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Published June 3, 2015

Like the rest of the world, I love Game of Thrones.

It was only recently when I realized that despite having global recognition, it’s hard to explain my fandom for it. On the surface, it’s a very cruel and dark story of several characters trying to survive in a world driven by greed and a desire for more power. The concepts of chivalrous honor and love that we often tie to this particular time period mean nothing and has led to more deaths than victories. Good, or whatever comes closest to ‘good’ in this world, will never win and the punishment for the corrupt and sadistic will never come close to feeling like justice. It is chaos in its purest, more visceral form.

So why watch?

The best explanation I’ve heard for Game of Thrones’ appeal came from the show itself and one of its more diabolical characters: Littlefinger –

“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fall, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but refuse. They cling to the realm, or love, or the gods…illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”

People like to watch the climb: to see how far their favorites can get. Maybe they will fall or maybe they’ll make it to the top. When written well, the ladder (or story) feels real and it makes you keep watching to see them all climb. It’s a spark of brilliance that we need to see in more fiction, especially in EVNs, and it is why we’re going to talk about Telltale’s latest interactive fiction series.

The Telltale Game of Thrones series starts during the Red Wedding in Season 3. And if you don’t know what the Red Wedding is, stop reading this review and go watch Game of Thrones from the beginning. It’ll take you about two days, but you’ll find a way to do it! The series focuses on House Forrester: a vassal house of the Stark family and holders of the Ironwoods. Ironwood is a type of tree (obviously) known for its resilience and difficulty to light on fire. The value of these trees could keep House Forrester afloat despite being on the wrong side of the War of Five Kings. However a rival house, House Whitehill, is making a move to claim the trees for themselves and wipe the family off the map.

The series follows several members of the Forrester family as they struggle not to fall off the ladder: mostly the Forrester siblings and a squire, Gared Tuttle. At some point, I’ll do a full review of every episode, but for now let’s pick up with the latest release: Episode 4 – Sons of Winter. Also, there will be spoilers for the series as a whole so if you haven’t played it yet, again, go play it and then come back for the review. You’ll thank me later.

  • Genre: Fantasy, Drama
  • Developed: Telltale Games
  • Language: English
  • Platform: All
  • Website: Telltale Games

STORY

Before we begin, it’s important to brief everyone on the campaigns our cast is on. Rodrik Forrester, the eldest sibling and current Lord of House Forrester, is on the front lines trying to keep his house together in the face of Whitehill occupation. Mira Forrester, the eldest daughter, is in King’s Landing trying to figure out a way to help her family without losing her head. Asher Forrester, the exiled second son, is in Mereen trying to find an army of sellswords (mercenaries) to bring back to Westeros and fight against the Whitehills. And finally Gared Tuttle, former squire of Lord Forrester, has taken the black and joined the Night’s Watch on a campaign to find the mythical ‘North Grove’ beyond the Wall.

We’ll take each of these in turn!

Most of the focus on Episode 4 is on Asher Forrester as he, his Uncle and his friend and fellow sellsword Beshka arrive in Mereen just in time for Daenerys Targaryen to sack it. Thanks to a run-in with one of Daenerys’ dragons in Episode 3, Asher gets an audience with her and convinces her to let them help her in exchange for a favor down the line: a company of sellswords he can take back to Westeros with him. This scene is an excellent way to start the game because it gives us better insight into both the games characters and the television series characters. Despite being told of how Drogon (the dragon in question) attacked them, Daenerys refuses to believe he is an actual threat outside of her control. Her ability to control her children is one of the major storylines of Season 4 and while we know now how dangerous her three ‘children’ really are now, showing us how she thought back then gives us better insight to Daenerys’ character and the consequences of her choices.

As for the game, we have been teased since Episode 2 with Beshka’s past and this conversation begins a chaotic slide for the character. Of all of the original characters Telltale has brought to the GOT mythos, Beshka will probably have the most overall impact simply because of her personal history in Mereen. Most of the main characters of Game of Thrones are high-born: even if their current status doesn’t fit their birth circumstances. The only two character who have impacted the world without being high-born are Varys and Shae and this is due to their backstories: ironically connecting both of them to the very thing Daenerys is in Mereen to stop.

