Game Review: GAME OF THRONES Season One

Brian makes all the wrong decisions in Telltale's six-episode opus.

I only recently caught up on HBO's Game of Thrones. By the time Season 5 started airing I was still on Season 2, but having had enough of things being spoiled for me on Twitter I decided to put an end to it once and for all. So this past summer, I found the time that had eluded me for the past 4+ years and watched those Blu-rays I optimistically bought on release (while a friend's HBOGo account helped out with Season 5). But it wasn't just spoilers that made me want to finally catch up - it was the existence of a new Telltale game that I couldn't play.

Specifically, a new Telltale game that I actually had some interest in. I didn't get into Borderlands that much, and I have no experience with Fables, so unless I wanted to wait for a new Walking Dead season, I knew I had to get up to speed on Game of Thrones the show in order to play their game, which more or less takes place alongside the show's 4th season. Obviously the game's developers couldn't mess with continuity and thus had to mainly focus on new characters, but they roped in a few of the show's actors to reprise their roles, and every now and then there's something from the show happening in the background. For example, the first episode starts during the infamous "Red Wedding", but you're not witness to the slaughter inside - you're controlling someone who is tipped off to what is happening and is racing to warn his fellow men. Now that I've played the entire game I don't think you have to be caught up on the HBO show to enjoy the game (in fact it might be better to be less clued in; more on that soon), as the events from the show have probably been spoiled for you by now, and the narrative revolves around original characters anyway.

Those characters are the Forresters, who have only been given a passing reference in the source material. George RR Martin has spent more time describing one of Tyrion's random breakfasts than he has on the good folks of House Forrester, giving Telltale almost complete freedom to tell their story. Neither they or you have to worry about causing continuity chaos - the Forresters' actions never directly intrude on anything you've seen or read. Unlike The Walking Dead, which put you in control of one character the entire time (Lee in S1, Clementine in S2), you get to make decisions and engage in occasional quick-time battles with several members of the Forrester family, primarily the children of Lord Forrester, who perishes in the very beginning and leaves his family scrambling to keep their house and control of their livelihood: their ironwood trees. Ironwood is a much desired material for shields and weapons of war, so naturally a lot of villains (including Ramsay Snow) want to sieze control of it, taking advantage of the Forrester's current state of flux.

But while they are original characters, some of them resemble the Starks in various ways. Rodrik Forrester is a Robb stand-in, the eldest son who takes his father's place after his demise, thrust in a leadership role prematurely but proving to be up to the task. His mother acts almost exactly like Catelyn Stark, for good measure. Then there's a younger Forrester boy, Ethan, who like Bran is looked to as a temporary leader despite having zero experience with such responsibilities. There's even a Jon Snow-esque "outsider", a squire named Gared Tuttle, who gets sent to the Wall (and meets up with the real Jon), drawing the same sort of ire from his fellow brothers and eventually forming uneasy alliances with Wildlings. And finally there's Mira, who is befriended by Margaery at King's Landing but is frequently a target of scorn by Cersei and even strikes the fancy of a meddlesome older man. Sound like Sansa to you? The similarities can be distracting at times, and even played a part in some of my decisions ("Robb would say this, so I might as well have Rodrik say it"), but over the course of the six episodes you will really get to know them and care about their plight, not to mention start letting their decisions weigh heavily on your mind. I stared at one for a solid three minutes at one point, knowing for certain that either outcome would be tragic.

On that note, the decisions here tend to be tougher than the ones in Walking Dead. Especially in Season 1, it was always "protect Clem" no matter what, so other options never really seemed valid to me. Here, you could see the various dominoes falling on nearly every option, making it almost a relief at the end of Episode 5 when you had to choose between two of the playable characters, picking one to fend off enemies and/or get killed while the other makes his or her escape.  Tragic, yes, but at least I knew I was deciding who I kept around for at least another episode, as opposed to deciding whether or not to sell out a friend, or whether I should murder an antagonist when given the chance, knowing it could bite me on the ass later. Interestingly, there were far more lopsided outcomes for the five major decisions in each episode than I ever saw in Walking Dead. In that game, half the players tended to choose option A, while the other half chose option B. There was one thing I did in Game of Thrones that apparently only a mere 5-6% of the other players did, and several other choices were split 80/20 or 90/10. I found this pretty interesting, since the game never gives you any obvious choices (like, say, "Murder a puppy or eat ice cream?") that would result in such overwhelming consensus.

