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Gamer’s Bookshelf: The Song of Ice and Fire

February 19th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 14 Comments · Design, Gamer's Bookshelf

I don’t read a lot of fiction. And I read even less fantasy literature, Tolkien excepted. But I thought that some good fantasy reading would make a nice Christmas gift for my geeky wife and everyone I asked – everyone – recommended the same series: George R. R. Martin’s still-in-progress Song of Ice and Fire. I took the first book in the series with me on a recent business trip and then quickly raced through the next three.

People were right about these books. I will now try to write about them without spoilers. There will, necessarily, be some larger plot references made, so if you are a purist about this sort of thing, you’ve been warned. No shocking reversals will be laid out in any specificity.

The series, so far, is about a civil war. The ruling house of the Seven Kingdoms is a usurper, having deposed the last mad king of the dynasty that unified the continent. The death of the king and doubts about his successor tears the kingdom apart and the noble houses must take sides. Meanwhile, an unearthly supernatural force is stirring in the North. Will the Seven Kingdoms be strong enough to face it? The plot is your typical War of the Roses showdown, with some wonderful passing looks at the devastation caused to the peasantry. Bandits, cults and robber barons rise to fill the hole that sovereignty left. The series is Hobbes’ state of nature in action.

Well, this is what the series is supposedly about. It really isn’t. The book is about the people and their relationships with each other and themselves. Every chapter is a “point of view” chapter, slowly revealing a little bit more about the characters. As the point of view changes from chapter to chapter, we see how confused loyalties (good and evil, friendship and nation, family and duty) shape the continent. And the characters change, both through plot development and through reminding us that when we read something about a non-narrating character, we are seeing them through somebody else’s eyes.

For example, in the first book (A Game of Thrones), a particularly unsympathetic character is introduced – he seems arrogant, manipulative and even monstrous in a particular action. By the third book (A Storm of Swords) he is a chapter character and we learn more about what makes him tick. Likewise, a dead remnant of the deposed dynasty is seen as an abductor and rapist in some early sections, but later we learn that some of this could be propaganda.

One of the great things about this way of writing is that it effectively plays up inaccuracies in opinion, memory and perception. There are multiple viewpoints on a single event. This works well in a civil war narrative, and is reinforced by the unreliable nature of news in wartime. What exactly happened in a battle? Where are the armies?

Martin, like Shakespeare before him, keeps all of this real war stuff off stage. Excepting a single major battle in Book Two, there are no battlefield narratives, descriptions of flowing banners and heroic deeds. The reader is told about the ebb and flow of the war as the characters are. This “What news from the front, my liege?” gimmick could get old, except for the high personal stakes involved.

The shocking thing about these books is that they aren’t that well written. It’s an alternate world that Martin keeps reminding us is not our own, but only in the clumsiest of ways. There are knights, squires, lords and ladies, but he insists on calling peasants “smallfolk”. Knights are titled “Ser” instead of “Sir”. Characters never have a morning meal or eat breakfast; they “break their fast.” Sometimes this works: sworn followers are called “bannermen”, mercenaries are “sellswords” and priests of the Seven Gods are called “Septons”. In an uninspired lack of creativity, he resorts to calling the main language “Common”. He repeats cliches at a maddening pace and will work in the titles of his books at every opportunity.

“This battle will make a feast for crows.”
“When you play the game of thrones, you must play to win.”
“Is that a storm of swords I see on the horizon?”

OK, I made that last one up. But you get the gist.

Martin resorts to the same plot mechanics over and over again, and the reliance on shocking turns of events has become so routine that nothing really shocks anymore. He also has an almost unseemly interest in the budding breasts of young teenage girls and when they lose their maidenhead. I am convinced that he should treat sex scenes as he does battle scenes – draw the curtain and show us the morning after. They aren’t written well-enough to be interesting, and if they were, should I want to be interested in a thirteen year old girl’s wedding night? And, ironically, Martin must have half a dozen groups that are sworn to celibacy – none of whom take it seriously.

But even if they aren’t especially well-written, the larger plot is compelling and the characters are some of the richest I’ve encountered in some time. The intelligent outcast, Tyrion Lannister, and his scheming sister, Cersei. The Starks, who would rather be right than safe. The exiled princess Dany and growing confidence in her rights to the throne her family lost. It’s the characters that keep the books interesting – not the words. Martin’s normal prose is workmanlike, but his dialogue quite good. He knows who these people are.

