Someday Telltale Games should have a movie made about it. In 2010, the unknown developer of Back to the Future and Jurassic Park spin-off games you’ve never heard of celebrated $10 million of annual revenue as a signal that its unique model of episodic, graphic adventure storytelling had proven itself on the market place. Two years later, this tiny company released Season One of The Walking Dead, a low budget, non-action oriented spin off of a beloved, but rather generic and mainstream graphic novel/TV show. Somehow, not only was it good, it was really, really, really good. With TWD, Telltale accomplished what so few other companies even attempted to do, let alone succeeded at; they made an exceptional, emotionally resonant game out of a pre-existing property, and they did it on a shoe string budget. The market responded accordingly. TWD made a million dollars in 20 days, and $40 million on the year. The tiny indie developer knocked a low-expectation project out of the park and justly reaped the rewards.
Telltale followed up its seminal hit with the well-received Wolf Among Us, and then Season 2 of TWD. By the end of 2013, the once tiny company was swimming in cash and riding an astounding wave of critical acclaim. Even with competition in the graphic adventure market from Dontnod (Life is Strange) and Supermassive (Until Dawn) on the horizon, Telltale set out to dominate the niche market it had seemingly singlehandedly carved out for itself with an ambitious release schedule for the next two years filled to the brim with three licensed games from well-known properties and the second half of Season 2 of TWD.
To me, all of this background on Telltale is integral to understanding their game adaptation of the beloved book series and TV show, Game of Thrones.
The company has been red hot for since 2012, but this 2014-2015 period may well be the real test of the company’s place in the video game industry, if not video game history. They have proven that they can make great games, but the issue of how far they can push their well-established formula or if they can effectively innovate it to a wide range of material, is still very much open for debate. In other words, will audiences and critics keep liking and buying these dramatic, heart-wrenching exemplars of video game storytelling? Or will they tire of playing these overly-talky games where all players do is respond to quick time events and makes decisions that generally don’t matter?
The answer to those questions probably lies in the quality of their 2014-2015 blitz of licensed, but widely divergent games. Telltale has already produced and released adaptations of Minecraft, Borderlands, and Game of Thrones to their own brand of episodic graphic adventure games. If Telltale can effectively make good games out of such crazy and different properties without becoming stale, then they will have definitively sold me on the idea that Telltale is one of the greatest and most innovative companies in the industry today. If not, then Telltale was just a flash in the pan which will at best be carried by its flagship TWD series, and at worst fade back into obscurity as everyone tires of its formula.
While I intend to get through all three games eventually, I started with Game of Thrones because the challenges of adapting such a property made it the most interesting of the bunch to me. Unlike The Walking Dead, a fairly generic take on the most generic post-apocalyptic sub-genre in existence, the GoT saga has a strong and pervasive personality throughout its existing mediums. Everyone knows the books and TV show are about political intrigue, betrayal, harsh medieval life, subtle magical touches, and the unsettling reality that any character could die at any moment, even fan favorites. So how did Telltale take such a mighty, existing cannon and convert it to its well-tread formula? And more importantly, did they succeed?
(Minor spoilers for Game of Thrones ahead. People who don’t want to know anything about the game before playing might want to read this after playing it.)
The answer to the first question is that Telltale made a sincere effort to combine the look and feel of its classic formula (ala TWDs and Wolf Among Us) with the GoT TV show. The result is an interesting hybrid which works pretty well. Rather than firmly lock the player into one character POV as the company had traditionally done (though the Borderlands game apparently has two playable characters), GoT has the player bouncing between five different character POVs of widely varying quality, situated across the GoT universe. Just like the show, each episode is chopped into numerous short segments that often end on cliff hangers as the player is forced to pause an interesting story segment for a less interesting one. They even stretched the game to six chapters instead of the usual five to make it feel fittingly epic, complete with an ending obviously begging for a sequel. But while the structure, setting, and plot is very much from the GoT world, the choices, gameplay, and many of the slower sections feel like a classic Telltale game, through and through.
The answer to the second question is… mostly. Telltale’s Game of Thrones is certainly a fun look at another side of Westeros and beyond, complete with some excellent characters and interesting choices, but it’s also uneven, suffers from some presentation issues, and is ultimately weaker than its Telltale predecessors.
Perhaps the cleverest part of the game is its core subject matter: House Forrester. Telltale wanted to create a story in the GoT world which was simultaneously big enough to interact with all of the most recognizable people and places from the show while small enough to avoid tearing massive plot holes in the beloved cannon (ie. the plot can’t be so important to Westeros that it wouldn’t make sense that no one in the cannon had brought it up already). Telltale wisely chose to walk that tightrope with House Forrester, a throwaway clan in the book which has been retconned into a minor northern house known for its production of ironwood, a valuable military resource. The game takes place concurrently with Season 4 of the show and concerns the struggles of various Forrester family members and affiliates as they attempt to maintain their power in the aftermath of the infamous Red Wedding.
It should go without saying that anyone who hasn’t read the books or seen the show will have no idea what’s going on in the game. I’m sure the dozens of families, places, events, and widgets brought up throughout the plot will be Greek to anyone unfamiliar with the cannon. But for those who have experienced the GoT story thus far (I’ve seen the show, haven’t read the books), the game portrays a fascinating side of the canon’s multitude of over-arching plots we haven’t seen before. While the books and show primarily concern the big power players in the GoT universe as well as their associates and rivals, the game looks at what amounts to the middling sorts in Westeros who are strong enough to have titles, lands, and an army, but weak enough to easily be crushed by any of the big players (primarily the Boltons in this case).
