Editorial: A Torrid Love Affair with Telltale Games

The party don't start til I walk in.
Ramsay just needs a hug.

Telltale Games recently served up the hors d’ouevre in the six course meal that will be their much discussed Game of Thrones series. Pacing one’s self with this level of dining typically coaxes a scoff from me, being the type of person who usually waits until the buffet opens so that he can gorge himself on the entirety of the offerings in a single sitting. An exception was made here, given the crippling hunger pangs I have been dealing with while George R. R. Martin incubates The Winds of Winter under his signature hat. Blind and ravenous, I found myself stumbling toward the welcoming arms of Telltale Games while swearing this is the last time we would be hooking up.

Alliteratively titled Iron From Ice, this first episode of Telltale Games’ series wasted no time in quelling withdrawal symptoms with a faithful rendition of the opening sequence from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Our starting point is the infamous “Red Wedding,” which left a hollow in many hearts, seeing things through the eyes of a squire in House Forrester, loyalists to House Stark. We are treated to multiple playable characters, seeing the story unfold from their points of view while influencing it with dialogue choices. Of course, what would a Game of Thrones game be without that moment that makes a person want to leave a fist-sized hole in their screen? Yes, folks, Telltale Games delivers, and quickly reminded me that I would last about five, maybe six minutes in Westeros because I lack the wit and weapons to deal with even the tamest of its denizens.

Iron From Ice is not without its issues. While the scenes and dialogue have the Game of Thrones mouthfeel we have come to expect from the HBO series, there were some quirks with both when I played on an Xbox 360. Minor stuttering in the audio, and a few distracting flubs in the animation ultimately amounted to tiny annoyances that I quickly forgot about. They simply were not enough to shatter immersion and take away from my enjoyment of the story.

The tale unfolding before me was compelling enough for me to ignore technical flaws, while I fought back suspicions that every character in the game was somehow out to get me. Call it residual paranoia from the books and show, but it did not help that Cersei showed up, played by Lena Headey herself, working dark magic to make her voice sound like a vicious sneer. We know the big names, so I will not buffer a word count with the rest, but I do have to applaud all the voice actors. Telltale has once again requisitioned talent on all fronts. That plays a big part in bringing these characters to life, and making the player care about them.

GlaDOS wins for Best Jerk Face
Claptrap wins for “Best Poker Face.”

Telltale Games and I have not always been friends. I have to confess that I was the asshole in the relationship, waving them off as not qualifying in my formerly narrow definition of a game to be worth sacrificing booze money for. I did not care about their early work as I watched them ride the procedural cop drama train with CSI installments, and foolishly assumed their Sam & Max titles to be nothing more than a dickering method of begging for fans. I completely rejected their advances even though, looking back, I would have absolutely been interested in exploring those titles at the time.

Poker Night 2 was the one that got me. The idea that I could ante up against Brock Samson, Claptrap, and Bruce Campbell’s chin while GlaDOS once again resumed her role as the horrible big sister I never had was enough to sell me on the idea that Telltale Games offered things I liked. Why it was this particular title that caused me to reverse my position on Telltale Games is something I am still not entirely clear on. Granted, there was a familiarity with the characters there, and I do enjoy the occasional game of poker, but for me to have gone years as a person who actively searched for games where story telling had a chance to shine while intentionally ignoring Telltale’s catalog reminds me in some oblique way of a young boy being a complete asswipe to a girl because he likes her.

I had a roommate like Colin, once. No, wait, that was me.
Bigby Wolf and Colin share some Huff n Puffs. How charming is that?!

Since then, my gaming to-do list has included Telltale’s previous titles which is daunting, for me, since I have spent most of my gaming career running to catch up. I only recently completed The Wolf Among Us and scrambled to tell my friends how much I enjoyed it. Being only marginally familiar with Bill Willingham’s Fables, the game still slipped its sleazy tendrils into my brain and massaged them with a pulp detective story that I needed to be a part of. Tales From the Borderlands stands politely queued, knowing damned well that I will likely play it next instead of another one of Telltale’s older games. I have this same problem when I go to a restaurant that has never served me a bad meal. Selecting from a list of things that all look great is an absolutely absurd thing to complain about, and it worries me that at some point in my life I had the notion these types of games would not be fun. It is not outside the realm of possibility that I suffer from some sort of trendy psychosis.

