Writing a review of the final episode of an episodic game is different from writing the other reviews for the game because unlike the previous episodes I don’t just have to evaluate the episode by itself. Like the final episode, the review does not just stand for itself. It also has to stand in as the measure of the work as a whole. Normally this is simple. Ultimately, your feelings towards a work are determined by how it ends because that will be the last thing that you remember about it. That final feeling is the one that you walk away with.
Despite earlier misgivings about the series as a whole and feeling an increasing apathy towards it, I really liked episode 6, “The Ice Dragon.” I think that it is a fantastic episode with some great plotting and great reveals. Unfortunately, this episode also reveals some hidden weaknesses of the game overall.
I maintained that pretty much since the original Telltale’s The Walking Dead was released that complaining about the player’s choices not mattering in this studio’s games misses the point of what Telltale is doing. It isn’t the effect of your choices on the long term plot that matters. It is the cumulative emotional toll derived from the drama and relationships built during the journey through the game that matters. Now I’m going to sound a bit like a hypocrite, though, because the main issue with Game of Thrones is that your choices don’t have enough effect on the outcome of the story.
Theme is a big reason behind my shifting stance on the significance of choice in the game. I had actually hoped that after finishing episode 6 that the outcome of this episode was my fault. My dithering and unwillingness to challenge the machinations of others or commit completely to a course of action caused all the destruction around me. Instead, having made my choices, I find that only the details differ in terms of the nature of the destruction that results at the game’s conclusion. These details mostly concern what various characters think of you if they (or you) are still alive. Which is fine when dealing with the themes of redemption and how to teach the next generation that The Walking Dead concerns itself with, but not so much when the themes presented are the real politics and feudal family dynamics of Game of Thrones. In Westeros, you either win the game of thrones or you die. Yet, Telltale’s Game of Thrones will never let you play well enough to not die.
Game of Thrones concerns itself with the potential destruction of House Forrester and how House Forrester attempts to survive the political machinations that threaten it. There’s two ways that this story’s conclusion could have been framed. It could have been designed as an intrigue simulator, in which all your choices culminate in a conclusion that presents the results of how well you have managed the coming conflict against the Whitehills, or it could have simply have been presented as a tragic conclusion, in which the crushing power of fate reveals a story of a how a noble house is laid to ruin. For some reason, Telltale decided to split the difference.
Each of those two circumstances requires the game to play out somewhat differently. For most of the last five episodes, the game seemed to follow the latter’s model. In following the standard Telltale formula, the narrow divergences meant House Forrester was funneled down a path of failure alongside the player. Yet, the final episode shows the potential of what could have been. Telltale offers quite a few different options for how the final conflict with a majority of the family at the Forrester’s keep as well those in King’s Landing could have played out. But all those expressions and paths are ultimately for naught because Game of Thrones got itself a sequel, and the series has bent its knee to that consideration first. The game can’t have too many divergent outcomes in order to continue the saga in the next game, which means we have a family that that must be brought low due to their own failings.
Which is fine. It reveals the character of the Forrester family and the various shades and permutations of their unbending nature. “Iron from ice” and all that. But again, Game of Thrones goes out of its way to allow you to play the game of thrones. It sets up the board, but can’t be sure the player’s own folly will send the family to their defeat, so it preordains that outcome.
I haven’t mentioned Gerad Tuttle’s adventure in the North because, while it provided new revelations about the world and a chance to see the fantasy mysticism that has been hinted at, it has been a real non-issue since he left The Wall. It may serve some relevance in the newly announced second season, but here it has no connection to the story of House Forrester’s fall.
Which is a shame, because there are so many scenes and nice artistic touches as things play out. The framing of the camera upon leaving the cave and reaching the North Grove is a sight rarely seen due to the prevalence of drab colors in the north. The blood magic chamber is also something new and creepy that manages to play its part in one scene and still remain mysterious, before growing tiresome. My Mira Forrester’s fate mirrors Ned Stark’s in both outcome and in its specific editing. The same motion of the head and angle of the camera brings forth poignant parallels to the television show’s infamous scene. And while it proves ultimately meaningless, planning and executing the final battle at the Keep is a great climax. Most striking, though, is a final montage with voiceovers from the television show’s cast placing all of the character’s major choices from all of the episodes into a narrative context. While I may have played through their stories first hand, the montage is a story about how these characters will be remembered by those who live on, even if the accuracy of the narration is questionable. Such a touch belonged to a better game than this, though.
The final episode of Game of Thrones is great in its own right. Maybe that’s because the narrative threads finally come together and offer a conclusion — though not the conclusion — to the House’s fortunes. I do wonder if the story that could have been told wasn’t hindered by the name Game of Thrones, despite how much that name might have helped the game’s sales. “The Ice Dragon” does much to redeem the rest of the game in any case, but it does not give enough of a good feeling to counter the relentlessness of the long trials that I had to endure up to this point while playing it. And in other ways, this episode’s artistic choices hinder those of the game as a whole.