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You Haven't Heard of It?
If you've turned on your TV in the past six months, opened a magazine, or simply lived within a thousand miles of civilization, you've probably at least heard about Game of Thrones, a new HBO series based on the book by the same name. A Game of Thrones is the first title in the epic fantasy series, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, almost universally beloved by anyone who's picked up the books.
I heartily urge anyone who hasn't read the series to pick it up and give it a whirl. Oh no, you might say, not another article fawning over the series. However, this isn't going to be about how great the books and TV show are - that debate's been settled for quite some time.
No, this article's more of a business pitch (and a private plea) to the gaming behemoths out there - Bioware and Bethesda in particular - to please, please, please develop a Game of Thrones RPG. Has there ever been a fantasy world more perfectly suited to Western style role-playing games?
The popularity and steady fanbase is there for the series. The HBO series lends it some serious name recognition in the general public, which would undoubtedly contribute a healthy dose of hype for any Game of Thrones RPG in development. George R.R. Martin was extremely excited about working on the television series, so he's open to exploring new media to tell his story. All the stars are aligned to make this happen.
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An Overview of Westeros
A Game of Thrones mainly takes place on the continent of Westeros although there are other lands readers are treated to throughout the books. The map to the left might be too small, but a more detailed version can be found at this Neverwinter Nights 2 mod site along with lots of helpful information if you want a crash course on the series.
The site describes Westeros as "roughly equivalent in size to South America," though that's not taking into account the other continents. Westeros, in its entirety, is claimed by the king in King's Landing, though there are enough political maneuverings in what's known as the Seven Kingdoms to make his reign fragile.
Starting a generation after the great rebellion against the mad king Aerys Targaryen, A Game of Thrones paints the realm in an uneasy peace, waiting for some of the more ambitious forces in the world to make a move. Westeros has been described as medieval Europe with castles and gallant knights, but one noticeable departure from the traditional fantasy genre is a very stark lack of magic in the first few books.
That in itself is not entirely new - after all, The Lord of the Rings featured mainly what ought to be labeled as subtle magic, such as the One Ring corrupting its wearers over time or palantíri (basically magic glass orbs) allowing users to see other palantíri. A Game of Thrones distances itself from the high fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons, focusing instead on cutthroat politics and highly developed and individualized characters.
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The first novel debuted back in 1996, and the first season of the HBO series concluded a month ago, so it's not really a spoiler anymore to reveal that major characters like Eddard Stark bite it, even after being built up as fan favorites over the course of several novels (a la Sandor Clegane). Knowing that major characters can, do, and will die off lends the series extra gravitas and dramatic resonance. As fun and entertaining as a series like Star Wars is, you never really expect major characters to be beheaded. The good guys win, and there's never any real threat of sacrifice.
A Song of Ice and Fire is just a little different. Every book has at least one major character murdered (thankfully, there are lots of them) or imprisoned. A Storm of Swords, the third book, kills off about a dozen. Those kinds of dramatic upheavals are perfect in just about any medium. When Ned Stark died in the first book, legions of angry readers cursed Martin for killing off perhaps the most sympathetic character in the series up to that point. When he died in the TV show, viewers threatened to never watch the show again (empty threats, both times).
Video games are primed for that level of dark and furious resonance. Some games edged close (the possibility of actually dying in Mass Effect 2 or Andrew Ryan ordering you to kill him in BioShock), but no title has ever attempted it with so many different characters at once.
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Barely Scratching the Surface
Laura Miller of The New Yorker wrote, "He [George R.R. Martin] sometimes fleshes out only as much of his imaginary world as he needs to make a workable setting for the story." The rest of the article is a lengthy profile of the author, but it's a satisfying read for understanding how the world of Westeros came to be.
So much is left unexplored that game developers would have significant creative license (I'm sure with oversight by Martin himself) to flesh out Westeros and fill in the thousands of details left unwritten. Such a process occurred with The Lord of the Rings Online, released in 2007, with players exploring regions such as Angmar and meeting characters like Mordirith, never mentioned in the books.
While purists will always find flaws in adaptations, most fans will appreciate meeting new characters and hearing previously untold stories. George R.R. Martin wrote a graphic novel called The Hedge Knight several years ago, taking place decades before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire. The adventures of Ser Dunk and his faithful companion Egg contribute to the mythology of the fantasy world without contradicting or changing what we knew about the main story.
Imagine a Game of Thrones RPG which covers all of the events of A Song of Ice and Fire but also tells side stories like The Hedge Knight. Empty isn't the right term for the series, but there's plenty of room left for hundreds more tales and characters.
