The Banner Saga elegantly addresses the refugee crisis
Stoic finished their brutal, emotional The Banner Saga trilogy just last month, and it wasn’t just me that was blown away. The Banner Saga trilogy is the RPG that we need for this moment in history - a game that forces us to walk many miles in the shoes of refugees who might otherwise be invisible to us.
Note: this article will contain major spoilers for all three Banner Saga games.
We are in the midst of a world refugee crisis. People from Central America, the Middle East, and Africa are fleeing their home countries in record numbers for a variety of complex reasons, with many fleeing violence. They are often cynically used as chess pieces in global politics, but regardless of your position on immigration, there’s no escaping the simple fact that refugees are people just like you and me, desperately searching for a better life. The Banner Saga explores this concept with great insight and compassion.
In The Banner Saga, you play as a Viking leader guiding a group of refugees across a war-torn landscape locked in eternal winter. During the course of the game, you find yourself on both sides of the wall, so to speak. Those with less than you seek the safety of joining your clan, and those with more than you try to shut you out. Many of the events and mechanics of the game mirror the sorts of decisions we must now make as a nation and a global society. The Banner Saga allows you, as the player, to walk many miles in the shoes of refugees.
Narrative & Mechanics
The Banner Saga’s mechanics are a hybrid of medieval turn-based squad combat a la X-Com, coulpled with Oregon Trail-style resource management. As you travel through the snowy countryside, you have to manage your supplies, feed your clan, and fend off attacks from the Dredge, an ancient army of stone golems we’ll discuss in more detail shortly.
Recent post-apocalyptic fare often embraces a superficial machismo - protect your own, trust no one, be armed at all times, humans are the real threat - man as singular nation, with all the guns pointed outward. This value set posits that it’s all well and good to be generous when times are good, but when times are bad, you have to be selfish to survive. This theme features prominently in the zombie genre in particular, and plays into our national myths of the wholly self-sufficient cowboy individualist. The Banner Saga could’ve easily taken this route, but went in the opposite direction. Playing the game this way will get you killed.
Your clan includes named party members who you control during combat sequences, as well as clansmen (unarmed craftsmen, children, and other noncombatants), varl (giants), and fighters (unnamed warriors that you do not directly control). You must feed and protect all of these people, but having a large number of clansmen, fighters, and varl allow you to bypass difficult combat sequences with minimal cost.
In The Banner Saga, Renown points are both currency and character points. You earn them by defeating enemies in combat, and through good decision making. You can use these points to both improve your characters’ stats and purchase supplies for your clan. If you drive your clan too hard, or allow them to starve in favor of upgrading your party’s combat abilities, you will actually reduce your party’s combat efficacy, and people in your clan will start to die or abandon you. If you aren’t careful, you may end up having to fight your way through sequences a large clan could’ve otherwise bulled their way through.
In BS2/3, a supernatural darkness sweeps the land. It warps and destroys everything it touches, and there seems to be no stopping it. In the final chapter of BS3, it starts to encroach on the city of Arberrang, where you and your clan have taken shelter. After a certain point, the game starts a timer, and the amount of time you get is dependent upon how many clansmen, varl, fighters, and supplies you’ve accumulated. Supplies are almost always desperately short, so in the end, your most precious resource is actually your people. If you were callous, you will have fewer clansmen sworn to your banner, and the encroaching darkness will arrive that much sooner.
The Banner Saga is the sort of game that strives to give you a large latitude of freedom as a player, but during this final scenario it becomes clear that there are right and wrong decisions, and the best choices are the ones that grow your clan by welcoming outsiders.
Love is not enough
Throughout BS3, Iver leads a second party of adventurers into the darkness itself, in an attempt to stop its spread. This party includes the lovers Eyvind and Juno, two powerful sorcerers whose relationship led to magical shenanigans that caused the darkness to be unleashed in the first place. In short, this whole mess is their fault.
At the end of their journey, Eyvind must seal Juno in a magical prison, where she will suffer eternally, but the darkness will recede and the world will be saved. Juno has resolved to see this plan through to the end, but Eyvind hesitates.
He has a chance to cut a deal that allows the world to be half-consumed by darkness, but Juno will die instantly instead of suffering forever. The player, as Iver, has to talk him into doing what must be done. In my game, I got lucky and with some prodding, he did what he had to. Juno was sealed in her prison, the darkness defeated, and the world was saved.
The story’s moral is clear: it’s not enough to choose in favor of the people that you love. You have to make sacrifices for the greater good, even if it breaks your heart.
The Dredge are your primary foe in the first Banner Saga game, and are portrayed as a terrifying, inscrutable foe. They are anthropomorphic but alien, without language, culture, or society. They are a force of death sweeping over your land, akin to a swarm of giant army ants. They are a constant danger, harrying your every step. You fight your share of normal humans and varl giants as well, but they are portrayed with a level of humanity and motivation that isn’t present in the Dredge.
However, the more time you spend in the world, the more complicated your understanding of the Dredge becomes. You discover that Iver, your varl companion, was once known as the famous warrior Yngvar, who killed a Sundr - a sort of Dredge commander previously thought indestructible. All of varl society viewed him as a hero for winning an epic battle and helping bring about victory against the Dredge.
But the truth is there was no epic battle. Iver/Yngvar threw his axe at the Sundr, not knowing that she was carrying a child, not even knowing that the Dredge could have children. The axe struck the child, killing it instantly. At that point, the great Sundr, in her grief, allowed herself be killed. After losing her child, death seemed like a mercy.
Yngvar couldn’t speak the truth, and couldn’t live with his undeserved fame, so he escaped to Skogr, the village where BS1 begins. You find this out late in the game, and it’s pretty earthshaking. You realize the Dredge, the monsters you’ve been killing since the game started, have families and children. And if they can feel grief, they can feel joy, fear, love, despair, and hope. They are people.
At the end of BS3, Arberrang, the human capital, has transformed into a massive, overpopulated refugee camp. Thousands cower behind its walls. The Dredge are besieging the city, and you defeat another Sundr who is attempting to crush the city’s walls, and the assembled Dredge armies simply stop. And wait. They do nothing. The attacks cease. The Dredge mill about the outside of the city, hopeless.
One of your companions realizes that the Dredge are not trying to destroy all of humanity, as previously believed. They just want to enter the city. They want protection and safety as well. Your deadly foes are actually just like you - refugees. And you can choose to welcome them into the city or not. Even your enemies want the same thing as you - and in the face of the encroaching darkness, all are rendered the same: terrified, needy, desperate.
Later on, you realize that the Dredge were driven from their home dimension by the darkness that is threatening to consume all. Worse still, these shenanigans were caused by humans. The Dredge don’t mindlessly hate humanity; all along, they are furious at us for destroying their home, and their anger is justified.
You are refugees. Your friends and loved ones are refugees. Your formerly implacable enemies are refugees. The threat of pain, death, and loss have rendered you all the same. And if you choose to, you can stand together against the darkness.
Here, in our real world, we are faced with the same choice.
After you’re done managing resources and fighting epic battles, this is the true lesson of The Banner Saga. By the end of the game, you’ve traveled hundreds of miles and stitched countless clans’ banners onto your own.
Bright red, it is visible for miles against the snowy white backdrop.
It can be a symbol of hope, if you are brave enough to make it one.