I have mixed feelings on Game of Thrones. After watching the first season I wavered back and forth before ultimately deciding I liked it. The book was about 600 pages too long and it lacks the flow and coherence of the show, but what George R.R. Martin couldn’t do on his own, HBO managed to pull off. The political drama provides an undercurrent of desperation to everything that the heroes do, the villains are delightfully despicable, the way that events mesh just perfectly gives the sense that everyone in the world is about to violently collide with one another.
Yet what really made the show work for me is that it shows a dark age that is hopelessly disorganized, systematically broken and completely unromantic. Of the wide cast of characters, the Starks are really the only ones that show any consistent moral integrity and, as a reward, their patriarch is publicly disgraced and executed. Game of Thrones is not Lord of the Rings, it’s not World of Warcraft and it’s not Baldur’s Gate. The world is a cruel and terrible place dictated by evil people; the presence of magic does nothing to fix that.
There’s a bit early in the show where King Robert Baratheon asks his personal guards about their first kills. When it’s Robert’s turn, the king delivers this soliloquy:
My horse took an arrow so I was on foot slugging through the mud. He came runnin at me, this dumb high-born lad, thinking he could end the rebellion with a single swing of his sword. I knocked him down with my hammer. Gods I was strong then! Caved in his breastplate—probably shattered every rib he had—stood over him, hammer in the air. Right before I brought it down he shouted “wait, wait!” They never tell you how they all shit themselves. They don’t put that part in the songs. (Game of Thrones: “Lord Snow” 1.3)
That was the passage that made Game of Thrones worth watching. It’s a direct un-fantasy. It takes all the tropes of the standard fantasy story and puts them in a world closer to our own. Beneath all the romance and nostalgia for the middle ages is just shit. Game of Thrones reminds us of that.
Game of Thrones doesn’t take place in an alternate world where wizards and lords are chosen by fate, where injuries are healed by a quick spell and all wars are unambiguous and glorious. Westeros is an analogue to medieval Europe and, like medieval Europe, it’s an awful place. Westeros is led by the corrupt and incompetent when it isn’t being contested by warlords of an incestuous and arbitrarily privileged aristocracy. Game of Thrones is not a fantasy story. It is not an escapist alternate reality where everybody can be a hero. Most people are overworked peasants that die of an undiagnosed plague before they’re thirty and those of the ruling class are stalked and murdered by their friends.
That’s the television series. A standard RPG completely undermines the purpose of the show (Filipowich, Mark. “Cable TV of Thrones: Why Game of Thrones Does not Work as a Game.” PopMatters. Jul 17 2012.) In an RPG, the player is on a constant path to improvement, they play a role that impacts the world. The point of the feudal ages is that nobody ever improved their station and only a handful of social positions enabled one to have any impact on the world at all. It won’t make any potential games based on A Song of Ice and Fire any less marketable, but there’s a logical leap in playing a character in Westeros that is able to deflect blades after a handful of levels and chug down a potion to ease second degree burns when two of the most potent characters in the canon, Ned Stark and the Hound were, respectively, slain by one swordstroke and permanently disfigured by a living room firepit.
It isn’t that adaptations can’t work—after all, HBO’s Game of Thrones is a good television show that came from a mediocre novel—but the medium must be considered. A Game of Thrones RPG where one plays members of a house, for instance, would be really neat. A game where where the player controls avatars that are as vulnerable and exposed as the characters in the show (that is to say, as vulnerable as real people). If the Game of Thrones RPG is a cash-in on a well known franchise than it’s an entirely justified one. Game of Thrones is a popular and high quality series with a great deal of credibility. If anything, it’d do games good to “cash in” on it. But to take something like Game of Thrones and stamp it on a standard RPG type without tailoring it to fit the source material is a wasted opportunity.
Further reading: Dinicola, Nick. “Game of Thrones review.” PopMatters. June 5 2012
Dinicola, Nick. “A Character Creator that Creates Real Characters.” PopMatters. Jun 21 2012.
Agha, Adnan. “How Game of Thrones‘s marketing could influence games.” Kill Screen. Feb 7 2012.