The books are so popular that HBO has picked up the television license. There are still three books to go, though, so it could be a while. In the meantime, the series has spawned board games and collectible card games. As of yet, there is no computer game based on the trials of Westeros, but one of the earliest new fan created maps for Europa Universalis III is based on the books. The same modder made a Crusader Kings game, too.

Converting a book to a game isn’t easy, especially when the appeal of the books isn’t necessarily things you can game. The Game of Thrones board game is your standard conquer-the-world title with some card based mechanics and random events. You muster your troops, consolidate power and, Diplomacy like, hope that alliances will get you over the hump. It’s still a very army focused game with a lot of randomness built into the system.

This is typical. The Lord of the Rings isn’t really about armies battling each other, but that’s what we get in the games. A book based on Les Miserables would probably be about fomenting revolution and defending a barricade. Moby Dick would be a whaling business sim (with maybe an environmental message.)

But Tolkien’s books at least have the advantage of multiple races and some magic powers so you can get experiences like Battle for Middle Earth II or an MMO. The magic in Martin is even more subtle – and much darker – than anything Tolkien describes, but all the armies are pretty much the same. Sure, over the ocean you have peoples who resemble Mongols, Arabs and Africans – each with their own military system – but the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are all feudal European armies. They even have trebuchets.

So how do you capture a game about gaining a throne without making the armies the be-all and end-all? By making legitimacy count. Each of the feuding houses has a claim based on different terms. One simply wants to secede. Another claims that the natural born heir isn’t the natural born heir, so the brother should inherit. Which brother would make the best king? Then there are those who think in simple terms like controlling the capital.

All of which makes me think about Kingmaker, the great Avalon Hill game of backstabbing and childstealing in the aforementioned War of the Roses. It remains a classic board game, and was converted to a quite buggy game for the Amiga and PC. Just like Westeros, titles could be distributed, there could be multiple claimants to the throne and armies are only part of the problem. This is the model that any Martin game should follow.

Of course, computer games don’t do deceit well. Either the AI opponents end up clueless backstabbers or gullible pawns. Uncertainy is a key factor in the page turner, and there is a twist in book four that relies entirely on a character thinking he/she was in control of events, only to discover the opposite. So the real attraction of the books can’t quite be translated well.

So, like Middle Earth, Westeros may be doomed to be just another setting, a place that gamers associate with specific people and specific events but content to have simply as a sandbox to mill around in. I’d love to have some brilliant developer take a crack at a fantasy Kingmaker, or any other game that used personality traits to surprise the player and not simply as income or battle modifiers.


14 Comments so far ↓

  • JonathanStrange

    I agree that it’s very likely that a developer who based a PC game on G.R.R. Martin’s creation would end up with us commanding armies and capturing castles while commanding various characters and end up not really duplicating the atmosphere much at all. Maybe only a turn-based roleplaying strategy game with online play could deliver the ruthless ambition and treachery exhibited by Martin’s kings and would-be kings.

  • Roberto

    “Maybe only a turn-based roleplaying strategy game with online play”

    With a text-based adventure mode and ASCII interface!

  • Toby Hede

    There is actually a boardgame of Game of Thrones that I’ve wanted for AGES. It looks like they’ve really tried to add some diplomatic and political elements.

    The most recent book of the series I read kind-of jumped the shark for me … it meanders ponderously, deals with only half the characters and stops very abruptly with a note from the author saying there’s a whole other book dealing with the rest of the characters, but which means the resolution of the first book is two books away. Nice work if you can get it.

  • Michael A.

    It’s funny; I don’t normally think of the writing ASOFAI as being poor, but now that you mention it, I suspect that may be one of the things bothering me with the series. The other thing that bothers me is common to many of these fantasy series – it would benefit from being half as long. I’ve not yet started on the fourth book, but I am already dreading having to plod through the last ones.

    ASOFAI is clearly based on the War of the Roses, obviously, so Kingmaker would make a good model for a Game of Thrones PC game. Will never happen, though.

  • Natus

    I think Troy is absolutely right about Martin’s lack of writing skills, but I wonder how everybody can get past that with such forebearance. Everything about the cycle is warmed-over and re-hashed. The Wars of the Roses themselves are far more interesting than Martin’s warring houses. And if anyone has read a good bit of fantasy fiction before, all the archetypes take their place in these books. Lastly, the one great claim about Martin’s plotting–that many of the characters are not what they seem–is surely not new in fiction or theater. See King Lear’s Duke of Albany for more of the same.

