Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

When you play the games of the Game Of Thrones, do they win, or do they die?

Screenshot: Game Of Thrones - A Telltale Game Series, Reigns: Game Of Thrones, Photo: HBO, Graphic: Libby McGuire

Game Of Thrones is a series, fundamentally, about power: How you get it, what you do with it, and—in some of its most memorably bloody moments—what happens to people when they think they have it, but really don’t. Video games are good at power, too, or at least so the conventional wisdom usually goes. Certainly, games are good at wielding power, whether that’s in the form of a sword being swung, a space-gun being fired, or an army being commanded to go a-killin’ across the digital fields. But they tend to be much less comfortable when putting players into the role of the powerless. That might help explain why the various efforts to translate George R.R. Martin’s Westeros—and its HBO counterpart, both places where invincible exercises of power are the dragon-riding exception, not the rule—into the realm of gaming have been such consistently uneasy fits, despite a decade’s worth of obsessive and lucrative incentive to get this particular mash-up right.

There have been four major efforts to craft a satisfying game out of the Game Of Thrones, ever since the HBO series first debuted back in April 2011. Each of them has attempted to translate a different aspect of the series’ appeal—its elaborate and lore-heavy backstory, its gory and often gratuitous violence, its surprisingly touching familial connections, or its coldly cruel unsentimentality—into a format that players could take hold of and live out in some sort of satisfying manner. Each of them has struggled, to some greater or lesser extent, to capture the whole of the series’ overwhelming cultural dominance—or even, in some cases, to be satisfying for more than a few minutes of play. Only one of them, somehow, includes a performance from Peter Dinklage. And all of them can serve as a window into how creators have attempted to understand what it is that’s transformed Martin’s well-received-but-super-dense low-fantasy riff on The War Of The Roses into one of the most unlikely entertainment mega-franchises of all time. So let’s take a look at each of them, and ask ourselves the question: Do these games of the Game Of Thrones win? Or do they die?

A Game Of Thrones: Genesis (2011)

In case the extra “A” in the title here didn’t clue you in, this is the only one of the series’ major game adaptations that pulls its rights solely from Martin’s books, rather than the article-less HBO show. The developers at Cyanide—best known for meticulously crafted bicycle race simulators, and also the occasional Cthulhu game—attempted to turn that legal hurdle into a strength, sending the game’s viewpoint back 1,000 years to the age of Queen Nymeria (namesake of direwolves) and the very founding of the Seven Kingdoms. Nestled in a deep pocket of lore, players command soldiers, spies, and very slowly walking old men in an effort to wrest control of villages and castles from their dastardly opponents.

How Game Of Thrones is it? The most fascinating thing about Genesis is that it’s a war game that grasps one of the fundamental truths of Westerosi warfare: Battles are just as likely to be lost to intrigue and betrayal as they are to all-powerful military force. (Looking at you, poor, dumb, doomed Robb Stark.) In fact, most missions of Genesis don’t even let you put troops on the battlefield at first at all; instead, you have to marshal teams of envoys, spies, and counter-spies to send out to various territories, establishing alliances (and secret alliances), and slowly building up a series of pretexts before the declaration of all-out war. You can’t quite go so far as to father an evil shadow baby to go commit black magic avunculicide on your rival brother, sure, but the game puts a huge emphasis on the non-soldier-y aspects of the series’ family-to-family combat, in a way that’s light-years beyond what you might expect from the basic premise of a real-time strategy game set in the world of A Song Of Ice And Fire.

Does it win? Here’s the coolest tactic in your arsenal of dirty tricks: Hire a spy, then send him to infiltrate your enemy’s castle. The next time they try to hire an envoy—the game’s basic economic unit—it’ll actually be your spy in disguise, making fake deals that look like they’re supplying your opponent with gold, but which actually do nothing. That’s some Tywin Lannister shit, folks.

Or die? All of this skullduggery would be fascinating, if it didn’t mean that the game boils down, 90 percent of the time, to watching old men trundle around the map, filling up bars in dirty little towns in order to craft deals that may or may not even be real. When Littlefinger executes a masterplan in Game Of Thrones, it’s as thrilling as watching a thousand soldiers clash in a gruesome display. When a commander in A Game Of Thrones: Genesis does it, it’s like watching a round of Warcraft where everyone forgot to bring their swords.

Is Peter Dinklage in it? Given that the game takes place 1,000 years before Tyrion Lannister was born—and in a universe lacking legal rights to his likeness—the answer to this one is a pretty definitive “No.”

