I'll confess: I really wanted to start this review with a choice quote from George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. "Winter is coming" is played, I just did a riff on "You Know Nothing, Jon Snow" the other week... maybe a less common one, like, "Jon Snow flexed his sword hand" or something.
But no. I'm not going to do that.
Martin's books, and the terrific HBO series they've inspired, deserve better than that. Unfortunately, they also deserve better than the Game of Thrones video game I'll be reviewing today.
I'm a big fan of Martin's novels, though perhaps more of his big-picture execution than of his actual writing. In a lot of ways, I'm an even a bigger fan of David Benioff and Dan Weiss' Game of Thrones television series on HBO — the show tackle the source material with such ferocity and passion, turning it into something that, so far at least, more focused, and more flat-out enjoyable than Martin's books.
The feat that Benioff and Weiss accomplished, particularly with the tight-as-a-drum first season of their show, is so audacious that it's almost impossible to get one's head around. It would be so, so difficult to adapt a novel as wandering as even Martin's comparatively tight A Game of Thrones and turn it into something focused, clean, and approachable. The HBO series could have been an unpolished, unsatisfying adaptation destined to leave fans and newcomers cold. In other words, it could have been like the Game of Thrones video game.
I'd been sceptical of Cyanide's Game of Thrones game for a while now. The studio made A Game of Thrones: Genesis, a lacklustre real-time strategy game that carried none of the drama or gritty political intrigue of the source material. Even back when I first broke the news of the planned full RPG, it was hard not to be sceptical. Cyanide studio director Yves Bordeleau told me that they had been working on the game for a long while before the HBO series had become popular. Late in production, they forged a deal with HBO and got some of the actors on board. It all set off a lot of warning bells — would this game really feel true to either the books or the show?
Game of Thrones
Developer: Cyanide Studios
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Release Date: May 15
Type of game: Medieval dark fantasy role-playing game with a focus on dialogue choices and melee combat.
What I played: Played for around a dozen hours, completed roughly two-thirds of the story missions and a bunch of sidequests. Finally ran out of gas and read spoilers up to the conclusion to make sure I wasn't missing anything. I wasn't.
My Two Favourite Things
- Conleth Hill reprises his role as Varys the Spider and brings his trademark slippery joy to the role.
- Stumbling onto a certain giant thing in the Red Keep's undercrofts, while graphically unremarkable, was still neat.
My Two Least-Favourite Things
- Literally falling asleep while pounding through yet another fight against yet another set of three identical guards.
- When a character said, "You've really given me a feast for crows this night!" Groan.
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
- "More fun than a holiday at the Dreadfort, anyway!"
- Kirk Hamilton, Kotaku.com
- "It beats spending the weekend at Craster's Keep!"
- Kirk Hamilton, Kotaku.com
- "Man, I miss Tyrion."
- Kirk Hamilton, Kotaku.com
The answer, sadly, is no. And the bigger bummer is that it isn't just some slipshod TV-show tie-in, either. The game clearly was made by people who have read and respect the source material. Beneath the shoddy gameplay, unpolished presentation and ugly graphics are some big-picture ideas that feel true to A Song of Ice and Fire. But they're buried so deep in the muck that only truly hardcore fans of the series will ever care to go looking for them.
A couple notes: First of all, I haven't finished the game. I played for a dozen or so hours, and I'm about two-thirds of the way through. At that point, the combat had grown so wearisome and the sidequests so tedious that the overarching story was the only thing I was interested in seeing to its conclusion. I was interested enough to read ahead in a strategy guide to see how it all turns out — there are multiple endings depending on the choices you make towards the end of the game. Is this a practice I'd recommend for the majority of games? Probably not. But after that many hours, I believe I've got the game pretty well zeroed in. Second note is purely a style note: From here on out, Game of Thrones means the video game. If I'm referring to the books or the TV series, I'll be sure to make that clear.
Game of Thrones leads with its best idea: it has not one but two protagonists. The story jumps between two men, Mors Westford, a brother of the Night's Watch in the north and Alester Sarwyck, an erstwhile lord-turned-red-priest in the south. They share a common history tied to Robert Baratheon, Jon Arryn and Ned Stark, and though they start in separate parts of Westeros, they're eventually reunited by the story.
It's a cool idea not just because it's in line with the way that the books are written; it's just a neat idea for a game, period. I'd love to see more game stories told from multiple viewpoints — I'm holding out the remote hope that Rockstar's Houser brothers continue in that direction after writing those great Grand Theft Auto IV chapters (and inserting a second character into LA Noire) and will write GTA V's story around multiple characters from the ground up.
The unfortunate truth about Game of Thrones, however, is that neither of the two characters is particularly appealing or interesting, and the story they unite to tell isn't really, either. It's more or less as though the books excised Arya, Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys and only hopped back and forth between Theon Greyjoy and Jorah Mormont.
It's easy to close your eyes and imagine the game's story being one of the side-plots in, say, A Dance With Dragons (even though chronologically, it takes place during A Game of Thrones), but even then, it'd be one of the side plots that you grumble through hoping that the subsequent chapter starts with the word TYRION.
