Cable TV of Thrones — Why ‘Game of Thrones’ Does Not Work as a Game

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?