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The good news about Telltale Games' Game of Thrones is that it is very, very Game of Thrones. It captures perfectly the machinations, intrigue and violence that are the hallmark of the show - which is why, of course, its fidelity to its source material is also the bad news. You can say all the right things and still have everything go horribly wrong, your fate changing irreparably because of someone's malicious whim. It makes for a faithful adaptation of the popular HBO show based on the even more popular series of books, undoubtedly filling some players with despair and others with a fire to claw their way to the Iron Throne.
Telltale's Game of Thrones absolutely assumes that you are not only familiar with the show (or the books, potentially, though the game is very much based on the world created by the show, using voices and likenesses of the cast) but also fairly up to date. Without getting into spoiler territory, when the game begins, Joffrey isn't married, but Robb Stark is, and if the significance of either event is lost on you, you'll be baffled by most of what happens in the episode. The game makes no effort to explain to newcomers what a Maester or Septa is, why cozying up to Tyrion is not without its complications, or why it would be bad to be brother and sister the way Jamie and Cersei are. It doesn't take a devotee of the show to grasp the import of bad people tormenting decent people, but the nuance will be lost and, in Westeros, nuance is often the difference between life and death.
You play as three different characters; two are members of the Forrester family, banner men to House Stark and caretakers of groves of Ironwood, which they lovingly craft into ships, shields, and other things vital to the success of the realm. The third is a farmer who learns very quickly that being right often doesn't matter unless you are also powerful, which neither he nor his friends the Forresters are. Playing as these people provides a much different perspective on the Game of Thrones ecosystem. As muddled as the futures of the members of House Stark and Lannister may be, those are still names that carry weight and influence in the world. Simply being a member of either family is to weild a certain amount of power - a power that most residents of Westeros completely lack. Trying to move within that world as someone smart, ambitious or kind - but insignificant in the grand scheme - is confusing, dangerous and frustrating. It's also a fascinating puzzle. You can't help but feel that success is within your grasp if you can just figure out which moves to make, only to see your opponent change the pieces just as you're about to fit the last few together.
The first chapter of Game of Thrones, "Iron from Ice," wisely shifts focus between the Forresters at their home in the North and Mira Forrester, who's currently a handmaiden in King's Landing. Mira's entanglements allow us some time with Cersei and Tyrion, brushing up against events of the show without interfering with them in a way that wouldn't make sense. Other characters from the show are similarly pulled into the narrative in ways that feel appropriate, as opposed to being dropped in for a quick, logic-breaking cameo before disappearing back into canon. The story of the Forresters is woven into the tapestry of Westeros elegantly and sensibly, illustrating how vital they are to their sphere of influence while also making it clear just how small that sphere is when compared to the grand schemes of those who would vie to become King or Queen.
Game of Thrones breaks slightly from the mold in which Telltale's other games were crafted by abandoning the highly stylized visuals for ones that are softer and move evocative of oil paintings than comic books. The more realistic (though still artistically embellished) graphics imbue the gameplay with significant emotional weight, bridging the gap between characters that are purely the creation of the game, and those portrayed by actual people on the show. A scene between Mira and Cersei is all the more powerful because it doesn't feel like two digital characters following paths of a dialog tree. Also, that conversation might be the most tense scene you play in a video game this year. Except for the one that comes a little later, maybe. Iron from Ice is dark and full of terrors, is what I'm getting at.
The only thing that Game of Thrones has going against it is the nature of its story, which is full of betrayal, death, malice and hopelessness. If you find yourself at the end of Game of Thrones episodes feeling emotionally exhausted, then actually putting yourself in the position of characters who face those kind of no-win situations is perhaps not a great idea. Everything you feel while watching the show you will feel even more acutely as you play Iron from Ice, because this time you're not a spectator, you're a participant. Of course, this is also what many players will find appealing, the chance to finally test your mettle and force your will upon the world where winter is coming. You probably know which kind of fan you are, so choose accordingly.
This review is based on an Xbox Live download of the Xbox One version of Game of Thrones, provided by Telltale Games. Images: Telltale Games.
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