, set within the TV show canon and timeline (beginning at the Red Wedding, in a low-key but chilling reveal). The TV cast perform their characters, with Peter Dinklage recouping some voice-acting cred after his flat Destiny performance. The look and feel of Westeros are realised in a painterly twist on the usual Telltale aesthetic. Even the opening titles are a faithful recreation: the familiar theme song brings the same thrills that it does in the show. I won't deny that my inner fanboy jumped with joy upon hearing it.
But while Telltale’s Game of Thrones gets all the surface details right, it’s the subtler elements under the surface - the narrative and thematic conventions - that make it a terrific adaptation of and expansion to an already-terrific story.
The aspect of the game I was most anxious about - its five playable characters (three in this first episode) - is handled in such an obvious fashion that it seems strange to have ever worried. Game of Thrones has had a multiple protagonist structure inherently built into it from its written-word origins, and that continues here. Young and inexperienced lord Ethan Forrester, canny King’s Landing handmaiden Mira Forrester and wide-eyed squire Gared Tuttle each have their own stories, distinct from but still affecting one another. We jump from character to character at natural chapter-break points. Nothing ever feels rushed or draggy. Everything relates back to the central story in clear and immediate ways. It’s so simple, and so great.
The Forresters themselves are a fascinating bunch and present a unique approach to Game of Thrones lore. Most of the central characters in the books and show proper are members of highborn families - Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens - but the Forresters are much lower on the totem pole. As their name betrays, they’re suppliers and craftspeople of the sought-after Ironwood trees, used for construction and weaponry throughout Westeros. Which means that, as far as houses go, they’re basically just a well-established family business. It’s fascinating to see an everyday, behind-the-scenes angle on the war, witnessing how common folk view all these self-proclaimed kings. Even as individuals, we “get” the Forresters almost immediately, which is important when introducing such a large cast.
True to the HBO show, too, is the game’s gleeful embrace of bold, propulsive storytelling. In its two to three hour running time, “Iron From Ice” (the first of six episodes) motors through story, killing off characters left and right and changing status relationships between the survivors. Characters are thrown into situations for which they aren’t ready, and their reactions - reactions you control! - simultaneously surprise and make total sense. None of this is done purely for shock value, either - every twist raises the stakes and puts pressure on characters in new ways.
The emphasis on action and consequence, so central to Game of Thrones’ chronicles of conquest and revenge, is a perfect fit for Telltale’s “[character] will remember this” brand of gameplay. Even more than in their other games, every choice feels laden with weight - be it political, personal or physical. As in the source material, naivete is the worst flaw to have. The decisions are often difficult, and the repercussions significant. Speaking to Cersei Lannister, a single wrong word can have dire consequences; on the battlefield, there’s no end to the lengths certain houses will go to to avenge the deaths of their brethren.
And oh, what death. This is the most “adult” game Telltale have yet made, at least in terms of ratings-sticker content. Appropriately, the violence is gruesome and intimate. If the world was as Fox News had it, there would be a spate of school pitchforkings just around the corner. And it’s not just violence: general unpleasantness emanates from many of the characters here, in great detail and in a totally matter-of-fact way. This is a grimy, medieval war story, with all the nastiness and brutality that entails - don’t let the art style fool you.
Game Of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series is that rare adaptation - especially rare in video games - that not only captures the tangible details of its source material, but also understands what makes it work under the hood. If Telltale can keep it up for five more episodes - and with their recent track record, there’s little evidence to the contrary - they’ll have another bona fide masterpiece on their hands.