(Warning: Major spoilers for season five of HBO's "Game of Thrones" below.)
A funny thing happened between my play-through of episode three of Telltale Games' "Game of Thrones" series, and my play-through of episode four:
I watched the show.
More specifically, I watched maybe the grimmest stretch yet of HBO's fantasy drama, spanning Ramsay Bolton's senseless rape of Sansa Stark, the tragic ritual immolation of young Shireen Baratheon and the jaw-dropping group execution of Jon Snow by his brothers in the Knight's Watch. It's a good thing I had a support group.
All these buckets of blood spilled in the second half of season five of "Game of Thrones" underscored, again and again, the bitter refrain of George R.R. Martin's creation: The good die, and maybe sometimes the bad do, too. That refrain was fresh on my mind playing "Sons of Winter" and resuming the plight of Telltale's homespun protagonists, Stark bannermen House Forrester.
The first episode of the studio's "Game of Thrones" point-and-click adventure set the same funereal tone as the TV series with the shocking murder of young Ethan Forrester by — again — Bolton. (See? We fully understood the creep was rotten well before he did what he did to Sansa.) The fact the player had been inhabiting Ethan, just settling into the overburdened mind of the young lord of Ironrath, only sharpened the sense of loss — and surprise.
Second and third episodes "The Lost Lords" and "The Sword in the Darkness" did not move the Forresters' story forward without intrigue, but it did without much tragedy. There was tension, sure: Deciding which of Forrester squire Gared Tuttle's new brothers in the Knight's Watch to befriend, or whether to bend Rodrik Forrester's knee to browbeating Ironrath usurper Gryff Whitehill. Just as suspenseful were quick-time action events like Asher Forrester's encounter with one of Daenerys Targaryen's dragons in a desert cave, as well as Gared's swordfight atop The Wall against a Bolton assassin.
Telltale's control interface may seem familiar to the point of fatigue by now, especially to those who've played their three other concurrent series, but the process of inputting decisions and quick-time commands is almost always dissolved by the dramatic tension of what's going on in Westeros and Essos.
And where there's tension in "Game of Thrones," death assuredly follows.
Except, in "Sons of Winter," it doesn't. On the contrary, the new episode threads win after exhilarating win into the Forresters' tale, from Rodrik thumping Gryff and thwarting Lord Ludd Whitehill himself to Mira's nimble dirt-digging on her family's enemies at the coronation of King Tommen. Some aren't "wins" per se, such as Asher's successful but ultimately lateral mercenary service to Daenerys. But as Cersei said, "When you play the game of thrones (hey!) you win or you die." And, well, no one died.
Proceeding from the most recent episodes of the TV show, that's a hell of a change of pace. Playing "Sons of Winter," I realized that the recent losses of Ser Barristan and Shireen and Jon Snow attuned my senses to the imminence of death three, four moves down the line. Sure enough, I made a few decisions that left me convinced I'd sealed the fates of some characters by the end of the episode.
Maybe episode five, "A Nest of Vipers," is where their culling will ensue. That's certainly the note on which the last scene of "Sons of Winter" leaves: Rodrik returns from treating with Lord Whitehill to a ravaged Ironrath lorded over by — who else? — Ramsay.
Maybe not, though. Now more than halfway into Telltale's "Game of Thrones," it's become clear the studio isn't steering too far away from its standard adventure structure. The series may break from "The Walking Dead" and "The Wolf Among Us" with a beautiful new painterly art style, but the screen still turns red with the same rhythm. The major deaths Telltale has doled out have arrived the same way they did in the studio's previous games: unavoidably.
The first major decision in "Game of Thrones" set this tone of futility: Outside The Twins, during the Red Wedding, Gared can either aide Lord Gregor Forrester or fellow squire Bowen. If he chooses Bowen he survives, but as of the end of "Sons of Winter," is never seen again. If Gared chooses Forrester, the lord dies anyway.
Compared to Bowen's meaningless fate, those of the main characters feel like they're written in dragonglass.
Where's the world-changing murder I can set sightlessly in motion by the smallest of offenses, like Robb Stark's? Where's the deathly defeat I can snatch from the jaws of victory by one impassioned mistake, like Prince Oberyn Martell's?
Where's my opportunity to make one stupid decision and get killed for it — to truly know how it feels to live in Martin's brutal world?
It may be that video games simply can't be designed to let such small forces carry such deadly, ahem, game-changing sway. Or maybe "A Nest of Vipers" will capture the mercurial quality of death that has eluded previous episodes. Either way, after the most recent stretch of HBO's "Game of Thrones," it seems Telltale has a lot of bloody catching up to do.