Stoic’s The Banner Saga reaches far into the past for inspiration. At first, its reverence for Viking mythology seems pretty direct—the game’s aesthetic cribs heavily from the godlike warriors, feuding clans and wilderness journeys of Norse sagas. Beneath its surface, though, is a story meant to do far more than replicate the ancient texts it references. The Banner Saga is a reinterpretation of a bygone literary tradition whose form, twisted into new shapes via interactivity, is tailored to the sensibilities of a modern audience.
The blurry forms that fill ancient sagas and heroic cycles are immediately visible in the game. Human warriors enter into battle alongside horned giants; nature contorts itself to prevent or encourage the passage of weary pilgrims; the sun stops in the sky while a giant serpent emerges from the earth to crack mountains apart. Though The Banner Saga’s gods are dead, their influence remains in the towering devotional statues that dot its pseudo-Scandinavian landscape and, most importantly, the cast’s relationship to their surroundings. When not engaged in conversation, the characters are rendered small, their caravan moving forward across landscapes so vast that their line of wagons, animals and warriors are shrunk to the size of marching ants. The Banner Saga suggests that even the greatest human endeavors pale in comparison to the machinations of gods and the natural world they, in true animistic fashion, belong to and represent. The spirit of the pagan saga emerges intact.
These details are great on a surface level, but it’s the manner in which this premise is adapted as a videogame that shows a true understanding of Norse sagas. Each of The Banner Saga’s battles—when a handful of horned “varl” and human warriors are positioned on a field overlaid with graph paper squares to take turns attacking each other—feels like a minor exploit in the longer story of great heroes. When the player’s favorite archer racks up her twelfth kill, defeating an overwhelming enemy force, the game positions its audience as a budding Snorri Sturluson or Saxo Grammaticus, guiding the emergence of folkloric figures as they accomplish the feats that will make them legend.
Promoting the characters by assigning new skill points makes them stronger and fosters individual attachments to those warriors who have killed the most enemies. That all of these martial statistics are recorded next to those characters’ portraits—and that the upgrade system’s currency is called “renown”—puts a fine point on all of this. In a game that wants to make the impression that its plot is the developing history of an imagined past, familiar role-playing game progression systems make a lot of sense.
This effect becomes even more apparent in The Banner Saga 2, the recently released middle chapter of Stoic’s planned trilogy. After a dozen odd hours of desperate battle against the stone monsters sweeping into varl and human lands, the first game establishes both the player and the warriors she controls as powerful agents in a historic time. They’ve trekked across snowy mountains and wide plains, gathering refugee followers and learning how to defend themselves against mythological creatures. The Banner Saga 2’s opening battle reinforces the growing stature of the first game’s primary cast by acknowledging that their exploits are already being embraced as part of their culture’s mythology. The characters come across a village under attack, fight off the invaders and are greeted as living legends not just for their evident bravery, but for their clan leader’s having killed an apparently immortal monster called Bellower (an encounter rendered in a tone broad enough to fit an epic poem).
From saving villagers encountered on the march to allying with one military force over another, the decisions the player is forced to make throughout the game enhance this mythic quality. The Banner Saga 2’s choice system isn’t a throwaway morality test meant to challenge its player’s worldview, but a participatory writing of historic moments. As the caravan travels from one distant outpost to another, the player is presented with frequent decision points framed as the impossible choices faced by the in-game clan leader. Is it right to welcome fleeing villagers into the caravan even though the food supplies are already too scarce to support the group? Should an overburdened chieftain who refuses to open his gates to feed and shelter refugees be supported in his pragmatism or attacked to change his mind?
These are dramatic enough choices to make during the first game’s circumstances—a cross-country flight from danger—but The Banner Saga 2 raises the stakes appropriately. The already dire situation faced by the cast is elevated by the rise of a previously mysterious apocalyptic force; the natural landscape encountered on the journey takes memorable detours through the dark passages of a Hades-like network of caves and a sickly overcolored forest littered with strange (and possibly psychoactive) plants. As a videogame, the level of challenge is also raised accordingly. New enemies, some of which control the grunts encountered in the previous game, require the cast to grow both stronger and smarter. By the time they’ve fought their way to encounters with the political elite of their world, contending with unearthly forces and finding themselves faced with decisions that determine the fates of thousands, the characters are positioned as otherworldly warrior statesmen in the vein of Ragnar Lodbrok and Björn Ironside, Sigmund and Sigurd.
With The Banner Saga, Stoic has looked outside videogames’ usual stable of cultural references, choosing instead to attempt the considerable task of translating ancient storytelling traditions for a distinctly modern medium. A lesser developer may have been able to capture the easy trappings of the subject matter, but it’s a truly talented one that’s capable of coupling an effective portrayal of ancient Norse iconography with game design that demonstrates a deep understanding of the bygone narrative tradition. More than simple homage to the look and sounds of ancient Norse sagas, The Banner Saga is an excellent interactive exploration of a distant culture.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen, VICE and Playboy. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.