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Teacups & 1UPs: The Banner Saga

Welcome to the first installment of Teacups & 1UPs, a (hopefully) fortnightly column in which I will talk about games both indie, AAA, and in-between! These may not entirely be reviews, and they won’t always be the same format, but one thing’s for sure: I’m going to pair a tea with each and every game.

Why tea? Because I love tea. Next question.

The first game I’m going to be tackling is The Banner Saga, which a Steam review accurately renamed “Tactical Starvation: The Game“. It’s not a new game, so warning for potential minor spoilers as I pick apart the good, the bad, and the fantasy misogyny. Buckle up, I definitely have Some Thoughts about this game.

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You wouldn’t think such a pretty game could be so cruel.

The Banner Saga is exactly what it looks like on the surface, a tactical RPG with a branching narrative about vikings and big dudes with horns—the Varl. You play as a variety of different characters as they traverse a viking-inspired world to escape an army of Dredge: humanoid, stony creatures that seem to have no mercy. The sun has frozen, the world appears to be ending, and there seems to be more to the Dredge invasion than the desire to kill. It’s up to you to lead the characters to safety, but that’s no easy task.

Choices you make throughout the game can have some pretty serious influence on later events, and you learn pretty quickly that you have to consider every single option, because there’s a big chance it’s going to come back and kick your ass. I’m not going to lie, I skipped back a good hour to save a character I accidentally killed early on. But by the end of the game, I didn’t have the strength for that anymore.

Stoic works hard to discourage you from doing exactly what I did. Saves are automatic and sparse, and unsurprisingly happen right after making a mistake. This is a game where, just as in real life, you’re supposed to stick to the choices you’ve made and live with the punishment that comes from a bad decision. As the game progresses, you eventually have to learn to make harder choices—often there is no right answer. Either a little boy dies, or your clan will likely starve. No matter what you do, people will die; it’s about deciding which deaths will matter more.

Which works well for the first two-thirds of the game, and, honestly, probably longer if you’re an empathetic person. Unfortunately for the people under my command, I am not. I very quickly reached the point where I would spend my renown (the currency used to level up and buy supplies) on my hero characters rather than on food for my clan, letting the weaker NPCs starve and die off. I became cold-hearted and bitter, and I could feel the same happen to Rook, the protagonist of much of the game. He and I became one, saddled with hundreds of people we couldn’t feed, and constantly faced with decisions we didn’t want to make.

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I have no real caption for this except: I want Hakon to be my very tall husband.

On one hand, this works well for engaging you with the world and the atmosphere of the game. On the other hand, the narrative can end up butting heads with the gameplay: do you make choices because story-wise it’s the right decision to make, or because you know it’ll mean you will have strong characters later in the game? It’s frustrating when story choices aren’t made difficult because of the world building and character arcs, but because of meta-knowledge of the game that forces you to consider consequences beyond the story. I know that this isn’t entirely uncommon in games with branching stories, but it is much more obvious in The Banner Saga than in something like Dragon Age. With Dragon Age, it’s very easy for emotion to guide your actions; in The Banner Saga, logic often trumps decision making.

And I guess I can dig that, to a point. I’m iffy about the final big choice I made, because I know emotion should have helped me make that decision, but in reality I just didn’t care if a character I never used in my party died. There wasn’t enough tying me to the characters and their story to override my desire to keep a useful character alive, and I think that might be the biggest failing of the game.

In a similar vein—and I feel this may have been Stoic’s point—it’s impossible to tell what’s a genuine narrative warning and what’s not. Often in games, characters will give you subtle—or sometimes less subtle—hints about how far through the game you are, or that you’re about to walk into an event that could end with playable characters dead. The Banner Saga makes it hard to decipher whether or not the game is trying to give you a soft nudge, or just leading you completely astray.

This does add to the stress of decision-making, but it also works against the player at times. I feel a narrative shouldn’t ever abandon the player completely, even if it’s supposed to be punishing. There should almost always be hints for when someone is making seriously bad choices, even if they come later rather than never. It’s a fine balance between giving the player agency, forcing the player to think, and writing subtly enough that the game isn’t hand-holding the player through the story. It’s not easy to achieve that balance and nudges can sometimes be ham-fisted, but when you end up on the opposite end of the spectrum, where the game seems to be actively working against the player instead, the game can feel straight-up unfair.

It’s also unfair for me to only pick apart the flaws in the narrative of The Banner Saga, because this game is ambitious and it largely pays off. Almost none of the choices feel forced, and the story flows naturally from each unique decision you make. When something comes back to bite you, it feels like your fault, not the game’s. I can’t yet speak for how much various choices influence the second game, but whether or not The Banner Saga is actually largely affected by choice in the end, it certainly feels it, which is a huge accomplishment. Bigger games (cough Bioshock Infinite cough) have tried to pass off the facade of branching dialogue as player agency and failed. The Banner Saga makes the player feel like their actions are directly shaping the story.

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The art and music are also absolutely gorgeous. They add an epic majesty to an already great game.

As for the story itself, it starts strong and then kind of just ends. I get that this is the first of a trilogy—and god knows how many times I’ve yelled about the importance of understanding that single parts of trilogies lead into each other—but there is no truly self-contained story within the first game. It’s the first third of a story, but it is not its own.

Nearly no question is answered, the lead-up to the final battle doesn’t feel very final, and the ending is shocking only because the game feels as if it has ended prematurely. Introducing Bellower, the main antagonist of the game, relatively late into the game, and then never fully explaining why Bellower is chasing the party is one of the main factors that contributes to this issue. There’s no sense of tension between Rook and Bellower except the constant fear that Bellower and his army of Dredge are on your tail. There is no urgency in the final battle when it comes to your own characters facing Bellower, except that the game keeps telling you it’s important to kill him.

Basically, it’s a matter of showing, not telling. A game can have NPCs harp on about how awful something is, but unless the player is given a personal stake in the issue, why are they going to care? Short answer: they probably won’t. Fighting Bellower earlier in the game doesn’t entirely provide this—the player learns that Bellower is strong, but there’s no raising of personal stakes.

Look, I just like being emotionally invested in games. I was so close to that with The Banner Saga, which I still absolutely love, and I want so much to become emotionally invested in this series. It’s a good game, albeit punishing, and Stoic absolutely has the potential to create a heart-wrenchingly difficult and engaging narrative. When they do, it’s going to be amazing.

(Also, please, can we stop writing sexism into fantasy? It’s dull writing, and it’s so desperately boring that every single playable female character in The Banner Saga is an archer because of it. Do you know how many archers you need in your party? One! This game mechanically excludes female characters from the start, when they’re already a minority within the team roster. Oddleif and Alette’s stories revolve entirely around men, and Nid can be completely missed because of in-game sexism. Though, to be fair, if you make the choices that lead to Nid not being in your party, you don’t deserve her anyway.)

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To pair: No tea. You can starve, just like the poor clansmen you have to lead through this punishing game. Do you think Rook gets tea? Why should you?

But in all seriousness, I’m pairing The Banner Saga with a hot cup of peppermint tea. Not only is mint great for curbing hunger—perfect for desperate treks across a barren country!—but it’s a stress reliever that aids relaxation too, and after a few hours of The Banner Saga, you’re going to need it. Also, apparently it can improve concentration, so you can be completely focused on the game as your mistakes kill your beloved characters!

I’m kidding.

(I’m not actually kidding.)