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Telltale's Game of Thrones and the thrill of choices amidst corruption

Leigh Alexander examines the first episode of Telltale's latest game, set in the Game of Thrones universe -- and finds useful lessons for choice-driven storytelling in a universe where there are no "good" options.
When it comes to narrative games, the word "choice" has an inexorable association -- there is, we believe, no good storytelling without player agency. That's to say, no good story unless the player can make choices, either to perform as they imagine a character would, or to execute their own wishes on an experience. The game should "know" how we feel based on what we do, and react accordingly; it should be a vehicle for the player to tell their own story. In practice, "choice" often brings a whole host of complications: How many branches of player will should the design account for? Infinite permutations are, of course, impossible, so it's best to create a few different paths. Then there's how to signal these paths to the player, without boiling down to selections among absurd polarities -- help the starving man, or burn the whole village down? Should the player receive rewards for some choices and not for others, and if so, how to implement that without implicitly engineering a "best" path, beside which all others form inferior experiences? That whole "morality compass" thing makes choice-based story games complicated. How can it possibly be as much fun to be good as it is to be bad -- when "fun" is a wildly relative and subjective component of what's supposed to be a highly personal, individualized experience? Beyond that, what about the game's characters, and those players who are driven primarily by the desire to form closer relationships with some and not others? What kinds of rewards can those choices offer besides the "romantic" scene that the player systematically picked all the "correct" answers to attain? Even successful choice-driven narrative games seem to dissatisfy players if the choices don't seem to "matter" in the end, regardless of the experience along the way. It's a big challenge, the choice thing. With its Walking Dead series, Telltale found some success by discovering that the "zombie apocalypse" survival scenario is primarily about choices among people and situations -- who should get the most food? Who do you trust when resources are going missing? Would you like to be a leader? Are you prepared, on a practical level, to shoulder that risk? In The Walking Dead, the act of making choices in the heat of complicated situations was meaty enough to sustain the experience all on its own. There were still those pesky moral notes, the overhanging question of the "right thing" -- the child Clementine is in the care of the player character Lee, and the game constantly nudged players to consider her best interests. It also asked the player to privately judge their feelings about Lee's guilt or innocence in a crime that took place prior to the game's story, and use their instincts to inform how he responded to the other characters in his group of survivors. These were often interesting decisions, but at times when the overarching ecosystem wasn't entirely clear, making a choice often felt like a stab in the dark. Having to make impulsive decisions in partial ignorance can be an interesting experience in its own right, but it's not for everyone. Playing The Walking Dead felt something like being an amateur log-roller -- burling and tipping along thrillingly, but with imperfect control.
But now, with the first installment of its new Game of Thrones series, Iron from Ice, it seems the studio has found a universe even better suited to the bleak and occasionally meaningless act of constant decision-making. And there's probably a lot to be learned about motivation and satisfaction in choice-driven story games from its positive reception. The Game of Thrones universe is a fantasy world governed by a few immutable concepts: The powerful versus the powerless, the needs of the present balanced against the future, and some prophecy and magic sprinkled gently in for chaos and awe. Among these poles, numerous characters muddle often arbitrarily against their fate -- those fates are usually bad, and fans often conceive of the story's creator, George R. R. Martin, as a sort of chuckling sadist, gleefully springing character deaths on engaged readers for his own amusement. Morality is of little value in the game's world, and the kind of principled behavior that wins reader admiration often turns out to be a bad idea in the canon's sea of dispassionate circumstances. The series' most admirable character -- the one who makes the "best" choices, is most circumspect and balanced, the one you assume will be the hero of the whole saga -- is abruptly killed off in the epic's first book. Survival is presented as a "game" that can be won through canny moves, but anything can happen. The leading "player" can suddenly lose everything in one cruel sweep. Every character in the Game of Thrones is trying to "win" that game in any way they can, and the more precious their objectives and alliances along the way, the more they stake. The universe has a very clear and particular flavor, and fans feel particularly rewarded by playing the game -- knowing that what looks like the righteous idea may in fact be foolish, or being able to make choices that seem selfish and alienating, but that speak to a larger, private destiny. In other words, there are no "good" choices in Telltale's Game of Thrones game, and knowing that from the beginning makes playing more fun. The blanching stare of a beloved relative or the sullen look of a spurned ally don't feel like failure states the way they might under other circumstances, rather necessary sacrifices in a fight for your life. As you play the game, you don't feel anxious about what you might have "missed" or "done wrong" -- or if you do, it feels appropriate for the Game of Thrones world. More often, you feel the knifelike urgency to decide your strategy to face the circumstances, whatever the costs along the way.
Arguably the best part of this first installment is a confrontation with the cruel Queen Cersei -- you've been asked, urgently, to just tell her what she wants to hear. But how far will you be willing to go with your allies watching, with your family in danger at home, especially when you're dealing with characters who might be smart enough to know you're paying lip service? It's these kinds of complicated moments that feel incredibly true to the original fiction and make for thrilling and wholly-original gameplay moments. In a story-driven game environment, it's more fun to make choices when conventional notions of "right" and "wrong" are absent, and when the villainous characters are as delightful and ambiguous as the ostensibly moral ones. It's impressive that Telltale has managed to make it rewarding to play in such a fatalistic universe.

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