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Already in Development
However, there are already two Game of Thrones games in development. Cyanide, a game studio best known for 2009's Blood Bowl and various sports management simulators, recently launched the official website for A Game of Thrones: Genesis and the uninspiredly titled A Game of Thrones, an RTS and RPG, respectively.
Early screenshots of the games look fantastic though Cyanide doesn't have a long résumé to back up its handling of A Song of Ice and Fire. Having a relative newcomer isn't necessarily a bad thing. New talent often promotes fresh ideas. Quantic Dream had only published two games before Heavy Rain, often considered one of the best games of 2010. Then again, the company's moderate inexperience doesn't tell us anything about what to expect.
Lurking around forums reveals considerable public anticipation for these titles, and who can blame gamers for wanting more Game of Thrones? Heck, I'm genuinely excited to set foot in Westeros, but I've some misgivings about these two titles. Any game that tries to capture the feel of the books should let me explore every inch of the story, meet Jaime Lannister myself, and set eyes upon the Wall, the last line of defense against what lies beyond.
Sadly, it seems as if Cyanide's going to severely restrict both the locations and stories of the games, and I can't think of any better way to limit this franchise's potential.
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Epic Scale but a Husk of a Story
A Game of Thrones RTS has a number of appealing points. Everyone loves humongous battles, and A Song of Ice and Fire is chock full of them. Strategy games, perhaps out of all game genres, provide an epic scope to any setting. Instead of a few soldiers battling another equally small band of soldiers, battles start with dozens of units and can reach hundreds. In the case of the Total War series, thousands of units can be on screen at the same time.
There are numerous large battles throughout the books, like Stannis Baratheon's failed assault upon King's Landing and the wildling attack against the Wall. The books certainly have a place for large set pieces, and there is a time when you just have to forget about the story and consider what a magnificent war is being waged.
Those battles only last two or three chapters, and then they're done. An RTS can't just finish a battle and force players to watch cutscenes for three hours, so each scenario presents yet another desperate stand against overwhelming odds. Even the more narrative strategy games, like Starcraft 2, only contain flickers of plot and character development scattered between fighting.
It's the difference between Warcraft 3 and World of Warcraft or between The Battle for Middle-earth and The Lord of the Rings Online. Strategy games simply can't focus on story even when they try. The huge assaults and desperate defenses of the books are immanently satisfying, but people don't read them just for the battles.
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What's Wrong with this RPG
Since I'm pleading for an RPG here, why shouldn't I jump on board with Cyanide's efforts? As a disclaimer, the game's only been announced for a few months, and what's actually known about it is precious little. However, some of the statements that Cyanide's made since they announced the title have been troubling at least to a longterm RPG player like myself.
Cyanide's foray into the world of role-playing games features the storytelling style of George R.R. Martin. Players experience points of view from several characters. It's broken up into a number of "chapters" as if the game itself is a book. However, at what point does an RPG become something other than a role-playing game? At some point, stripping the power of choice from players turns the game into another genre entirely.
Am I arguing that Cyanide's AGoT RPG shouldn't be made? Most certainly not, since it could tell a very strong, engaging story. However, calling it a role-playing game merely weakens the term. Considering how much the game, we can safely assume, corrals players through set areas and major plot points, it should be labeled an interactive action game, like Heavy Rain on the PS3.
Yes, you'll be able to customize the characters, but they'll never really be your characters. You may even be able to make significant choices, but you'll be limited by "chapters," so the game will progress even more linearly than Bioware titles. If these games were released today, I'd pick them up in an instant, but I'd feel as if I were missing most of the story.
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A Game of Thrones MMO
Let's forget about strategy and solo role-playing games for a minute and consider MMOs. A world as large as Westeros almost cries out for its very own World of Warcraft, and hundreds of thousands of gamers would be willing to pay $15 a month for the privilege of making the Seven Kingdoms their online home.
The possibilities are nearly endless. The first retail package could cover the southern lands, like Highgarden and King's Landing, and expansion packs would cover the Free Cities and the North. There are already a ton of factions available (Greyjoys, Lannisters, Dothraki, etc.), and a Game of Thrones MMO could navigate around the main story like The Lord of the Rings Online with its epic quest arcs. An MMO could exist beside A Song of Ice and Fire canon without adhering to it.
The biggest problem with most MMOs is that they 1) aren't terribly original and 2) don't come from a well known franchise. A Game of Thrones MMO doesn't have to worry about the latter, and fans will forgive the usual assortment of bugs and imbalances that accompany every MMO release, at least for a couple months.
However, the very complexities that make A Song of Ice and Fire so fun to read would also prevent MMOs from ever fleshing out the world of Westeros as Martin envisioned. MMOs require delicate balancing, but such balance would distort the lopsided political forces in the books. The idea sounds intriguing at first, but significant hurdles all but eliminate the chance that we'll see an MMO based on this series.
