Review | Game of Thrones: Episode 4 – Sons of Winter
To call a Game of Thrones episode, be it the HBO series or Telltale’s series, satisfying for its characters, is to introduce a thick layer of dread on what comes next. George R.R. Martin’s apprentices learned one thing very quickly: give them what they want and then tear it away from them. And, in-turn, the keenest audience member consumes any Game of Thrones story with the assumption that everyone they love will be reduced to something inhuman or killed outright before, or just after, reaching their goal.
Everything went right–or as right as it could go in the world of Westeros–for the cast of Sons of Winter, the fourth episode in Telltale’s adventure game series. And as the first episode in the season’s latter half, this means one of them will die soon.
Telltale doesn’t play with expectations though. Every win has just enough friction to feel earned. Gared’s murder isn’t redeemed so easily; Asher can’t win over Daenerys with charm; Mira is forced to adopt a King’s Landing-approved silver tongue; and Rodrik’s house is still waning despite a small victory. Each character makes progress, but at a cost that we can’t see yet.
Sons of Winter also focuses on its supporting characters through the lense of its choice-driven protagonists. The rewards for not combating every potential alliance finally give your decisions weight that obscures the game beneath the story. When Gared’s Wall-mate Cotter is asked to vouch for his innocence, I was just as nervous in the build up to his answer. I tried my best to understand the Cotter beneath the bruiser build and stubborn attitude, but still wasn’t sure which side he’d take. And even though he stood by Gared, there was no sudden morality shift in his characterization that screamed “Your choices matter!” He was still the Cotter I wasn’t sure of.
This adherence to character drives Sons of Winter for each of its four storylines. It seems like a feat, considering how important your friendships are to the events. The game must believably simulate the relationships that are unique to you without revealing the shifting parts that make them up on the go. It all has to feel natural to keep you prepared for the few shocking decisions it throws at you. At one point in Asher’s section, you juggle Daenerys’ trust, your own morality, the wants of a companion, and the life of that companion, all in one, seconds-long pause. In another scene, Rodrik confronts the man that’s taken his home away from him. He offers a deal, things escalate as you thought they would, and you decide how it ends as Rodrik’s son is held hostage. Even if half of those choices don’t amount to anything meaningful when you scroll through the big decision list at the end of the season, your investment in these moments are the real, lasting impact.
So, when we look back at Telltale’s oeuvre in 10 years, we might applaud the way it keeps detailed characters consistent in a system of detached math and algorithms. It’s doesn’t always successfully bond narrative and game well, and that’s when scenarios like Asher’s and Rodrik’s fall flat. The game’s player choices surface and you start playing the game and stop engaging with the story created alongside it. Every one of its recent series has a dud; even the near-perfect, first season of The Walking Dead. But even when it fails, the struggle is fascinating to watch. There’s always a suggestion of what the episode could be, even if it isn’t.
Sons of Winter is one of those episodes that works because it promotes all the effective parts of Game of Thrones’ storytelling without a punch of artificiality. The tension, the dread, the dynamic friendships, and the cold rivalries of this episode are true on a fundamental level. So, when I say I have a deeply-held fear for my favorite characters in the remaining episodes, you know why.