A bit about The Banner Saga

I’ve been playing the very enjoyable Viking themed game The Banner Saga lately, and of course I’ve kept my eyes open for how they use language to give that Viking feel. Very short version: they do it really well and it makes me very happy, but also gives me problems writing about it. It’s easier to point out people’s mistakes, it turns out. I should also point out that I know very little about how the game was made, other than that it was on Kickstarter. This is all guesses and babble (as usual).

The base “flavour language” (let’s call it that) of the game is modern Icelandic, which you can hear in some scenes in the beginning as well as see in names across the game. The narrator is also Icelandic, as far as I can tell from the wonderful flöhffy Ihcelahndic Ehnglish he speaks. There are no runes as such, but a pretty, runelike font is used throughout.

Rune compass

And there’s this rune animal on the map, which I adore. I’m pretty sure it’s not based on an actual carving, but it looks very much like what you’d find on a Swedish runestone from the first half of the 11th century, so who knows? Apart from the writing, of course. As you can see, it just says vestur, norður, austur and suður – the four winds in modern Icelandic. And I say “modern” because those –ur endings give it away. In Old Norse, the ending was simply –r (vestr, norðr etc.), but, as often happens when you have a bunch of consonants clustered together, a vowel has snuck in over the years.

Map Banner Saga

In the placenames, they’ve gone for the Old Norse in names like Skogr (‘forest’) and Frostvellr. But I shouldn’t have mentioned the latter, because it’s actually not completely correct Old Norse – it should either have been Frostvôllr ‘frost field’ (with a hooked o where I’ve put ô) or Frostvellir ‘frost fields’. Sorry. As a Swede, I also have to admit that I laughed a bit at the name Setterlund, just because it’s a fairly common surname in Sweden. Just off the map to the left is Hraun ‘lava field’, which happens to be one of my favourite Icelandic words. It’s just so nice to pronounce.

Other than the placenames, the personal names are solid Icelandic/Old Norse for the most part, like Hakon and Eyvind and Oddleif. A couple of main characters have non-Norse names, like Rook and Alette, for some reason. My personal favourite was discovering that Rook’s dead wife was named Aldis, because, as I’ve pointed out before, it’s a nice female name used on a very male man in Skyrim. Banner Saga gets it right where Skyrim doesn’t.

While there aren’t really any runes to speak of, there is a runestone – kind of. As you travel through the world, you come across so called godstones: huge ornamented stones dedicated to a variety of (now gone) gods. One of them is the godstone Ingrid.

Godstone Ingrid
If you know the game, you can also see here that I’m a terrible, terrible leader of men and huge horned people.

Next to the godstone are a lot of big stones with writing on them. The game tells you that Ingrid was the god of knowledge and that the writing on the runestones shifts as you look at them. Since I’m no stranger to zooming in on text the player isn’t supposed to read, I did just that with the screenshot above. It’s still the pretty rune font, only upside down or mirrored. On the godstone itself and on one of the standing stones next to it, it says “We know these things to be true, that all men are responsible for their own actions” (and a bit more, but that’s the full sentence I get out of it). It’s a message that fits very well with the gameplay; the choices you make do have consequences in the game. In my game, mainly that everyone starves and/or tries to kill you. The middle stone seems to have a list of names on it. Kickstarter backers? Makes me regret not backing it myself if that’s the case. By the way, this stone also has a bit of that Urnes style I’ve mentioned before.

As I said, I highly recommend this game to anyone who likes games or Viking-y things or both (as anyone reading this surely will). I’ll most likely return to The Banner Saga once the sequel is out.

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You found a runestone in Year Walk!

20160316_115108

The setting of Year Walk is a very quiet Swedish forest: snow, birches, the occasional cottage. And a couple of runestones. This game is developed in Sweden and based on Swedish folklore, and you can feel that in the atmosphere of the game. It’s probably no coincidence that the runestones are among the closest I’ve seen in a game to what an actual Viking Age runestone looks like: standing stones with runes running in a band along the edge and all carved lines filled in with dark red (which is the standard in Sweden, but not Denmark or Norway). The similarities do end there, though. These runestones are part of a puzzle, and it’s the lines in the middle that’s the point, not the runes. On a real Swedish runestone, that space would normally be occupied by some kind of decoration: a cross, most likely, or an animal form. The runic band is normally in the form of a snake. But you can probably see the resemblance:

 

U769
U 769, also in snow with trees. Less of a puzzle.