The same goes for Beshka and her history in Mereen not only reinforces how brutal this world is without resorting to anything too graphic, it also ramps up the tension as the group leads a surprise attack during the night. You could see the critical choice for this episode coming from a mile away and it still served as one of the harder choices of the entire series. Having known Beshka for three episodes now, you know what you want to let her do but at the same time since you don’t know what the repercussions of that one act will be you’re torn on what to do.

It helps that Asher is pretty straightforward as a character. I tweeted after playing this episode that he reminds me a lot of Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series and the two really are similar. Asher is a talented fighter, if not a little over-confident. But it’s his sense of humor (something of a rarity in this franchise) that not only helps carries his scenes, but also is a refreshing change of pace from the grim drama faced by the rest of the cast. His character is simple yes as his ultimate choice will boil down to his loyalties with his family, but with the challenges he has to face not much else is required from Asher right now. He’s a stable, reliable action hero and he fits his role perfectly.

Next up is the Rodrik and his campaign is a bit more straightforward: dealing with the Whitehills occupying his home led by the fourth-born son Gryff. The Lords of Ironrath have had the most long-term choices in the game as they cannot be publicly weak in the face of the Whitehills, which would drop the morale of the remaining people. However, acting emotionally only makes them more vulnerable: especially when the Boltons come into play. Navigating these waters makes Rodrik a lot of fun to play with: especially since he has a shade of Ned Stark to him.

While Asher and Beshka had the most dramatic moments of the episode, Rodrik had some of the more enthralling ones as he faces both Gryff and his Father Ludd to take back control. The choices here are more simple, but also more critical as winning a battle doesn’t equal winning the war. You can embrace the moment and, with Gryff anyway, it can feel satisfying. And, frankly, nothing will replace the moment when you talk to Lord Whitehill and show you are in a stronger position than he thinks. Still, I can’t help but think that anyone going in without long-term approach will live just long enough to regret it, which could be considered a negative in the entire series.

One of the things Telltale doesn’t do very well is having each choice be relevant to the story as a whole. No matter what you do in The Walking Dead Season 1, Lee dies. The Wolf Among Us was handled a bit better, but it still led to a single ending regardless of your choices: which, more or less, serves to how popular he is in the community rather than anything substantial. Rodrik’s path has some great moments, but just like his little brother Ethan, it feels like it’s on a singular track.

I hope I’m wrong as Rodrik is an interesting character in his own right. It just feels like his fate is pre-determined while his sibling’s feel more open at the current time. And speaking of his siblings that brings me to my favorite Forrester: Mira (seen in the header). Mira has been compared to Sansa Stark in many reviews and I can understand the comparison of the two Northern girls trying to survive in King’s Landing. However, the key difference is that Sansa is never in a position to help her family or herself. She can only watch as they’re butchered and scattered across Westeros and, if she so much as cries over it, she risks losing her head. Mira’s sole task in the story is to figure out a way she can use her position to help her family and, because of that, she’s the character who experiences the most growth.

The tricky part of Mira’s story line is that it’s directly tied into the events of Season 4. This is made very clear when Tyrion Lannister approaches Mira with the option to be allies early on. But due to the events of Season 4, you know he’s not going to be able to help in the long run. Mira’s campaign is very delicate due to connections like that and if Telltale had miscalculated, then Mira would be a worthless character constantly tossed about by the chaos brought by the events of the TV series. However, they use the predictable parts of the television series to give her choices more overall depth as she builds her status outside of being Margaery Tyrell’s handmaiden. Ultimately, what could have been her biggest weakness is the her story’s greatest strength.

Watching Mira maneuver during the episode was very fun and, ultimately, with the right choices it ended both being very satisfying and potentially the answer Mira has been seeking. She isn’t a master at the Game just yet, but with two episodes to go she has a very good hand going for her and her story has multiple ways of ending: even if the rest of her family doesn’t make it. For my money, Mira’s the best written character of the series and watching her twist the Whitehills around her pinky was more than enough proof why.

Finally we have Gared and his search for the mythical North Grove. I wish I could put a more positive spin on Gared’s campaign but I never connected with the character. I believe a lot of this is due to his campaign being thoroughly disconnected from both the story of the game and the story of the television series. While Rodrik’s scenes have some weaknesses, at least he has to stand toe-to-toe with the threat of the Whitehills. Gared is completely disconnected from the main conflict of the game, but by taking the black he was at least connected to the events of the show. This episode does away with that by having him desert the Night’s Watch and you have no say in it.

