The Banner Saga, Choice, and Agency

by Christopher David Lawton

tbs1Let’s talk about choice. A couple of weeks ago, I spent much of my freetime playing The Banner Saga, the crowd-funded strategy-RPG from Bioware vets, Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgenson, and John Watson. In playing this game, I learned two things about myself. The first is that I’m terrible at strategy-RPGs. I shouldn’t say I learned this about myself. I’ve always known this. I just haven’t played one in so long that I forgot that I’m really terrible at them. Throughout my first playthrough I lost so often that the game offered to set the difficulty to an easier level. I’ve never been play-shamed by a game before. It did not feel great.

This poor ability to play the game leads directly into the second thing I learned about myself: specifically, I am a horrible leader. I learned this through the choices the game had me make as I played it, not only the choices I had to make in how I played the game, but also the in-game choices that helped shape the story. In every choice I made, people suffered. Or they died. Or they suffered and then they died.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t have fun playing the game. On the contrary: aside from my terrible, terrible skill in “playing” the game, I enjoyed it considerably. It has a fresh and unique setting, featuring gorgeous artwork and solid mechanics. I may be horrible at the game, but I loved every minute I played, and I can’t wait to play the sequel. It was the choices in the game, though, that stuck out most in my mind. I was struck not only by the amount of choices in the game, but also by what those choices — as well as the popularity of games that feature such choices — say about us, the people who enjoy playing games like The Banner Saga.

The Banner Saga focuses on a coming war. The humans and the frost giants – or Varl – have long lived in a tenuous peace with each other, but that peace may soon come to an end. From the north, the Dredge – a warlike race that hates both man and Varl – is sweeping down, led by Bellower, a Dredge that appears invulnerable. The player takes control of two separate caravans, which eventually unite to take on Bellower and quell this current onslaught of Dredge. Along the way, the player gets the opportunity to make a series of choices, all of which help shape the course of the story as he or she plays.

The choices themselves feel fairly fresh, all things considered. As previously mentioned, the three primary developers are all Bioware veterans, so they understand how to build a game that features choices. I remember when I first played Knights of the Old Republic way back in the early 2000s, I decided to be the biggest jerk in the world, and the game let me do that. It let me do that so well that I became physically sick with myself around the time that I forced a scared father to pay me extra money to tell him that I found his daughter, but she was dead, and not only was she dead, but I was the one that killed her. None of the choices in The Banner Saga are that blatantly evil, but they all change the game in significant ways.

tbs2First, you have the choices that you make as you play the game. A big part of the game is moving your caravan across great stretches of land. This act of caravanning takes supplies, such as food and water, and while you can buy these supplies at each town, it’s unclear how much you will need to get to your next destination. Additionally, riding the caravan hard lowers morale, which can only be regained by camping for a few days, which also uses supplies. At one point in the game, I decided to camp for a couple of days to bring up my caravan’s morale, only to run out of food days from my next destination. At that point, you can do nothing but watch your population numbers decrease daily as caravan members either die or leave (the game is unclear which). The point is the choices I made as the game player directly affected the members of my caravan.

And, it gets worse from there. In addition to the choices I made playing the game — most of which led to death and destruction — the game also presents plenty of in-game choices that do the same thing. Say, while marching your caravan, you meet a group of soldiers. They are all tired and weary, and they ask to join your caravan. You get to decide what to do with them. Maybe you let them join. Maybe you give them some of our hard-earned supplies and send them on their way. Maybe you kill them. Whatever your choice, your decision will directly impact the game. Sometimes, immediately — at one point, I chose to show mercy to a group of bandits, only to have them rob me a day later — and sometimes later in the game — like when a group of refugees I let join my caravan waited weeks before turning on us. While these choices are all much more subtle than many of the moral choices present in a lot of early Bioware games, they are all moral choices none-the-less, and your decisions have cascading effects on the events of the story and the members of your caravan.

Games that feature such heavy choices are often praised as realistic. We, as the game players, make all of these choices that affect the story and the world of the game, and in doing so, we exhibit our freedom and agency as living, thinking humans, just as we do in the real world. But, are they as realistic as we think?

Yes, we have a choice in everything we do, but it’s questionable how much agency we have within that choice. A friend of mine once told me that “Liberals think we should be equal at the finish line; conservatives think we should be equal at the starting line.” The implication is, of course, that equality at the starting line is better, which I’m not sure that anyone — even the staunchest liberal — would disagree with. However, the statement does fail to question whether equality at the starting line is even possible in our current culture.

I apologize for the tangent, but trust me, it is all related to The Banner Saga in some way. I promise.

We all have choices in how we run the race, but our agency — the actual control we have over our decisions — is shaped and informed by our ideologies, our environment, the culture in which we were raised, our religion, our beliefs, our parents’ religions and beliefs, etc. As much as we love to believe we are all unique little snowflakes with our own thoughts, so much of what we believe is a product of all of these different forces that push and pull us, beginning this process when we are very, very young.

And these are merely ideological forces. This doesn’t include concrete forces that determine our agency, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality. Say you have two people born the exact same day at the exact same minute. One of them is a white male born to an upper-class family, while the other is a black male born to a lower-class family. Two people, both starting out life on the same day, but under considerably different circumstances, and these different circumstances will affect them later in life, for good or bad.

tbs3The upper-class white male’s childhood is one that brings with it its own challenges, but is comparatively, much easier. He doesn’t have to work a part-time job growing up. He has the opportunity to focus on school, so his grades are better. He may get into a scrape with the law every now and then, but it’s often let go with a slap on the wrist. It’s just a boy being a boy, they’ll say. In choosing a college, he has money, so he really has his pick of the litter. While in college, he doesn’t need to work at all, so he can focus on extra-curricular activities and networking. When he graduates, he already has a high-paying job waiting for him, the result of the aforementioned networking along with the name recognition that comes from his family. He has no student loans, so he can afford to build a very nice life for his family. And, then he has kids, who of course, grow up in virtually the same pattern.

