California Literary Review

Video Game Review: Game of Thrones

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June 17th, 2012 at 11:07 am

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Game of Thrones box art
Game of Thrones

Release Date: May 15th &16th, 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Windows PC
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: BioWare Inspired Action RPG
ESRB: M for Mature
Campaign Running Time: About 40 Hours

CLR Rating: ★½☆☆☆


The Winter of Discontent isn’t coming, it’s here.

Oh man, Game of Thrones. Over the last year, HBO has turned George R.R. Martin’s high fantasy medieval bloodbath A Song of Ice and Fire series from the touchstone of geek chic it was into a straight up cultural juggernaut. The struggles of the power hungry and conniving Lannisters, the noble and ever betrayed Starks, and the wandering Dragon Queen Daenyrys are quickly becoming the cultural touchstones of the decade, in much the same way Frodo and the hobbits, or Harry Potter and Hogwarts were of the last.

Of course the future’s left uncertain. The show has already begun to run afoul of budget constraints, which has killed lesser series on HBO, and of course there’s still the fact that Martin has yet to conclude the cycle itself. If in, say, six years, the showrunners start churning out filler episodes waiting for Martin to finish (a situation many anime fans are familiar with), you’re sure to see a reversal of fortunes as swift as Stannis Baratheon’s at the battle of Blackwater Bay!

Still, right now the momentum is riding high. Game of Thrones is a hit, many are turning to the books for the first time as their anticipation burns like one of King Robert’s venereal diseases, and it’s time for the expected off-shoots and spin-offs to appear out of the woodwork, riding on the coattails of name recognition to wealth and power like Margery Tyrell and her uncanny ability to marry would-be kings.

Game of Thrones video game

Only scantily clad women? Phfft! I thought this was Game of Thrones, not The Inheritance cycle!

Striking while the Valyrian steel’s hot, French developer Cyanide Studios is one of the first out of the gate, producing a pair of Game of Thrones titles. The first, Game of Thrones: Genesis, a clone of The Creative Assembly’s Total War medieval strategy simulations, came out last year and was met with the chilly reception of Craster’s keep. The other is what we’re discussing today: Game of Thrones: The Game, an RPG mostly molded in the style of BioWare’s last foray into the fantastic, Dragon Age 2.

Dragon Age 2 was a game which suffered from as many flaws as Theon Greyjoy’s personality, yet ultimately worked due to its charming characters. It might not have been the wisest model to follow. Unlike in Westeros, good writing and clever dialogue are hard to come by in video game land. When such qualities are the only chance you have to separate yourself from the competition and the standard is set high due to the source material, it’s as risky a gambit as trying to steal a Dothraki’s horse or Brienne of Tarth’s virginity!

At least the folks at Cyanide have been bold. Rather than follow the well-worn road of most tie-ins and use scenes already seen and characters whose fates fans already know, they’ve elected the harder road of carving out new tales set in fan familiar territory. Yes, this is the “gaiden” path of the side story gamers are all too familiar with.

Game of Thrones video game

Look, it’s Queen Cersei! She doesn’t really needs the guards, she’s protected by something far better: plot armor!

Set prior to and during the first book/season of the series, and sharing the same name as both, Game of Thrones structures its narrative after the novels. Its levels are split into chapters, and the chapters are split by using “Point of View” characters that follow a different protagonist in each. Unlike the dozen or so POV characters each book contains however, the game has only two: Mors Westford and Alester Sarwyck.

Both hitherto unknown men fought during Robert’s Rebellion – the major war that predates the series proper – but due to creative convenience, were exiled at its conclusion. Mors “took the black” and joined the Night’s Watch in the frozen north, while Alester fled to foreign lands and found religion in the priesthood of the fire god R’hllor. As the game begins Mors is hunting down deserters of the Watch, which has a nasty “celibacy for life” policy, and Alester is returning home to reclaim his rightful place as head of the Sarwyck household after his father’s suspicious death.

