Games

'The Banner Saga' Presents a Living World Through a Lore That Is Actually Lived

The Banner Saga is interested in expressing the character of the world itself through its game related lore.

A big question in any work of art in any medium is how to convey information to the audience. I don't mean any information. I mean the type of information that if done badly gets called an info dump, the exposition necessary to get everyone on the same page, so we can get on with the action and drama of present events in the story. This information is important for the audience to know. Otherwise, they won't understand the stakes or motivations of the characters. Yet, these scenes contain an inherent paradox that has to be worked out or worked around. The audience has to know this information to understand the plot and to understand the character's motivations, yet this information is only interesting to people who are already invested in the tale being told.

There's a long history of creators working out novel solutions to providing this basic need in fiction. However, fiction that seeks to create a world and use it as a platform for numerous stories has a bit of an additional issue. There is a tendency to overstuff works created within the context of an already existing world with information because any part of it could be useful or necessary later down the line. Video games have largely inherited this problem. The need to create worlds that the player can inhabit rather than a fiction that exists within defined boundaries exacerbates this problem. Lore can permeate a world with interesting, but largely useless information. The solution to this overstuffing of information in video games has frequently been to make learning about it largely optional.

Way back in Baldur's Gate, the main method of providing the player a sense of the world's lore was by scattering books containing the world's backstory around the world. If the player picked these books up and examined them in their inventory, this examination would provide a summary of the book's contents. Such books usually contained a short story that provided depth to the world by providing a few nuggets of information that would presumably connect to other facts that were never provided. Thus, these texts left a sense in the player's mind of there being more history and context surrounding these events than there actually was in game and would make the world feel larger.

Over the years and several franchises, Bioware has expanded their lore offerings and improved how that lore is experienced in their games. Instead of connecting lore to items directly, they've segregated the material into its own menu and organized it better for the player's benefit. The material provided is not necessary to play the game, but if perused, it adds to the sense that the player inhabits a living, breathing world, that myth of fiction that I talked about last week. However, in practice, often these texts read like articles from a fictional encyclopedia rather than providing necessary context for the narrative. The delivery is dry and disconnected from the world that the characters exist in.

I love The Banner Saga's presentation of its lore for its elegance. While this extraneous information is still optional, it is not segregated in its own menu. Instead it has been moved to the map screen. When looking at the map you can highlight any of the names of mountain ranges, rivers, swamps, cities, towns forts, etc. and simply click one that interests you. Doing so, will bring up a slightly transparent, black text box with a short description of the location that contains some references to its history, society, economy, ecology, or any other tidbit of information most relevant about it, usually no more than a sentence or two long.

This method of lore delivery accomplishes two great feats of world building.

First, by connecting the game's lore to the map screen, the player can draw connections between the towns and the rivers that they sit on against another town and the road through it. They can see the relation between different places by attaching a single cohesive visual to all of the locations. This visual creates a more detailed sense of how the world works by allowing the player to see how the few notes that we are given about an area would matter. Furthermore, the map itself has another use.

During the long journey across the continent trying to stay one step ahead of the Dredge, your position is marked by an icon that resembles the leader's face and his journey is highlighted by a line of dots. Not only can we see the relation between different pieces of information, but our own place in the world. The marches made in the game are long. The days tick by as resources are used up and the scenery scrolls slowly by. Then you check the map screen and discover that all those days amounted to was a dot or two between locations. Then the enormity of the distances being traversed is understood as a human endeavor and not as idle markings on a piece of paper.

A map is only ever a representation of the world, not the world itself. However, the maps in games often end up not as a representation of a world, but as a function of the world. They are used to mark the location of items or to fast travel. They present a zoomed out perspective of our play space. The different aspects of The Banner Saga all frame the world differently. The battles use an isometric camera, the conversations are presented as over the shoulder cross cutting, the camps are location master shots, while the two parts that I've been discussing -- the map and the journey -- are seen through overhead and lateral tracking shots respectively. The map becomes a representation of the world instead of a function of it because it shows the world one way, while we experience it in another. We see the map from above, but we see the world from the side. We can't conflate the two, and, thus, we are given two sets of information about the world and put them together in our mind to come away with a greater scope of where we actually are.

The other great world building feat of The Banner Saga is how the lore is written. Instead of providing long short stories about this person or that battle, as written by an impersonal historiographer, the writing of The Banner Saga's lore feels colloquial. This information is what the average person would know about any of the given places in the world, whether because of their experience of them or simply what they've heard about them. This river is called the Red River because of all the blood spilled here when the battle lines never moved during the second great war. These mountains look like teeth when they peek out above the clouds, hence they are named Gnasher, Biter, and Grinder. And then what is known of the Mire Fallows is hearsay because no one wants to test their luck and actually go to that miserable place.

The lettering on the map itself calls out to the game's Viking influences, as it is written in a runic font. Alongside the geographical features and their names are the embellishments of cartographers, like boats on the sea and sigils to represent the most important cities in the land. The style of language used in the lore along with the deliberately different looking text boxes that it is presented in give the impression that there is someone above the map alongside you imparting this information. Or maybe it is your character thinking to themselves. The style in which in the information is told, tells us additional things about the world. It tells us about the people and what they know or care about. It tells us about what their creations look like and what parts of the continent they value more than others. How something is said tells us almost as much as what is said.

There are plenty of methods and tricks creators use to deliver dry background information. Most, if not all, try to do something else alongside delivering the information. The Banner Saga is not just providing factoids about its world. It is expressing the character of the world itself. Through the art, through the language, through how these show us our place in the world, and since there is so little information provided about each location, also through what is not told or what isn't known. World building is often confused with mere exposition. It seems as if this exposition exists to prove that the more information the creators have written, the more world building that they have done, but this approach misses out on the other part of the world, the part we experience. World building is also about character, tone, and the attitudes of the people that live there.

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