 

The runes on the Year Walk stones aren’t all proper runes, either.

20160316_115352

They seem to be the same on all stones, and transliterate (from the older futhark) as:

* tbþï– * tï{N}sþet * þ{G} * {N}ï * tuþ{O}- *

This transliteration needs a couple of comments.

  • The runes transliterated as ï are an interesting case; that rune is rarely found outside of futhark inscriptions (that is, inscriptions that comprise the entire futhark) and its sound value is unclear. It’s most likely a vowel. (It appears on one of my favourite runestones, which can’t be/hasn’t been interpreted.)
  • Using { } means that the letter(s) between them is interpreted as being from the Latin alphabet. Here’s another wonderful runestone that has Latin characters on it as well as runes.
  • The transliteration – indicates a character that can’t be defined but can be counted as a rune. These are, if anything, so-called pentimal runes, mostly known for being on the 19th century Kensington runestone and in the somehow related Larsson papers (and that is very much a discussion for another time). In that case, they could transliterate as 23 and 2.

Of course, that’s a long description for a piece of runic writing that is probably not meant to be understood linguistically. I find it interesting that the developers/designers decided to just write some rune-like characters and not attempt to give it meaning.

 

Bonus reading: if you’re interested in non-lexical runestones, ciphers, and how a runestone is designed – and you read Swedish – I highly recommend Marco Bianchi’s dissertation on the subject. I’ll probably return to Kensington and other American runestones at some point, but until then, here’s a good article on the subject.

You found a runestone in Dragon Age: Origins!

This post will feature pictures of a woman looking at things while wearing a succession of funny-looking hats. The things she’s looking at are runestones (and in one case, a wooden column), the hats she’s wearing are mage hats, and the mage hats look funny because she’s in Dragon Age: Origins (DAO), where no one wears normal clothes, least of all normal hats.

Runestone DAO
Hero in hat.

Runestones aren’t central to DAO at all, you come across a couple of them when dealing with dwarves. The example above is pretty typical, a slab in the dwarven city of Orzammar that says “Runestone” and which you can interact with. Doing so gives you a codex entry, written in the same style as most codex entries in the game. Codexes (or codices, if that makes you happier) (in which case you probably write “lacunae” as well) are of course a common way to give the player background information about a game’s world without forcing them to read it all if they’re not that interested.

In Dragon Age, the preferred shape of a codex is as an actual book, and the style of the entries tends to be very bookish: a bit long-winded and academic, and often in the shape of a quote from some imagined larger source. It’s efficient in giving the impression of a vast world you as a player are only a small part of; you’re only seeing snippets of centuries of literature and history from different cultures. One thing I think is a shame though, and this is not just in Dragon Age, is the many missed opportunities for connecting the object you find in the world to the text supposedly written on it. Sure, you’ll often find a Crumpled Note or something on a dead body, and those will have a note-like quality to them (“J – I’ve hidden the MacGuffin under the Super Obvious Tree. Try not to die right next to it. – M.”), but the basic codex entry is generally the norm. The runestones, as well as other carvings, in DAO would feel much more like runestones if the text on them were more like the kind of text you find in inscriptions.

So what do you write on a stone or carve into a wall in a city? Nothing long, firstly. Carving is hard work. Secondly, runestones and wall carvings of the kind you find among the dwarves are very public texts, and that is the whole point of them. What you want to write in that medium is something official and monumental, a declaration or memorial of some sort. So when runestones function as codexes in a game, the information they give the player should be like that: famous names or events in the culture, an idea of what official propaganda looks like. In later Dragon Age games, statues are sometimes used like this, and it would add more depth to the world if the codex entries were more connected to their material – especially if you actually saw the text in-game.*

*Academic terms avoided in the above: materiality, linguistic landscapes, all kinds of things about semiotics.

 

The other kind of runestone in DAO has absolutely nothing to do with writing.

Runsten awakening
Hero in new, very similar hat.