While it was still out of the way, having Gared conflict with the Night’s Watch as he tried to figure out a way to follow his former Lord’s final commands was the single most interesting thing about the kid. With that gone, Gared now has to hold his campaign up on his own and he’s just not up to the task. While Rodrik and Asher have charisma and charm to go on and Mira has her wits, Gared is just a generic face with nothing to offer now that he’s run from his only source of conflict.

This is more about planning and pacing than anything as we’re four episodes in with two to go. There is no more time to fully invest the audience in whatever the North Grove was supposed to be and this is largely because we spent Episodes 2 and 3 with Gared trying to acclimate into the Night’s Watch. If that time would’ve been spent with, say, Sam and Maester Aemon looking into the history and mythology surrounding the North Grove, then at least his story would have maintained some type of focus instead of trying to get us to really be interested in him surviving training long enough to take his oath.

It also means something much more dire for the character in that Gared probably won’t live through the season. Since is he beyond the Wall now, he has to deal with Wildlings who won’t care that he’s friends with one of them, the cannibals that don’t care who they eat as long as they eat something, the mythical beings and beasts that cover the area and that doesn’t include the one thing that keeps every GoT fan up at night: Whitewalkers. And that’s just getting to this damned place. If he gets there alive and it isn’t what he thought, he’ll have to go back to the very Wall and try to get pass the Night Watch in order to get back into an area of Westeros that is controlled by people who want him flayed alive.

Good luck kid.

Gared may never have been as interesting as a character, but it’s a shame that his campaign feels like wasted time. This could change by the end of the season, but doing so would require investing more time in Gared’s campaign, which would take time away from the Forrester siblings. It is an uneviable position to be in and one that Telltale hasn’t had a problem with before due to its focus on a single point-of-view character. If there is going to be a Season 2, they’ll have to be much more economical with their cast.

There are some other minor issues outside of Rodrik’s stumbling and Gared falling flat on his face, but they can all be tied back into those issues. Luckily, the rest of the game’s story is good enough to carry the game through these issues and deliver a high point for House Forrester when they were in desperate need for an advantage. Good times never last long and Westeros and it was hinted that between the Ramsay Snow and Cersei Lannister, the high of this episode is going to come crashing down VERY quickly. I’m looking forward to see the twists and turns coming next, but for what Episode 4 delivered it was exciting to read and very engaging at a pivotal point in the series.

Just A Normal Dinner In Westeros. Nothing Ever Happens At Those!

PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL

The Presentation of the series has always been its best card and here it is played well. The environments unique to the game’s version of Westeros feel like they could easily fit into the show. This is especially true for the Whitehill stronghold: Highpoint. In the previous episode, we see Lord Whitehill’s shortsightedness when it came to Ironwood and now we see it extends to his own home, which has been allowed to go to rot. Clearly this is a family that has been in decline for some time and while Lord Whitehill is happy to try and pull the Forresters into decay with him, he only has himself to blame for the state of his house.

The other backdrops served their purposes, but many felt too similar to previously shown locations: especially once you get inside Mereen which is pretty much the exact same palette as Yunkai. I guess it was unavoidable to an extent as the show has a similar issue when it comes to similar locations, so again it does its job alright.

I’m not going to pretend I was impressed with the design of the Spearwives you faced off with during Gared’s campaign. It was the only design choice that doesn’t feel right to me and I’m going to go with the white hair they all seem to have. It’s much too distinct when most of the Spearwives we’ve seen are pretty common save for Ygritte: which was on purpose to signify her importance to Jon but I’m getting off track.

One of the high points of any Telltale game is the voice acting and the crew had an excellent voice cast to work with. A special shout out goes to Toks Olagundoye who voiced Beshka and absolutely nailed her scenes in this episode: especially the scene in Mereen that is guaranteed to spook anyone playing the game. Again, not going to spoil it for you guys: you’ll have to either hunt down the scene yourself or just go play the games. Apparently she has some role in that Steven Universe show, so there you go. Other standouts where Martha Mackintosh, who voices Mira, and Geoffrey Leesley who voices Lord Whitehill. That doesn’t mean everyone else was bad because they weren’t. However, a lot was riding on these three in particular when it came to certain scenes and all three delivered.