    I don’t mean to piss in anyone’s Cheerios here. In fact, I am very much in agreement with Troy in his initial analysis and in his high regard for the board game Kingmaker. But the ardent fervor that many of my friends and acquaintances have for Martin’s writings–though most admit his books were not all that well written and are going steadily south–is a cultural enigma only equalled by the public’s love for Britney Spears and the Oscar-winning movie Crash.

    So it is hard for me to look forward to any computer game concerning the lands of Westeros. The FFG boardgame I found to be as lacking in good game design as Martin’s writing lacked originality. The one great War of the Roses board game, Kingmaker (a flawed masterpiece), is due to be joined this year by the brilliant Jerry Taylor’s Wars of the Roses, a tactical blockgame. In the end, if one really had to play a game with shifting alliances and loyalties that wasn’t Diplomacy, I think AH’s Dune would be the best bet, OOP though it is. How any of this would be reflected in a computer game is beyond me, and I think the best that could happen would be if someone designed an online Diplomacy variant set in Westeros. Otherise, I don’t see the demand.

  • Troy

    Martin isn’t doing anything new here with regards to characters, to be sure, but I wouldn’t say that it isn’t interesting just because Shakespeare did it first. Martin is working this angle not through things we see “on stage” so much as through things we are told. I think you sell his mastery with personality a little short.

    As bad as the writing is at times, he does have an ear for character. They aren’t the archetypes you see in most literature of this type, and there is a sense of real peril – not something easily transmitted in literature these days, especially since all big books are optioned for movies pretty quickly. Got to keep those heroes alive, after all.

    These are not great literature, but they are great stories with great characters. I’m not as down on the fourth book as a lot of people, and there are a couple of moments that had me skipping through the chapter headings to make sure that I would find out what happened in this volume and not the next one.

    Would a game based on it be successful? Who knows. It’s not necessarily a predictably successful license like Tolkien or D&D. They are best sellers, so this is bigger than the nerd market that would be needed to make it work.

  • Bruce

    I think the big deal about J.R.R. Martin is that compared to 99% of fantasy literature, it is pretty good. Saying that “so-and-so aspect of the books isn’t any good because Shakespeare did it first” is kind of crazy. By that logic, all books are terrible because someone else probably did it before. Except for Norman Mailer, who is a complete original all the time. He should re-do those Elric books. I would pre-order that for sure.

    From what I’ve heard on ABC’s Dateline and read in the many scholarly journal articles I’ve studied on swords & sorcery fiction, the characters in most fantasy literature are such bad stand-up cut-outs made for the battle scenes. So having a series of novels based on not-terrible characterizations, with a background of political intrigue rather than Kill the Orc, is kind of an achievement in itself. Probably not enough to get me to read more than 50 pages of it, though. Unless it was set in the WORLD OF WARCRAFT!

  • Michael A.

    GRRM’s book break new ground because he dares to have “shades of grey” in his characterization on a scale not previously attempted in fantasy literature. And although I agree with Troy, compared to many other authors, Martin really isn’t that bad.

    I’m not sure I understand what Natus has against the Game of Thrones boardgame. Although it has a couple of flaws, these were quickly fixed by the boardgaming community by a couple of house rules (several of which made it into the extensions). After 3 years, I don’t think this games Top-50 ranking on BGG is solely due to the popularity of the books, anymore.

    If the books can carry a TV series (HBO are working on it), they can certainly also carry a computer game. I suspect the negotiations are going on already.

  • Malcolm M

    Martin’s books are definately going steadily south. I found Feast for Crows to be quite a hard slog. In retrospect, I still enjoyed the book, but no where near as much as previous books in the series.

    Unfortunately, declining quality in fantasy series seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Recently I’ve given up on Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan and Steven Erikson.

  • Natus

    The Lear nod was an example, not a rule, and I apologize if I misrepresented myself. If I really need to crack open some “gray” characters from fantasy epics past, let’s start with Gollum, who needs no introduction, and Elric, he of the Black Sword. How about Prince Pryderi, from the Prydain Chronicles? Thomas Covenant spends three novels being conflicted and rapes a woman. Walton’s Mabinogion Tetralogy and the Ghormeghast Trilogy are rife with anti-heroes and men of uncertain alleigance.

