PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Games

Perspectives on Death in 'Game of Thrones - A Nest of Vipers'

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.