Telltale’s Game of Thrones: The Unsatisfaction of a Loyal Adaptation

Last year, I played through Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series and it has stayed with me ever since.  I have been an avid fan of the TV show for many years, yet my feelings for the game adaptation have always been a touch confused since I played it, never sure if I loved it or was angry with it.  And yet, my mind has consistently come back to it, searching for Let’s Plays on YouTube or reading analyses of Rodrik Forrester and Ludd Whitehill on the various fan pages that exist online.

Rodrik Forrester

It seems that my mixed feelings regarding the game are shared by many.  Its reviews, on average, exist in the mid-70th percentile, and there are wide swings around that average, with a 4.5/5 from GamesRadar but a 64% from Metacritic and a deadly 2/5 from Hardcore Gamer.  Though reactions vary from review to review, there is a clear consensus among them all: people feeling that their decisions didn’t matter and the ending being unsatisfying and “too gloomy” [1].

These reactions can be contrasted with Telltale’s other game adaptation of a vast TV series with many characters and many deaths.  Telltale’s The Walking Dead is almost universally praised, with an 89% from Metacritic and an aggregate around the 90th percentile [2].  In addition to the prevailing sentiment that the game put Telltale on the map and revolutionized narrative gaming, there are many who believe the game to be superior to the TV show on which it is based.

Lee and Clementine

And these reviews have a point – I cried at several points when I first played the game.  I was pulled in to the dynamic between Lee and Clementine.  And Lee’s death made me have to turn off my computer and just emotionally think about what I had just watched for a while.

However, it is worth noting that, on the large scale of things, your choices don’t matter a whole lot in The Walking Dead either.  Lee dies at the end of Season One regardless of what you do.  And yet – this didn’t and doesn’t seem to bother people that much, myself included. (I have yet to play subsequent seasons of the series, so I will be referring to Season One for the purposes of this post).

My feeling is that this contrast has to do with the parent series that the respective games are adapting as well as the way by which the games were adapted.

Both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones lean into their respective genres and parent series significantly, with heavy focus on aesthetic and feel.  But Game of Thrones has more “winks” to its TV show than The Walking Dead does.  Several subplots exist mainly to showcase TV show characters (i.e. Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow).  These characters, removed from the main plot, have short interactions with the game characters that ultimately lead to underdeveloped relationships with them that do not really matter in the end.

Daenerys and Asher Forrester

This is different somewhat with Mira’s storyline, as you are constantly having to shift allegiances between Cersei Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, and Margaery Tyrell in order to survive, so these characters have more of a presence.  The same can be said with regards to Ramsay Snow in the central Ironrath storyline – Ramsay exists as a spectre hanging over the plot, and he physically returns to the storyline enough times to augment this presence.

But the bottom line remains the same – the game characters do not have fully formed relationships with the TV characters.  It feels like the TV characters stepped into the game space to interact with the game characters, but ultimately feel removed from the game characters’ emotions and feelings.  They’re action objects for all intents and purposes.

The same is true with The Walking Dead, only this technique is used significantly more sparingly.  Hershel is introduced early in Episode 1 and before you can develop a dynamic with him, you leave his farm.  Glenn is an ally during the rest of the events of Episode 1, but subsequently leaves to forge his own path and you don’t hear from him again.  This is about all the “winking” that The Walking Dead needs.  Comparisons can be made from show characters to the game characters (one could argue that Lee is a more damaged, morally grey version of Rick and that Clementine is a more empathetic and capable Carl), but these comparisons are done more subtley and indirectly.

Truly, you do not need to have seen the show to get the gist of the story.  Lee and Clementine are their own protagonists.  In Game of Thrones, literal show plot moments happen in the game, like the Red Wedding or Joffrey’s Wedding, so you’re constantly wondering where in the plot the show is, or where the Forrester plot fits in within it.  So, you’re inherently now thinking about the “big picture” with regards to this narrative.  In The Walking Dead, with less of this going on, you’re more focused on the characters and what they are doing.

The Walking Dead goes really small with its characters.  Much of the conversations or choices you have to make (i.e. choosing who to give food to, choosing to teach Clementine to shoot) are intimate, and the character relationships are paramount.  How the other characters feel about you, Lee, the protagonist, is very very important, and these relationships are reiterated over and over.

So at the end, the climax, in truth, is the Stranger (who is a foil to Lee – that of a man similar to him having lost everything) calling Lee out on all the bad stuff he did (because no gamer is perfect and is bound to make a decision that had negative consequences for someone).  So you, the gamer, are inherently thinking about Lee as a person during this climax.  You’re thinking “Yes, he/I did these things, but I had to do it to protect Clementine.  I need to save her now.”  And that’s what you do.

