Creative Director for The Banner Saga Talks Kickstarter, RPG Heroes, and Story in Games

Electronics People

Thomas: From the start of the design we intended to make each of our three main systems (combat, travel and conversation) influence the others in exactly the way you’re talking about here. To summarize briefly; the story involves you and your people trying to escape what seems to be the literal end of the world which is sweeping slowly across the land. The travel scenes from the video are actual game-play which are akin to a cross between King of Dragon Pass and Oregon Trail. You’re not responsible just for a single character or a party, but for an entire society of people, and that opens up a lot of options people haven’t played with much in role-playing games.

A screen capture from the banner sagaA screen capture from the banner saga

Travel is part of the game experience in The Banner Saga

As you travel events will happen — your clansmen get in disputes, supplies run low and a wide variety of other unexpected issues come up that you have to deal with. Making decisions during travel can affect the difficulty or frequency of combat, and in turn barely surviving a fight doesn’t return you to full health afterward. You know you’ll be in trouble if you get in another fight soon, but making camp to rest will chew up time. Time is a key element to the game, and events can change based on when you encounter them. Through these smaller events you’re forming the story of your caravan, and through primarily dialogue you unravel the mystery of what’s happening to the world and what you can do to change things. One of our key goals has been to let bad things happen and to allow the player to deal with mistakes and keep them. Being a smaller, indie project has given us the ability to mess with the world in a way that bigger developers may shy away from. If your home town goes up in flames, you haven’t lost the game. It just keeps going. What is important to you, as the player, should be to do the best you can for you, your friends and your people.

Wecks: As much as I enjoyed Mass Effect, one of the things that seemed to hold it back to me was the whole first person shooter genre. It is kind of hard to tell a compelling story when the goal of the game play is basically slaughter everyone you can for dubious reasons (such as just because they’re mercenaries), then steal anything you find (including from your allies), and solve every problem with a gun. I don’t think it lends itself to very good characters — they’re predictable and boring. In The Banner Saga promos you seem to be hinting that you want to put together that same kind of story-driven game with a different genre of game play. How do you see the genre of game play influencing your story? What can you do in a tactical strategy game which you cannot do in a first person shooter?

Thomas: This gets into what compelled us to make this game. Predictability nullifies a good story like nothing else will, and if your game-play encourages you to be a bi-polar, kleptomaniac lunatic, it’s hard to rationalize your actions. We really set out to focus first on telling a story, and to create game-play that supported that story. I don’t believe you can develop these things in a vacuum, and it can be a huge hurdle to have your game-play dictated before you’ve even come up with a concept. By contrast, we’d come up with some story that struck us as compelling, then worked in some game-play which supported it, that in turn informed the story and caused us to rethink other game-play, and so on and so forth until we felt like we had achieved some harmony throughout the game.

I think that’s why we ended up with a travel system that’s a little unusual: it solved a lot of problems like pacing, screwing around when there’s a world to save or, in general, a lack of good motivation. To bring up points that you mentioned, we don’t even let the player loot chests, grind on random encounters, and solve every problem with a fight, and we don’t think they’ll miss it. We don’t even have money in the game, because it has no relevance to the gameplay. From our perspective it’s an incredible chance to try something new, and though we know it’s not going to revolutionize gaming for the shooter crowd it’s an opportunity almost nobody gets in this industry.

Wecks: Shepard as a bi-polar, kleptomaniac lunatic — I kind of like that. It seems like a pretty good way to describe him or her.

Thomas: For the record, right off the bat I should make it very clear that while you referenced Mass Effect, I was just giving a more general description that could apply to practically any RPG protagonist. The last thing we need is some headline like “Ex BioWare Indie Developers Think Mass Effect Is Dumb!” because I truly, sincerely love the games and the genre. Heck, that’s why I joined the company!

Wecks: Fair enough, I will take responsibility for applying your generalized statement to Shepard. I still think it is a reasonable description, and I loved the games as well. Getting back to the relationship between story and game play, it sounds like for you story came first, or is at least an equal component to the game play. I would guess that had something to do with the success of your Kickstarter campaign.

Thomas: I would agree that we started with story, which is generally an unheard-of luxury for the industry. It’s interesting that you mention story being equal to game-play as a cause for our success because one of our bigger failings was (I believe) in not providing a great explanation of the key systems and how they come together. We messaged “kind of like some other games you may enjoy” but that was it, and I really think we have something pretty unique, fun and interesting here. After the release of our announcement trailer, we were surprised to find that the majority of viewers thought the travel scenes were just cinematics. So all of that is something we’ve been working towards clarifying better as we get back to production.

Wecks: There is another interesting comment you make about story in the first little clip during the video:

There is a huge world changing event happening and it’s not just about are you the guy who can stop it. It’s not about destroying a villain or overcoming a major obstacle. It’s about survival. It’s about, what do you do when something completely out of your control happens. What do you do with your family? What do you do to save your kin?

So what does that mean? It sounds like you’re trying to make a break here from other video game models which seem to rely heavily on these obstacles and villains. Am I right? If so, why are you tired of them, and what do you want to put in their place: after all, villains often drive stories?

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