A big Thank You to Telltale Games for sending us a review copy!
Warning: Some spoilers for Game of Thrones will ensue. I will keep them to a minimum, but you have been warned!
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Cersei Lannister
One concern that often arises when comparing video games to any other creative medium is how the element of choice impacts the vision of the creator. Most games, like movies and literature, tell stories. Whether or not games as a whole qualify as “Art” is up for debate, what I think is less debatable is that storytelling is in and of itself an art form. There are many stories that rely on the medium they are presented in to succeed (such as the visual spectacle of 2001: A Space Odyssey), but some stories are just as good regardless of how they are told, if done with passion and skill. They transcend mediums, in other words.
Game of Thrones represents one of the best examples of this, I think. Its story has been thoroughly compelling, both in writing and on screen. But there hasn’t really been a good game adaptation. The reason, I think, is that the story is incredibly complex, and that the “mechanics” of the universe are difficult to translate into a fun game. The political power struggle, with backstabbing and deception feels more befitting of a strategy game than an action game. Mechanically, Crusader Kings II probably comes the closest (and there’s even a Game of Thrones mod for it!). While there was an official strategy game, it was not very well received.
So when I heard Telltale was making a Game of Thrones game, I was optimistic. The Walking Dead was an engaging and emotional experience, and Telltale even made Borderlands an interesting adventure game.
This is not the greatest game I’ve ever played. It’s not the greatest story ever told (though Game of Thrones is very high on that list). It is not free from quirks. It is, however, a game that made me wring my hands in agony, as I was forced to choose between two equally bad choices where there is no good option. Only the show Game of Thrones has made me despair more watching a character be brutally slain in horrific fashion before my eyes. This game captures the essence of the franchise more acutely than any previous game ever has.
So let’s start with the basics. The game doesn’t necessarily require understanding of the show, but I am going to go ahead and say that you must watch at least the first season before trying this. I strongly recommend catching up on the show before playing, as well.
For those of you who have seen the show and/or read the books, the first episode starts out near The Twins, the Frey castle in the Riverlands during a certain wedding. Yes. THAT wedding. I think you can figure out the gist, so I won’t elaborate any more.
For those who have never read the books or watched the show, allow me to get you up to speed. While the franchise is commonly referred to as Game of Thrones after the first book and the television series by HBO, the name is A Song of Ice and Fire. The book series by George R.R. Martin began with the novel A Game of Thrones, published in 1991. In 2011, HBO produced a television series which is (as of the time of this publication) about to enter it’s 5th season. The story is interwoven, and depends heavily on duplicity and intimidation, political maneuvering, and the use of force.
Like all Telltale games, this game starts with a kick: a betrayal. The story follows (in episode 1) three characters: Gared Tuttle, Mira Forrester, and Ethan Forrester. In episode 2, the characters you play are Gared, Mira, Asher Forrester, and Rodrik Forrester. Each character is in a different area (Mira is in the effective capital of Westeros, King’s Landing, while Ethan is at the Forrester house in Ironrath). I won’t spoil more of the story, because it is a much better story to discover for yourself.
The game, like all Telltale games of late, requires you to successfully navigate quick time events. This game adds more timing-specific events where you are required to press a directional key in a much quicker span than normal. There are also sequences where you must hold a mouse button and drag in a certain direction. These add a little more immersion to the experience, but are mostly just minor upgrades to the tried-and-true Telltale method.
This story is very, very intense. The choices are very hard. At one point, you must select a “Sentinel” who will act as a right-hand man. The two choices represent near polar opposites: One is reserved, and prefers diplomacy. The other prefers using threats and force to resolve a crisis. While I am normally all for diplomacy, I have to admit I struggled here. Choosing diplomacy is all well and good, but being weak will get you killed in this universe. I won’t spoil them, but some of the other choices I had to make were the hardest choices I’ve ever experienced in a Telltale game. Do I advance a short term goal that might keep me alive at the expense of not having help later, or do I try and survive through other means to have a trump card later on? I haven’t been this distraught over choices since the first season of The Walking Dead.
