After the success of The Walking Dead it only seemed natural for choose-your-own-adventure game studio Telltale to tackle George R.R. Martin's grim fantasy epic Game of Thrones. More in vogue than The Walking Dead and predicated on politicking rather than action, it seems like a fine fit. Yet in the opening hour or two it becomes quite clear that this is Telltale's greatest challenge yet.
For starters, Telltale has its work cut out for it by creating a mid-budget spin-off to one of the most visually arresting TV shows ever made. This series' impressionistic, painterly aesthetic can look very impressive at times (the matte painting-like establishing shots are particularly a treat), but there's no denying that these rudimentary avatars and blocky backgrounds pale in comparison to the TV series in which it's based. It's a fine looking budget game in its own right, but the inevitable comparisons to the HBO show do it no favours.
Furthermore, Telltale's Game of Thrones is tethered to a series of staggeringly complex lore. The TV show's cast of several dozen can be a doozy to keep up with, while this video game spin-off introduces at least a couple dozen more colourful characters. Oh, and it's set concurrently to the HBO show between the tail end of its third season and the beginning of its fifth. Remember what everyone was up to two years ago?
If you've never seen the show, I'm not confident this video game spin-off functions as a primer, but for series fans the new cast is introduced in a slow enough manner that it's easy to keep up. It may actually be too slow, as we spend much of the first episode being introduced to House Forrester, a noble family of the North that's served as bannermen to the Starks for hundreds of years. But after some unpleasantness in the show's third season, poor House Forrester is now lorded over by the terrifying House Bolton, a family so fearsome that they're sigil is a man hung upside down with his skin peeled off. ("A naked man has few secrets; a flayed man, none" is their official motto.)
And so we spend the opening hours of this six-episode season meeting the Forresters. Initially they seem overly similar to the source material's introductory protagonists, the Starks. There's a noble lord and lady at the helm, an all-star soldier as an elder son, a teenage daughter sent to King's Landing, a heartthrob black sheep, and some naive but good-hearted younger boys and girls rounding out the pack. So much of Episode One is centered around setting up the various threats facing the Forresters that after about 90 minutes I was ready to write Telltale's Game of Thrones off as something of a misstep for the storytelling studio. It seemed like a moderately enjoyable fantasy adventure that captured morally grey politicking of its source material, but lacked its hard-boiled heart full of passion, violence, and passionate violence.
But wait it out, I reckon. Episode One sets up the dominoes only to begin knocking them down in its final minutes. Once Telltale takes its gloves off things get brutal, bloody and barbarous. Welcome to Game of Thrones, where Thunderdome looks like a roller derby rink compared to the nihilistic nightmare George R.R. Martin and Telltale have cooked up.
Like The Walking Dead before it, Telltale's Game of Thrones is unrelentingly grim, and in a manner much more unsettling than Lee and Clementine's more overtly supernatural predicament. What makes Game of Throne's violence so much more disturbing than anything Telltale's done before is that a bulk of it isn't very far-fetched. Sure, there are dragons, white walkers (the Game of Thrones parlance for zombies, one of its least inventive ideas), and blood magic, but a vast majority of the violence is meted out by mere mortals against their fellow man. Murder is akin to jaywalking in this savage land with raping, slaving and torture providing even nastier threats.
Yet it seldom feels exploitative in Telltale's capable hands. This is because the storytellers are sure to include plenty of humanity to its rogues gallery of noblemen, thieves, soldiers and servants. While there are a couple of cartoonishly evil villains like the sadistic Ramsey Snow (deliciously played by Iwan Rheon, reprising his role from the show) or a new blond bully named Griff (finally establishing that Game of Thrones exists in the Back to the Future universe), the vast majority of the cast is comprised of well-meaning individuals doing terrible things out of necessity. We spend time with Margaery Tyrell offering a helping hand, watching Asher Forrester crack wise with his surrogate sister, and seeing the gentle camaraderie form between handmaidens and Nights Watchmen alike. There's a real sense of romance to Game of Thrones that offers glimmers of hope amongst the bloodshed.
