Sunday, November 22, 2015

Telltale's Game of Thrones: Game of Yawns?

Okay, that was a bad play on words, I admit.  Telltale's Game of Thrones is definitely not boring, even if at times it feels one note.

For those who haven't played the game yet, there be spoilers below!

What is Telltale's Game of Thrones?  For the uninitiated, Telltale Games is a gaming company that produces graphic adventure series, many in multiple chapters.  Its Game of Thrones Season One follows House Forrester, bannermen to House Glover and Stark family loyalists.  In the books, House Forrester is mentioned in passing, little more than a hill clan.  In the episodic series, which follows the show, House Forrester is a minor noble house with the motto: "Iron from Ice."

The story begins on the night of the Red Wedding, where the Forrester patriarch, Gregor the Good, is slain by deceitful Freys.  Before he succumbs, he gives his squire, Gared Tuttle, a mysterious message: "The North Grove must never be lost."  Gared returns to the Forrester fortress Ironrath, only to be sent to the Wall by his own uncle, castellan Duncan Tuttle, for taking revenge on Bolton bannermen who murdered his father and sister.  Gared then goes on a quest to find the North Grove in order to use its power to help House Forrester, which is under siege by the triumphant Boltons and their bannermen.  

The Boltons' rise to power has tipped the balance in a nasty generational war between House Forrester and Bolton bannermen House Whitehill.  Both families harvest ironwood from vast groves of trees, but only the Forresters have managed to create wooden products that are as tough as real iron.  The Whitehills blame the Forresters for "stealing" their forests and covet their lands.  Now, with Ramsay Bolton roaming around to ensure that every family bends the knee, the Whitehills see the opportunity to ruin House Forrester for good.

Players control the story through five points of view.  Depending upon the plot, you are 
  • Gared Tuttle
  • Ethan Forrester, a young teen-turned-lord far too soon
  • Asher Forrester, the son exiled to Essos, called upon to return home with an army
  • Mira Forrester, a handmaid to Margaery Tyrell in King's Landing
  • Rodrik Forrester, the dead heir who has a surprising resurrection

Each POV character faces certain decisions, and it is not always obvious which is the right one, if any.  The choice you make can subtly impact the outcome of the story as each chapter unfolds.  One notable aspect of the game is that POV characters will meet up with characters from the show, especially Mira.  So you could be plotting with Tyrion, answering to Cersei, defying Jon Snow, or running a mission for Daenerys.  As Season One is set between Seasons Three and Five in the show, the POV characters will inevitably be involved with some of the biggest moments.  

So those are the basics.  Is the game any good?  

My verdict is that the game is good enough, but not great.  It is good enough to make me care about the Forresters as individuals and not merely as Stark stand-ins.  It is not good enough that I can overlook aspects of sheer laziness and sloppiness in the storytelling.  It's $30 for the entire game, well worth the price.  Despite my title, it is usually not a boring game, even if some of its story beats do get monotonous.

The Good

The Visuals.  Some hate the oil painting look, but I find it rather fitting.  It gives the game a lovely storybook quality fitting for its quasi-medieval fantasy setting.  Also, seeing familiar characters from the show as oil paintings makes them appear far less creepy than they inevitably would if a more realistic visual style had been chosen.   

Characterization.  This should be divided into Game Characters and Show Characters.  The Game Characters, consisting of the Forresters, the Whitehills, and characters they meet, are generally top notch.  It would have been so easy to make Mira little more than "the Sansa" or Rodrik little more than "the Robb."  Instead, the Forresters each have distinctive personalities and a past that is separate from the Starks.  On the other side, there are the Whitehills, with instant-villains Ludd and his fourth-born son, Gryff.  Then there's Gwyn Whitehill, the wildcard in the game, who wants peace between the houses and is sometimes willing to aid House Forrester to get it.  If I have lots of criticisms of this game, it's because the game makers have done such a good job making me care about the characters, I can't stand to see them get the short end of the stick.  

