Review: Game of Thrones: Season One – A Song of Ice and Fire
(Reviewer’s Note – This review for Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones covers the entire first season of the series, reviewed as a whole. For our reviews of all six episodes individually, you can follow the links below):
Right from its initial announcement back at the VGX Awards in 2013, the combination of Telltale Games and Game of Thrones seemed like a perfect fit. A match made in heaven. The perfect pair. Fits like a glove.
Combining Telltale’s penchant for story-driven episodic games and the violence, unpredictability, and political intrigue in Game of Thrones, Telltale’s own take on the beloved novels (and the massively popular HBO television series) not only had a lot of promise from its announcement, but also a massive amount of expectation running behind it.
In particular with Game of Thrones focus on making you never feel comfortable with a character’s chance of survival (or surviving for very long), translating that to video game form could have been as much of a failure as it was a success.
As it stands, Telltale Games thankfully didn’t pay the iron price in translating the epic scope in its take on the series, though in other ways the series never quite was able to grasp all of the potential that George R.R. Martin’s world had to offer. Regardless, Telltale’s version of Game of Thrones still told a great tale, and did it pretty bloody well (yes, pun intended).
Taking its main source of inspiration from the HBO television series, Telltale’s Game of Thrones follows various members of House Forrester, a Northern house in the land of Westeros known for its most-prized resource and trade, the valuable ironwood used as building material by the other houses. After its chilling opening at the infamous “Red Wedding,” players then take on various members of House Forrester over the course of Game of Thrones‘ six installments that each play their own part in helping to save their family from utter destruction and despair.
Flanked from all sides by the likes of the conniving House Whitehill and the ruthless Ramsay Bolton, Game of Thrones hands the player’s control over to several members of House Forrester and echoing the structure of the TV series, as players switch from continents and regions to the perspectives of different characters. From the Forrester’s home of Ironrath, Rodrik Forrester directly takes charge and tries to hold together its (often feeble) grasp on its controlled territory from the Whitehills. Parallel to this, squire Gared Tuttle eventually sojourns to the Wall to take the Black and become a member of the Night’s Watch, while covertly searching for the mysterious “North Grove” that could be a key to the Forrester’s survival.
Elsewhere, the young Mira Forrester navigates the more politically-charged sections of the game by serving as a handmaid to Lady Margaery Tyrell in King’s Landing, while also under the watchful eye of spies and other threats as she negotiates powerful deals (and safety) for the family. Across the sea, the rogue Asher Forrester travels throughout the east in the search for a potential army that could turn the tide between success and victory for his family.
If there’s anything that readers of the books or watchers of the show know well, it’s the feeling of desperation that only George R.R. Martin can conjure: typically, that ranges from “OH PLEASE NO” to “WHAT THE @#$% JUST HAPPENED”? On that part, Telltale Games’ take on the series captured that exceedingly well: where I’ve made some hard choices in plenty of the studio’s previous games, Game of Thrones in particular really made me consider my actions, and especially in knowing that in the world of Westeros, more often than not those actions could have dramatic repercussions.
Even more than the grounded, more realistic take on a fantasy setting, one of the biggest parts of Game of Thrones‘ appeal is its heavy focus on politics and conversation, which often prove to be just as deadly as any battle or skirmish the show and novels have provided (of which there have been many, and way more deaths as a result). In Telltale’s iteration, those moments often prove to be the most powerful, even more so than its many well-crafted action setpieces. In particular that came through strongest in many of the situations with Mira and Rodrik, whether it was the dread that I felt in trying to appease Cersei Lannister, or having to make a tough call as Rodrik that could just as easily sway between risking numerous lives or having a slim chance at survival.
Those gambles of life-or-death have always been the strongest in the books and novels, and when Telltale plays the figurative “game of thrones” in its series, it does so incredibly well. When it hit some of its strongest and most impactful moments, it certainly felt like the series’ promise of providing players with their own interactive version of the popular fantasy world, and more than any of Telltale’s more recent series, it’s one that I would certainly have no trouble wanting to go back for a second or third playthrough to see how differently events can play out.
That pressure and sense of life-or-death hanging over players’ heads, however, does come at the cost in several points of feeling like you can never satisfy everything. In the context of Game of Thrones‘ world it’s certainly appropriate, though some players may find it to be a frustrating experience at always being on the losing side of most conflicts in the game, especially given the series’ extended six-episode run compared to the usual five episodes from Telltale’s previous series. That extends even more given the often repetitious nature of the Forrester’s struggles in the first few episodes, with characters being beaten up and/or humiliated, swearing allegiance, getting momentary protection/aid, and then starting the cycle of abuse all over again.
