I can’t remember how many turn-based strategy games I’ve played in a row but these days it seems like the games that excite me the most involve commanding sprites along a grid in small, squad-sized skirmishes. Case in point, the most recent I played was The Banner Saga. In The Banner Saga, the player guides two separate caravans across a picturesque landscape inspired by Norse mythology. The two caravans—one an army and the other a refugee band—begin on opposite sides of the continent and steadily march closer together. Simultaneously the sun stops setting, mountains crumble, winter sets in earlier and harsher than expected and other signs of the Norse apocalypse plague both of the player’s intrepid explorers. Meanwhile, an army of supposedly exterminated evil creatures called dredge invade from the north and raze towns in pursuit of each caravan and anybody else they can get a hold of and kill.
Tonally, The Banner Saga captures a sense of despair not found in many games: the squeaky wheels of mule carts and the quiet shuffling of feet feel heavy in the snowy, painterly backgrounds of each caravan. The refugee caravan, which the player spends most of the game managing, feels particularly vulnerable as it scuttles from one exposed village to the next while supplies dwindle helplessly.1 Moreover, both caravan leaders feel hopelessly out-of-place. The army commander, Hakon, is the best friend of his people’s charismatic and beloved new king. When the king is ambushed and killed, Hakon—a respected meathead but meathead nonetheless—is shoved into command of an army he is as uninterested in leading as he is unqualified.
Likewise, Rook is the hunter of a small village far from any major cities or fortresses. When Rook’s town is overrun by dredge, he leads the survivors away and earns their respect and trust. While other characters treat Rook like the caravan’s moral centre, it’s clear that he doesn’t know what he’s doing and would sooner give command up to any of the other, more qualified and more forceful personalities in his company. It might be tempting to say that The Banner Saga offers the “Hard Choices” that most games seem compelled to offer but the presentation of these choices really point to Rook’s character. Many of these choices result in a “correct-neutral-incorrect” ternary, where the game will drop a Walking Dead-esque “You hope you don’t regret that” or “You dwell on the problem for some time” that make the multiple-choice quizzing feel just a little more consequential. Moreover, the game does not consistently reward the same morality; playing Mass Effect any way other than full paragon (chivalrous knight) or full renegade (wild west badass) is wrong and the game limits the player’s possibilities for wavering. But in The Banner Saga, mercy makes a hero one day and a fool the next. What makes Rook a noteworthy videogame protagonist, though, is that he just doesn’t quite fit the role: most dialogue options make him come across as meek or indecisive, his ability and courage earn others’ trust but he is an older man, he lacks confidence and he’s surrounded by people he knows would be better at his job than he is.
Oddleif, wife of Rook’s former village chieftain, is framed as far more organized and composed, and she and Rook say openly that the caravan would be safest in her care but most members would be unwilling to follow a woman’s orders. The Banner Saga presents an open patriarchy, where men and women are culturally entitled to different roles and ne’er shall the two intervene on one another (the honest presentation and criticism of patriarchy is undercut somewhat by shoehorning women into the stereotypical archer support classes). At the same time, Iver, another of Rook’s companion’s, displays a ruthless utilitarianism that makes him a more severe leader than Rook but through it he commands a drive that Rook never could. However, Iver’s formidability and decisiveness suit him better to commanding troops than comforting refugees. That leaves Rook, the best compromise under the circumstances, to weave through the forces of apocalypse and the militarily superior dredge armies flooding the continent.
It might just be window dressing, but these aspects make the “Hard Choices” of the game actually feel like they’re participating in the narrative thrust of the game, not as a marketable buzzword sprinkled in to massage the player’s power fantasy. From a purely mechanical view, choices fit fairly neatly into reward/punishment categories but the context, I think, excuses the gamey implementation. That said, these Hard Choices can, in certain occasions, result in a party member’s death or departure from the caravan and therefore hold a deeper narrative consequence that deserves a bit of examination.
