Monday, September 5, 2016

TELLTALE GAMES MAY HAVE OUTDONE HBO IN ADAPTING GAME OF THRONES



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It’s the furthest thing from a secret that I loves me some Game Of Thrones.   But in these long stretches between finale and premiere, winter can feel a long time coming.  During last year's dark period I picked up Telltale Games' official video game adaptation of the series, figuring it would be weak tea as a substitute, but hey, smackheads aren’t going to kick methadone out of bed if it comes to it.  I was shocked to discover a legitimately great piece of storytelling that not only scratched the very particular GOT itch better than I could have hoped, but also stood as one of the most brilliant acts of adaptation from one medium to another I have ever seen.

As a disclaimer, I should note that as a video game, it really sucks.  The controls are utter dogshit, with the combat somehow frustratingly difficult while also too simplistic to even be satisfying when you plod through to a victory.  And the “free roaming” bits, where you are forced to slooooowly walk around and pointlessly investigate surroundings for largely meaningless clues, are like a vicious parody of an old school point n’ click adventure game, all tedium with hardly any payoff.  To the extent that you have to “play” the game, it’s a total slog.

Butbutbut, you don’t play the game to play the game.  You play it to advance the story, and the real game is a series of setpiece conversations that you have to steer to avoid the constantly-looming disasters that threaten to destroy (your) House Forrester, loyal bannermen to the Starks and that family’s only real competition for shittiest fucking luck in Westeros.  The parallels are immediate between the protagonists of the game and series proper; the Forresters have immediate analogs for Ned, Cat, Robb, Sansa, Bran, Jon Snow, Rickon, even Ser Rodrik Of The Muttonchops.  Playing as the JV Starks seems like the least-inspired bit of adaptation, but it serves its purpose.  It orients us fairly quickly within the world, and their scattered nature allows for the shifting character perspectives that are a hallmark of the series, while giving us enough of a unified point of view to invest in the story and common goals to steer toward as we switch between characters.   And once we’re in gear, the game does not waste time recreating the arcs we already know; the fates of the various Forresters quickly diverge from their counterparts, in highly variable fashion.

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That variance, the ability for the story to take different twists and turns based on player decisions, has become the hallmark of video game storytelling as its own particular art.  People haven't always been comfortable applying that label to games, and I can't say I've ever understood why.  But some highly intelligent and educated people have been adamant that video games may have artistic elements (it’s hard to deny that, given the dozens to hundreds of artists that populate the credits of any release), but they were not art.  The arguments were varied and often quite eloquent, but they always boiled down to a simple point:  all game stories were pretty crap, so why should we call them art?

Which is missing the point, imo.  Calling something art is not calling it good.  In fact, I would posit that most art is pretty crap, regardless of whether this particular jackass or that is working in verse, oils, or contrabassoon.  The existence of Nickelback does not render the whole of music a fundamentally non-artistic endeavor.  The Neolithic jackasses that drew pictures of bison on cave walls may have struggled with implied movement and had just shit for sense of perspective, but does that mean that painting only became an artform when the Italians found their stride in the 15th century?  

This is not to say that video game narratives were not uniformly crude, afterthoughts even to their own creators, who molded them to fit gameplay dynamics rather than to any grander storytelling purpose.  I’m not going to sit here and wax philosophic about how Pac-Man was a subtle rumination on how our fundamentally insatiable need for consumption can function to, temporarily, push back the spectres of superstition and mortality that will never truly stop haunting humanity. 

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The blue one represents, oh, let’s say Zoroastrianism
 
But the medium has matured over time, and what was once the great obstacle to real storytelling in games – the requirement to cede control of the protagonist to the player for the vast majority of the time – has become its most distinctive feature.  The primary aspect of a video game, the thing that makes it a game, is that control.  It started as control over where to move your avatar within a given level, but over time players have come to expect, at least from games that have a central narrative, the ability to influence that narrative on a more fundamental level.  This means that the writing for a game has become both more important and more complex than ever.  And don’t get me wrong, writing anything good is hard as hell, whether it’s for the page, stage, film or television.  But in none of those more respected fields are you expected to write three+ versions of each chapter/episode/act, as well as multiple endings that are substantially different while still fitting and paying off essentially the same set up.  Even when you have an author that seems intent on punishing themselves with the imposed complexities of their own work – a David Foster Wallace, Charlie Kaufman, or Mark Z. Danielewski – there’s no requirement that they publish/film multiple versions of their opuses that can be specifically tailored to the whims of individual audience members.