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What an MMO Would Get Right
Taking a look at The Lord of the Rings Online, World of WarCraft, or Age of Conan, the clearest benefit from a Game of Thrones MMO would be its size. Westeros alone is the size of South America, so a full game would require literally dozens of zones to cover the major areas of the world.
No other game genre comes close to providing worlds the size of MMOs, but players would never be able to traverse a continent the size of South America. Instead, the WoW approach would come into play, scaling everything down substantially. World of WarCraft's world is about 350 km2, and for the sake of argument, I'll claim that it's comparable to Westeros (and consequently South America). South America is about 18 million km2, or 50,000 times the size of WoW.
I know, I know, that's some rough math, but it demonstrates that a 1:1 ratio is impossible. Locations would have to be scaled down, but a Game of Thrones MMO would give developers more time and resources to translate those locations from the books into the game.
Guilds and kinships also provide a common cause for players to join up, and factions would pit them against one another. Such politics would naturally lend themselves to A Song of Ice and Fire with PvP combat slipping right into the massive armed conflicts of the books.
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Too Much Sacrificed
Unfortunately, the benefits outlined above aren't the only things the MMO genre would force upon A Song of Ice and Fire. While we've yet to see how the dynamic choices and storytelling of The Old Republic will play out, most MMOs feature almost nothing in the way of choice. Everyone (in the same faction at least) experiences the exact same story.
How could Westeros, forever changing, even exist in an MMO world? Besides major characters dying left and right, entire cities are swept away. Winterfall is nearly burnt to the ground in the third book, A Storm of Swords, while other cities are, at various points, besieged or even captured.
That's not even taking into account how the story would unfold one "zone" at a time since players rank up in one zone before moving into the next. With plot points occurring around the world simultaneously, developers would be hard pressed to allow open world exploration without limiting it and forcing players to travel to certain locations. It's almost a Catch 22. Players want to explore the world, and they have to, but there's no way to implement dynamic leveling (like Oblivion) in a multiplayer game.
I suppose it's possible, but how could players complete quests at Castle Black, King's Landing, and Harrenhal at the same time? Since players would need to return to those areas time and again, enemies would have to cover a wide range of levels, making the game ridiculously easy in some locations and virtually impossible in others.
An MMO would have to make heavy, heavy use of instancing, but doing that would strip away most of the social aspects that attract players in the first place.
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Going back to the roots of the fantasy and role-playing genres, we absolutely must acknowledge The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons. One gave us a new type of story, and the other empowered us to tell those stories ourselves.
While software is a poor substitute for a real dungeon master, gamers have grown accustomed to having their choices limited in games. It would be impossible to program all possibilities into a game (it feels absurd just writing that), so gamers who, like my brother once jokingly suggested, want to stock up on feral cats to throw at enemies as weapons are out of luck.
Still, it's good to remember your roots once in a while. Role-playing games should be all about choices. While companies like Bioware have made a noble attempt to infuse each decision with serious consequences, they've also limited the number of choices available to players. Sure, I can choose to save the Urn of Andraste or defile it, but the game is still going to force me to fight my way through the dungeon and save Arl Eamon.
Some people consider that a choice. It might be, but if I want to complete the game, there's no way I can just leave Arl Eamon to die. All the choices feel rather contrived as if Bioware is telling me how to play.
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A Crowded Genre
The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age series are two fantasy worlds most gamers are familiar with, but they're vastly different role-playing experiences. I highlighted some of the key differences by pointing out how money functions in Origins compared to Oblivion, and it's largely the same position I took with Cyanide's Game of Thrones video games.
Dragon Age thrusts players into a world every bit as immersive as Oblivion but removes most of the choices available to players. What you do isn't a variable, just how you do it. Case in point - everyone ends up killing the archdemon at the end of Origins. That final boss is effectively the end of the game. The only possible change in the fight is the alliance you've put together throughout the game's course, so you might use Alistair or Loghain. You might also have sided with the werewolves instead of the Dalish.
Regardless of the choices you've made, the archdemon is still the archdemon. I don't want to bash major plot points (after all, you can't really choose different outcomes in Oblivion either), but the game's comprised of one highly scripted scene after another, and it should leave you feeling as if you've been powerless to change the story all along.
Oblivion doesn't give players a blank check when it comes to story telling either. There's still a narrative frame, but while Bethesda's games feature hundreds of quests, most of them are completely optional. You choose which quests to complete - exploration itself provides a feeling of accomplishment. How many non-essential areas can be found in Bioware games? Very few.
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Role-Playing's Best Aspects
Reiterating some earlier points, an RTS would give players epic battles and even allow them to command entire armies. On the other hand, MMOs would make players a part of the living, breathing world. A Game of Thrones video game, based on the book's many complexities, should manage both.
