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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D&D 5E Actual Play Part 2

 

Last time, I discussed my take on the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules themselves. What follows is a more specific discussion of running The Valley Of Tombs at CarnageCon as a persistent open world exploration adventure, a “Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG” if you will.

 

The Valley of Tombs

 

Figuring out what to run at a convention can be very difficult. I know that I much prefer run games than to play them: for every good game I play, there are two that are boring or uncomfortable or just plain bad. Ultimately, I want to be that game that is good for other players, and in any case I love running RPGs. It’s too bad there is not career in it.

 

Last year at Carnage I ran a two part Mutant Future adventure (“Out of the Freezer/Into the Fridge”) and I found that I really liked running multipart games. At the same time, that I was trying to decide what to run this year, I was playing a lot of Skyrim and the open world, exploration based adventure design that is so fundamental to that game really inspired me to try and recreate the experience on tabletop. The result, it would turn out, was The Valley of Tombs.

 

From a player’s perspective, the Valley setup is simple: an ancient region used over eons as a resting place for the mighty has been rediscovered, setting off a “gold rush” like race for not only riches but forgotten knowledge and ancient power. Player characters are contractors with the Finder’s Guild, which serves the dual purpose of giving them a place to fence their recovered loot (*for a 10% fee, of course) and a way to connect with like minded fellow explorers. They also pay for the simple act of discovery, using a magical journal and map. The players, of course, fill in the map and write in the journal, with the goal of creating a base from which future groups of players at different events where I run the Valley can start their own adventures.

 

I was very lucky at Carnage in that I had a very enthusiastic journal keeper who also happened to be present (with her husband) for each of the five slots I ran. That they were great role players who brought a lot to the table as well was gravy.

 

Prior to the convention, I had planned on creating the entire Valley, stocked top to bottom with interesting locations and encounters. That proved to be far too ambitious a goal, however — especially with taking classes for the first time in 10 years (not to mention the usual family and professional responsibilities). Instead, I sketched out the immutable features of the Valley (terrain and settlement locations that would not be changing) and created a few dozen encounters, both location based and “wandering” encounters. In the end, I think it worked out for the best.

 

Had I assigned every interesting location a hex in advance, the possibility that the players might accidentally sidestep the “fun stuff” was there. In addition, it would deprive me of my favorite thing about being a Dungeon Master: playing to your small, captive audience of players and giving them a tailored experience. Like many of the open world video RPGs that inspire it, the Valley is chock full of things to see and do (and kill!) but those things are not necessarily nailed down to a single location. That said, the experience at Carnage has helped me devise a balanced approach to exploration and storytelling that should make the experience even more fun for future groups.

 

I am not a fan of the “adventure path” style of play that currently pervades the RPG hobby. I much prefer stories to emerge out of events that occur at the table. Certainly, prep work is necessary and story seeds need to be spread liberally over the fertile soil of player imagination (to take a metaphor way too far) but too much predetermination is counterproductive. In my experience players have more fun if they feel like they are driving the narrative with their choices and actions. These two elements — the things in the world and how the players choose to interact with them — combine with the game system itself (not least of which is the randomness inherent in the dice) to result in “story.” Sometimes a character’s story ends with her at the bottom of a pit, pierced by goblin punji sticks, and sometime it ends with her slaying the dragon and saving the prince. In an adventure like Valley of the Tombs, either story is as likely as the other.

 

Some numbers from Carnage: I ran 5 slots of the Valley, for a total of 20 hours of play. I had 12 or 13 players total. Two players played every slot and 6 players played at least 2 slots. Only one PC died (dammitall). A total of 12 adventuring days occurred, during which about 20 hexes were explored. One “dungeon” was explored, consuming an entire slot, and another (the apparent prison of “The Lord of the Pit”) was found and the key to opening it unlocked, but the players chose not to open it. Player characters present for every session earned 3000 XP.

The Valley of Tombs was a joy to run and the slots at Carnage taught me a lot about how to make it even better. I will run it a few times between now and February, when I bring the Valley to TotalCon for 6 slots — 24 hours of hexploration and adventure!