Interactivity and Entertainment:Thoughts on Telltale’s Game of Thrones

I’ll open with Full Disclosure: I have not read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. At least, I have not ead all of it. I did read A Game of Thrones and get halfway through its sequel, A Clash of Kings, before my interest in Martin’s characters and world building was overcome by my impatience to see the story told. Therefore, my familiarity with the series is primarily rooted in the HBO television series — which is good, because Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones adventure game exists in the television universe, rather than the literary one.

 

The first episode (we’ll get to that in a moment) is titled Iron from Ice. My intent is not to review it — there is a good one here at GameSpot for those who are interested — but suffice it to say I very much enjoyed it and found it compelling enough to write this post based on my experiences with it. I played it while on a four hour flight home from San Juan, entirely in one two and a half hour or so sitting, which makes it about as long as one might expect a film to be but it felt just about the same length as an episode of the television show.  Just a note: I played it on an iPad 2, which meant it did not look great and the frame rate was a little choppy, but I do not think it impacted the experience too negatively. I plan on purchasing the complete series for either my PS3 or my gaming PC, so neither of those issues should be a concern for future episodes.

 

Before I continue, I encourage you, if you have not played the game itself or read a thorough review, to go to the GameSpot review linked above and give it a read before continuing — or, better yet, head over to Steam, the App Store or other game retailer of your choice and pick it up and play through it once. First of all, I do not intend to recap the story in detail (though there may be more than a few SPOILERS for the game in the rest of this post) and second, I am responding to the nature of adventure games in general, Telltale games in specific and this one in particular when I am discussing “Interactivity and Entertainment.”

 

That all said, let’s get right to the core of the matter: Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 1 – Iron from Ice is  a story which the audience experiences both passively (just like the television show, for example) and interactively (like a more traditional video game). I know that is a little controversial to say, but allow me to explain : Iron from Ice is a story because it has all the qualities of a story (a plot, character, setting, themes, mood, and so on) and while the interactive elements are compelling, they ultimately only have a superficial impact on how the story plays out. The story elements, while mutable to an extent, still exist as prescribed by the creators, so the “game” aspect of it is mostly an illusion. This is true of most adventure games, though most adventure games rely less on story on more on discrete puzzles to engage the player. This is also true of many games that do not even fall within the genre of “adventure game.” A game like the original God of War, for example, is mostly a linear series of set pieces that must be solved in a specific manner (aka puzzles) and a specific order, with frenetic combat thrown in to make it seem more like what we usually think of as a “game.” By contrast, something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is more game than story. There is a main quest line, of course, and a number of subplots all prescribed and populated, but all of those can be ignored in favor of looting dungeons, hunting dragons, collecting books or a million other things. While the game-story dividing line is broad and blurry (with even Skyrim only just on the “game” side compared to something like Pong) but Iron from Ice very clearly rests comfortably on the “story” side of the line. If you disagree, I encourage you to let me know in the comments or on the facebook page where we can discuss it further, but for now I am going to move forward with this definition in mind.

 

An interesting aspect of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is that these properties are highly successful television shows (of course spawned from comic books and novels, respectively) with well established and consistent tones, atmospheres and styles. Both shows leverage not only the source material but deviating from the source material, and each uses surprise and even shock to enhance its storytelling (rather than to replace the need for good storytelling, as a lot of lesser shows and films will do).

Exhibit A — Reactions to the “Red Wedding” on the  Game of Thrones television show:

 

You do not get this sort of visceral response unless the audience is fully invested in the story, which in itself is a sort of interactivity in the fiction. It seems inevitable, then, that the next logical step is the more properly interactive, immersive and invested world of electronic games for these properties: it is no longer enough to gasp at the knife as it is drawn across the throat, but also to be responsible for it by choosing the words and actions of the character whose life now flows freely onto the cold stone floor.

 

In both Game of Thrones and Walking dead, the story that telltale creates centers not around the protagonists of the existing properties (though many of those characters weave in an out of the stories) and instead star new characters. These characters are carefully integrated into their respective worlds and, especially in Game of Throne, echo archetypes from the source material, but new characters provides both a sense of ownership for the player as they make choices for those characters, but also a sense of uncertainty important to their properties.  Both Game of Thrones and Walking Dead have made it clear that no one is safe. A new character otherwise unconnected from the source narrative means an unknown fate and, by that, potential doom at any point. After all, the game presents enough other characters — you control four in Iron from Ice and a fifth is strongly hinted at — that sudden death does not necessarily mean rebooting to the last save. All of this combined for a more immersive experience.

