Monday, 20 January 2014

The Banner Saga - Remembering the Meaning of Epic

I am, possibly, the slowest gamer I know. So when I say that I'm 6 hours into Stoic Studio's The Banner Saga it's implied that I've been taking my sweet time. Because this isn't a game you can rush through. This game is a tale, a myth, an epic in the truest sense of the word.

And above all else, it is beautiful.

There was a really excellent review written by Chris Suellentrop for the New York Times last week that drops names and gives production stat for this game. I recommend you read it. Chris sums up the game nicely when he says,
...the story is well plotted and set in an original world with a deep mythology and history, even if it approaches boilerplate high fantasy: The gods are dead. The sun is frozen. War has returned. The end of the world is nigh.
Why, Chris, you say "high fantasy" like it's a bad thing! That is precisely why I am going to gush all over this game; it feels like a true medieval epic brought to life. I've been looking for a game like this for some time. Way back in 2013 (practically ancient history), I played King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame for a couple months, and boy was it fun. For fans of Mary Stewart's Arthurian fiction, the game is full of pleasantly familiar places, people, and tropes. After a while, though, it felt a little forced. I lost interest in the story, because there wasn't really a story. I was undertaking a long series of disconnected quests with no real investment. I didn't know who my knights really were beyond their stat bonuses and magical powers; there was no real dialogue, very little you could say in character to change the story. So while the game was both challenging and very, very pretty I felt that it was squandering a lot of narrative potential. And I stopped playing.

The Banner Saga caught my eye on Steam the other day, as I perused lists of games that I really don't have time to be playing. It was the art that jumped out at me, not the glossy digital airbrushing makes up most video game art but crisp cartoon lines and vibrant colour, like the love child of Disney and Arthur Rackham. Actually, very similar to the work Fiona Staples is doing for (ironically) Saga with Brian K. Vaughan's. I was wonderstruck, and hesitant, fully prepared to be let down by shoddy game graphics and shallow gameplay after such a wondrous initial image. But it never happened.

Having only recently read Stephen R. Donaldson's essay on the nature of Epic Fantasy (recommended reading by Nobody Important), the sudden discovery of a story on this scale was a brilliant surprise. Donaldson writes of The Epic in the following manner:
...what makes something "epic?" Length, of course. But nothing in literature is that simple. An epic is not "epic" merely because it is longer than anything else. As Marx observed, "Differences in degree become differences in kind." An epic is "epic" because it deals explicitly with the largest and most important
questions of humankind: what is the meaning of life? why are we here? who is God and what is She doing? what is the religious and/or moral order of the universe? In fact, back in the days when epics were more commonly written, their acknowledged purpose was to tackle such questions. The "epic" was the highest form of literature, and was expected to say the highest things.
In effect, epics articulated the best religious and cultural, the best social and psychological self-perceptions of their times: they recorded the way humankind looked at itself.
It's interesting that throughout English literary history no writer has been able to write an enduring "epic" without using the metaphor of magic and the techniques of personification. Apparently, to be "epic" a work must not only be long and profound; it must almost be fantasy.
The reason for this is simple. Throughout English literary history, the writers of "epics" have wanted either to say something transcendent about what it means to be human, or to say something about the nature of transcendence itself. The tools and resources of fantasy were formed for just those subjects.
The game reads like it was plucked straight out of the pages of Heaney's Beowulf or the Volsungsaga. It is epic in the way The Lord of the Rings is epic, a story of warriors and kings and people fighting for survival in a world of truly mythic proportions. And yes, I say "reads" very deliberately; the voice acting is minimal and the script elaborate, leaving you to play out the dialogue in your head (or, in my case, in terrible Scandinavian accents when nobody else is home). You play through parallel stories in alternating chapters, as the leaders of two ragtag clans made up of Viking-like Humans and horned giants called Varl. The two races live under a tenuous alliance born of necessity in the forge of war, when the gods were killed, and the world was ravaged by the colossal and ferocious Dredge. That war ended years ago, but now a new crisis has arisen: the Sun is frozen. It hangs, motionless, in the sky, leaving the northern lands in a bleak perpetual daylight. Alliances must be maintained, but in this time of forced diplomacy the Dredge have returned. The clans find themselves on the move, though for different reasons. You must become a leader willing to make the hard choices to save your people...or you will die.

The creators of this game have created a living, breathing world with an elaborate history. From the beginning of the game you have access to the map of Ubin, the clan chronicler, depicting a vast world stretching hundreds of miles in all directions. Clicking place names brings up a window briefly detailing the role each landmark played in shaping the history of this brutal land. Now, this is no open-world RPG. Your movements are scripted, the path you must walk already planned for you. You're being railroaded, in short. Your input comes in the form of the decisions you must make along the way. Travel is no small matter; collect what resources you can, stay on the move, keep an eye on the size of your caravan as starvation threatens your clansmen and raiding monsters descend from the hills on the slow and weak. At one point I had to sacrifice a wagon full of treasure to save the life of one of my dearest warriors. It was costly, but Gunnulf is still with us. Thank the, wait, they're dead. Never mind.

The thing that jumps out of Donaldson's description (above) at me is the idea that "[Epics] recorded the way humankind looked at itself". In that regard, writing a fictional epic seems a little divorced from the whole concept, and I love the way The Banner Saga addresses that. The banners referenced in the title are long, trailing swathes of fabric that writhe in the wind as you watch your caravan trundle across the northern hills. Upon them are embroidered the running history of your people, with a section for each family's lineage. Members of the family (admittedly usually the women) learn to master the art of embroidery, for it is their responsibility to keep the story of their blood alive. There is talk of The Menders, arcane weavers of history, and an enchanted banner in the King's city that records events upon itself. This is a story about Stories of the most sacred kind, the stories that cultures tell of themselves, that form the foundations of their identity. The standard bearers in the armies of old were skilled warriors, tasked with defending the colours at all costs and until the bitter end. The 2011 film The Eagle expounded upon the weight of a soldier's honour tied to the symbol he fought for; the 2001 film The Last Castle with Robert Redford did much the same. The Banner Saga instills you with that respect for the symbol of your people. So I find myself fighting desperately to keep my clan alive, knowing that if they fall to the Dredge and the banner is lost it will mean the end of their history.

One last note on character development. I am impressed, because the women in this game are phenomenal. If there's one term I'm sick of hearing, it's "strong female character". Thankfully I'm not alone; this gem of an article was written back in August with the sub-header "Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong." (Sophia McDougall). Damn right. So when I found myself in the middle of this conversation with Oddleif, the chieftain's wife, I literally fist-pumped and yelled for joy. We'd just come out the wrong end of a brutal skirmish to discover her husband lying dead in a cart, and this is what she had to say:
People tell me I'm a "strong woman". It's funny, my father named me Oddleif before I was even born. He wanted a boy so badly. Strong woman. What does that even mean? If I feel nothing about my husband dying people think I'm strong. If I cry because my insides feel life they're on fire I'm weak. Why does that feel so backwards?
To whoever scripted that bit of dialogue: someday I will find you, and I will hug you. I've also had a character refuse to auto-attack in combat because she decided through a conversation I had with her that she didn't want to kill Humans or Varl. It was a shock, and a welcome realization that this game means business when it come to knowing who your characters are.

Needless to say, The Banner Saga tells a beautiful tale. It's slow, quiet, contemplative at times and emotionally desperate at others. It's immersive in its scale and intricacy. Above all else, it is epic.

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