Somewhere on the list of game design truisms is the idea that players should feel like their actions are meaningful. If player inputs don’t return some patterned response, the game breaks down. The falcon is rude to the falconer.
Which is unfortunate because it puts the theme of futility at a discount, almost excluding it from games by definition. If games are predicated on respecting player agency we can’t have games where that input is silenced, ignored, absorbed, deflected. When we bump against the limits of what a game affords-- when we try to open the door that is just a flat graphic, or explore an ethical complexity that hasn’t been written into the storyline, or hit buttons that just don’t do anything-- we remember that our agency is defined within some horizon. Most games will try to persuade you that they have enabled the really important choices. Life will not. That difference can make games cathartic, but it can also be frustrating, infantilizing, and dissatisfying. If games always listen to us we can’t play with them to better understand a world that is profoundly indifferent.
When I started playing The Banner Saga I was impressed with the apparent futility of the player’s situation. The end of the world is not impending, it’s been going on for awhile. The gods are dead. The midday sun is motionless in the sky. The recent invasion of the dredge--a machinic, alien race--is very bad but in the grand scheme probably not as bad as the condition you’ve already accepted. To survive, your clan must defeat the dredge and collect supplies. There isn’t much hope that you’ll ever reach safety but it’s better than just waiting around to die.
Although The Banner Saga communicates its premise directly, the emotional ambiance is most convincingly conveyed in the gallows humor of the varl warriors accompanying you. They varl are, as a rule, very large and very old. When you talk to them they laugh and say that you’re probably all going to die.
The over-arching game loop has the structure of Oregon Trail salted with the anti-Manifest Destiny of The Road. Within that frame there are story encounters offering a couple choices of action and frequent tactical skirmishes against the dredge. Here (as in Oregon Trail’s hunting mini-game) you have full control of your warriors, in contrast to the unpredictability of the encounters themselves. The Banner Saga uses these two game modes to establish the horizon of futility. You will walk until you die, most likely, but until that happens you can fight however you choose. Like a more violent version of Passage.
By suspending the possibility of survival and the usefulness of instrumental reasoning in achieving it, the game draws you closer to the real work of perseverance: the emotional labor of keeping your shit together. You’re never really given the opportunity to give up--and playing as Rook, who becomes his clan’s leader for the sake of his daughter Alette, I never wanted to--but the game makes you feel the burdensomeness of the journey and the temptation of an early end. The battles are a welcome break from the marches during which you can only wait and worry. I imagine that sometimes Rook feels the same way.
As the game progresses, the sense that your actions ultimately do not matter gets stretched in conflicting directions. You are confronted by story encounters where a seemingly shrewd choice costs you dearly or where indulging in a fit of scruples yields riches. You aren’t pushed to be “good” or “bad” but the outcomes can verge from unpredictable to arbitrary. At the same time, the story world’s scope expands beyond that of your initial characters, gesturing toward a larger narrative in which their seemingly tragic plight might be instrumental in saving the world after all. The player moves away from the limited, strained, personal perspective of Rook and Alette. Their struggle to want to survive has less emotional kick once the player sees they might be useful in some larger exchange of pawns. That story arc is not fully paid off in The Banner Saga. After finishing the game I learned this installment was advertised as part of a trilogy during the Kickstarter campaign; I mention this fact here because it is not mentioned at all if you just buy it off Steam.
In the end, I felt that my sense of what I could affect and what I must accept was not fully reflected in the outcomes that the game had prepared. The question of whether everyone dies or something unexpected happens is unanswered, left as the material for another episode.
What I loved in the game at first blush was maybe not what its creators intended and maybe not something that will even be part of the final product. I had thought this was a game about the end of humanity as it appears to be coming to pass in real life. Our planet is becoming inhospitable for us, because of us. To stop that requires the transformation of--of everything, from our material expectations of comfort to our social institutions to our individual psyches. Perhaps it is possible, but there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that we will make those changes.
Our environmental problems are not merely the question of finding some new and better technology--though I am a sucker for nuclear fusion--that will disrupt the apocalypse. The condition of our planet is not like a game system, designed to be won, that can necessarily be pierced with pure reason. Games, the games we’ve made, have told us this because it was what we wanted to hear. They made us think that a sufficiently reasoned input would return the win condition. They were entertainment, delighting us with intelligently designed worlds. But it looks like we might be fucked. We--or rather, some small shard of humanity that has enough power to be mistaken for the all--might be too in love with the inequality and ease that are killing us to benefit from what help instrumental reasoning could provide. We may already be in the endgame.
But games, and Banner Saga might turn out to be one of them, can still provide an occasion to work on doing that well. We have a long way to go before we are all dead. We have a hard road that we can make better for each other. Instrumental reasoning is useful--just as in The Banner Saga you want to win those encounters with the dredge, we should still do what is in our power to reduce material harm--but with the horizon of futility in sight, it may be time for games to stop listening to us.