Today I want to talk about a little game called The Banner Saga. This awesome indie game has a lot to teach us, aside from the fact that King is a sketchy company that will apparently try to force people out of competition by trademarking common words. It teaches us that video game narrative is incredibly flexible, so flexible in fact that the game tells different stories depending on what you do.
Let me explain. The Banner Saga is a game that allows you to make many different decisions over the course of the game. You lead a group of refugees across a frozen wasteland in a kind of “Oregon Trail” like simulation a third of the time, participate in grid based tactical battles another third, and the rest of the time you are speaking with important characters and making Telltale-like social decisions. These decisions not only effect where your traveling party goes, but also effect the end of the game.
Now, it’s nothing new for games to have multiple endings. Usually these are divided by “good endings,” “bad endings,” and “joke endings.” Sometimes there are multiple good endings and bad endings, but many of them only change the game slightly. Usually the main character will end up with a different girl or something, or the blinky world destruction lights will shine a different color (we're looking at you Mass Effect 3). Either way, the meaning of the game doesn’t really change depending on the ending you get.
However, The Banner Saga is different and I would wager that it is the best usage of multiple endings in a game so far. So before I get into the details, first let me give you the requisite
OK? Is everyone who hasn’t played the game yet gone? Alright.
So The Banner Saga follows Rook and Alette, a father and son who are just trying to survive the resurgence of a species of living armor-like creatures called the Dredge. They flee their hometown along with their countrymen in order to find refuge somewhere else, only to find that most of the kingdoms of man have been destroyed. At the end of the game, they must face off against Bellower, a giant dredge that cannot be killed. The only way to defeat it is to shoot it with an arrow that will make it think it is dead.
Now, depending on the decisions you make over the course of the game, either Rook or Alette could end up shooting the special arrow. However, the catch is, doing so automatically makes Bellower rage out and kill the person who shot it. Unfortunately, you don’t know this until the arrow is already fired. Which means that someone has to die no matter what.
If Rook dies, the story is about Alette’s coming of age. It’s how she sees horrible things in a dying world, and rises up to eventually take control of her clan. She has people try to abuse her, kidnap her, and even try to kill her, but she rises through it to meet her responsibility. She grows from a girl to a woman, becoming hardened, and realizing that sacrifices must be made for the good of the people. It’s depressing, but also inspiring.
If Alette dies, however, the story takes a much darker turn. If he survives, he is a man who has given everything for his people and his daughter, and in the end gets nothing. He pushes through the barren wastelands of the world in an attempt to do one thing, protect his family, and he could not do that. Now, a man with nothing left, he has nothing more to do than to kill the dredge one by one wherever he may find them.
You see, by allowing different characters to die at the end, it actually shifts the focus of who the main character is. Both Rook and Alette share about the same amount of focus over the game’s story, so when the end focuses on one or the other, it puts every action of the game in a different context. It’s a fantastic new way to handle multiple endings, one creating a hardened leader that is the hope of her people, the other creating a desperate Viking version of The Punisher.
What did you think of The Banner Saga’s ending? Let us know in the comments.
Former Contributing Writer