Some would say that this is precisely what makes video games an inherently lower art, the need to cater to the whims of the masses, rather than to impart a singularly brilliant artistic vision directly from genius to hoi polloi.  The counterpoint to that, I'd say, is that the artist’s vision still comes through, in some ways more strongly than in a story that only has one possible iteration.  The trade-off of the Choose Your Own Adventure style of storytelling is essentially one of character building in favor of world-building.  If Hamlet were restyled as EA’s Legends Of Elsinore: Danish Melancholia, Hamlet himself would become more of a cypher, more malleable to the whims of the players, but the moral universe he inhabits would come into sharper focus as the exact differences between being and not to being are probed with a specificity that the original text could never match.  In a way, as the amount of options increase, what is not possible becomes the real statement, by establishing the limits of what is possible even with perfect planning.  Is there a choice that could save Ophelia?  If you rehearse the play enough, can the final bloodbath be averted?  If you treat Laertes just right, will he side with you against Claudius?  Is there really a graphic three-way cutscene, or is the “Rosencratz And Guildenstern Are Dead In Thy Lap” Achievement just urban legend? 

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"Seriously?  Who is that joke even for?"

What I’m getting at here is that the more player choices are allowed to dictate the story, the more chances there are for that story to render judgment on those choices.  So a Choose Your Own Adventure story may not have one definitive...well, story, but all the options together do present an even more definitive ethos.  And to (finally) bring this back around to Game Of Thrones, the ethos of that series is particularly brutal and distinctive.   GOT has made its cultural bones by its refusal to match its fantasy trappings to traditional fantasy plots.  It was wildly (but not cheaply) unpredictable, and it played for keeps, allowing heroic characters to die suddenly and not particularly heroically.  The perpetually high stakes this created are the series greatest asset, and therefore the most important aspect for an adaptation to capture.

Which creates a problem for a video game, because despite everything games can do effectively, real stakes are pretty much impossible.  They are designed to be endlessly and immediately replayable.  Death is temporary and painless.  The player can stop essentially anywhere and pick back up anytime.  Sometimes Freddie Prinze Jr. is doing the voices.  How can it be possible to feel like any of this is actually important?  

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"Fuck did I do?"

Step one is to remove the ability to replay.  You can always start a Telltale game over completely fresh, but as it goes on, there is no opportunity to reload the game from multiple points (as in essentially every role-playing game ever created before Telltale).  Rather, the game saves itself automatically, and frequently, locking you permanently into whatever decision you just made. And all of a sudden there are consequences to your “play”, no mean feat for a medium many know best as a simulator for murdering prostitutes with impunity.  Then they crank up the pressure by putting the majority of the decisions on a very short real-time clock, with only a matter of seconds to decide whether a threat, an attack, or a submission is appropriate for the moment before whatever avenues another route may have opened are foreclosed.

With these safety nets removed, and the game proving early on that it has a mean streak to rival the source material, the game then sets to using what we know about that source against us.  Incorporating characters from the show to interact with our non-canon shmucks is tricky business. If we never interact with them at all our travails feel disconnected from the larger affairs of the realm and alienate us from the basic premise as a tie-in.  Involve them too heavily and it highlights just how minor we and those travails are, while also increasing the predictability of events, since we know going in that certain things can’t happen to Margaery or Jon Snow. 

