Game of Thrones is a cultural wrecking ball, but despite being around for seven years now (or 21 counting the books), it hasn't left much of a mark on video games. There might be a very good reason for that.
It's not for want of trying. We've had three notable releases based on the series: a bad RTS, an average action game and an adventure series that was...fine. Nothing has come close to making the same impact on games as George R.R. Martin's saga has on other media, though.
To date, the best Game of Thrones video game experience hasn't been a standalone release at all, but a mod (casually known as AGOT) for Paradox's excellent Crusader Kings II, a PC strategy game that's as much about sex and intrigue as it is conquering armies.
CKII is notorious for its scope and detail, as players are able to fill the boots of any one of thousands of European nobles over a 700-year period. Between that and the tone you can see why the two properties are a good match.
And yet not even CKII has been able to contain the universe of Game of Thrones, whose epic journeys, warring factions and deep lore have been challenging the AGOT team for years now.
To get an idea of the struggles involved in trying to cram Martin's universe into a video game, I spoke with Matthew Clohessy, a man who has been on both side's of the project, first as a member of AGOT's core development team, and now as an employee of Paradox, the creators of Crusader Kings II.
"My role throughout most of AGOT's development has been general scripting and the implementation of various fun stuff that you see whenever you play", Clohessy tells Kotaku.
"In essence any decision you can click, event that pops up or piece of history that makes all the start dates lore accurate are things that there is a decent chance I have touched at some point or another whether it is implementing them, bug fixes or just a minor tweaks."
Clohessy worked on AGOT from 2013 until earlier this year, when he left the team to take part in an internship with Paradox while helping out on Jade Dragon, Crusader Kings II's latest big expansion. He's since moved from the UK to Sweden to take up a fulltime position at Paradox, where his experience with Westeros and CKII is being put to use as a Content Designer for the studio.
While we could have chatted about how amazing AGOT is, I've done that enough on this site, so instead I wanted to learn more about the ways in which Westeros couldn't be contained, even by a game that allows everything from Aztec invasions of Britain to incest to Horse Lords of Rome.
What have been the hardest things the AGOT team have had to try and stuff into Crusader Kings II's framework?
I would have to say one of the harder things in general is forcing certain characters to do things, like ensuring the members of the Kingsguard are always around the King. Same with the Night's Watch, it is playable, however it has many maintenance events to keep it working as the Night's Watch does in the lore, as the aim of CK2 has always been a dynastic game, and the Night's Watch does not care about dynasties when they elect their rulers.
The unique war system in the mod is also tricky, as it lets all the vassal lords become independent so as to choose sides, in a similar way to the War of the Five Kings. Once war ends the lords need to be remade into a vassal of their original lord, and sometimes that can go wrong.
Also the general tendency of characters to die a lot, be it through the player killing them or just randomness in the game, can break certain event chains. But that is also part of the fun, seeing what funny and interesting scenarios happen when a certain character dies and who rules what!
What are some of the compromises AGOT had to make when trying to carry ASOIAF's tone, history and themes into CKII?
There are some balance compromises that had to be made so that certain regions were not extremely strong compared to all the others.
We still do not have it perfect as some regions like Dorne — who in the book's history managed to survive Aegon the Conquer's invasion with three dragons — really struggles to do the same in AGOT, as there is no good way to model guerrilla warfare through the game's mechanics, so instead we had to try and buff them in other ways. But they are still easily defeated.
Other regions that are weaker as well include the Iron Isles, as there is no ship-to-ship combat in the game, so they have lots of ships but not many troops to actually ferry around with them.
The Wildlings are also a struggle to model accurately because they are extremely weak within the game's framework, as they are made up of very small lordships. If you do end up conquering them they have lots of revolts to free themselves, but these revolts have to be artificially increased in power so they are not just 300 men standing no chance against the Iron Throne.
How did you approach weaving the backstory of Westeros into the mod's starting points?
When placing the Lords and the titles they hold we always try to be as accurate as possible, but sometimes we have to switch things around to fit the mechanics of the game, or just to not make it ridiculously unbalanced to play. For example the Reach should have more troops than they actually do, but they already have a huge amount, so giving them even more diminishes some of the enjoyment from fighting against them.
Of course there are some errors here and there, or guesses we made about certain things that then had to be updated as more information was released, with the official World of Ice and Fire book (released in 2014) being a prime example, as it shed light on many historical areas of the lore that we had previously made guesses on, or gave us information about the far off lands of Essos and what unique cultures and religions they have.
For some of the less well documented time period the various lords have been made up same with the names of certain characters who are only known of them existing but not their actual character such as knowing some Lord has two brothers who are never named we make up the names, traits and ages of those two brothers and update them if we ever find out more info on the specifics about such characters.
