This article contains spoilers for the entire Banner Saga series
There’s a number tucked away in one of The Banner Saga’s menus: enemies killed. As in many games, your characters’ success is measured in raw body count. A large percentage of this number is made up of Dredge soldiers, who’ve played the main antagonists in the series. Once we reach the end of the third game, even the most peace-loving among us will be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of them.
Very rarely, you’ll be able to avoid fights, but no matter your choices, you will be forced to fight them, again and again. The Dredge are enemies not by choice, but by fate. And once a battle has begun, it is fought to the last person standing. The rules of this war don’t allow for retreats, or the taking of prisoners.
Such a race, creatures that only exist to be fought, has become a quintessential trope in many fantasy games. Creatures like orcs are Othered for your guiltless convenience, and turned into fuel for the RPG machinery. Input death, and output experience points.
At first glance, the Dredge fit this bill. They’re huge, hulking creatures made from cold stone, both inhuman and inhumane. They seem incapable of either speech or compassion. They swarm and devastate the land of Northmen like Rook or Alette, setting off waves of desperate refugees. Killing them is simply self-preservation, and the frailty of human bodies next to the towering Dredge only goes to show that you are an underdog doing your best to survive against an onslaught of unprovoked aggression.
All of this is true to some degree, but one of the most fascinating things about The Banner Saga trilogy is the way it has continually undermined the ‘othering’ of the Dredge. After spending dozens of hours in this world, we’ve learned that the Dredge have their own language and customs and can be reasoned with; that they can not only give birth to infants, but also mourn them if they die; that they feel fear just like humans and are, in fact, themselves refugees from a great catastrophe.
The obvious message is that the Dredge are like us in all the ways that matter most, and any differences are accidental and superficial. It’s not subtle, but neither should it be. It is, however, skilfully unveiled. New scraps of insights into the Dredge arise organically from the plot as the story unfolds. By the time the credits of The Banner Saga 3 roll, you’ll have ventured into the devastated homeland of the ‘Sculptors’ (as they call themselves) and, depending on your choices, recruited some into your group and invited the desperate Dredge army into the human city of Arberrang to save them from the encroaching darkness.
You could say The Banner Saga ‘others’ its enemies just so it can then deconstruct the process. But it’s more complex than that. The Sculptors stay enigmatic and alien right to the very end. After all, we cannot talk to them. We learn that the Sculptors weren’t a part of the original creation of the gods, and that they lived in a strange parallel world with its very own (black) sun.
What The Banner Saga communicates, then, is not that the Sculptors aren’t different, but that being different should never be a reason to exclude someone from being treated as a fellow creature. In a fundamental sense they are the ‘other’, but not in the way suggested at the very beginning of the story, or even the way you thought through most of the journey.
If you want, you can pretend like nothing changed — and continue to treat the Dredge as subhuman monsters and implacable enemies, but not without incurring some heavy cognitive dissonance as well as objections from more enlightened companions.
Nothing illustrates this development better than Iver or Yngvar, heroic slayer of the Dredge Sundr called Raze, or so the story goes. It is eventually revealed that he killed the Sundr’s new-born child by accident before killing Raze herself, who’d been nursing when Iver stumbled on her.
Haunted by his misdeed, Iver runs from his ill-gotten fame and seeks comfort in anonymity, even though he’d been made an heir to the Varl king. Iver’s story reads like a distorted mirror version of Beowulf from the eponymous Anglo-Saxon poem. Like Iver, Beowulf slays both a monstrous child (Grendel) and its mother. Like Iver, Beowulf gains renown and social standing through his victory. It is only Iver’s mysterious disappearance which sets the ‘official’ version of his story apart from that of Beowulf.
Like Grendel and his mother, Raze and her son remain alien and unknowable for the most part. And yet their vulnerability, as any human being who has been around newborn children knows, is all we need to condemn Iver’s actions and understand his guilt.
We could just leave it at that and commend The Banner Saga trilogy for its nuanced challenge to a problematic trope, and one sadly enmeshed in history. But let’s return to that number of enemies killed. Other people have already pointed out how the games’ battle mechanics – for example exertion, wounds, or the doubling of the health bar as attack strength – express and reinforce some of the games’ themes such as desperation and struggle in the face of overwhelming odds. This is all true.
Yet, empathy for the enemy is not included in this equation. Nowhere is the ‘othering’ of the enemy more complete or unquestioned than when examining statistics. There are no mothers or children on the battlefield. There’s no fear, pain or pity. Just soldiers, marching stoically to their deaths. Another one dead.
The battles of The Banner Saga perhaps embody a more cynical truth: that in the heat of a war, we simply cannot afford to see our enemies as anything other than obstacles to overcome. After all, battle is a great leveller in which every character, even our own heroes, is reduced to less than they are: a pawn on the board, a vessel for armour and hit points, attributes and skills. For a series of games all about people and their struggles and sacrifices, its core of tactical battles can often feel strangely cold and mechanical. Given its desperate and apocalyptic world of snow and blood, perhaps that’s the very point.
Whatever its shortcomings, The Banner Saga trilogy doesn’t shy away from tackling uncomfortable and difficult issues. This is just one, and the fear of the ‘other’ it plays upon, with real poignancy, sets it far apart from the bulk of fantasy games. All the Dredge that had to die so we could enjoy our tactical battles somehow come to feel like something different.