My wife and I will occasionally sit down for a game of Mario Kart 8. She is obsessed with the LittleBigPlanet franchise; we played cooperatively and have 100% of the stickers on the campaigns for the first two games, thanks to her perfectionist nature. We have clocked an embarrassing numbers of hours playing Super Mario 3D World together. However, she is unlikely to choose to sit down and play a game on her own. No Zelda, no Bloodborne. Like many households, we will sit together once a week and watch Jon Snow and his pals prance up and down the Kingsroad in Game of Thrones. We enjoy nothing more than watching the addictive Eastenders-on-ice antics, to remind us we don’t have it all that bad here in the real world.
I’m a big fan of Telltale Games' work and in recent years, almost all of their games have been playable in the front room, on console. I bought Game of Thrones on my PS4. My wife saw me make the purchase.
“Can we play that one together?”, she asked. “Kind of, yeah”.
I’m not ignorant to the concept of one person watching a game and the other watching, to absorb the narrative, to watch the set pieces play out. However, this is new territory for me. Single player games are my mancave. Headphones on, peripheral vision off.
As the main menu lit up the screen, I realised that having somebody peering over my shoulder was an unfamiliar experience. It felt like I was responsible for entertaining the viewer in the room, much like our YouTube or Twitch content. It felt a bit like work. Then as I hit the OPTIONS button (ugh), the solution dawned on me. I passed the controller to my wife.
Bolt upright, she gripped the controller as the story began. I immediately noticed that fairly inconsequential dialogue options would stir a slight panic; stabbing at the button moments before the time limit expired.
“It’s not like Sam & Max, is it?” she said, referring to the 1993 game she played as a child.
Then, the first action sequence kicked into gear. Roughly every other prompt in the QTE that proceeded was missed. The character on-screen is bounced around, getting cut and bruised, narrowly surviving. Then, one of those infamous moments appeared, much like those in Telltale’s The Walking Dead. One of those moments where you have a split decision to make. Press SQUARE or press CIRCLE. Right NOW.
All in a moment, her thumb hovered left, right, left… then down. As quick as the decision went by, a spear is thrust into the neck of her on-screen ally. Before she can even take in what happened, she is thrust into combat and receives further wounds as a result of QTE misses.
Eventually, she got the chance to take a breather. “So wait, I failed! Can’t I go back?” I chuckled: “No. In this game you have to live with your decisions and the story changes accordingly.”
This became a theme in the early knockings of the game. Mistakes were made. Consequences were piling up. It took me a few moments to realise that I found this thrilling to watch. When I play games like these, I rarely struggle with the action sequences. I already have it clearly set in my mind what decisions I want to make. For my wonderful wife, this is a new world. I was seeing a side of the game I wouldn’t usually get the chance to see. When I’m in control, I don’t skip a beat when a button prompt appears on-screen. When my wife is playing, it’s different. We are under attack - are we going to make it out alive?
To Telltale’s credit, regardless of the fact that most of the choices being made are smoke and mirrors, they do a great job of keeping the character progression feeling cohesive. In the passenger’s seat, I was witnessing not only character progression on the screen, but player development on my sofa. As my wife grew more confident with the controls, her avatar grew more assertive. Decisions were being made faster, moments of action were resulting in success.
I have to confess at first I had to resist the temptation to shout at the screen. To shout at her. Duck! Run! Commit your loyalty to the Lannisters! But I’m enjoying watching things play out in this unique way. A human way. I think of how George R. R. Martin would have written the characters in Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Would they be flawless, quick-witted, action heroes from the start? Or would they be flawed? Uneasy with their surroundings at first, but growing, learning and maturing as they deal with the situations presented to them?
Telltale’s Game of Thrones will forever live as a unique gaming experience for me. One where I wasn’t in control, yet felt like I was interacting. Fully able to appreciate the design and presentation without direct feedback usually associated with plastic in palms. It helped me realise that videogames are let down by their own moniker. The word “game” is almost too restrictive to describe the form of entertainment we are all enjoying today.