Game of Thrones has always been a show that delights in rewriting its own rules, even to the point of creating new ways to think about the profitability of television as a whole.
Incoming, massive, Game of Thrones spoilers
We were originally sold on a show led by a honorable hero who followed his good intentions down a path that ended with a beheading, and the pace of the show’s reveals, deaths and surprises. No one is safe, ever, and that makes for a thrilling hour of television every week.
The issue with that approach is that we’re left with a show that barely has a story left, and is nearly unrecognizable as the Game of Thrones we began watching. The only thing that has stayed constant is the basic shape of the game board itself, although even safe, well-worn locations have been thrown out and exchanged for others.
You are my son
Last night’s season finale saw another round of changes that will drastically alter the tone and narrative thrust of the show and, while it will likely be thrilling to watch these characters slowly drawn into contact and combat with each other across the next few seasons, what we’re left with is a show that features a lot of very interesting people heading in very different directions.
Trying to figure out what narratives in different art forms can learn from each other is always an interesting thing, and game designer Douglas Wilson and I once had a long, late-night twitter conversation about how games should learn to follow the rhythm of the best episodic television shows. Games seem shackled to the idea that lead characters will always survive, no matter what.
There will always bee the post-credits scene where we learn that so-and-so is still alive, and will be there for a sequel. As long as there is money to be a made, a sequel will happen, which means games are stuck playing with very low stakes. Even if someone "dies," they’re coming back for the inevitable sequel or reboot. Our favorite characters are never gone, and even comic book movies operate under the rule that if you don't see the body, that character is still alive. Even if you see the body, they're probably still alive.
What good is kneeling when the wars for power are fought on the back of the common folk
The game industry is just as happy to use a well-known franchise title and some loose story threads to ship a new idea under a familiar banner. We’ve talked about this use of franchise names as a way to secretly launch new intellectual property, and EA is a big fan of this approach. Battlefield: Hardline is a Battlefield game in title only, although the series shares a developer and … the use of guns, I guess?
Game of Thrones, and the books that now seem to inform the show more than they show the way forward, doesn’t have to be as tacky. Tywin isn’t getting up from those two crossbow bolts in the chest. Tyrion is going to lose the Lannister influence and resources now that he’s more or less an outlaw traveling under the protection of Varys. Arya knows she has no home left, and has cashed in her one remaining favor to sail off to parts unknown. When the status quo is changed, it stays changed. It's one of the best things about the show.
Almost everyone who had power and knew how to use it is dead, those who wanted power and could use it well have been punished for their ambition, and the board itself is now back in play with Stannis looking like he has the influence, army and means to take the throne. If Cersei is going to make the truth of her relationship with Jaime well known, the Lannister claims to that throne have been washed away, leaving the now headless family deep in debt, with few friends.
It’s the external threat that will keep the show going
While video games connect games with broad themes or the protagonist, even if the Call of Duty games feature "soldier guy" as the preferred player avatar, Game of Thrones has become a series that hangs together due to the threat from without: the ever-encroaching White Walker army that is headed to the wall.
Even Mance Rayder only organized an army that can be pass through the wall in order to keep those under his care safe. He’s one of the few characters who sees the playing board clearly; what good is power if an army of the undead is about to destroy everything in its path? What good is kneeling when the wars for power are fought on the back of the common folk? Taking a knee is a hollow act when the next power-hungry group burns your farm and kills your family as they come for the person who claims to rule your land.
Rayder wants survival, and perhaps a bit of freedom and happiness if they can carve out a place for themselves in the world. It’s the most realistic, if unlikely, goal for anyone in the series.
This is why games focus on one hero for their stories, or get rid of the concepts of a series entirely and just use the franchise name for marketing purposes. If the theme of Game of Thrones is now that the plays for power will soon be made irrelevant by the incoming existential threat of the White Walkers, is that enough to keep the series chugging along?
There is no clear path that brings Arya back into the story, and we only continue to follow her because she was a Stark back when that name meant something. Daenerys is learning that rebuilding the entire social structures of the cities she sacks is a hard, possibly impossible task if you’re armed only with a few dragons and soldiers that don’t feel pain.
Game of Thrones has always been comfortable getting messy and complicated
Those are good tools for killing people and taking power, but they don’t mean much when it comes to keeping it or making the people you rule happy. This is fascinating territory for an episodic fantasy drama, but it’s hard to see how it links into her own path to take control of the Iron Throne in a land where slavery is much less of a going concern.
Game of Thrones has always been comfortable getting messy and complicated, a problem that’s much more of an issue in the books than the TV adaptation to date, and it will be fun to see just how well these threads are brought back together as things draw to a closer.
I actually have more faith that the show will handle this well than the books, as Game of Thrones the television series has the advantage of being able to plunder the source material for characters and ideas while discarding the gristle. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to have Brienne meet the Hound, but we got to see them fight after their conversation makes a few plot points explicit. It's a moment that ties these characters together, leads to an amazing scene, and reminds Arya that she is never safe as long as powerful people are willing to pick up swords to protect, destroy or control her.
These scenes are fun, but that doesn’t fix the fact that the main threat is coming to end a way of life that we’ve been shown over and over to be awful, and the few people we do care about are being killed one by one in "shocking" moments that are yielding diminishing returns.
Seeing Tywin cut down on his privy was a fitting end for the character, but he was also one of the most enjoyable characters of the show. We lose personality, even if the realm gains some stability, if we’re trading in Tywin for Stannis.
I’ll still watch the show no matter what, but it’s running out of hooks to keep me interested in the bigger picture. The television show will smooth out the often terrible pacing of the books and turn it into something that works better, but a dark place in my heart hopes that, after the credits of some random episode, we hear a single hitching breath from Ned's animated corpse.
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