Adventure Gamers Awards
Take me straight to Episode Six!
Episode One – Iron from Ice
Given the dark and gritty subject matter of the popular Game of Thrones television series (based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novels), it comes as no surprise that it is now being adapted as a Telltale episodic adventure. Widely acclaimed for its mature treatment of graphic novels The Walking Dead and Bill Willingham’s Fables, the developer seems like a natural fit to take on this original tale that takes place alongside Martin's plot. However, while the game’s story and execution are certainly worthy of the revered universe they’re set in, I found myself less satisfied than my initial expectations. All rich stories need time to build up suspense, and perhaps Game of Thrones more than most, but the sheer density of dialogue over gameplay here caused the momentum to lag in the middle before ramping up again dramatically by the end.
The first episode, Iron from Ice, is by no means an attempt to bring the uninitiated into the fold, nor does it hold your hand to gently ease you into the story. Taking place shortly after the end of the War of the Five Kings, the story begins on the eve of the Red Wedding, placing it within the third season (and third novel). Having a working knowledge of the events and alliances leading up to and through the War of the Five Kings is definitely a prerequisite to getting the most out of the game, as notable events and personalities are consistently referenced with little to no explanation; it is implicitly expected that players have traveled to the land of Westeros before, and that they feel equally at home in the royal chambers of the Red Keep as in the frozen fortresses lining the Wall. Newcomers to this world, or those with only a passing knowledge of it, should not expect to be treated with kid gloves here.
Much like the novels, the game follows multiple protagonists, jumping from one to the other and back again at frequent intervals. Players are introduced to House Forrester, former bannermen to House Stark renowned for cultivating the hardy Ironwood groves of the North. The narrative jumps between several key members of the Forrester family, as well as those closest to the household: young Ethan Forrester, who is forced to assume the leadership of his House in the wake of his father and brother’s sudden demise in an enemy ambush; his older sister Mira, handmaiden to Lady Margaery Tyrell, currently at court in King’s Landing; and Gared Tuttle, squire to the late Lord Forrester, wanted for murder after escaping the massacre that claimed his liege’s life. There’s also Talia, Ethan’s twin sister, and Ryon, his younger brother, as well as his mother Lady Elissa and older brother Asher, living in self-exile on the faraway continent of Essos; it seems likely that some of these will be playable characters in upcoming installments.
As the story opens, Gared becomes witness to Lord Gregor’s slaying, and is tasked with carrying a vital, cryptic message north to House Forrester – the future of the family depends on it! This first scene, in which the armies’ camp is overrun with soldiers intent on snuffing out all resistance, serves as the game’s tutorial. Gared performs menial tasks and takes part in conversations with Lord Gregor and others around the camp. During these moments you can typically choose from 3-4 replies, ranging from polite and respectful to rude and forceful. An option to simply stay silent is also available. But be warned: your time to reply is quite limited, and should you fail to make a selection before the on-screen bar depletes, you’ll not get a second crack at it. Personally, I’m not a big fan of this system – I love having options, but dislike being rushed into choosing one, particularly when lives hang in the balance and depend on a few well- (or ill)-chosen words. But even here it’s impossible to “break” the game; fail to respond at a crucial moment, and another character may well step in and do it for you, ensuring that the narrative continues down its pre-ordained path.
As a general rule, it’s easy to select the “right” response – clues can be found within the context of the conversation itself, by characters’ relationships to each other, or even offered verbatim by another character. For example, when Mira Forrester addresses Queen Cersei, a demure and respectful tone will go a long way; conversely, Ethan Forrester is counseled by his man-at-arms Royland to deal harshly with a man who’s been accused of stealing. Even in these critical situations, however, players always have the option of ignoring all advice and going with their own gut feeling instead.
While I was free to act as defiant as I wanted, I did not feel that doing so truly impacted the game in any meaningful way. I was constantly reminded that “such-and-such will remember" how I responded via on-screen cues, but the direction of the narrative outweighed my choices seemingly every time. I played through the entire episode twice, choosing the “heroic” path the first time and being as much of a jerk to everyone as I could the second time, yet the events did not unfold in any significantly different way. Of course, some of my choices may have more dire consequences further down the road.
Once Gared escapes the melee of the opening scene and flees to Ironrath, ancestral home of House Forrester, control switches to young Ethan as he assumes charge in a time of political and civil unrest. With the War of the Five Kings over, generations-old alliances in the North have shattered, and power is in flux. House Forrester finds itself accosted by its rival, House Whitehill, who has the favor of the new Warden of the North, Roose Bolton, and by proxy his bastard son Ramsay Snow. Fearing retribution from Snow for exacting revenge on a group of Whitehill soldiers, the Forresters send a plea to Mira, Ethan’s sister at King’s Landing, hoping that Lady Tyrell will put in a good word for them with the King.
