"There will never be a good Game of Thrones video game." For years, those words rang just as true as the Starks' promise of winter. Finally, it feels as though that's changed.
Telltale's new episodic Game of Thrones game gets its first of six episodes this week; it will be out Tuesday on PC and consoles, and on iOS at some point shortly after. Good news: The episode, titled Iron From Ice, is pretty great. Fans of the books and, in particular, fans of the show, will almost certainly enjoy the hell out of it.
Telltale, the studio behind well-liked adventure series like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and most recently, Tales from the Borderlands, has been on a roll lately. While their more recent games haven't quite matched the breakout first season of The Walking Dead, they have still managed to earn and maintain a reputation for well-written, appealing adventure games.
Game of Thrones, however, represents a new challenge for the studio. It's the loftiest licence they have tackled, and the one whose fans will almost surely prove hardest to please. Additionally, Game of Thrones itself has proven difficult to get right in video-game form. Its two best adaptations have been a terrific licensed board game and a PC strategy game that, while fantastic, isn't actually an official Thrones game.
I'd guess that a good number of non-gamers who watch the HBO show will be interested in this new game, so it's a good thing that in its first episode, Telltale got the important stuff right. The writing is solid, the world feels like Westeros, and the Difficult Decisions™ you'll make throughout the game feel like the decisions that a minor character in the world of Game of Thrones would have to make.
SPOILER TIME! Some minor spoilers follow. Not many. I'll have to explain the narrative setup, which requires spoiling some very early events in the episode. Additionally, I'm going to write with the assumption that you've caught up on all four seasons of the show, though I won't include any meaningful spoilers for any events in the books that the show hasn't gotten to. Everyone good to go? OK.
This new Game of Thrones game's story concerns itself with House Forrester, a minor house in the north of Westeros. House Forrester controls a forest (surprise!) known as the Wolfswood, from which they procure sturdy, valuable Ironwood that Westrosi armies use for boats and shields.
House Forrester is, broadly speaking, House Stark Lite: Lots of kids, dad is a good guy, mum wasn't psyched about the north but eventually came around; liked by their people, disliked by arseholes. They're also longtime bannermen to House Stark, and answered the call when Robb Stark raised his banners and declared war on Joffrey Baratheon.
The game takes place in between seasons 3 and 4 of the TV series. That means Walder Frey has betrayed and slaughtered the Starks at the Red Wedding, and the the Lannisters have effectively won the war. The night of the Red Wedding, Lord Gregor Forrester and his eldest son Rodrik were camping outside The Twins and were killed in the Frey ambush, leaving House Forrester lord-less and leaderless, robbed of the protection of House Stark.
True to the Game of Thrones format, this first episode puts players in control of several different characters — there are going to be five in total, and three feature in the first episode. There's Gared Tuttle, squire to Lord Forrester, who escapes the Red Wedding and is sent home with a vital message for the surviving members of the house. There's Mira Forrester, eldest Forrester daughter, currently in King's Landing attending Margaery Tyrell as her handmaiden. And there's Ethan Forrester, eldest surviving Forrester son, who assumes the Forrester lordship despite feeling entirely too young and unprepared for the responsibility. If we're keeping with the Stark parallels: Gared is Jon Snow, Mira is Sansa Stark, and Ethan is Bran.
The game opens during the Red Wedding, which effectively sets the tone for the rest of the episode. Everyone is so happy! Everything's great! Remember when we captured the Kingslayer? Good times! Next stop: Casterly Rock! Except no, nope, none of that is going to happen, because this is Westeros, where everything inevitably turns to dogshit.
Iron From Ice's great strength is that it allows you to see familiar Game of Thrones events from a new perspective. Rather than concern itself with major players like the Starks or the Lannisters, it lets us see the plight of the smaller, less powerful people the books and show don't have time for. These characters don't have the power to make their own destinies — the Forresters are a proud house, but they live in the shadow of greater houses, batted about in power struggles between the Lannisters and the Tyrells, or between Roose Bolton and the other lords of the north. It may not make for the most empowering storytelling, but it sure can be entertaining.
House Forrester is barely mentioned in George R.R. Martin's novels, though they do get a brief mention in the most recent book, A Dance With Dragons. Players are dropped rather unceremoniously into their story, and would do well to take the first opportunity to read the in-game codex in order to better understand who's who in the family, and how they each relate to the major houses of the rest of Westeros.
