Must Plays | The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga looks like the Oregon Trail by way of Fire Emblem. As is often the case with such an odd amalgamation, I didn’t realize this is a thing I wanted until the moment I laid eyes on it. Like, four years ago.  Originally announced for PCs and tablets, The Banner Saga was a game I admired from afar, being as I’m not one to play on either platform, but one that I had always hoped would land on something I do play on.

Enter the independent gaming machine of choice, the Switch.

The Banner Saga follows a caravan of soldiers that are on a journey to end an apocalypse that’s being brought on by a spiteful race called the Dredge. As they travel forth, situations and events arise that call for everything from isometric tactical skirmishes to making hard decisions about how your party moves forward from things like hunger and disease. Just to drive the desolation home, most of the game takes place on a Norse-inspired world filled with snowy bluffs and constant cold.

The idea is that you’re less interested in the happenings of a single character and are more worried about your caravan as a whole. Like the Oregon Trail, I imagine you’ll feel the sting of losing people, disappointing folks or just plain being stuck in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t situation. It’s not a tone often touched in video games in general, so when you do see it in something like the Banner Saga, I tend to take notice. Likewise, the strategic combat looks deceivingly simple, but the impact of your decisions will be felt possibly through the entire trilogy. I used to be one of those people who played Fire Emblem on casual because I was afraid to lose anybody, but here it feels necessary to let people go for the sake of a more impactful story.

Even though the Banner Saga weaves its tale during the potential end of the world, the subtle somberness of taking a few out into it to save the many is an interesting one. I’m also keen on the idea that what happens in this game will carry over to its sequel and so forth; it feels like something worth investing in. There may be something more serious than dysentery on the horizon of the Banner Saga.


Spring: The Official Game of Spring

This is a piece I wrote years ago, which I think I’ve shared on every blog or site I’ve ever written for.  But, I’m partial to it, so I’m going to share it here, too.  This was written over ten years ago, long before Facebook took the world by storm and every mundane task you can think of has become a subsequent game.  I like to think that my idea would still sell, in some capacity.

A few weeks ago, I partook in the time honored suburban tradition of Spring cleaning. Like any rational person would, I held off doing such mundane things until the very last second; only when I realized that my lawn looked like garbage in a Utopian sea of green foliage did I do anything about it. Actually, that’s a deceiving statement; I’m one of those off gamers who, when beaten down with sunlight does not melt. In fact, I like to go outside and do household chores; it’s a nice way to clear your thoughts, or in my case, fill them with delusions of grandeur. I try not to admit it, but videogames often come to my mind when I have a spare moment of thought. When I was a preteen, my pop used to subject my brother and I to mowing of epic proportions. We weren’t cutting lawns, these were fields that would make your muscles ache in ways you didn’t know, just by sight alone. But, I’d survive when thoughts of how I would spend my meager earnings on games would come to me. I still don’t have that copy of Star Fox for the SNES I wanted so bad.

But now I’m of an age where my income is somewhat disposable, and rather than wishing that I can some how manage to scrounge enough dough for the next big cartridge; I have to beg my wife to double check our bank account and cross fingers that she’ll give me the go ahead. Wow, how times don’t seem to change! So, rather than daydream about the next big thing over the horizon, my mind crept into the seldom used realm of creativity and an idea was born. Since politicians and journalists seem to be quick to point the finger at video games training our children as soldiers/murderers; why not take that idea into another direction: what if you took vanilla yard duties, attach a little fiction and a lot of innovation and turned every one’s most loathed seasonal chores into a amazing game that not only entertains but secretly teaches people how to do it, The Last Starfighter-style! Hence, Spring: The Videogame came to be.

