Impotent Suffering: A Telltale Game of Thrones

WTF is Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series?

Game of Thrones is a TV show, Telltale is a company that makes episodic, choice-based games, and Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series is a game released by Telltale that’s based on Game of Thrones. I’m just gonna call it Game of Telltale because it’s stupidly confusing to differentiate between the TV series and the videogame series otherwise.

Game of Telltale so far consists of six episodes, which take place roughly during season four of the TV show and focus on House Forrester, a family we haven’t seen before. The Forresters are in trouble because they were loyal to the Starks, who all got murdered at the end of season three (um… spoilers for Game of Thrones). The villainous Boltons have now taken over Stark lands, and they’ve allowed the Forresters’ sworn enemies, the Whitehills, to move in on their territory and interfere with the Ironwood trade that supports them.

Sample dialogue, describing the conflict:

Their sigil is a barren hill!

Gameplay alternates between four characters: Lord Forrester at home in the family castle; the black sheep of the family, Asher, who’s a mercenary in Essos; one of the Forrester daughters, Mira, who’s a handmaiden to Margery Tyrell in King’s Landing; and a disgraced steward who served House Forrester loyally before being banished to the wall. Players have to make pressured choices at various points in the dialogue and action, and occasionally complete a few quickktime events.

Many of the characters from the TV show drift in and out of the action, but the story told in Game of Telltale is peripheral to the story told in Game of Thrones.

The most important thing to know is that you can’t control what happens.

I first heard about this game because people got to the end and felt pissed off that none of their choices mattered. And, while there are think pieces on the internet about how, in real life, every tiny choice we make is meaningful and determines who we are as people and so on and so forth, we all understand that, when players talk about wanting their in-game choices to mean something, they mean that they want to have an impact on the A-story. And the frustrating thing about Game of Telltale is that, no matter what you do, the A-story moves through the same pre-determined checkpoints, right until the end.

There are two separate problems here. The first is just that, while the main draw of the game is wanting to jump inside the TV show, nothing in the game can actually change what’s happening in the TV show. For example, the most frequent complaint I came across in the reviews was about a scene where Lord Forrester has the chance to murder Ramsay Bolton – if you watch the TV show, which 99% of people who’d play this game do, then you know that Ramsay’s still alive after season four, so it’s not actually possible to kill him. That’s a little bit annoying, since meta knowledge becomes more important than the actual content of the game at this moment, but it’s not the thing that bothered me  most. The thing that bothered me most is that Game of Telltale, itself, frames its story in terms of objectives the player has no power to achieve.

In order to explain what I’m talking about, I’m going to spoil all the plot twists in Mira’s story, because, while the same principle is at work in all the plot lines in Game of Telltale, it bugged me the most with Mira.

What happens to Mira (no matter what she does).

At the start of the game, Mira receives news from her family that things have taken a sour turn since the Boltons came into power, and that they need her to gain influence in the royal court and help them out. As, Mira, you then make six episodes worth of choices about how to handle things in King’s Landing to help her family, and, no matter what choices or combinations of choices you make, there’s zero chance that Mira will succeed. This is how it goes:

  1. Mira has to decide whether to ask Margery to use her influence on King Joffrey. No matter what Mira does, Joffrey doesn’t help.
    • If Mira chooses not to get Margery involved, Margery will help her later by writing a letter to the family of the girl Mira’s brother wants to marry. That makes it easier to arrange the marriage, but it’s not necessary and the marriage doesn’t help much anyway.
  2. Tyrion Lannister approaches Mira and draws her into a contract negotiation involving her family’s Ironwood. She has choices about how to respond and whether or not to anger Margery by scheming with Tyrion in public.
  3. No matter what Mira does, the Ironwood deal later falls apart when Tyrion is arrested for murder and thrown in the dungeon (as he is in the TV show).
  4. Cersei approaches Mira and asks her to visit Tyrion in the dungeon and report back on his secrets. Mira has many choices about what to say to Tyrion.
  5. No matter what Mira does, Tyrion figures out that Cersei sent her and does not give her the information she was supposed to get.
  6. A member of the Kingsguard who moonlights as an assassin comes to kill Mira after the initial Ironwood contract negotiation. A friendly coal boy who’s been feeding Mira information saves her from the assassin, but then it looks like the assassin’s about to kill the coal boy instead. Mira can choose to either kill the assassin or run away.
    • If Mira runs away, the coal boy overpowers the assassin and the assassin still ends up dead.
  7. No matter what Mira does, she and the coal boy need to cover up the murder, because it’s a crime to attack the King’s soldiers. Mira has many choices about how to cover up the evidence.
  8. No matter what Mira does, suspicion eventually falls on her, and she has to flee the castle.
  9. No matter what Mira does, she is approached by one of the men from the Ironwood contract negotiation. She has many choices about how to interact with this guy and can promise him many different things during their discussions.
  10. No matter what Mira does, the Ironwood guy reveals that he was the one who sent the assassin, and betrays her to the guards, after which point she’s thrown in the dungeon, slated for execution.
  11. No matter what Mira does, or whom she’s befriended, or whose trust she’s earned, her only choices at this point are to either go to the scaffold or throw the blame on the coal boy (who will die in her place) and enter into a forced marriage to the man who sent an assassin after her.
    • If she goes to the scaffold, they chop off her head.

