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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.


Witches, Wise Women, and Widows: A Cultural Look at Viking RPG The Banner Saga

There was a storm warning in Reykjavík the night I started playing The Banner Saga. As my computer booted and my tea steeped, I made the rounds in my apartment, securing the latches of my windows — double-paned, of course, to keep the cold out. Bare birch branches writhed eerily outside, and the sky, which had danced pink and green four nights prior, was coal gray. It was a good night for a Viking story.

I glanced at my watch as I launched the game. I had to start playing, but I was eager for my partner to come home. Most Icelanders I’ve met have a strong affinity for their heritage, but my partner is a cultural paladin. Our shelves are crammed with epic poetry, archaeological resources, and dictionaries of dead languages. When my mom came to visit last summer, my partner had a story (or a song) for every mountain and waterfall we drove past. There’s a single-handed battle axe resting against her bedside table. Y’know, just in case.

I didn’t want her to play the game with me. I wanted her to snark.

Loyal defender of her culture that she is, my partner’s feathers get easily ruffled by secondhand portrayals of Vikings or Norse mythology. She grumbles whenever we walk past tourist shops selling plastic horned helmets (the horns, in case you’re unaware, are not a Viking thing). Watching The Avengers involved a lot of skeptical looks directed my way. Though I know she’d love the gameplay, she’s never given Skyrim a fair shot, on account of being too busy laughing at the mispronunciation of Icelandic names. Whenever someone portrays Viking culture inaccurately, she appears, in a puff of ocean mist and blacksmith sparks, to set the record straight.

I knew nothing of The Banner Saga beyond the basics: A Viking-themed RPG made by a small team of former BioWare devs, with turn-based strategy, very pretty artwork, and a soundtrack by Austin Wintory, who has yet to compose game music that I don’t enjoy. Now, I’m fine with derivative uses of any and all folklore, but I also take great enjoyment in watching my partner go into incensed academic mode. The moment the game started, however, my hopes of snarky running commentary scattered. I leaned forward, pouring over the little details. The cursor was styled like a cloak clasp, the same kind I’ve seen in museums. The clothes looked right. The weapons looked right. The helms lacked horns. The words — I knew words like that.

“They’re speaking Icelandic in this game,” I said by way of greeting as my partner walked in the door.

Are they,” she said dryly, brushing the freezing rain out of her hair.

“No, seriously, listen,” I said. “There was Icelandic in the beginning of the game, and it segued into English.”

“Uh huh,” she said. I knew what she was thinking. Skyrim.

“Real Icelandic, with real Icelanders,” I said. “Come on, I know what you guys sound like by now.” Not that I knew what had been said in the game. If it doesn’t involve grocery shopping, bus travel, or common topics of conversation at a family dinner, I’m lost. The presence of the language, though, intrigued me, as it indicated that the use of the word saga in the game’s title was more than just window dressing. The Icelandic Sagas are about as Viking-y as it gets. They’re a collection of prose histories, detailing the settlement of Iceland and the political drama that followed. They walk a muddy, bloody line between historical fact and folk legend, but basically, if you want to know what Nordic life was like a thousand years ago, the Sagas are your best bet.

“Do women fight in the Sagas?” I asked, as I directed my archers around the grid. In The Banner Saga, women carry bows, never axes.

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Women in the Sagas don’t fight.” She thought for a moment, smirking with recollection. “But they are incredibly badass.”

I consulted her on that point the following evening, after I had completed the game on my own (she did watch for a while the night before, declaring the clothing to be, in her scholarly opinion, “totes legit”). I needed to know specifics. The women in The Banner Saga felt subtly different than what I’ve grown used to in fantasy games. I was hungry for context.

Let me back up: Historical accuracy has been a big point of discussion in gaming circles as of late. Between the MedievalPOC to-do and Cara Ellison’s excellent essay on female representation in noir fiction, historical accuracy — or rather, perceived historical accuracy — is something I’ve been chewing on a lot. It’s the go-to justification for excluding female or minority characters, or for portraying them as oppressed — which is fine if you’re describing an actual historical setting in which said things really happened, but doesn’t hold much water if you’re telling a fantasy story. On the surface, The Banner Saga seems guilty of this. It’s a world of horned giants and magic, but women are not warriors here. They cannot become clan leaders. In combat, they are always archers or casters. This sort of thing has irked me greatly elsewhere, but here, the approach felt different. They weren’t going for historical accuracy, they were going for — if you’ll allow a made-up term — folklorical accuracy. They were trying to mimic a particular type of story, using a very specific culture as a foundation. I had the sense that in this world, women and men existed in separate social spheres, with distinct but equally important roles. It wasn’t that women couldn’t do what men did. It was that they didn’t.

