This past week I played The Banner Saga and it’s making me excited about video game storytelling in a way that I haven’t felt in a while. I used to play RPGs all the time, and they always felt like they were cast with random boys who grew into invincible warriors because saving the world and killing the bad guy was their destiny and I was just along for the ride. The Banner Saga manages to make it seem like my choices — even the small ones where I have to decide how to deal with a drunken buffoon — mean the difference between life and death for my band of ragtag followers.
Much of TBS’s Norse mythology-laced story is told through gorgeous hand-drawn cut scenes, but it’s basically the semi-random, multiple-choice questions that pop up occasionally that drew me deepest into the game’s story. They’re like SAT questions on how to lead a flock of survivors in a dangerous world: Do you recruit warriors that want to join your band, or do you insist they stay with the townspeople who are unlikely to survive without their swords? Accepting the warriors’ help could land you powerful allies, but I turned them down because I’m a big softy and the town’s leader gave me a shit ton of food as a thank you.
There’s never a clear-cut right answer and even seemingly benign choices can have lethal consequences. One time, travelers gave me food in return for my warning of an approaching army. At first I was like, score! But a few days later a bunch of my followers keeled over because the food was either poisoned or Taco Bell. The setup reminds me of an older game called King of Dragon Pass, but it’s easier to imagine a version of The Oregon Trail filled with grueling dilemmas and half the answers lead to deadly bouts of dysentery. That’s the level that The Banner Saga plays at, and I’m all up in there. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a book as all bloggery types seem to, but maybe instead I should work on a text adventure filled with moral quandaries, death and Taco Bell.