This Broken World: On “The Banner Saga”

Video games might seem an odd place to turn for such representations, but The Banner Saga accomplishes what other mediums have yet to. As the third game begins, you must protect the last safe city in the world as the darkness deforms the land and the beings left outside the wall. The sun has stopped moving, and the various races of the world — varl, centaurs dubbed “horseborn,” humans, and stone-armored creatures named dredge — all scramble to escape an oncoming darkness, reigniting old wars and testing long-standing alliances. The lesson in TBS seems to be the simplest: we don’t mourn those we don’t see as fully human. At times, The Banner Saga plays like a beautifully rendered Choose Your Own Adventure. When I did lose a favorite roughly two-thirds through TBS 3, I restarted the entire game. Play alternates between standard turn-based tactics and story mode: one part set in the free city and one in the vast darkness that threatens to overtake the world. It’s hard to disentangle that differential mourning from our world. Their deaths instill the games with a deep and pervasive melancholy. It is a true, all-encompassing apocalypse, and one in which it is impossible to save everyone. Without spoiling the end, you do eventually learn what caused the darkness to grow but, ultimately, what matters is how you respond to the catastrophe. The emotional stakes are aided, particularly in the plot unfolding in the ruins of the former world, by Austin Wintory’s affecting score. And yet that sense of dread never abates. The short answer, according to a Mic article, is secrecy. More than just a comment on climate change, however, The Banner Saga series might be one of the best representations of a world that feels closer than ever to annihilation. Gamergaters have strong ties to the alt-right. Who lives and who dies is not solely up to chance. Developers and designers have relied on subtlety and allegory, as is the case in Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga. With the third installment, the team at Stoic wraps up a game in which the world faces a catastrophic, environmental collapse. The choices you make off the battlefield are as, if not more, important. As politicos and journalists prepared for the handful of memorials for John McCain, researchers published studies showing nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died as a result of Hurricane Maria. One of the more intriguing subplots in the final game is a debate about who you let into the city, literally past the walls encircling you. Lead developer Alex Thomas told a reporter that the parallels with climate change were “quite a coincidence,” but one that “I don’t think we shied away from.” In that same interview, lead designer Matt Rhodes said “we’ve definitely been aware [of the current political climate]” when developing The Banner Saga 3, which was released across most platforms in July. The key difference is that, unlike in those books or other recent imaginings of a post-Trump future, there are no happy endings. And I knew I would lose someone else in that playthrough. How many deaths can you justify in the name of the greater good? I was afraid to let an injured favorite stay on the field and lose him for good. One character argues that “we’ll all be the same kind of dead.” But the game shows that that isn’t true. The video game critic and writer Tom Bissell has characterized video games as “resistant to a traditional critical approach.” A designer that Bissell interviewed for his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter insisted that games “don’t pose arguments, they present systems with which to interact.” The designers and developers at Stoic have succeeded, then, by creating systems that can be as cruel as those in our world, as dehumanizing, as arbitrary, as reckless. Rhodes told GamingBolt the new system should “[encourage] players to explore their roster a lot more, and maybe discover some new favorites.” Despite its relatively short run time, the game engenders true emotional attachment to characters. Near the end of the second game in the trilogy, a character asks another, “What can we expect with our efforts in this broken world?” There is no clear answer in that world — or in this one. These decisions range from minor problems of morale, such as whether to intervene when two families feud about their children’s love or whether to eat those strange berries, to major, world-changing ones. More broadly, the series asks you questions that few pieces of art can. Thomas has said that was purposeful, insofar as some characters “are dehumanized to a large degree.” The other races die a physical and a social death. We will not all survive. As you decide how best to protect the last free city, many of the human characters want to sacrifice the varl or the horseborn or the dredge or even other humans if such sacrifices give them a better chance. The long answer? The Trump administration responded to the reports by insisting they were “proud” of FEMA’s efforts. Proponents of #Gamergate oppose what they see as the injection of politics into gaming, particularly demands for equitable representation for women, POC, and the LGBTQ community. Masking their trolling (and death threats) as an attempt to maintain “ethics in gaming journalism,” Gamergaters are more akin to “soldiers in a culture war that extends far offline.” If this sounds familiar, it should. At Public Books, Matthew John Phillips has written persuasively that Nintendo’s newest Zelda game emphasizes the “freedom but also the responsibilities” that bind both avatar and player to the world. After a particularly difficult battle, you can attend a public funeral, but, at least in my playthroughs, the mourning was only for humans. The developers expanded the battle system, allowing for longer, more intense battles in which enemies arrive in waves. Of course, one of the beauties of The Banner Saga is that these small choices can spiral out of control and, sometimes, what feels like a momentous judgment is meaningless. OCTOBER 20, 2018

THIS AUGUST WAS the fourth anniversary of Gamergate, a movement borne of a poisonous mixture of zealous fandom, toxic masculinity, and reactionary politics that roiled the gaming world. In this world, however, the gods are dead — and not in a metaphoric sense: some characters remember the gods physically dying. The inevitability of failure is where the game packs its most potent political punch. In the first two games, you must lead a group of humans and varl toward safety, even as that safety keeps slipping, by making decisions à la old-school text adventures, battling on a grid in turn-based tactic play. When the first game in the series begins, the world itself seems to be in its death throes. The decisions you make, both in this game and the two previous installments, have enormous consequences. I found myself playing with characters in the wave system I had ignored for the past two games. ¤
Justin Thompson is a PhD candidate who sometimes plays his games on easy. While I do not believe that all games — or all works of art — have immediate political resonance, any game that forces you to answer these questions cannot help but feel like commentary on the present. But how is that possible? The game series is set in a bleak world inspired by Norse mythology, replete with horned giants called varl and a host of archetypal gods. The Banner Saga has similar lessons for those willing to play all three games without ever letting us disengage from the very present danger in that world and ours. Luke Plunkett at Kotaku described the final installment of the trilogy as playing “with a boot to your throat.” He’s not wrong. Do you make uncomfortable alliances against a broad, existential threat? How have game developers reacted?