On Genre Gaming (or, Why They Should Never Ever Make a ‘Game of Thrones’ Video Game)

Too late for that plea, apparently, but here’s why basically any video game based on A Song of Ice and Fire,* George R. R. Martin’s gloriously grimdark Take That to the heroic fantasy genre and real-life medieval romanticism, is doomed to failure.

The issue comes with the psychology of video games themselves. A video game is meant to be beaten, to at least give some sense of accomplishment for putting time and (rarely more than minimal thumb-twirling) effort into it, whether five minutes beating the next level of Peggle or fifteen bajillion hours grinding towards Blizzard’s latest glass ceiling in World of Warcraft. Even when a game is fundamentally depressing (rarely) or at least a big mind screw you can at least say “well, even if the ending was shit/confusing/nonexistant I still figured out Puzzle X” (*ahem* Braid and Limbo, otherwise quite excellent games).

No specific spoilers, but A Song of Ice and Fire is far and away not conducive to that kind of narrative. It becomes obvious, and I do mean with soul-pulverizing clarity, that Martin’s world is neither happy nor even remotely charitable. Patently evil people enjoy victory after victory and the only nominal “good guys” get utterly shat on for at least the four books that have been published. Sure, there have been hints of future greatness but with Martin’s insatiable thirst for fresh POV-character blood there is hardly a guarantee of anyone important still alive at the end. Not to mention that another clear theme of the series is that “legacies are worth jack,” as dying wishes and hopes are sometimes brutally shoved aside, and maybe sodomized too.

I love this series.

But what I love about it is exactly what makes it anathema to video gaming. Nobody wins. And hell, even if a video game came along that wasn’t about “winning” at the end, very few (if any) are brave enough to tell the player that his or her efforts were utterly pointless, as so many efforts in A Song of Ice and Fire are. How would you like it if you played as the Native American tribes in Age of Empires III and were told, in no uncertain terms, that however well you fended off the initial European colonists, they still managed to import smallpox and syphilis and that your civilization utterly crumbled, meaning that the Euro factions won every damn time? Gamers would hate it, but that’s probably why we don’t let Jared Diamond design games, har har har.

That’s not to say that A Song of Ice and Fire couldn’t work as any game. The Fantasy Flight-produced board game, from what single session I played, pretty accurately captured how bollocksed you are playing the Game of Thrones. Every player has the objective of taking the Iron Throne of Westeros and becoming King For A Day, and the biggest piece of strategy is finding which other player you can goad, coax, or pander to in order to not be utterly screwed by the other alliance that’s obviously forming against you… not to mention the other secret agreements that are just as obviously being made under the table, even if nobody wants to admit it. As far as Westerosi-warfare-simulation goes, it also made me appreciate the balancing effect of the Greyjoys and their Vikings Ironborn, without whom (as in my 4/5-full game session) the Lannisters would have a much easier time getting every other Great House to drop trou and bend over for them.

That worked, not insignificantly because of the human factor; nothing emulates the everyone’s-a-bastard ethos of this series than a game that encourages and necessitates being a scheming Machiavellian bastard. This, in my humble opinion, doesn’t work for anything else. Not a single-player role-playing game, which falls victim to that player-characters-must-be-special trap; not a multiplayer online game, which, being on the internet, makes being a bastard rather uninteresting.
There’s a reason why true genre gaming is really hard to pull off when that genre isn’t hack-slash-kill-grunt like Dungeons & Dragons or whatever (let’s not kid ourselves here). Sure, you can get away with not perfectly emulating the Lovecraftian melancholy-meets-psychotic-break horror of Call of Cthulhu, but I think that’s partly because Lovecraft has been done to death so anywhere close is good enough.

Martin’s world of Westeros feels really well put together (even if his concept of logistics seems rather… off) and in a much better way than other comparable series. As much as I do like the Wheel of Time series (the Sanderson additions made slogging through the previous three books rather worth it) and its superpower fantasy that reminds me a lot of Fire Emblem, the world never felt truly alive. Though the cultures are at least clearly defined, they never seem consistent or otherwise believable outside the suspended-disbelief that comes with accepting Robert Jordan’s stratospherically high fantasy. Same with The Lord of the Rings; while I could totally accept Tolkien’s constructed languages as real (to be expected from a guy with a background in linguistics) the set pieces have about as much verisimilitude as a mosaic or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Epic? Verily. And these things don’t detract from the type of story either author wants to tell. And even with the Wheel of Time’s Rand al’Thor doomed to die in the final battle against the Great Satan the Dark One (or maybe not), there’s no denying that he’s special, and that his efforts will mean something in retrospect.

A Song of Ice and Fire’s delicious pessimism just makes it that much more removed from the spheres of gaming, even as the social intrigue and human drama connect it more forcefully to our real-life sensibilities.

* A Song of Ice and Fire is the name of the series as a whole; A Game of Thrones is the first book in the series. HBO has just wrapped up the first of hopefully many amazing seasons.