Since each character belongs to a unique class, the loss of a character is permanent and no other quite like them will replace them. In a game like Final Fantasy Tactics, XCOM or Fire Emblem, the player may be compelled to get attached to their army of sprites after investing time into their development but, if a soldier is lost, than they can be replaced mechanically and often they don’t hold much bearing on the plot. But in The Banner Saga, not only does the player invest currency in the growth of a character, but their often unique combat ability will be forever removed from the player’s disposal. Moreover, it’s rarely certain when the player will enlist a new fighter to expand their ranks, whereas in other SRPGs it is usually possible to round out an army with new recruits at the player’s convenience. On the one hand, The Banner Saga ties the apocalyptic narrative and desperate tone to the player’s ability to play. On the other hand, it’s guilty of committing a similar vice as many games that demand troop management, even the story-driven ones.
People are reducible to their utility. Most characters only have a handful of lines of dialogue and, naturally, have a small impact on what goes on in the caravan. Ultimately, this makes them disposable, their deaths are merely an inconvenient loss of a war asset. Yes, it is impressive when a game fosters an attachment between a randomly named bundle of pixels2 or incrementally increases the value of some nameless grunts until they are vital cogs in the player’s war machine3 but it still reduces the people the player is supposed to be caring for to their function. Iver may be cruel but he’s right: those who can’t keep up should be left behind because they don’t join combat and they take up resources. Their human value can be measured in an uncritical exchange of resources.
This comes across as deeply cynical. There is little appreciation and respect for humans as humans deserving life and dignity because they’re human. Maybe any attempt to systematize humanity is bound to reduce people to mechanical assets but I don’t really believe that. There’s a passage in The Magus, where the protagonist’s spiritual guide, Conchis, reminisces about an attack early the First World War while it was still a mobile conflict. For some context, in August of 1914, the French alone lost over 230,000 soldiers to attacks against along the Alsace and Lorraine frontiers. Nearly a quarter of a million people from one county in just a few battles. In The Magus, Conchis describes a hundred thousand lives being snuffed out, each of them with their own potential and their own individuality, all gone in an afternoon at the price of a few bullets. To survive, Conchis must hide and sleep among the corpses until he’s recovered by comrades scavenging the field at night. The passage is one of the best in the novel because it humanizes the mass slaughter not just of the mobile war, but the Great War and war in general. The narrative—itself a system—calls attention to the mass individual tragedies found in a casualties statistic. The dwindling numbers over the population tracker in The Banner Saga feel bad because they point to the player’s failure to maximize the game’s resources efficiently, not because these are abstractions of human beings worthy of life and dignity whom the player fails to provide for.
The Banner Saga thrusts an apocalypse upon the characters and forces them through an existentially despairing pilgrimage; but death and hardship are pared down to a number. Moreover, late in The Banner Saga, the player comes across a small group of dredge corpses who, upon closer inspection, turn out to be women and children. This humanizes them, yes, but it doesn’t change the relationship to the dredge, it doesn’t even comment on it. This is the exact problem I had with The Last Story, another game that came so close to really abstracting imperialist tragedy.4 The enemy drones might be people too, but after you take a two minute time-out to reflect it’s back to business as usual. Yes, this is an issue of ludonarrative dissonance, but I don’t want to accuse only The Banner Saga of committing it because there is a lot of fiction that commits this error.
I think this stems, somewhat, from a need to make war fun. If you’d like to got the homepage of this blog and scroll through the last few months of #content you’ll find that I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Adventure, excitement and battle are tied to pulp stories and videogames are the nucleus of contemporary pulp fiction, for better or worse. That isn’t dismissal of them, there are very deep games despite and because they are otherwise kitsch,5 but a consequence of such narrow aims and conventions is that they communicate meaning imprecisely.