It helps that the dialogue and voice-acting are top notch. Telltale brought in several actors from the HBO show to reprise their roles, which they all do admirably, but the new cast is no slouch either. The tongue is sharper than the sword in Westeros, though you need to have both to survive. While there's plenty of well-staged quick-time event action sequences, the real tension comes from choosing what to say. The Game of Thrones is about diplomacy, after all. Only it's set in a world where everyone has conflicting agendas and often the only way to aid your loved ones is to betray others close to you and/or put yourself in danger. It's impossible to keep everyone happy in a place that reeks of misery, revenge and blackmail. Amazingly, the dialogue seldom falls back on exposition as everyone speaks in wayward whispers and half truths.
If there's one thing Telltale's Game of Thrones doesn't have in common with the show, it's that this video game adaptation is surprisingly chaste with its portrayal of sex. The show is infamous for its liberal use of nudity and controversial for its overt depictions of sexual violence. Telltale's series' has none of that, yet, aside from a single shot where a character is inexplicably wearing pants post-coital, it never feels censored. Telltale doesn't sugarcoat the realities that women go through in this world, but it doesn't dwell on them either. At one point Tyrion Lannister, one of the series' most likable characters, jokes that by the end of Margaery's wedding nights he'll no longer be her least-favourite Lannister (because her betrothed, Tyrion's nephew Joffrey, is a sadist who will no doubt violently rape her). It's a line that should be in poor taste, and it is, but I snickered at it anyway because the world of Game of Thrones is so vile sometimes all you can do is laugh. I find this oxymoronic dichotomy between disgust and gallows humour more interesting than the more overtly shocking scenes of sexual violence oft employed by the show.
Mechanically Game of Thrones is a traditional Telltale affair - there's plenty of dialogue options, quick-time events, and very minimal exploration - but one neat trick Telltale employs this time around is several playable characters. This worked well in Tales From the Borderlands, which limited its playable character count to two. But in The Walking Dead: 400 Days and Jurassic Park Telltale struggled with this because it often betrayed the player's agency when you'd run into characters you previously played as now following their own path as NPCs. Game of Thrones gets around this by sparsely having the playable characters meet. Each one has their own unique mission, usually transpiring in different parts of the world, so player agency remains intact throughout. And much like Until Dawn before it, this larger playable cast keeps the player on their toes as there's no guarantee the character you're playing as will live to see the end of Season One.
Initially I feared that Telltale's Game of Thrones would feel too far removed from the show and that the celebrity actors reprising their roles would be awkwardly shoehorned into this spin-off, but I'm happy to report my worries were unfounded. In fact, this Video Game of Thrones actually enhances my feelings towards the show as it adds further depth to the characters we're already familiar with. Most would agree that the malevolent, manipulative Margaery Tyrell is one the series' most likeable characters, but one of your roles here is as her handmaiden, Mira Forrester. Margaery seems like a good woman to work for, but she's got schemes of her own and asking her for help saving your family could jeopardise her plans to ostensibly make the world a better place. Anything sneaky you do, no matter how noble, reflects poorly on her. This puts you two in direct opposition and it's illuminating to see a hero from the show be portrayed as an antagonist here without ever breaking character.
Telltale's Game of Thrones lacks the sterling production values and pacing of the HBO show from which emanates - and it gets off to a ponderous starts - but once it gets going this episodic series really nails the particulars of this world. It's a strange and treacherous place, with danger from all angles ever on the horizon. (It's worth noting that Telltale's Game of Thrones is the first season in what's sure to be a multi-year project. So just like the show and the most recent books, don't go in expecting closure.) At once an espionage game, a fantastic adventure and a family drama, Telltale's Game of Thrones may not convert non-fans of the source material or the studio, but for those who enjoy HBO's drama and Telltale's template, it's a remarkable achievement.