Friday, 22 January 2016

Game of Thrones - Review

Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PS3, Xbox One, 360, PC, Android, iOS, Mac

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the TV show. You've been warned. 

In terms of Telltale’s recent back catalogue, adapting Game of Thrones to their trademark gameplay is arguably the most challenging task they’ve done. The Walking Dead, Tales from the Borderlands, Minecraft: Story Mode, all these series have the benefit of having worlds that make it easy to inject new stories and characters into. Even The Wolf Among Us was able to get around that by simply being a prequel.

Things aren’t so easy for Game of Thrones, it’s an ongoing series and, more importantly, it’s dominated by its popular cast of characters. That’s something that Telltale simply can’t get around, and they can’t have you playing as the actual cast of the TV show, so they do the next best thing; give you suitable replacements to play with.

Telltale’s series follows the plight of House Forrester, a smaller house allied to House Stark. At the beginning of the series, Walder Frey has just betrayed the Starks, leading to the infamous Red Wedding scene. 

That’s another surprising thing about Telltale’s adaptation; it demands much more from the player. The Walking Dead could be enjoyed regardless of your knowledge of the TV show or comics, same goes for the other series they’ve released. Not so here, this game requires you to have watched the show or read the books to even have an inkling of what the hell is going on. It’s perhaps obvious that familiarity with the source material is necessary to enjoy the game, but, unlike Telltale’s other series, this is also a game much more tied down and attached to the show and books that have spawned it. 

So, after the Red Wedding, the Forresters are left without any support and are at risk of falling apart altogether. The Boltons and their new allies in the region, the Whitehills, are closing in, making one demand after another.

It’s in the midst of all this politicking that you’re left to control your characters. That’s right, plural. Similar to Until Dawn, Telltale have you directing multiple characters throughout each episode in order to mirror the breadth and scope shown in the TV show. 

Again, it’s interesting to see how you play when left with multiple characters. Do you have them work towards a mutual cause? Or, do you “role-play” them as you’d imagine they’d act?

The writers seem acutely aware of this too, with each episode testing your loyalties to one group or another. House Forrester and its family might be the main characters, but that doesn’t mean they all have to be in agreement. Within the first episode you’re tasked with meeting out punishment to a guard that’s caught stealing. There’s multiple options and, no matter which way you decide, someone is going to react badly to how you behave. 

Each of the characters you play in Game of Thrones roughly correlates to one of the main stories found in the show. So you have several members of the Forresters trying to take care of House Forrester in Westoros (i.e. The Starks). There’s the black sheep of the family, who’s been banished to Essos (Daenerys). There’s the eldest daughter who’s serving Margaery Tyrell in King’s Landing (The Lannisters), and last off there’s the loyal squire to the former lord, who quickly finds himself being sent to the Wall (John Snow).

It’s here where Telltale play it safe, too safe. Without touching on particular spoilers, each of the character’s arcs so closely ties to the TV show’s characters that it risks simply becoming a cheap copy. Gared Tuttle, for instance, who’s quickly sent to serve at the Wall, mirrors John Snow’s journey so closely that he might as well be John Snow.

Likewise, it comes as no surprise when Tuttle abandons the Crows in order to help his family back home. Sure, you can (sort of) protest the idea, have him value his vows, but ultimately you’re forced along the narrow track the game’s writers provides and the similarity to the TV show just makes this all the more apparent.

It’s a little reminiscent of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in that the game is so intent on reproducing the bits you like about the source material that it never really has a voice of its own. Gared encounters some wildlings, the head of House Forrester has a physical injury meaning he can’t fight as well, someone gets beheaded, and so on. It’s like a laundry list of “things you like about the show” and the game rarely deviates from this mentality. 

The greater scope also means that the writers struggle to have the choices create the same emotional meaning. It’s not that difficult for the player to abandon the Crows, or make Margaery’s life difficult in King’s Landing, if it means helping the Forresters. They’re the ones we spend so much of the game’s runtime with that the other relationships that the game seems to want to have you worry about seem superficial or flimsy by comparison. At one point Garad says “I’m a Crow no more”, when John Snow said that it had weight, we’d been following him for hours of screen time. For Tuttle, he’s barely said his vows before he’s running off.

All of this culminates in a game that’s bitty and episodic, not to mention suffers from a weak climax that lacks the emotional punch and satisfaction of Telltale’s other games. The choices, rarely seem to have an impact on future episodes; everything unfolds and you barely feel in control of any of it.

I suppose that’s par the course for these kind of games, it’s less the choices and their ramifications and more why you made a particular choice at that time. Sadly, Game of Thrones descends into a damp lacklustre ending that seems more intent on setting up the next season than it does provide a satisfying conclusion to the events in season one.

It’s frustrating, because, for the opening few episodes, things seem promising. Everything might be a little overly-familiar but playing politics in King’s Landing is just as fun as it ought to be, and the cameos add just the right amount of authenticity (complete with their actual voice actors, not sound-alikes) without being overbearing.

If you’re a rabid fan of the show/books then there’s perhaps something to be gleaned from here, even if it seems trite and trivial at times. If you’re looking for Telltale at their best however, this isn’t the game. For all its attempts at being a suitable companion to George R. R. Martin’s tale, unlike what they did with The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones simply fails to escape from the show’s shadow. 


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