As you might have known, this week an officially licensed game set in the HBO version of the Game of Thrones universe was released. Naturally as a fan, I checked it out - and while I enjoyed it, I was jarred by how much it felt like it was just a retread of stories Game of Thrones had already told.
Warning: There are some mild spoilers for Episode One of Telltale's Game of Thrones game, Iron from Ice, and Season 3 of the TV show in this post. If you've not yet played or not caught up that far, you've been warned!
To briefly surmise, in the game - set just after the events of The Red Wedding - you play as members of House Forrester, a Northern family sworn to the Starks. But basically, they might as well be the Starks for all intents and purposes. You have Gared as your Jon Snow stand-in, left without family and sent to the Wall to join the watch, Ethan slotting in as Bran, the young son thrust into the position of Lord of the House when his father and elder brother are killed at the Red Wedding, and even a Sansa stand-in as Mira, Lord Forrester's eldest daughter serving as a handmaiden in Kings Landing (and ostracised in court thanks to her family's allegiance to the North). It goes in some different places, sure - Ethan doesn't get shoved out a window, for example - but it's also so close that it doesn't feel like you're experiencing the story of an as yet largely unknown House, but House Stark-lite. And although I enjoyed the game, it just felt like a wasted opportunity to tell a new story in a familiar universe. Instead, we basically got a version of the one we're already well versed in.
I can see why Telltale would take that path - the Starks are sort of the de facto face of Game of Thrones, even at this point - and it means that it's a sort of quick shorthand for fans of the show to step in with minimal set up, they don't have to learn that much about these new characters because the association is there. But equally as a fan of the universe, I'm disheartened that so far at least it doesn't feel like getting to explore a new story in it, but a retread.
It's a growing trend with franchises these days - especially long running ones - to mine stories they've done before for the nostalgia element, but at some point it stops tickling those fanboy fuzzies and starts looking like creators are running out of ideas for what they want to do with these universes. Was Into Darkness' rehash of Wrath of Khan really necessary, for example? Considering the Star Trek reboot is meant to be in an alternate universe, it's all the weirder for past stories like that to crop up again, but even more of a shock that we went from rebooting the property with a new story (albeit with familiar-ish characters) to rehashing an old story in the very next sequel. The same for superhero movies, where we get the origin, reboot the property, and then tell the origin again - looking at you, Spider-Man - or we get so many origins that it's less the familiarity of the story that begins to tire us, but the structure. I mean, how many people have you heard lamenting Origin stories lately?
One of the biggest benefits of these long running and massively-scoped franchises is that they can tell so many different stories that are still yet intrinsically part of them. Westeros is big enough a place that the Forresters didn't have to be an almost carbon-copy of the Starks. Star Trek is certainly filled with enough big ideas that JJ Abrams didn't need to return to the well of the original Trek films so soon. Hell, even Doctor Who, which has certainly run a gamut of familiar stories throughout its 50 years, it's also tried to reinvent itself and try new stories and genres all the time, too. These franchises only got to be the behemoths they are by creating new stories all the time, by expanding upon itself instead of just feeding off of what's gone before in the search for a hit of familiarity. Without telling new stories, they'll become stagnant, and we'll slowly lose sight of what made us love them so much in the first place too.
I think it's why there was an almost unheard of unification of excitement about the first The Force Awakens trailer last week - there was enough familiarity to it with the Falcon and X-Wings and Stormtroopers (notably familiar imagery, not familiar characters) that it still felt like Star Wars, but it was new characters, faces we'd never seen before with the promise of telling something new in the Galaxy far far away. It didn't play up showing those old characters or reshowing us the story so far, it teased us with something new instead. Time will tell if it really is a new story, of course, we've seen so little, but for now a lot of the excitement around it feels like it's because it's not retreading where Star Wars has gone before.
These huge universes are capable of sustaining new stories - that's why they got so huge in the first place, because creators kept adding new tales to the ever growing tapestry that made them into the worlds and lands we fell in love wtih. We don't need to keep retreading the stories we love just to maintain our interest.
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