For the last few months I’ve been trying to put my finger on why The Banner Saga 2 didn’t totally work for me.  The narrative is solid, it’s definitely well written, as I said in my earlier piece about the game.  The sequel also has higher productions values and interesting gameplay additions – but somehow it didn’t grab me in the same way as the original did.  And while I was playing Owlboy, I realized what it was: The Banner Saga 2 isn’t as thematically sound as its predecessor.

Theme is a tough thing to crack when it comes to video games.  Video games usually get so caught up in the myriad of elements by which we judge them, they forget that they should have some sort of coherent theme.  From gameplay, narrative, and art – everything needs to point back to one specific message.  In the Banner Saga that message was about survival.  The narrative was all about a final army of humans and varl, trying to make their way to the next safe haven.  The Oregon Trail-like gameplay made you ration food and make difficult decisions to simply stay alive.  The combat forced players to carefully pick who to protect and who to sacrifice in the name of survival.  In the sequel the sense of survival is still present, but it’s more about how characters deal with difficulty in the face of adversity.  While that’s a cool exploration of the narrative, it doesn’t really resonate through the gameplay and art design.

Owlboy might be one of the best examples of a theme resonating through each corner of the game – and also just one of the best games I’ve played this year.  It struggles a bit in the later stages, but we can discuss that more at a later point.  For now, let’s start with what the narrative of the game.

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Owlboy follows and humanoid owl named Otus who is currently in training.  Mute – and a little clumsy – Otus struggles in his training and quickly becomes an outcast amidst the other sects of bird-like people who fill a strange world of islands in the clouds.  Otus has one friend, a young dorky boy named Geddy.  When a “troublemaker” starts causing mischief Otus and Geddy’s little village, they chase the troublemaker and stumble upon an ancient owl relic.

The narrative revolves around outcasts finding friends and becoming stronger through those friends.  When Otus is alone, the tone of the narrative is usually fearful and dissonant – something terrible or sad has usually occurred.  He gets picked on, or rejected, or worse.  But when he is with his friends, the narrative is usually optimistic, the characters are more cheerful.

When you weave gameplay into story, the themes of friendship only grow stronger.  The most obvious way this works is in the core mechanics of the game.  Otus has a few abilities he can do on his own, but often he needs help from one of his friends to advance through the game.  Whether it is the need of their various guns, or special abilities that help you outsmart some of the games puzzles, there is an established co-dependency between the player-character and NPCs, taking the bonds of friends and incorporating that need for others into every moments of gameplay.

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The game best comments on this by taking away characters at certain times and letting the player feel the impact of that loss.  You not only see it in the narrative sense, as Otus misses his companions, but you feel it in the gameplay as well as you miss the certain abilities an absent character provided.  

But this theme also expands into the larger elements of the games.  Otus’ angry teacher is often alone, and when Otus interacts with him, he usually is alone too.  We feel the impact of having to face this authority figure the game creates because the characters we’re used to relying on aren’t there.  There is also a side mission that involves find a series of missing brothers.  When you find these brothers they are alone and afraid.  When you unite the brothers the game rewards you with a special minigame that helps you earn more of the game’s money that you can use for rewards.

Even the characters that you befriend are characters who find themselves alone because they’ve been rejected from their native peoples.  One of the earlier companions is someone who finds themselves marooned and depends upon Otus to survive.  A later character was an outcast and created on persona to feel better about themselves, only to again be rejected and find Otus.  Even the finale of the game uses the friendships you’ve built with the characters as a central set-piece moment, but I’ll avoid spoiling it.

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If there’s one place where the theme of friendship feels like it missed the mark, it’s in a later level where Otus is assembled with all of his friends but the game pushes the player to play the sequence alone.  It’s a weird twist on the gameplay at a surprisingly late stage, but the whole world you’re in is off-base so maybe that’s what the developers were going for.

On the whole, Owlboy is a triumph of a game.  By no means is it perfect, but one has to tip their hat to a game that is so impressively sound through and through.  It can be a little obtuse at parts and could be more helpful to the player from time to time (that seems to be a theme this year), but overall Owlboy is more than likely one of the best games we’ll see in 2016.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • These sprites are pretty good. I wish there was some way they could share them with the wider 2-D community. By good, I mean they are getting close to a classic-corporate presentation; which is something you don’t even see in corporate 2-D offerings anymore.