It goes without saying that A Song of Ice and Fire—both George R.R. Martin’s books and HBO’s Game of Thrones TV adaptation— is a massive success. Four seasons and five novels into the series, Martin’s fantasy world and the characters who inhabit it have become a mainstay of popular culture. Take a subway ride more than one stop and you’re bound to see at least one person reading the books; hop on Twitter on a Sunday night while the show is airing and your feed will be dominated by people reacting to the plot developments. In light of this level of popularity it’s pretty surprising that there has still yet to be a videogame that offers players a way to interact with the Game of Thrones fiction in a way that feels true to the source material.
This may be partially due to the fact that audiences find Martin’s creation so compelling for so many different reasons. Some love the complicated and believable character work, while others are drawn to the elaborate mythology of the series’ White Walkers, dragons, creepy blood magic, and pantheon of old and new gods. I’m fascinated by the parallels between the wars and power struggles of Westeros and the actual history of Western Europe. There’s also the basic appeal of a well-told story that frequently defies expectations. There’s probably no single aspect of the books and show that hooks people. Audiences enjoy Game of Thrones for a wide variety of reasons, and this makes distilling the experience into a single, well-focused videogame a pretty difficult task.
The first major game adaptations—Cyanide’s oh-so inventively titled A Game of Thrones: Genesis and Game of Thrones—came close to the mark without quite hitting it. Genesis, a strategy title that strongly resembles a multiplayer board game, attempted to capture the grand scope of the wars that shaped Westeros in the time leading up to the first book. While the idea was a decent one (obscured a bit by shaky technical execution) the player is too far removed from the characters affected by battle to care much for their fates. On the other hand, the Game of Thrones role-playing game released soon after Genesis suffered by concentrating too much on fleshing out its cast with reams of dialogue while excluding excitement with a limp, slow-paced combat system. The most recent attempt at a videogame adaptation, Disruptor Beam’s browser/mobile-based Game of Thrones Ascent, attempts to combine RPG character building with strategy-style city management. As heartening as it is to see that Disruptor Beam understands the need to combine a few of the different reasons people enjoy Game of Thrones into a single title, the game is unfortunately diminished by free-to-play elements that make it hard to get too invested in.
Considering the game adaptations released to date, it seems like only Cyanide’s role-playing game has come close to a worthwhile translation of the books and show. Shoddy presentation and lacklustre gameplay took away from what the RPG did right, but it still may be the best model for the format a proper Game of Thrones title should take. Role-playing games provide plenty of opportunity for lengthy interactions with complex characters, the ability for players to immerse themselves in a rich fictional mythology, and even participate in interesting battles if the combat mechanics are properly designed. CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher series has proven that it is possible to blend large-scale warfare, political scheming, and interpersonal drama seamlessly through smart writing and engaging gameplay systems. A Game of Thrones RPG developed by a studio that is passionate and talented enough to apply the same level of care that was lavished upon the Witcher titles would probably be an exceptional way to translate the books and show.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that this kind of take on Game of Thrones is coming anytime soon. Telltale Games, one of my favourite developers, is slated to create an episodic adventure title based on the series. This will very likely be a great game, given the high quality of the studio’s recent releases. But, just the same, Telltale’s current design formula—dialogue-driven adventures focusing on small casts of characters—probably won’t scratch the right itch for every fan of George R.R. Martin’s work. Instead it will probably do what the other titles based on Game of Thrones have done so far: recreate a single appealing element of a book and television series that is enjoyable precisely because it adds up to something much more than any one of its many interesting parts. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.