 

The interactivity fuels that immersion and is fueled by it. Often, when the player chooses dialog or an action for the character they currently control a little note appears in the corner, telling the player that this character or that noticed it or will remember it. It says to the player, “Your choices matter,” even if they really do not. And, ultimately, that the player thinks the choices matter is far more important to their enjoyment than that those choices do matter. The stories are so well crafted that the apparent choices seem to lead naturally to the outcomes presented, even if those outcomes are prescribed anyway. Therefore, the interactivity of it, the choosing it and being immersed by it and feeling connected to the characters and the world, is both the goal and the means to the goal. Yes, Telltale has a story to relate, but you are responsible for getting there and along the way you find yourself deeply connected to the events of that narrative.

 

I think there will always be a place for passive entertainment — reading a great book, watching a great movie or listening to a great album. But technology has finally gotten to a place where a whole new world of truly interactive, immersive entertainment — going for beyond simple stories and games, I think — sits before us. Telltale has managed to dare us to dip out toe into that future.

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On Being Batman

I have to admit to spending too much time playing the games in the Batman: Arkham series over the past week or so and not nearly enough time writing. With the arrival of the newest game in the series, Arkham Origins, I knew that I had to force myself to put ass to chair and fingers to keyboard lest another day disappear in the murky dark of Gotham City. While I can congratulate myself for managing to do that much at least, my mind is still focused on the superstitious and cowardly lot that so desperately deserve the swift boot of justice.

 

The Arkham games are unique in a couple of ways, not least being they are super-hero video games that are actually good. Despite being a  genre defined by larger than life characters and huge science-fantasy action, super-heroes have not often translated well to the video game medium. Of course, the genre had the same difficulty with motion pictures for many years, with only a few diamonds (Donner’s Superman, Burton’s Batman) among a great deal of coal. I think the same elements that allowed comic book heroes to make a successful transition to the big screen — advances in technology, creators who took the stories seriously (but not too seriously), and a cultural zeitgeist amicable to heroism — are in place to do the same in the video game medium.  The Arkham games have been consistently strong and there are some other examples like the various recent (non-movie tie-in) Spiderman games. If developers start applying the super-hero genre to other video game genres — that is, not assuming that every super-hero game has to be a third person open world actioner — we’ll likely see a lot more good super-hero games.

 

But more than just being good super-hero games (and good games in general) the Arkham games do something else that few games manage to do: they make you, the player, feel like Batman. Not only are all of Batman’s skills and tools at your disposal in play — not just batarangs and grappling hooks, but smoke pellets and CSI -like evidence analysis — but the look, sound and atmosphere of the game is everything you would imagine from living as the Dark Knight. This is important because when it comes to combining games and storytelling, long the province of table-top RPGs and point-and-click adventure games, immersion is key. When you are attempting to do so with a character like Batman who is well known, beloved and has had many different successful iterations over the decades, it is doubly important. Each element of the overall product is bent toward enhancing and enforcing that sense of being Batman on behalf of the player. All the player has to do is relent and psychologically put on the cowl.

 

From a storyteller’s perspective, this achievement in immersion is worth examining. An immersed audience is, by definition, invested, and an invested audience buys into whatever stakes the storyteller has presented. When that happens, the outcome of the story suddenly matters, at least for the time that the audience is immersed. Whether a film or novel or comic or video game, a work that draws (or drags) the audience in is more successful (for certain definitions of success). Certainly there are times when we want the audience to experience a story or part of a story from a detached perspective. You see this a lot when storytellers shift points of view from the protagonist to that of either the villain, who is supposed to remain mysterious and/or inscrutable, or a hapless victim. The creator pulls back, bringing the audience along, to get an aerial view instead of an internal one. The opposite is true sometimes, too, when what the storyteller wants is a visceral but uncertain experience on the part of the audience, Suddenly, we are seeing through another’s eyes and only getting limited information filtered through pain, fear, desperation or what-have-you. But both of these shifts in immersion are temporary, where the kind of immersion experienced in being Batman must be carried through the entire storytelling experience.

 

The next time you sit down to write for writings sake, try creating a truly immersive narrative based on a well established character. Let your reader become Sherlock Holmes or Superman or Richard Nixon. Without the benefit of music and high resolution digital imagery, you’ll have to rely on the key components of what makes the character iconic and then transfer those not just to but into the reader via prose. Good luck.

 

And now, I think I see the Bat Signal alight in the sky…