Telltale's Game of Thrones has not just one impossible legacy to live up to, but two: HBO's adaptation of George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, and its own seminal Walking Dead adaptation.
At first it seems to have betrayed both legacies in the most embarrassing way.
The action begins outside Walder Frey's stronghold on the night of the Red Wedding. You play as Gared Tuttle, well-liked squire to Lord Forrester of Ironrath, a minor Stark bannerman.
The gameplay closely follows the template of Walking Dead, with QTE action sequences, open-ended conversation trees, and choices that have potentially far-reaching consequences.
However, the first real dilemma you're faced with is whether or not to hurt a fellow squire's feelings by telling him that you've just been promoted. It's lame.
Pretty soon the infamously bloody events of the Red Wedding start to unfold around you and you're thrust into sequence of close escapes and gory murders.
But you don't know any of the characters involved, so you don't really care who dies, and even if you did the the weightless sprites, paper robot motions, and cursory QTEs are hopelessly ill-equipped to convey the splashy, muddy, hefty horror of a medieval battle.
Copy-pasted and caricaturishly evil enemy faces, soppy fantasy music, and a range of groping efforts at vaguely northern accents that swing wildly from Newcastle to Derry reinforce the initial impression that Game of Thrones is an embarrassing stumble with one of the most beloved franchises in the world.
What do we say to the god of death? Not today
Then you're introduced to a second character and things start to look up. Ethan Forrester is the eldest (eligible) son of Lord Gregor Forrester, who was killed at the Red Wedding.
Like Robb Stark, Ethan is thrust into a position of leadership at a young age, and the game depicts this transition surefootedly. First you take part in a touching childlike conversation between Ethan and his younger siblings, and immediately after that you're presented with a truly terrible string of choices about how (and whether) to deal with a thief in a public trial.
Ethan's first big challenge as Lord is to deal with the psychotic torturer Ramsay Bolton. He's the son of the Ward of the North and mediator in a dispute between House Forrester and a rival house that goes back centuries (but is ostensibly instigated by a deadly encounter between Gared Tuttle and a couple of soldiers after the Red Wedding).
The future of House Forrester rests on your diplomacy with a psychopath in a position of unassailable political and military power.
Then a third character is introduced: Mira, Ethan's sister, who's serving as a handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell at King's Landing. Here the game becomes richer still, as Mira must decide how far to help her family by appealing to Margaery and, eventually, Cersei Lannister – a matter complicated by the fact that the Forresters were until very recently loyal to House Stark in the war of the five kings.
The scene involving Mira and Cersei in the throne room, conspirator Margaery in attendance along with Tyrion Lannister, demonstrates just how well the socially and psychologically complex gameplay of Walking Dead translates to the intrigue-filled world of Game of Thrones. Lives and fortunes rest on seemingly innocuous postures whose consequences you can only anxiously guess at.
As if to echo the steadily improving quality of the episode, the characters we meet later on are voiced by the original cast of the TV show, rather than by some actors who mistakenly believe that the Nottingham, Belfast, Carlisle, Middleborough, Edinburgh, and Manchester accents are all interchangeable.
As in all areas of life, Peter Dinklage makes everything better.
You win or you die
The episode is structured like an episode of the TV show, jumping between interweaving storylines that reinforce each other narratively (e.g. Gared blunders upon Ramsay Bolton flaying a man in the woods just before Ramsay is due to arrive at Ironrath, increasing the sense of threat to Ethan).
It seems in this chapter that Telltale has attempted to distil the show into its three main components. Gared's storyline is about brutal violence and battlefield decisions. Combat isn't the game's strongest suit, though, and I suspect Gared only exists for mechanical story purposes.
Ethan's storyline is about the unforgiving responsibility of hereditary leadership. It forces you to make decisions that cement your leadership, despite your youth, and serve your subjects' interests.
Mira's storyline is about the power that can be wielded by apparently powerless actors (generally women in the medieval patriarchy of Westeros). Personal and political influence is defined by how cunning you are and how ruthless you're prepared to be in a terrifying high stakes battle fought in the dark with words and secrets.
Over the course of the two hours or so of the chapter's running time it grows more interesting, more complex, and ultimately more shocking, culminating in a scene that embodies the series' awesome capriciousness.
After a fumbling start, Game of Thrones finds the pulse of the show, and then sticks a dagger in for good measure. I remain to be convinced that Telltale has entirely done the world justice – whatever way you cut it, the voice acting is jarringly awful, and the music is utterly generic – but it's clear that George RR Martin's world and Telltale's seminal adventure game mechanic make for a very promising partnership.