How do you decide who lives and who dies?
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 5: A Nest of Vipers.
One of my earliest memories is trying to figure out how old my parents would be as I aged. I’ve always been bad at math, so as I counted my age each year on my fingers, I accidentally added ten years to my parents lifespan for each one. You can imagine my shock when I predicted my parents would die of old age before I was even ten. I don’t remember how old I was then, but I do remember crying so hard it was tough to breathe. It was terrifying to know I couldn’t do anything about it.
In "A Nest of Vipers", the latest episode in Telltale’s Game of Thrones series of point-and-click adventure, you can’t do much about death, but you can choose who lives and who dies. During the climax of the season’s penultimate episode, two brothers, Rodrick and Asher, are ambushed by Whitehill soldiers. Their only escape route is under an iron gate, but one brother has to stay behind to hold it open. How do you choose who stays and who goes? How do you decide who lives and who dies?
Generally, I’ve always seen these either-or decision points in Telltale games as experiments in morality. These dilemmas are like the hypothetical scenarios that we use to test our ethics. How do we decide between two evils? In the case of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, do we save the hacker or the sharpshooter? More importantly, how do we justify our actions in non-optimal situations?
In my Game of Thrones story, I saved Rodrick. Yet something about this scenario didn’t sit right with me. This wasn’t a moral dilemma. In past Telltale games, for the most part, the protagonist decides who lives among two NPCs. Your actions as Lee Everett in The Walking Dead matter because you must be able to justify your actions to your allies. In the end, you live, someone else dies. In A Nest of Vipers, both Rodrick and Asher are protagonists. The game is not asking you as a character to make a decision about a third party, it is asking you as a player to make a decision about who you most identify with. Who is your protagonist of choice and who would choose to sacrifice themselves in this scenario? Making your decision is an act of embodying both characters or, alternatively, neither of them.
In an episode constantly wrestling with death and culpability, the binary decision seems jarring. Earlier in the episode, Asher has the option of killing a pit fighter or sparing their life. If he chooses to show mercy, he can rally the crowd around his moral purity: “The Masters who once held your chains decided who lived and who died. But as you can see, I’m not here to be your master!” When I decide to leave Asher to die, I felt like an uncomfortable Master of his fate. I decided who lived and who died and why.
Sealing Asher and Rodrick's fate in "A Nest of Vipers".
Really, either character could justify the decision to sacrifice their life for the other. Indeed, the divide between players when I finished the game was split right about down the middle. Asher is certainly the type of person to sacrifice himself to save his brother, but so is Rodrick. If I were roleplaying as each of them, I would sacrifice myself to save my brother. Therefore, I am not making my decision based on who I am trying to roleplay. I am making the decision as an outside observer to their tragedy.
So why did I make the decision to kill Asher? I thought it would make for a better story. I could tell you how, but that would be an unnecessary justification for something that has no right answer. In some ways, my decision was arbitrary.
When I miscalculated the age of my parents, I don’t remember trying to do the math for my brothers or sisters. When I was a kid, I think I presumed they would live forever. That was a long time ago. I know with too much clarity that’s not true. When I chose which Forrestor brother lived and which died, I think I resented the game for making me decide. I have seen the other ways adventure games can deal with death. I feel better about the way Carley died in The Walking Dead, where I had no agency at all. I even prefer the way Dontnod handled Kate’s potential suicide attempt in Life is Strange, which left me culpable, but only tangentially so.
I do not want to insinuate this moment in Game of Thrones is poorly constructed. Maybe I am just not accustomed to making these decisions so bluntly as a player, not roleplaying as a character within the game world. Or maybe I am just growing increasingly displeased with the dark story of Westeros. I just want everyone to live. If I can’t have that, then I want no part in their death.