Once upon a time there was a game made by a small studio in the heart of eastern Europe which came to my mind a lot while playing The Banner Saga. It was named Gorky 17 and was a roughly polished game with a rushed story and featured sequential turn-based combat on a squared map with survivors that have RPG stats and mechanics that you pick up and lose along the way and in which the game world offers preset limited number of items and fixed static combat encounters.
It was frustrating in that you could not even finish the game, getting stuck in impossible battles due to poor management of resources and items found. It was even more frustrating that you could do a 'perfect game' beginning to end, but that required a lot of reloading of battles, even ones you were winning, just because one tiny slip up in the perfect game of chess that you had to do in that battle would ripple and set you up for disaster later on in the game.
It does to me, as i'm facing something VERY similar with The Banner Saga now... something that i haven't for such a long time in gaming, and i don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
I played enough of The Banner Saga and i finished Gorky 17 enough times that i can draw a lot of parallels between the two on the game mechanic level. I know The Banner Saga is about teaching you to live with your actions and embrace an emerging personal story unique to you while showcasing a deep and rich story, but it also is one of the most ruthless turn based games that i ever played.
Personally i was really expecting the game to be more lenient on the player given the huge focus on the story, but instead i get a turn based game that made this veteran Worms Armageddon ropeslinger, HOMM3 tournament player and local boardgame pseudo-guru cuddle up in the fetal position and cry. It took me a bit to get a grasp around the mechanics, and i saw the chinks in the armor quick enough, but even using them it still manages to be a deeply powerful and vengeful system. A tiny oversight of the enemies willpower, an forgetfulness of the exact range and spread of an enemy ability or the fact that distances are so small and even just a starting move that you didn't thought out too far since 'it's the first turn, what can go wrong', and death animations are not far behind. Considering the penalties of losing a unit in battle, it's really recommended that you never get in that situation.
One the battle is started, it will be the same the exact same time unless you go waaay back to reload, and as such, you're faced with trying to play a perfect game, when one might not even be really possible with your composition and status. That downward spiral is something that's really hard to escape from. Gorky 17's in-battle random percentage checks are not present here, but what are, are random events on the road which fill the same void of adding both tiny hope and mountains of despair with the bat of an eyelash.
So, what did The Banner Saga remind me about gaming?
It reminded me that the best difficulty a game can pose is one that is self-inflicted. Playing Demon's Souls without armor, getting the max 7500 EMS in Mass Effect 3, finishing Halflife 2 Episode 2 with the Gnome.. you don't /have/ to, but you can, just because it's possible and you get a tiny little achievement or some recognition. That's enough for people to do them, but when you put the well being of your nomadic people of The Banner Saga at stake, the well-being of characters that you grow attached to and begin to care for, not to mention the weight of the overarching story on your shoulders... for me at least, i can see of no other choice other than reload, reload, curse and then reload some more again.
I know losses might be inevitable, and that the point of the game might be to face the consequences of bad choices and poor skill to understand and feel their situation... but maybe, just maybe, i feel the desperate fight of these tiny fictional men on my screen so much closer to my heart as i struggle so hard to do good by them.
I will not endure the same hardships as my tiny fictional men, but in my own gamer way, i think i can relate to their strive for a better and safer life in that cold world that much more every time i hit that "Load" button.