Hello, and welcome to Gaming Respawn’s newest feature, Primal Screen. Every Thursday, I’ll take an in-depth look at something in the world of film, TV and video games, ranging from the little details that really make them work to genre-spanning trends. Basically, just whatever’s got me fired up that week. To kick things off, here’s the story of how my experiences with the Game of Thrones Telltale game finally got me hooked on the show.
I first watched the Game of Thrones show when it launched back in 2011, primarily because the noise of its critical acclaim was impossible to ignore. I worked my way through the first season, and while I could appreciate the sheer quality of the show, the strong performances, the gorgeous locations, the bloody battle scenes etc, I also found the whole thing somewhat baffling. Did there really need to be so many characters to the extent that I forgot entire storylines from one episode to the next? Plus, everyone had weird names and talked about places with weird names (yes, I know this a feature of every fantasy series) which left me on the outside looking in. Overall, I felt that, despite its quality, this show wasn’t for the likes of me, instead functioning as a sort of X-rated Lord of the Rings for those fantasy geeks who thought Tolkien scrimped on the tits and beheadings. I was also equally sure that the only people who really loved it were those who had read the George R. R. Martin books it was adapted from, who came into it with the requisite knowledge of who comes from where, who hates whom, who’s shagging whom, who has power over whom.
Over the years, I thought about watching it again numerous times as it progressed through season after season and was endlessly feted by the critics, but that first experience always put me off, and I found something else to watch that was simpler, easier and more immediately enjoyable. That all changed on a trip to see my girlfriend’s family in Germany a few weeks ago. Separated from my PS4 and wanting a proper gaming experience, I turned to my iPad and, after playing through a few cheesy Adventure Escape games, downloaded the first episode of the Guardians of the Galaxy Telltale game almost as soon as it was released. Playing that through then inspired me to finally finish what I think is still the studio’s best work, The Wolf Among Us (I’m not a massive Walking Dead fan), a noirish tale of fairytale creatures struggling to survive in today’s New York City that’s rendered in beautiful cel-shaded graphics.
If you’ve never played one, Telltale’s games are essentially interactive stories that go in different directions depending on your choices, sort of jazzed-up 21st century versions of the choose-your-own-adventure books I loved as a kid. They also generally feature dynamic QTE fight scenes and dialogue trees that let you define the personality of your character, with responses running the gamut from arrogant asshole to sympathetic listener. This sort of approach lives and dies on the quality of its writing, and thankfully Telltale’s is generally superb, both capturing the voice of the licensed properties it works on (as well as Game of Thrones, the company has tackled Batman, the aforementioned Walking Dead, Back to the Future and Borderlands) and having the story go in places that force you to make difficult decisions against the clock. This leaves you hugely invested in the story and characters, feeling that you’ve genuinely shaped what’s unfolding in front of you.
Hungry for more Telltale, I discovered that on the iPad at least, each first episode of a series is free. I settled on Game of Thrones, as I’d heard good things and figured it was worth a punt. What I found was an adventure that immediately plunged me into the world of Game of Thrones, although the focus was not on the great Stark, Lannister and Targaryen houses of the HBO show but rather House Forrester. It’s a bold and unconventional approach, House Forrester is mentioned precisely once in the original books and never in the TV series, but it’s one that really allows Telltale to work its magic and create an original story that’s not tied to existing plot-lines. It was also no doubt influenced by practical considerations as well, getting the high-powered TV cast for extended recording sessions was no doubt financially impossible, and using the same characters with different actors would have made the game feel like a cheap knockoff. Instead, the story features cameos from the stars of the small screen, an approach no doubt designed to satisfy fans and ensure that when, for example, Tyrion Lannister does appear, he is played by Peter Dinklage (who presumably recorded his few lines in a couple of hours at the most).
But mostly you’re playing in Telltale’s world, everything about House Forrester, including its sigil, its motto and its family tree, was created by the studio in collaboration with George R.R. Martin (who sent his personal assistant along to keep an eye on things). And you quickly find yourself making the sort of tough life and death decisions that are Telltale’s stock-in-trade. Often, you’re caught between what you want to do and what you’re supposed to do, between desire and duty, between emotion and rationality. What the game truly demonstrates is that in this world, this strange combination of the medieval and the mythical, people don’t make decisions for themselves (or, if they do, it always comes at a cost). Instead, every important choice has to be considered in terms of its impact on family and the complex web of power relations that define Westeros. It’s also a striking example of what Telltale do so well, no matter if their games are about zombies, aliens, fairytale creatures, superheroes or knights, they are always rooted in something that’s incredibly human, having to quickly decide which road you’re going to go down and having to live with the consequences.
So, when the trailers started rolling for season 7 and Sky TV helpfully put up the whole series-to-date on demand, I finally committed to giving the show a proper go, having become interested in its world in a way that I simply never was before. The first thing I quickly realised was that this is the only way to watch Game of Thrones, that you have to truly commit in order to understand the complex power dynamics and wealth of protagonists. You have to draw and redraw family trees in your head, and yes, you have to make a real effort to remember all the weird names and titles. This is not a show that holds your hand and carefully lays out backstories, but rather it presents a series of scenes from across the seven kingdoms that make up Westeros and, if you pay attention, it all gradually comes together in your head. This approach is also why there are so many characters, it allows the series to fill episodes with moments of high drama and unexpected deaths without breaking its dramatic credibility (unlike, for example, the village of Midsomer, where life continues quite happily despite a murder rate that rivals Juarez). It also makes it a far richer experience than most TV shows, programmes that revolve around the same handful of people in a room every week.
The other crucial realisation was that, just like the Telltale games, Game of Thrones is rooted in very human issues. The things that most obviously define the series, the violence, the sex, the dragons, the mythical beasts and majestic warriors, are all important but are to some extent window dressing. What the show’s really about are simpler, deeper issues of identity and psychological conflict. It’s about the relationship between desire and duty I mentioned earlier, it’s about flawed individuals trying to live up to the names and (probably greatly exaggerated) reputations of those who came before, and pulled in competing directions by the wishes of their families and the urgings of their hearts. Most of all, of course, it’s about the lust for power, a theme that’s resonated throughout history and which is still here today, except it now takes on more insidious forms. We may have moved on from the days when men would quite literally stab each other in the back, but we still live in an era of betrayal, manipulation and sneak attacks (just ask James Comey).
So, I freely admit I was wrong to dismiss Game of Thrones as the preserve of geeks and fantasy nuts, and I was wrong to simply believe it catered to an already converted audience who’d read the books. In fact, while both the sex and violence that define the series in the popular imagination draw the eye and provide fleeting thrills, the only reason either mean anything is that they come with vital context. Each is the culmination or pivot point of a much longer game, part of the delicate, nuanced study of power, identity, family and authenticity that truly defines Game of Thrones.