Telltale Games has been experiencing a golden age since the release of The Walking Dead season one three years ago. I very much contend that the studio hasn’t made a bad game since, and their first season of Game of Thrones is no exception. That doesn’t mean, however, that Telltale’s Game of Thrones exists free of problems. Despite the backing name of HBO’s most popular show, this might just be one of Telltale’s most muddled offerings since Lee and Clementine turned the company’s fortunes in 2013. I believe that the core narrative problems stem from an effort to emulate the show and books by cutting between our five main characters combined with the limitations of Telltale’s aging storytelling infrastructure.
*minor spoilers ahead*
The first season of Telltale’s Game of Thrones focuses on the plight of the noble House Forrester. The small, but important, family tasked with supplying the kingdom’s ironwood falls into dark times as it becomes embroiled in the political fallout of the infamous Red Wedding. Rotating between five members of the Forrester household spread across Westeros and beyond, players are tasked with keeping House Forrester from being wiped out by the scheming Whitehills and their backer, Ramsey Snow. The first episode proves incredibly effective at illustrating this premise while also introducing all of the main cast and their individual plot threads. We have Gared Tuttle, a squire to Lord Forrester who hears the nobleman's cryptic last words that send him on a journey to the Wall and beyond. In their darkest hour, the Forrester family sends for the exiled Asher Forrester who has become a mercenary across the Narrow Sea. Stranded in King’s Landing, the political heart of Westeros, Mira Forrester plays a dangerous game to protect her house from afar. In the absence of his father and elder brothers, Ethan Forrester must put aside his childhood in order to keep the Forrester keep of Ironrath from falling into devious hands. Gravely wounded and presumed dead, Rodrik, the eldest son of the Forrester clan creeps back home to prevent almost certain disaster. These various plot threads weave together to form a narrative that is at turns compelling and frustrating.
While cutting between the diverse cast of characters certainly provides an interesting dynamic that other Telltale series lack, it sometimes felt more like a gimmick than a genuine asset. This feels particularly true of episodes two through four which seems to have certain characters treading water while more interesting things happen elsewhere. Writing diverse storylines and characters can be incredibly difficult, but because of the dead air in those episodes the momentum of the story slows to a crawl. For example, we seem to spend an awful lot of time with Mira in King’s Landing as she tries to make allies, but the payoff for that time often feels unrelated to what actions were taken during the time we were with her. That time could have been spent building relationships between other characters, bolstering the importance of player decisions. That isn’t to say that Mira doesn’t have important things to do during the six episode series, but rather sometimes the story seems to be subservient to the format instead of the reverse.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t really awesome moments in Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Choosing to defiantly stand up to the Whitehills; guiding Mira through a delicate dinner party to successfully uncover an infernal plot against the Forrester family; and the heartrending climax of episode six are some of the best written moments in Telltale’s catalog. Those moments really work and feel equal parts Telltale at the height of its powers and Game of Thrones offering its mix of honor, duty, and backstabbery.
However, I think that above all, Telltale’s Game of Thrones reveals the limits of what their current engine and game design strategy is capable of accomplishing. I had almost nothing but good things to say about the Tales from the Borderlands series that released alongside Game of Thrones. However, it existed comfortably in a relatively linear story that could diverge and reconnect relatively easily. Telltale’s design formula and engine work best within those constraints. To say that the world presented in Game of Thrones operates on the same level misses the mark entirely. Throughout the series I was constantly questioning why there weren’t more options. “Why doesn’t Mira do this? Why doesn’t Rodrik say that?” I’d think, “Surely there are other ways of dealing with this situation.” Having an incredibly limited way of dealing with tricky political situations seems at odds with the setting depicted in Game of Thrones.
Telltale needed to do something a bit different mechanically to really pull off this series, but it stuck to the formula. That decision ultimately works to the series' detriment. While many Telltale games offer relatively few truly game-altering choices, often the illusion of choice is enough. Not so with Game of Thrones. It is actually frustrating to lose favor in court regardless of whether you play safe or live on the edge. That some important figures react the same way regardless of players’ decisions feels wrong for Game of Thrones. That I was so frustrated by the preordained decisions shows how attached I became to the cast through the well-written dialogue, but also shows that something else wasn't quite working.
Not only does the story suffer from periods of treading water and impotence, the artistic style just doesn’t work the majority of the time. They were clearly going for an oil painting aesthetic that only sometimes hits the mark. More often than not, a strange background filter renders background objects to look incredibly pixelated or even poorly drawn. These starkly contrasting background objects appear most frequently in the first four episodes, but Telltale seems to have been aware of the problem as those jarring visuals are dimished in the final episodes. The only moments I wasn’t actively bothered by the visual choices for this style were in the establishing shots, but even those were often reused between episodes.
Coming on the heels of Tales from the Borderlands, I expected to hear some captivating music. Perhaps Telltale would include a chilling rendition of 'The Rains of Castamere' or more variations of Talia’s lament. Unfortunately, that never happens. The music serves its purpose, but it never soars to the heights of tracks like 'In the Pines' or 'To the Top.' While Tales from the Borderlands feels like composer Jared Emerson-Johnson on his A-game, Game of Thrones feels more like his B-game.
Telltale’s Game of Thrones is made for people who are already thoroughly invested in the world depicted in A Song of Ice and Fire. If you knew place names like King’s Landing, the Wall, or 'The Rains of Castamere,' you’ll thoroughly enjoy Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Just beware that this is definitively only the first season, and it does not end on a satisfying conclusion. The fate of House Forrester is left hanging in the wind and mysteries like the North Grove go unexplained. There are very genuine high points that will leave you gaping; moments that will have you giving an involuntary fist-pump; and periods of rage toward certain characters. The emotional highs are captivating, but it takes some patience to accept Telltale’s latest offering for what it is and bear with the plodding times between those highs.
Game of Thrones – A Telltale Games Series was reviewed on PC and is available now for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android.