Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Banner Saga, and living for the now

Here is a fact about me that will surprise absolutely no-one: I prefer winter to summer.

Even though it's only February, I am already hiding from the lengthening days in the chilly embrace of The Banner Saga, a tactical RPG set in a winter so bleak that the sun itself has frozen in place in the sky. Gameplay consists of making decisions for and fighting battles as a small caravan of humans and Varl, a race of horned giants who are the last of their kind because they can't reproduce (they're all male) and the god who made them is, like all other gods, dead.

The caravan trundles slowly across the icy landscape, consuming supplies as it goes. The journey is punctuated every few miles by a dilemma which, as the leader, you have to resolve. For example, one of your clansmen may accuse another of theft, or you may be accosted by desperate travellers who wish to join your caravan but have nothing to offer in exchange for their share of your precious food. As in real life, the long-term outcome of your choices are not obvious; trust and generosity are just as likely to be punished as they are rewarded.

This means you can't really make informed decisions, which sounds frustrating, but actually makes the game more immersive. In games where you're able to predict outcomes, it's easy to stop empathising with your character and the people they're dealing with, and only consider the choice as you would any other gameplay mechanic. If you know (or can reasonably assume) that opting to help a certain character will mean that they'll help you further on in the story, or that it it'll definitely cost you a certain amount of resources, then you'll make your decision primarily on those terms.

By hiding this information from you, The Banner Saga forces you to make decisions based on emotion, or instinct, making you identify far more closely with Rook and appreciate the stresses he faces.

The Banner Saga works as a game rather than just an artistic exploration of the challenges of leadership because the turn-based battle system, in contrast to the travelling, is almost purely strategic. Your heroes fight the mysterious armoured Dredge (and sometimes other humans) on isometric grids, balancing your party's strength and armour against the enemies', and waiting for the perfect moment to deploy each character's special move.

You can upgrade your heroes by spending "Renown", which is earned through success in battle as well as making decisions that earn you respect amongst members of your caravan. Of course, these are the same decisions that may gain or lose you supplies, or even fighters, so earning Renown outside of battle is a matter of luck, rather than judgement.

To make matters even more tense, Renown is the only currency in the game, and is also required for purchasing supplies to feed your caravan at the sparse rest stops along the road. Since you don't know what's going to befall you next (a theft? a Dredge attack? dropping a loaded cart into a swamp?) you can only make an educated guess as to whether it's better to upgrade your party or buy food for your caravan.

And then there's the matter of morale. A hungry caravan will have low morale, which saps your fighters' strength and makes them less effective in battle. Oh, and sometimes your decisions end up killing members of your party, so if you've sunk a large amount of renown into levelling one of them, all your hard work could be lost in a moment.

The beautifully Tolkien-esque map may indicate freedom, but the quest is actually linear, and you have no choice as to where you go next. You can choose to rest, which improves the caravan's morale at the cost of a day's supplies, but you can't choose to stay in a low-risk area and fight easy enemies in exchange for guaranteed renown. Unlike most RPGs, there is no grinding in The Banner Saga. If you've been unfortunate enough to spend too much renown on supplies or lose a skilled fighter to an unexpected Dredge attack, you're just going to have to push onwards.

By now you may be wondering what the appeal is of a game that does such a good job of simulating hardship. Aren't video games meant to be fun?

I suppose they are, but I'd also argue that not everyone has the same definition of "fun". For me, being engaged, challenged and moved are all rewarding, and after playing a game (...or watching a film, or reading a book) that does one or more of those things, I feel fulfilled. Much as I love power-fantasy games like Bayonetta or Gears of War, I'm also drawn in by those that challenge me to make difficult decisions or empathise with people in a terrible situation, like The Banner Saga, or zombie games such as The Walking Dead or The Last of Us.

This is because the characters in them have no choice but to live for the moment. They can't think about the past, because it's too painful, and they can't plan for a future because they don't know what horror is around the corner. It's a very different scenario from a modern life where one's every move is about planning for a future where the relationship between the short and long term (what you do today affects your heath, your pension, your career, the global climate etc) is all too clear.

I'm not saying I envy the stricken characters in games like The Banner Saga, and I am not romanticisng the "simplicity" of a life lived only in the short-term. On the contrary, such games make me appreciate my comparatively easy life, and the fact that I can choose to plan for the future (however difficult or scary that can be). Most importantly though, they remind me how valuable it is to live in the moment whenever you can. Whenever The Banner Saga gave the choice to let my caravan celebrate a small joy at the cost of some mead, I took it, and their happiness kept my spirits afloat.

The moments of respite and joy The Banner Saga, The Last of Us and The Walking Dead help me remember that if you spend your life hoarding for the future or trying to play a system, you miss it. Failing to enjoy the simple pleasures because you're fixated on bigger ones just means you'll never be satisfied. It shouldn't take the end of the world to make us aware of that, but we're an acquisitive species, and, well, sometimes it does.

All screenshots taken by me, on the Mac version of the game.


  1. I really appreciate all you've written here. You've nailed so many discussions we've had during development - including current development of the second part of the trilogy. Great voice in your review! All the best. -- Drew

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. Really looking forward to part 2!