While it’s true for video games as a whole that narrative is often a secondary concern, it’s particularly blatant in the realm of turn-based strategy games. While these games generally have a narrative, they’re usually of the generic, throwaway variety: the cartoonish afterthought that is the #Disgaea story and cast, the rehash of fantasy fiction tropes in #FireEmblem, even the fairly rote #XCOM alien invasion construction.
Yes, these games have fairly competent narratives, but none of them are going to be winning any awards for their gripping storytelling, and other than the broadest strokes, these games’ stories generally fade from memory the moment you put down the controller.
Not so for #BannerSaga, a series that boldly puts the story it wants to tell front and center, and builds its gameplay around it. With the impending release of The Banner Saga 3, I wanted to revisit this tale of the frozen north, and delve into why it’s so uniquely effective at delivering on its themes, setting and its harsh, gritty mythology. So how does the team at #StoicStudios do it?
Howling wind and barren tundra
One of the most crucial elements of telling any story is establishing a time and place. Stoic masterfully executes on this phase of world building, settling the foundations of its story in the bones of arctic, Viking-inspired lands ruled by humans and giants.
The perpetual twilight of these frozen northern climes accentuates the sensation of desolation and tragedy that accompanies the player's caravan as it makes it way from one powerful set-piece to the next.
The appropriately named Stoic clearly understands the importance of synergy between the thematic elements of its story and its art design, designing every detail of each area and even the user interface in a way that highlights the cold realities of its setting.
It’s a strange thing to say, but the world of The Banner Saga is one that accommodates the coming apocalypse built into its fiction. It follows the mold of the stark Norse myths that are part of its inspiration, a mythological tapestry that is shaped and defined by the presence of Ragnorok, by its constant awareness that the end is inevitable and unchangeable.
Giving their world this tragic context, creating heroes that struggle against the darkness even with the knowledge in the end their best efforts are likely futile gives the events of The Banner Saga a sharpness, a poignancy that most fantasy settings lack.
Combined with the cruel realities of the day-to-day lives of these characters (Stoic has been unabashed in the past about admitting the influence of modern fiction like Game of Thrones on its work), the world of The Banner Saga becomes a crucible that forges strong, haunted and memorable characters.
Pinpoints of light in a vast, cold darkness
It’s on the broad, scarred shoulders of these characters that the story of these games is borne. The Banner Saga hearkens again to its Scandanavian/Norse roots in the way it builds heroes that are the stuff of legend but also deeply human and flawed.
Like the pantheon of Norse gods, the leaders of The Banner Saga’s caravan are powerful figures capable of incredible feats of strength and endurance, but also vulnerable to punishing failure and all the weaknesses of the frail side of human nature. Avarice, the lust for power, sloth, jealousy; all of the dark motivators that propel some of the best stories our species have ever told, from Goethe to Shakespeare, are present to greater or lesser degrees in the complex, nuanced stories of The Banner Saga
A successful novelist once said that if you build a complex, fully realized world, and then set a bunch of well-drawn and interesting characters loose in it, a story will practically write itself. Not to diminish what the writers at Stoic have accomplished, but it feels like their games are perfect examples of this phenomenon.
Build a fascinating world, with a generous lining of adversity and tragedy, drop some complicated, flawed, but ultimately heroic (or elementally villainous) characters into it, and just sit back and record what happens.