When Choice Doesn’t Matter – Inevitability and The Banner Saga

Walking into The Banner Saga 2, I had a rough idea of what to expect; hard choices, beautiful music and lovely hand-drawn art to frame a sad story. I’d played the first game in the series and was certain that I’d remembered it well enough to know what to expect from its sequel. The trouble is, I’d forgotten something important about the first game: my choices didn’t always matter- and that made the experience more meaningful.

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In case you’re unfamiliar with it, The Banner Saga is a series of strategy RPGs set in a world heavily inspired by Norse mythology. The game’s aesthetic draws heavily on old cartoons, complete with rotoscoping (Prince of Persia isn’t alone) and rough outlines. You play as the leader of a caravan that’s trying to survive the end of the world- you’re often called upon to make difficult moral decisions that have an impact on the outcome of the game. Your choices, much of the time, do matter.

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Popular wisdom dictates that the measure of a good video game can be decided by how many elements of it can be interacted with. Games are praised for having destructible environments, a lot of little toys to tinker with, and complex, branching storylines. On at least one occasion a game advertised the AI of its fish swimming out of the way of players as being something special (it was nothing special).
The Banner Saga disregards a lot of these ideas in a way that other games can learn from. This isn’t to insult the artists and programmers who go through the trouble of making destructible environments that are fun to blow up, and it’s not to disregard the value of a complex and well-written story that most players will never see the end of, and I have nothing against AI fish, even if they’re not special- the point isn’t to tear down other games so much as it is to point out why The Banner Saga has done something special.

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You see, in this world that takes special note of games for having a lot of interactivity and moving parts, critical praise gets heaped upon games with the most complex narrative structures. The stories with the most parts that players can affect- or, at least, seemingly affect- are the ones that get all the glory. For fans of Telltale’s adventure games, such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, watching the way that their choices unfold in a game is the most exciting part of playing- at least, that’s how it is on their initial playthroughs. Players of these games are sometimes disappointed when they return to play the games over again and discover that their stories, while entertaining, aren’t all that affected by the choices they make. Much of the time in a game, what’s been designed to look like a narrative tree with branches full of choices is really just a big sphere of a story. You may start from the top of the sphere and draw a line to its bottom, and along the way you may choose your own path- but ultimately, you will wind up at the bottom of the sphere.

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I’ve dabbled a bit in creating interactive fiction and feel it’s worth mentioning that creating narrative circles- multiple choices that lead to the same place- can be a useful tool when writing for an interactive medium, specifically when it’s necessary to take players to a particular place in a game’s story. The choice the player makes to get to that place may be irrelevant to the story itself, but to the player, it feels like an important decision that’s been made. Additionally, if every choice in a game led to a different story branch, the cost of producing said game would be absolutely astronomical- hence why you can die in a multitude of gruesome ways in a choose-your-own-adventure book; the books would be incredibly thick if every choice led to a fully fleshed outcome. That’s not to say that expanding on every choice can’t be done: Stories: The Path of Destinies is a platformer that’s broken up with a CYOA-style game in between levels. Essentially, you need to make decisions about how you’ll interact with characters, choose your locations and use quest items as you advance through the game. Stories is designed to be played through multiple times, as it’s not possible to win the game on one’s first playthrough. You need to use the knowledge of your previous playthroughs- knowledge about the world and characters and their motivations- in order to win. Every decision you make has an influence on the story’s outcome; a lot of hard work was put into this aspect of the game.

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This dedication to story has paid off for Stories: the game has garnered plenty of critical praise and has a lot of adoring fans. Having played it myself, I must say that I’m a fan, and loved uncovering new story paths. What Stories: The Path of Destinies did was daring, but it made total sense as per traditional video game storytelling wisdom.

The Banner Saga goes the other way. By presenting the player with choices that are ultimately irrelevant, it breaks away from the idea that a choice needs to have quantifiable consequence to a game’s narrative, and embraces the idea that a choice can be made for the sake of role-playing. In other words, in The Banner Saga, you make decisions because they’re important to you– not because there’s some tangible in-game benefit. This represents something more than interactivity- it’s immersion. It’s role playing.

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Much of the time, The Banner Saga hardly differentiates irrelevant choices from major ones. I’ve made seemingly little choices that ultimately cost the lives of characters I’d come to care about. Not all small choices are meaningless. In the first game, I chose to spare the life of a baby Dredge. I still don’t know what’s to become of this decision- it was touched upon briefly in the second game when a character made mention of it while talking about my caravan- I’d love to see the eventual consequences of that decision, even if they are tragic.

Having choices that don’t matter in the long run gives a lot more impact to the obviously important decisions. Take Bolverk, for instance; he’s a Varl, one of the last of a race of giants. In The Banner Saga 2, Bolverk leads a caravan of his own, the Ravens: these battle-hardened mercenaries are a very different group than Rook and Alette’s caravan. The Ravens seem somewhat invisible in the game, you don’t really see your Ravens, except for a few that join you in the game’s combat mode. When playing as Bolverk, however, your actions will impact their morale. If you don’t behave as Bolverk would ordinarily behave- that is to say, if you’re not brutish, mean, and bellicose, your men will lose respect for you. Acts of charity will cause Volka, the closest thing you have to a friend, to question your actions, wondering if you’ve gone soft.

Pick the second option to inflict massive burn damage to the ego.
Pick the second option to inflict massive burn damage to the ego.

It’s things like this that pull players into The Banner Saga. I was so used to taking the clearly righteous route in RPGs; to play as Bolverk, who leans quite heavily on the dark side of gray morality- and is rewarded so often for unkindness- really changed my mind on what constitutes role-playing in a game. The Bolverk I played as was in many ways my Bolverk, for having made the decisions that I’d have made. Yet, playing as him, a little piece of me had to become that berserk brute. I could feel some part of myself getting into character as though I was enjoying a pen and paper RPG. He wasn’t a faceless avatar, a bland character for my adventure-seeking wish-fulfillment, but he wasn’t an inaccessible actor in an otherwise interactive story.

In some ways, this flies in the face of the argument that a game can’t be used to tell a story the way that an artist wants it to be told. While we’re largely past the argument that video games aren’t art, a tired accusation often leveled against games that tell stories is that their stories are somehow less relevant because no two players will experience them in the same way. We’ve all seen the same Casablanca, but are any two playthroughs of L.A. Noir identical?
Yet, when a game immerses a player so fully in a character that the player is thinking through the lens of the character as best he or she can, can it still be said that the player’s involvement is a hindrance to artistic vision? It would seem that putting characters in player’s hearts is the ultimate extension of narrative vision, a true mark of storytelling prowess- and that’s where The Banner Saga succeeds.

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Story elements and dialogue choices don’t have to contribute directly to pushing forward a game’s main plot- dialogue choices can serve to reinforce a player’s connection with their character when written with character voice in mind. The recent Fallout 4 could’ve benefited from this bit of narrative design- players quite rightly complained that too many dialogue options in the game were too vague. Besides making the meaning of dialogue options a bit clearer, perhaps if Fallout 4 spent a little more time encouraging players to develop their characters beyond their appearance, they’d be a bit more invested in the game’s story.

While I think The Banner Saga should be celebrated for its storytelling style, I don’t think that every game should try and emulate it. For a game with a larger scale, the many decisions that you make in The Banner Saga for the sake of role-playing could weigh down the more action-packed experience of a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; that said, other games could stand to learn from the storytelling of The Banner Saga.

What do you think? Do other video games stand to learn from The Banner Saga in terms of storytelling? Hit us up below and follow @1RuleBeCool on Twitter for more cool gaming editorials and examination; follow me for my own thoughts.

 

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