Game of Thrones Episode 1: Iron From Ice, Telltale’s newest entry in its line of beloved episodic story games, is ambitious as an adaptation. There are few modern fandoms that carry the weight of the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, so to tell a story in the already adapted book-to-television world of HBO’s Game of Thrones is a heavy order that few have managed to pull off with even middling success.
But Telltale’s GoT is triumphant in its ability to capture the feel of the HBO series while tickling the fan-nerves of show watchers, and it’s amazing that a licensed game can achieve such true-to-the-source atmosphere. Through Telltale’s signature conversation simulator gameplay, Iron from Ice manages to tell an original story that doesn’t feel like glorified fanfic or like it’s too restricted by established canon. Telltale was able to find a blindspot worth expanding and then delivered authenticity thanks to its world-spanning focus, high in-game stakes that are unrelated to the show’s various plots, and the blessings of a forward-thinking cable channel that made it possible.
TV on The Console
A video game adaptation of a television show needs to fit into a very restrictive container. Not every TV watcher is a game player, so the game can’t contain essential story information. The show is the parent and gets privileges. That being the case, the player characters cannot be personalities from the show and their actions can’t have significance that would change the direction of events in the main HBO storyline. Giving players control of Tyrion Lannister or Jon Snow would feel like hubris, but their absence from the adaptation would destroy the entire point of making a Game of Thrones game.
Without spoiling the details (but if you’re the kind of person that wants a blank slate experience just go play the game now, you won’t regret it), Iron From Ice shifts the framing of the series to the lesser northern family of House Forrester during the rise of the Boltons in the North.
In focusing on House Forrester, Telltale took a cue from the old fanfiction playbook. The lesser house is mentioned only once in A Song of Ice and Fire, and as such doesn’t suffer the constraint of restrictive details. The game fleshes the family out and finds a place for them at the Red Wedding, during which the game begins.
From there, you don’t simply find new perspectives on known events, which would seem masturbatory and shallow at best, but have to deal with personal consequences in a Kingdom at civil war. House Forrester’s insignificance in the larger game of thrones highlights the brutal indifference of Westeros, a place where bad things happen to everyone and no one is too important to die in a horrific and unjust way.
It’s All In The Game
The action in Episode One is spread across three characters in various locations, each of different status and with their own part to play in the drama of House Forrester. The sections that put you in the role of the House Lord have you weighing decisions that might lead to brutality at the hands of Ramsay Snow, while the scenes played as a squire have you feeling particularly powerless.
A character positioned in Kings Landing highlights the game’s ability to integrate itself with the series, putting you in contact with three major personalities – Cersei, Tyrion and Margaery Tyrell – each of whom is voiced by the actor that normally portrays them. The interactions with the who’s who of the Seven Kingdoms focus solely on how your choices will affect House Forrester. Every bit of high stakes drama – even those that involve primary series characters – is only important to fringe players in the newly expanded universe.
It’s a deft way of constructing a story, and seems to be the best way to adapt a passive medium like TV into an active game that you have some control over. Your actions have extremely high personal importance and carry life or death consequences, but your choices have absolutely no effect on the overall series. Telltale can therefore perfectly emulate the style of super-important, extra serious fantasy drama in a way that is unimportant to the major narrative, which in turn feeds into the nihilistic tone that Game of Thrones is famous for.
Unlike Telltale’s Wolf Among Us, which allows a player to fully inhabit a single character in a personal way, Game of Thrones lets you keep a semi-objective distance. As the narrative progresses you switch between characters of different gender, class and age, each with their own personal goals but sharing a common love of their heritage. It fosters the illusion of strategy, as if you’re playing Game of Thrones Risk by proxy, but it also helps encourage you to make decisions based on what a character might do rather than what you would do. I played all of Wolf Among Us without dismembering anyone. That is not the case in the first episode of Game of Thrones.
Adventures in Marketing
The excellence of Telltale’s Game of Thrones is also an interesting example of how HBO has embraced video games as marketing tools.
Earlier this year I reported on Game of Thrones: The Exhibit, which included the best television or movie teaser I’ve ever seen. At the back of the gallery, housed in a row of fake ramshackle wooden elevators, were Oculus Rift headsets meant to take attendees on a virtual tour of The Wall from the perspective of a Night’s Watchman. Unbeknownst to the viewer, the tour was actually a teaser for the upcoming bottle siege episode “The Watchers on The Wall,” something that only became apparent after you were shot and killed by a flaming Wildling arrow as Mance Rayder’s attack commenced.
HBO’s attitude, that games and game-like experiences can be used to build anticipation, is a large part of what allows Telltale’s game to get so close to the main GoT narrative. So many TV-to-game adaptations are barred from major franchise elements, and are thus made to feel more like sloppy tributes or cash-ins than actual extensions of the story fans love (LOST: Via Domus is a perfect example).
Playing Iron From Ice, I got the feeling that HBO sees it as a fun way to engage with fans. From the White Walker that stares out at you on the coming soon screen for episode four to the re-worked title sequence, everything about the game screams “thrilling marketing opportunity.” Ideally, the full game will deepen the show, which in turn (if the later episodes are to be released during the show’s airing) will inform the game. That‘s just a hunch, but even if the crossover potential between mediums isn’t fully realized, Game of Thrones Episode One: Iron From Ice is poised to set the new standard for video game TV adaptations.