As if it needed to be clarified, Game of Thrones is not a thrill-a-minute action game. The political machinations that make the books and show so intriguing are present in the game through and through. Keeping in mind who’s playing whom and who’s dancing on another’s strings makes each conversation a high-wire trapeze act of balance, though it can get hard to keep a clear overview. At one particular moment in the game it got so confusing that I lost sight of the big picture, and became a little unsure of what I was, in fact, committing to with my dialog choices.
If you’ve played any of Telltale’s recent adventure games, you’ll already know to expect this, but newcomers should be forewarned: there is a lot of dialog in Game of Thrones! Entire chapters of the game can come and go without a break in conversation, with nary a moment of action or exploration to break them up. The actual exploration segments seem fairly superficial: you walk through a self-contained environment in a kind of circle, with the camera fixed at the center of it, examine objects, read letters, and occasionally pick up an inventory item. There are perhaps two or three such moments scattered throughout the game, and each one felt without purpose, other than providing a bit of flavor narration.
The action segments, of which there are only two over the course of the episode, consist of timed button or key presses, usually making your character swing a weapon, dodge, jump, or fend off an incoming attack. All of the action happened early on, after which the tension had to be maintained by the unfurling story’s dialog. Not that the time ever grew overly dull or stale; the tale was gripping enough to sustain the episode’s two-hour runtime, but engaging in a veritable gauntlet of conversations for such a length of time does create a bit of detachment between the game and the player.
This overwhelming one-sidedness is reflected in the game’s puzzles as well – or lack thereof, as there simply aren’t any. As such, there is really nothing that will ever cause the game to grind to a halt or even slow in pace; conversations may take a few twists and turns, but it is impossible to lose the game by answering incorrectly. Dying during an action scene will cause a ‘Valar Morghulis’ screen to greet you, but the game sticks you right back in, only a few seconds back from where you met your end. But traditional inventory puzzles, or even more classic puzzles of skill and wit, are nowhere to be found. In fact, the only two or three inventory items I found during my first playthrough – which I completely avoided my second time through to see how the game would change (spoiler: it didn’t) – were not used at all during this first episode, and just took up space in my inventory bar on the left side of the screen. I assume these will come into play at some point in a future episode, though their optional nature suggests they won’t be required to progress.
Visually, Game of Thrones holds its own, portraying its high fantasy influences through a slightly more realistic look than that seen in Telltale’s last few games. The overall aesthetic eschews the bold colors and heavy outlines of earlier works for a more muted, painterly effect. Environments look particularly nice, though they by no means set a new bar for the genre. While I have not followed the TV show, I imagine fans will be pleased by the handful of cast members whose likenesses have been recreated faithfully for the game, including Tyrion and Cersei Lannister, among others. The respective actors also lend their vocal talents to the characters, making the game feel even more an extension of an already existing universe than a loosely related association. My only complaint is that a few characters looked too similar. In particular, I often couldn’t tell the Forrestor’s castellan Duncan Tuttle apart from Maester Ortengryn, which wasn’t a big blow to the story but annoyed a little nonetheless. The graphics won’t astound anyone, but the overall presentation is smooth enough.
Similarly competent is the game’s sound design. Filling the role of composer once again is Telltale favorite Jared Emerson-Johnson, whose grandiose melodies and swelling orchestrations accompany players across the continent of Westeros. The show’s familiar intro theme is reproduced here, but even before that, Emerson-Johnson’s hauntingly ephemeral and ponderous opening provides a perfect gateway into the fantasy world, and his songs complemented the remainder of my journey without ever becoming overbearing. They consistently provide an aural backdrop for the sweeping kingdom full of knights, sellswords, and political schemes, while never actually sounding like background music.
Meanwhile, the diverse characters are brought to life by a cast of talented actors. It speaks to the non-TV actors’ credit that I often found the new characters to sound as real, if not more than, their as-seen-on-TV counterparts. In fact, Peter Dinklage’s Imp sounds a touch wooden, while Erik the thief, who only appears in one brief scene, left a lasting impression on me with his desperate pleas for mercy. Even characters that weren’t so easy on the ears, such as the young Ethan Forrester, an intellectual more at home in a library’s reading room than striking fear into his enemies and commanding respect from his underlings, were cast true to type.
When considering the overall success of this first episode of Game of Thrones, I feel caution is somewhat in order. I wasn’t brought to new heights of excitement and emotional involvement… at least not yet. Also, I felt let down that I couldn't see the importance of any of my actions; whether I showed force in the face of danger or used diplomacy to assuage my enemies, the results were always one and the same. But George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy world has always had the kind of grand scope that requires a bit of set-up before the payoff, and it’s still early in the game. I just hope that when all is said and done, the different paths one can take through the game will feel like more than just parallel roads with slightly altered dialog, all leading to the same destination.Continued on the next page...