There is a scene early on in the second episode of Games of Thrones where a grievously wounded character tries to stand up and leave a room by himself. He uses a cane and takes small, careful steps toward the exit. This scene is pretty representative of Telltale’s daunting in-progress attempt to adapt this particular series into a game that does justice to its source material while creating a new, compelling story capable of standing on its own legs. The first episode of the game was messy and unimpressive, choking on its own worldbuilding and shoehorned cameos, neglecting to develop the Forrester family beyond pitiful Stark imitators. We were never truly given a reason to care for these people or their woes since we’d hardly spent five minutes with any of them before the game transitioned to another character somewhere else in Westeros.
Episode 2 is a large improvement over the first, mostly because it has more poignant, quiet moments than tedious exposition or grisly, superfluous violence. Siblings assuage each other’s fears. A family mourns their dead. There are scenes with characters blaming themselves for tragedies they couldn’t have prevented. It all feels human, which is what makes Game of Thrones rise above trashy Jacobean revenge drama. One of the few constants of George R. R. Martin’s world is that bad shit happens to genuinely good people, people we come to care about, like Eddard Stark. Stark’s fatal flaw is that he’s too honorable (and dumb) to play political games, so it hurts when we see him meet his death on the executioner’s block. Episode 2 remembers this and lets us have those scenes where we see these characters as people and not chess pieces to be used by Machiavellian scoundrels and brutes in a deadly political game.
That isn’t to say that the series discards its penchant for swordplay and bloodshed entirely. The episode opens with a fight in a bar that turns out to be one of the best action sequences designed by Telltale yet. The choreography and the gruesomeness of the violence make every second intense enough that those quick time button prompts are less distracting than usual. Still, it’s the character moments that reign, not the action, and it’s for the best that we spend much more time with these characters in isolation rather than having them surrounded by characters from the show every other scene (as was the case in the first episode). There is finally a sense that the Foresters may actually be on the path to a worthwhile tale instead of merely retracing the steps of the Stark family, and right now that’s what this game needs more than anything: a strong story and well-developed characters it can claim as its own.
Consider The Walking Dead and Tales From the Borderlands (so far). Both of them celebrate and make use of their respective source materials but they’re also their own stories with brilliantly written, original characters. Lee, Clementine, Rhys and Fiona are all characters worth becoming invested in but the same cannot be said for the Forrester family…yet. By the end of episode 2, we see a family that’s wounded but not broken, a house carefully planning to avenge the violence that’s been inflicted upon them by their aggressors. Whether the fruits of that planning make for compelling drama or boring massacre remains to be seen, but I must admit that I’m anticipating the next episode to find out if and what price the head of my house may pay for his foolish pride and for antagonizing a powerful foe in public.
Ultimately the second episode seems like an acknowledgment that the worldbuilding and character introductions in the first episode were a necessary evil and that the real story can finally begin. However, we’re a third of the way through the six episodes, and we still haven’t gotten far from the beginning of the series outside of a major death or two. A series of escalations between house Forrester and their nemesis, the Whitehills, suggests something violent and unavoidable is just over the horizon, which is hopefully where the beating heart of this story lies.
Episode 2, then, ends much like the first, as a slow burn promise that the best bits are on the way. I’m more inclined to believe it this go-round than with the first, however. The primary characters are more fleshed out now that the story is occupied with making us sympathetic to them rather than showing off Westeros and Essos. As a result, this is a game that now feels more confident and standalone than it did a couple of months ago, more of a work that justifies its own existence than it does a dull, flimsy tie-in being hawked by HBO for marketing purposes.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.