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

Electronics People

Thomas: Yeah, that setup is at the core of our story. One of our major inspirations for the story has been great TV miniseries like Game of Thrones or Deadwood, and other media that isn’t actually interactive. My personal favorite is The Wire. There’s one recurring theme to all of these stories I find really compelling— there’s no bad guy, just stories about people. You might say Al Swearengen or Stringer Bell are villains, but I don’t agree with that. They all think they’re doing the right thing for themselves and they’re all striving to make their lives better in a different way from their “good guy” counterparts, in a believable way. To a large degree they’re even likable, despite their actions. Who is the villain in your life? Do they know they’re the villain? People just don’t work like that, and when you see it in a story it often doesn’t ring true.

Villains can be lots of fun and a convenient focus for a interactive story, but there are plenty of games that give you a baddy to fight against. We thought the more unusual and interesting approach would be to imagine a conflict without a clear focus. What do you do if there’s nobody to blame for the end of the world? What if you know there’s no god to believe in or guide you? What if you don’t even know what death means for you? What if you’re completely alone but dammit you’re not giving up and laying down because you’re a freaking viking? What’s going to happen next? I hope the player has no idea. I think that’s pretty cool.

Screen Capture from Sleeping BeautyScreen Capture from Sleeping Beauty

Prince Philip follows Princess Aurora in Disney's Sleeping Beauty

Wecks: So why Sleeping Beauty and why animation? The trend in games seems to be to try like mad (and fail) to cross the uncanny valley. Why go back? What do you mean when you say “there is a soul to animation?” I have to confess, part of me thinks this is just a budget decision, not really an artistic decision.

Thomas: How dare you, sir! How dare you? In all honesty, we went with 2D animation because I have a love for it that defies rational thought. In my formative years I was enthralled by 2D animation in the purest sense. It’s like when you read an interview with some director who said his dad brought him to see some movie and he was so blown away by it he knew right there he was going to make movies. Well, I became a 2D animation major at UCF right as the bottom fell out of the market and Disney began laying off the animation staff. I didn’t see any professional future in it and dropped out of college to work on my other love, games, at Wolfpack Studios, who were making Shadowbane at the time.

To me, 2D animation is like magic, the simple idea that you can draw something with your hand, and it actually comes to life and moves and thinks was something that has never gone away for me. If I didn’t care, we’d probably be doing it in that puppet style that’s become popular lately because it’s ten times quicker to produce. I have a deep appreciation for 3D animation as well but watching Rats of NIMH and Snow White on VHS tapes blew my young, squishy mind.

So on a less personal level, when we had nailed down the story and basic gameplay we started looking at a ton of different art styles we could go with. We actually tried a wide range of art styles but nothing was really striking us, which is when Arnie thought of Sleeping Beauty. We loaded it up and we immediately knew that was it. It was one of those art styles that you look at and can’t imagine it ever existing again because it was conceived and perfected by a single man named Eyvind Earle, who was the art director on Sleeping Beauty. We instantly knew we were going to try to do it and we’re lucky enough to have someone talented enough to make it work – I don’t think there are many artists working today who could do it. Earle’s considered a master painter for a reason.

Wecks: Just personal opinion here, but I have always felt that Sleeping Beauty was the most beautiful film ever to come out of Disney because it was stylized. Do you agree?

Thomas: Yes. Yes, I do. I’ve always been of the opinion that a key component to what makes something “art” is the raw skill and effort behind it and when I look at something done by Eyvind Earle it looks almost impossible to me, especially coming from a time before digital tools. At best we’re doing a mere homage, and I hope he would approve.

Wecks: So now the money is in the bank — okay, a lot of money is in the bank, more than expected. I know you mention it in some of your Kickstarter updates, but go over for our audience how that money is going to improve the game.

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