In their quest to save their house from impending doom at the hands of a rival, the Forresters stretch far and wide throughout the GoT world trying to get help. The player bounces between the surviving family members trying to protect their castle in the North, an errant brother trying to raise an army on the Eastern continent, a sister currying favor in King’s Landing, and a squire at the Wall. This of course leads the player on a tour of the most famous people and places of the series thus far with John Snow, Ramsey Bolton, Cersei and Tyrion Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and Khaleesi herself all making appearances (all of whom are remarkably voice acted by their tv show actor counterparts). Admittedly, it’s all a bit ridiculous, kind of like how Assassin’s Creed protagonists always witness every historical event which happens in a ten mile radius and 50 year proximity of their presence in each game. But it works. The plot is genuinely intriguing, the show actors do an excellent job, and the vast scope of it all gives the game a great sense of epic proportions to raise the stakes.
But of course it doesn’t all work. Unfortunately a lot of GoT’s problems can be laid at the feet of Telltale’s attempts to fit the game into its formula. To be clear, the game’s faults certainly don’t prevent it from being worth playing, but it is noteworthy that the game’s missteps seem to stem from Telltale’s more strained attempts to fit such a unique property into its formula without sufficiently innovating the company’s normal mechanical and narrative structures.
There is no concise criticism I can give to the game other than that it’s uneven. Some stuff works really well and other stuff really doesn’t. The big weak link in the main plot is the considerable amount of time given to Gared Tuttle, a Forrester squire who is quickly banished to the Wall and sent on a quest to find some magical thingy in the North which has no apparent connection to anything else happening to the plot. It doesn’t help that the character and his voice actor are incredibly boring for a guy who watches his boss and entire family get murdered before his eyes and then gets sentenced to what amounts to an icy hell for the rest of his life. I would speculate that the only reason Gared’s plot was included in the game is so the player would get to see John Snow and the Wall, two staples of the GoT universe. That’s a nice sentiment, but such shoehorning such fan service into the plot, let alone devoting so much game time to it, was a mistake on Telltale’s part.
Another reoccurring issue is an inability to allow the player to understand the scope of a decision or its future implications. At times the game does an insufficient job in putting the player in a character’s shoes so the player can make an informed choice during Telltale’s famously difficult decisions. For instance, at one point a character has the choice of whether or not to discard a murder weapon immediately after using it, and I sensibly chose not to because there was a guard nearby and I didn’t want to be seen throwing the weapon away, so I held onto it. For some reason, I never actually got the chance to discard it later even though if I were in the character’s shoes, I’m fairly certain I would suffer from chronic panic attacks until I rid myself of the incriminating evidence. If I had known that I had no chance to discard the weapon at a later point then I definitely would have gotten rid of it, but the game’s design provided no such helpful indications.
Unfortunately, this is a failure of storytelling on Telltale’s parts, and represents the worst cracks in its stretched, hybridized design. Elsewhere there are random presentation issues which took me out of the game entirely.
For instance, Asher Forrester’s mission throughout the entire game is to recruit an “army” to help his family back in Westeros. But when he finally does get a big chest full of gold and hires a group of free slaves to help him, he ends up sailing home with like, 20 soldiers. When this happened I genuinely wasn’t sure if Asher’s forces counted as some sort of “video game-y” abstraction of an army that I was just supposed to accept to be a sizeable military force, or not. It’s like how in Metal Gear Solid the player kind of has to accept that all of the guards have terrible vision so the game isn’t impossible to play, but the player is aware that their bad vision is a function of “gameness” rather than some sort of story-integrated explanation. Well in GoT I had no idea if Asher’s laughably small “army” was a product of the game’s technical limitations or if a chest full of gold could really only buy 20 mercenaries, or if Asher is just an idiot. Given that his 20 man army would eventually get curb stomped by a thousand or so enemy soldiers, I’m forced to concur with the last explanation.
Another area where the Telltale formula strains against the subject matter stems from the game’s story existing concurrently with past events in the canon. The issue is that sometimes a player’s knowledge of the canon will eclipse the perspective of the character POVs within the game, and this leads to… strange situations. If this sounds vague, it’s because I’m not really sure how to describe it or what to think of it.
For example, at one point Cersei Lannister makes a deal with a Forrester character wherein the Forrester will meet with an imprisoned Tyrion and try to get him to reveal what witnesses he is calling for his trial, presumably so Cersei can interfere with them in some way. In exchange, Cersei promises assistance with the Forrester’s troubles at home. If I knew nothing about the future events within the canon, this would be an interesting moral quandary, because by all in-game appearances, Tryion is a good guy, Cersei is an evil bitch, and I would be choosing between helping my family and not hurting an innocent man. But as someone who has seen the show, I already know that Tyrion’s trial is irrelevant because he will eventually call a trial by combat and then break out of jail anyway. So using my knowledge of the canon outside of the game, I chose to betray Tyrion.
There’s even a part where a Forrester is given an opportunity to try to kill a character who is very much still alive in the canon. I chose not to try.
What do I make of this? Is it a failure of narrative composition because the intended in-game conflict is undermined by the average player’s expected level of knowledge? Is it an interesting meta-twist on the narrative-based mechanics which rewards a player’s awareness of the series as a whole? Both? I don’t know. But it’s interesting nonetheless.
This all sounds a bit too negative. Telltale’s Game of Thrones is an overall enjoyable game that I recommend to any GoT or graphic adventure fan. With a 13 hour run time for me, it is the longest Telltale game to date and has its fair share of agonizing decisions and great writing moments even if the characters are generally less engaging than those of TWD. But within the context of Telltale’s rapid expansion, it’s an interesting case. I’d call the game a moderate success overall that has failed to definitively sell me on Telltale’s ability to greatly stretch, or innovate its formula. I’ll be looking forward to playing Telltale’s Borderlands and Minecraft adaptations to see if they follow suit.