Secondary characters are generally well drawn, even when they are meant to be obvious stand-ins for other characters, like Frostfinger for Alliser Thorne, or Lord Rickard Morgryn for Littlefinger.  My favorites are Tom, the coal boy with mysterious ties who aids Mira, and Beshka, Asher's best friend and all-around badass sellsword.

Then there are the Show Characters.  For the most part, they are portrayed faithfully.  The one that comes across worst is Daenerys, who sounds cold and stilted throughout.  Dany is capable of acting like a real human being, writers!  Cersei and Jon seem mostly like their show selves, as does Tyrion, though he sounds a little too light hearted given where he would have been at that point in the series (ex-Hand, constant punching bag for his family).  Margaery actually comes across better here -- still selfish, but much more cautious and vulnerable.      

Fidelity to the Source Material.  By "source material," I mean the books as well as the show.  If you watched the show alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that the North is just a barren wasteland filled with the Boltons and their loyalists.  Thankfully, Telltale remembers that the Starks had other bannermen, such as the Glovers, and that they in turn had bannermen of their own.  House Forrester is briefly referenced in A Dance With Dragons, though as a hill clan, not as a distinct noble house.  No matter.  Such details show that the creators were paying attention, along with "book only" phrases like the oft-repeated "Words are wind."  Of course, I also have many criticisms of their fealty to the source material below, but I should give credit where it's due.   

Some Voice Overs.  Among the Game Characters, the voice acting is generally high quality, with Asher and Rodrik's voice actors standing out in particular.  Some complain about Gwyn Whitehill's inconsistent accent, but I never really noticed.  She sounds appropriately no-nonsense and badass.  The only clunkers may be the most recent additions in Chapter 6, Elsera and Josera Snow.  Elsera's voice, in particular, grated on me instantly and made me dislike her.

As noted above, the Show Characters sounded mostly like themselves, with the exception of Emilia Clarke's slightly stilted delivery.  The best voice acting job, by far, is that of Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton, who manages to replicate his Joker-like psychotic delivery perfectly.

The "Divisive" Choice in Chapter Five.  As those who have played the game know, you must make a gut-wrenching choice at the end of Chapter Five whether to continue on as Asher or as Rodrik.  Most choices in this game don't substantially change the story direction, but this one does.  Depending upon whether you're Asher or Rodrik, you get some interesting story choices.  In my "canon" playthrough, I chose Asher to continue on, and had the option of forging an alliance with Gwyn.  Now I'm curious to see what that relationship will entail next season.  Those who chose Rodrik will want to know whether his fiance, Elaena Glenmore, will get out of trouble.  Should provide an interesting challenge to the game makers.    


The Less Good

Plausibility.  For a very minor noble house, the Forresters sure are popular in Westeros!  When it's not Cersei taking time out of her day of ill-plotting to grill Mira in the throne room, it's Tyrion marveling at the Forresters' awesome ability to produce ironwood products, or Gregor Forrester being charged by Robb Stark to lead forces against Casterly Rock.  Never mind that Robb Stark in the source material put only his highest bannermen in charge.  Never mind that a handmaiden like Mira -- if her parents didn't have the sense to get her the hell out of Dodge long ago -- would either be beneath Cersei's notice, or would be swiftly executed for being from a traitor family and possibly a Northern spy.  Never mind that many greater houses like Hightower and Manderly haven't even been mentioned.  The Forresters are apparently just that awesome.

For that matter, despite Ironrath being such a modest fortress, held by a small force, the Whitehills seem to move heaven and earth to conquer it.  In addition to the 500 soldiers in their army, they're also sneaking around King's Landing gathering sellswords and talking strategy with the traitor on the Forrester council.  Did Gregor Forrester sleep with Ludd Whitehill's wife once?  The level of animosity Ludd feels toward the Forresters feels out of proportion with any power they actually hold.         

