In ancient Greek mythology, Zeus punishes Sisyphus by tasking him with rolling a boulder up a hill; each time Sisyphus is about to reach the top, the boulder slips from his grasp and falls back down the hill. Episode Five – A Nest of Vipers is that moment for Telltale’s Game of Thrones series. After such steady, surprising progression with the previous two episodes, Telltale lets slip and nearly sends the entire effort back to the bottom — if not for the episode’s stellar ending that finally forces the player to make a decision that matters.
A Nest of Vipers begins where Sons of Winter leaves off: with Ramsay Snow. In classic Ramsay fashion, the situation turns from tense to gruesome in a flash and only gets worse from there. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened with Telltale’s muddy art style obfuscating many of the finer details, but all the same, I guess it’s a weird criticism that “the flayed skin texture just wasn’t detailed enough for my taste.” The scene is effective nonetheless, but it highlighted a “meta” criticism that probably doesn’t get brought up often enough with episodic games: this episode took too long to come out.
Plain and simple, when it’s revealed which character is unfortunate enough to have earned Ramsay’s focus, I couldn’t remember at all who that character was or how they fit into the plot. I had a vague recollection, but nothing concrete, and that’s even considering that the scene directly follows the recap of events from the previous episode. People complain that it’s tough keeping track of characters, plotlines and subplots in the HBO show, and a new episode of that comes out once a week; Sons of Winter, the previous episode of Telltale’s series, released nearly two months ago. Granted, this is a criticism that will only last until the next episode closes out the season and players can play the entire thing in one shot, but it speaks to the state of episodic gaming when nobody outside of Telltale even knows when that episode will be released. There’s no set schedule to follow, no “tune in Sundays at 9pm” equivalent. It’s whenever Telltale finishes it, and that’s not a date I can mark on my calendar or something I can look forward to. So now, even with the episode ending with a bang, all that momentum will slowly drain over the course of the next few months or however long it takes for Episode Six to come out.
Ramsay’s section highlights the other big criticism with this game: decisions do not matter. Ramsay wants to lead Rodrik somewhere and tells him to leave his sword. Originally, I chose to leave Rodrik’s sword there, to which Ramsay responds, “That was easy. Feels good, doesn’t it?” But I wanted to see what would happen if Rodrik refused, and the outcome is the same; Ramsay simply takes the sword anyway and says, “That was easy. Feels good, doesn’t it?” Later, Ramsay mentions an alliance Rodrik forged in the previous episode and wants to know how it came about. You have several options to explain it to Ramsay, but I chose to remain silent instead yet received the same response: Ramsay puts his hand on Rodrik’s shoulder and says, “Glad we sorted this out. Thank you for being so forthcoming.” Unless that was supposed to be sarcasm, I’m not sure my silence really registered with Ramsay.
After Sons of Winter successfully evolved Mira’s character to be a capable manipulator worthy of King’s Landing and with her own sense of agency, A Nest of Vipers tests how far she’s willing to go and how much loyalty really means to her anymore. Cersei makes another appearance in this episode to lend a sense of reflection to Mira’s actions, challenging her motivations: “Your family. Sometimes that’s a convenient lie we tell ourselves.” She gives Mira a task that’s genuinely a little uncomfortable to complete, which is appreciated. Games like this are meant to put the screws to you, and Mira’s recent sections have done a good job at doing just that.
Gared’s time beyond the Wall is a little less inspiring, though, instead driving home the point that this series revolves around people arguing with you about every decision you make. Any decision you make will result in somebody getting mad at you. There’s almost never any sort of positive feedback and you’re left in a constant state of feeling like you’ve made the wrong decision. You can call that “hard choices” all you want, but I’ll stick with calling it “a real test of my patience,” personally. You have to get positive feedback to make the negative feedback stick. As well, the pacing in this episode is a step back from the previous two that each did a pretty good job with variety and keeping everything moving along. For instance, the majority of the episode here is slow and dialogue-heavy, then in a mad sprint to the end, three different fight scenes happen back-to-back.
The real saving grace of this episode is its ending. The game forces you into a no-win scenario and then suddenly slows down time to ask you to make a choice. It’s the kind of tough decision Telltale’s games thrive on, when you can see it on the horizon and want nothing more than for the game to be linear for a moment, to not ask you to make an impossible choice. There’s no way to come out of a decision like that feeling good, rolling it over in your mind over and over again afterward, wondering if you did the right thing. Even now, I’m not so sure, but I’ll stick with my choice because I know I’d feel the same way had I done it differently. It’s the first decision in the series that really matters — there will have to be two very different versions of Episode Six to handle each outcome. Let’s just hope it releases soon enough that we don’t all forget what we chose.
The technical problems of episodes past — the variable frame rate, incessant hitching, visual glitches, etc — persist here, but at this point, we’re so used to them that it hardly feels worthy of a callout here. Mostly it’s just a bummer that A Nest of Vipers doesn’t continue the steady uptick in quality we saw over the previous two episodes, but Episode Five nonetheless proves itself a necessary step in the lead-up to the season’s conclusion next episode.