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When winter never comes

Game design

There is no doubt that Telltale has mastered the episodic format in the context of a videogame series. They create enveloping stories full of character that promise grand payoffs over choices that make each experience feel unique and personally meaningful to the player. They understand how to capture the essence of any brand and through their prolific contributions to the medium, have crafted some of the finest modern examples of the adventure format. And yet, there is a general discomfort that comes with finishing any of their adventures, a sense that they are unwilling to end a story.

With Game of Thrones, we find a completely bankable franchise. There is a great, overlapping sect of the gaming market that will commit money to the name alone. It’s understandable that the developers of an episodic Game of Thrones series would stretch the potential, that for as long as the series runs, they will always find some contract to develop more.There is no gamble here. Game of Thrones, done in the style of a Telltale adventure is about as safe as anything can get. They are going to absolutely nail the hallmarks of the series. Every beat will be hit, the sense of fantasy handled maturely and absolutely covered. They will enrich the world with characters that you want to care about and promise choices that seem to matter. And yet, neither is immediately compelling.

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Telltale faces the strictest problem within storytelling. They still have not realized completely how to end a series. Despite being one of the most bankable and consistent studios, they have not reached a climax worthy of their own aspirations. Every series begins with the lofty promise of fan service that attracts an immediate audience and rewards anyone invested in the source material. It’s understood that our payoffs are temporary and that they may not find fruition by the story’s end.

Perhaps it’s spelled out that we have crafted a story somewhat differently than our peers. Percentages are displayed and our takeaway is that we have had an experience that differs in several variable ways from other players from episode to episode. There is a grounding there for unique player experience, although the actual practice of it does not compel any intensive look at the usefulness of player choice.

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What frustrates about their Game of Thrones output is that the most significant climax comes in the beginning. We find ourselves choosing over a significant character’s death from the outset and so by the time we have reached our ending and have faced this chore through repetition, the effectiveness has worn on us. We have seen these outcomes from the start and they felt more significant and promised so much more from the first episode.

There is a frustrating dilemma here, where the initial episode poses a stronger ending than the finale of the sixth episode. The time in-between suggests a talkative videogame that is interested in its own outcomes and yet our resolution is unwilling to match its own build-up. We’re given a long road that suggests a certain preoccupation with character building and then not much of a conclusion for all of our work.

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In taking the formulized structure of a television program, Telltale found a bad habit of clinging on to its worst attributes. They have effectively reduced all of their impact by sloping off their narrative in a downward arch that makes each passing episode less relevant. There is clarity of purpose here, where we see the weakest of Telltale endings come with the promise of a second season. The follow-up episodes often reduce our prior work, creating a sense that a season only exists to sell the next one. It’s a cynical and sad way to go about storytelling and something that requires a closer look.

The thing is that they understand the structure of storytelling too well and are abusing their own formula to allow room for further expansion. Their Game of Thrones series is a bit of a structural mess and while it could even sell the uninitiated on the brand, it cannot sell anyone on its own individual value as a self-contained story. While Telltale’s Game of Thrones delivers an atmosphere and sense of feeling in spades, it cannot hope to capture the value of an intricately told story, when it creates a self-imposed kind of desperation for the next season.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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