Genre: Point-And-Click Adventure
Release date: July 21, 2015
Episode 5 of Telltale’s Game of Thrones series, A Nest of Vipers, is yet another exercise in weak plotting, meaningless violence, and futility. Two things are fortunate about this episode: that at least one of your choices seems as though it might actually have an impact on the overall outcome of the story (and that’s a big maybe), and that we only have one more chapter to endure before we can release ourselves from this earthly torture.
Increasingly convoluted and weighed down by dead limbs, the plot returns to everyone’s second-favorite separated Westerosi clan as they all work toward what could very well be the same common goal. We start with Rodrik, who's where left him: in the great hall with Ramsay, tormenting Talia Forrester. Of course there’s nothing you can really do to Ramsay since he’s still alive in the show, so this opener serves primarily as a chance for another gruesome scene to display how little influence Rodrik has over his former home. He goes on to insert himself into other scenes in which he has minimal control, as if to remind us how tightly locked into preexisting plots this game is forced to be.
Next, to Mira over at King’s Landing. She alienates yet another member of her increasingly shrinking entourage -- her best friend Sera -- by having caused an embarrassing scene at last episode’s fancy party. Now, she must curry favor with Queen Cersei by doing her bidding. I can’t overstate how pointless Mira’s activity is in this episode, and how that reflects on her utter irrelevance as a whole. Perhaps Mira’s most important function is that she negotiates this world without resorting to the combat and violence favored by her brothers (more on that in a bit), but her many attempts at schmoozing, scheming, stealing, and sweet-talking have no measurable way effect on the courses of events playing out elsewhere. We can keep saying, “Maybe next time something will change,” but we’re running out of next times. And would it even be believable if something she did actually worked?
Was Gared even in this episode? Only technically, and not because he needed to be. After a bit of beyond-the-wall dawdling we’ve already passed him by to get back to Asher, who’s still on the hunt for a sellsword army after he’s denied the one previously promised by Daenerys. The setpiece of his arc is a duel in a fighting pit that involves lots of weapons and quicktime events. Long story short: you won’t have to think very much.
Something that stood out in this episode was the game’s egregious and sloppy use of violence as a means of fueling story development. Aggression and gore have been abundant since the beginning, but now that we’ve seen most of the story unfold it’s easier to pinpoint exactly how violence demonstrates and limits power in Telltale’s portrayal of Westeros.
This installment displays, almost lovingly, an abundance of mutilated bodies as props and backdrops to the escalating conflicts between the central powers. There are knots of bulging internal organs, platters of severed heads, discarded corpses, and bloodstains everywhere. You can’t escape gazing at and interacting with these gruesome sights, as though confronting the aftereffects of continental conflict isn’t distasteful enough without having to fondle bodies.
As I’ve played through each episode I’ve adjusted my style of diplomacy to see what works, and the sad result is that nothing really does. Attempting to pacify aggressive enemies gets you killed, and fighting back against them ends in further punishment when you’re unable to overpower the attacking forces. This time around, in the spirit of being resigned to the fact that the game would push me forward no matter how halfheartedly I took to the challenges I faced, I chose whichever options were most equivalent to curling up in the fetal position and refusing to engage. If I was supposed to be hunting a rabbit, I’d purposefully shoot in the wrong direction and miss it. If given the option between killing a traitorous character and sparing his or her life, I’d choose mercy. By the end I was surprised that these kinds of choices had resulted in the sparing of a few characters who would have died otherwise. This outcome would have almost seemed like a dynamic shift from powerlessness to control if I thought it had been done on purpose.
But the really disappointing thing about this mechanic is how arbitrary it is. You can’t adopt an attitude of total nonviolence for any of the characters who frequently engage in combat, and if you aren’t free to choose which people to attack and which ones to spare, what’s the point? It doesn’t matter that you can pardon a defeated pit fighter if you’re forced to kill a whole squad of guards later on.
There are too many disappointing elements of this episode to name (a couple of notable ones: the Orientalist impulse to make the only Asian character a master of martial arts and the needlessly contrived and delayed reveal of a traitorous character for dramatic effect). But if there’s anything Game of Thrones can be commended for so far, it’s achieving the seemingly impossible goal of being provocative in its portrayal of violence while still somehow managing to make the gameplay experience and story so boring. It takes a special kind of dedication to steer this runaway plot down the many dead ends and pointless side paths that have sprung up along the way and still manage to maintain some sense of forward momentum. Perhaps the extreme violence is meant to compensate for the lack of nudity and sex that populate the show but are conspicuously absent from the game. Regardless, it’s a dish over-seasoned, and spoiled for it. The gamemakers have one last chance to redeem their story, and even a great ending will surely leave us shaking our heads at how long it took to get there.
+ Some choices finally seem like they might affect the outcome
+ The end is nigh
- Excessive violence added nothing to the story
- Multiple characters have pointless plots
- No freedom to determine your morality as you play