Aidan Dullard is playing the Game of Thrones game so you don’t have to. For that I swear my eternal allegiance. Not that I think the game will necessarily be bad, just that I don’t expect a masterpiece! I’d like to thank Aidan for this — it’s a great, well written thorough review. Good job mate!
Game of Thrones
Cyanide Studios’ action-RPG Game of Thrones was released earlier this year to decidedly mixed reviews, and as a fan of the series (with Steam sales to give my wallet courage) I thought I’d see what the fuss was about. The game is set roughly at the start of the first novel/TV series, A Game of Thrones, though George R. R. R. R. Martin himself penned a completely new story outline for its two point-of-view protagonists. As events unfold and a conspiracy slowly draws them together, the main characters uncover power-hungry machinations, a plot to control the throne of Westeros and eventually truths about events in their own deep pasts.
The plot: Game of Thrones has a unique story (though many of AGoT’s major events affect the plot) and this is easily the strongest and most engaging part of the game. Much like Martin’s narratives themselves, small parts of the wider picture are slowly revealed through the course of the two protagonists’ journeys, and the player’s interpretation of character histories and past events is constantly being challenged right up until the powerful conclusion. The thematic ground covered here isn’t especially new to GRRM’s series – power, duty, loyalty, friendship, family, sacrifice and above all honour – but it combines to drive a genuinely affecting tale on the consequences of personal choice and the ruthlessness of those struggling for power. Particularly effective are the references to events in Robert’s rebellion (many of which are addressed in the later novels), and the clever way in which the writers use players’ assumptions against them: the twists are few but (for me, at least) shocking.
The details: It’s obvious the developers at Cyanide wanted this to feel like a genuine Game of Thrones experience and the attention to detail in dialogue and incidental text shows. Conversations are peppered with references to secondary characters from the novels, Westeros’ bloody and byzantine feudal politics and a tonne of lore about religions, great houses, factions, locations and people. When characters like Cersei or Jon Arryn pop up in the plot, or when a Red Priest has a theological debate with a septa, my inner ASoIaF fan can’t help but be charmed. I was particularly impressed that ambient dialogue throughout the game’s locations changed as events in the wider world progressed (Castle Black starts talking about Jon Snow, say), and the developers do a great job of making the player feel part of the time period of the novel while firmly staying out of that story. This could be a problem – if you don’t know your Lannisters from your Targaryens the plot could be incomprehensible – but for fans it pays off well.
The narrative structure: Game of Thrones took a narrative gamble by having two major player characters with stories that eventually intertwine, but this works brilliantly. Alester and Mors are both interesting protagonists (a Red Priest-turned-lord and a grizzled Night’s Watch skinchanger), offering different perspectives than many of the novels’ viewpoint characters. The early plot feels like two very separate stories – this echoes the books’ structure well, and the moments where one viewpoint character mentions another, or they meet, are excellently done. Game of Thrones is a model for an elegantly crafted multi-POV story.
I wasn’t quite sold on…
The combat and customisation: Alester and Mors have very different skill trees (and a few options for classes within these) and the combat system is reasonably deep, if quite repetitive – a paper-scissors-rock system is augmented by status effects, combos and potions. Combat is semi-real-time (‘pausing’ to select abilities or items slows the action to a crawl) but I was fairly sick of it by about the mid-point of the game. A range of unique abilities based on Mors’ dog and Alester’s R’hllor-magic-thing offer some more tactical options, while the inventory’s variety of weapons and armour mean most of the iconic fighting styles of the books can be recreated here. Character appearances look decent if generic-medieval, much like the television series – which is by no means a bad thing. Apart from the presentation problems, I don’t think Game of Thrones has quite enough number crunching to satisfy RPG purists (though I certainly don’t count myself as one), and more casual fans of the show or books might be turned off by the complexity – even on the easiest difficulty combat can be challenging for those unwilling to dive into the stats.
The dark, dark, grimdark story: GRRM’s books are notorious for their gritty plotlines, but this game takes that tone to an almost unbearable extreme. There is none of the wry humour or black irony of Martin’s novels, nor any of the small moments of even temporary sunlight that he gives them amongst all the darkness. Game of Thrones the RPG is a harrowing, fatalistic procession of false hope after atrocity after betrayal after hopeless sacrifice, in a world where power rules all and duty requires abandoning humanity. This is an unrelenting and bleak story, which sometimes works in the game’s favour – the last portion is almost shocking in emotionally manipulating the player after hours of investment – but so much of the suffering seems pointless when all is said and done. The main questline is powerful in its casual, hopeless brutality, but nothing in the game offers relief. I wasn’t expecting rainbows, but a few moments of light amongst all the shadow were sorely needed.
The presentation: In the hands of a developer with more resources, GoT could have shone. The generally great writing (some of which reads like the best lines from Martin’s novels) is let down by frankly atrocious voice acting on the part of almost all of the secondary and minor cast, with even the two protagonists barely rising above average. This makes the ‘sad’ sections of the game more comedy than tragedy, with Vader-like NOOOs and bizarre vocal tones the norm. Animations and character models during conversations are extremely repetitive and jarring (watch as every single person in Westeros, knights and grizzled Nights Watchmen included, does a sassy hand-on-hip pose), and the environments are serviceable rather than memorable – we’re used to restrained locations in the TV series for budgetary reasons, but if anything the game manages to make them (especially King’s Landing) feel smaller, less grand and more drab. There are other issues – the mini-map is useless and the quest journal could be more informative – but it is the voice-acting that truly drags this game down.
I started this expecting to dislike it, based on the negative reaction in reviews and online. Certainly, Game of Thrones is not a great game as the sum of its parts – and as an action RPG it leaves a lot to be desired. But the story is, for all its faults and even with the underwhelming voice acting, engaging, mature and occasionally shocking. Game of Thrones handles the Machiavellian realpolitik and ruthlessness of Westerosi great-house politics admirably, but it is the focus on intensely personal stories of betrayal, honour and duty that resonate most. For fans of the series, this is a tale probably worth pursuing – and it is regrettable that a bigger budget and some smarter design choices could have made this game truly memorable. I don’t blame Cyanide – the game is solid and this is far from a cheap tie-in or shoddy adaptation – but I can only hope future titles based on Martin’s series get the budget and big-studio attention that they deserve.