In particular, the biggest double-edged sword for Telltale’s Game of Thrones comes, ironically enough, from its namesake itself. Based heavily around the HBO television series’ timeline of events, Telltale’s game acts very much as an almost “behind-the-curtains” side story to the show’s main events, where some of the series’ most prominent characters interact with House Forrester and company in-between the events of the TV series.
With a license as big as Game of Thrones and a world as open, vast, and complex as the one that George R.R. Martin crafted in his A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the series’ over-reliance of familiar story beats (and even character arcs) from the TV series ultimately felt at times more like a hindrance to the series’ potential than an aid. It wouldn’t be uncommon to think that House Forrester’s story very closely mirrors that of the honorable (but similarly doomed) Starks: Gared’s journey to Castle Black too often mirrors that of Jon Snow’s, while Mira comes off as the Forrester’s Sansa, leaving Rodrik to take the mantle as the house’s Ned-like figure.
Where Telltale’s more recent adaptations like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and even Tales from the Borderlands utilized their source material to craft perfectly standalone stories, with Game of Thrones it’s a bit difficult to gauge how much enjoyment those coming into Martin’s universe for the first time can truly enjoy Telltale’s take on the series. As the game series takes place (roughly) between Season 4 and 5 of the series and frequently references events and happenings that occurred in-between, Telltale’s Game of Thrones is certainly an experience that’s meant to be enjoyed as a supplement to the TV series or novels, rather than a standalone, first-time course on its own: to those that have enjoyed the TV series for years it’s not a problem, though newcomers, unfortunately, should probably stay away.
That’s not to say the series can’t be enjoyed on its own merits. As closely as Telltale tended to tread near the path of the Starks, Game of Thrones also provides plenty of great characters and moments worth its own salt: the playable members of the Forrester clan are all each, in their own way, likable or intriguing in their own light, making it that much harder and more emotionally-involving that their survival becomes to the player, or when an ill fate awaits them. From the bold and noble Rodrik to the cunning Mira, even though I didn’t quite have the same connection to the Forresters (and other characters) as I have had from the television series, the new characters did grow on me and establish themselves with some insightful character development. That especially held true for Asher and his partner-in-crime Beskha, who quickly became my favorite duo from the game series not only for their bravery and badassery, but also their believable (and loyal) bond to one another.
Game of Thrones also notably includes a pretty stellar line-up of voice talent coming straight from the television series, with many of the series’ cast reprising their roles for the game from Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, Lena Headey as Cersei, Emilia Clarke as Daenarys, Kit Harrington as Jon Snow, and more. While Iwan Rheon gets my personal vote as the best performance in the game as the menacing Ramsay Snow, each of the show characters are performed excellently and used as more than just set-dressing, with Telltale managing to integrate (most of them) in ways that are actually meaningful to the series’ plot, and rather than just being glorified cameos.
That being said, some of the television series’ characters don’t quite transition as effectively into the Telltale series, or at least not perfectly. While some range from odd-looking character models like that of Margaery Tyrell, even in some of the ways the characters are portrayed sometimes feel a bit inauthentic to the ways we have seen them previously in both the novels and books. Daenarys Targaryen – the Khaleesi/Mother of Dragons herself – in particular suffers from this a bit in her several appearances in the game, more often coming off as an ill-tempered queen rather than the benevolent, empowered ruler the show has developed her into over the course of five seasons.
From a visual and technical front, the direction that Telltale took in translating the gritty, realistic world of Game of Thrones was certainly going to be a bit more of a challenge than some of their more recent titles (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, etc.) using a more stylized, cartoon-y look. With its visuals adopting a look more along the lines of an oil painting, Game of Thrones visually is a bit more of a mixed bag in comparison to those titles. While the aesthetic lent itself well to some of the environments and settings (recreated pretty vividly from the television series), more often the painting-esque visuals created muddy textures and character models, with the Telltale engine again showing some its signs of some stiff animations and occasional glitches, with lip-syncing sometimes feeling off, audio cues not coming in right, or in some cases speaking to characters that would disappear and reappear.
As a massively popular franchise that has already dominated the imaginations of fans that have devoured the five novels and those that have survived five seasons of its brutal television adaptation, Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones certainly walked a difficult path in playing the (figurative) “game of thrones.” While it sometimes felt a bit overburdened by trying to recreate scenarios and situations from its source material, Telltale proved itself more than capable of providing a supplementary experience to the television series/novels that Game of Thrones fans can certainly enjoy in its own right, and in particular will certainly find rewards in replaying events differently for wildly-different outcomes.
The world that Game of Thrones evokes is one of bloodshed and many hardships, and whether you win or die by the end of Telltale’s version of the series, Game of Thrones is still an enjoyable experience, all the way to its bloody end.