We probably have more placeholder/made up characters than canon ones due to Essos not having the same amount of detail for all the minor rulers and houses as Westeros does so a lot of them are made up, combined with that some historical characters of Westeros are made up to tie all the dynasties back as long as possible.
I am not sure an exact number but I imagine it is a fair amount more that are placeholders than are canon. However, the canon ones often have more detail and information to them in the lore so are better represented in the game by being more accurate and interesting to play due to the starting relations they may have.
How does AGOT resolve any possible conflicts of canon, when events from the TV show diverge from those of the books?
We always take the book's canon over the show. We use the show to fill in gaps which the books are not going to cover, and then use other media such as the Game of Thrones RPG game or the Telltale adventure series to add even more detail.
Whilst the mod takes the book canon over what the show does, we do still take it into account and watch it of course. We only use information from the show when it does not conflict with things from the books and due to recent developments in the show, namely how differently Dorne and other plots points have been handled, we do not use stuff that is clearly very different from the book'ss version will be as we would end up redoing all of them once the book version is out.
But that does not stop us from taking the stuff that does not conflict with canon or stuff that will be published and using it, characters name dropped in the show that do not exist in the books but have no conflicts are added in for example,
One of the most impressive things about the mod — and one which really got people's attention when it was first released — was when the land of Essos was added, making the AGOT experience a truly "global" one. How hard was it expanding the original scale of the mod so much?
The initial problem with adding Essos was that republics were unplayable in earlier versions of Crusader Kings II. Once the Republic DLC launched and made them playablem adding Essos to the map itself was not too hard of a process.
The real struggle came from the lack of knowledge about Essos compared to Westeros, so some of the province setup and various Lords in Essos had to be made up as neither the books, show or any games had covered it.
This then led to some incorrect setups with various realms that were corrected once the World of Ice and Fire was released, some funny ones include the region of the Bone Mountains, we initially had it set up as having only female rulers when it turns out it is the exact opposite, and ruled only by men with the women being the fighters of the realm.
Some complex systems had to be designed to try and represent the differences in the society of Essos, for example they view slavery as an integral part of society, so the slave trade they have is entirely handled by events.
Same with the Volantis elections to nominate three Triarchs to rule by running for office and then co-ruling, the system had to be fit around existing mechanics for Republics.
One of the more noticeable struggles is the slowdown Essos causes to the game, this is less of an issue now as lots of optimisations have been done (boy both Paradox to the base game and by AGOT's team), but there is a submod which limits the playable world to just Westeros if it is still to slow for certain users.
What would you guys have liked to get working in the mod that you just couldn't/haven't been able to?
That is a tough one, a naval combat system so that we can represent the Iron Isles as being more powerful would be good. It would also enable the representation of how in the ancient history of Westeros they were able to conquer the Riverlands, etc.
Extra customisation to the war system with troops in general could be interesting, such as trying to find a way to show guerrilla warfare in Dorne, or that you cannot pass Moat Cailin in the North without laying siege and getting control of it first.
Everything in the game of course has to be stored in a database. How did you stay on top of such a massive thing?
The database is a constant work in progress as we discover new lore, or people point out changes that could be made such as a giving someone a more accurate appearance, or tweaking their age to be in line with other ages. The database is by no means perfect and some changes have had to be made to fit it all together.
As I've said the way we prioritise sources for the lore is books > show > other media like game > make it up. Of course there are a few Easter Egg characters here and there to mix things up!
The database can also be a source of some amusing bugs sometimes, one issue that we encountered was actually running out of character IDs to use (as every character has a numeric ID attached to them) due to how we had numbered some of them.
This led to issues in the game where you would start a plot against a character only for it to target someone else randomly etc. Thankfully that got fixed by just reducing a lot of the higher IDs we had used but was quite amusing to see.
How has your experience working on the mod helped you since you started work at Paradox?
I think that it has helped in that I already have a good understanding of the internal scripting language used to make the world come alive, which meant I did not need to spend time learning it when I started as a Content Designer.
I also already knew some of the limitations of what I can or cannot do in the game due to trying to work around them when I'd been trying to do something super odd for AGOT that would never be intended to work in the base game!
I think that anyone with modding experience in a game who then moves to doing it professionally will tell you the same thing, it gives you a rough idea of how to do things already but you still learn a lot once you do it as a job and can see the internal workings of things.
If you've somehow missed me signing Crusader Kings II's praises on the site over the years, you can see how massive and important a strategy game it is by reading this review. And if that convinces you to give this mod a try, you can download it for free here.
Before we go, it should be noted that while Clohessy's progression from AGOT to Crusader Kings II has been seamless, the AGOT development team are in no way connected to Paradox, nor are they officially licensed by HBO.