With the arrival of The Banner Saga 2 on consoles and PCs last week, I dipped back into the first in the series as a refresher. The Banner Saga was an intensely original blend of Oregon Trail style tough decision making with the kind of turn based, tactical combat that wouldn’t feel out of place in the likes of Fire Emblem or X-COM. What really made the title stand out was its hand drawn, almost cartoonish appearance. It was hard hitting Norse mythology by way of Disney cartoonists, but it’s bright and breezy look was deceiving.
Beneath the vibrant art and gorgeous music, there was a cruel streak running through this game. Even on normal difficulty, combat involves scraping through by the skin of your teeth, and many back to back battles leave you with weakened units launched right back into the fray again. Your primary enemy is the unthinking, unfeeling Dredge, black eldritch horrors who do not sleep, do not rest, and who do not succumb to petty squabbles about who is stealing supplies or lovers.
Not unlike the crew of your own caravan, who mostly consist of civilians fleeing Dredge besieged lands in search of a safe home. Not only do you have to survive in the heat of battle, but you also have to make minute to minute decisions that will affect every member of your roving band of civilians, Varl warriors, and mercenaries. Your player avatar, Rook, is ill equipped to deal with this sort of nonsense, having been little more than a lone hunter raising his daughter Alette before the dredge reared their ugly heads once more. You, as the player, are equalled Ill-equipped to deal with these tough choices too.
There’s a thread of randomness throughout The Banner Saga that makes it so damn compelling. At one point, your caravan stops to eat fruit that begins to make a few of the members sick. In your panic, you can choose to abandon the fruit and move on, and you probably will. After that, it turns out they weren’t sick, just drunk, and the fermented fruit could have massively boosted your supply cache and also increased morale in the group. You’ll regret this decision later when you run out of supplies and you begin losing scores of men, women and children every day to starvation, a dull death knell at the start of every day signalling your folly.
Later in the game, your crew becomes captivated by collecting silver coins. Based off your previous encounter with the fruit, you think that you’ll let them grab the coins, despite the slightly sinister undertone to the scene.
Fast forward several days, and they’re still collecting coins. You lose valuable time and supplies, and almost have to resort to violence to separate them from some sort of bewitching. How do you know what choice is right and wrong? At another point, you have a reliable soldier and an unhinged mercenary who tried to kill you previously ask to join your team. You might let them both in, and things will tick over nicely for almost the entire game, until one of them betrays you in spectacular fashion at one of your lowest moments in the entire story, and it’s not the one you might think it would be.
Save scumming in a game like this is common. For those unfamiliar with the term, it basically means saving across multiple files, or before every major decision, and reloading to change the outcome if things don’t go in your favour. It’s common in games like Skyrim or Fallout 4 where you might want to see all sides of a dialogue tree, or reload to pass critical speech or skill checks.
It’s also common in games like The Banner Saga or X-COM where you might want to reload a save to recover a fallen character or revert a terrible decision. X-COM: Enemy Unknown was especially bad for this, as the death of a soldier in battle meant permadeath. They were gone forever. No matter how high a level they were, or how much time you had spent on their name or appearance. It was all gone. The Banner Saga is a little more forgiving, and death in battle is rarely permanent. Death outside of battle however, very much is.
The game does everything to stop scumming. It has no formal ‘save’ option, no slots, and everything auto saves. To scum, you’d have to turn off or close the game immediately after a bad decision before it has time to save, but this ruins the entire point of the series. Often in The Banner Saga, you can lose a battle and not see a game over screen, things just don’t go according to plan. In one situation where you’re trying to destroy a bridge, failure in battle means you fail the objective, and the story just moves on.
It’s the same with bad choices or starving civilians. The game moves on. You’re supposed to do the same, and live with your failure and bad decisions, regardless of the outcome. The end of the game presents you with an impossible choice with equally awful outcomes, and these choices have powerful ramifications for the sequel. If you want to scum this decision, you’ll have to stop short of every finishing the damn game.
So if you save scum in The Banner Saga, rather than experiencing a sprawling narrative with branching options, moments of crushing defeat and brief, fleeting victories, you’re instead reloading a game over and over again to make the right decisions and have the ‘best’ playthrough. What’s the point? Besides, The Banner Saga isn’t stupid. Sometimes there are no right choices, sometimes everything goes to hell anyway. Its part of your journey, step into another world and stop worrying about if your choice is good or bad. Just go with your gut.
Just make sure you collect that damn fruit.