“That’s exactly right,” my partner said, referring to actual Vikings. “They had super strict roles, but women were highly respected in Norse culture. They weren’t equals — there were bride prices, and that kind of thing. But women weren’t property, not like you’d see elsewhere in Medieval Europe. In Iceland, you’d most likely be literate. You’d be able to inherit. You couldn’t inherit a title, but you could inherit everything else — land, money, power. Some women held a lot of power. I mean, who do you think was running everything while the men were off making war?”

Such a woman is present in The Banner Saga: Oddleif, a chieftain’s widow. She can’t take her husband’s title, but she gets stuff done. Everybody knows her and respects her. “The chieftain of Skogr was considered one of the luckier men in town when he wooed the beautiful daughter of a well-known fighter,” her character description says. “These days most people consider him a lucky man for marrying someone who knows how to run a town.”

“What about witches?” I asked. “There are a couple witches in the game, and they’re awesome. Everyone’s scared of them. The most powerful character in the game is a witch.”

My partner’s eyes lit up. “Oh yeah, witches,” she said with relish. “Witches are all over the Sagas, and you do not mess with them. Witches, and wise women. Men always seek the advice of wise women. Wisdom’s what women in the Sagas are most often praised for. Everybody knows that they know what’s up.”

“Yeah, in the game, women aren’t leading the charge, but they plan stuff. The way my game ended, the two characters who played the biggest part in saving the day were both women. The men kept the monsters back, but those two were crucial.”

She nodded approvingly. “Women are always making stuff happen in the Sagas.” She launched into the tale of Auðr djúpúðga — Aud the Deep-Minded, who controlled a ridiculous amount of land during the early days of Icelandic settlement. “Women in the Sagas — oh, queens, there are so many awesome queens — they’re the ones with the best schemes. They don’t fight, they just figure things out and throw dudes at each other. That’s the difference between Viking men and women. Men get in ships and go raiding. Women stay at home and plot.”

“I get the sense that things like honor and courage and strength weren’t masculine characteristics in Viking culture. Is that right?”

“Absolutely. Those are neutral traits. Men and women just achieved them in different ways.”

That notion is evident throughout The Banner Saga, and it has made me aware of how accustomed I am to having one standard fantasy world template. In the stories I grew up with, men are warriors. Warriors are best. Women are weak, so they can’t be warriors. They have to be healers, or casters, or not there at all. That idea is so deeply ingrained that when I push back against it, when I shout that women are strong, too, my gut reaction is not to demand an expanded redefinition of strength, but to want to be a warrior. I am delighted whenever I can play a female character in full, practical plate. After playing The Banner Saga and picking apart its cultural basis, I’ve found myself pondering why I am so drawn to that sort of thing. If I had grown up with stories and games that presented female characters as being as powerful and visually impressive as their male counterparts, would I still want to be a warrior? Would I still want it if I hadn’t grown up in a culture where honor and courage and strength are tied to one narrow set of coded imagery? If I hadn’t been explicitly told again and again that the only things worth doing are the things that men do, the things I’m not allowed to do? I don’t know. I might. I do have a penchant for big swords and tanking. I think that’s just who I am. But I liked the witches in that game. I liked the women who solved problems and made things work. I liked how accepted and admired they were. I liked that none of them were there to be romanced or ogled. I liked that they were people. I liked the idea of there being more paths to glory than melee combat alone. Me personally, I’d prefer to live in a world where I’m free to wield a mace or a magic wand or no weapon at all, without my gender playing into it (I’d like the same for men, too). And I also think that we could use a lot more stories where women do pick up swords and become leaders, not just because we’re capable of doing so, but because we have done so, all through history. But this story — this story showed women with a different sort of strength, and I think it’s good to explore that, too.

