Saturday, 14 February 2015

Telltalle's Game of Thrones - Episode 1 Review

Telltale’s Game of Thrones is an episodic adventure game new for 2015, based on the TV Show and Books of the same name.

Firstly, Telltale don’t make choose-your-own adventures; they make interactive stories. You shape the story, and shape how it plays out, but the story is theirs. This one is set after the end of Season 3 of the TV Show, and is said to go up to the end of Season 5.

Being granted the Game of Thrones licence was a huge scoop. It’s a massive world, prime for storytelling, about the harshness of life and the inherent cruelty of power. But it’s also a story of heroes and swords and people trying to do the right thing.

Telltale’s story follows the (newly created) House Forrester, a family in the North who own the valuable Ironwood forest. Their wood is coveted, and they are running very short of friends. Despite playing as multiple members of House Forrester (including the Lord of The Family himself) and making major decisions at crucial moments, this story is about the sacrifices required by, and danger inherent to the lives of every Forrester.

A major theme of Game of Thrones is how everybody is powerless to someone else. King Joffrey is a maniac, he rips out people’s tongues and has men executed because he doesn’t like the look of them, but he get sent to bed early by his grandfather. Dany is the Mother of Dragons, she’s set herself up as the Queen of Meereen and leads an army of freed slaves, but she can’t keep the slave-fighting pits closed and she still only human against a handsome sellsword like Daario. Knights serve lords who serve their liege-lords, their lives in the hand of the whims of others, and nobody is safe.

Everyone in Westeros bows to someone else. But they all wield the small powers they do have arbitrarily and to the suffering of others. Jon Snow chooses who will die defending the gate under the wall. Tyrion and Ned both ruined lives of nameless and inconsequential smallfolk with decisions they made as Hand. Tywin is a monsterous and cruel man – remember why Oberyn was so pissed off? "You raped her! You murdered her! You killed her children!"

In the Telltale game, you are a major northern house. Therefore, you are in incredible danger and almost powerless. The game starts with The Red Wedding. You know it’s not going to go well. This is a game which explores this feeling in the first episode. What it means to have power over others but be powerless. Everyone pisses down on your family. In King’s Landing you are called a traitor. And in the North, Ramsay Snow (the Bastard Bolton) is coming to make sure your family bends their knee to the new Warden of The North.

But despite this, the Lord still has huge decisions to make. A small boy dictating the lives of others – go here, do this, you shut up I don’t agree with you anymore. And you have to deal out justice – what to do with an unrepentant but good-hearted thief. Will a small mercy lead to greater cruelty?

The downside comes from this deliberate design to make the whole first episode feels powerless. You run from the Red Wedding. You beg the Queen for mercy. You beg the Tyrells for help. You await the arrival of Ramsay, knowing there is nothing you can do to stop him, and your only options are bad options. The feeling of impotence and weakness is rare for a videogame. Games are power-fantasies almost always – you are the hero, you are the captain, you are the unchallenged administrator of this hospital/prision/space program. It's a tough feeling to cope with, to internalise and deal with.

Investing yourself in House Forrester breaks you down. Telltale seem to adore this message, mixing the responsibilities of power with the realities of powerlessness. They have reminded you there is no “winning” the end of the world, and there’s no “winning” the conspiracy behind a murder. Now they seem to be reminding us that there's no "winning" the game of thrones.

And so Telltale’s Game Of Thrones is a rarity. A precious rarity. It’s an adventure based on choices with a pre-defined story. It’s a story of a powerful house, who move in the same circles as the powerful, but who are almost completely powerless. It’s a very interesting start for House Forrester, and with each episode released slowly it’ll be a painful wait for the rest to arrive over the coming months.