Cable TV of Thrones -- Why 'Game of Thrones' Does Not Work as a Game

From a marketing standpoint, basing a game off Game of Thrones seems intuitive. The problem that nobody seems to have considered is that the kingdom of Westeros is a miserable place that nobody should want to be in.

After two seasons on the air, Game of Thrones has captured the heart of the internet. The books may have been popular, but it was HBO’s series that made it into the phenomenon that it is. Since the adaptation hit the airwaves it has been ripe for gamification. Games based on screen franchises are usually rushed cash-ins forced on a studio’s junior development team. It’s rare that they reach large audiences, and it’s rarer that they deserve to. But the good will that the audience has built up around Game of Thrones and the intimacy that the show has garnered with its viewers means that from a marketing standpoint, basing a game off the show seems intuitive. The problem that nobody seems to have considered is that the kingdom of Westeros is a miserable place that nobody should want to be in.

Game of Thrones is about feudal lords killing each other for political influence that can’t last. The “game” of Game of Thrones that the audience is repeatedly warned about is one that you either “win or die.” But nobody ever wins. What makes the show stand out is how brutally honest it is in its portrayal of medieval politics. Contemporary fantasy stories are about magic and majesty, about good and worthy kings disposing of greedy tyrants. However, the actual dark ages never worked that way. Game of Thrones shows us what a fantasy in the actual dark ages might look like: powerful people keep their power by deceiving one another and good people are exploited. There are no heroes and the people in authority have nearly no accountability. Europe in the dark ages—which is so often romanticized—is defined by dysentery, syphilis, famine, bigotry and corruption. Making a “game” set in this environment doesn’t hold much logic. Either you win the game by being a terrible person or you’re put in a position in which you can only lose.

The kind of heroism found in games (especially RPGs) just doesn’t exist in Game of Thrones. When someone is impaled on a sword, they die. They don’t lose a certain amount of HP based on the attacker’s strength. Magic comes at an enormous cost, not at the cost of a regenerating mana pool. There’s no previous evidence in the Baldur’s Gate universe that indicates that the heroes can’t take a few blows to the head, chug a health potion, and leap back into the fray. Game of Thrones doesn’t work that way, and audiences know it doesn’t because they’ve seen Ned Stark, who is supposed to be an exceptional fighter, lose the use of his leg after fighting off just a handful of basic infantrymen. Putting the player in Westeros and giving characters the prowess that they had in Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age dulls the impact of the show, in which everyone is just flesh and blood.

It isn’t that turning Game of Thrones into a game can’t work, it’s just that there’s a mental gap in the way that it’s been done so far -- a gap that seems destined to widen. The planned MMORPG, Game of Thrones: the Seven Kingdoms seems even less appropriate a direction to take. In an MMO, every player is created equal. Each class is balanced according to planned challenges. A player can improve their ability and standing by gaining a predictable resource (experience) through a predictable means (completing quests). One can rise in an MMO relatively easily. The conditions for getting better are flat and unchanging. That isn’t how Game of Thrones works in its other incarnations. Personal morality, bias, and tragedy muddies everything. Characters never know what to do, and they’re constantly left to make hard decisions with incomplete information against several competing groups -- that is when they have enough autonomy to make a decision for themselves at all.

The typical counter argument at this point is that Game of Thrones is a recognizable brand that should easily translate into greater profits for the creators. Even if the decision were so simply and callously made, it still doesn’t hold up. People recognize that Westeros is a terrible place where any experience of agency (which is what games are all about) is nonexistent, illusory, and temporary or it feels out of place with the world that’s already been built. In short, will people buy into it when it seems so off?

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.