As per usual for Telltale, the sound is amazing. The music fits the mood, and the voice actors are excellent. Thankfully, they use some of the major pieces from the show, to make you feel more at home. Even better, when the game features a character from the show (such as Tyrion Lannister, or Jon Snow), the actor lends their voice to the character. Paired with a faithful representation, this makes you feel even more like you are participating the events shaping Westeros and Essos.
Graphically, the game takes a slightly different style than The Walking Dead. The feel is much more watercolored, and the backgrounds look like paintings. A style not at all unlike the loading screens for Guild Wars 2, in fact. As mentioned earlier, the game features some major characters from the show, and the models are not the most high fidelity, but they make it absolutely clear who it is.
This does lead to a minor gripe of mine. In a twist that befits the source material fantastically, each episode of the game recreates the famed opening sequence of the show it follows. However, the feel of this recreation is a bit off. As much as I love the nod to the show, recreating it with real-time graphics that look even more simplistic than low detail models in the game just feels kind of cheap. It works well enough, but I would have almost preferred seeing an appropriately modified version of the actual show’s opening credits.
Again, like all Telltale games, there are bugs. The recorded dialogue and the subtitles don’t always agree. Several times in Episode 2, extra words appeared in the subtitles than in speech. The graphics, while very pretty, create a fairly distracting blur around the characters that makes it hard to pick out the edges of a character sometimes.
And then you have the user interface. Oh man, the user interface. The main menu is the most consolized menu since the Skyrim inventory. You have to click an arrow button to move the selector so you can choose settings, or even quit the game. Options in settings only save when you hit “Previous Menu” and not any of the main menu buttons that got moved to the top of the screen.
Finally, if you have multiple monitors, you will have trouble with this game. The game does not capture the pointer very well, and in a sequence in episode 2 where you are shooting a crossbow, my cursor would fall outside of the window so that when I clicked, the game minimized. Maybe this has always been a problem with Telltale tool games, but it’s especially noticeable here. I had to run the game windowed, and be very careful with the mouse to complete the crossbow sequence.
While this version was not reviewed, the mobile version of this game is also horribly ridden with bugs. I’d go so far as to say this is the single buggiest Telltale game I’ve ever played. And it’s such a shame, really. Because this game represents a new pinnacle for the writing of Telltale games. The story is incredible, the characters are great, and the settings are wonderfully crafted. The sometimes-hokey graphics, horrible menu interface, terrible multiple monitor support, and audio bugs can’t take that away. But they do severely lessen the experience, and I hope that Telltale has the good sense to patch these before episode 3 is released.
WARNING: Some game spoilers follow
If you’ve already seen the show, then let me give you a very short version of how appropriate this game is for children: It isn’t. While this game has practically none of the sexual content and nudity (other than insinuations of sex in dialogue), this game is just as violent, and has just as much cursing. The f-word and several slang terms for anatomy are thrown around quite frequently, and this game is very bloody. Characters get run through by swords, have limbs cut off, and are often injured in very painful ways. Some of the squeamish moments take place off-screen, such as surgery, but combat is often front and center. Finally, you come across a character who has been flayed. The skin from his chest was removed. The act itself is thankfully off-camera, but the aftermath is shown. It is not, however, glorified: It serves to show how brutal and evil the perpetrator is. Finally, the more mystical elements of the universe don't appear too much, other than references to the Seven Hells, which is more often used as a curse.
If you already like A Song of Ice and Fire and/or Game of Thrones, this is a no-contest purchase. It has the elements that make the books and show so popular, and so critically acclaimed. If you are new to the series, I strongly recommend watching up to season 3 of the show, or reading up to A Storm of Swords before playing. If you’re squeamish about violence and cursing, then odds are you already avoid the show. I would recommend you do the same for the game.