How Telltale’s newest game captures the heart of the popular book and television series and why it’s the perfect tribute.
When I first read the Red Wedding chapter in A Storm of Swords, I was on vacation in Mexico. I read the entire book on the beach over the first two days there, and I spent the second night slouched under the florescent lights at a poolside bar, pounding daquiris alone, inconsolable. It literally ruined my holiday. Well, that's not exactly right. The knowledge that a 1,200-page fantasy saga was ruining my holiday ruined my holiday. Why did I — why do we — take this series so hard? Why is Game of Thrones so devastating, exactly?
Viewers of the HBO hit have now gone through three cycles of something resembling mass grief — for Ned Stark, Robb and Catelyn Stark, and Oberyn Martell — and readers up to date with George Martin's books have gone through a few more still. The shirt-rending intensity of that grief feels somewhat unmatched in contemporary pop culture, save for maybe a particular Good Wife spoiler that we won't get into. Anecdotal online evidence suggests that no one mourned Walter White, Nicholas Brody, Zoe Barnes, or Tony Soprano (yes, it's up for debate!) with the same depth of emotion.
Pop-narrative theories abound for this reaction. The simplest holds that people get upset because we don't expect heroes to die, but lots of movies and shows and games include the death of a protagonist, so I don't think that's totally it. Another theory says that people get so upset because the deaths are so sudden and unexpected, and while that explains the shock, it doesn't explain the almost mythic importance, the cult of sadness, that has grown up around these three scenes.
For a long time, I thought the reason these scenes hurt so much was because all of the deaths felt so avoidable. All of the dead characters died because of bad choices that they didn't have to make. Ned trusted Littlefinger. Robb married Jeyne Westerling (sorry, Talisa Maegyr). Oberyn demanded a confession from Gregor Clegane rather than killing him immediately. By making bad choices, these characters played the game wrong. And watching the series after having read the book only reinforces that banging-on-the-soundproof-glass-screaming-“no!” sensation.
But this interpretation assumes that the characters in this series have choices to make at all. A heavy streak of predestination runs through A Song of Ice and Fire: prophecies, holy cycles, foretold destinies. Fairly standard fantasy stuff. But it makes you wonder, within the moral universe of ASOIAF, how much agency any of the characters really have (obviously, they have no choice — they're characters on a page). Crucially, the bad choices in the series are written as indivisible from character. Oberyn taunting The Mountain isn't an uncharacteristic weak moment; it's the same theatrics that make us love him as a character. Ned trusts Littlefinger because Ned is trusting. Robb falls in love because Robb is young and enthusiastic. That's a tough idea: that the qualities that make people admirable and good also make them vulnerable and weak. Ultimately, I think this is what makes the major heroic deaths in the series so depressing; they argue that the traits we find admirable in fictional characters inevitably lead to bad choices, choices that must inevitably be punished.
That's a lot of windup, but that's because the ideas of destiny, choice, free will, and tragedy are heavily embedded in this series — and in our emotional investment in the series. And maybe that's why it's so crazy-brilliant that the new, excellent serial video game based on the series is a choose-your-own-adventure.
Made by Telltale Games, the flourishing Bay Area studio that rose to prominence with their mobile adventure series The Walking Dead (it's orders of magnitude superior to the AMC show, trust me), the first episode of the six-parter, Iron From Ice, comes out today for consoles and Thursday for iOS. It has the look and feel of an episode of the show: It's got the theme song, it's got the HBO logo, and it's got the voice acting of several of the series' stars. The game's original story, written by Telltale, concerns a minor Northern house (Forrester) that gets caught on the wrong side of the Red Wedding. Nodding to the books by scooting back and forth between a set of characters affiliated with the Forresters, Iron from Ice takes place between the third and fourth seasons of the show, and characters from the show pop in from time to time looking not at all sheepish about how much more time than everyone else they've spent in their chambers getting rendered.
And choices. It's got those choices. With the exception of some wandering and some frantic button tapping, Iron From Ice basically comprises two straight hours of the kind of agonizing A-B-C prompts you are used to watching Peter Dinklage and Kit Harrington bungle disastrously. Do you receive an angry lord at your castle gates or in your great hall? Do you trust the kindly castellan, or the belligerent sergeant at arms? Do you flatter Cersei, or sass Cersei? (n.b.: I could not resist sassing Cersei.)
For neurotics, the litany of options may be too much entirely. The sense the game gives you, as you surf a cascade of bad decisions, is that you are just as ill-equipped to handle Westerosi exigencies as were poor Ned and Catelyn and Oberyn. I found myself not just torturing myself about my decisions, but questioning my decision-making process itself. Was I making these choices as Joe Bernstein the moral person or as Joe Bernstein the Game of Thrones freak/Machiavel? Was I making these decisions as Joe Bernstein the human or in character as Gared the Fugitive Squire? Was I really making decisions at all? By the end of Iron From Ice, I felt like the game was asking me whether I was actively screwing up or whether I was predestined to screw up.
That's a structural question as much as it is a philosophical one. Any game that gives players branching choices orbits around a related discussion about the extent to which these choices actually change the outcome. One of the major critiques of Telltale games, and this kind of decision-based plotting in general, is that only a handful of the choices really shape the narrative. In other words, to their detractors, these games simply burnish the tracks of narrative with the lacquer of agency.
But for me, it's that very tension between power and powerlessness that makes the first episode such a compelling interpretation of George Martin's universe. By the end of Iron From Ice, as my choices did — or did not — lead to a very sudden and very bad outcome for one of the characters, I felt that old Game of Thrones feeling: highly shocked, highly bummed out, highly unsure who was really responsible. Oh, and one extra: highly wanting much, much more.