Game of Thrones, ep 1: Iron from Ice

Licensed games are tricky. They’re often thin, rushed products existing primarily to cash in on the popularity of the original movie or show. Telltale’s most acclaimed game, The Walking Dead season 1, was a notable exception to this. It was a tense, moving story built in an existing world, but being based on the original comic series and not its mega-popular TV adaptation, it was allowed a bit more wiggle room to forge its own path narratively. Telltale’s latest, Game of Thrones, is an HBO property based off the TV adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and my biggest question going in was how that distinction would affect things.

With the first episode of the season, they’ve started off by placing a heavy focus on characters from the show crossing paths with our new heroes. This isn’t inherently a bad thing – scenarios such as engaging in a battle of wits with Cercei certainly have potential – but leaning too heavily on established major characters could limit what Telltale can do with the story going forward. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our actual protagonists are members of House Forrester, a rather Stark-like family caught between different sides of The War of Five Kings (the game begins towards the end of season 3 of the TV show).

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The story cuts between three protagonists. Garred, the Lord’s squire, returns to the house’s stronghold after his comrades have been slain in the shadow of events that have dramatically altered the course of the war. Ethan, a young boy suddenly thrust into a position of power in House Forrester, has to balance his relationship with his siblings with the dire responsibilities now required of him. His sister Mira is handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell at King’s Landing, and as threats begin to loom at home, she is tasked by her mother with garnering assistance from the powerful houses gathered at the capitol.

Storytelling has increasingly been Telltale’s strongest asset and the writing remains solid in GOT. The central figures of House Forrester are quickly endearing, and the branching dialogue paths the player is presented with feel natural and avoid the “Mother Teresa or Hitler” extremes of some narrative-focused games. The game is at its best as you are rushed forward down a path of rapid-paced dialogue and decisions, trying to keep on your toes as you juggle multiple concerns and try to steer a volatile conversation towards a beneficial outcome. The writing does occasionally tend to favor particular decisions that you may not have gone with (I had at least three people say something along the lines of “I saw what you did to that man…” when I had chosen to do nothing to said man) but it is not a frequent distraction.

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Over the last five years Telltale’s focus has shifted from old-school point and click adventuring (Tales of Monkey Island being the last major title with any puzzles to speak of) to what is better described as interactive narrative. It’s still more than a “choose your own adventure” book, but Game of Thrones has less interaction than any other Telltale game to date. About once every 45 minutes you’ll have an opportunity to walk around a small area and interact with items, but these are brief and largely linear. The vast majority of time is spent in branching dialogue.

Action segments have been one of the more awkward inclusions of their recent games and they unfortunately haven’t improved much here. The on-screen prompts are easy to read and the swipes and button presses used generally represent the corresponding action well, but the sequences are rarely thrilling, and some returning tropes such as QTEs that are scripted to fail continue to be frustrating.

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The classic Telltale Jank is along for the ride as well. Samey models, poor character animation, stilted facial animation, all these are unfortunately to be expected with a Telltale series. Making it even more frustrating this time around is the extra care clearly spent on the TV characters who repeatedly appear during the episode as they feature far more detailed animation than the game’s actual protagonists. However, even with this jankiness, Game of Thrones is a surprisingly good-looking game, its art style making it nearly as visually appealing as The Wolf Among Us. Shot composition is often striking, and the painterly Skyward Sword-like filter on the background works extremely well as a way to make low quality assets aesthetically appealing. It’s an unexpectedly screenshot-worthy game.

I didn’t dislike this first episode but it was a disappointingly weak start to the series. It’s tasked with a lot of table-setting, something that’s hard to nail even on an actual TV show, but what is more worrisome is the prospect that future episodes will continue to focus primarily on touring familiar faces and places (and based on the “next time on” segment it seems likely). But we still have five episodes left, and time time we actually spent with House Forrester in episode 1 was strong enough that I’m still excited to see where things go next.

game of thrones, episode 1: iron from ice
three out of five stars
played on ps4; also on every single platform except vita

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