Those old Hanna-Barbera cartoons used to have these funny tells. Velma Dinkley would be inspecting a book case for clues, and you could always tell, because of a marked difference between shelves, which one would have a trap door. I’m sure this was just an artifact of the animating process, such that there was a distinct difference between the background and moveable foreground items, but it also functioned brilliantly with the premise of shows like Scooby-Doo, the three-second anticipation of animation and the formula to every episode braiding together so that nothing really unexpected occurred. Dull, but delightfully so.
The Banner Saga shares some of these elements. Much of the game consists in the shift of a caravan proceeding horizontally across landscape and screen, and though there are animations, much of these are repetitive, glancing eyes and twisting hair. But though these are dull, in a sense, the effect isn’t unfascinating. The game is dull in an aesthetic way, in the way that wintry world would be, where it seemed at every point that my caravan was simply going from bad to worse circumstances, and when they would cut to those animations of the characters, glancing eyes and twisting hair, it seemed realistic, that people in a cold and godless world would address their inevitably sour options with little change in expression. Dull, like hit too much too often.
That safe feeling, in Hanna-Barbera and The Banner Saga, is tied to seeing nothing change except the foreground. Now, for the latter, this isn’t strictly true. Terrible things occur at various points in the game, directly affecting both the brave caravan and the landscape of the world around you. Yet so much of the game feels the same. You careen from danger to danger, watching food run out, watching the number of units following you ebb. Until a red pop-up tells you that two mothers are fighting over the marital prospects of their daughters, or that a varl, (a horned immortal) was found clawing himself in the woods — or, more dramatically, that someone important, to the characters and to your goals in the game, has died, or betrayed you. When things happen, they happen textually. Beyond that, the in-game visuals are limited to varieties of landscape, varieties of battlefield, and varieties of campsites. (And, as said, the occasional animated exchange, where this animation involves very little beyond glancing eyes and twisting hair and printed dialogue.) But these limitations don’t feel like laziness.
A Song of Ice and Fire has similar levels of dull-ness and bad-to-worse-ness and also occurs in a rich, historied world, where big things are happening. But, being a series of books, it happens entirely textually. And that seems important. When I played Final Fantasy 8, my actions scar the world, and I see it, in the world map or otherwise. Things change, and also you are constantly chased from bad-to-worse. Neither ASOIAF or FF8 offered me quite the same experience I’m having here, but for different reasons. Since I do not make choices in Westeros, I can empathize with the plights of the ASOIAF characters, but though I am certainly rooting for some, I am never anxious, usually simply in a state of proto-grief. Though I did make choices in FF8, there was never a sense (supported by in-game information) that this was all business as usual.
I think The Banner Saga provides a kind of ludo-delicacy: the sense of making decisions in dreadful world, where your decisions have weight, yet so routinely lead to bad consequences, where one feels very ordinary and not up to the task, in just the way the characters do.
To get that sense, I think you need elements like formulaic visuals, but choices, too, presented textually. There’s something either very powerful or sadly impotent about one’s imaginative capabilities when reading: I rarely notice inconsistencies. Part of that might be because I’m invested too much mentally, such that I pull out everything I can to make it all work, or I’ve invested too little, such that I haven’t even really imagined things enough to notice inconsistencies.1 That a significant part of the game is textual, and that what is significant within the game occurs textually, seems important. When you pair the formulaic visuals with a rich2 imagined space, I think you get tugged in two directions. You’re anxious because of textually presented decisions, and yet you keep scrolling through the same-old-same-old. Even though there are terrible things happening in the world, the formula for game-play presented in the visuals never seems to reflect the anxious sense you get from the textual decisions, and so their weight never seems to be fully evidenced in the game play. It gives me a rainy-day feeling that literature usually lacks. “All these things need to get done!”, even as the years slip forward.
PS. I don’t believe in spoilers.
- It took until Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for me to correct my pronunciation of ‘Hermoione.’ Not just that I had guessed it incorrectly, like most people: I’d actually rearranged the symbols into ‘Her-ih-moan.’ This tends to be the way that I treat all vocabulary words, too. They just become symbols. This learning method, when combined with late-night infomercials, lead me to believe that ‘authentic’ meant the opposite of what it does. ↩
- It might be a spare imagined space, but I don’t think that would produce the tension I’ve found here. That is, assuming one cares lots about richly imagined things, less about sparely imagined things. But that might not be true. Gesture drawings always beat out photographs in terms of likeness, I find. ↩