How Telltale’s Games of Thrones is Changing the Way We Look at Choice in Video Games
Telltale’s Game of Thrones is playing me against myself.
I do not mean this in the traditional way Telltale tears me apart, which is to force me to make a choice between hurting someone I love or hurting someone else I love as an onscreen timer quickly counts down, threatening to drive me into insanity. No, Telltale Games is using Game of Thrones to teach me new and interesting ways to writhe in pain in front of my computer screen. Just a few weeks after debuting Tales from the Borderlands, which starred two protagonists, one a corporate drone, the other with a vagina (?!?!), Telltale shot out the first episode of Game of Thrones, a series with five player-controlled protagonists with a myriad of genitals, habitats, and levels of political power.
The game is the story of House Forrester, a northern family loyal to the very dead House Stark, that is besieged on all sides by everyone, everywhere, all the time. There’s Gared Tuttle (servant of the house and family murderer murderer), Rodrik (the son beaten in battle, who must now stand strong as Lord after the two previous Lords both died in the last couple days), Mira (King’s Landing handmaiden and future Frank Underwood wannabe), Asher (the family black sheep who may also be the only one who can save the house from its destruction by everyone, everywhere, all the time), and Ethan (the murdered). Oh, yeah. Spoilers. These five (four) must band together their unique talents to save their house from utter destruction.
Where things get truly interesting is when our player characters aren’t working together. Mira in particular has the real potential to dick over her entire family over and over again. Separated from her clan by leagues and biomes, Mira’s only tether to House Forrester are the message-carrying ravens sent to her by her mother, who never once asks anyone for conference before making very radical decisions by herself that end up putting her children in jeopardy nine times out of nine. For more so than any of the other characters, Mira can deviate from the greater family good in service of loyalty to Lady Margaery or even pure, driven self-interest. At the same time that her bloodied brother, who can barely stand, must seduce a young lady or risk the destruction of his family/home/remaining pride, Mira can choose to de-emphasize helping her family and focus instead on helping her friend get married and enjoying some stolen wine.
In the second episode, entitled “The Lost Lords,” I played as Mira when she sat down with Tyrion Lannister and negotiated for my family to be the sole supplier of ironwood for the crown. While I was worried that this would run the risk of open war against rival family the Whitehills, I went ahead anyway, believing this to be a risk worth taking. Later that same episode, I played as Rodrik as he, too, promised the Forrester’s supply of ironwood to someone. In a desperate bid to maintain a betrothal that would not only net me a pretty wife but also an army that could save my clan from death by Whitehill, I pledged a fortune’s worth of forest land in exchange for the Lady Elaena’s hand in marriage.
I, the player, knew that there is no way I could both supply the crown with all of its ironwood and give over half of my family’s forest to my new father-in-law, but Rodrik and Mira know nothing of each other’s family-saving gambits, so I felt obligated as the player to play both scenarios as last ditch efforts to save my dying family. But through two very considered decisions, I have backed both of myselves into two very tight spots.
Choice is not a new concept in videogames. For years developers have teased players with the idea that their choices (often between a binary “good” and “evil”) matter, and affect the future of the narrative. Players have responded to this emphasis on agency with great excitement, with varying reactions to the results depending on the effectiveness of the follow-through.
The Mass Effect franchise spent three games touting the importance of player choice between the dutiful blue and the rebellious red. When the player’s choice in points of decision like whether or not to save a particular human colony didn’t have an effect on the very structure of the universe, this angered a lot of people who don’t understand metaphors.
Telltale itself has received criticism for the first seasons of its games The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us both ending with in-game authority figures reprimanding you for the choices you’ve made, no matter what choice you ended up making in-game. (Although, for what it is worth, The Wolf Among Us made this very compelling by pitting our troubled hero against a criminal mastermind in a jury of their agitated peers; it does, however, feel very out of place in the final episode of The Walking Dead – Season 1, where our hero’s accuser is just some guy).
There is little indication yet on how Game of Thrones or this lumber situation will resolve. Neither sibling knows yet of the other’s brokering, and Lord Whitehill (ever the fattest, unpleasantest bastard around) has made it abundantly clear that he is going to harvest whatever trees he damn well pleases.
But this concept of playing against yourself, inadvertently or no, is still a new one, at least to me. We can now live in that Pixar short where the old guy is playing chess against himself. I can only imagine what this game might inspire others to create, what ideas might be spinning in the minds of tomorrow’s game developers who will do what we have always done: take what has passed and build upon it, taking inspiration from what has come and dictating where it will go. Think of the possibilities. Think of all the dead brothers we can have!
Chekhov’s Gunman is a blog Kevin sometimes updates. You can read his reviews of the television Game of Thrones here.