Death and Do-Overs in ‘Game of Thrones’

There shouldn’t be any "game over” screens in Westeros. That's too merciful.

Well I knew Essos was dangerous, but this is ridiculous. Five minutes into “The Lost Lords,” the second episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones series, I’ve seen the game over screen four times. Eventually I make it through the annoyingly deadly bar brawl. I’ve come away irritated but also appreciative of the various evolutionary splits in the adventure game genre. Not all games are like this, and there’s a good chance Game of Thrones can correct its course.

I’d argue that fail-states in Game of Thrones shouldn’t exist, but if they must, they shouldn’t occur during the first scene of the game. First, action is not Telltale’s strong suit. Animations can get hitchy, and the controls lack the precision of a game meant for action, which can make failing quick-time events feel unfair. Let’s say that Game of Thrones had a mechanical crispness equal to that of Bayonetta. Even then the decision to throw the player to a game over screen in the crucial opening scene is questionable. Right when we’re supposed to be getting to know the new characters and being immersed in the world, the game throws some arbitrary fail states.

It’s doubly disappointing because adventure games (Telltale games in particular) have shown a willingness to abandon established genre conventions. In Game of Thrones, you’re not collecting keys or solving brain teasers in hopes of unlocking the next stage of the game. The entire game is one big puzzle: How does one survive in Westeros? Solving this puzzle is accomplished by picking up on subtle dialogue clues, keeping track of political intrigues, and securing alliances. It took The Walking Dead a few episodes to distance itself from its point-and-click heritage, but by the end of its first season and throughout Season 2, the game was about navigating relationships more so than it was about scrolling through an inventory and trying to combine a bunch of found items. Game of Thrones has embraced the former approach from the beginning.

Violence is one of the main themes of the Game of Thrones universe, so the games can’t very well abandon fighting. The question is whether violent action can be integrated in a way that doesn’t arbitrarily pull players out of the story and force them to replay sequences. He is a polarizing figure, but David Cage explains the tension that arises when designers include harsh fail states in story-driven games:

It’s like creating an artificial loop saying, “You didn’t play the game the way I wanted you to play, so now you’re punished and you’re going to come back and play it again until you do what I want you to do.” In an action game, I can get that — why not? It’s all about skills. But in a story-driven experience it doesn’t make any sense.” (Jessica Conditt, “No ‘game over’ in Beyond: Two Souls, but Jodi can die”, Joystiq, 22 August 2013)

Cage’s Beyond: Two Souls embraces this philosophy. It features numerous dramatic action sequences, but they never result in a game over screen. Sequences might get skipped based on successful button pushes or entire characters may die and drop out of the story, but everything remains within the bounds of the game. This approach requires strong writing, acting, and art direction since it relies on the perception of consequences in the absence of strict mechanical ones. Telltale has a history of strong, complex characters, and the Game of Thrones world has a deep supply of lore and interconnected stories, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

There’s definitely time for Game of Thrones to find more graceful ways of integrating action into its story. The adventure game genre has evolved over the years, largely for the better. Justin McElroy’s revisiting of Grim Fandango reveals that even pillars of the genre have aspects that subsequent games have clearly improved upon:

Frequently, I’d find myself stumped because I was unaware that if I walked off the screen at a certain angle I’d find a new area I’d completely missed before.Tough puzzles became miserable spending as much time as I did trying to get from A to B. Games have had 17 years to get a lot better about communicating that sort of thing, but Grim Fandango Remastered isn’t interested in putting glowing arrows on the ground to help you find your way. (Grim Fandango Remastered Review: From The Boneyard”, 27 January 2015)

Glowing arrows is actually an extreme example. Games like Broken Age stick to the old inventory combination game pretty faithfully while still implementing opt-in help systems. There are ways to optimize and modernize that still retain the genre’s heritage. More broadly, there’s the need to accept that genres expand and branch off down different evolutionary paths. Gone Home probably wouldn’t exist without Wolfenstein 3D. One’s an exploration game about learning painful family secrets while the other is an exploration game about blasting Nazis, but neither detracts from the other’s respective existence. Similarly, the adventure game space is large enough for puzzle-based games like Machinarium and character studies like The Walking Dead.

Action and violence is a core part of Game of Thrones, but so is persistence. You might lose your hand, your entire family, or your entire kingdom, but there is no game over screen and no do-overs. The game should embrace this; fail a button press and their should be consequences. An offended nobleman, a bloody lip, or even the loss of a character would fit the world’s tone. Getting pulled out of the story and forced to replay a scene is jarring, but ultimately lacks the harsh permanence of a consequence that can’t be replayed. Game of Thrones has a chance to push the adventure game genre down another evolutionary path, one in which losing a puzzle piece can be disastrous but not game-ending.