Thursday, December 4, 2014

A review of Telltale's "Game of Thrones"

Warning: Mild spoilers for the first episode ahead. 

Telltale is by now a household name for dramatic storytelling in video games, with well developed characters and intriguing, entertaining plot lines. Games such as "The Walking Dead" or "The Wolf Among Us" have shown new heights that can be reached even with mediocre source material, and the recent "Tales from the Borderlands" shows that they also succeed at comedy. Their track record gave rise to hopes for a good "Game of Thrones" game, of which there haven't been much lately. So, did Telltale succeed? Not to beat around the bush too much: most of the time, yes. 

In the first episode, released this week, you are playing as three different characters of the not yet developed northern house Forrester, located somewhere in the vicinity of Deepwood Motte. The story kicks in right at the Red Wedding, where you as Lord Forrester's squire, the lowborn Gared Tuttle, have to try to save your lord and escape the carnage. Back at Ironrath, the seat of house Forrester, the family has to come to grips with the new realities under Bolton rule. Your player character switches to Ethan, the young new lord who has to set aside his toys in favor of ruling. You're torn between the advice of a grizzled old knight pleading for war and a lowborn castellan pleading for diplomacy. All the while, your sister Mira is in King's Landing as a handmaid of Margaery Tyrell, trying to help her family from afar...

Telltale's games are a very peculiar beast in the gaming world. I always few them as the spiritual successors to the 90s interactive movies, a popular genre back in the day. It's not that those games would have much gameplay - you have an occasional quick-time-event, sometimes you walk around, clicking stuff, and often you choose between dialogue options. But that's about it. Usually, you watch the story unfold. I've played my fair share of Telltale games by now, and I think I have a fair grasp of how they work. However, if you don't want your experience spoiled because you don't know what to expect, please seriously consider skipping the next paragraph. 
Ramsay and Lord Whitehill.
Telltale's adventure games (for lack of a better title) usually present you a wide range of options, reminding you in the beginning that the game is "tailored by your choices" or something to that effect. However, that's mostly hogwash. The choice structure in a Telltale game is largely simulated, and most of the time, there are no real choices. Stuff will happen the same way regardless how you choose. The games, however, are fantastic in hiding that fact from you, and they also present some unique and important choices every episode to cover up that fact. Even knowing that the real effects of your choice will be neglectable, however, doesn't prevent them from being thoroughly engaging.
Cersei Lannister. As if you didn't know.
The feat of a compelling choice architecture is achieved by the great writing, which is about all that makes and breaks Telltale games. As I said, there's not much game to go around, and what there is pretty much sucks (the sequences where you have to walk around are awfully slow, for example), so the writing and the characters are the only saving grace. And boy, do they deliver. I have yet to see a Telltale game that doesn't succeed in this department. Besides really well written and compelling character, they also nail the atmosphere of the thing. And this is where Game of Thrones is brillant.
The Catelyn clone that is Lady Forrester.
The choice of house Forrester seemed generic to me at first; a northern house with an Eddard-clone as lord, ravaged by the Red Wedding and out to resist Bolton rule, yadda yadda. But the writers are dead serious about this. When the game switches from standard-hero-type Gared the Brave Squire to young lord Ethan, a whiny boy who has to fit shoes that are way too large for him, and to Mira in the viper nest of King's Landing, you are in a life-or-death-situation. The position house Forrester is in is precarious, with Bolton-aligned envious and hateful neighbors and an Iron Throne that's indifferent at best.
Pictured: a fair and responsible lord
The two moments of greatest suspense for me both where political standoffs that showed this precarious position instantly, much more potently than the strategizing before (and I didn't even go to the area where young Ethan's advisors try to sideline the inexperienced lord in their own favor). The first of those moments, mild spoilers ahead in this paragraph, is in King's Landing, where Mira has to face off Cersei and her ever-paranoid suspicions of the "northern girl" while simultaneously trying not to endanger Margaery. The second one is the meeting between Ethan and Ramsay Snow. Both of those scenes are dripping with menace, and I was on the edge of my seat and hoping that neither Mira's nor Ethan's voice would crack while trying to navigate those treacherous waters. I know mine would have.
Ethan, rolling the hard six
Where there is light, however, there is almost always shadow, and sadly, Game of Thrones doesn't exactly reach the heights of "The Wolf Among Us" or "The Walking Dead", because there are two or three missteps in the first episode. The first one is a useless and repetitive scene in which Gared encounters Ramsay on the road and that just serves to show that, yes, Ramsay is bad. As if that wasn't clear already. The scene feels totally gratuitous and out of place. In the middle part, when Ethan is checking out where everyone's at and getting advice, there is a buttload of expeditionary dialogue that really could have been handled better. And last, there is the background of your nemesis, house Whitehill, which doesn't make much sense at all.
Telltale made its name with The Walking Dead
But in the light of the game's accomplishments, that matters little. Besides the excellent writing, the voice acting is also totally in line with what we have come to expect from Telltale. Margaery, Cersei and Tyrion are voiced by Natalie Dormer, Lena Heady and Peter Dinklage, respectively, who are treating the material with the care it deserves (rather than delivering it expressionless as Dinklage did in Titanfall). The other voice actors also totally fit the style of the series, down to the dialects, and the visuals match this favorable impression. The clothing and location style from the series was meticulously recreated for the game, and it looks phantasmic and immerses you in the world right from the get-go.
So, should you buy Game of Thrones? Seriously, are we even considering this question? This is a Game of Thrones game from Telltale, and it's a good one at that. It costs around 20 or 30 bucks and will deliver you 2 hours of pure Game of Thrones...thing...per episode in what will finally be six episodes. If you haven't bought it yet, what the hell are you waiting for? 


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  3. Just started this. That Cersei & Margaery scene was great, just going in with the dread that no matter what you say, you can't win---because you know that for all her faults, Cersei is very smart, and you'll never be anything more than a pawn in her game. The parts where Ethan has to make some tough Lord decision were similar, knowing that no matter what you do, someone will surely be unhappy about it. By giving those choices, even if they are illusory in the end, the game does a great job of making me feel the pressure on the characters in these situations more than just reading about it or watching it does.

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