The Bright Side of Game of Thrones – The Game

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These days, there are two major types of videogames: indie and AAA. Indie games are everything from Depression Quest to Hotline Miami, relatively tiny titles that are either independently distributed through stuff like Steam or picked up by a bigger publisher. On the other side there are the flagship games like Call of Duty or Madden, things you see on billboards or bus sides; games with budgets that oust the GDP of most small countries.

This wasn’t always the case. There used to be a middle ground, a place for games that weren’t birthed across multiple campuses but were slightly bigger than a garage or hastily rented studio apartment could handle. You could go to a store, spend $30, and get a game that was…okay. It wasn’t the new hotness, nor was it a risky venture. It was solid, but unremarkable, something that you might develop a fondness for but wouldn’t begrudge someone for disliking.

Game of Thrones is just that kind of game.

Taking place alongside the events of the first book, GoT tells the story of two different grizzled men with sparse fantasy character beards. One is Mors Westerford, a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch, the other an exiled lord named Alester Sarwyck, who’s taken up the red mantle of the Lord of Flame.

If you find yourself scratching your head at any of that, this probably isn’t the game for you. Seriously.

While it doesn’t feature many characters from the main story — a few poke their heads in now and then — GoT orbits around the books rather closely. Major plot points intersect directly with important details that fans will recognize in a way that seems natural without falling into pandering. Much like the books themselves, it’s a bit slow to start, spending a little too much time on set-dressing, but once the twin narratives of Mors and Alester come into focus things settle into a good pace, with twists and tumbles dropping about as often as bodies.

Following the structure of the novels, the two characters start off in different places and different times, each chapter moving them closer together until they finally meet in the middle. It’s only then that the game really finds itself, the knot you’ve been working on getting pulled tight.

One thing that GoT does get right is creating a wide-range of low-impact role-playing opportunities. Modern WRPGs often fall into the trap of gamifying choices by putting everything on a single line of good versus evil and assigning numeric bonuses to each side. The choices in GoT rarely carry with them such advantages, instead feeling more like genuine character-driven moments. Playing Mors as a hardass dedicated to the Night’s Watch isn’t a matter of getting a +5 to Endurance, it’s about staying true to the character. As a result, I felt a much stronger connection to both Mors and Alester at the end of the game than I was expecting, as they were the sum total of honest decisions I had made, not the culmination of a variety of systems aping moral binaries.

Outside of that, everything else about the game is inoffensively predictable. Combat feels like Dragon Age-lite, with time slowing down as you select abilities from a wheel. There’s a decent amount of strategy to the killing, but it doesn’t really come into play until the game’s final third, when you’ve unlocked most of the options. Each character can choose from one of three classes — loosely mapped to basic archetypes like speedy knife guy or beefy tank with sword and shield — which feel different enough that the choice carries weight. Fights with my sword and board Mors felt like dirty slogs while my more nimble archer Alester darted around the field unleashing crippling headshots.

Like most mid-range games, Game of Thrones is filled with ideas that, while not quite half-baked, could’ve used a few more minutes in the oven. There’re a ridiculous amount of items in the game, many of which bear the names of characters or places from the books, yet by the time you have enough money to buy them you’ve already looted far better from dead enemies. Both Alester and Mors have the ability to highlight secrets — Mors through his dog, Alester though his god — yet the rewards for doing so are paltry at best and hardly worth the extra time needed to jump through the required hoops. It’s a shallow pool painted to look deeper than it is.

Then there are the production values, which are resolutely okay. There’s an occasional moment where a rogue model slips in front of the camera during a cutscene, the voice acting is just a smidge on the over-wrought side, and the textures are roundly muddy and unattractive. That said, the level design is pretty solid and many of the outdoor environments are pretty easy on the eyes, if a bit same-y and hard to navigate.

There’s a real sense that Cyanide Studios wanted this to be great. I’m sure their design documents lay out a game that’s outstanding, one that might’ve reached its potential with more time and money. Ten years ago, it would’ve been the kind of game you found off to the side at your local game shop for $20, something you might’ve taken a chance on and been pleasantly surprised by, a fond memory to keep you afloat between tentpole releases.

But in today’s world of all or nothing funding, there’s no place for a thing like Game of Thrones, an underdog game that might’ve missed the moon but instead found its place basking amongst the stars.

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