I can only assume that when I found myself in the vast minority of a certain choice, it's because I proved to be a pretty terrible decision maker. I'm sure a lot of folks end up dead either way, but man, I felt like I made the wrong call almost every single time, leaving House Forrester in even more disarray by the end than it was when I started. With a second season on the way I'm sure there is no "happy ending," as Telltale needs its surviving characters to be in the thick of it when they come back next year, but if there was a slightly less horrible way to go about it, I sure as hell didn't find it. Ironically, I ended up making the characters even more like the Starks: like Ned, Robb, and the others, I kept trying to do the right thing, only to end up destroyed by the scheming bastards around me. Time and time again I would choose what I thought was the lesser of two evils, only for things to get worse than even my pessimistic imagination suggested (though I was never more shocked by an outcome than at the end of the first episode - an event that happens no matter what you choose along the way).

However, there was something informing my decisions that felt "off" for the usual Telltale brand of storytelling, and that's the fact that you're playing around in events where you, as a fan of the show, know the outcome. For example at one point you get the option of trying to kill Ramsay Snow, something that obviously won't happen because he is alive and Unwell* on the show today. Likewise, at one point Mira is tasked with finding out who Tyrion plans to have come to his trial to speak on his behalf, which we already know is no one. A non viewer (or a forgetful one) might go about these and other events with ignorance on their side, but I, having just watched them weeks before, "knew" better than to bother with any action that would change the show's established narrative.

Another minor issue is that the game doesn't always factor in whether or not you're honestly saying something, or just purposely lying to buy yourself some time. It will display "(lie)" at the end of some of these choices, but that's easy to forget in the heat of the moment, and you as a minor role player might be thinking "I'll say this thing now to get them off my back, and then explain as much to my companion", but you never get that choice - it takes your lie as scripture and runs with it. In other words, it doesn't always let you play the Game of Thrones the same way everyone else does (i.e. lying to save your skin), which can be frustrating at times when you, the intelligent player, are presented with 3-4 options that aren't as ideal as the obvious one you're thinking of in your head. It's not a common problem, but popped up enough to frustrate me as I played through the entire game over a week.

Otherwise I found it to be every bit as compelling and exciting as its namesake show, and it does the Telltale brand proud. Game of Thrones is actually an impossibly perfect fit for their brand, as the show, like their games, is long on dialogue and often short on full-blown action. There are probably only one or two fights or chase scenes in most episodes. These occasional battles are a fun diversion, but many of them are also very much on rails - if you fail to do something right you just restart (with no penalty, obviously - what could they do?), unlike something like Heavy Rain where missed prompts can result in premature, permanent death of a character. And the "walk around and look at everything before the game proceeds" sections are as dull as ever, often obnoxiously forcing you to inspect useless things before triggering the next event. But at least I knew walking down a hallway and looking at pictures wasn't getting another family member killed.

Telltale's release schedule for new episodes of their games is too frustrating for me, however. There was a four month wait for the final episode after two month gaps for the others, which is why I waited until it was done to start playing. I like to stick with my decisions and never look back, and while they do offer recaps at the top of each episode, it still might be easy to forget smaller plotlines characters with such lengthy downtime in between new installments.  Also, with no further episode to play, I would probably be tempted to replay an episode and see if I could improve my status for the next one, rather than live with my decisions as the characters would obviously have to.  So I prefer playing when it's all there, especially for a multi-protagonist game like this. Much like the show itself, I found myself having trouble remembering who was who in the early episodes, which probably resulted in some erratic decision making on my part, but it'd be infinitely worse if I had to wait months to take control again. I assume it's because they always have multiple games in progress (they were finishing up Borderlands and launching Minecraft in between episodes 5 and 6), but it doesn't make it any less frustrating that you never know when the next one will be coming along. It's the rare instance where the game is inspired by the books instead of the show, I guess.

So beyond those minor quibbles, I found it to be every bit as good as their much celebrated Walking Dead, and I eagerly await the second season. With the game having multiple possible endings, I am curious how they will go about it - carrying over your decisions seems to be important to them, so will they have the technical know-how to account for every possibility with the same group of characters? Or will they introduce a new cast and leave your survivors on the sidelines? Time will tell, but they've earned enough goodwill to have faith that their decision - unlike many of mine - will be the right one.

*That's just my little joke about how Ramsay looks like the guy from Matchbox 20. If you got it without this explanation - congrats!

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