But the game threads this needle rather nimbly, utilizing its roster of TV stars judiciously, and the immutability they present to complicate decisions rather than simplify them.  Tyrion is offering you a better deal and is clearly more trustworthy than his sister, but with Joffrey’s wedding around the corner, can you rely on his promise being honored in the long term?  You know that Jon Snow is worthy of being trusted with the details of your secret mission north of the Wall, but you also know that he won’t be able to divert any resources away from the looming siege of Castle Black to help, so is there anything to gain by blabbing?  There’s no room you want to be in with Ramsay Snow, virtual or otherwise, but it’s that much more agonizing when he’s threatening to murder your family and you know that no retaliation you can muster will even moderately inconvenience him.

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That last example is the most pertinent, because it leads in to what makes the game singularly brilliant as a work of adaptation.  With your House laid extremely low from the outset, your lands and castle are occupied by hated rivals intent on avenging themselves for centuries of perceived slights.  Lacking the manpower to fight back, and with Ramsay deployed to underline that essential futility, you are forced into one situation after another where you have to decide how much abuse you can tolerate in the name of biding time.  Now, all kinds of games will present scenarios where some asshole is stepping to you and give you options for how to respond.  But generally those options boil down to a) deliver badass one-liner before kicking their ass, or b) deliver a courteous, Kane in Kung-Fu style warning that you don’t want to do this before they force the issue and you kick their ass.  In either case, you can rest assured that even if it takes a few tries, your avatar is up to the task.  

Okay, so a survival horror game may feature some enemies you can’t defeat in a straight fight, but GOT is the only game I’ve encountered willing to make groveling a more viable option than standing up for yourself.  And that runs counter to every instinct I developed over decades of playing games, instincts that screamed to puff out my virtual chest and teach these pricks a digital lesson about simulated manners.  And much like with the TV series, these ingrained notions of what was proper in a show/game kept reasserting themselves long after it had been made clear that this story wasn’t playing by the usual rules.  Backing down just feels wrong, on a really fundamental level. Fundamental to everything video games are about.

Because when you get down to it, every video game is a power fantasy.  RPG, fighting game, first-person shooter, side-scrolling beat ‘em up, real time strategy, platformer, racer or sports simulator; all of them invite us to live vicariously through powerful avatars, to pretend that pushing buttons in sequence translates into being strong and smart and skilled at flipping over fire balls and spiked turtle shells.  Every puzzle has a solution, and the replayability and consequence-free “death” I spoke of earlier means that even when you lose, you don’t really lose.  You can always try again, and work toward the clearly defined victory parameters.  There’s a reason we always used to talk in terms of “beating” a game, even when its subject matter was not particularly violent.

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Shut up, Tetris.  Clearly we're not talking about you.

But GOT is different.  The video game marketplace is filled with shooting simulators, driving simulators, sports simulators, guitar-playing and theme-park building simulators, even, increasingly, romancing-cartoonishly-beautiful-people simulators.  But GOT is the only game I know of to function as a humiliation simulator.  That in itself is rather audacious, and it is what makes it a transcendent adaptation of the source material.  The scope, the intrigue, the surprises and ruthlessness, these are all well translated from book to show to game, and I don't want to minimize what a feat that is in itself.  But it is the subversion that truly makes Game Of Thrones what it is.  Telltale found a way to subvert video game law as effectively as the books did for the laws of fantasy literature, by messing with conventions that are ingrained in gaming at an even more fundamental level than Hero's Journey tropes are to sword n' sorcery epics.   And that is precisely where the artistry of adaptation lies – sussing out the defining characteristics of a piece of art, what makes it truly unique, and then determining a way to not simply transpose it onto another medium, but translate it in a way that conforms to that mediums particular characteristics.  

Telltale has GOT “Season Two” in development, but no release date.  Season One runs about 20 bucks for all 6 episodes on Steam or the Xbox Marketplace. Whether you are a fan of the show jonesing for a fix before the next season, or into video games or role-playing games, or are a total masochist who can’t find quite enough emotional abuse irl, or are a sophomore taking some sort of Narratives In New Media class, it's got something for pretty much everyone. I can't recommend it highly enough.