Atlus’ Aram Jabbari talks about how Cyanide Studios worked with George R.R. Martin to bring A Game of Thrones to life inside a deep RPG.
Electric Playground: Too often when we see a game based on a TV series, we think “quick cash-in.” Is that the case here?
Aram Jabbari: Actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The developers started conceptual work about seven years ago. [Cyanide Studios] went to George R.R. Martin and said, “We want to make a videogame.” They were instrumental in getting a license to make a game to begin with. This is before the HBO show had become this international hit. They started this project based on their passion, their love for A Song of Ice and Fire. Really, it’s anything but a quick cash-in.
EP: The game borrows from both the novels and the TV series?
AJ: Yes. One of the interesting things is that we have this pre-order bonus art book that has concept sketches and renders where you can see that a lot of the visuals were fully realized, based on the text. When the HBO show aired and became this huge hit, the developers went back and they were able to work with HBO and pull assets and materials from the show.
And so, you have the best of both worlds. You have a foundation that was laid based on the passion for the literature, and we’re basically taking it to next level by adding the voice and likenesses of these stars that have really brought the characters to life. Like James Cosmo, who voices Lord Commander Jeor Mormont of the Night’s Watch. That gruff, deep voice that’s synonymous with the Wall, the responsibility and the bitter cold of the north. That’s one of the first characters the players meet. To be able to have that in the game is fantastic.
AJ: The game follows two original protagonists and there are some original areas, but the reason that was done was so the game wouldn’t have to be bound by existing canon. There are a lot of characters whose paths are fully detailed and laid out. You will meet Lord Mormont. You will go into the Iron Throne room at King’s Landing and take court before Cersei Lannister. You will fall into the machinations and be advised by Lord Varys the Spider.
You’ll also meet characters that are not in the show, but are in the books. Qhorin Halfhand and Chataya, who runs the brothel at King’s Landing. And there are a lot of characters that are referenced.
EP: In what timeframe does the game take place?
AJ: The game takes place before the end of the first book. Anyone who is just starting the second season or the second book is going to be right at home. They’re going to recognize a lot of the references. The timing for the game makes us so excited because it coincides so well with where a lot of fans are as they’re thinking about A Game of Thrones, particularly the ones who were brought into it by the show. When they play the game they’re really going to feel like they know where they are.
EP: I really want to punch that little punk Joffrey in the face, but I take it the game sticks pretty closely to series continuity?
AJ: It does. Joffrey does not appear in the game and his character… He’s not necessarily running the show. When you take court with Cersei Lannister, she commands your character Alester Sarwyck to go on a mission. You know you’re dealing with someone who wields absolute power in the throne room.
EP: What kind of locations will we visit?
AJ: King’s Landing is by far the biggest section, and it’s probably the most iconic and the most visited location in the show and early on in the books, so far. You will also go to the Wall and different points along the wWall. Icemark, for example, which is an outpost. There are a couple of new areas as well.
AJ: The combat draws heavily from Western RPGs. It is not an Action-RPG, it is a true statistics-driven RPG and it has something we call “The Active Slowdown Combat System.” Unlike a lot of RPGs that let you pause combat outright to issue commands, you just slow things down. You will still see the slow approach of your enemy’s blade as it’s coming to meet your neck. It intensifies combat. You have to manage multiple characters. Whether you have a companion or your hound, as you level up you up you will gain new abilities that let you issue commands and you have to strategize.
It is a true, deep RPG and that is something that makes a lot of sense for a franchise that is built on thoughtful, political, well-reasoned things like combat.
EP: I notice that one of the characters you can play as is a dog.
AJ: Yes, one of the characters you play as is Mors Westford, and he is a Warg. Mors has a hound that he’s not only able to command in combat, but he actually has the skinchanging ability where he can inhabit his hound and detect scents. He can use that detection ability to find hidden objects in the environment. That ability adds a whole new layer of exploration and depth to the gameplay experience.
EP: Since you’re playing pre-fabricated characters in an established continuity, how much can you change the world and the story?
AJ: There are a lot of dialogue prompts that will change how that conversation will play out. There are lots of prompts that will change how an entire quest unfolds. And there are key decisions—many of them shades of grey in true A Song of Ice and Fire tradition—where you will come back later and see that your decision had ramifications. There are multiple endings that you will see based on choices that you make. You do not exist in a vacuum.
Will you reshape Westeros, breaking all sorts of canon? No. But within the framework of this story is something that the developers sat down with George R.R. Martin and got his blessing on. You will feel like you had a profound effect.
EP: Speaking of, how much input did George R.R. Martin have into the game?
AJ: From very early on, he was involved in the conceptualization, the structure of the story. The developers had this story that they wanted to tell and they worked with Mr. Martin to make sure that it was true to the spirit of the show and the books.
He was involved in making sure the dialogue for the characters who appear from the books and the show—all of the canon characters—is true to spirit. He was definitely involved in establishing the tone and the feel. Especially before the show aired, it was the developers working with him to make sure the game captured all of that correctly.
EP: Anybody who has seen the show or read the books knows that no character is safe, minor or major. Are we going to see any shocking deaths or big surprises?
AJ: Game of Thrones: The RPG is rated M for Mature. It has a Sexual Content modifier. There is definitely sexual themes and dialogue. There are brothels that you will visit, there is a lot of suggestive content, but you will not see anything straight up explicit. Maybe you’ll be disappointed but it does not quite reach the level that show has achieved. [laughs]
EP: Wrap it up and tell us in your own words why Game of Thrones the RPG kicks ass.
AJ: For years people have read it, they’ve watched it, and now they get to play it. It’s a world that is shades of grey. It’s not an archetypal story of good and evil. These are real people and because of that it’s fun to inhabit this world. Take a game that gives you visceral, bloody combat that’s true to the spirit of the show, and moral decisions that affect how things play out, and you really do have a game that makes you feel like you’re in Westeros.
Game of Thrones is available for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
-Interview by Jason MacIsaac