In October 2000, I was in my second year at university. The excitement of moving into a new student house had faded. Tuition fees and rent had hacked a scary hole in my meagre finances; far too many trips to various pubs, clubs and bars had further deepened that hole. My course reading list and essays were already worryingly large and I was beginning to panic about what I would do once university was over. I therefore did what any self-respecting socially awkward geek would do, and ran away to Westeros. I devoured second-hand paperback copies of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings in a couple of weeks, then guiltily spent more of my dwindling cash reserves on a new hardback copy of A Storm of Swords, the third novel in George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. I reached the ‘Red Wedding’, and was so shocked by it that I put the book down for a couple of hours and walked to the university campus: a rarity for me at the time.
The point at which I put the book down all those years ago is the point at which Telltale’s Game Of Thrones series begins. The Red Wedding occurs a couple of minutes into the game, although you don’t get to see it. What you get instead is an irritating series of quick time events, with no instruction as to how to play, and insta-death if you fail one. QTEs are so well-known in games these days that a tutorial probably isn’t needed for most players, but I know several Game of Thrones fans who aren’t gamers but are interested in Telltale’s series. They wouldn’t have a clue how to complete the opening few minutes, and would likely just give up. It’s not the most auspicious way to start, and the irritation it causes is compounded by a frame rate which drops alarmingly in places, stuttering audio and a weak script.
During this lacklustre beginning to the game, you take the role of Gared, squire to Lord Forrester. His job in this episode is really just to annoy you with QTEs and to introduce the player to the Forrester family, who are mentioned in a single throwaway line in A Dance With Dragons. Hopefully he will get more to do in future episodes, because if he stays as uninteresting as he is during this first instalment, it will sour me on the whole series.
Luckily, he’s not the only playable character in the game. I understand there will be five in the series as a whole, but in this episode you’ll only get to play as three of them. There’s Gared The Dull; Mira Forrester, who is a handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell in King’s Landing; and Ethan Forrester, who is in charge at the Forrester’s home fortress at Ironrath. The Forresters’ stories are much more interesting than Gared’s, and for the most part, better constructed too.
Ethan and Mira have some tough decisions to make in the aftermath of the Red Wedding, where their father learns what happens in Westeros when you’re noble and good and more concerned with acting honourably than with saving your own skin. Mira is tasked with playing politics and trying to influence Margaery Tyrell (and through her the Lannisters) to look kindly on the Forresters. This means she has the dubious pleasure of verbally sparring with Cersei and Tyrion, both played with consummate skill by the actors who portray them in the HBO series. Natalie Dormer is also on hand to voice Margaery, and this helps Mira’s section of the game to feel the most like an episode of the Game of Thrones TV show.
Ethan is too young to be given the responsibilities he suddenly finds himself saddled with, and there’s a pleasing sense of trying to cope with things you don’t understand and events you can’t control to his story. This is heightened by the fact that the player is thrust into the situation in the same way as the character. You’re never given enough information to be certain that the decision you’re making is the ‘right’ one. At one point, a thief is brought to Ethan for judging, and you get to choose what punishment to mete out. You’re not told what the usual punishment for the crime is, though, and so when the cryptic “[someone] will remember this” text appears after you make your decision, you’re not sure if that’s because you did well or not. This feeling really lends itself to the world of Westeros, where in the books and TV show there never seems to be an objectively ‘correct’ choice.
This sense of not knowing enough about the wider world becomes a drawback on the personal scale though. In both Mira’s story and Ethan’s, I made a choice and was told by someone close to the character that I’d acted strangely. Not knowing Ethan or Mira’s personalities, I had no idea what they would have done in the situation. I chose according to my own judgement, and based on the reactions of people who know Ethan and Mira well, I chose ‘wrongly’.
That’s not to say that I was punished for my choice. I have no idea whether the choices I made will have an effect on the larger story at all, either good or bad. But in what is in my opinion more of a role playing game than an adventure story, not being properly able to play the role I’m assigned, and having that inability mentioned by another character is a bit frustrating.
More frustrating, however, are the myriad technical problems with the episode. I’ve mentioned the frame rate already, but it’s really shocking at times. I was playing on an Xbox One, and given that there are rarely more than a couple of characters on screen at any one time, and the environments are all pretty stylised and stationary, there’s no excuse for dropping below 30FPS. The frame rate issues would be baffling but excusable if the rest of the game was perfect, but it really isn’t. Animations are stilted and awkward at times. I noticed one character sitting down at a table and, rather than resting their hands on it, they were hovering a few inches above the table. Similarly, characters’ hands wouldn’t actually be touching doors when the doors opened, limbs would occasionally twitch in anatomically impossible ways, and on a couple of occasions, dialogue lines stuttered and restarted.
The character models are oddly unnatural too. Characters that Telltale have invented themselves look stylised and slightly cartoonish, while characters from the TV series look far more realistic. This creates a very strange effect where neither look quite right. And the backgrounds! Where to begin? Apparently the idea was to create an effect as of an “oil painting brought to life”. To me, it looks variously as though the environment is melting, or as though the textures have been copied over from a PS1 game. It’s not too bad if the environment is completely static, but if anything is moving (characters, flames, wind, leaves and so on) it looks appalling.
There’s also an irritating bug which as far as I can tell still isn’t fixed, where some or all of your choices won’t be remembered and posted to the Telltale website. I encountered this on my first play through (only two of my choices were posted) but when I restarted and played through the episode again, all of my choices were available on Telltale’s site.
Overall, it feels like a very rocky beginning to a potentially exciting series. Plagued by technical issues (on Xbox One, at least), odd stylistic choices, occasional iffy writing, but nonetheless with a definite feel of George R. R. Martin’s world. There was nothing in the game to match my experience of reading the Red Wedding, but it has definitely whetted my appetite for the next series of the TV show, so that’s something at least.
As for more Telltale episodes? I’m ambivalent.