The lower-class black male has a much different life growing up. He may attend school, but his grades aren’t anything of note. Maybe his focus wanes because he was up late trying to do his homework, but he doesn’t get the material because he attends an over-crowded, under-funded public school. Or, maybe, he has to work extra hours to help pay bills at home, because regardless of any assistance his family receives, life is expensive, and minimum wage is low. If he gets in trouble with the law, he gets sentenced to prison, or even worse, he gets killed in the street, so he keeps his head down, and he does as little as he can to gain notice from police, even though he’s done nothing wrong. College is probably not even in the picture, because in order to get loans, one has to have credit, or at least a solid income, and that’s something our example here has never had. Maybe if his grades were better, he could get a scholarship, but as we’ve already discussed, outside forces can have a huge effect on that, so that’s most likely not an option. Tuition assistance is a possibility, but it won’t cover the entirety of his tuition, and he will most likely have to work a full-time job to make up the difference, further splitting his attention from his studies. If he finishes college, he’s then competing with the previous example who has had four years to network and a lifetime of name recognition and recommendations, making the battle to get a job all the harder. And, then he has kids, who of course, grow up in virtually the same pattern.

Now, of course these examples are generalizations. There are exceptions to both. There are poor kids, both black and white, that pull themselves out of the muck and lift themselves to a higher class. And there are kids from upper-class families that screw up and waste their lives away. What I’m trying to get you to see, though, is how, often, our agency is skewed by forces outside of our control. Simply where we’re born can determine many of our options in life. While we may be raised to believe that the sky is the limit, and we are all in control of our destiny, a lot of times, without changing these fundamental environmental factors around us, that agency is hollow at best.

Wow, this took a dark turn. Let’s bring it back to The Banner Saga.

What does all of this about choice have to do with The Banner Saga? Well, I would argue that games that give us a wide-range of choice represent less the freedom and agency we’re given in real life, but more the freedom and agency we’re led to believe we’ve been given in real life. Let me explain. Take the two examples above. Despite coming from very, very, very different backgrounds, both fictional males are told that they’re equal. They’re told that they’re beginning the race from an equal starting line. And, this idea is reinforced through nationalistic ideologies, what Louis Althusser would call Ideological State Apparatuses. Systems are in place to keep us believing that we are all fighting the same fight on the same level, and in doing so, the power structures as they currently exist within society remain in place. There is never a shift in power. And it’s no coincidence that the people who ingrain within us this idea of equality are those who have already achieved power, the people whose very position relies on the status quo remaining.

And, when viewed from this perspective, The Banner Saga becomes remarkably dark. The only person who is in this position of power, the one who makes the decisions and choices in the game, the one who has real agency is the player and the characters that he or she controls. As I played The Banner Saga, I made choices that directly affected the people in my caravan, often to their physical, mental, and emotional detriment. And, in this scenario, it was the people in my caravan who had their agency taken from them. Yes, they could have left the caravan at any time — they always had the choice to do so — but, the world outside the caravan is deadly, and they wouldn’t survive long. While they had the choice to leave, it was a false choice. They had no agency. They really had no choice but to follow my decisions. If there’s a hegemonic power within The Banner Saga, it is the player.

tbs4But, The Banner Saga isn’t unique in this. Most games imbue the player with a sense of agency and power. It’s one of the many appeals of this hobby. In the real world, we are anti-social geeks with self-esteem problems. But, in the world of video games, we can be whatever we want. We always have the right thing to say. We always have the skills and abilities necessary to be successful. We always save the day. One of the ways video games work is by identifying that which we lack in the real world and giving it to us.

If, as I’ve posited, we experience a true lack of agency in the real world, in the path our lives can take, it stands to reason that we would try to find something that resembles agency in games like The Banner Saga. For many people, video games are escapism, so it makes sense in my head that part of that escapism involves finding that agency that we feel we should have in the real world, but is noticeably absent. Of course, this is still a false agency. You are still bound by the rules of the game as determined by those in power, those who developed the game. But, that’s a topic for a different essay.

Moving on, now that we have this knowledge, what do we do with it? Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to do. There’s nothing inherently wrong with video games interacting with us on this level. This isn’t something that needs to change for the betterment of society, such as the negative imagery of gender, race, or sexuality in many video games. It is, however, something to consider and take note of when we play video games. Are we replacing a lack of agency that we feel in the real world? If so, is it a lack of agency caused by systemic institutions meant to maintain power structures? If so, is there anything we can do about it?

Ultimately, The Banner Saga is a great game, and one that I enjoyed immensely. I don’t want to give the impression that playing it or enjoying it is bad. I enjoy a lot of media that could be considered problematic by cultural critics. And I certainly don’t want to imply that the creators intended to create something problematic as part of some vast conspiracy to keep people down. If this agency replacement actually exists, like most ideological concepts, it is subtle and ingrained within society and culture, something that just happens because we are so used to how society works.

It is important to recognize all of this as a possibility, though. Only by acknowledging power structures as they exist, can we ever hope to change them.