“You know me,” I said to my partner, “I usually get so annoyed in RPGs when the only women are archers or casters. But this I was cool with. I think they were trying to keep the archetypes and social structure intact, but wanted to include female characters in the gameplay anyway. Which is pretty cool. I mean, they could’ve chosen to keep them out of combat altogether, and blamed it on the folklore.” I frowned. “It’s weird, though. I hate being told that I can’t have an axe. It’s funny that it doesn’t bug me here.”

My partner smiled. “It’s because you know this stuff. You understand Viking culture.” She paused, and gave me a wry grin. “More than most Americans, at least.”

I took that as a compliment.

Becky Chambers writes essays, science fiction, and stuff about video games. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also be found on Twitter.

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  • Anonymous

    Wonderful piece! Thank you :)

  • Bryant Francis

    There’s a great subplot in The Banner Saga that I thought captured the game’s subtle gender politics quite well—if you play your cards right, you can motivate the women in your tribe to start learning archery, which gives you some extra fighters (at the cost of clansmen), AND unlocks a new archer unit you get around 75% through the game. It comes loaded with the men of the tribe wanting to shut the whole affair down, and the player has ultimate control whether to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to the whole affair—but it’s all super subtle.

    The whole thing only starts because of how you respond to Oddlief takes out her anger on some vultures—do you admonish her, let her be, or make a competition out of it? It’s a great character-building moment, and one that super sold the game for me.

    I was super sad I accidentally got my witch killed though. =(

  • locuas

    Personally, i didn’t stop to think about it because i tought it made sense for them to be archers if they were used to hunt. I was more bothered with why Rook had a Meelee attack if he was an archer, too. I eventually settled with the idea it was done because his special ability was meelee too. Well, there is Yrsa but…well…she shoots fire arrows, i am not going to complain when she is able to do THAT(also, you have WAY too many varls in the Prince’s party)
    Anyway, all that is just fascinating.
    Still, i do wonder if, given how they are making a sequel, will they stay with women as archers or will they make a female warrior?

  • Eisen

    I liked your article, but I can’t get my head around the way women are represented in the game. Yes, they used an existing culture and stories to make that game, but I can see no difference to other games with fantasy settings, that take “history” as an excuse to exclude female characters.
    There is – at least to me – no difference if you have women exclusive as casters and archers only because “icelandic culture” or if you have them exclusive as casters and archers only because of “generic western culture”.

    Also, even if I have sympathies to northern cultures, germanic tribes, vikings and so on, women were not equals to men. There may have been things that were quite good for the time then, and may have been better compared to other cultures at the time, but it wasn’t a paradise of equality and sunshine and rainbows. I always have the feeling there is a lot of romanticization going on, if people talk about those cultures.

    Nontheless, the game sounds interesting and I will try it – even if I still (despite of your article) would have prefered if the women in this game could be warriors too.

  • Alan Kistler

    This was wonderful. THANK YOU so much for sharing.

  • Anonymous

    Okay, one, I have another game I have to play, which is typically the case when I read Becky’s articles (you rule!!). Two, surprised and FRUSTRATED how much my privilege hides from me! I didn’t even think about how much Vikings are misrepresented. I have more learning to do.

  • Bryant Francis

    Rook’s a leader unit and I think they wanted him to be versatile at range and up close, to give players agency with the character whose role they were supposed to be inhabiting.

  • Bryant Francis

    I think the game treads the line of acknowledging a culture that wasn’t super gender inclusive, but chooses to use that gender inequality as a relevant plot point and not a damnation of female characters. (Though i’d be curious as to what Becky’s and other folks’ response to the ending is depending on who they choose to have make the final shot on the big bad)

  • locuas

    guess that makes sese

  • Bryant Francis

    another thought, so depending on which ending you got, Rook’s daughter COULD wind up with a melee ability next game…

  • Samuel

    Rook has melee because he’s technically a Warden archetype unit, like Eirik, actually, the thing I couldn’t figure out is why Rook had a bow, because all other Warden units only have a hatchet.

  • locuas

    because he is a hunter. He and his daughter mention they were hunting whenthey first appeared.

  • Samuel

    Yeah, but game mechanics-wise, all units have a parent archetype, which dictates their weapon and passives, Raiders all use a shield and have the “Bolster ally armor” passive, Shieldbangers all use a shield and have the “armor damage on hit” passive. Warriors all use a two hander and have the “aoe impact” passive, Archers all use a bow have the “bonus damage per armor lost” passive, and Wardens all use a hatchet and have the “move through units” passive. Except Rook, he’s a pro, he gets a bow too.