With five remaining episodes in Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones we might be in for a hell of a ride. This story needs to be handled with meticulous hands if they are to appease Martin’s rabid fans, and given what I have played so far, Andrew Grant and Ryan Kaufman look to be up to the challenge. Each will be released on the bi-monthly schedule Telltale has adopted with the last few titles, and will hit all the usual platforms. As I wait patiently for the next episode to drop, I cannot refrain from speculating on other licenses I would not mind seeing Telltale Games tackle. I have seen suggestions for Breaking Bad and Doctor Who, both of which would be interesting, but if I can leave a personal fantasy request, and Telltale pulls off this Westerosi story line, this might not be a bad way to approach the complex and vicious possibilities of Frank Herbert’s Dune universe.

To our readers who have indulged, what are your thoughts on the story so far? Keep in mind the ever present risk of spoilers for others who have not yet checked in to see what House Forrester is up to. I am not sure what the statute of limitations on revealing plot points is for this game, but let us assume it is still in full effect.

6 comments

  1. I wish I had something nice to say about Telltale Games projects, but I don’t. They aren’t actively bad, but at the same time, I don’t find them narratively creative, artistically innovative, or particularly ‘fun’–the three things which I value most about video games on the whole. I understand that they butter a lot of scones–but they’re not my scones.

    I am not sure what it is particularly that rubs me the wrong way. To a large degree, it’s like Doctor Who, which you also mention. I just don’t like it. I do like some Sci-Fi, but I think Doctor Who is pretty poor both from writing and acting angles. Lots of people love it to death, but I can’t really see why. Lots of people love American Football to death. I can’t figure that out either.

    Maybe there is a sense that these are mass-produced culture which is attempting to masquerade as being something more sophisticated and deep. Yet, when one has had much (indeed, near-constant) experience with actual, tremendously challenging depth, then the ersatz ‘depth’ which is served up as part of mass-culture repulses, rather than delights. Maybe there’s a hint of that in their games.

    As a rule I don’t find many games particularly deep. The developers simply don’t have the aesthetic and literary experience necessary to pull that sort of thing off, as a rule. They’re game developers, not Herman Melville. They have a different skill set. So, usually, attempts to do that sort of thing fall short and, consequently, games tend to be better if they don’t put on airs by trying. Better to successfully make a fun, light game than to produce a ‘deep’ game which is a sophormoric imitation of the sublime at best.

  2. That’s fair! I have to admit that also am not what I would call a fan of Doctor Who, which I find terrifically campy. I will watch it if there is nothing else to watch, but I’m not about to ascribe some perceived armchair philosophies to the show as I have seen some do. It is meant to be entertaining, and for that, I suppose, depth is not always entirely necessary, though I will never deem it unwelcome. There are some days where I will allow the most fabricated versions of depth to fly simply because the story is entertaining.

    Like you, I don’t expect devs to be deep, but I do expect effort, even if it is sophomoric, and that is only in cases where you are handing me a game where I am arguably suppose to care what happens to care about the characters. If I’m not engaged in any way to our heroes and villains, then I see no point in having them and would be probably get as much enjoyment out of the game as I would playing generic zombie shooter 2000, which is to say I would return it from whence it came.

  3. I buy a lot of Telltale products because I tend to be sucked in by the premise of them, and I tend to enjoy the first episode or two, but after that the lack of engaging gameplay starts to wear on me and I become bored.

  4. @Lusipurr – great comment. It’s why I feel that currently the most artistically powerful games are the ones that use actual game mechanics and pacing to convey a narrative or artistic statement, rather than trying to do it with callow writing or flashy cutscenes.

  5. I’ve also tried my hand at a Telltale game and was initially caught up in it, but put it down for too long to remember quite where I left off. The prospect of having to start over again has kept me away but maybe not forever.

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