This list may just sound like a checklist for the perfect role-playing game, and it is that, but it's also ncessary given how the books are written. When you read A Song of Ice and Fire, you aren't just reading one story. You're reading a dozen set across multiple continents, all faced with unique challenges and goals.
What characters and factions want may not even be related to one another. Daenerys Targaryen led the remnants of her khalasar while Jon Snow held the Wall against wildlings, giants, and worse. Since these events happen at the same time, a game can't present them linearly. There's some merit to Cyanide's chapter approach since it would allow for concurrent storytelling, but that upcoming RPG strays a bit too far from basic role-playing.
Any RPG would arguably benefit from taking the best aspects of each game in the genre. Oblivion has its exploration and choices. Choose who you are, what you want to do, and where to travel. However, Dragon Age has serious consequences for your decisions and far more developed characters. Combining those into a game, regardless of franchise, would be the gaming equivalent of the Sistine Chapel or Mona Lisa. Such a game would be the gold standard in role-playing for the next ten years.
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Factions and Characters Galore
Oblivion once again provides a clear example of how to implement factions. You can choose to join the Dark Brotherhood, and you can choose to have nothing to do with them. Your actions don't always have profound consequences, but sometimes they impact you down the road. For example, you can't complete the Knights of the Nine faction quests if you're also in the Dark Brotherhood without giving up the latter.
However, the big difference is that you can actually complete the game without joining any of the factions. I wouldn't recommend it since they all tell engrossing tales, but you can complete the main quest line by itself and "finish" the game that way (you can't actually complete Oblivion).
A Song of Ice and Fire RPG would need that kind of flexible storytelling. The main story has to adhere to the books, but everything else is fair game. Several factions in particular could present wondrous quest possibilities: the Kingsguard and the Night's Watch. There are almost too many others to list: the City Guard, Beric Dondarrion, and Mance Rayder, for starters.
Major characters would have to be kept alive, but there's plenty of room for a cast of disposable lordlings and knights. Since the main story is already decided, this game runs the risk of making players feel non-essential to the story, which would be the death of any RPG. One solution, though it would require devilishly clever writing in places, would have players working behind the scenes to carry out the bidding of Robb, Cersei, and Daenerys.
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Once again, the issue of size presents a problem. While game worlds can be scaled down (Cyrodiil from Oblivion was only estimated at 16 mi2) and still feel massive, Westeros covers a wide range of environments from the blistering heat of the south to the freezing winds of the north. There would have to be enough space to transition environments and still feel like a continent. Cyrodiil was just one province of a continent-spanning empire, but Westeros is a continent.
However, varied environments would present plenty of opportunities to try out new strategies. Players might have to adapt for combat on hills, in streams, or on horseback. Different enemies would employ different tactics, keeping the game fresh even with its relative lack of magic. There certainly won't be anyone throwing fireballs, but more sublte sorcery might be possible.
That's where A Song of Ice and Fire RPG could really succeed. Most players would want to hack their way to victory, but others could try their hand at subterfuge, and others could aim for a diplomatic victory by turning lords against one another. It's not the genre that affords this RPG versatility but the book's many facets.
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Make It Now While It Makes Sense
There's never been a better time to turn this franchise into a video game. All current outlets for the story (the books, comics, and TV show) have received critical acclaim and financial success, so A Song of Ice and Fire RPG will have to be up to par. Half efforts and cut corners won't cut it with this franchise.
Of course, that's an empty threat. I'd probably whip out my wallet in a heartbeat for a rerelease of Elf Bowling with George R.R. Martin's stamp of approval on the front. Thankfully, the future of A Song of Ice and Fire looks a bit cheerier than that outcome.
The numbers add up for another blockbuster: the newest book, A Dance with Dragons, sold over a quarter of a million hardcover copies on the first day. Nearly 9 million viewers tuned in over a week to catch the season finale of Game of Thrones on HBO, having doubled since the series premiere two and a half months earlier.
With game publishers looking for ways to assure stockholders that they'll turn a profit, the safer game is an easier sell than the ambitious one. That's why we're seeing Modern Warfare 3 (which is something like the eighth game in the Call of Duty franchise) and other sequels. A Song of Ice and Fire RPG has the benefit of being an already proven franchise without being an exhausted idea in the world of gaming, a combination the game industry sorely needs.
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All images and references from HBO's Game of Thrones, Cyanide's Game of Thrones and Game of Thrones: Genesis, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, World of WarCraft, Warcraft 3, Starcraft 2, Total War, Dragon Age: Origins, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblvion, Mass Effect 2, Elf Bowling, Call of Duty, Heavy Rain, The New Yorker, and author's experience.