Episode 1: Iron from Ice
A title I can get behind aesthetically, if not chemically
Well, Telltale’s got another smoking hot property on its hands. This time the studio flirted and courted and applied its beguiling wiles on HBO to make a deal for Game of Thrones, the epic medeival fantasy series based upon the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George Arrr! Arrr! Martin. The show, now about halfway through its run, has become a bonafide phenomenon, and its popularity doesn’t seem to have plateaued, so this license represents yet another feather in Telltale’s feather-laden cap of feathers.
Unlike The Walking Dead, which is clearly meant to exist in the universe of the comics upon which it's based, Telltale is specifically telling its story within the universe of the HBO show, as opposed to Martin's novels. Those who’ve enjoyed the saga in both incarnations know that the differences are not always negligible. The most noticeable consequence of planting its flag in the show's world, though, is visual - the game depicts Westeros as it appears on TV, and when it comes to familiar environments, like the Red Keep’s iconic throne room at King’s Landing, Telltale flat-out recreates the television show’s sets.
This also means that it’s the show’s canon that Telltale is plugging its season into. When it was announced that the story would take place during the events of the show (specifically, toward the very end of Season 3, the culmination of The War of Five Kings), I was concerned how Telltale was going to juggle the implications, especially since it seemed there were safer courses. Game of Thrones has a lot of backstory that seems to me ripe for adaptation - I thought for sure the way to go would be to depict Robert's Rebellion, for example.
But Telltale managed the challenge they selected by focusing its new story on House Forrester, a minor Northern family that gets little more than a passing mention by Martin, thereby giving Telltale the freedom to tell something largely original while allowing its invented cast the occasional brush with "celebrities" and events well-known to viewers of the series, Forrest Gump style. Telltale makes this promise the first thing it communicates, as the episode's opening sequence takes place just outside a castle where one of the show's most infamous events is transpiring.
As is usual with the Telltale games that veer more toward photorealistic art than the other extreme, the environments are far more impressive than the characters, though in Telltale fashion, any “eh” factor to the models themselves tends to be balanced by their performances. As noted, several characters from the show make appearaces, with both their likenesses and voices making the jump to the interactive plane. In this episode, the participants are Maegary Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), Cersei Lanniser (Lena Headey), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), and Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon). And there seems to be the promise of at least Jon Snow (Kit Harington) down the road. The characters you will actually play as are members and loyalists of House Forrester, whose crises and fate Telltale’s series is centered around.
Gameplay-wise, you know what to expect if you're familiar with Telltale's latest offerings. This is an interactive story, with the limited interactions you're able to perform being entirely to add to the sense of immersion. There aren't puzzles to solve but people to talk to and decisions to make. I’m actually going to refrain from getting into the story because that’s the game’s whole appeal and I’d prefer not to spoil it, so I’ll consider it enough to convey that it’s clevery put together and satisfying to experience. And also to say: don't get too attached to anybody. Telltale is faithful to the show's conceit of generous death, though fortunately less so (thus far) to its gratuitous sex scenes. It might be too much to handle to see those character models going at it.
As far as that now iconic decision mechanic, there’s a good chance you know what to expect. There’s nothing you can do to drastically change Telltale’s well-scripted plot (thank goodness), but as fans of the Walking Dead and Fables games will anticipate, Game of Thrones is really good at making those moments where you must say one thing or another (or, cravenly, nothing at all) pretty stressful, knowing that a character’s attitude toward you and occasionally their life might be tied to your call. And even if the drama is largely synthetic, there are no doubt choices that will be reflected in the long run, though we’ll have to stick through the entire six episode series to discover those, won’t we?
The length of the episode is roughly that of an episode of Game of Thrones, although probably without the average scope. That's more of an observation than a criticism - this episode takes place in the North and in King's Landing almost exclusively, though future episodes promise to extend to the Wall and Essos as well. At least half the episode takes place in the fresh location of Ironrath, the seat of House Forrester. You’ll enjoy seeing it appear on the map during the game’s opening credits sequence, which Telltale also carefully replicated from the series.
For fans of the show, this entire season is an easy recommendation based on the premiere alone. For those unfamiliar with the license, it's trickier. Narratively, Telltale has taken steps to ensure that you don't need to come in with background, but I feel like a big part of the game's appeal is walking around in this world that you already have an investment in, more so than was the case with, say, The Walking Dead. Additionally, if you haven’t seen the show but ultimately intend to, you will be spoiled on major plot points. If he can swallow those asterisks, I see no reason why an Unsullied player shouldn't feel welcome to see what the fuss is about.
At any rate, “Iron from Ice” is good, and a nice way to make the wait for the show’s fifth season a little more bearable. In fact, the show ought to premiere about halfway through Telltale’s own run, so it’s hard to imagine any Game of Thrones fan wanting for much over the next several months.
Unless what they want is for the next book to come out.