    So, maybe I’m coming at this from another angle, because I agree that 90% of fantasy fiction now and of the past twenty years has been crap. That does not, however, elevate Martin’s work in my eyes, nor am I fascinated with his characters, many of whom have been lifted wholesale from the Wars of the Roses as we know.

    But true confessions: I got about halfway through the first book and then read the beginning of the third to see if the writing improved. It had not, and the “peril” of the Others just seemed tiresome after the wait. Martin can scare his hardened characters and make them piss themselves, apparently, but this reader did not have to change his shorts.

    Troy, I do think a game would be hugely successful, because as Michael notes, the FFG boardgame is VERY popular and is actually played online. However, in answer to Michael, I really don’t care what’s popular on BGG at all. I have a real problem with Petersen’s designs as do a lot of people, and I have made exhaustive and exhausting commentary about it on BGG, for what it’s worth. So, while I love the Wars of the Roses theming, both the books and the game have left me cold, despite the fact that I am an easy sell for such things. The song (of Ice and Fire) is just something I can’t hear.

  • Troy

    Thanks for the clarifications, Natus.

    But my larger point about the characters isn’t just that they are grey and conflicted – I mean, I get that in David Adam Richards in spades or any literature of value. Greyness is easy, though not always convincing, and, apparently, it’s rare in fantasy literature. I wouldn’t know.

    It’s that this greyness – who the characters are and how the reader feels about them – greatly shifts depending on whose eyes are being used. This is an effective way of conveying uncertainty, both on the part of the readerundea and the part of the characters.belie

    Tyrion is almost everyone’s favorite character, I think, because he is so uncertain in many ways. He is introduced as a nice guy, sort of misunderstood and underestimated, maybe even a little wise. Then the reader is led to suspect him in a horrible crime. Then he is revealed as a master politician and schemer, but also severely damaged in his relationships with everyone. Much of this work is done not simply through what Tyrion does, but how others speak of him, or deal with him. His story arc is notable, and entirely convincing. None of the interpretations of him or his actions are implausible. When he gets outmaneuvered (as he is a few times through the series) it is both surprising and completely expected – just because he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room doesn’t mean he is.

    As for whether his characters are lifted from the War of the Roses, I don’t see a lot of parallels any more serious than Vader as Hitler, Laputa as the Royal Society or Shakespeare’s Richard III as Richard III. Unless we are to believe that the Scots are the Wildlings and the House of Lancaster had dragons in Ireland, literary elaborations with thin historical veneer is kind of the point.

  • Michael A.

    Thanks for the clarification, Natus. I am not a huge fan of the boardgame myself; though I think its OK. Tastes differ, on this as on many other things.

    Now if you want to read characters/stories lifted from history (in this case the Retreat from Kabul and the Napoleonic wars) and transposed (badly) into a fantasy world, you need to read the first two books in Chris Bunch’s “Seer King” trilogy. But don’t say I didn’t warn you… :-/

    Ugh. Just thinking of that makes me want to grab an anti-dote copy of Flashman.

  • Natus

    Ah, Flashman. Haven’t read much, but that’s what fantasy fiction needs right now; someone who doesn’t take themselves so bloody seriously all the time!

    Michael, the boardgame is really a near miss, and much of my scorn is directed at the hype as well. However, the constrained map (it’s England, but England with too many chokepoints), the over-powered fleets, the random Events, and the fiddly resource system keep thgis far far from being the classic everyone says it is.

    I think, ultimately, if I haven’t read AGoT all the way through, I won’t get what’s so great about these complicated, gray characters. There must be *something* Martin did right, because nine out of ten readers go crazy over him. It’s only lately that fans have started to tire (though lesbian sex scenes never hurt, apparently).

    Heck, if we are going to make games out of books (good books), why not Perdido Street Station? Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? Jack Vance’s Lyoness Trilogy?

  • Michael A.

    I think most of the things you mention have solutions proposed for them, and the choke points that exist (IMO not really that game-spoiling, in part due to the power of fleets) are right out of GRRM’s books. So is the power of the fleets, incidentally. But I do agree that the game was – at least initially – overhyped.

    I think Martin has fallen prey to the eternal disease that afflicts almost all successful Fantasy writers – if 3 books are good, 7 must be even better. The legacy of Tolkien; publishers are always on the lookout for the next “epic” saga, which allows any moderately successful author to spam books…

    For a book to make the jump to gaming, it needs mass appeal. I don’t think ASOFAI has quite enough of that yet; though I suspect it will if the TV series is successful.