Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire) is popular for more reasons than bosoms and blood. What makes GoT truly engrossing is its frequently shocking plot, charismatic and detestable characters, and rich environments. Telltale has shown hints of this potential from Episodes 1 and 2, though they haven’t done anything to really get our attention like whimsically pushing a kid out of a window. However, Episode 3 is where the video game series truly hits its stride, exemplifying what has made the story popular in book and TV series format.
The third installment doesn’t miss a beat after the second episode, taking over almost immediately where we left all of our beloved protagonists. Now that the stage has been set and the core cast is established, the writers can show us how well they mimic George R. R. Martin’s style. True to the series, while The Wall and barren lands across the ocean boast hazards, no terrain is as terrifying as the gilded halls of King’s Landing. Being a story-driven, interactive tale, much of what makes Episode 3 enthralling are the interview-esque exchanges between those in power and our naive, sometimes ignorant, Forresters. While Telltale has refined their use of Quick-Time-Events — and made them enjoyable — what keeps me coming back for more is trying to get what my family needs without peeving off too many queens and lords.
However, Telltale has put themselves in a difficult situation. Where the episodic format has worked with simpler series that follow one protagonist in one location, like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, breaks between episodes create major lapses in memory with such an intricate plot in which individual decisions and negotiations can result in significant consequences. Telltale may recognize this, as they have released episodes with more regularity than they have other series (I’m looking at you, Tales from the Borderlands), and have even placed names and titles beneath each major character during their first appearances in Episode 3. Of course, players can navigate the encyclopedia to recover a brief synopsis of each character, but intricate plot points must be remembered to effectively enjoy Episode 3 in its entirety.
Unless one seeks out a YouTube summary or Let’s Play to remind oneself of what Episodes 1 and 2 contained, Episode 3 will take some time to adjust to. Even then, the branching story and varied decisions may render these summaries useless or, even worse, serve to spoil a second play-through. Telltale attempted to recall the previous episodes at the installment’s onset with Peter Dinklage opening: “Previously, on Game of Thrones…” Unfortunately, this just isn’t enough. As a result, I had an even more difficult (and less enjoyable) time in King’s Landing than I should have had.
Other pratfalls demand attention, as well. For instance, on two occasions, non-playable characters knew a piece of information I explicitly omitted from an earlier conversation. Now, one might guess that they discovered this through spies or three-eyed ravens or whatever, but the specific piece of dialogue and the haphazard nature of the reprimands suggest that Telltale made a few oversights. While not necessarily a critical flaw, the consequences could be severe. After all, fans of GoT know just how important information is.
Telltale has truly grasped what “challenge” can mean in an adventure title. Conventional wisdom states that QTEs and item management are the only real gameplay mechanics in adventure titles, but an experience like Game of Thrones clearly illustrates that dialogue options alone can tax the brain as players try to choose advantageous lines or stay true to themselves — or their current protagonist. Episode 3 not only shines in this regard, but opens the door for new styles of telling tales in interactive stories. Think Cersei’s a you-know-what in the show or books? Well, try directly interacting with her while standing in front of Margaery, the person whose hands you maiden. The experience is authentic, and, therefore, tense and exciting.
Though Game of Thrones must be judged as delivered, I’m not entirely sure how Telltale could overcome the hurdles its chosen format have laid before it. If you’re reading this review after the game is fully released, rest assured that playing each episode back-to-back will clearly maximize enjoyment. For those still wavering or who have played Episodes 1 and 2 and aren’t sure if they want to continue, I would highly recommend exercising some serious self-control (it’s hard, I know) and wait for the series to release in its entirety. And stay off of Twitter. And Facebook. And pull a Thoreau and live naked in a forest. Just because, though.
The rest of the gameplay, control, sound, and graphics are about the same as before with the noted enhancement in dialogue options and difficulty. Actually, Telltale has revisited previous territory with its QTE, suggesting that players may not want to hit all of the keys as offered in order to make a decision not entirely clear otherwise. Fans of The Walking Dead may be particularly aware of this. All mystery aside, Telltale has shown smarter use of its core mechanics, expecting players to trust them and adjust their playstyle, as well. For those less savvy, Telltale may wish to offer a brief tutorial of how mechanics are used in a series at its start so that all adjustments are clear, but perhaps these could serve as easter eggs for hardcore fans.
To say Telltale’s writers have matched the mastery of Martin’s books or HBO’s TV series would do those creators an injustice. No one should expect this series to exactly match the enjoyment of the source or its TV counterpart. That said, the atmosphere, intensity, and scheming clearly represent what makes the series famous, and I cannot wait for Episode 4. If the writing in this episode is any indication of what’s to come, they will have another hit alongside their previous masterpieces. If only the format didn’t get in the way, but that’s life in the big castle, baby.