George R R Martin consulted on and approved of the story in Game of Thrones, and it does show. There are also characters from the TV show in the game, voiced (mostly unenthusiastically) by the actors who play them on the show. In fact, I've already written a lengthy primer for fans of the show who are curious about the game, so if you want to know how exactly the game fits in with the broader series, check that out.
While the source material is certainly an integral part of Game of Thrones, any well-crafted game should be able to stand on its own. But with each new scene, sequence, and plot development I asked myself, "If the names were different, and this wasn't Game of Thrones, would I care?" And time and again, the answer was, "nope".
Game of Thrones relies on the player's familiarity with the source material to a fault, not just using the lore to enrich the world and flesh out the backstory, but leaning on it to make the story interesting in the first place. It's a huge miscalculation, and a damning one.
If the best thing Game of Thrones does is its split narrative, its combat has got to be the worst. Throughout the game, you'll come up against guards, wildlings and bandits and each engagement is just... flatly uninteresting. The combat system is something of a melding of real-time and turn-based combat in which you cue up attacks to, for example, knock your enemy off balance and then hit him with a crippling blow.
Or I should say, "hit" him. The combat looks like an old-school MMO — the combatants don't really seem to ever touch one another while fighting, they simply wave swords through each other as numbers fly off and hit points deplete. It's all rather dispiriting, particularly when you're losing — rather than feeling tense and exciting, a nail-biter finish involves watching your health bar deplete and hoping that your enemy's bottoms out faster.
The game's generally crusty tech is its undoing in other ways, as well. None of the character models appear all that comfortable making physical contact, which is a bummer for battle, but it also makes the rest of the game virtually sex-proof. Game of Thrones is a profoundly unsexy game, even by fantasy role-playing game standards. In every brothel and bar, characters stand a metre apart from one another and talk; everyone seems so rigid... given the sensual, often darkly sexual nature of the source material, it feels like a large missed opportunity.
Game of Thrones is also an ugly game. In more ways than one, really. Yes, the textures are bland; they're stretched and ancient-looking, and the with the exception of Castle Black at night, the environments are unremarkable; they might as well be from any mid-level fantasy game from the early 2000s.
But the ugliness goes beyond the graphics — no one is happy, nothing is ever worth enjoying, nothing ever goes right or even acceptably well. Everyone's just sort of getting killed and raped and betrayed all the time, without a moment's rest or peace. Martin's books have a wry sense of humour to them, and they're very good at painting odd moments of comfort amid profoundly distressing scenarios — a nice breakfast while on a long journey, rough comfort finally found after weeks of horseback riding, wine and a bath at the end of an impossibly difficult day. Game of Thrones has none of that, instead reveling in scenarios so misanthropic and base that they make the books seem like Harry Potter by comparison. Early Harry Potter, even.
By embracing so many RPG gameplay clichés, Game of Thrones also undercuts one of the series' most interesting and compelling themes. A Song of Ice and Fire is in many ways an exploration of the idea of power — some characters appear powerful and are revealed to be powerless, others who may have seemed at a disadvantage quickly turn the tables. How does one get power? How does one keep it? If blood is all that lets us live on from generation to generation, how can we secure power for our bloodline?
The TV show focuses on that theme even more directly than the books — several scenes in the show (Littlefinger's memorable verbal duels with Varys and then with Cersei, Tywin and Arya's tense but oddly thawed relationship) were not in the book, and both put the question of power under a powerful lens.
Video games are usually about power, of course, but too often it's one-sided power. The player is powerful, and must dominate his or her enemies to proceed. Game of Thrones does nothing to deviate from this formula; in almost all scenarios, you must be the strongest fighter in order to survive the game's many (many) swordfights. You're basically never put in a position where you must survive despite being mostly powerless — you just trundle along that oh-so-familiar RPG progression curve.
It's all just very disappointing. Game of Thrones could have been a much better game — it wouldn't even have had to involve additional characters, or a bigger budget, or any of the things that may come to mind when imagining video game treatments of this material.
My suspicion is that it just needed more time and a clearer vision of what it wanted to be. The game feels rushed and unfinished — loading screens occur with unacceptable frequency, the same music plays in every non-combat scene, the facial animations look ancient and frozen. Even little things, like the fact that the main menu defaults to "new game" instead of "continue" every time you boot the game up, contribute to a feeling of unfinishedness.
Hardcore fans of Martin's books may find something to like salvage in this lump of a game. (Though if you're going to buy it, I truly recommend waiting a couple of weeks, because this sucker is going to get a price-cut in a matter of days.) For anyone else, Game of Thrones is difficult to recommend.
It would be easy to dismiss Game of Thrones as nothing but a cash-in, a tie-in game rushed out the door to coincide with the second season of the TV show.
But that's not really the case. There is a kernel — just a kernel — of a great Song of Ice and Fire game here. It was created by people who know and care about Martin's world. But it just wasn't enough, not nearly.
Game of Thrones is a disappointment, a joyless slog through a dull and ugly world. Take this one out into the woods and leave it for the White Walkers.