The sixth and final episode of Telltale’s interactive Game of Thrones title was released on PC yesterday, and having now played through the entire season it’s time to apply the King’s Justice and render a verdict.
As with Tim’s Life is Strange season review, I’ll be doing my best to balance critique with spoiler-avoidance. You won’t be reading anything like “it sure was a shame when NAMED CHARACTER X died” in this article, but I could well be using sentences along the lines of “not everybody makes it to the end”. Mind you, it’s a Game of Thrones game, so character deaths are inevitable.
Though it features cameo appearances from major Song of Ice and Fire characters (voiced by HBO cast members, reprising their Game of Thrones roles), the main focus of this episodic tale is on the minor Northern House Forrester. They’re mentioned in the books, but Telltale have basically been given free reign to develop the family and history as they see fit. The Forresters dwell in Ironrath, make their living from the nearby Ironwood trees, and have a long-running feud with the neighbouring Whitehills (a family, I believe, invented for this game). Events at the ‘Red Wedding’ have put the Forresters on the wrong side of the war.
Most of the family live at Ironrath, but their daughter Mira is in King’s Landing serving as Margaery Tyrell’s handmaiden, while exiled son Asher is gallivanting about in Slaver’s Bay as a mercenary. Circumstances also contrive to send former Forrester squire Gared Tuttle further north, to the Wall. This results in several playable perspectives, dotted all around the Song of Ice and Fire world.
Despite having the extended luxury of six episodes in which to do so, however, Telltale didn’t manage to conclude all of these interlinking character storylines. One of them achieves extraordinarily little and ends on a cliffhanger, another concludes but winds up having very little consequence on the main events, and even the parts that would be considered the primary thrust of the narrative finish with several loose ends. Setting up a possible second season is one thing (and felt fairly natural at the end of The Walking Dead), but Game of Thrones leaves too much unresolved and a lingering sense that much of what certain characters did was fairly worthless.
The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is quite suited to delivering emotional gut-punches through characters who are no longer able (through death, political circumstance, or other obstacles) to fulfill their desired goals. But there’s a substantial difference between an effective narrative arc that happens to end in tragedy, and a yarn that feels like it just wasted your time. Telltale’s Game of Thrones features too many strands of the latter variety.
The use of known characters proves to be both a boon and tether that forces the overall plot down certain avenues. Lena Headey (Cersei), Kit Harrington (Jon), Peter Dinklage (Tyrion), and the rest all put in decent-to-solid performances (Iwan Rheon in particular is clearly having a magnificent time as Ramsay); and the Telltale animation crew have done a pretty good job stylising their real life faces to blend in with the rest of the cast. There are moments of ‘uncanny valley’ of course, but it’s a convincing effort within the limitations of the Telltale Engine.
As well as adding a degree of authenticity of the proceedings, appearances by important Game of Thrones characters allow the Forrester clan to interact with key, post-Red Wedding events and present them from a different viewpoint. It’s not exactly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead territory, but there’s a similar idea at work.
But including such characters and events in a game aimed squarely at fans of the series (its timeline begins at Book/Season 3, so without that knowledge you’d have very little idea what’s going on), means players can effectively see the future. It becomes difficult to separate this foresight from the character roleplaying when Telltale’s Game of Thrones attempts to push you into, say, certain alliances, or trusting certain people. In turn, this weakens some of the narrative twists that can very much be seen coming.
Much as I enjoyed Rheon’s incredibly enthusiastic portrayal of Ramsay Snow, that character’s invulnerability is too often deployed as a kind of narrative ‘trump card’. The Forresters (as Stark loyalists) are on dicey terms with the newly promoted Boltons, so whenever it looks like the House is doing a bit too well up pops Ramsay to flip the table and sew some more chaos. Granted, that’s pretty much his whole deal as a character. But by the season’s conclusion his appearances felt over-used, something activated as a short-cut in place of more nuanced writing.
Game of Thrones is a grim series, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that the Forresters spend a great deal of the mid-portion episodes suffering hardship after hardship at the hands of a collection of rather one-note Whitehill villains. The writers are aware enough to offer a few moments of brevity, mostly involving Asher’s swashbuckling, overseas adventures with his friend Beskha (by no coincidence some of the more enjoyable parts of the game), but can’t really escape the fact that they’re tied to a narrative that starts off depressing and winds up aspiring to misery.
Playing as a minor, largely powerless House may be recreated in all of its brutal Game of Thrones realism, but, as it turns out, six grueling episodes of this don’t turn out to be all that enjoyable. No amount of commendable character writing, or fine japes about potato fucking, can compensate for twelve hours of choices that all feel rather railroaded in the same joyless direction. There are the usual minor branches (and a major decision at the conclusion of Episode Five does significantly change some scenes in Six), and as ever there’s some fun to be had just in defining your versions of characters through dialogue choices. But for those who’ve played a number of Telltale games the mechanisms driving the illusions of choice will likely feel too obvious and heavy-handed here.
Other aspects simply feel sloppy, like a narrative turn involving a traitor that (in some circumstances) can make absolutely no sense whatsoever based on the person in question’s actions and character. Or incidents where you make a specific choice but the game’s narrative hasn’t quite accounted properly for it, leading to odd shifts in tone.
Telltale do deserve credit for creating House Forrester practically from scratch, and while there are pretty substantial problems with the overall narrative arc, the playable characters themselves (and a lot of the moment-to-moment dialogue exchanges) are generally well realised. The Forresters themselves fit quite convincingly within George RR Martin’s world (in part because they don’t have much of an impact on it), and each episode neatly approximates the pacing and character-to-character scene shifts of the televised version.
Quick-time events get a lot of flack (much of it deserved), but the fight scenes in Game of Thrones at least manage some interesting choreography to accompany their ‘quickly mash Q and then press E!’ mechanics. The watercolour filter Telltale have applied to their engine doesn’t always work as intended (any distant textures tend to just look blurry and lower-resolution than they really are), but does give the game and its characters a distinctive charm.
The same gentle positive vibes cannot really be applied to the puzzles in this title, which barely even qualify under the strict definition of the word. Telltale seem to have been reducing the ‘free-roam’ time given to players in each successive game they produce, and although you get a pseudo-inventory in Game of Thrones, it comes in for very limited use. In fact I’m fairly certain that some objects never even get used at all. Puzzles are clearly no longer a focus for the company, but their fading ghost still haunts the games in the form of brain-teasers like ‘use the only object in this room on one of the two interactive points in this room’. It’s a sad and disappointing decline from the days of Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse.
Game of Thrones opens with a great deal of potential. The Forrester family have more than a hint of the Starks about them, and their perilous political situation seems ripe for intrigue and conflict. Those hopes came to some fruition (Mira’s navigation through the Kafka-like halls of King’s Landing, at least to begin with, felt absorbing), and the series certainly has its fair share of quick-time powered bloodshed. Taken as individual presentations, or even moment-to-moment scenes, a good portion of the episodes felt like a reasonable attempt at an engaging, off-camera Game of Thrones side story.
But things begin to seriously unravel around the central portion of the narrative, pretty significant sections end up unfinished and unsatisfying, and the evident player-herding starts to become (at best) grating or results in outcomes that are almost nonsensical. In what may turn out to be a terrifying precursor to the fate of the Song of Ice and Fire book series, after a promising start Game of Thrones loses its way, meanders around some interesting scenery, and is ultimately funneled down unsatisfying and inconclusive narrative cul-de-sacs.