Soon enough, both are drawn into two different sides of the same plot: Queen Cersei has sent Alester’s bastard brother, Valarr Hill, to secretly (and fittingly enough) hunt down King Robert’s illegitimate children. Whilst juggling their own personal goals, Alester and Mors independently unravel the mysteries behind this ignoble royal command and encounter familiar faces such as Jeor Mormont, Chataya (thus far absent from the show) and Varys “The Spider” along the way. Eventually, their paths converge in a third act centered on dark magic, betrayal, and revenge . . . pretty much a standard day in Westeros, really.

Game of Thrones video game

Being a brother of the Night’s Watch sucks. You can’t get laid, it’s freezing cold, and if the wildings or the wights don’t kill you, Mors here will. But hey, at least your wardrobe is a nice, flattering black.

So, does this Game of Thrones manage to live up to the promise of its source material? Or does it end up as horrible as the Hound’s face? The answer is a thunderously hesitant, “It’s pretty good,” but with more caveats than Walder Frey has heirs.

Notably, there’s the issue of magic itself, or more specifically, the amount of it. Alester and Mors have secondary mystical abilities that are introduced early and used frequently. Alester makes collect calls and receives divine guidance through fireplaces befitting his role as red priest for a flaming god, while Mors can “skinchange” or “warg” into his pet dog (imaginatively named “The Dog”) and control the animal remotely like a RC car with fangs.

Considering magic is rarely used in the series proper, such reliance on it here comes off a bit trite. Especially since on more than one occasion these abilities resolve not just a fight with nameless guards marked for stabbing death, but major crises of the plot. While it’s realistic to let their magic exist in both gameplay and narrative, such usage is also precisely why magic can be problematic in fantasy stories in the first place; if you need to resort to a contrivance such as a miracle to get around a corner you’ve written yourself into, the solution wasn’t a spell, but to not write yourself into that corner!

Still, for a videogame it’s quite subdued. While you’ll see magic more often in this one game than you will reading through the first three novels, you won’t hurl lightning and summon Bahumut Zero as in most other fantasy RPGs. I suppose that’s the best interpretation of “low magic world” you could expect.

Of a far greater concern are the basic mechanics not related to the arcane, primarily the combat, exploration, and basic RPG stat systems.

Combat is what’s most similar to Dragon Age; you control one character at a time in real-time and issue most of your battle commands when you pause the action to pull up an ability wheel. However, you cannot set up the AI to make specific actions as in DA2, nor are you ever in total command of a party greater than two, so there is little in the way of involved team strategy. For the most part, melees devolve into abusing simple, overpowered combinations a single character has (trip, downward stab, repeat) to expedite a foe’s demise, and using one character to “tank” and draw fire while the other attacks the flanks, easily the most basic (and boring) of RPG tactics.

Game of Thrones video game

Alester looks like he and would look perfectly at home on a heavy metal album covering Gregorian chants. I’d call it it Felonious Monk.

Far worse are the paltry number of places you’ll go to and how you’ll explore them. The problem isn’t in the visual interpretations, which are an odd muddled combination of book and show, but the AI of the people in them, for they distinctly lack the “I”. NPCs in the game are obviously given only the most basic scripting. Most just stand around waiting to be triggered for conversation, cutscene or combat, or just present endless looping animations or tiresome talk for eavesdropping. It’s reminiscent of much older RPGs where at least the excuse for lifeless civilians and idiotic guards was poor technology, but these days the only valid explanation is lacking budget or ability, and the fault is likely a combination here.

Then there are the fundamental math mechanics. RPGs are often about a series of ever increasing numbers that represent your better equipment or skill at arms, but the marginal returns for continued progress dull both subsets to the point of pointlessness here. With the exception of ridiculously overpriced gear that you can’t afford until the game is almost over (only if you’ve saved every copper), new weapons and armor offer only the slightest increments in improvement. This carries over to leveling character growth stats as well, where maximizing your ability with a spear increased your chance to hit by an amazing 6%!

