“The truth that will kill you
The power in lies
The Lords of the Rock claim
You win or you die.”
If you’ve managed to pry yourself off of Fallout 4 long enough to play the first season conclusion of Game of Thrones, The Ice Dragon, congratulations (and maybe condolences?). I appreciate you taking a minute from picking your guts and pieces of blown mind off the floor to read this.
Telltale Games has long proven its spot-on dedication to molding itself almost flawlessly to the franchises they adapt to their brand of story-driven interactive fiction, but it wasn’t surprising when some said nay to HBO’s omnipresent dark fantasy based on George R.R. Martin’s ongoing masterpiece A Song of Ice and Fire as Telltale biting off more than they could chew.
Martin’s work represents a new level of detail and complexity in the fantasy genre and writing original stories in that universe that capture the original work is a nearly impossible task. Even Martin himself is barely up to it, taking the better part of a decade to write a single book these days. Factor in the cost of licensing from HBO and paying the star actors for likenesses and voicework and it’s not hard to see how Telltale could have fumbled this. How anybody else certainly would have.
But on top of kicking out the best story of the year with Tales from the Borderlands -which concluded only last month- we got six episodes that not only captured the spirit and tone of Game of Thrones (minus the copious sex), but wove a story around the existing narrative incorporating nearly all of the series’ familiar elements into a seamless narrative that runs parallel to the story we all know while being an entirely new experience in and of itself. I don’t know how they do it and maintain such an outstanding level of quality. In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve become a bit of a fanboy.
Game of Thrones sets itself apart from Telltale’s growing and increasingly impressive stable of franchises by putting you in control of not one or two characters, but an entire House fighting for their existence on multiple fronts across Westeros and beyond the Narrow Sea. The result of controlling an entire diverse cast in a variety of settings and circumstances is that rather than projecting my own personality onto the protagonist, I was instead inspired to become them and see the world through their eyes.
You control five different characters representing House Forrester over the course of the narrative, each with their own personalities, struggles, potential allies and enemies, and methods for defending their family and home. While each of them allow for a certain amount of player projection, the variety presented is liable to force gamers to think of things in new ways and perhaps do things they’d never consent to do while playing as themselves.
The Forresters are beset on all sides by various forces orchestrated by a rival House and if you know anything about the books or show, you know that playing nice will possibly be rewarded with your character’s head on a chopping block. Literally. Then again, sometimes not playing nice puts a knife in your back when you least expect it. That damned if do or don’t approach is a big part of what makes the franchise the sensation that it is, and it’s on full display in this story. But this time, you’re calling the shots, making this foray into Martin’s universe that much more engaging.
The harrowing humiliations, the paranoia, the anger, the subterfuge, the alliances and betrayals and brutal satisfaction are all par for the course in Westeros, but no matter what I was expecting, I was taken by surprise time and again as I twisted, turned, and schemed while winding through the ongoing politics and warfare. The ways I reacted to each situation occasionally surprised me. And the results surprised me even more.
My roller coaster ride led me places I never expected to go and put me in situations I’d never want to be in. Some gamers decry that Telltale’s games don’t open up entirely different stories based on each decision you make and all end up more or less in the same predicament regardless of your choices, but the journey is the thing; not the destination. Mario games don’t end differently based on which goombas you stomp or what secrets you discover; it’s the joy of getting there in your own way that makes a game truly worthwhile.
Game of Thrones especially drives this point home by forcing the player deep into their own head to test their mettle time and again when faced with difficult situations. It’s way more than save Person A or save Person B only to have whichever one you chose die shortly after or choose to shoot a stricken character yourself or force somebody else to shoot them like in The Walking Dead. Not that that’s not emotionally engaging and brutal, but this one is a whole new level of nuance in terms of consideration and consequence.
When playing as the child lord Ethan, the dilemmas of a young boy forced into a seat of power put me into a very different mindset from when I was controlling Mira, a handmaiden at King’s Landing using her feminine arts and tenuous royal connections to pull strings, or Asher, the rightful lord of Ironrath, now a brash exiled sellsword in Meereen. As Ethan, I felt a need to assert authority from a position of weakness while maintaining an aura of benevolence whereas Mira called for social finesse and low-key subterfuge while Asher is a hot-blooded warrior who seemed to demand action.
All six episodes were full of intrigue and violence, but the final chapter is extremely brutal even by dark fantasy standards and yet somehow fulfilling. It pushed me to my psychological limit and saw me lose myself almost completely in the characters, abandoning my personal beliefs at times and choosing to feed into Asher’s aggressive mindset and Mira’s fierce dignity and loyalty over my own concerns as a gamer for the survival of my characters or my real life desire for peace and compromise.
Game of Thrones tested these throughout, but in The Ice Dragon they come to a devastating head as the characters’ world burns down around them. It feels terrible and unfair, but then again, that’s part of the beauty of Martin’s work in the first place. Life isn’t fair and doesn’t subscribe to genre tropes and expectations, and many of the most engaging stories don’t either. And why should they?
While the player is given a lot of freedom to customize their characterization of the protagonists, the variety of player characters bucks the typical mindset of thinking of them as extensions of yourself and playing them accordingly. And that, more than anything else is what made this such an outstanding work, even among Telltale’s other triumphs. Minor thematic spoilers follow.
I felt a certain satisfaction as the characters like Tyrion Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen critiqued my characters’ decisions and graded my performance. In spite of the fact that I felt like a complete failure, there was still a glimmer of hope to be found and even some pride. In one excellent foreshadowing scene, two characters have a conversation weighing the philosophy of survival at any cost versus dignity. Given the choice, would you choose to debase yourself beyond any foreseeable redemption because where there is life, there’s opportunity or choose to die and leave a tale of bravery and sacrifice worthy of who you are?
And that’s the question at the end of this journey. As Cersei once said, “when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die”, and sometimes, there’s just no way to win. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a way to do both in a sense. You can give your life for something meaningful (even if it’s just to one other person), rather than live as a walking joke; a living trophy on your enemy’s shelf. My arc with one character began as a self-involved quest to get other people to fight my family’s battle, but over the course of the triumphs and tribulations they were caught like a rat in a trap and chose to sacrifice themself almost for the singular purpose of bettering somebody else’s life. A small gesture, but any gesture that makes this crap world a little bit less crap has to count as a win, especially coming from someone whose own ship is sinking.
Gamer Nick knows these are only virtual people and a dead player character is no good to anyone, but my character chose to believe instead in faithfulness and friendship when they were at the end of their rope. And that’s a sign of great interactive fiction: when the characters almost take on a life of their own and can compel a gamer to work against their own best interests. I’m far from sure that I made the best choices for these characters, but I do know that even if the proposed second season never comes I left behind a story that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, and that’s what conclusively makes Telltale’s Game of Thrones the best companion to the show and books for my money.