The Banner Saga: Leadership’s Great Moral Burden

The Banner Saga asks you to be a leader, but it’s hard to lead a people you don’t know.

Written by James Roberts / Published on February 5, 2014

“You humans are absurd, Rook. Furious when you’re not in control, terrified when you are.” – Iver

For someone who is often reluctant to take the reins in anything in life, leadership has always been a big draw for me in video games. It is a form of wish fulfillment that my lack of assertiveness in the real world prevents me from living out, and to be honest I’d much rather lead a legendary army into a fierce confrontation with a dragon over a real world situation any day. Games like Mass Effect made me believe that I was capable of being an efficient and just leader in these fantasy scenarios, that I could make good moral choices. One game proved that assumption very wrong.

The Banner Saga is a game with stunning hand-drawn art and a beautiful soundtrack that accompanies a smorgasbord (an appropriate term given the game’s obvious Scandinavian influence) of varied gameplay types ranging from tactical to text-based roleplaying game. But where the game is truly at its finest is in its simulation of the burdens of leadership. Where games like The Walking Dead thrust difficult choices at you with a small group of personable characters, The Banner Saga steps back and asks: “What would you do if those same choices and consequences were on a grander scale and with minor characters who you rarely interact with?”

The story is not complicated: you live in a Nordic inspired world where the gods have died and the sun has mysteriously stopped in the sky. Seemingly the end times are upon you and an old enemy rises up in the chaos. Villages are being pillaged and it is your task as the reluctant leader of a caravan to lead your people to safety. But it’s not as easy as it might sound.

In order to do this you need to keep your four main resources in balance with each other. “Supplies” dictate how many days you can travel or rest before you begin to starve. “Morale” dictates how well your heroes perform in battle. “Renown” is the battle-won currency that you use to purchase supplies, items and level up your heroes. Finally, “Fighters” are the number of battle-ready non-playable characters in your caravan. These mechanics are all closely tied together and influenced by one another, so a lack of one can and will directly affect another. It is a vicious cycle and can very quickly make it a real struggle to keep things from falling apart. The game delights in making this all the harder for you, throwing frequent and difficult choices at you that require an immediate and decisive response. More often than not, you can never be entirely certain what the results will yield based on the limited information you are given.

Within only a few hours of playing I was already finding the burden of my contemplative and compassionate style of command almost too much to bear.  Where in the beginning I felt qualified and more than capable of handling my position, I now felt helpless. With each decision I made I felt my confidence slip away; more often than not what I believed to be an appropriate and fair response to a situation would net me with lost supplies or deaths in my camp. Frustration soon set in as I realized that because of my poor judgement the game was gradually becoming more difficult, morale was in the tank, and the fighting segments were harder as a result. Worse still, the people of the caravan would constantly come to me with their often petty troubles and disputes, which while I did my utmost to handle in a caring way it proved to be just as challenging and punishing.

More and more I was getting the sense that the people I was leading were were holding us back; most of them couldn’t fight and so far had only proven to be a nuisance with their unreasonable demands and trivial problems. The game at one point recognized this and gave me a set of options to deal with the lesser issues, which I felt were beneath me. Taking inspiration from the book of Exodus and the advice Moses was given in a similar situation, I opted to assemble a council of elders to lift some of the responsibility from my heavily-burdened shoulders. I felt I had made a wise decision here; perhaps I could get on with more important things. To my frustration a text box replied to inform me that within a few days the elders had all given up, and once again the burden was mine. With a groan and a sigh I continued onwards, resigned to my lot.

As the game progressed and the caravan became more involved in the grand plot, I began to change from the kind and understanding leader that I had started out as and into something much more methodical and cold. I was judging the refugees and suffering villages I came across that once I would have had sympathy for based on their usefulness to me, rather than on their plight. I needed some assurance that they were worth the risk and my supplies, which was rarely given. I was quickly becoming less of a Moses-like figure, leading my people to safety, and more of an unscrupulous general marching with his war band.

The people of the caravan had become an inconvenient resource just like supplies and morale, needing to be kept in check and balanced. They were just numbers on my interface now, a faceless crowd that I didn’t really know well enough to care about but still needed to keep alive somehow. While they still brought to me their problems as they had before, I no longer had an ear for them. My decisions now were founded entirely on what was easiest and least likely to cause further issue.  My patience for them and the difficulties they had caused finally reached its limit, and what they may have thought was good for them was not good for me.

It wasn’t until nearing the end of the game that I actually came to realize that my morality had been compromised somewhere on the journey, when one of the main characters I had come to care for confronted me about my behavior and presented me with the choice to either continue as I had been or repent for my callous attitude. By that point, it was too late. The game was almost over.

At that moment I was struck; the connection I once had with the people with whom I fled destruction had gradually diminished as swathes of people joined me and my responsibilities grew heavier. I began to treat them far more like cattle in order to better deal with the consequences of my sometimes terrible choices. It was so easy to distance myself from them, especially since I had very little positive interaction with them and only ever saw them through a text box. In the end they had become my burden, not my charge.

About the Author:

James Roberts is a twenty-something Brit with a passion for history and a penchant for surrounding himself with crazy American's. He'll soon be starting an undergraduate degree in Theology in order to pursue the academic life that he's been avoiding since his teenage years.

  • Steven Sukkau

    James this was so good! So do you wish the game had made the people following you more real, and not a faceless mob? Or do you think conveying the challenge of caring for a mass of people you don’t really care about was the point?

  • M. Joshua Cauller

    The piece made it sound like the futility of leadership was a big part of the game’s design. Also makes me want to play the game more, weirdly enough.

  • James Roberts

    Definitely the latter, if they were any more real it would have been very difficult to make some of the decisions I did without feeling some pretty serious guilt. To me the game really challenged me to think on the grander scale, rather than on the individual. But what I realised was that that it didn’t make me feel satisfied as a leader, it just made me feel disappointed in myself.

    What’s important to point out though is that at the start of the game you do care about your caravan, you want to do the best you can for them. It’s only as the game progresses that you really start to feel detached from them. The facelessness just makes it much easier to make that transition.

  • James Roberts

    Futility is definitely the word I would use to describe it, yes. It was very frustrating at times to make a decision that I assumed was a good one, only to realise that I was missing context that actually made things worse. But finding that context before making the decision is very difficult, if not impossible.