Wow! That’s so much better than the 5.1% I had four levels ago! Truly, my empowerment fantasy is being fulfilled beyond my heart’s desire.

Game of Thrones video game

”Never Fear! My House Stark Chainmail of Slight Snow Resistance (Weak to Backstabbing) will deflect these Lannister blades! No, wait . . .”

Alright, the metagame stats are a mess, the combat is tedious, and the lack of AI robs the world’s inhabitants of life . . . but does all of that really matter? After all, this is an RPG. At the end of the day the only things that count are the story, the characters, and how these aspects are delivered.

Surprisingly, this is where the game manages to succeed in spite of itself, at least at the conceptual level. The overarching plot was apparently approved and worked on by Martin himself, and it’s actually a pretty good ride filled with some decent twists and turns that, while not exactly surprising or revelatory, manages to hit more often than miss. The core differences that divide the two heroes and lead them down their grim path are by turns natural and fairly poignant, and the sheer side-story nature of these characters never showing up in the original series lends an inevitably tragic gravitas to the whole affair.

But Martin obviously left the story phase of this project after approving an outline, because it’s the specifics of execution that assassinate many of the merits of this otherwise solid plot more efficiently than a Faceless Man. The minute by minute dialogue is redundant, overly expository, and far too often redundant, while the vocal delivery could only be called “uneven” if you were being generous, and the pace crawls with padded gameplay the middle. Combined with the common problems of stiff, under emotive facial animation and overwrought body language, along with the often poorly timed lip syncing, and you get the sense that first year drama students are performing a bit of Shakespearean fan-fiction that was recorded and translated by Honk Kong DVD bootleggers.

Game of Thrones video game

“Why, why did I choose to worship a god who only notices self-immolation?!”

I suppose such supremely flawed construction is to be expected. It’s a licensed tie-in, and the track record of those being good is about as trustworthy as Petyr Baelish. But to me, the real tragedy isn’t that this Game of Thrones is poorly done, it’s that choosing this particular gaming format, an action-RPG in the style of BioWare, is missing the point a bit.

Surely, the Song of Ice and Fire series has action, whether through duels, bandit raids, or the hurly-burly of knights on the field, but what’s really drawn people’s interest is the manipulative and medieval court intrigue. The “game of thrones” the characters are constantly referring to is a political one, based not about the power of holding a sword in your hand, but the power of holding sway over the men who hold the swords. From Cersei to Catelyn Stark, the most interesting characters are consistently weak physically, but who wield influence like a knife, with charming, misshapen Tyrion Lannister being the current champion in this arena.

While this aspect of manipulation and control is present in Game of Thrones, it’s merely a detail of the plot when it should be the game itself, at least in part. The structure of alternating protagonists lends itself well to the concept of multiple characters with different play styles (an idea done well in the PS2 game Shadow of Rome), and one of them could have been someone with little martial strength but with a silver tongue and more political heft. While shades of this idea are attempted via their dialogue system, it’s merely a flicker of what should have been. Unfortunately, creating a new game genre about turn of phrase and deception is hard, while going with the tired and true “stab more doods” far easier.

Game of Thrones video game

Upon reflection, all the blood spilt over control of an immensely pointy seat really just seems like an extended metaphor for musical chairs, doesn’t it? Whoever sits atop it when the song stops gets to be king!

In summation, this Game of Thrones is a surprisingly decent story that ties in well with a beloved series, but it’s wrapped up in ineptitude, tiresome gaming clichés, and misses the opportunity to do something that would have been both more fitting and unique and thus will most likely be forgotten by even the fandom it sought to ensnare. Or, to borrow from The Bard, it’s “. . . but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard from no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Since the series looks like it’s going to be around for the fullness of the decade, here’s to hoping the next inevitable cash-in videogame actually figures out the point of this property. Otherwise, the cry of gamers will echo the words of House Baratheon . . . Ours is the Fury.

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Game of Thrones Trailer

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