The game paints in a small corner of a much bigger, pre-existing tapestry, which was likely the smartest way to go about telling a new Game of Thrones tale. I found the story to be an intriguing mix of knowns and unknowns: Anyone who has read the books or seen season 4 of the show knows in the short term what's going to become of the major characters, and of Westeros. But I don't know what became of House Forrester, or the particulars of any of its members' personal stories. Which, of course, means that any of a number of different things can happen to them, depending on the decisions we all make.
Throughout the first chapter, you'll need to decide how each character is going to respond to a number of increasingly difficult situations, and the story branches in response to your choices. One protagonist may be working remotely on behalf of another protagonist, meaning you'll have to take your actions across two separate timelines into account when choosing what to do. It's cool.
I'll be curious to see how many story possibilities there really are for the first episode, since some of the choices I made seemed like their alternatives would necessitate substantial story deviations in future episodes. Regardless of the actual impact of each decision, there is a significant perceived impact, which makes the episode enjoyably stressful.
A number of cast members from the HBO show have lent (or, perhaps more accurately, been paid handsomely to contribute) their voices and likenesses to the game. In this episode we get Margaery Tyrell, Ramsay Snow, and a scene featuring Cersei and Tyrion Lannister. The actors all do solid work, with Natalie Dormer and Iwan Rheon contributing the chunkiest performances as Margaery Tyrell and Ramsay Snow, respectively. Rheon, in particular, does a fine job as the psychotic Ramsay, and while Telltale's character-animations are still unfortunately stiff and puppet-like, their art department has done a reasonable job of re-creating famous actors like Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage in the studio's matter-of-fact illustrated style. (And I'm happy to report that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Dinklage is much better in this role than he was in Destiny.)
While I enjoyed Iron From Ice, I did find the majority of the episode to be staid and workmanlike, and lacking the TV show's directorial flair. That said, we're at the very start, and Iron From Ice actually reminded me of the premiere episode of HBO's series: Straightforward, dull in its sturdiness, checking off boxes as it introduces the major characters and conflicts of the season. But, also like the show's first episode, once it gets underway — which I'd say happens around halfway through the episode's two-hour run — it builds up a nice head of steam.
The game appears written more to appeal to fans of the show than hardcore fans of Martin's novels. Most of the script's references to the source material are easy jokes that even casual fans would get — I didn't see much by way of deep cuts from the books. I was also occasionally frustrated by the all-or-nothing decisions I was forced to make, where I'd have to choose one of a few mutually exclusive options. I couldn't play it as smart as I wanted, couldn't hedge my bets or deceive people, which left me feeling like I was playing Game of Thrones, but I wasn't playing THE Game of Thrones. That's realistic, I suppose, given that the three protagonists are naive young people who don't yet know how the game is played, but it was frustrating for me, as an omniscient director behind the scenes.
Additionally, some of the dialogue doesn't quite land right. One character, scoffing, advises Ethan that embracing diplomacy over force is a bad plan, because "Eddard Stark was smart, and look where that got him!" An easy enough thing to say, but I wanted to correct this guy through the screen: Eddard Stark was not smart; that was the entire problem. He was monumentally stupid, and missed several opportunities to play it smart and survive. Not a huge deal, but it just didn't seem like the sort of thing a Game of Thrones character would say, and that sort of tossed-off dialogue may strike a sour chord for hardcore Thrones fans. Cersei and Tyrion's big scene also feels a bit awkward, though it is great fun to verbally spar with the fearsome Cersei Lannister.
Other minor gripes: Telltale's action sequences remain as janky as always, and despite the facelift their game's underlying technology appears to have gotten, Game of Thrones still looks pretty cheap in action. The designers are still indulging in that pet peeve of mine where you get into a button-mashing QTE and find that you can't actually complete it, so you just mash the A button fruitlessly until a scripted event saves your character. There are still weird pauses in conversations, where you'll watch two characters just sort of... sitting still and staring at each other, half-emoting. Basically, it's still a Telltale game, with all the various shortcomings that implies.
All the same, Iron From Ice succeeds far more often than it falters. It's yet another Telltale game that lives in those difficult moments, when you're glad it's your on-screen character standing there and not you. The Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms looms over you; she's challenging you, daring you to piss her off. What do you do? Whom do you appease? What will happen if you say the wrong thing?
I'm looking forward to seeing where the series goes from here. Seems like Cersei agrees: