The Banner Saga is an epic in digital form. Epic as in the noun. Neo-Beowulf: tales of warriors, gods and monsters, global cataclysm, low fantasy but high drama. Cry Ragnarök and let slip the vikings of war! And, as inevitably as the sun must turn black and sink into the sea, or giant wolves swallow gods whole, The Banner Saga 3, the conclusion to this particular epic, has been planned from the start.
Having written out the huge, sweeping story from the start, the team at Stoic wanted to make sure it all got out there, explained producer Zeb West and technical director John Watson. 'The plan was to have three games, and for each release to kind of fund the next one,' said Watson (who sports the kind of long hair and impressive sideburns one would expect from a man who makes things that could equally have been games or metal albums feat. vocals by Christopher Lee). 'So far it's worked…'
Indeed it has. While The Banner Saga 2 wasn't crowdfunded, the Kickstarter for The Banner Saga 3 closed with funding that doubled the initial goal of $200,000. It's won hearts and minds, as all good epics should. But this has some additional responsibility that Stoic, coming from BioWare stock, are mindful of.
On a scale of Things to Say That You Immediately Regret Saying, 'Talk shit about someone without knowing they can hear you, but you don't like them anyway' is at the bottom end, and 'Mention someone's parent and then remember said parent is recently deceased' is somewhere near the top end. 'Unthinkingly make joke about Mass Effect 3 to former BioWare employees' probably rates between the two. But Watson and West seemed accustomed to it. With their background the comparisons likely have the same inevitability as Ragnarök, but are much more frequent.
'It's something we've talked about,' said West. 'You've got to have closure to some threads; to what people are invested in.' So The Banner Saga as a whole will end up a bit like a tapestry. The threads pull through from the start to the very end. 'All the choices you've made will affect the choices available in this game,' said West. 'The differences between the game endings are wildly different.'
While there have been updates to combat — progression is being raised from 10 to 15, characters can now be given heroic titles with passive abilities, and battlefields have interactive elements like spill-able hazards to change the face of a fight — there isn't much yet that Stoic can show of it. The focus when we spoke was on the conclusion of a huge, complex narrative.
In Banner Saga 3 everything is getting fraught, and the game is split between two groups. Juno, somewhat inscrutable, is leading the remainder of the Ravens to discover the source of The Darkness. They travel in a protective light bubble Juno has cast, which Watson described as being like 'kind of a pressure cooker.' Nerves in the group are fraying.
At the same time, a second group has been left in the city of Aberrang and must, simply, stay alive. When leading Juno's party you're constantly shown how Aberrang is faring, and the more time passes the more Aberrang, with limited resources and under pressure from refugees, faces trouble. In the city there will be resource management, and difficult decisions to make.
'It's our favourite thing to do. There are choices where there's no right decision.' said West, grinning, talking of the tough times that players will face. 'We like the ones where you don't realise the choice you made is creeping up on you.' So you may encounter characters in The Banner Saga 3 who you met in the first game, but in completely different states depending on what you decided to do.
As Juno's group travels back into The Darkness you'll pass through places you know from the Saga already. The Ravens will come across Strand, the very first location in the first Banner Saga, with a cinematic that intentionally mirrors the first encounter, but everything is different. Watson talked about making the familiar unfamiliar. The Banner Saga 3 is the game where the the snake finally manages to bite down on it's own tail: even the team at Stoic is finishing in its starter form, with the original writer Alex Thomas back for the final chapter.
But Stoic aren't shutting the door on the world they've made just yet — or, at least, it's not locked and bolted. Watson said he'd be happy to dip back into the world of The Banner Saga. 'There are so many stories you could tell. I can see going back to this world for sure.' He paused, with the quiet look of a man already three games, and several cups of coffee, deep. 'Not right away,' he said. 'Let it sit and ferment, for sure.'
Correction: the original article incorrectly credited Alex Thomas as the original artist, rather than writer.