It’s fitting that the first thing you do in a Game of Thrones video game is clean blood from a sword. HBO’s beloved television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is well known for its graphic violence. (It’s also known for its sex, but we don’t get that here.)
As its name suggest, Game of Thrones—Episode 1—Iron from Ice is the first of six parts that will release over the coming months. Each two-hour episode will build upon itself to tell a story that takes place between the third and fifth seasons of the show. But rather than being a straight adaptation of those events, the series follows a side story starring the House of Forrester, a name that will be unfamiliar to all but the most diehard Ice and Fire fans. They have yet to appear on TV and are only mentioned in passing in Martin’s novels.
Telltale Games is the modern king of adaptations. The company was behind the critically acclaimed Walking Dead games as well as a less beloved Jurassic Park adaptation, plus games based on Wallace and Gromit, Back to the Future, and more. There are those who accuse their games of not really being video games at all, which is ludicrous. But it’s not hard to understand.
You rarely control your character in Iron from Ice; there’s at most 45 minutes of the episode’s two-hour runtime allows for actual interaction. And those moments of full control are among the least compelling. It’s not really a game you play so much as a narrative that you influence.
For the most part, you’re watching a long cutscene punctuated by moments of choice. But these choices are where Iron from Ice (and other Telltale properties) sets itself apart. More often than not, they’re choices of dialogue, but you only have a few seconds to choose a response. And if you choose nothing, you say nothing. It’s a brilliant thing, probably the best thing the game has going for it, because it makes the whole thing feel more natural. In most games, characters will wait indefinitely while the player analyzes each potential answer, but that obviously makes no sense. If you take too long to respond, people will just keep talking and your chance to speak is lost.
The time constraints force you to make decisions without fully analyzing the consequences. One of your first choices is to warn your lord of an incoming attack or to save an ally. In a rush, I decided to warn the lord, and for that my ally took a spear to the throat. But while that one came as a shock, it was moments like deciding to chop three fingers off of an admitted thief’s hand or being forced to humiliate a friend in front of the Queen in order to stave off rumors of treason that really made me feel like a terrible person. I did these things, and they could have been avoided, but I feared the repercussions that could have come with not asserting my power in the first case or by publicly undermining the throne in the latter. And these were just three moments of many.
This is exactly what a Game of Thrones game should do. Time and time again, the characters are forced to make choices that have lasting repercussions, ones that they will undoubtedly regret down the line. With Iron from Ice, players get to experience that. And since the big choices you make in each episode carry over to future entries, there really will be time to regret the decisions you’ve made. I can’t even imagine what the repercussions are for some of the things I’ve done, but I know that they will be harsh and quite probably horrific. And if we’re being honest, I find that exciting. Telltale is already known for this sort of thing, especially with The Walking Dead, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting to see it done again here.
As with any introductory episode to anything, Iron from Ice is a bit slow. It opens with a bombastic set piece, but it was far less compelling than many of the little, dialogue-driven conflicts that arose. Exactly nothing is done to acclimate players who are new to Westeros, but even people without any prior commitment to the series can still enjoy it for what it is. They will absolutely miss things, but it won’t ruin the fundamentals of what makes the game’s conversations interesting. And the episode ends in a big way, one that sets up the potential for a serious conflict going forward, hinting at a much more action packed future. This game is only two hours of what promises to be a twelve hour series, so there is plenty of time to get bigger and badder.
If well done, a video game is uniquely suited to tell the story of a television show. Not constrained by the two-hour runtime of a typical Hollywood film, a video game can build upon and explore numerous subplots and characters, giving each their due diligence. A season of Game of Thrones tells its story over ten hours, and only a video game adaptation could match or exceed that. There’s no need to cut corners here. Telltale can give the real Game of Thrones experience, but one that you can influence. When all six episodes are released and you’ve seen your story through to the end, you can go back and make different choices. You can change what happened.
Every time you watch a season of Game of Thrones, it will be the same. You may notice new things here and there, but it will be the same. The game may not look as good as its television counterpart, but the ability to influence the narrative in apparently meaningful ways makes up for that. On some level, the game is interactive fanfiction—a “Choose Your Own Adventure” spinoff featuring some familiar locales and characters (voices and likenesses provided by the show’s actors) but primarily focusing on an entirely original storyline—but it’s compelling nonetheless. And who knows, maybe we’ll see the House of Forrester appear on HBO in the not-too-distant future.