A special treat for fans of the series is that several of the actors from the show voice their characters in the game. So far, the one having the most fun has clearly been Iwan Rheon who plays Ramsay Snow. His voice acting doesn’t miss a beat with his work on the series and, as any experienced voice actor will tell you, there is a huge difference between live acting and voice acting. So when you do both well, in my book it’s worth noting. Kit Harrington also gets a brief scene as Jon Snow and he does a decent job, but doesn’t appear long enough this time around to leave an impact. Either way, I’m glad they both gave solid performances here as a fan of both actors.

Technically, this is where it gets messy. Telltale has gained a reputation for releasing incomplete work and, unfortunately, that reputation is earned in this episode. I never hit anything that was strong enough to stop the game, but there were constant frame-rate and audio drops that slowed the game down and impacted the overall presentation. This was especially troublesome during Rodrik’s Quick-Time Event with Gryff Whitehill: a QTE I had to keep repeating because the game would stop right in the middle of it, only to start with Rodrik getting knocked on his ass because I didn’t hit the proper button.

This is becoming unacceptable to me as a fan of Telltale. I understand there are only so many things that can be polished during development, but if your action scenes are going to be based around QTE, the very least you guys can do is ensure the QTE flows right. There was also some slight carry over issues as in Episode 3 I specifically avoided stabbing the man attacking Gared through the chest and let him succumb to the other wounds I dealt him. Yet, during the opening, Gared clearly impales the moron through the chest. That doesn’t change anything because, again, Gared’s path is clear. But it was enough of an annoyance for me to remember it, so I’m cataloging it here.

Outside of these few technical bugs, the rest of the game runs well and I didn’t have an issue with the save points that I did during The Wolf Among Us. However, moving forward much more elbow grease is needed to keep everything running smoothly.

I Know More Than You, Gared Tuttle.

REPLAY VALUE

Each episode of Game of Thrones goes for $4.99 with a Season Pass that goes for $19.99. I have had long conversations with people who are determined to sit on the fence and wait for all of the episodes to release and roll up the entire series in a bundle pack. However, I cannot stress enough that I believe this is an episodic series you want to go ahead and start playing right now if you haven’t already, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of the series.

I ended up getting the season pass and played Episodes 1 through 4 straight through and enjoyed every minute of it. Most of your replay value will not come from repeating choices to see the different variations, but just flat-out replaying the game itself to relive the experience. It is a feeling Telltale captured with the first season of The Walking Dead and I still regret to this day not starting that series on its original Episode 1 release day.

With two more episodes to go, $19.99 is a bit more economical as well as I doubt they’ll cut too far down below that during the holiday sales. That isn’t to say NOT to buy it at some point and if you just have to wait on it, I understand. But if you have the means to do it, I firmly believe this is the one game currently in existence that is worth a ‘Season Pass’. Buy it, start downloading the episodes, and enjoy.

 

OVERALL

Lately on this site we’ve talked a lot about episodic gaming and the strengths and weaknesses that come with it. It is amazing to me how many EVNs look at the episodic format as a crutch to do less: making promises for the future without building a solid story in the present. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs that will most likely get worse before it gets better, which means now more than ever we have to look where it’s being done right and learn from it. And when it comes to interactive fiction as a whole (since not everyone agrees with me on the flexibility of the ‘visual novel’ title), Telltale always finds a way to get it right.

Sons of Winter isn’t perfect at all. There are plenty of technical issues to nitpick over and I am simply not invested in Gared’s storyline. However, so much is done right that those things become minor. I’ll worry about not liking Gared’s desertion AFTER I stop pissing myself in fear of Beshka’s rage and I’ll get mad about QTE issues after I stop cheering for Mira. So much is achieved in the episode that had been built up over the past few episode and yet nothing is really solved and it manages this not by focusing on the larger puzzle itself, but by the people who have to put the pieces together. These are people we want to see keep climbing and get back their lands and titles: even as the climb gets harder and more of their comrades fall back to the ground. This feeling has been nurtured through time and patience and if that time had not been taken to invest the audience with the Forresters, their history and their personalities (for the most part), this entire game would be a complete mess. The fact that we are were we are with this story gives me hope that the series will end on a high note that’ll eclipse what Telltale has already done.

Long story short, Sons of Winter landed exactly where it needed to on the episodic schedule. Episode 5 cannot get here fast enough.

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