Telltale Games cartwheels into facile cynicism with its riff on the Game of Thrones television series. Rather than rise above mind-numbing sadism, the game sticks to the show’s pop culture-debasing premise: morbidly sentimentalizing the corruption that leads noble people toward doom. This violent story isn’t a political critique or allusion to history so much as a dreaded affirmation of “hard reality,” encouraging the audience to become outraged at the predestined butchery of beloved characters, as when the Red Wedding took viewers by storm in the show’s third season.
The game begins around the time that the Red Wedding occurs, as if trying to give fans of the show more of what they want. It’s not surprising that the protagonists here, the Forresters, are close to mirror images of the Stark clan. Audience identification with the dignity of both families provides the fuel for easy shock value. In the game’s first episode, Telltale utilizes the one-dimensional Ramsay Snow (he makes the laughably shallow Bloody Mary from The Wolf Among Us seem charming) in a sorry bit of drama that results in the death of a young Forrester. Not to be outdone by the torture porn of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Telltale brings Ramsay back in a later episode to set into motion a close-up of guts spilling out of a man. Recalling Lee Everett’s slaying of his sibling with an axe in The Walking Dead game, the B-movie, slasher-flick vibe doesn’t attain emotional complexity because of the lack of depth accorded to Snow and his victim.
Telltale attempts to sidestep any suggestion of fatalism with the marketing of player choice. As in their other series, players are inundated with constant reminders of the consequences of their decisions, from kissing a character to doing them a favor. Make a promise to someone and the game says, “You gave him your word.” Have mercy on someone and the game reveals, “You chose mercy.” At one point, a character openly states, “We are defined by the choices we make.” One struggles to think of another developer of adventure games that has shown this much lack of confidence in the perception of its audience. In contrast to Conversations We Have in My Head, which avoids incessant badgering about cause and effect, Telltale’s typical nonstop hints ensure interpretation will be at a bare minimum.
Throughout this cynical gaming experience, the message of the show seems clearer than ever: reject dignity or die.
Lacking the more varied action of Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones is peppered with sequences that require you to tap buttons at the proper moment in order to watch yourself dodge right, dodge left, duck, push against an opposing force until that force is overcome, and so on. When you have the freedom to move a character around, you walk at an annoyingly slow pace, even when the plot specifically calls for fast action. Telltale unintentionally parodies this snail-like speed when it has you control Rodrik, who moves about as well as uninjured characters in spite of a bum leg. Time also seems wasted when inspecting unimportant items that only seem to exist for a completionist’s curiosity. Then there’s the fact that players can’t skip the “Next Time On” and “Previously On” segments between episodes, confirming the game’s monkey-see, monkey-do obsession with television.
Throughout, the message of the show seems clearer than ever: reject dignity or die. This notion is best expressed when you play as Mira Forrester, who, like Sansa Stark, navigates King’s Landing far from the reach of her family. Being as smart as you can with Mira only delays the inevitable decision between betraying a friend and marching to your death a la Ned Stark. Taking the more honorable path allows you the possibility of chanting the Forrester family motto, “Iron from ice,” but the resilience implied by this phrase comes across as limp and fatuous in Telltale’s regurgitation of the show’s “Good guys finish last” mantra. It’s tiring when the main purpose for respectful characters seems to be summoning despair from what happens to them.