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Note: No spoilers to worry about here, I’m going to great lengths to avoid as many story details as possible while still providing a fair assessment of the game.
Telltale games are at their best when the stakes are high, and anyone that has seen the TV series or read the books knows that no franchise does this better than Game of Thrones. When it was announced that the game developer would be telling an original tale within the world of HBO’s hit drama series I couldn’t have been more excited, it seemed like the perfect marriage. Now that I’ve wrapped up the sixth and final episode of the game’s first season I have to give it an ambiguous answer of yes and no.
Let’s start with the game’s most glaring negative: Telltale’s game engine needs a fresh coat of paint. I still enjoy the aesthetics of these games, their stylized look perfectly blurs the lines between reality and something you’d find on the pages of a comic book. Which is fitting when your subject matter is The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and now Game of Thrones. But the performance is another story. Moving from point A to point B in this engine has always felt clunky and awkward, but I’ve always been willing to overlook it with the assumption that at some point players would be able to traverse the game’s environment as smoothly as the story does. And it simply hasn’t happened yet, which is pretty disappointing given the amount of games the company has now produced.
The story has always been the star of these games and Game of Thrones is no different. Telltale wisely chose to focus their tale around House Forrester, a group of characters that are only briefly mentioned in the novels and not at all in the television series. That doesn’t mean we won’t see familiar faces or that events that we’ve seen transpire on screen won’t play a role in the game. Everyone from Tyrion Lannister to Ramsay Snow turn up to play a role in the events of the story. And while they might be secondary characters in this particular tale that doesn’t mean they are unimportant or that their impact on the story should be underestimated. This provides a unique experience that we haven’t seen in a Telltale game before, knowing what we know about these characters from the TV show certainly plays a role in the dialog decisions we choose when interacting with them. It’s impossible to not be apprehensive and cautious when the cold hearted Ramsay turns up at the gates of House Forrester, we’ve seen what he is capable of and know that we must tread lightly as getting on his bad side will almost certainly prove deadly. This is a stark contrast to how The Walking Dead games were handled, where a character from the show might turn up briefly but in the end had little to no impact on the outcome of the story, rending their appearance as little more than fan service.
You really do have to make a conscious choice of how you are going to play the game, like the show it’s extremely important to pick the right allies. The Forrester’s oldest daughter, Mira, spends the entire game trying to survive in the Westeros capital of King’s Landing, which might be more deadly than any battlefield or winter wasteland. The game does a great job of forcing you to make difficult decisions, ones that cannot be easily undone. It’s by far the most tension-filled Telltale game to date, a character delivers a line of dialog and you’re left with a handful of choices to respond with as the countdown bar quickly empties itself. Maybe this isn’t a big deal when you're deciding what playful jab to throw at your brother, but when Cersei Lannister is impatiently waiting for your answer the stress is off the charts. This isn’t a woman who is going to tolerate too many incorrect responses. And like real life, I found that decisions made under pressure were all too often the wrong ones. This is the first Telltale game where I’ve been so overwhelmingly opposite of how the majority of people played. The developer always displays your decision statistics after the game’s resolution, comparing how you chose to play the game against how other gamers did. As I watched the stats roll by I was shocked at how unpopular my choices were. I think at some point I felt the need to play like a Lannister and I began to make choices that were selfish and that came back to bite me in the ass. I’m hard-pressed to think of another game where I felt so bad about the decisions I had to make in it.
And obviously that’s the point here, because just like in the books and show life in Westeros is cruel in this game. There are no easy solutions to the many problems that haunt House Forrester, no true happy outcome available to the player. It boils down to determining which option is the lesser of two evils, and which one will do harm to the fewest people while still accomplishing the goal. The penultimate episode ended on a particularly cruel note as it demanded the player decide if character A or character B would be left behind to die. These are the kind of decisions that haunt you for hours after you put the controller down, filling you with remorse and questioning whether or not you made the correct decision.
Unfortunately this build up is way more satisfying than season one’s actual climax. While it’s certainly a signature Game of Thrones ending, bloody and tragic, it also falls flat and is pretty unsatisfying. There’s just way too many loose ends here, I would be more forgiving if the writers had been able to whittle it down to only one or two that I could look forward to seeing resolved in future seasons, but the only resolutions we got for anyone was death for a handful of characters. But I’m sure this is just the beginning of our journey with the heroes of House Forrester, and I can’t wait to rejoin them for season 2.