Game of Thrones: Season 1 Review
Even though this journey sputters to an unsatisfying finish, it is well worth taking for franchise fans
I’m not sure if I can think of a review that could be more of a spoiler mine-field than writing about a Telltale game based on Game of Thrones. Telltale’s take on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy universe is interwoven with events and characters from the books/TV show, so it will be difficult to talk about the plot of the game without referencing major story points of the show. I will do my best to be vague enough that show-watchers will know what I am talking about while those uninitiated with the series will hopefully not have things spoiled. With that said, if you are a spoiler sensitive type and haven’t watched the first four seasons of the show, just… don’t read this. Maybe go start watching the show instead.
Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series Season 1 kicks off during the infamous Red Wedding where you are introduced to the first protagonist of the series, a squire to the lord of House Forrester. The first episode gets off to a bit of a slow start as you try and keep track of a parade of bearded characters, and jump between several protagonists, but by the end of the episode the premise for the season is set up nicely. In vague terms, you play as various characters from House Forrester, who are in a predicament not dissimilar to the one the Starks found themselves in early in the show. For most of the season you swap between four characters, the most of any recent Telltale game, who are all in different places, trying in their own way to save House Forrester.
Once each of these storylines have a chance to develop, the game takes on a rhythm that emulates the show very well. Episodes 2 – 5 are all deliberately paced, switching between the characters with regular frequency, slowly unfolding all of their storylines. The themes, characters and locations all mimic those seen in the show, and despite the presence of characters and events from the show cropping up with some regularity, they sort of exist in the background, with the plight of House Forrester always remaining at center stage.
My favorite aspect of this series is that each of the characters and storylines play in somewhat different ways. The core of the story takes place in the Forrester stronghold, where you play as the Lord, beset on all sides by awful characters and events. This is a very compelling narrative thread as things seem to just get worse and worse, creating a very real emotional attachment to the Forresters and letting you really start to hate the guts of their rival house, the White Hills. You’ll often have to choose between swallowing your pride and risking those around you getting hurt, and I really struggled with some of these choices.
Another storyline takes place in King's Landing, the huge capital city of Westeros. Here you play as one of the Forrester daughters, living as the handmaiden to a prominent character from the show while also trying to make deals using your families’ access to Ironwood, which the crown has use for, in exchange for the protection of your house. This storyline is dominated by having tricky conversations with a variety of devious characters who all have their own agendas, and you must decide who you trust, and who you will seek help from. It feels like you need to tread lightly in many conversations, and choices here are more subtle than elsewhere in the game. I found these sections of the game to be consistently enjoyable, and it wraps up in a way that seems consistent with the setting.
The other two characters have storylines that are a bit less interesting. One starts well enough but loses steam as it progresses, while the other starts slow and gets better towards the end. The former is the continuation of the story of the squire who you start the game as, who is eventually sent to The Wall to join the Knight's Watch due to a necessary crime he commits. Trying to impress John Snow and getting into fights with other recruits is fun, but this storyline gets increasingly silly as it goes on and the protagonist here is the least interesting of the bunch. By the end of the season I was mostly looking forward to these segments being over.
The final main character is another Forrester lad living across the Narrow Sea trying to find an army to bring back to Westeros to help House Forrester out of their predicament. Even though the character you play as here is the most suave and charismatic of the bunch, this storyline was slow to hook me as it initially feels disconnected from the rest of the story and from the show. However things improve as it progresses, and it gets quite good, before sputtering to an abrupt and very unsatisfying halt at the end of Episode 5.
These two storylines are incidentally the ones that involve the most action. If you have played any of Telltale’s games starting with The Walking Dead onward, you know what to expect here; timed button presses, moving the analog sticks in the correct direction at the right time, or mashing a button during a struggle. The quick-time event action sequences serve to keep you engaged in the action in the most basic way, but they do keep you engaged. One thing I did notice is that compared to previous Telltale games, failing a quick-time event would result in an end-game more often than usual.
I even saw the failure screen at one point for making the wrong choice during a dialogue sequence. Game of Thrones is generally known for having some pretty shocking moments and abrupt plot twists, and these are few and far between in the game, with major plot points being telegraphed from miles away so that they can be presented as choices with obvious consequences. At one point, I chose an option that resulted in something truly shocking and unexpected, but I was rather disappointed to see a failure screen at the end of the sequence, forcing me to go back make a different choice.
Perhaps even worse is the ham-fisted, contrived decision you make at the end of Episode 5 that I felt the game never really recovered from. I think Telltale could learn from what CD Projekt Red did with the Witcher games when it comes to choices; inform the player they are making a choice, but don’t make the consequences of this choice immediately clear. As it stands, I felt half of the storylines came to conclusions that would make George R. R. Martin furrow his brow and shake his head. The other two wrap up well enough, but I felt unsatisfied walking away, and not necessarily because all my favorite characters had died, but because their storylines were mishandled late in the game.
Another aspect of Telltale’s Game of Thrones that is less than stellar is the engine. I think this is the first time in the recent batch of their games that they don’t really have a good excuse for using cel-shaded and stylized graphics. Here they use a sort of painterly filter on distance objects and backdrops that works well enough, but everything that is close up looks pretty bad, and the stiff animations undermine the gravity of many of the character interactions. Given how Telltale seem to have settled into a comfortable formula for making their story and character driven games, they might want to consider developing an engine that does a better job of depicting emotion on characters’ faces - especially for cases like this, when using real life actors.
Fortunately, being a Telltale game, the voice acting and writing is generally top notch. There are lots of interesting people in Westeros, with those returning from the show being voiced by the actors who play them. Many other characters are just as interesting however, with a mixture of absolutely awful, devious, and (seemingly) good individuals spicing up conversations nicely. Deciding who you like, who you trust and who you don’t like is a key part of what makes Game of Thrones successful, and Telltale do a pretty good job of capturing this in their game.
Even though I wasn’t very satisfied when the credits rolled on Telltale’s Game of Thrones, I greatly enjoyed much of the journey that took me there. As a fan of the show, I think they managed to capture the spirit of Westeros and the characters that inhabit it, though the themes and stories at times feel a bit too similar to the ones we have seen in the books/show. If you are a fan of Martin’s work, you will probably love the chance to enter conversations with characters from the show and become involved in the politics and family affairs of House Forrester once you learn who they are and the nature of their predicament. If you haven’t watched the show, or don’t enjoy it, you can probably give this one a pass.