Step outside your front door. Winter isn't coming—it's been here for weeks. And now that staying tonight is immensely more preferable to braving a chill just to down two pints in the company of people you only pretend to like, game makers have the ideal opportunity to sink their claws into denizens of digital worlds. Here's where new addictions that won't be shaken with any resolutions take hold, and I've found mine: Telltale's new graphic adventure series for HBO's Game of Thrones.
If you've followed either said TV show or the Song of Ice and Fire novels on which it's based, you're probably well aware that all prior attempts to video-game it have flopped. The PC-only Genesis, a strategy title, came first in 2011, stinking shelves up with its depressing micromanagement and dull trading requirements.
The Cyanide-developed Game of Thrones of 2012, which I tried to play on 360, aimed its sights at mirroring the style of the TV series. But while its plot was neatly woven around the HBO happenings, its confusing battle system and dog-ugly visuals hamstrung its appeal from the first hour onwards. I tossed it soon enough.
Californian studio Telltale Games has some solid history when it comes to adapting popular movie franchises and TV shows, though, so it wasn't an enormous surprise when word emerged that they would be tackling Game of Thrones in their established, point-and-click-indebted graphic-adventure style. Their episodic takes on Back to the Future and Jurassic Park were flawed but respectfully atmospheric, evidencing a palpable appreciation of the source material.
But it was their first "season" of The Walking Dead, issued across five parts in 2012, that truly made their name. Exquisitely written, more than competently acted, and genuinely affecting at times, The Walking Dead is the high point of Telltale's development catalogue—and the marker that their Game of Thrones will need to aim for.
The launch trailer for "Iron from Ice," episode one of Game of Thrones
And with one episode down—the just-issued "Iron from Ice"—things are looking good. The complex political environment of A Song of Ice and Fire isn't wholly touched upon, and neither is a great deal of the TV show's bloody, exciting, anyone-can-die-at-any-time action. (Which is fine, as most players will know exactly what's going on.)
Instead, "Iron from Ice" is the foundation on which the series' next five episodes will, I hope, flourish—five episodes that I'm already very eager to play through, as the climax to this two-hour-long debut leaves its central house utterly torn apart. And here is where I state the obvious, but I'll state it anyway: Spoilers follow.
Telltale's Game of Thrones' focus is on House Forrester—a house that has only barely been mentioned in the novels and hasn't factored in the TV show at all, as yet. Based at a fortress named Ironwrath, in Westeros's northern woodlands, the Forresters have served as loyal bannermen to (former) local rulers House Stark for thousands of years, their speciality being the harvesting of ironwood trees, the wood of which is particularly retardant to fire and can withstand point-blank dagger blows from maniacal (literal) bastards.
Events begin around where series three of the TV show wraps up—at the Twins, outside the Red Wedding. And if I need to explain anything about what happens at that particular get-together, you're reading the wrong article. But in a nutshell: Shit goes south for the Forresters pretty quickly, and it's up to you as Gared Tuttle, squire to Lord Forrester and one of five playable characters promised in the Telltale series (we get three in episode one), to leg it back to Ironwrath with the bad news, sword between your legs.
What follows draws clear parallels with the family migrations and heads-rolling misfortunes that have beset the Starks: One daughter is a handmaiden at King's Landing, effectively an analogue of Sansa Stark; her brother Ethan assumes the leadership of the Forresters in a move that's comparable to Robb Stark's elevation to King in the North; and Gared's behavior between the Twins and the hoped-for sanctuary of Ironwrath sees him packed off to The Wall, inevitably to meet the late Ned Stark's illegitimate son (or is he?) Jon Snow, who took the road north himself in 1996's A Game of Thrones and hasn't felt the warmth of the sun since.
Ethan's initially unsure of assuming a position of leadership—but this being a Telltale adventure, the player gets to define much of each playable character's outward traits. I played Ethan as a confident lord, shouting down an unruly, military-minded loudmouth and facing the flay-happy Ramsay Snow/Bolton (played with wicked zeal by his TV actor, Iwan Rheon) in my great hall, rather than at the gates of Ironwrath. Come at me, enemies of mine. Whatever. Here's some bread and salt. Except Ramsay declines said sustenance—and fans of the series will know that might be a Bad Thing. I'm saying nothing more.
Prior to Ramsay showing up at Ironwrath at the climax of "Iron from Ice" (it's the Forrester motto, FYI)—after an introduction to the man's unashamed sadistic side at the expense of a pretty uncomfortable looking prisoner (not Theon)—we get to play as Mira Forrester, handmaiden to the soon-to-be-queen Margaery Tyrell in King's Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms. It's through her that we meet some familiar faces: Margaery, of course, voiced by her HBO actor Natalie Dormer, and the Lannister siblings Cersei and Tyrion—again, finely portrayed by Lena Headey and a post- Destiny Peter Dinklage, respectively.
A throne room scene pitting the player's wits (and quick-thumbed QTE reactions) against the poison-tongued Cersei is an episode highlight, and really exemplifies how the greatest dangers in the Game of Thrones world aren't always fire-spitting dragons, magical menaces, or shiny, pointy things. The right words, spoken by the right people, can be deadly, and Cersei is clearly going to be a substantial thorn in Mira's side in coming episodes.
There's no actual physical combat in the capital—that's saved for the sections where we play as Gared. A fair few nudges of the analogue stick (I played the game on PS4) are needed to get through the Red Wedding massacre, and it just might be that the man's homeward-bound misdemeanor had much to do with sticking a sharp thing into someone rather softer. Again, your decisions play a part: I figured Gared wasn't about to take any shit after what he'd witnessed at the Twins, but you might choose a more conservative approach.
As is the Telltale trademark (alongside the stiff animation), we're told at the beginning that our choices have consequences, and following the mold of The Walking Dead, you can bet that they will.
It remains to be seen if my bullish Ethan's standing up to Ramsay Snow will affect how the relationship between the Forresters and the new wards of the north, the Boltons, plays out in coming instalments. I don't know if being combat-keen with Gared will mark him as the ranger type when he reaches the Wall and its Night's Watch occupants. And painting Mira as Tyrell-loyal over acknowledging the sovereignty of the Lannisters, while amusing to (potential ally) Tyrion, might not go down so well the with renowned little shit currently parking his backside on the Iron Throne, Joffrey Baratheon.
The teenage king of Westeros isn't seen in "Iron from Ice," but his short temper is: Margaery goes to see him, about the Forrester situation, and returns visibly shaken, with her dress torn. That said, I don't suppose we'll have to worry about Joffrey's wrath all that long— Game of Thrones covers the period from the end of the third TV series to the beginning of its fifth, meaning the king has his own wedding to enjoy before we're through with Telltale's story. (And by "enjoy" I obviously mean "survive"—and he won't.)
Episode one ends with its own spoiler of sorts—it confirms the fate of one of our player characters with a "next time on Game of Thrones" trailer, when it might have left their future unspecified. We know, too, that Asher Forrester is to return to his homeland—the family's second-born and battle-hardened son had been exiled to Essos, but the latest head of House Forrester will become a playable character in "The Lost Lords," which might be released as early as the first week of February.
It'll still be bloody bitter outside then, so you can count me in for another single-session sit-down with Telltale's Game of Thrones—the first video game adaptation of this fantasy success story that's got its cruel and uncompromising tone lethally spot on.
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