Thursday, April 14, 2011

Game of Thrones and the Martin-ization of RPGs

Game of Thrones premieres on HBO this Sunday, and if you're like me, you have wholly unreasonable expectations for it. In case you don't know what all the fuss is about, this isn't just another medieval drama on premium cable to compete with The Borgias and Camelot. The new HBO series is based on George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which are held up by many as a modern day Lord of the Rings.

Last week's New Yorker went topical with a full-length feature story on Martin called Just Write It! - a title that captures the feelings of his jonesing fans, who have been waiting for over five years for his next book. After reading the article, I'm not too optimistic about getting that sweet, sweet closure that can only come with the completion of the series. This bit leaves the impression that Martin is utterly psyched out:
"I don’t want to come across as a whiner or a complainer," Martin said, as tinted light from the afternoon sun filtered through the stained-glass windows. "No! I’m living the dream here. I have all of these readers who are waiting on the book. I want to give them something terrific." There was a pause. "What if I fuck it up at the end? What if I do a ‘Lost’? Then they’ll come after me with pitchforks and torches."
At least the fans have the new HBO series to focus their attention on now. Behind those stained-glass windows, Martin is probably cackling maniacally with the knowledge that someone else has willingly accepted the curse of high expectations.

He's suppressing a cackle in this picture. You can tell.
Of course, the series will ultimately only generate more interest in the books. By the time the last episode airs, the latest release date for Martin's next book, A Dance with Dragons, will be just around the corner, and...

Regardless of whether Martin ever finishes the series, the impact of the existing books is undeniable - and that impact can be felt in RPGs. Once strongly identified with Tolkienesque high fantasy, RPGs seem to have moved rapidly toward the gritty and gray low fantasy of Martin. Neverwinter Nights 2 and the Dragon Age games - with their focus on knights, blights, and political fights - certainly come to mind. However, even RPGs that aren't so narrative-driven seem to be going darker and more realistic. 

Martin isn't responsible for all that. The larger trend here is that there are more adults playing videogames these days, and those adults want adult content. There's also the fact that The Forgotten Realms are, thanks to a legal dispute, starting to live up to their name. Neverwinter Nights 2 notwithstanding, the Realms has always been the dominant high fantasy setting in Western RPGs - without it, the landscape looks a lot different.

You could also make the case that game development realities play a part. It is without a doubt harder to create a high fantasy setting because you can't lean as much on the real world as a model. High fantasy makes sense for games that are based on an existing IP like the Realms, or for MMOs that need something unique to set themselves apart. For everyone else, a Martin-esque approach is appealing. 

Anyway, I'm rambling. Is it Sunday yet? Because I'm jonesing for a little Song of Ice and Fire, in whatever form I can get it.


  1. I consider myself pretty lucky as I picked up the first book about a month ago and found out about the HBO show just as I finished it. Good timing there it seems, and from the footage that I've seen of the series, it certainly looks pretty good!

    As for the books, I'm approaching the end of the second book now. And I feel that they are so far probably the best fantasy I've read. Incredibly engaging stuff, and the focus on the characters makes whatever magic or supernatural stuff have more impact when it actually does show up.

  2. Wow, that is good timing, Starwars. I think you will continue to enjoy the series at least until the fourth book, A Feast for Crows.

    I'm kind of curious how much of the first book they will cover in the first season (but not curious enough to do any research on it). I'm guessing they won't try to do the whole thing. If they try to do a book per season, and the series continues, Martin is going to have even more pressure to finish his books.