I immediately knew that my faux-title needed to be platform specific; in this case made for the Wii. That extra layer of immersiveness is definitely needed to con thousands of people into believing that this is indeed an actual game and not some tutorial on the finer points of grass care. That and the fact that there needs to be more quality games on the system. I cringe every time I see Carnival Games or Game Party on a top twenty list in a magazine. To avoid the pitfalls of being called a “mini-game collection”, everything in Spring is actually all wrapped within a resource management body, not unlike a “tycoon” game; but without the mediocre presentation and all-around dullness those games tend to create. It’s something of a simulation game as well; The Sims without setting up torture devices, or Animal Crossing sans creepy bipedal critters who talk in an equally creepy warble, or Harvest Moon without obnoxious courting processes involving feathers. If you find a downy pin and present it to your crush in my game, she’ll send you to the E.R. to get checked for bird flu.

To truly emphasize the entire experience, it’s easiest to just describe each task. The obvious first line of defense against unruly weeds and uneven grass is lawn-mowing. Holding the Wii remote horizontally, you have to deftly maneuver your ornery gas-guzzling push mower around corners, trees and laundry lines. You tilt the remote just as you would a real lawnmower, replete with the B button being as the clutch. Eventually you can upgrade to a riding mower, complete with Wii Wheel support. While that might sound mundane at first, you’ll be met with obstacles such as your kids running right in front of you with a soccer ball, toys hidden within the emerald blades and the ever-irritating mole hills. Elevation means you’ll have to push harder up hills; and to assure a nicely groomed lawn, be sure to change the route with which you mow. This is the cornerstone to Spring ; however, why would you stop milking it there when you can get the whole cow for free?

As we all know, simply mowing doesn’t cut the mustard in lawn care. There’s those spots that your greasy motorized blade propeller just can’t reach. Enter the weed whacker. For this part, you need to hold the remote like a golf club. You can’t just swing willy-nilly though; there’s a lot resource management to be done! There’s a tricky balance of getting those hard to reach parts yet keeping enough line to finish the entire fence. Since you assume the role of your standard Joe Blow; you didn’t make that trip to the hardware store for extra twine, that’s too time consuming! As you walk to line of being useful or wasteful; your Wii remote is giving you all the hell and annoyances known to man. It rumbles at full capacity constantly, revving even more when you push down the trigger. And the speaker comes into play as you hear the neighbor’s dog barking or your significant other yelling about taking out the trash in the background. A test of endurance and will, to be sure.

After those two pillars, the rest of the game falls into “side quest” territory. There’s flowers to be planted around the house and the optional garden you can unlock. Or trimming hedges and trees which involve the nunchuk, deftly aiming and occasionally avoiding puffy tailed rodents. And if you manage to curtail enough funds (more on this in a bit), you can have an exuberant swimming pool that obviously doesn’t clean itself. At this point I started coming up with expansion packs for other seasons including a leaf-raking Fall and the snow-shoveling Winter. I’m nothing if not industrious in my imaginary game making.

But that’s an aside; how can lawn care stay entertaining? Well, I’m glad I asked, because this is where things get interesting. If you want the mother of all yards that will be talked about for generations; you need to acquire money in order to build your monastery of BBQ. Why settle for working on your own lawn when you can take business away from the neighborhood kids and muscle your way into other peoples yards? Having proven your worth as a grass caretaker; your entire block and surrounding area will open up for some sandbox-styled role-playing. Besides creating an empire of plant-matter, you can have your kids set up a lemonade stand and set the amount of profit you’ll get for supplying the beverage-selling boogers. Get stat boosts by helping Mrs. Wilson get her cat out of her gutter or giving a jump start to that neighbor who still has his Christmas decorations up. Doing good deeds opens up pathways within the game, giving you more options and some ubiquitous unlockables including but not limited to patio furniture, grills, hammocks, vegetable seeds, and various lawn games like croquet and bocce. You can even unlock a menagerie of ugly socks to wear with your sandals!

It’s at this point that two things occurred to me: either I’m dehydrated from doing too much yard work and have unquestionably gone insane, or I’m a mad genius with untapped potential. For the sake of gratification, we’ll go with the latter. And who knows, maybe some unassuming developer will happen upon my obscure web site and offer to buy my idea and hire me on as a scenario writer; or hell, maybe bump me up to producer. Well, either that or continue doing menial chores and attempting to spruce them up by turning them on their ear and making them videogames…

*Note: that picture is not of me, and I do not condone the wearing of socks with sandals.