Review | Game of Thrones Episode 3: The Sword in the Darkness
“Words are wind, Asher. It’s choices that define who you are.” That’s a line plucked from the third episode of Telltale’s latest adventure game, Game of Thrones. The man who said this was nearly burned to death by a dragon when I chose not to rescue him instead of my long-time comrade. In a series that’s so far proven that choice is a privilege, I was told that my decisions matter. But what this man doesn’t understand is how forced I feel when all my choices are made under extreme duress or at political gunpoint. My choices haven’t made me, they’ve trapped me.
In the Game of Thrones universe, this is key. No character acts in pure honesty. You’ve got to dance with the truth, put on a display to hide your true intentions. For this tricky morality to work inside the context of a choice-driven adventure game still surprises me. Ever since episode one, Telltale Games has given me a wide breadth of dialogue options to carve out my tiny existence in such a grand world. It’s in those moments, where a powerful character forces you to answer their prodding question in a revealing way, I think about this series on a meta level.
Given the realities of huge brands like Game of Thrones and the importance its owners leave to the ongoing novels and television show, it’s almost guaranteed that nothing of immense significance is going to happen to the fiction as a result of Telltale’s video game adaptation. I’m sorry to break your suspension of disbelief here, but it’s the truth, just as it was the truth when Breaking Bad began episodes with a peak into the future starring characters it would later threaten to kill in the same episode. Let’s face it, we know nothing important is in store. Of course in the moment, though, we’ll still hopefully feel the pressure. And that’s largely how Telltale’s Game of Thrones has functioned so far. You worry less about how Jon Snow will be affected by your actions and more about the original characters, who have never been mentioned in the books or the show, will survive.
So in those surprisingly rare moments where I feel like I get to make some kind of meaningful choice, I know in the back of my head that it’s only really going to affect the group of characters in this one story. It’s the kind of thing you can’t let ruin the game for you, but it’s no less important to consider.
The concept of a modern adventure game where your choices will never affect the crux of the larger fiction is weird. To be fair, The Walking Dead, Telltale’s other popular series, suffers the same fate with its comic and television parents, but that zombie story focuses more on its themes than a foundation of lore. Game of Thrones is literally about the machinations of power and it loses much of its significance when you’re too far separated from the core narrative, which notably has and is happening in other media.
This is what Game of Thrones has to be, and I imagine that’s a challenging problem when you’re making a game about it. But I can’t immediately think of a developer more equipped to find a solution for it than Telltale, a company that’s been doing this for a while now. In many ways, I think Game of Thrones is the first game to put Telltale’s model, as they say, to the test.
The second episode felt to me like a stumble in figuring out how to tame this beast. It was sporadic and disconnected and trivial in comparison to the direction and weight of the first episode. The third episode, titled The Knife in the Darkness, is Telltale firmly holding the leash.
We’re back to where we started. Game of Thrones happens to you in this episode; you get little to say about it; and that’s just how it should be. Our main, playable cast–Asher Forrester, Gared Tuttle, Mira Forrester, and Rodrik Forrester–are each trying their best to escape their creeping doom. Everyone but Mira Forrester, who is now suffering from the consequences of the last episode, are teased with a way out. I say teased, because, if you’re familiar with Game of Thrones, you know that nothing is concrete. There’s no way everything goes to plan.
It’s, as usual, the strong writing and the stronger voice acting that pulls you through the purposely cut up storyline in The Knife in the Darkness. It’s balancing four stories that aren’t quite in the same positions at once. That’s still impressive in a television show let alone a game where the pace physically affects the viewer. Each cut is made right before anything gets dull and it keeps the entire episode moving, even in very talky sections. The talky sections are my favorite though. It’s here that you feel the pressure your character is in. Rodrik Forrester’s house is being invaded by a rival army and without one of his own, he’s secretly told to play the long game and take the abuse. As a player who knows that, if given the option to battle, I would win, it’s frustrating—in the most satisfying way—to be powerless to an aggressor. It’s the same for Mira Forrester, who continues to juggle her family and her allegiance to Margaery Tyrell in the great and scheming city of King’s Landing. Most of the time, she can’t do anything but obey, making the few moments you get to do something incredibly terrifying. My hands shake as I quickly blurt something out to an intimidator like Cersei Lannister. Asher Forrester at one point is physically stuck between men with swords and an insurmountable rock wall—the very earth is out to get you! You’re relieved when you find a cave, but then you find the dragon in it. You would think Gared Tuttle would have it a bit easier being on The Wall, training to hopefully scout beyond it as a ranger, except his uncle arrives with a quest to save the family he was exiled from. But, to do it, he’s got to break the vows he just accepted the previous day. I think you get the point. Game of Thrones is relentless even when you get a little control over what happens.
So if our choices define us, then there must exist some masochistic cosmic being pulling the strings in Game of Thrones, because the characters seem to only act like dominos. It’s a largely passive series that can withstand brief moments where video game agency heightens this awareness. To be a game that balances this despite the realities of its limits, is not only unprecedented, but consistently impressive.