Within minutes of talking to art director Arnie Jorgensen and writer Drew McGee of Stoic Studio, it’s clear they don’t bear the Viking motif of The Banner Saga just for show – in particular Jorgensen, who’s proud of Danish heritage. In fact, he’s all too happy to take a detour mid-conversation to discuss the various cultures of the Old English epic “Beowulf” and how they tie in to Norse heritage themselves.
As veterans of BioWare, Jorgensen and McGee are all about storytelling, and in The Banner Saga – the outstanding tactical role-playing game based around quick, brutal decisions – they’ve taken what they learned on games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and delivered a thrilling adventure that debuts on Xbox One today. It’s “Beowulf” and Final Fantasy Tactics meets “Game of Thrones” and The Oregon Trail through the lens of classic Disney animation, and the result is a game that should be experienced by any strategy or storytelling fan.
Xbox Wire: We’ve gotten a chance to play The Banner Saga, and we love the way the narrative really holds a grip on the player. There’s no perfect choice. That makes it a lot more realistic, and you’re less inclined to reset the game and say, “Oh, I made the wrong choice.” No, the best thing about games like this is that there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” choice.
Arnie Jorgensen: You nailed it! That sounds like my pitch! [Laughs] That’s what I tell everybody. When you’re reading a book – say, “Game of Thrones” as a well-known example – you read it, and one of your favorite characters dies. But you don’t say to “Game of Thrones,” “Oh, I want you to go back and change that.” No, you keep reading, and that’s what makes the book interesting – the fact that you go on.
We wanted that same narrative grip in our game, and we specifically designed our save system so that people don’t save before a conversation and go back to it. We do that intentionally, because we really want this to feel like you’re reading a good novel. Something bad might happen to the characters or something good might happen to the characters, but it becomes part of your story, and it’s far richer for it.
I’ve watched Let’s Plays of our game, and I’ve seen players get mad when someone dies and scream, “That sucked!” But the emotion they felt was real, and why would I want them to lose that? If we let you save before every conversation or every decision, you’d lose some of that. And this is a rough setting. Coming through losing only a few men might not be so bad! [Laughs]
But here’s a bit of a hint: You’ve got to put yourself into the mind of a Viking. We give you a benefit for making strong, bold decisions. Whenever you waver or get too nice with someone who doesn’t deserve it, you get a little more punished for your decisions. You have to be bold.
Xbox Wire: No, that makes sense. That actually leads into the next question: Vikings and Norse mythology can feel played out in some games, but in The Banner Saga, the themes feel authentic and original at the same time. How did you pull that off?
Arnie Jorgensen: We all love Norse mythology at Stoic, and since I’m of Danish descent, these stories were always part of my life growing up. I’d always wanted to make a game based around the mythology, but we changed everything up just slightly to make it feel original. In Norse mythology, you have the Jötunn, which we call the Varl in our game. They’re the giants, and we gave them these big horns and sort of made them the game’s “Vikings” – what we think of when we think of a Viking. Vikings didn’t really wear horned helmets, but that’s what we think of, so we wanted that motif in our game.
We’re actually playing it pretty darn realistically, though. When you see the human melee units in our game, they have realistically sized shields, and their warhammers are of a normal size. We try to lean on the Norse mythology closely and makes sure it feels right, and people who are really into Norse mythology tell us that the game feels right. The mood is right. We’re not taking it too far in one direction or another. We aim for a more low-fantasy feel, and that’s how we integrate the Norse mythology into the game.
Drew McGee: And Norse mythology was really a perfect fit for the game. We wanted to stay morally ambiguous. We’re not telling you this is the “good” choice and that’s the “bad” choice. Norse mythology is full of stories like that. If you read the Norse Sagas, the characters don’t always make the heroic decisions.
Xbox Wire: The art in the game is incredibly captivating, almost like what you’d find in a vintage animated film. One of the most striking things are the gigantic Godstones, which serve as landmarks in the game. How did you design those?
Arnie Jorgensen: The Godstones are interesting, because the game was funded on Kickstarter, and we let people who pledged at a certain tier design them. We really tried to branch out with the design and make each one feel unique – authentically Norse, but unique. The process was so fun that we’ll be doing it for the next games in the series, too.
Xbox Wire: Outside of the Godstones, the background artwork and characters are really striking as well. It looks little like classic Disney. Is that what you’re aiming for?
Arnie Jorgensen: Yes, it’s heavily influenced by Eyvind Earle, who did Sleepy Beauty and created that classic Disney background art in the 1950s.
Xbox Wire: Yeah, it definitely has that look.
Arnie Jorgensen: We’re trying to bring it all back to Eyvind Earle. He’s the guy. I consider him an American master.
Xbox Wire: Would you have been able to make The Banner Saga without Kickstarter?
Arnie Jorgensen: We were going to do the game regardless, come hell or high water. It was going to be all on our own dime. We had about a year’s worth of development costs, and we wouldn’t have had nearly as many animations. I would’ve been doing the music, and I’m not as good as Austin Wintory! [Laughs]
The Banner Saga never would’ve been made to this level without Kickstarter, and the planned sequels probably wouldn’t have been made at all. It’s really hard to figure out where we’d be, but we’d be in a far different place without Kickstarter. We’re paying for the development of the sequels on our own; it’s full steam ahead now. We can’t have tiers of pledges like on Kickstarter, but we can capture some of that by running online campaigns and competitions. Someday, though, we might go back to crowdfunding. We’d be really happy to.
Xbox Wire: What are some of the inspirations behind how you guys constructed the narrative of The Banner Saga?
Drew McGee: Well, we all enjoy fantasy fiction.
Arnie Jorgensen: We’re all huge nerds! [Laughs]
Drew McGee: Exactly. And if you go back to some of the games we grew up with, The Oregon Trail is a big one. You see the travel in The Banner Saga, and you can definitely see the connection there. As far as stories, the Norse Sagas are just chock-full of things you can pull from. Like Arnie said earlier, we try to get close enough to those with our own tale, so that someone who knows Norse mythology can say, “Ah, I know where this is headed.”
Arnie Jorgensen: And personally, I’m really excited that the choices players make here will carry over into the next game. It only gets darker and weirder from here, just like any good Norse Saga! [Laughs]