The Game of Thrones RPG is a War of the Words
The pen is mightier than the +1 broadsword
Game of Thrones is a high-fantasy RPG whose story is shaped by the machinations of morally ambiguous characters that ooze sex and violence. The murky light it casts on the vicissitudes of court life on the continent of Westeros suggests politicking, incest and bloody torture are amongst the principle forms of improving one's lot - and this looks to be a world filled with brutally ambitions folk.
Indeed, the meat on the bones of Game of Thrones looks similar to that of CD Projekt's The Witcher 2. Like Geralt's adventure, it has its roots in literary fiction. George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire provides the primary backdrop to Cyanide's action-RPG, though it also features a handful of recognisable characters and vocal talent from the successful HBO television series - despite the fact that work on the game started before the series was commissioned.
"When we first heard about the TV show we had two concerns," recalls lead game designer Sylvain Sechi. "First, we just really hoped that it would be good and not damage the IP, which would put us at a disadvantage.
"Our second concern was that [HBO] would be the first to impose its vision of the characters from the books, and so [when the TV show was commissioned] we began thinking about what the key elements were that we'd need to adapt to ensure that the books, TV show and game all felt part of a coherent whole. We decided early on in this process that it's the characters that are key."
It appears that Cyanide has worked hard to incorporate the complex relationships between the hard-bitten, predefined characters and ensure that its original creations carry the same gravitas as those realised by Martin in his novels. By featuring two protagonists, Cyanide is able to reflect the structure of the books, alternating between the different plot threads by switching between the story of Mors Westford (a gruff, no nonsense veteran ranger of the Night's Watch) and Alester Sarwyck (a red-robed priest of R'hllor who returns home after a 15 year absence following the death of his father and becomes instantly embroiled in the politics of court).
Jumping between these two characters enables different styles of play and facilitates natural cliff-hangers to build between chapters before the two protagonists are brought together towards the end of the 30+ hour adventure, at which point their personalities and fighting styles will complement each other.
In combat terms, this manifests itself in the combination of active and passive abilities that become available as both characters level-up, but also in a smart system of perks and penalties; the most advantageous character traits have to be offset by an equally powerful but undesirable de-buff, thus promoting both balance and character specialisation.
Despite being men of action, Mors and Alester will have to negotiate a great many social interactions. It's here that the developer again illustrates its faithfulness to Martin's fiction by proving that a tale of fantasy needn't rely on fairy folk and arcane magic so long as the cast of characters is sufficiently well realised, with believable motives and appropriately judged language. To this end, conversation is guided by tone. The protagonists convey the desired emotion through subtle language, allowing the insinuation that a member of a royal house is ignorant or foolish to be as explicitly insulting as hurling a string of profanities at a common soldier.
Choices made both in dialogue and action will be far-reaching - Sechi confirms that conversations will move to a natural close with appropriate consequences, rather than continuing until all of the dialogue options have been exhausted. Despite this, Cyanide has deliberately avoided providing clues to how your words or actions will be received, insisting that there should be no sliding scale of morality or visual representation of your alignment.
"Mass Effect is a good reference here, because I love that game but think that the red and blue dialogue options give too much away," says Sechi. "By highlighting the 'good' and 'bad' choices it's possible for players to adopt the stance of playing as a 'good Shepard' or 'badass Shepard' and that can mean that players aren't reading the dialogue options, they're just picking a response based on colour to fit the way they've decided to play Shepard."
Game of Thrones project manager, Thomas Veauclin, agrees. "As a designer, by allowing the player to see that there is a predetermined gameplay outcome tied directly to the choice that they make you are actually directing the answer that they choose and giving them less freedom, not more; we didn't want that."
Choices and consequences, actions and reactions, stirring speeches and naughty swears; Game of Thrones looks to have all of these compelling couplets. Harder to gauge from an eyes-only presentation is how satisfying the combat feels or how well paced the overarching narrative is, and it's curious that, with the game launching in June, there's been no opportunity as yet to go hands-on with a near-finished build.
It's clear that Cyanide Studio is dedicated to its source material and is aiming to populate its world with interesting and varied characters, but it seems we'll have to wait a little longer to find out if it can deliver a game that's as interesting to play as it is to watch.