A lot of science fiction, for example, likens villainous armies to insects because unlike mammals or other animals, insects are more obviously Other in appearance, behaviour and cognition; insects are also easy to kill.5 Bugs can be scary but killing them can prove how big and strong you are (see also: zombies, but that’s for a different day). The hive-mind trope has been reused so often since the Second World War not just because it’s a nasty allegory of the Soviet Union, but because it Others something an enemy (either an existing political enemy or an enemy ideology) into something truly inhuman: something scary but something powerless at the same time. This abstracts the narrative experience of causing harm. But the gradual dehumanization of violence seems to be spreading away from aliens or political Others or any other ideological enemy a story seems interested in shooting with lasers or cutting down with a sword into conceptions of the self. We aren’t protecting people, we’re protecting a different kind of insect.
It isn’t just the bad guys who are less human, now it’s us too. The dredge aren’t human except for a moment of reflection and the people in the caravan aren’t human: they’re numbers the player is compelled to keep high. A consequence of reinforcement is that it flows with momentum.6 Notice in Man of Steel or The Avengers or Godzilla that ordinary people only exist in scenes where the hero can save them. When buildings crumble, nobody seems to be inside them, when stray gunfire whizzes by its mark it never accidentally enters a bystander’s chest. People laugh at Michael Bay’s Transformers—for good reason—but near the beginning of the fourth, very loud entry in the series, a news report mentions a death toll over over a thousand from the previous film’s events. This is the only blockbuster from the past ten years I recall openly stating that urban wars kill people that aren’t supposed to be killed. I find it harrowing that fiction so rarely treats violence as something that can’t be controlled, that spreads into the lives and deaths of people who unquestionably deserve protection and respect.
Not every piece of fiction needs to depict the horrors of the Stalingrad siege, but when even the otherwise “good” stuff like The Banner Saga is as content to turn an enemy into a pawn as it is to turn its citizens into a number with a particular utility I’m a little unnerved. It might seem obvious, but it’s important to remember that fiction is not reality: it has no direct function in reality, but it does frame, re-frame and offer opportunities to re-imagine reality. The fear that comes with that is in treating real people like numerical assets, and the overall trend of turning badguys into a legion of highly specialized insects in a hive looks like it’s overlapping with the ways we see those we’re supposed to be supporting and protecting.
1 Coberly, Bill. The Banner Saga in “Games of 2014 (2014).” Haywire Magazine. Feb 2 2015.
2 Filipowich, Mark. “How Agnes Taught me to Appreciate Difficulty.” bigtallwords. Nov 28 2012.
3 Filipowich, Mark. “The Value of the Soldier.” PopMatters. Oct 9 2012.
4 Filipowich, Mark. “The Incomplete Revolution of The Last Story.” bigtallwords. May 5 2015.
5 Rivas, Jordan. “The depiction of religion in games is awful for non-religious and religious alike.” Nightmare Mode. Nov 9 2012 [archive].
5 Griffin, Jeremy. “‘The Only Good Bug Is a Dead Bug’ Starship Troopers and the Politics of Science Fiction.” PopMatters. Apr 28 2015.
6 Goodchild, Jenni. “The Media + What I Mean By ‘Reinforcement’.” Geek Essays. Apr 8 2015 [archive].
Further reading: Swain, Eric. “‘The Banner Saga Presents a Living World Through a Lore That Is Actually Lived.” PopMatters. Feb 10 2015.
Hernandez, Patricia. “An Effin’ AI In BioShock Infinite Is More Of A Human Than I Am.” Kotaku. Apr 12 2013.
Fussell, Sidney and Jed Pressgrove. “A Conversation About Race In Video Games.” Game Bias. Aug 13 2014.
Allen, Samantha. “All Skulls On: Teaching Intersectionality through Halo.” The Border House. Apr 23 2013.
Anhut, Anjin. “Bioshock Infinite Privilege.” How to Not Suck at Game Design. Sep 15 2013.
H, Alex. “Racism and Left 4 Dead 2.” The Border House. Feb 4 2010.