Recently I played the first episode of Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones series with my boyfriend. It was difficult — first of all, because I had to wait an entire month until after we were both back from the holiday break and could play together. (He’d already downloaded it, so it was waiting in San Francisco. Otherwise, who knows what I would have gotten up to over the break…)
But you know what’s more difficult than waiting weeks to play a game you’ve been looking forward to for months? Playing a game — specifically a Telltale game, with moral decisions to make that require quick thinking — with someone else.
I’ve always played Telltale’s video games solo. The only time I kind of, sort of, played with somebody else was when my sister sat next to me, knitting away, while I played the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands. I think I asked her opinion about dialogue options two or three times, but only when I felt like I wanted the help. (She was the one who chose to “blow his mind” rather than “break his heart,” for instance — I just didn’t know what I wanted to do there, because both options sounded so good!) Still, I was the one with the controller in my hands, so I felt very much in control of the whole experience. That playthrough will be my playthrough, and nobody else’s.
It must be rare to find two players who play a Telltale episode in exactly the same way. One of my favorite things to do after playing an episode is discuss all of my choices with my coworker who is also a fan. We often end up on opposite sides, with him preferring a more good-guy route than the road I usually walk. After completing a Telltale episode, you can also see your stats compared to the community at large; for instance, it will tell you something like, “You and 41% of players chose to do this-or-that,” so you know where you stand.
With all of the available options and decisions, it’s clear that they can add up to a very unique playthrough unlike that of any other player.
In fact, I don’t like to go back and replay Telltale games. My first playthrough is canon and it’s all I need — it’s me. While it’s interesting to see how others play, I’m always secretly glad that their choices are theirs and mine are mine. Telltale Games is all about creating a personal experience. A feeling of exclusive ownership, to me, is what makes the experience feel rich.
However, when I played Game of Thrones’ first episode “Iron from Ice” with my boyfriend, we passed the controller back and forth. I played for 10 or 15 minutes, then let him play for the next segment. We didn’t time anything; we stopped at natural break points and made sure we were both getting our fair share of gameplay time.
At first, this was really fun. Playing with someone else made the game feel more dynamic somehow, and we both laughed a lot. Hearing his opinions added some depth to my own thoughts on the game as we went along as well. We had to think fast before the dialogue option timer ran out, and it was exciting to say exactly what you wanted without necessarily considering the other person’s possible response — a time limit can do that to a person.
But early in the episode, my boyfriend chose to draw Gared Tuttle’s sword instead of going back to save his father. I like playing a badass character too, but I have to be honest: I secretly wanted to see what would happen if he had gone back to his father. That’s what I would have done, but my boyfriend had the controller at the time, and he chose the other option.
I didn’t say anything. Whatever. I didn’t care that much. This was going to be an interesting experience, seeing how my boyfriend chose to play.
As we passed the controller back and forth for two hours, it became clear to me just how differently we approach decisions in the game. He tended to want to be “right,” saying the “right” thing in a conversation to please whomever he was speaking with. Because he hasn’t played any Telltale games before, I had to let him know that there is no “right” choice in these games — you just play it how you feel it, and sometimes you’ll run into surprising outcomes.
Meanwhile, I tended to want to choose options I found most interesting. Sometimes a clever answer actually wins admiration from others, as was the case when I was playing as handmaiden Mira speaking to Margaery Tyrell. Margaery seemed a little more impressed by Mira’s careful responses than Cersei had been when Mira just nodded agreement over everything. (That had aroused a bit of suspicion.)
When it came to Ethan Forrester, my boyfriend wanted to focus on war, strength, and attitude. I had wanted to make Ethan more diplomatic and careful, but with the controller in my boyfriend’s hands for most of his chapters, we ended up with a character who acted like a champion and didn’t take shit from anybody.
To an extent, I really enjoyed it. Had I been watching the show, I would have found this Ethan intriguing. It’s always fun to watch a character in TV whose youthful bravado might get him into too-deep water. Having no control over it, you want to see how the storytellers are going to play this one out. However, as a participant in the game, I found myself cringing just a little, once in a while, over my boyfriend making Ethan super tough where I would have been more lenient.
At the end of the episode, I could count several conflicts and conversations that I felt proud of — the ones over which I had assumed control. But I could also think of many portions of the game where I was an observer rather than a participant, and what the characters did tended to surprise me or even upset me. Those were my boyfriend’s choices.
I could let that get to me — this should be my playthrough, my choices — but my boyfriend and I agreed to play together, and that means sharing control and responsibility for each decision one of us makes.
One of the perks of playing together is the little thrill when one of us would shout out an answer exactly as the other person selected it, revealing where we already think alike. Seeing the outcomes of those moments was particularly rewarding. But there’s always that chance that when you shout out a response, the other person isn’t going to like it, or will have already selected something totally different. That happened just as often, and probably more often, than we chose the same response.
But that’s the beauty of the Telltale experience. And relationships, I guess. People play differently. As for the out-of-left-field shockers… Telltale throws lots of them your way anyway. But once I also let go of my expectations of how the episode should play out — minute by minute, choice by choice — I was able to look back on the experience of playing with someone else as something truly surprising.