Warning: this article presumes familiarity with the entire televisual run of Game of Thrones, as indeed does the game itself. In other words: SPOILERS. Don't read on if you're not up to date with the show.
Game Of Thrones, Telltale's latest episodic conversational dilemma game interweaves with the third and fourth seasons of the HBO show. It stars a 'new' House, the historically Stark-aligned Forresters, but features appearances from a number of Game of Thrones' stars. It's on you to keep the Forresters alive by, basically, not saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.
The first episode, Iron From Ice, is out today, and Varys' little birds delivered a copy to me a short while ago.
What would you do if Ramsay Snow was on his way to your home? This is the key question posed by this first episode of Telltale's official side-story to Game Of Thrones, and also its key strength. 'Ramsay Snow' means things to the player that it doesn't mean to the game's characters. They've only heard hearsay and whispers; we've seen exactly what the Bastard of Bolton is like. We know that everything is a game to him. We know that negotiation is of no interest to him. We know that he's immune to threats. We know that supplication only invites greater cruelty. He is Westeros' Joker, and damage limitation is the best that one can hope for. Moreover, we know that the characters in this game will not be able to defeat him, because we know the show, and his status there.
In other words, we're scared. I was scared. The game asks that I protect a family, and the people who toil and march under that family's banner, but I do not believe that I can. How rare a thing this is, to play a game without the hero's self-belief, and the conviction that everything will turn out in at least some version of OK.
From afar, Telltale's Game of Thrones was looking as though it might falter - to be a side-offering to the 'main' story, starring the beyond-obscure House Forrester and a whole new ensemble cast, risked being a bridge too far from our concerns about the Starks and the Lannisters. Turns out that, for the first episode at least, this is the most thematically appropriate Telltale adaptation yet. For one thing, the drama hinges on conversation, and GOT/Telltale's commonality in that a wrong choice or even a wrong word can invite a disastrous butterfly effect. For another, GoT's notorious, almost nihilistic brutality results in a Telltale with the brakes off. While their previous series haven't exactly lacked a body count, there's an almost cavalier quality here. Characters are introduced clearly to be killed, and the episode goes out of its way near its start to demonstrate that no-one is safe.
While this could be cheap - and could be seen to be riding too much on the coat-tails of the show's more notorious Stark-based shocks - it's very much the right decision. Because it teaches that the stakes are so very high so very quickly, the vast majority of the choices I made were agony. I knew what the Flayed Man represented. I understood what pissing off Cersei could entail. When the game offered one of those famous Telltale prompts - 'so and so noticed that' - but with Ramsay or Cersei prefixing it, I shuddered bodily.
Foreknowledge as forewarning: a powerful weapon added to Telltale's arsenal. Existent names as short-hand for fear and doom. Similarly, knowing Tyrion as we do, we're inclined to make a character share her secrets with him, even though she couldn't possibly know of his sometime kindness herself. This is our opportunity to interact with familiar characters, not as a cameos but almost as old friends - or enemies. Telltale have wrung good performances out of Dinklage, Heady, Dormer and the Tenth Doctor soundalike who plays Ramsay: I believed it was them, and all that meant.
I was so very aware throughout how very easily I could get it wrong. And boy, did I ever get it wrong. Whether I would have gotten it wrong whatever I did is something I can only find out from another playthrough (or more), but right now I feel I should live with the apparent consequences. Ned or Robb couldn't be brought back, after all. I must stay the course and accept the losses.
The other side of this coin is that Telltale's own characters perhaps don't make the impact or are as fleshed-out as they could be, not simply because they're standing in the shadow of some pre-existing and very strong characters, but also because they seem so very powerless. A Cersei or a Ramsay are essentially indestructible as far as this game series goes, and all they have to do is nod in a given direction and it's all over for The Forresters. This is the Telltale game's strength, but also its weakness. Its new characters cannot ever amount to a hill of beans, no matter how much damage control the player manages to implement.
(That the game will be near-incomprehensible to anyone who isn't a GoT fan already is perhaps a given, but if you want to interpret it not even slightly being a standalone tale as a weakness, so be it. Me, I'm treating it as a between-seasons extra rather than a whole new adventure).
The new characters aren't, however, anything like as effective as the familiar ones. They're a little more cartoonish in their behaviours, and there's a certain homogeneity to Telltale's own house character style that, by contrast, means the recreated faces of Lannisters and Boltons do look beamed in from another game. One of the leads also looks disconcertingly like someone composited the faces of Ramsay, Jon, Robb and Podrick in their search to create a suitably GoTish visage. The newbies' vocal performances are a little uneven too, though in fairness to accuse someone's accent of slipping here would be forgiving the show of multiple faux-Brit sins.
Really though, the issue so far is that the Forresters and their allies and enemies feel assembled from GoT archetypes (I tended to think 'oh, she's Catelyn' or 'he's Jon' rather than 'hey, I wonder what this guy's up to), and this made them just that little more two-dimensional. I cared about them much more because I could see Damocles' finest hanging above them wherever they went than because of anything they themselves said or did.
There's also perhaps a little too much earnestness to them. Too many Jons and Brans on the dancefloor, not enough Aryas or Brons. In an ideal world, the mounting chaos the cast experience in this first episode will see them hardened and grimmer come future instalments. Right now though, the game sorely lacks big personalities of its own. I hope I'll come to care about its cast on their own merits, rather than just from worry about what a pixel version of a television actor is going to do to them. There is definite potential for true personalities to emerge though, and a few instances where picking a certain conversation option sees a hint of something more Machiavellian appear in those oversized eyes.
This first episode really does work well despite this, though. It divides its attention between several characters and several locations, but keeps them all tied to a central purpose rather than spinning off into distracting sub-plots. Most of all, it's about talking. I always had this background awareness in The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us that the characters could be in a far healthier situation if they got on with doing rather than worrying about what to do, but the game of thrones is the game of conversation. This game successfully conveys that words have such power and such danger, and that action is a consequence, not a cause. It's compelling, frightening stuff.
This is all politics, and playing politics means knowing how your opponents think. Again, we know how our opponents think because we've spent hours in their company long before playing this game. This is, to some degree, a test of how well we really know them. Ramsay Snow particularly does not disappoint, especially after so much of the episode is spent building up to his arrival.
Less positively, while it's mostly a very attractive game - Telltale's house tech has matured ever so well, and a watercolourish art styles makes for some wonderful environments - there are some odd textures which make most characters look weirdly dirty. Setting-appropriate perhaps, but clearly not the intention. Another niggle is that there's a little bit of flab to the narrative at points, and though it meant this is one of the longer Telltale episodes I did feel it repeated itself a couple of times. An early string of quicktime events felt a little needless too, but almost entirely gives way to breathlessly tense conversations. The old Telltale trick of there being a short timer in which you may choose your dialogue response is all the more powerful when you're talking to someone who'd have your head if you so much as blinked the wrong way.
All told though, no previous Telltale game has made me feel this tense and this wary. It's dangerous. Its pacing is nothing at all like the show's, but its ever-looming dread very much is. I only hope the rest of the series similarly refuses to pull punches.
Game Of Thrones - A Telltale Game Series Episode 1: Iron From Ice (phew) is out now.