The long wait for season 5 of HBO's Game of Thrones, combined with the wait for the sixth novel in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series, can be hard on avid Game of Thrones fans who just want to see more of the Seven Kingdoms. Luckily the winter has recently been warmed by the arrival of Iron From Ice, the first installment of a new episodic video game set during the events of the TV show.
Developed by critically-acclaimed studio Telltale Games in collaboration with HBO, this new story is part of the same canon as the show and will have six episodes in total, to be released over the next few months. But what is Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series? Is it just another cheap cash-in title? Will fans of the show like it if they're not usually into video games? And how does it fit into the Game of Thrones story so far?
To answer all of these questions, here's an introduction to the Game of Thrones video game series and the reasons (so far) why it's a must-play for fans of the show.
No Previous Gaming Experience Required
There's no need to own the latest gaming console or a dedicated gaming PC in order to play Game of Thrones. The episodes are available to play on iOS platforms (iPhones and iPads) as well as on Mac and PC, and since the system requirements are minimal the game can be played even on low-end computers. It's highly likely that you'll be able to play the game on the same device you're using to read this article.
Game of Thrones' gameplay style puts pretty much everyone on an even plane: it doesn't really matter if the player has been gaming 30 hours a week for ten years, or whether they've never even completed a single level of Angry Birds. The video game episodes play out much like an episode of the TV show, with player input largely coming in two different forms.
During action sequences and fight scenes the player will be prompted to perform a series of actions that match what's happening on the screen. For example, if a character needs to duck under a swinging sword there will be a prompt to swipe downwards or press the "Down" key, depending on the platform being used to play. The prompts offer enough time that lightning-fast reflexes aren't necessary - while still making it important to keep a close eye on what's happening.
Sequences such as that aren't too common, however, and will only occur two or three times in the space of an episode. The most common gameplay by far comes in the form of dialogue/action options, as the player meets characters - friendly, hostile or otherwise - in the world of Game of Thrones and must make crucial decisions regarding what they say and do to those characters. There is almost always a limited amount of time to make a choice about what to say or do, and if the player is indecisive and takes too long, then their character will stay silent. Of course, deliberately staying silent is also a valid choice.
For those who tend to avoid video games out of fear that they're all 40 hour-long time sinks, don't worry; each Game of Thrones episode only clocks in at around 90 minutes.
Familiar Faces (and Voices)
Unlike Telltale's The Walking Dead, which was set in the same universe as the comics and books but only featured a couple of cameo appearances by familiar characters, Game of Thrones is specifically based on the TV show and its storyline will zig-zag in and out of the show's plot beats. The story begins on the night of the infamous "Red Wedding," showing an alternate perspective on the proceedings as Gared, a squire for a house loyal to Rob Stark, watches the night unfold and must do his best to escape alive in order to bring a message back home.
Players start out in Gared's shoes, but as the narrative jumps around Westeros they will take on the role of various members of House Forrester who have been scattered to locations such as Essos, King's Landing and The Wall. In the first episode alone, players will find themselves tangling with Cersei and Tyrion Lannister, Margaery Tyrell and the dreadful Ramsay Snow - all of whom are voiced by their actors from the show, with more characters from the series set to play crucial roles in future episodes.
Although the main focus is on the Forresters and their struggle to survive as the North turns against them, the Forresters' story is shaped and impacted by the events of the TV show and by the most influential people in the Seven Kingdoms. Knowing those characters will put Game of Thrones fans at an advantage when they come face to face with them and are forced to choose their words carefully.
Game of Thrones wouldn't work nearly as well as it does without great characters, strong writing and a compelling story, and every bit of that seems to have made it into the video game. House Forrester has a lot in common with House Stark: an old Northern family of good repute, led by the noble Lord and Lady Forrester and populated by their many children. An older son, Asher Forrester, has been exiled to Essos and the eldest daughter, Mira Forrester, is in King's Landing working as a handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell. Eldest son Rodrik Forrester is set to lead in his father's footsteps, leaving younger children Ethan, Talia and Ryon in Ironrath, the family homestead.
The Forresters (who so far have only received a brief mention in the books) tend to the surrounding ironwood forests and craft the wood into shields, weapons, carts and other essential items. The family is watched jealously by the neighboring Whitehills, who once owned a share of the ironwood forests but whose lack of skill left their land barren (hence the family name and crest). The Whitehills are loyal to Roose Bolton and the Forresters are loyal to the Starks, so the player must navigate the aftermath of the Red Wedding carefully, as the balance of power changes in an instant.
It Plays by the Game of Thrones Rules
In more traditional video games, playing skillfully generally leads to winning the game and getting a happy ending. This is not the case in Telltale's games, and it's also not the case in the world that Martin created. In Game of Thrones pride can get you killed, diplomacy guarantees nothing, and being nice to people doesn't earn any kind of karma that will be translated into a reward later on. Of course, play the game too nastily and you might not like who your character starts turning into.
It's not enough to be noble or strong or brave: in Game of Thrones the player has to play smart, and think hard about the consequences of their actions in the short time that's available. It's necessary to do this because decisions made as one member of House Forrester will have a ripple effect upon each of the other characters that the player controls. Make a mistake in King's Landing and it could come back with a vengeance in Ironrath.
With that said, there's no winning or losing Game of Thrones. The story will play out, for better or worse, and there's no scoreboard to tell the player whether the decisions they made were right, wrong or somewhere in the middle.
It's not just a game - it's a personality test
It's all too easy, when watching a show like Game of Thrones, to end up yelling at the characters on the screen for making stupid decisions or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. What the video game is extremely effective at doing is making the player care about the characters that they encounter and the world they inhabit, and then throwing impossible moral, political and tactical dilemmas into their lap and giving a limited amount of time to decide which course of action is best - or which is the least awful.
The gameplay and story in Game of Thrones have a way of bringing out priorities in a way that Buzzfeed personality quizzes can only dream of. Will you be a moral absolutist or a utilitarian? Loyal to the (hastened) end or a turncoat with good intentions? How much of the Forrester family's pride will you sacrifice in exchange for their safety? Would you rather take an insult or take a beating? Do you value friends above duty, or duty above friends? Is mercy a sign of weakness? Is it better to run or to hide? In times of war, are politicians more useful than generals?
Game of Thrones is made up of dozens upon dozens of choices like this - from the smallest decision to the most monumental one - and the quandaries the characters face are thought-provoking enough to linger long after the credits have rolled.
Game of Thrones Episode 1: Iron From Ice is available now on PC, Mac, iOS, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.