Button Bash: The Banner Saga

I’m particularly taken with The Banner Saga’s map, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, every feature on the map is clickable for a snippet of lore about that part of the world. It’s a lovely way to add depth to the gameworld and reward the player’s interest in notable landmarks.
But further play reveals something even better. An entire chapter of play covers a journey of two inches across a two-foot-square map. This world is HUGE, and difficult and dangerous to traverse. Much as I love Skyrim, the ability to fast travel to previous locations turns the explored regions of the world into a homogenous mass – the player is encouraged to teleport directly to quest locations like a globe-trotting NightCrawler. If you actually attempted to log your “journey” on the map it would look like a child’s scribble. This makes distance a trivial thing, and the epic landscape is reduced to background vistas for the towns you warp directly into. The amazing sense of place conjured by your first explorations is sacrificed on the altar of convenience. And yet there’s no attempt to mitigate the inconvenience of a cave full of dreugh. The Banner Saga makes the trials of travel one of the pillars of the gameplay, and the far-flung corners of it’s world are all the more intriguing for it.

Frontiers in Storytelling: The Elder Scrolls V

I’ve just devoured GameInformer’s preview of TESV:Skyrim, and it’s encouraging stuff. The animation improvements sound excellent. Something we learned working on an internal project at TT was that seamless, varied, context-sensitive animation contributes far more than clever AI to the verisimilitude of a character. And the lighting improvements over Fallout in the first official screenshot are glorious.

But what’s got me most excited is the Radiant Story tech, which basically custom-creates side quests by taking an authored template and inserting characters who the player has developed a relationship with – so instead of quests from random strangers, you will be approached by someone you know to undertake a task involving someone you like. It’s essentially what a good Game Master of a tabletop RPG would do, and something I’ve wanted to try out in a game for over a decade. Sadly working full-time on other people’s games has prevented me from exploring it myself, but I’m delighted to see Bethesda tackle it.

The compelling thing about role-playing is your attachment to your character, and their role in the world of the game. Every decision you make as a player, whether in a tabletop game, LRP, or CRPG, makes your story a little bit different to anyone else’s. Mostly in subtle ways – a few points in this skill instead of that skill, or a grudge against an NPC forgiven instead of held – but they all add up to making the player feel invested in the story, even if the final encounter turns out exactly as the referee expected. By customizing the peripheral content to reflect the player’s prior investment, Bethesda could be creating the most immersive CRPG ever.

And when developed to a point that it could be used in the main storyline, this could be a fantastic alternative to the tired old branching plotline. An AI system that understands story, and can populate Campbell’s mythic archetypes in each player’s quest with characters whose skills, power, and personality traits complement or contrast with the system’s analysis of the player. A system that can engineer moral dilemmas and opportunites for dastardly betrayals, tragic heroics or glorious rescues. A system that could sculpt whodunnits or soap opera as well as epic fantasy.

Now that’s the bleeding edge of modern gaming.