Banner Saga: Chess Between Chapters

 

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The Banner Saga is one of the few successful videogame Kickstarter projects, pulling in almost 7 times their goal and then actually being released. It combines deep turn based combat with a gripping narrative told in a choose your own adventure style. It  is a game that is unlike most other games, and to get into it requires abandoning preconceived notions of how narratives in games have worked. The Banner Saga does not follow conventional storytelling rules of past RPG games,  or games in general, and that is a good thing.

The Banner Saga does not dump exposition onto the player. The game puts the player in the middle of the narrative among characters who already know each other. There is no hand holding or explanation. We see characters interact in a natural way, without really knowing who they are at first.  The player assumes the role of certain characters throughout the game and makes decisions from the characters’ points of view. Thus, the narrative is limited in scope to what each of the characters themselves see, feel, and know.

Although there is very little, if any, exposition, the in-game map has huge amounts of information regarding the world and its people. This allows the player time to explore the world more in depth if they choose too.

Another rule The Banner Saga completely disregards is in its presentation of the choose your own story part of the game. What sets it apart is that the player has very little clue what the consequences of their choices will be. A seemingly friendly response to an irate prince could end up with you sending away one of your best fighters. Allowing another character to do his job could potentially kill them off for good. Most of the characters, who are the fighters you use in battles, do not permanently die in combat. They die or get removed from your party by the choices you make in the story section of the game. And you never know which choices will result in what. This is a very anti-game story telling mechanic, because there is no data or numbers to analyze to make an optimal choice. In short, there is no actual game mechanic in these choices which are made apparent to the player. They have to rely on what they feel, or what they perceive the game character feels, when making a choice.

This kind of choice system goes against most conventions of what makes a game a game. After all, a game is a set of rules in which the player tries to find the optimal path to reach their goal.

The Banner Saga is a story about a struggle against the odds, which is constantly reinforced by its seemingly unfair narrative system. There is very little exposition, a large cast of characters, story told mainly through dialogue, and switching viewpoints. If approached purely as a game, The Banner Saga will no doubt disappoint, because at its core, the narrative is presented like a book. The clue is in its name. It is a book with a clear beginning, a clear end, and the variables are based on the choices of the player and their skill in combat. The correct way to approach this game is as an experience. You do not beat books. You finish them. Likewise, you do not beat The Banner Saga, you complete it. By surviving.

It is a game that combines tactical gameplay and a linear narrative in such a beautiful and unexpected way, that most people did not know how to fully experience it.

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