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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Telltale Games' Game of Thrones E6: The Ice Dragon

Telltale Games'
Game of Thrones
Episode 6: The Ice Dragon.

I had such high hopes too, I really did. The Asher or Rodrik choice seemed like one with real weight, and even throughout the game, the choices you were given often seemed weighty, like they had the potential to lead to a genuine branching storyline with distinctly different endings. In a way, I am left in an odd position of loving the story of this episode, but hating it as a video game, for reasons I will talk about shortly.

In this episode, Asher or Rodrik rallies the Forrester forces to take back Ironrath, but the house quickly finds itself under siege by the Whitehill army, who offers the young lord (of your choice) a deal: Surrender and become Whitehill bannermen, or face destruction. In King's Landing, Mira finds herself in deep trouble with Margaery, and even deeper trouble when she's arrested for the murder of a Lannister guard, and finds herself presented with her own terrible deal. Meanwhile, in the North, Gared finds the North Grove - and in it, an army of blood-magic enhanced warriors led by Gregor Forrester's two bastard children.

So, let's get one thing out of the way, almost none of your choices - including the one you made in the previous episode as far as who now rules House Forrester - have any meaning whatsoever. House Forrester will fall whatever you do, almost every character will die, and the only real changes to the ending are that Mira can either be executed or become the wife of a conning lord; Gared and the bastards can either stay in the North or go South; and that's it. 

Bear with me, or this review might become unbearable.

The choices feel plenty weighty when you're making them, but it takes only a cursory probing in a replay to show that they're actually really not. Which, if I'm being honest, makes me wonder if Telltale Games should be making games: Don't get me wrong, they can spin a good story, I'm not going to say that they can't. But it feels cruel to make them keep doing a 'your choices matter' gimmick when it's become extremely obvious to everyone involved that your choices don't matter.

And that's - sad, in a way. I want these games to have genuine branching storylines, genuine multiple endings, genuine weightiness. I want them to be everything that Telltale keeps promising - and I don't really want to be fobbed off with one of about three nearly identical endings and a little screen that says I played with nobility, or whatever.

Beyond that - tremendous, game-breaking flaw that can't really be gotten around, the game's alright. Well, the story is alright. Sort of. It's a 'rocks fall and everyone dies' story with a little hope left at the end for sequel purposes - in a TV series or a film, I'd actually be fine with that, because it fits with the tone of the story. In a video game, I'm a lot less enamoured with it, because I think the charm of an inescapably tragic ending dries out a lot faster when you're the one putting effort into making it not bad.

I really don't like the Lannister guards' helmets.

But in a film or a television show, I'd actually be okay with this ending. It's a grim, brutal cliffhanger, but there is some hope left for the future, and it carries a lot of pathos and gravitas. While there's not really much difference between Asher and Rodrik's storylines, they're both engaging and charismatic protagonists, and depending on how you play her, Mira can also really come into her own too, facing off against a villain who is conniving and genuinely interesting - and who, given that either of the choices he gives her are pretty horrible, feels like he presents a real threat.

(Incidentally, if you pick Mira getting executed, it really seems like she's about to be saved - by Cersei or Margaery - at the last second. That's some effective building of tension right there.)

Even the viewpoints that I usually don't like, such as Gared's, were fun to watch, not least because the North Grove twins are genuinely compelling, interesting characters who it's surprisingly easy to warm to, despite the fact that they're clearly both flawed and equally clearly dabbling in some highly shady stuff - blood magic chief among them. 

It is vitally important that we try not to address the Forrester lord by name whenever possible.

But at the end of the day, this isn't a television show or a film - it's a video game, and the expectations placed on it are entirely different, and even by the standards of Telltale fare, this does not live up to those expectations. When you combine that with a frankly terrible start and some fairly lacklustre moments strewn around nearly every episode, you end up with what might be Telltale Games' worst series yet, and that's a real shame, actually. I was really looking forward to this one, almost as soon as I'd heard about it.

I think it'll be quite difficult for Telltale Games to do a sequel, but I'd like to see them try. As much as this game was a bit of a disappointment (okay, a lot of a disappointment), I am genuinely interested to see where the series goes next. Sorry, that's probably not the takeaway I should be giving you at the end of a predominantly negative review, but it is.

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