Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Dangerous Words in Telltale's Game of Thrones: Iron From Ice

Robert Rath | 29 Jan 2015 12:00
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Critical Intel Game of Thrones

Dangerous conversations. Fateful decisions. Personal grievances that send armies marching down the Kingsroad. More than any other property, Game of Thrones deserves the Telltale Game treatment. While audiences know GoT for its explicit sex and brutal violence, it's the show's preoccupation with dialogue that makes it so addictive - and Telltale's new episodic game understands that.

While Game of Thrones resides in the fantasy genre, it's ultimately about politics. And like all political dramas - from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to House of Cards - the violence always evolves out of conversation. When a character dies, the show establishes a clear reason in advance. Characters discuss the act either directly or obliquely, and they mull over the violence and its consequences. Death is not death in Game of Thrones, it's another domino falling. Three seasons later, we're still dealing with the consequences of Ned Stark's death. The show sows the seeds of character death well in advance, often when the audience doesn't realize it. Artistically, it's a trick as old as Shakespeare: Caesar glorifies himself. Brutus struggles with the morality of assassination. The senators kill Caesar, and Antony eulogizes him, setting the stage for Brutus' own death. In GoT, the fact that the audience never knows exactly what will precipitate the violence is what keeps us watching - any conversation might have import, any wrong move or poor alliance could start the headsman's axe swinging. It's riveting.

Telltale built their reputation on stuff like this. The Walking Dead kept us on edge with difficult decisions, and their subsequent games have expanded on the studio's strong dialogue-based play. Let's face it: no one plays Telltale games for the action scenes, which are alright for the most part, but you can get better elsewhere. While there are swordfights in GoT: Iron From Ice, they don't make up the bulk of the gameplay, and the one true fight scene - while unavoidable - ends up causing an aftermath of its own. The violence has political consequences you deal with through words.

But while the fun in the TV series (and books, but Telltale derived its game from the HBO show) comes from seeing what happens to the characters and trying to guess the next twist, Iron From Ice does three things differently than the show: it puts the player in charge of conversations, holds them responsible for the consequences, and gives them a time limit in which to respond. The interactivity isn't particularly notable, since games are interactive by nature, but the last two pump the player full of doubt and paranoia. Knowing that fell consequences can result from dialogue choices keeps you on edge, and the time pressure ratchets up the tension. While the player might have unlimited time for some decisions, there's no such luxury when the player stands in front of Cersei Lannister. The immediacy of these decisions - particularly when a conversation takes a surprising turn - leaves little time for strategy, and to stay consistent a player needs to keep their eyes on the outcome and think on their feet. It isn't unusual to walk out of an encounter thinking, what just happened, and what have I set in motion? That ambiguity - not knowing whether you've won or lost - lends the game a foreboding air. To die in GoT means restarting an encounter, but every misjudged bit of dialogue could birth a child that, one day, grows up to stick a knife in your back. It's all smoke and mirrors, of course - the player has limited control over the game's twists and turns - but it's a good trick carried off with style.

Conversations have another brilliant aspect: because each character has their own social roles, expectations and goals, the player has to tackle dialogue encounters differently. The play style changes depending on if the character's a lord, lady or squire. This constant shift in perspective and social roles keeps the dialogue mechanics refreshing, never allowing the player to get comfortable.

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