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Game Of Thrones and the paradoxes of adaptation


This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

The role-playing game structure is, in many ways, built as an adaptation. What is Dungeons & Dragons if not an attempt to simulate Lord of the Rings? Many other role-playing systems, both tabletop and electronic, are built off of the D&D model, as well. And all you need to do is look at the elves, hobbits, orcs, and trolls of early and more modern RPGs to see the Lord of the Rings influence. It may not be a stretch to say that many early RPGs were attempts at playable novels.

Improvements in technology and more licensing meant that adaptations of different media, specifically film, have become more prominent over the course of game history. But adaptations can be difficult to execute successfully.

There are two major, though interconnected, issues for video game adaptations: authenticity and pacing. The Game of Thrones RPG from developer Cyanide struggles to deal with both, succeeding in some respects, while failing at others, as pointed out in the Joystiq review. It keeps pace with some older, competent adaptations like last generation's Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, but it falls well short of the very best adaptations, namely, Betrayal At Krondor.

Gallery: Game of Thrones (4/25/12) | 29 Photos

One of the main problems with adapting something into a game from another medium is that it's essentially impossible to keep the adaptation completely true to the spirit of the source material. Cyanide's Game of Thrones demonstrates this almost immediately in its character customization screen. There are six classes in the game, and some of them will trigger immediate reactions for fans. The Magnar's dual weapons look great as a visualization for readers of the books. Fans of the show will immediately recognize the Water Dancer, posed like Arya's memorable teacher Syrio Forel; or the Sellsword, reminiscent of Tyrion's deadly right-hand man Bronn.

Yet some of the choices conflict with established imagery from the novels and HBO series. While a two-handed weapon wielding Hedge Knight and sword and shield combo-focused Landed Knight makes a certain kind of sense, these restrictions are opposed to the show's depiction of Ned Stark and Gregor Clegane. At this level, it's relatively minor nitpicking, but it can escalate throughout games.

In The Third Age, the game that Game of Thrones most reminds me of, the elf character Idrial casts all manner of different spells, corresponding with how most RPGs work, despite the relative lack of regular magic in the Lord of the Rings novels and films. This indicated how willing The Third Age was to take liberties with the source material. This became a far bigger authenticity issue over the course of the game, and the heroes ridiculously found themselves battling the Balrog next to Gandalf, or finishing the game with a direct fight against Sauron, a villain who derived power from his lack of physical form and confrontation.

The authenticity of the story and world, as well as the game's ability to function as a playable product can all come into conflict, creating the paradox of the perfect adaptation. In story terms, many of the better adaptations don't directly follow the famous stories of their original media. The Third Age may include many of the heroes of the films, but you play a different set of characters, running through the world in parallel to the main characters.

This is also the case with Game Of Thrones, although it goes much further – only a handful of characters from the novels/show make appearances. Instead, it tries to tell a similar story to the source material, using the world and tone of the novels and show –succeeding at the former, just missing on the latter. In an interview with Joystiq, A Song of Ice and Fire creator George R.R. Martin explained this was the only direction he was willing to take with the story in Cyanide's RPG. In contrast: Betrayal At Krondor built, with its author's blessing, a story that took place in the years between two of its source's novels, ten years after the first series of novels and ten before the next book.

There are virtually no adapted role-playing games in which you control the main characters of the source material. This makes sense because of the second major issue adaptations face beyond most games: pacing.

In your average action movie, there are around four or five action scenes. In novels like A Game of Thrones it can be even fewer, due to characters being split based on their points of view. In the first novel, Bronn is in three fights, and he's a fairly minor character. Compare that to your average role-playing game, which probably has dozens of different fights at the low end – hundreds or even thousands for others. The reasons for this are simple – games are longer than most other media, for one, especially RPGs, where 30-40 hours of gameplay is considered normal. A good portion of this time is usually dedicated to game mechanics, particularly combat.

This represents a major change in pacing. It renders direct adaptations extremely difficult, since Game Of Thrones would lose its narrative power if it was about nothing but Ned Stark fighting guardsmen. Another difficulty is that the concepts that make certain types of media good aren't as powerful in other forms. Ian McKellan isn't in a video game to make scenes of exposition excellent as he did in the Lord of the Rings films, for example. The focuses of the stories are also different. No combat-based role-playing game could include the teenaged hostage Sansa Stark, who becomes such a fascinating character as the A Song of Ice and Fire series progresses.

Games tell their stories in very different ways – and its cutscenes typically cannot reach the same quality level as well produced film or television, nor is a game's writing usually as good as a novel. This, perhaps, is the single biggest flaw in the Game of Thrones RPG: its story may be good enough to fit in the world of the show, but its writing, voice acting, and animations aren't up to the standards of the big-budget HBO adaptation. Betrayal At Krondor was lucky in that regard; as an older game, before digitized speech and polygonal character animations, it succeeded at telling its story through its writing, something quite viable no matter what technology can or can't do.

And that's another paradox of adaptation: a big-budget, cultural phenomenon like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings is going to inspire, even demand, a game with the production values to match the source material. Yet a simpler, more abstract, and less direct adaptation is more likely to succeed at being both a good game, and a good adaptation.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

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