Game Of Thrones (2012)

One year later—and now equipped with the rights to the show, itself still a month out from truly embracing its love of big-screen spectacle with season 2's “Blackwater”—Cyanide returned to Westeros for something altogether nastier than its previous bookish jaunt through history. Sometimes subtitled “The Role-Playing Game,” the 2012 Game Of Thrones places players in the boots of two hard men, both etched in the Sandor Clegane/Jorah Mormont “badass with a dark past” mold. As a pair of former Lannister bannermen—Night’s Watch ranger and grizzled warg Mors, and lordling-turned-fire-wielding Red Priest Alester—players plunge directly into the bloodiest sides of the show’s violent excesses, executing deserters, hunting down bastards, and ripping out throats en masse.

How Game Of Thrones is it? Although it takes place before (and during) the events of the show’s first season, Game Of Thrones (2012) ably captures that mid-year “road trip but with murders” groove that the show settled into some time around the aftermath of the Red Wedding. This is Game Of Thrones the way its harshest detractors might describe it: Gratuitous violence masked with cunning dialogue and the occasional dose of torture or nudity. (Out of all the GoT games, it’s the only one that acknowledges the series’ abiding interest in brothels and sex.) Alester and Mors are both the sorts of characters that the series occasionally falls a little too much in love with, trained killers with just enough long-buried honor to keep from being entirely unrelatable sociopaths.

Does it win? That being said, the script—which Martin signed off on—feels largely genuine, as sworn brothers chafe under their vows, nobles scheme and plot against each other, and smallfolk get consistently shit on, as smallfolk are wont to do. And the violence—executed via a real-time-with-pause combat system that puts an emphasis on interrupting opponents and capitalizing on their weaknesses—comes with a tactical complexity that makes this the most satisfying of the Game Of Thrones games when simply sitting in a player’s hands.

Or die? As easily the most conventional of the mainstream Game Of Thrones games, the 2012 entry is also the easiest to analyze in terms of why this series has so stridently resisted straightforward adaptation. To the outside observer, this is textbook Thrones, a bloody dystopia in which the solution to most problems is for a sword-wielding badass to chop off some poor (and often literal) bastard’s head. But while Game Of Thrones (2012) has its occasional grace notes, it never fully engages with the humanity or warmth that makes the show’s worst moments so much more painful, or bearable, in equal parts. The characters we end up loving in this series are rarely the ones kicking the largest amount of ass (at least until recently), and that puts the game, and its steady build-up of combat prowess and kickass loot, at odds with the underdog “Oh god, I hope they manage to keep their heads this time” tension that kept people tuning in to the Starks, year after year.

Is Peter Dinklage in it? Bafflingly, no. Tyrion doesn’t show up at all, and even those series characters who do appear—including Cersei and Varys—aren’t played by their in-show actors. At least the theme song manages to show up.

Game Of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series (2014-2015)

Back before it dissolved late last year in a burst of acrimony, overwork, and consistent mismanagement (kind of like the Seven Kingdoms, now that we think about it), California-based Telltale was primarily known for its variety of licensed adventure games—most notably The Walking Dead. That game (and Fables, and Batman, and several others similar entries) dropped players into difficult situations from their favorite media properties, then dared them to make the same sorts of high-tension moral decisions that used to so frequently bedevil poor Rick Grimes. Game Of Thrones—a bona fide pop culture phenomenon at this point, running high off its celebrated fourth season—was, unsurprisingly, deemed a natural fit for the formula. But rather than simply asking its players to go back and try to keep Ned Stark’s head attached more firmly to his neck, Telltale’s writers fleshed out the mentioned-but-never-seen Forrester clan, a family of woodlands-based Stark-a-likes, to serve as its player characters. Across five episodes, the series tasked players with keeping a variety of Forresters alive in all sorts of perilous situations, from the backstab-heavy intrigue of King’s Landing, to distant war-torn Meereen, to the unfortunate realities of being a minor lord technically sworn to serve the Bastard Of Bolton in the Red Wedding’s wake. (Spoilers for the uninformed: It didn’t turn out great, something the studio’s recent destruction has now locked in as its permanent canon.)

How Game Of Thrones is it? You heard the part about being beset on all sides by enemies while trapped at Ramsay Bolton’s tender mercies, right? Telltale’s games were always at their best when forcing players to pick the least awful of a host of bad options, and that’s something that situates its wheelhouse firmly in prime Thrones territory. It doesn’t hurt that this is the only GoT game to make actual use of the HBO series’ cast—including, yes, Peter Dinklage—and while Kit Harington all but embarrasses himself as Virtual Jon Snow, the ability to trade witticisms with a pre-exile Tyrion Lannister practically pays for the experience itself. Meanwhile, playing as the Forresters—a militarily weak family with precious little leverage to keep its enemies at bay—forces any number of choices that let you sell just a bit of your characters’ souls in order to get out from under that feeling of powerlessness. It’s as close to the show’s most consistently explored themes as gaming has gotten to date.

