Banner Saga 3: A Satisfying Ending to an Epic Tale

The Banner Saga recently released the third and final installment in the epic story of refugees escaping a calamity in their Norse mythology inspired world. While the ending to the third installment has left some people frustrated, I find that it is the perfect book-end to one of the best storytelling experiences in videogames.

As you progress through the Banner Saga series, you take on the role of a certain character within a group and the story is told through this character’s point of view. However, the story is really about the banner, a giant flag that represents the history of your people, your tribe. This banner is seldom referenced but is ever present, flying above your caravan of refugees in every transition scene. The story of Banner Saga is not really of its characters, although there is development and flavour for all of them, particularly the main cast, but it is the story of a people.

The changing point of view reinforces this, as does the battle system. The Banner Saga has two main modes of play, a turn based battle system and a somewhat visual novel/choose your own adventure part in between battles. Losing battles in The Banner Saga, with a few exceptions, never results in a game over. Even losing the “boss fight” in Banner Saga 3 goes without huge consequences in terms of gameplay, but the results of these battles do change the story and do affect your resources going forward. Characters that fall on the battlefield do not die permanently, but rather become weakened which means in the next battle, they will have lower stats. Sometimes this can result in “death spirals” as your characters get weaker and weaker while facing increasingly difficult battles, unless you give them time to rest.

From a gameplay perspective, this might seem a bit counter-intuitive. Why care about the battles if it doesn’t matter if I win or lose? Because the outcome of the battle will affect your resources in maintaining your people, how many points you get to buy equipment and level up your fighters, it can also affect which options may become available later on, and can also affect which story beats in the visual novel parts happen, including the recruitment and death of certain characters. While characters that die on the battlefield stay in your roster, they may die or leave permanently depending on the choices you make in the story sections.

Since Banner Saga is a story about a people, it makes sense that it wouldn’t end because a battle was lost. A favorite warrior might have fallen, but the story of the tribe continues. You might have lost your favorite Varl because you told them to dive headfirst after a treasure cart falling down a cliff, but everyone else’s story doesn’t end with the Varl’s death. The banner will continue to grow, people will continue to add their stories to it. The sudden death is part of your people’s history, but until everyone one of them is gone, that story will continue.

Other games have made me feel the need to restore past points just to preserve a beloved character. We all have saved scummed at least once to try to save our favorite X-Com character or Jagged Alliance mercenary, because we like the character or because they are our best soldier. I never felt the need to do this in Banner Saga because my approach is to create a story of my people. I knew the game wouldn’t end because I failed, and I knew that things might get harder down the road because I lost but this was the story I was creating.

The Banner Saga takes its themes and world from Norse mythology, a mythology where things are bleak, gods are humanized for better and for worse, and a happy ending is where you get to see the sunrise tomorrow. It is not a heroic tale of stupendous deeds, where good triumphs over evil, and everyone survives and lives happily ever after. The story of The Banner Saga shares similarities with such television shows as Game of Thrones or The 100 – a diverse group of people, good. bad, and in-between, struggle to survive against the odds in desperate situations while trying to overcome their human vices, failings, and pettiness. The story isn’t so much about a single character, but a collection of them trying to survive. Every turn in The Banner Saga is another piece added to the story. With the vast number of choices and branching paths, each play-through is a unique story. Therefore, it never felt right to revert to an older save just to save a character or change a decision.

The ending of Banner Saga 3 has left some players feeling underwhelmed and unsatisfied, primarily because there is no extended epilogue sequence for all of the characters. Although this would be a bit impractical – it’s not a stretch to say that a proper epilogue sequence to the whole Banner Saga Trilogy could rival the length of Lord of the Ring’s multiple endings – it is also not thematic to the game. The important part is what happened to your people – did they survive?

The very first game starts in the small town of Skogr, which gets overrun by the coming Dredge. When the Chieftain of the village falls, Oddleif hands over the banner to Rook, one of the main point of view characters in the game. A banner is very significant in this world. Not only do they act as identifiers for a tribe, they also contain the names and deaths of the members, and the history of its people. The choices made throughout the game are woven into the banner, and when other villages and tribes join yours, they sow their banner at the end of yours.

Needless to say, the end of the Saga isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Your people may persevere but how many remain, and in what state, is dependent on your choices and your luck. It doesn’t matter what happens after, it just matters that your survived. The banner fluttering above carries the stories and memories of those who fell, even though it might not be your people’s banner anymore.

Like any survival story, its about the journey and not the end. We know that people will either make it or not, that is not the interesting thing, it is all about how the characters and the tribe get there. The Banner Saga’s delivery of a survival story is superb, constantly pushing the player forward towards an end that sometimes may be dire. Whether we save the world and survive or not, we have our banner to look back on and see how we got here. That is more satisfying than anything I could have asked for.


