Review: Game of Thrones Episode 1: Iron from Ice

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Game of Thrones is a fine TV adaptation of a great series of modern fantasy books. The main series tells a story of the various power hungry families and individuals trying to rule their own corner of Westros largely through the perspective of one family, the Starks of Winterfell. As the plot develops and characters die off, the audience begins to tag along with other characters who show more and more of the world and its political workings. Telltale is now trying to capture that same magic by jamming a new minor house from the North into the setting and having some cameos by actors from the television show. However, even super fans who like the books and the show may have a difficult time enjoying this episodic drama game.

This series of episodes to be released in the coming months does not provide much in the way of background information. A codex to the setting is provided, but it is not anywhere near as robust as what can be found online for either the television show or the novels. Within the game itself, outside of the menus, there is zero exposition beyond faint glimpses of events and alliances not within the immediate sight of the characters naturally woven into the conversations. That being said, this is clearly a game for fans of the show, and of the books to a far less extent. If you do not know what the Red Wedding is, the opening scene of the game, or who the various contenders for the Iron Throne are (or what that even is), then this game is not for you. I fully recommend the novels and the show (in that order), but at least one or the other is required reading/viewing before playing this series to anyone that wants more than a vague hint at what is going on. Everyone else can approach this as a generic Dungeons & Dragons fantasy setting, minus the dungeons and the dragons as nothing particularly magical happens in this first episode.

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Be warned that this article has some spoilers in it relating to the source material. But if you are thinking of jumping past the main story and buying a ticket to this side show, know that the game is rife with more spoilers and plot points from the show than I will take the time to summarize. The events of this video game episode take place towards the end of Season 3 of the show and part of the way through Storm of Swords.

The game will switch back and forth between three main characters. This is similar to how the novels are constructed as the reader’s perspective is just over the shoulder of one character per chapter. If someone dies outside of the focused character’s sight, he or she doesn’t know about it, and the audience doesn’t know about it either. This game will focus on the main players of House Forrester, some of the bannermen of the Starks who have rebelled against the king on the Iron Throne who lives hundreds of miles to the south. There is a young man, a teenager really, who has to pick up his father’s mantle as ruler of House Forrester after most of his men at arms and his ruling patriarch were murdered by the Freys in the Red Wedding. His sister is off in Kings Landing, where she is a maid in waiting to lady Margaery Tyrell, a woman who is about to marry the king of the land. And there is a lowborn squire who flees the slaying of most of the able body men of House Forrester only to end up being accused of murder and sent to the Wall to avoid an untimely death.

There are obvious parallels between these characters and Bran, Sansa Stark, and Jon Snow, with enough differences to make them interesting in their own right. It will be your job as the player to make the decisions of these characters to help the house survive the new way of things in the kingdom and to advance the interests of the family. As the name suggests, House Forrester is best known for its trees and its ability to produce excellent lumber. This resource is wanted by the various lords waging war and you will have to navigate an arena where your primary allies and source of protection have all been betrayed and slaughtered.

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Either because other kinds of adventure games did not sell enough, it is easier to develop within the constraints of, or it makes more sense to adapt licensed properties to the Telltale game engine, it almost seems pointless to discuss the ins and outs of how the game plays, because the last few years of episodes from different Telltale series have all played the same. In a nutshell, the majority of the time players will “control” a character, but the input on what that character can do will be to choose one of three options for what kind of verbal response he or she will give in a conversation. Sometimes the dialogue choices will be verbatim, but most of the time they provide only a vague impression of the sentences the character will say. Most of the time, moreso than in The Wolf Among Us or The Walking Dead, this game is about affecting the flow of conversations. A visible timer will dwindle as the NPCs wait for a response and if an input is not given in five seconds, they will take that as a non-response or someone biting their tongue. As in real life, not holding up your end of the conversation will make others quick to anger.

When not sitting and talking, players will slowly walk around environments and click on three or four things in a room to examine them or click someone to start a dialogue. One of the characters, the Lord Snow stand-in, gets his sword play on. This is accomplished by following button prompts on the players end. The animations for these segments are not well done. Everyone’s actions are so slow and predictable you’ll wonder if all of Westros’ soldiers have pudding in thier pants or if the fight scenes were based on motion capture done under water.

In addition to the Forresters and their problems with other new characters introduced for the game, the family will also encounter characters from the novels with likenesses and voices based on the books. At first I was surprised they were able to get all of these actors to work on the game, then I had to remember as big a show as Game of Thrones is, it is only a premium cable television show. If it’s possible to get the NCIS actors, it’s probably easy to get these guys. They all sound like they do in the show and emote well. The only issue is how the characters based on real people look. The Foresters all have cartoonish expressions that allow them to have a wide range of facial expressions and naturally maintain an animated look. They look at home in the muted world of forests and castles they live in. Lena Headey, who plays Queen reagent Cersei, also of The Purge “fame,” looks like she had her face scanned and pasted onto a character model. Whenever a likenessed digital actor changes expression it goes from one look immediately to another in a way that is unnatural, jarring and unseen on the other characters. The other three digitized persons look a little more in line with the facial stylings of the new characters, but for the most part they seem off. As it may have been a draw for some players to see and interact with their favorite characters, including everyone’s favorite little, Macivellian dwarf, Tyrion, it is a shame that more attention could not have been spent giving the entire game a cohesive, believable look.

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This game feels like fanfiction in a way that The Walking Dead does not. A throwaway line in one of the books dismissibly says something along the lines of, “…names like forrester…” when identifying some of the lesser clans that aided the Starks and that the basis in the setting for the main characters. In theory that means that the story told in these games is a blank canvas set in the world created by George R.R. Martin to tell a new tale. This is what was done in The Walking Dead; it was an independent set of characters who did not dog the heels of Rick Grimes and his might-makes-right kill crew. But with a political show dealing with the lords and ladies of the land, in practice fans of Game of Thrones want to see the characters and castles of the show, and that means the new characters have to encounter them at some point. In order to be consistent with the original work, like all fanfiction should be, there cannot be glaring continuity errors where Ethan Forrester murders Ramsey Snow or Mira has Tyrion’s lovechild who comes to subplant Tommen as the lord of the realm. This means that it does not feel like your actions have any impact on the world and are ultimately pointless. The episode seems to hint that the arc of the series’ story is to allow the Forresters to further the agenda of their house, using people new to the game and forging alliances with the characters of the show as they do so. This may come to bear as the season develops, though it is not present within the first episode.

The first episode for Game of Thrones does absolutely nothing to bring new people into the fold. Established fans may want to check this out as it does have solid performances from a few of the actors from the show, but even then the limited amount of content would not justify the five dollar an episode price tag. Getting someone unfamiliar with the source material to swim in the deep end of the complex power struggles and the rich setting of A Song of Ice and Fire is an impossible task for a three hour episode. It is also just as unrealistic for anyone to expect the uninitiated to shell out good money for a story they will not appreciate in a world they do not understand. Unlike other Telltale episodic adventures, this one is very hard to recommend buying into from the opening chapter. Hopefully by the time all six episodes are released choices won’t feel as meaningless as they currently do. It might grow into something epic, but right now it’s bland fanfiction. So unless you are a Game of Thrones super fan, it is best to wait until our season recap to see how the full series progresses before making the final decision.

SkipIt

Pros:
+ Voice acting is believable
+ The visual elements are consistent with the HBO production

Cons:
– Feels like player’s actions are meaningless
– Zero immersion for newcomers
– The cartoonified actors’ faces do not animate, they jump from one expression to another
– Action sequences are uninteresting to watch or complete

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Steam, also available for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and mobile devices
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 12/2/2014
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.