What happens when you find yourself on the losing side of a war? Especially a war as dangerous as the one at the center of Game of Thrones?
The Forrester family, lords of a small Northern seat called Ironrath, were on Robb Stark's side in the war — until the Red Wedding happened. Now the surviving Forresters must deal with the consequences of picking a losing side in the dangerous political intrigue of Westeros.
You control the Forresters' fate in the episodic video game Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series, an officially sanctioned expansion of the Game of Thrones universe. Playing as several different characters connected to the Forrester family, your decisions will shape the Forresters' fate.
Episode 2, entitled "The Lost Lords," picks up where Episode 1 left off. It's out this week for Xbox One and 360, PlayStation 4 and 3, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android.
MORE: Best Gaming Desktops
Story: No Forest for the Wicked
Much like their lords the Starks, the Forrester family has been scattered to the wind following the Red Wedding. Some are still in the family keep of Ironrath. One is in King's Landing, serving as handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell. Another is across the sea in Essos. And one is at the Wall, chilling (literally) with the Night's Watch.
Episode 2 introduces two new playable characters, whom we won't name so as not to spoil the story. But without giving anything away, one of these characters' introductory scenes is among the most moving and visceral events in the game.
The perspective switches among four characters throughout the course of the game, echoing the structure of the books and letting players take control of each character in turn.
Switching among these geographically distant characters lets players see more of the Game of Thrones world through the different personages' eyes; for example, Mira Forrester in King's Landing speaks to Margaery Tyrell and Tyrion Lannister and Gared Forrester has a heart-to-heart with Jon Snow, all three of whom are voiced by the same actors who play them in the HBO series.
Playing as multiple characters also lets you try out multiple play styles. I chose to play one character as rude and hot headed, another as even-tempered and kind, a third as shy and shrewd, and a fourth as bold and dim.
Only one of the game's four playable characters is female, and gamers still haven't played as Forrester mother Elissa or daughter Talia: Players only interact with and influence them as male characters. While interacting with nonplayable characters is an essential part of the game, I'm still left hoping the next episode comes with more female playable characters.
The Forresters send a few letters to each other during the game, but for the most part, each character has no idea what the others are thinking and planning. As the player, however, you not only know what the others are up to, you probably also played through the decision yourself.
This is both a strength and a weakness for the game. On the one hand, players can strategize in a way the individual Forresters cannot. At one point in the game, two Forresters face the same challenge. Both could try to overcome it, ignorant of the other's attempts, but as the all-knowing player, I put only one Forrester on the problem, which freed the other to build some goodwill that could help in future episodes.
The downside of omniscience is that it removes players a bit from immersive role-playing. Not only must I continually switch among very different characters, but I also know more than they do, creating a separation from my character and how I make decisions for that character. This may not bother all players, but it is a marked difference from other Telltale Games video games such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, in which you take control of a single character.
Westeros is a violent world, but players won't do much fighting in Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series. The real challenge is navigating the difficult conversations, characters and decisions the Forresters face. Do you try to negotiate with this person? Do you lie to that person? What goal will you pursue, and what will you give up in return?
When the game brings the action, it comes in two kinds: one scenario in which messing up will lead you to a game over, forcing you to replay the section, and another in which the other characters just laugh at your clumsiness and move on. The latter scenarios are always far more successful at creating a meaningful play experience, because they ask players to commit to imperfection and mistakes.
The former scenarios are usually fight scenes, and while some players might relish the chance to get a bit more down-and-dirty than in previous Telltale games, these glorified quick-time events (as these reflex tests are often called) get tiresome when they're overused.
The best battle occurs right at the start of the game, when players take control of a Forrester fighting alongside another character named Beskha. I was reasonably sure that my Forrester, whose death would have triggered a game-over redo, would survive, but I was also terrified that a misstep on my part might lead to Beskha's untimely death. This got me emotionally invested in an otherwise noncritical fight scene.
Art and Graphics: Paint the Town
Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series eschews realistic visuals in favor of a hand-painted look that echoes the comic-book style for which Telltale has recently become known. Characters' proportioning and faces are realistic and expressive, however, essential for a character-driven story like this one.
The hand-painted look is an interesting one for a franchise that presents itself as skull-crushingly realistic, but I think it works in the tiny pocket of the Game of Thrones universe this video game occupies.
Music and Sound: True North
Though it draws inspiration from the HBO show's soundtrack, Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series has an original score. The music is often atmospheric and emotional, designed to immerse players in the drama of the moment. As such, no one song stands out among the rest, but all work together to give the game its distinctive feel.
An excellent voice cast forms the backbone of the series. Natalie Dormer, Peter Dinklage and (introduced this episode) Kit Harrington reprise their roles as Margaery Tyrell, Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow respectively. And it's not just the HBO regulars; the actors voicing the Forrester family bring their A-games and their endlessly delightful Yorkshire-esque inflections (similar to Sean Bean's accent when playing Ned Stark).
The Bottom Line: Through the Ironwoods
No matter how you play the game, House Forresters' ultimate fate probably won't register on the grand scale of Westerosi politics. But the pleasure of Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series is being able to play out your own little drama of war, politics and family set against the familiar backdrop of the books and TV series.
While its multi-character design sacrifices some immersion for the sake of larger scope, Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series is an engaging video game and an excellent addition to the world of Game of Thrones. We're looking forward eagerly to Episode 3.