The gods were dead and I wasn’t doing so hot myself.
In the new Austin-developed game “The Banner Saga,” I was leading a caravan of Norse clansmen, warriors and giants called “Varl” across the snowy, post-Ragnarök landscape. Supplies were dwindling. My fighters were injured. Eventually, a climactic battle on a bridge would lead to many deaths.
It turns out I’m not a very good Viking, but then I kinda already knew that.
The story of how “The Banner Saga,” a video game for Windows PC, Mac and Linux that will soon expand to iOS and Android, got made is almost as interesting as the mythology in the game itself.
Three game developers who’d previously worked on BioWare’s massive “Star Wars: The Old Republic” formed Stoic Studio with the intent of creating a trilogy of games with a Viking theme. They sought to avoid all the clichés.
“We knew we wanted to make a turn-based strategy game in a fantasy setting,” said Alex Thomas of Stoic. “At the time, Norse mythology wasn’t a very common theme. We wanted to riff on that. In popular culture, it’s always about Thor and Odin and the hammer and lightning.”
“Banner Saga” instead takes place after the end of the world and weaves in magic and mystery against grim circumstances. There are betrayals, plenty of decisions to be made that may decimate the player’s followers and, oh yeah, an actual game involving weaponry, skill building and resource management.
In spring 2012, the Stoic crew launched a Kickstarter campaign seeking $100,000 to create the game. To their surprise, 20,042 backers pledged $723,886, allowing the three developers to hire a Grammy-winning composer for music, to add beautiful artwork to the game from Austin’s Powerhouse Animation and to create a separate free-to-play multiplayer battle version of the game called “The Banner Saga: Factions.”
The story, with its difficult-to-pronounce character names and endless drama, can be difficult to follow. Much of the game relies on dialogue between characters and those conversations take place in mostly static alternating shots and on-screen text. With a soaring soundtrack and a lovely 2-D hand-drawn-animation look, the game actually leaves you wanting more spoken dialogue and character scenes. I wondered if a bigger-budget game would have fleshed these scenes out further with more visuals.
As leader of a caravan, the player must make quick decisions that may have big consequences later or that may result in the loss of needed resources.
And while the game’s main combat is easy to learn, it can be very difficult to master in later stages, especially if you’ve done as poor a job managing your resources as I did.
But it’s hard not to be enchanted by “The Banner Saga” as a work of art that doesn’t look or feel like any other current game. No matter how tough things got (even when I self-adjusted to “easy” difficulty), I never thought of giving up. I wanted to continue to explore this gorgeous world the Stoic team created, where even the menu screens can be scrolled to reveal more scenery beyond the edges of the computer monitor.
The game has been earning mostly positive reviews, and its debut week on the gaming storefront Steam was a success, rising to No. 3 in sales as a featured game. Most remarkable is that the company still has only three employees (with some paid outside help) and no plans to add staff. The three wore lots of hats; they even videotaped themselves performing fight moves as guides for combat animation in the game.
“For an indie crew of three guys, we’re extremely happy with how the game’s been performing,” Thomas said.
Next for Stoic: fixing bugs, handling customer support for the release, taking a break, working on “Factions” for a while and then diving into the second part of the trilogy.
South by Southwest Interactive doesn’t start until March 7, but January is when news announcements about the tech-themed festival begin to roll out quickly.
Among the fast-and-furious updates recently were additions to the schedule including actress and author Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”), a planned via-satellite session with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Monday’s announcement that Nerdist.com video host Jessica Chobot will be emcee for the SXSW Interactive Awards.
Keynotes for the fest will include astrophysicist celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Mythbusters” co-host Adam Savage, 23andMe chief executive Anne Wojcicki and author Austin Kleon.
The festival will also play host to tapings for “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Watch What Happens Live” with Bravo TV’s Andy Cohen in addition to a casting call for ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
For those curious about SXSW Interactive, there’ll be a free community meetup 6-8 p.m. on Monday at Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden, 709 E. Sixth St.
We’ll be doing lots more festival updates and covering the fest itself on the Digital Savant blog.