[Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Game of Thrones and Game of Thrones - A Telltale Games Series.]
Game of Thrones fans are gluttons for emotional punishment. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, HBO's hit TV show, and Telltale Games' tie-in video game all have one thing in common: they make people fall in love with their characters, then kill them off while seemingly piling victory after victory upon the most-hated characters. Westeros is not a place where good deeds mean a karmic reward.
In that respect, the franchise is designed to be a realistic rather than a romantic take on the lessons of history. Despite being set in a fictional world and featuring dragons and magic, Game of Thrones is no fairy tale. Being noble and kind-hearted is no safeguard against dying horribly, and often the fastest way to the top is to betray people who trust you and become allied with the biggest bullies in the playground. As Cersei tells Eddard Stark in the first season, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground."
With that in mind, Telltale Games seemed like the perfect game developer to take on a Game of Thrones tie-in game. Telltale has been around for over a decade, producing episodic games like the Sam & Max franchise, but rocketed to success in 2012 with the release of a tie-in game based on The Walking Dead. Like the comic books and TV show, The Walking Dead was set in a harsh world full of deadly situations, and protagonist Lee was forced to make the same kind of horrible decisions that Rick Grimes has faced. The difference, however, was that the player themselves was given ultimate control over these life-and-death decisions.
When the first episode of Game of Thrones - A Telltale Games Series was released, we published a solid recommendation for the game, with one of the points in its favor being that it plays by the Game of Thrones 'rules'. Specifically, we said:
"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... 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."
But is this true? In the wake of the Game of Thrones finale episode, "The Ice Dragon", some fans have expressed frustration at the fact that many of their decisions have seemingly had no effect on the game's outcome. Mira Forrester's efforts in King's Landing can help to secure a wedding alliance for Rodrik Forrester, but that's the only impact she has on the core story and ultimately it doesn't change Ironrath's fate.
This isn't the first time that Telltale Games has come under fire from fans who are frustrated by their decisions having little impact on the outcome of a game's story. In The Walking Dead Season 1, for example, there is ultimately no way to affect which characters live and which characters die. The very last scene of the season is the same regardless of the choices that people have made along the way.
This is in part due to the developer's limitations. Telltale Games is an independent studio that lacks the budget and manpower behind AAA titles like, for example, Supermassive Games' recent choice-and-consequence survival horror game Until Dawn, in which all characters can potentially be saved by the player's decisions (even in that game, the outcome is pretty much the same regardless of who lives and dies). There are only so many resources for scripting and animating different versions of events, and it would be uneconomical for Telltale to create entire scenes that only 50% of players will ever see.
Like the best low-budget filmmakers, Telltale took this limitation and made it part of the story. One of the core themes of The Walking Dead is coming to terms with the fact that there are people who cannot be saved, and terrible situations that will never turn out well, and above all many things that are beyond the player's control. The 'consequence' part of the choice-and-consequence mantra referred not to the plot of the game, but to the characterization of the protagonist and - in turn - the player. The choices force the player to confront their own nature and find out where their priorities lie when things get desperate.
In many ways, Telltale's model is about coming to terms with a certain level of helplessness - something that was expanded upon in The Walking Dead Season 2, in which the protagonist is an 11 year-old girl beset on all sides by both human and undead horrors. This theme was less pronounced in The Wolf Among Us, a cool noir detective tale set in a fantasy world version of New York City, and in outer space adventure Tales From the Borderlands - but it seemed to come back with a vengeance in Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones' Rules
Much of Game of Thrones - A Telltale Game Series is an exercise in frustrated helplessness, as the player is forced to squirm under the boot of the Whitehills, of Ramsay Bolton, of Cersei Lannister, and other cruel and unscrupulous characters. The Forresters' individual personalities can be decided by the player's decisions, but there's an overriding sense (if only because they're playable) that the Forresters are the 'good guys'.
The Forresters have much in common with the Starks. Both are old northern houses with similar views on religion, nobility and justice. Both are devastated by the events of the Red Wedding, and only suffer from further misery afterwards. At this point, the Starks and the Forresters are in similar positions: around half of both families have been killed off - in particular their adult male heirs - and their homesteads have been taken from them.
Within this similarity lies the strongest indication that Game of Thrones' rules are not so different from Telltale's. The Starks are, for the most part, intelligent and good-hearted people. In the first season, Ned Stark balances his conscience and morals with tactful obeisance to King's Landings corrupt politics. When pushed to the edge, he sacrifices his pride on the altar of survival and dies anyway, because Joffrey is... well, Joffrey.
The lessons of Game of Thrones are inspired by the lessons of history, and those lessons have taught us that while strategy, cunning, intelligence, charisma and luck can win wars, there will always be someone who is smarter, stronger and luckier - or a spoiled, sociopathic brat with too much power. Moreover, while Game of Thrones is no fairy tale, it is still definitely a story. The fates of characters aren't governed by their actions, but by what will be exciting and shocking for an audience. Nothing is more shocking than a beloved character who has made all the right moves being suddenly knocked off the board by a despised and weak character who cheated.
Conclusion: The Game is Rigged
It's easy to understand why fans may have felt outraged and deflated when Telltale's Game of Thrones concluded, but is it any different from how fans of the show felt when Robb and Catelyn Stark were murdered, or when Bran and Rickon were chased away from Winterfell? Really, it seems as though the Forresters may have been the victims of their own game's success. It was recently confirmed that a second season of the series is on the way, which means two things: that the first season clearly wasn't going to have a happy ending with all the loose ends tied up; and that the possible endings could only diverge so far from one another, in order to keep all the players in approximately the same place when the next season begins.
Mira Forrester's choice of enslavement or execution may not have been a happy one, but it's hardly any different from Ned Stark's sad conclusion. In fact, the parallels between the Starks and the Forresters seem to be deliberate - a way of putting fans in the Starks' shoes and demonstrating that getting a happy ending in Westeros is virtually impossible.
And for those who still feel cheated by the ending - don't worry. Things are sure to get better in Season 2. Right?
Game of Thrones - A Telltale Game Series Season 2 is currently in development. Game of Thrones will return to HBO in spring 2016.