Does it win? Although they initially read like Starks with the serial numbers filed off—especially Mira, the family’s hostage in King’s Landing, and Gared, a family squire who ends up taking the black—the playable Forresters turn out to be a shockingly likable bunch. (Presumably that’s so it’ll hurt more when the terrible inevitably ensues.) There’s real pleasure in trying to navigate them toward some sort of quasi-happy outcome, but even when it doesn’t work out—at least one character is likely to share Eddard Stark’s fate, no matter what you do—the series allows you to tap into the thrill of facing those deaths with Northern dignity and poise.

Or die? Like most of Telltales’ games, Game Of Thrones gets less satisfying the more you read about or talk about it with others, revealing just how few of your choices actually mattered to the course of the game, no matter how many “Margaery will remember that” prompts it tossed up on the screen. (And while agonizing over a “wrong” choice, only to learn you were doomed either way, is very in keeping with the series’ tone, it doesn’t make for much fun in the moment.) There’s also the irritating fact that the game uses characters from the show while still bowing to its primacy as a text; you might want to get revenge on Ramsay for all the awful things he’s done to you and your friends, but there’s no getting between him and his eventual date with his hounds in the kennels of Winterfell, no matter what you choose to do.

Is Peter Dinklage in it? Yes, and it’s everything we’d hoped for and more. You even get to drink with him!

Reigns: Game Of Thrones (2018)

Essentially asking “What if you could rule a country entirely via Tinder?”, Francois Allot’s Reigns series of decision simulators was an unlikely match for HBO’s medieval blockbuster, but not an unwelcome one. Like those earlier games, the Game Of Thrones edition of the series drops you into the uncomfy seat of Westeros’ reigning monarch—culled from a wide roster of candidates on the show’s ruler-adjacent bench—and asks you to manage the kingdom through a series of swiped “Yes or No?” decisions. Make any one faction too strong, or too weak, though, and it’s Purple Wedding time; one of the game’s chief selling points is the sheer number of awful endings you can find for your various rulers—something that makes it a fitting companion for this particular show, indeed.

How Game Of Thrones is it? This is a video game about rulers making crappy, poorly uninformed decisions, unintentionally pissing off tenuous allies, and getting slaughtered in droves like pigs. What more could a Game Of Thrones fan want?

Does it win? Beyond the charming presentation and the chance to play as a variety of your favorite characters—somehow, this is the only GoT game, out of all the mainstream offerings, that lets you control any of the Stark kids—Reigns is also much deeper than it looks on initial blush. The various what-if scenarios that put, say, Tyrion or Sansa on the Iron Throne are well-thought-out, and the framing device, which sees Melisandre peering into the flames and trying to find a ruler who can keep the realm afloat, is an intriguing way to foreground these sorts of sanguine hypotheticals.

Or die? The game’s inherent randomness can get to be a chore, especially when you’re trying to find a particular new event, and the card in question bluntly refuses to pop. Also, sometimes you die without really understanding why, and while that’s certainly Ned Stark AF, it doesn’t make for much of a teachable moment.

Is Peter Dinklage in it? Tragically no, although Tyrion’s character card is clearly based on his silhouette—complete with his little King’s Hand badge in the scenarios where Daenerys is still around.

Despite our best efforts, this isn’t quite the comprehensive listing of all the extant Game Of Thrones games that we might have hoped to present. There are at least four browser or mobile offerings available, for instance, plus both a traditional board game, and a collectible card game, for those with tabletop play in mind. (The latter is notable for how damn hard it can be to kill off one of your enemy’s named characters, which feels like kind of a cheat for this particular franchise.) There’s also a much-celebrated total conversion that transforms Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings 2 into a lovingly crafted version of Westeros in a variety of eras, complete with the option to castrate and blind your enemies, because, well, Game Of Thrones.

Survey these four principle games, though, and something slightly paradoxical rapidly becomes clear: Games of the Game Of Thrones are at their best when they embrace how powerless most of this franchise’s characters actually are. (Something the show itself has wrestled with in its eighth and final season, as it veers straight into a series of action climaxes, complete with big superhero moments.) As we said up top, Game Of Thrones is fundamentally a series about power, its uses, and its ultimate fragility. That’s a theme that can’t be captured while cutting down hordes of bandits with sword-swinging aplomb, or calmly watching from a perfectly safe birds’-eye view as you command your minions and troops. Game Of Thrones captured the public imagination by making it clear that no one—king or commoner, fan favorite or forgotten extra—is ever truly safe. Its best games know the words by heart: Valar morghulis, friends.

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