“When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.”
– Cersei Lannister
Okay. That’s a bit dramatic. You won’t die if you play this game, but you might find yourself making decisions that cost a character his life. When it was announced that Telltale Games would be tackling the Game of Thrones Universe I was thrilled. In many ways, it felt like a match made in heaven. After all, HBO’s Game of Thrones is a show that delves deep into relationships and how they can be forever altered by a slip of the tongue or a strategic misstep. To me, there’s no better studio to translate that dynamic into a game. Does Game of Thrones Episode One: Iron From Ice live up to my lofty expectations? Yes, for the most part, but it’s held back by a few nagging issues that prevent it from realizing its full potential.
Episode One of the game begins as season three of the show ends. As Lord Forrester prepares to ride with the Stark Bannerman onto Casterly Rock to assert Robb Stark’s claim to the throne, Robb Stark is spending that night attending what will come to be known as the “Red Wedding.” Though I won’t spoil it here, suffice it to say that it does not end well. Telltale’s Game of Thrones tells the story of House Forrester as they struggle to make the right decisions in order to survive the fallout set in motion by that infamous night.
In order to mirror the format of HBO’s hit television show, the player jumps between controlling multiple main characters. Each character’s story is delivered piecemeal as many threads are weaved together to create one coherent narrative. As Gared Tuttle, you find yourself tasked with traveling back home to Ironrath and delivering an important message from Lord Forrester to your uncle Duncan Tuttle. As Mira Forrester, handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell, you are burdened with your mother’s request to recruit Margaery’s help in saving your family. As Ethan Forrester, you are thrust into the position of acting Lord of Ironrath. In all three cases you are faced with decisions that have far-reaching consequences on both your life and the lives of everyone in House Forrester. Those decisions are at the heart of Game of Thrones’ gameplay.
If you’ve never played a Telltale game before it could come as a shock to you that the overwhelming majority of gameplay is in the form of conversations. At pivotal points in these conversations you are given four choices as to how to respond. You must quickly read each choice and weigh the consequences your words might have before the meter reaches zero. Fail to make the right choice and it could cost you an allegiance or even your head. Failing to make any choice at all could cost you the same. These choices should not be taken lightly.
When they succeed at communicating the importance of each decision, few studios can match the level with which Telltale plays with a player’s emotions. It’s tough to adequately communicate how nervous I was going into Great Hall to try to convince Cersei Lannister that I (Mira Forrester) was loyal to King Joffrey despite my family’s allegiance to the Starks. When I chose to tell her that I was “loyal to the one true king” rather than I was “loyal to King Joffrey,” I knew I had just gotten on the wrong side of the wrong person. I couldn’t help but fear the blowback this might have on my family. That level of anxiety was only matched when I, as the acting Lord Ethan Forrester, had to go face-to-face with Ramsay Snow. As his father was appointed Warden of the North, Ramsay had demanded that he meet me to decide on what would happen to my family. Some of my small council pleaded with me to bribe Ramsay, while others demanded I show strength. I was terrified of the meeting all the same. And that’s a feeling I rarely get in gaming.
Though I applaud Telltale for their ability to play with my emotions, they sometimes rely too heavily on the player’s previous experience with the show to bring context and gravity to many interactions. To their credit, Lena Headey and Iwan Rheon give inspired voice-over performances, but much of my anxiety was informed by four seasons of television rather than backstory delivered by the game itself. If I didn’t know that Cersei was duplicitous or that Ramsay was insane, I might find the calmer portions of the conversation as exactly that – calming. Instead, I was a bundle of nerves.
Though most did, some conversations never seemed to resonate with me. Some provided me with four different unsatisfying answers from which to choose while others had no impact on the plot whatsoever. No matter how I interacted with Cersei, Tyrion was always going to comment on my answers the same way. No matter the outcome, he would approach me about an alliance to undermine Cersei whether it seemed logical or not. Still, these occasions were the exception rather than the rule and the conversation-driven gameplay largely delivered.
However, gameplay outside the conversations leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, this is a Telltale point-and-click adventure game, but the game does little to justify why the player would spend any time exploring. You’re very limited with where you can go and there are very few items to “investigate.” Most of the time I spent walking felt more like a way to artificially lengthen the game rather than a way to add value to the experience. The only other action offered is in the form of quick-time events.
The QTEs are largely meaningless. If you fail to hit a button enough times you might lose a struggle. If you fail to move out of the way of a sword by pressing left on the joystick, you see your character die and you start over. Seeing a main character die over and over again while I acclimated myself to the controls often took me out of the experience. Moreover, it lessened the impact when a main character actually did die (SPOILER ALERT: This is Game of Thrones and lots of characters die!). I was never quite sure which deaths were permanent and which would be erased a few seconds later. Sometimes I wonder if Telltale should revise their approach and eliminate the “action” part of these games entirely. It might be time for them to freshen up their formula a little bit.
Their engine might need some freshening up as well. It’s starting to show it’s age. Performance issues present in previous Telltale games are still present here. Trees flicker in and out in the background and the game often freezes when switching from one “camera angle” to another. The only real difference is that they’ve applied a filter that makes backgrounds resemble drab oil paintings. Though it can sometimes give a striking effect to Westeros, the filter often takes away from the overall experience. Each time I felt myself slipping into my character I was pulled back out by a few haphazard brushstrokes of green just barely approximating a bush in the background. I do wonder if this filter wasn’t also applied to mask muddied textures that we’ve seen in previous Telltale games. In that way, it feels almost like a step back. Still, the character models are perfectly acceptable with facial expressions and lip-syncing that are spot on. In a game focused on storytelling, that’s all that’s really needed.
Game of Thrones Episode One: Iron From Ice was a thoroughly enjoyable game. Though not all aspects of the game live up to the standards set by its television counterpart, I’m happy to say that the story itself does. While it may rely too heavily on a player’s previous experience with its source material and on an engine that is past its prime, there are few other games that can toy with your emotions quite like this one. Ultimately, if you are a fan of Telltale Games or Game of Thrones, this is a can’t miss experience. Otherwise, proceed with caution.
3.5 Chicks out of 5