Off-Peak: A Review

Off-Peak, by Cosmo D, drops you off at a train station, next to a musician named Luuuke who offers you his ticket if you can find all the pieces and put it back together. Thus starts your short but absurd journey into this game. The train station is unlike anything we can image, despite being based on Grand Central Station in New York City going by the available stops. I didn’t see a mushroom garden last time I was there though.
The station in Off-Peak is grandiose, surreal, and full of oddities. The walls are plastered with posters and paintings. Some are disturbing, such as the Polish movie posters used in the dark stairwell, and others are happy and cheerful. The irregular and haphazard placement of these pieces make the station look more like temporary storage rather than a gallery. Look up and you will even see a whale. Among these disparate and eclectic pieces  are the denizens and passers-by of the station, almost equally as odd as the pieces which adorn the walls. You can talk to them or listen in to their conversations to learn more about the characters and the world. Listen closely, and you will pickup information on “The Circus”. Atop the tracks, upon a throne, sits the station’s owner and leader Marcus.
Train stations are transport hubs which are ripe for chance encounters of people going about their business, more so than airports in my experience. A decade and a half ago, I was sitting in Grand Central Station with my partner at the time. We were waiting for our train back after watching an off-Broadway play. A young man with a guitar case and a backpack came up to us and asked if we could buy him a ticket back home. He had lost his money and his train was leaving in ten minutes. I gave him twenty dollars and asked if it was enough, he said it was more than enough. “If you give me your address, I can send you twenty back when I get home,” he offered. I told him not to worry and to have a safe trip as he rushed to the ticket counter. Sometimes I wish I had asked for him to send it back, just to have a letter or some memento of it. If I had been a quicker thinker, maybe I would have asked for a postcard instead.
Off-Peak emulates that feeling, of running into people and catching them in a moment of time. We learn a little bit about each of the characters and of the station. We are given a few hints to what to make of this surreal world where giants play pianos and security guards study game design next to giant mushrooms. Marcus and his station might represent two things, the crossroads between music and games, and the evolution of music and its relation to its audience At first, Marcus seems like a patron of the arts because he is providing a space for all kinds of artists and shopkeepers. He supports them as long as they are what his clients want. This attitude has resulted in the station being ranked a glorious #2 ranking in the region’s most enjoyable transit hub. “They don’t get that I’m a curator. I deem each business worthy of the needs and tastes of my customers. Not all these businesses will do equally well, but I do not care. The tastes and whims of my customers are what’s important to me,”he tells you. So the station’s businesses and artists do not necessarily need to turn a profit, they just need to be what the clients want.
The more you talk to him and explore the station, the more sinister the whole thing seems. The station houses all kinds of art (and games, in the boardgame cafe) but a gallery or museum it is not. While Marcus might not want to make tons of money, he also does not want anyone to leave. This made me think of the station as a walled garden, or a service which offers things you want but makes it hard for you to switch. Steam is an example of that, and to keep it topical, so is Spotify. Spotify does not have all the music I want, but it has a lot of the music I want. I am reminded of this every time I search for songs and artists I remember from my university days. While I still have mp3 files I have ripped from my CD collection, it is still not as convenient as using Spotify. I mean, I don’t need to transfer these songs to my phone at all, and I can easily share my playlists with my friends.  If I want to listen to my mp3 music files, I need to battle with poor meta data (not even recording studios ever got that right) and clunky interfaces of outdated programs because no one apparently listens to albums of mp3s anymore.
So even though Spotify only has most of what I want, I remain. I don’t even pay for it (yet) and the convenience is worth the advertisements, or so I tell myself. Spotify is like Marcus, but less sinister, hopefully. Apparently the pizza isn’t so good at the station either, so maybe Marcus needs to up his curation game.
In a corner of the station you find a girl selling old jazz records someone had dropped off. She says she just needs one sale to make it for a month or two. Across the station, there is a sheet music vendor, peddling sheet music dropped off by the same person who dropped off the records. Someone who has abandoned past media formats for newer, digital ones perhaps? Among the records for sale you can find one from Archie Pelago, Cosmo D’s band and the creator of the game’s soundtrack
What does this mean? 
Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Cosmo D’s game feels small, personal, but at the same time larger than that. Like meeting people in train stations, it is a touch, an impression. Somehow meticulously put together but random enough to tell you that there just might be secrets here you will never discover. The reason I wanted to, in retrospect, for the young man I met in Grand Central station for a minute to send me something back was to extend that moment, uncover secrets. Where they in a band? What kind of music did they play? I could have known more but the only reason I still think about it today is because I do not know. 

Amphora Review

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Waypoint, The Red String Club, and Videogame Criticism

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Favorite Moments in Playing Videogames 2017

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