Lee confronts The Stranger

So then, as you die, you’re not necessarily thinking about “Was there something I could have done to have prevented this death?”  No.  You’re thinking about whether or not, at the end of the day, this run-down ex-convict was a good person, and whether or not Clementine can carry on his legacy.  And because you made Lee’s decisions, you can easily connect these emotions to yourself.  “I’m crying out of sadness because Lee is dying, but I am also crying out of joy because Clementine loves me, and she lives.”

Whereas, in Game of Thrones, the central conflict is not personal – it’s external: saving the home of House Forrester, Ironrath.  Most character conversations are about machinations to try to do so: from King’s Landing (Mira getting support to send North), from Essos (Asher bringing in the sellswords), from Beyond the Wall (Gared meeting the bastards), and in the North (Rodrik negotiating with the Whitehills).

Not to say that there are not smaller personal conflicts within this narrative.  Some of the more touching relationships include: Mira’s dynamic with the other handmaiden, Sarah, the only friend she has; Asher’s brotherly bond with Beskha, whom has known him for years; Rodrik’s romance with Elaena, whom he has also known for years.  These relationships shine because of the history that stems from them.  They feel very real and it is not to say that these don’t have payoffs.  They are just not the central payoff.

The central conflict is “can the Forrester land be saved?”, not “can Lee redeem himself/save Clementine?”  And the answer to this question is no – Ironrath falls regardless of what you do.  This is an external question, so the idea of what kind of person you were in the process carries less weight, makes it more nihilistic, and is inherently more unsatisfying.

The fall of Ironrath

With regardless to the level of emotionalism derived from the characters, some of this has to do with the respective IP.  Game of Thrones inherently is bigger in scope, so characters are not able to have the same level of screen time that The Walking Dead characters have.  The relationships that feel the most fully-formed are the already-existing ones that carry backstory with them, not the ones that develop in-game.  However, it is shame that Season 2 of the series will never happen, because one wonders what might have been had these characters had more time to develop like the show characters did.

And yet, Game of Thrones is loyally true to its parent series.  Through the lens of the Forresters, we feel what the Starks felt throughout the early seasons of the show: that no matter what we do, so-and-so is going to betray us or this loved one will die, or we’ll have to make the difficult choice to protect the House only to have the House collapse anyway.  The feeling of hopelessness is Game of Thrones, and the broad scope of its characters is Game of Thrones.  Owen S. Good at Polygon writes that the look and feel of the game is what got him hooked on Westeros and the show. [3]

The Walking Dead tells its own story, removed from its parent series, and channels its focus by showing us the details of developing character relationships that feel authentic.  Game of Thrones tells its story within its parent series (and with the consistent “winks” you’re always comparing it to the show), has moderately developed characters that carry backstory with them, and makes you think about high-level machinations that ultimately end in failure (like the show did in its early seasons).

This has left me thinking constantly about it.  Was me being unsatisfied a good thing?  Is that in tune with the show?  What decisions could I have made not to change the overall outcome, but to get the “best story” within it?   This is a very intellectual exercise and befits the more removed nature of the game.

It is telling that the most gut-wrenching choice in the game, choosing between Rodrik or Asher to live at the end of Episode 5, is not the characters’ choice; it’s your choice, removed from the narrative but getting to construct it.  I kept coming back to this moment over and over again not with regards to how much it hurt; but with regards to which choice made the most narrative sense.

Choose who dies: Rodrik or Asher

In conclusion, Telltale’s The Walking Dead vs. Telltale’s Game of Thrones shows us that when constructing sweeping narratives, first we need to go small and take time with our characters.  Secondly, especially when adapting a story, we need to not be constantly “winking” to the audience and drawing comparisons to it, because this takes people out of the story that’s actually being told.  Tell a story, not a comparison.  Yet we also need to indeed stay true to the feel of the source material, which Telltale’s Game of Thrones certainly does.

I probably think about Game of Thrones more than The Walking Dead, because I keep wondering about its high-level structure and what could have been tweaked to improve it.  And maybe with another season or two, the game could have matched the show and allowed its low-level character development to catch up.

This is because the low-level is where the emotion comes from.  Game of Thrones has it in spades, but needed more.  The Walking Dead has it at its center.  That is why Game of Thrones is an interesting thought experiment, while The Walking Dead is beloved.

[1] https://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/game-of-thrones-a-telltale-games-series

[2] https://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/the-walking-dead-a-telltale-games-series

[3] https://www.polygon.com/2018/9/22/17890364/telltale-games-shut-down-closes-game-of-thrones-walking-dead

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