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I had a moment while playing The Banner Saga where I sat unmoving staring at my screen. My wife, who was on the couch nearby, looked up when I finally vented my frustration. I had lost one of my main characters—not because of combat, but as a direct result of a choice I made in trying to recover some supplies that had fallen down a cliff-face. Now one of my most powerful characters was dead and there was nothing left to do but to move on. I wanted to quit, but I felt compelled to continue.
When you first start the game you’re greeted with an explanation: “The story of The Banner Saga changes based on the choices you make.” That’s a claim plenty of video games make, but as you move through the tundra of Stoic’s Viking epic you realize that it’s true. And this is exactly hown the developers wanted it.
“We really were trying to design a game that plays like a good novel; we wanted the player to feel like they were playing through their own story and they’re living with their choices, just like any good novel,” Arnie Jorgenson, co-founder of Stoic, told Playboy. He said the game’s creative director, Alex Thomas, wrote much of the story wanting it to feel like the old educational classic The Oregon Trail.
People that you thought were important are going to die, and sometimes there is nothing you can do about it.
The Banner Saga first came on the scene a few years ago on PC, but has since made its way to mobile devices, finally making the transition to proper game consoles in January. Stoic’s first entry into what they say will be a three-part series is entirely story driven, telling a Viking-esque depiction of the End of the World. Along the way you see the story play out from various perspectives, such as the human character Rook or the giant-like Varl Hakon, portraying their dealings with the Dredge, stone-men who are coming down from the north into Human and Varl lands, leaving devastation in their wake.
The Banner Saga consistently presents the player with scenarios where they have to decide how to proceed. In a sense, it’s like playing through a “choose your own adventure” novel from your childhood, albeit much darker. The frequent Game of Thrones comparisons come squarely from the fact that your choices can result in characters dying. This is made apparent through the death of a character early on—one who others within the game considered important.
“Vognir, unfortunately, was the sacrificial lamb we put in the very first town you come across and it was just to prove to the player that people are going to die,” Jorgenson said. “People that you thought were important are going to die, and sometimes there is nothing you can do about it.”
The fact that your in-game decisions can have such an impact on the overall outcome of the story makes The Banner Saga compelling. You never know what the ramification of a specific decision will be until you make it. It’s an idea that John Watson, one of Stoic’s co-founders, said the team was cognizant of going into the development of the game. Avoiding the “plot immunity” enjoyed by the important characters in most works of fiction was at the fore of their minds while writing the story.
“It takes away some of the tension,” Watson said. In The Banner Saga you cannot become accustomed to the idea a character will be around, and that tension compels you to meticulously think through each decision as if it’s your last, because the game has taught you that your choices carry real weight.
In a way Stoic can get away with this because they are an independent studio. The way The Banner Saga presents the story to the player isn’t traditional in any sense, and by all accounts is pretty risky. Players may not actually like it when a character is unceremoniously wiped out of the game. And while novels can kill off characters left and right, severing only the emotional attachment the reader has with the character, video games are different. The player has not only spent the time getting to know the character from a narrative sense, but they’ve also invested time developing this character through their actions in game. It’s an example of games being one of the few artistic mediums where you are simultaneously creating and consuming the art, and The Banner Saga takes full advantage of that.
The Banner Saga doesn’t feature many instances of voice acting, instead relying on the character to read the conversations and decision prompts as they go. This is deliberate, giving the player the chance to make the character their own, rather than having their voice and characteristics dictated to them.
“One of the things The Banner Saga has been dinged for is the lack of [voice-overs],” Drew McGee, one of the writers on game and the lead writer on the series’ second installment, said, “but in my opinion, and I think we all share the same opinion on this: VO really cements who the character is for the player. It tells you ‘This is what they sound like,’ versus reading it and putting your own voice to it like you’ve done for any number of novels.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the game is beautiful to behold, and even that decision was driven by the story in a way. The beautiful backgrounds and cell-shaded character models stand in stark contrast to tje game’s dark themes. The Disney- and Eyvind Earle-inspired art, hand drawn by Jorgenson, portrays a world that is really beautiful to juxtapose itself against the darker, gritty story.
For The Banner Saga 2 Stoic faces a unique challenge, since the story beats and which characters have lived or died are often so different from one player to the next. But the draw of finding out that a character that you had die early on has an entire story in the second installment could cause some players to look back, which to McGee is very “choose your own adventure”-esque.
“That to me, that’s the moment in the ‘choose your own adventure’ novels where you’re sticking your fingers in the book and flipping back and forth between pages and seeing what it’s all about,” he said.
“It’s the balance of what things could possibly happen in the story that can prep you for someone possibly dying,” McGee said. “But ultimately in a game, unlike a novel or a movie, you have to keep in mind that [players] are developing these characters. They’re investing in them.”
Losing a battle in other games will oftentimes result in a “game over” screen, yet, in The Banner Saga, it’s simply another way to drive the narrative forward, and the game continues, win or lose.
“It’s not that you won or you lost,” Jorgenson said. “It’s just your story.”
Joseph Bradford is a freelance writer based out of Las Vegas. When not blabbing about video games to anyone who is willing to listen, he can be found spending time with family and enjoying a great jazz record. He also hosts a weekly podcast about the gaming industry, aptly named Gaming the Industry. You can follow him on Twitter
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