Translating 'A Game of Thrones' with George R.R. Martin

Dalibor Dimovski
D. Dimovski|04.03.12

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Translating 'A Game of Thrones' with George R.R. Martin
Until June of last year, I had no experience with George R.R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire. Like many, the ongoing HBO series was my first exposure to Martin's acclaimed works. Since then, I've become captivated by every facet of it. I've read each of the books and novellas, spent hours arguing on message boards, and very nearly tattooed a dire wolf sigil on my arm. It's a series that is easy to fall in love with, yet difficult to put down. It's what I imagine Martin would want from any new fan.

So, when "Not everyone likes my books" is a response I receive from the author during a recent interview, you can imagine my fanboyish disbelief.

With the second season of the award-winning television adaptation premiering this past Sunday, Martin has been spending his days on an international promotional tour. He's tired, he feels overbooked, and he has mountains of work yet to do before returning to writing the series that has brought him recent success.

And in May, a new video game based on the series will be released. Translating the first book, A Game of Thrones, from words on a page into lines of code.
%Gallery-146250%Game of Thrones, developed by Cyanide Studios, is the second video game set in the world of Westeros by the developer in less than a year. The first, A Game of Thrones: Genesis, was a real-time strategy outing released last September that was met with a critical thud. Cyanide's latest effort transforms the novel into an action RPG, weaving in and out of the first novel's plot. Martin's focus on the project is from a pre-production aspect, rather than scripting scenes or dialog for Cyanide's adventure.

"The entire game was written by Cyanide, including the plot and character dialogue. But I did have creative input at many points during the process," Martin told Joystiq. When he met with members of Cyanide to review the game's design document, he made sure that the experience wouldn't break canon. "What they're doing is a parallel story to some of the early events in Ice and Fire, so my primary concern was that nothing in the game altered the events in the books."

I think we're heading for a time when games and books and movies and virtual reality all come together to make a new hybrid means of storytelling that will be truly and completely immersive.- George R.R. Martin

This is meant to be as much of a benefit to the player as it is to the writer. In order to be canonical, gamers would be forced onto a narrative rail so as not to break anything Martin has built in the longstanding series. "That would certainly make a game less fun," Martin admits. "Players need to feel like their decisions matter." The similar can be said for writers, whose creativity can stem from the ability to remain independent of the actions of others. "Games can be a really fun way to interact with a literary world, but I can't imagine any writer wants to then be shackled to events or decisions made in the game."

But that doesn't mean the link between Cyanide's Game of Thrones and Martin's series will be held back. "If you get that flavor right, then people feel like they're in the world you created, even when they're not necessarily inside the same stories the books tell." For Martin that has always meant using his words to paint a detailed picture of his creations, often to the nth degree. From visual aspects like the design of sigils and swords, to the development of language dialects, marriage traditions, and even hospitalities, his worlds are as vivid in text as they are on a television screen.

Translating that ideology to a game is just as important, and means focusing on the details that gamers will use to connect to the world. Working with Cyanide, Martin names the towns and characters, makes sure that knights of Westeros act according to edict, and dives into the visual details of items, people, and landscapes.

Perhaps that comes with the territory. Video games have certainly changed in the twenty or so years since Martin was really exposed to them last. Back then, the experiences were held back by the technology of pre-compact disc personal computers. Martin was an avid table top gamer in the 80s, playing Call of Cthulhu and Superworld and understanding the necessities of developing lengthy campaigns that kept players engaged for hours, days, and even weeks. "You certainly couldn't do that sort of storytelling back when I was gaming regularly."

In high school Martin was the captain of his chess team, and often enjoyed sessions of Risk and Diplomacy. This translated to PC gaming rather fluidly. His game style of choice? "Thinking games," he says, "where I can sit and ponder my next moves." That includes classic strategy games. "Master of Orion, and some of the Sid Meier games. Civilization and Railroad Tycoon and Pirates." It's more about the journey to make a decision than just acting on it, Martin says, where being methodical is more important than being exact. "I have never enjoyed the first-person shooters or the joystick games, where it seems to me reaction time is all that matters." Perhaps that means we can cross off 'Gears of Thrones,' as Cyanide's next venture.

With the tech behind games evolving at a staggering rate, the ability to have an engaging experience is becoming more of a reality ... for the most part. "The medium is growing up, though I would not go so far as to say it is fully mature yet." Martin does believe that we may get to a point when the lines of storytelling across media become blurry. "I think we're heading for a time when games and books and movies and virtual reality all come together to make a new hybrid means of storytelling that will be truly and completely immersive."

That time is still a ways off, but we may be fine with the wait. We're at the tail end of a console generation that has delivered some of the most memorable narrative adventures ever. Just this past year we've seen the culmination of space opera Mass Effect, the endless world of Skyrim, and the mute emotion of Journey. Gamers today are much more demanding than they were twenty years ago. Coupled with a fervent fanbase, Cyanide's Game of Thrones has a lot to live up to.

Martin isn't concerned or worried. "'Worried' is too strong a word, but of course I want fans to like it," he confides. "[Cyanide] have put a lot of hard work into the game, and a lot of passion as well. But nothing pleases everyone, and you can't let that control what you do." That's not a sign of abdication, though. More so it is a level of preparedness that his years of content creation have allowed him to be comfortable with. "Not everyone will like the game. You do the best work you can, and hope the world responds. I've sampled the work Cyanide has done, and I'm largely happy with it. I think many of my fans will share that feeling."

This may well be the moment that many fans of A Song of Ice and Fire have been hoping for, donning cloaks in the Night's Watch or adventuring across the fabled land of Westeros. At the very least, it could end up being the experience that brings George R.R. Martin back into video games, should it prove to be as challenging as he can handle.

"Probably the most recent video game I played heavily was Homeworld, which I enjoyed a lot even though I believe I died about a hundred times."

Dalibor Dimovski is a Detroit-based freelance writer with work featured at SideQuesting. Follow him on Twitter @kewlrats.
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