To recap, you are given the goals: help Mira’s family; negotiate an Ironwood deal; don’t get caught for murder; and find out information from Tyrion. Nothing that you do has any impact on your ability to meet those goals, because you’re destined to fail as soon as the goals are stated. Also note that Mira is always faced with the exact same binary choice in the game’s final scenes regardless of anything that happened leading up to it. Despite the illusion of many branching choice paths, there are only two “endings” to this particular plot, and both of them suck balls.

In some ways, Game of Telltale is a master class on the illusion of choice.

At every stage in Game of Telltale, you feel like the choices you’re making matter. The consequences that follow feel like they are the natural outcome of whatever you did, and it feels like you only have yourself to blame. This is partly because you’re forced to make the vast majority of choices quickly, against a ticking clock. Time pressure stops you from evaluating the dialogue options at any great depth and noticing that they are usually four ways of saying the same thing.

When you face a truly divergent choice, Game of Telltale always kicks the can down the road. Players constantly feel like they’ve done something major – something that must have some payoff someday, but someday never arrives. The consequences of major choices are usually wiped out by something that happens shortly after – i.e., the entire first act of Mira’s story is wiped out when Tyrion is arrested and the Ironwood contract negotiations are cancelled; it turns out not to matter whether Mira kills the assassin, because Mira still has to cover up and get arrested for his murder either way.

Your choices don’t affect the path that the A-story’s on, but they do affect what the tour guide has to tell you about it. The main thing choices in Game of Telltale do is customize the explanation for why pre-determined events are happening and what they mean. Choices affect how the other characters “feel” about you, what they say to you, and how hard it is to convince them of things. That level of personalization makes the story feel interactive, even though you have no control over any of the actual outcomes. For me, Game of Telltale is best understood as that – an interactive story taking place in the expanded universe of Game of Thrones. You’re playing to find out what will happen, not to control it.

From a game perspective, one of the most promising features is feedback about your play style.

There is one gameplay element I liked. Game of Telltale records your decisions at a few key points and categorizes your play style as either red or blue – loosely translated as hot or cool-headed. Red players make their key decisions based on gut instincts, emotions, and whether someone’s pissing them off in the moment, whereas blue players are more calculating and willing sacrifice dignity or family members in the moment to win the long-term war.

This feature isn’t super developed, but it really sparked my interest and made me wonder what you could uncover about people by measuring their choices in what is, essentially, a really elaborate, interactive series of hypothetical situation questions.

This is still a story about failure, though.

Part of the point of this game – which I understand – is that it’s doing the same thing as the first season of the TV show. It’s setting you up to cheer for the main characters and believe they have a chance, only to watch them get crushed by unscrupulous villains.

That said, the Forresters fail so horribly at everything they do that I honestly started to expect that by the end. The final act hinges on a critical decision about whether the Forresters should try to defeat their enemies, the Whitehills, by inviting them to a feast and then attacking them with swords, or inviting them to a feast and poisoning the wine. The characters give you a lot of advice about the possible advantages and disadvantages of those options, but I didn’t even listen because, ARE YOU CRAZY? IF WE POISON THE WINE I GUARANTEE YOU WE WILL DRINK IT. WE WILL BE THE ONLY ONES WHO DRINK IT. WE WILL DRINK IT ALL AND THE WHITEHILLS WILL JERK OFF ON OUR MEMENTOS. HAVE YOU NOT BEEN PLAYING THIS GAME?!

In conclusion

Game of Telltale is a nice companion piece to Game of Thrones in the same way an inter-season web-series can be a nice companion to a show. It tides you over while you’re waiting for new content and gives you a chance to see some side stories that tangentially involve the main characters. As a game on it’s own, it’s more frustrating. And, I hope that one day, when Game of Thrones is over, someone develops a much more involved, open-ended videogame that lets you really step inside the story and change what happens – but this is not that game, and I’m okay with that.

Image: Game of Thrones; Telltale Games | February 12, 2016