That brings me to something about Mira's plotline that bothers me.  Remember, Sansa Stark was in King's Landing because she had no choice.  Mira Forrester was there voluntarily, and somehow that was okay with everyone?  Cersei grills her and is then like: "'Kay, but I'm keeping my eye on you!"?  What in seven hells prevents the ever-paranoid Cersei from seizing Mira right there and having her beheaded?  And how the hell could the Forresters leave Mira in enemy territory and think she would be safe?  You took part in a war against the so-called rightful King of Westeros, Forresters!  Cersei Lannister is well within her rights to want your daughter dead!  Seriously, any Northerner in King's Landing would either be a hostage or a prisoner.  Yet Mira's threatened beheading comes not from Cersei, but from some lame-ass third-tier Littlefinger wannabe who wants revenge because she made him feel inadequate.      

Plot Holes.  Less forgivable are the numerous plot holes that litter the game, as the creators strained to make the characters' actions fit the needs of the plot.  One outrageous one involved the traitor on the Forresters' council.  Not only did the reveal lack any ingenuity, but the traitor's actions made no sense.  At that point in the game, the Forresters had great leverage with Gryff Whitehill as their hostage.  The traitor wanted only to keep House Forrester strong, so what did he do?  Let Gryff go.  Moreover, players have complained that even if you did what the traitor suggested throughout the game, the traitor would still complain that you went against his counsel.

An even worse plot hole involves Mira's storyline.  Throughout the game, Mira's story seems to be building toward a confrontation involving Cersei and Tyrion.  Tyrion is accused of killing Joffrey, and I thought Mira would be called upon to testify or at least be condemned for being a "conspirator."  Nope.  Cersei and Tyrion are nowhere to be found in Chapter Six.  I don't know if the actors just weren't available and Telltale was forced to change plans, or if this was always the intention.  Instead of Cersei condemning Mira, it's Poor Man's Littlefinger, who does not exist in the source material, but seems to have unparalleled power here.  He can get a girl from a noble house locked up and sentenced to death for the killing of a guard.  No trial, not even by combat.  Can you tell I'm slightly upset about this?

Those are probably the biggest ones, but there are numerous others that sapped my enjoyment of the game.  For instance, Elaena's brother and the Glenmore elite guard followed me to the meeting at Highpoint, but somehow when I returned, in the split second my back was turned, Ramsay Bolton -- who would not have known which soldiers were with me -- found, captured, and tortured Elaena's brother.  That's some amazing time traveling!    

Lack of Options.  Both the books and the show are bleak, with more defeats than victories at this point.  However, the game may have them beat.  Options that could make your situation slightly more bearable are denied you.  Want to tell Ramsay that the Whitehills disobeyed him and claimed all of the ironwood forests?  No can do.  Want to communicate with Margaery Tyrell or another one of your friends before you face the block?  Sorry.  Want to avoid Tyrion?  You're shit out of luck.  Ultimately, your choices are what the game gives you, and too often they are relentlessly, sometimes unrealistically, bad ones.

Characters Poorly Used.  This game has a lot of well-drawn characters, but too few seem to live up to their potential.  What was the point of being nice to social-climbing Sera?  It never uncovered any advantage, except that Sera was only slightly less resistant to Mira joining the garden party than otherwise.  What was the point of Tom?  Who did he work for?  Why was his employer so concerned about helping Mira?  (I've heard some deleted vocals that answer this question, but since they are not official, I don't know if the game makers changed their mind.)  

What was the point of Asher hiring the pit fighters?  We were told that they were such unique, badass fighters, but in the end, only Amaya stood out.  The rest could have been generic sellswords (and the idea that Asher, with his gold, could not have purchased the services of any sellsword company besides the Second Sons is ridiculous).  And then there are Finn and Cotter, Gared's friends from the Night's Watch.  That Cotter is a wildling has no bearing on the overall plot; he doesn't provide any necessary skills or knowledge, then later dies from a shoulder wound.  Same with Finn, who exists only to die and later emerge as a wight.  Their quest to find the North Grove could have been a fun buddy adventure, but that aspect petered out far too quickly.


Conclusion

I complain, but as I stated above, this game is well worth the time of both a book/show fan and the casual player.  It has a nice visual style, an easy playing style, a basically good story, and well drawn characters.  Its drawbacks, consisting of plot holes and implausibilities, prevent it from being truly special.  But perhaps some of the inadequacies will be dealt with in Season Two. 

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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