  • Eisen

    Is it really a relevant plot point? From all I have read it sounds more like: yeah okay, women are not equals, but they can do other stuff and are wise and so on, so they don’t care, they just roll with it.

  • J Ritchey

    The impression I get from the article is that the difference is the women feel relevant and respected. Even though they have a distinct skill set from the men, they aren’t sidelined, they aren’t tokens, and they aren’t decorations and prizes. I don’t remember the last video game I played, and I hated RPGs when I did; but I’m a little curious about this one.

  • Anonymous

    “My gut reaction is not to demand an expanded redefinition of strength, but to want to be a warrior.” THIS. It’s so easy to boil it down to fighting and killing people with brute force is the only way to be strong, and to want that because it’s been off limits to women characters for so long. It’s so much harder (and worth the effort) to celebrate different kinds of strength and cunning for both sexes. Skál!

  • Anonymous

    Thing is, I don’t see how going along with the grain of the many who already believe in prescriptive separate gender roles is so much harder. Women and men who challenge traditional beliefs are always going to walk a harder path. They make the true believers uncomfortable. For example, there’s a long term contingent of civilization that equates and celebrates masculinity as brutish and violent (then wonders why we have problems with masculinity, kind of like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too). For that reason alone I just find it fascinating to see people undermine gender no matter what the direction. (It kind of reminds me of the women who snuck into the front lines of the American Civil War by dressing up as men). It sounds from the comments like the game finds subtle ways of both respecting the culture it is dealing with, while challenging these issues, to which I say, cool!

  • Lorewise

    The writing in that game was so bad though, and that in particular felt so forced an unnatural I would call it anything but subtle.

  • Bryant Francis

    Like I said, he’s an exception because they wanted him to be a main character. Making him a warden then giving him some Archer benefits lets the player use the character they’re supposed to be embodying in a bigger fashion. (It’s a mechanic seen in other strategy games as well)

  • Bryant Francis

    It’s super relevant. I mentioned in another comment about the subplot regarding the caravan’s archers, and there’s a few other beats that inhabit the same theme. The central question, (and the central question around a LOT of decisions, regarding gender roles, ancestral legacies, etc. etc.) is “It’s the end of the world. Do your societal norms really matter?” And the player gets to answer ‘yes’ ‘no’ or ‘maybe.’ (Don’t choose maybe indecision gets people killed)

  • Anonymous

    Although the idea that Norse women were more “free” than their continental christian counterparts get touted a lot, but there is a lot of wishful thinking and/or ignorance of the status of medieval women in that assumption. It varies a lot from region to region, but the traits that are often flouted – aristocratic female leaders, women as masters of the house, running the estates when the husband is away fighting, some control over who you marry – are equally common in continental europe. There are far more examples of continental medieval female nobles leading defenses or even armies, and even a couple of credible stories of female fighters (and a lot that are more doubtful as they come from other cultures – muslims and orthodox christians – that mention it as examples on how barbaric the westernes are, letting their women fight. There are several muslim sources describing crusader ladies as being given way too much leeway by their husbands – such as their horrid custom of leaving women unattended when in public- as examples of their immoral behavior. Whether this is accurate or not depends on how biased the “foreign” author is) than there are similar stories from the norse sagas. Aristocratic women would typically lead if the husband died or was away, but from high medieval tax rolls we have a number of commoners in the same role, taking over their husbands’ crafts and/or business after his death. Some might even be independent craftspeople in their own right, but the tax rolls don’t distinguish between widows and other females. In general, only some trades were banning women in medieval times – such as “oriental carpetmakers” in the Paris’ rolls of 1298, that claim women are not physically capable of the heavy work (felting?) needed.

    I have to admit that having a fairly decent knowledge of both norse and latin sources, I have always viewed the idea of the more-independent norse woman as an overestimation compared to europe, skewed partly by the attitudes of many monastic chroniclers to women (read: here’s a few reasons why I choose to go chaste, folks). Since a lot of “viking age” sources are in reality high medieval norse ones (the early medieval scandinavians weren’t big on written literature, but the high medieval icelanders and scandinavians who wrote down their histories sometimes added familiar details to the sagas – obviously high medieval weapons and armour show up frequently, for example) it also means many attitudes ascribed to viking age women might in fact be medieval attitudes.