(To be specific, this is from the DLC Awakening, but still DAO.) In this case the runestone is part of a puzzle in which you match the rune on the wall to the rune on the slab. The developers could have chosen any symbols for this, but they went with runes. In fact, they went with actual runes. The purple one is an older futhark and the less visible, yellow one is an l. The runes in the puzzle don’t actually spell anything (my first, overthinking, thought was that they should be arranged in a word), so they really  are just symbols rather than writing. Any time you put a puzzle or other minigame into a roleplaying game, it needs to be at least superficially justified as a part of the world, and that’s what the function of the runes are here. Sure, they look like they’re projected in neon lights, but they do their job as Ancient Symbols. You can just about imagine some olde magick working in this dungeon.

 

 

Urnes
Hero really digs hats.

Finally, and only slightly related to the above, I just wanted to point out that DAO uses Scandinavian imagery and aesthetics in other ways as well, to give certain areas a rustic, Northern feel. That includes, as in the picture above, carvings from Urnes stave church, which has given name to an entire style of art (called, well, Urnes style). That room happens to be a small supplies closet in a castle. Which is apparently decorated with some really, really, really, really high-end carving.

You found a runestone!

The whole idea for writing this blog came from being a runologist and constantly coming across runes, or something called “runes”, or “runestones” in popular culture. Most of the time, I have no problems with the weird and varied usage of runes, but the variation in itself is fascinating. There are so many examples of rune usage in games, films, books, etc. that I thought I’d address them individually in shorter, thematic posts and then try to look at them collectively. The first such series of posts is going to be You Found a Runestone!, which will be about things called runestones in games.

Here’s an old picture of me and a very big runestone:

Bauta

Dorian and Ólafr: peacocky men

By far one of the best characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition is this man.

Dorian-new2
From the Dragon Age wiki page

His name is Dorian Pavus, he’s a smart, funny, and altogether fabulous character. A major part of the way his personality is written is his flirtatious self-confidence; he struts his stuff and will happily tell you that he’s well aware of how handsome he is.

At some point while re- or re-re-playing the game, I wondered why they chose that last name. He’s from The Tevinter Imperium, which is obviously modelled on the Roman Empire. This is something you see not least in the names, which rely heavily on -us endings to show the connection. At first, I thought his name was Parvus, ‘small’, a name that seemed a bit weird for such a big personality. When I realised my mistake and looked it up, I found that he had a wonderfully fitting name: pavus is a Latin word for ‘peacock’. It’s a nice little wink at the way Dorian behaves. It also made me as an Old Norse scholar happy, because Dorian is not the first fictional Peacock to work it.

In the wonderful Laxdæla saga, a boy called Ólafr is the son of the rich Icelandic chieftain Höskuldr and Melkorka, a slave he bought while abroad. Since Ólafr is going to grow up to be a hero as well as a father of heroes, Melkorka of course turns out to be not just any slave, but the daughter of an Irish king, kidnapped at the age of fifteen. Ólafr himself is fabulous. As the saga describes him early on, “It was soon seen that Olaf, as he grew up, was far superior to other men, both on account of his beauty and courtesy.” This beauty in time earns him a nickname:

Olaf grew up with Thord, and became a great man and strong. He was so handsome that his equal was not to be found, and when he was twelve years old he rode to the Thing meeting, and men in other country-sides looked upon it as a great errand to go, and to wonder at the splendid way he was made. In keeping here-with was the manner of Olaf’s war-gear and raiment, and therefore he was easily distinguished from all other men. Thord got on much better after Olaf came to live with him. Hoskuld gave Olaf a nickname, and called him Peacock, and the name stuck to him.

So there he is, Olaf Peacock, or as he’s called in Old Norse, Ólafr Pái (I use the Norse spelling, the 1899 translation quoted doesn’t). It’s interesting to note that contrary to the common idea of Viking Age men being almost comically butch and rugged, Ólafr is not necessarily given this nickname as an insult. He’s handsome and well dressed, and this theme follows him throughout the saga, where his colourful clothes and gold-inlaid weapons are often described. Ólafr also becomes the father of the tragic hero Kjartan, who is said to be the most beautiful man ever born on Iceland.*

That the words pái and pavus look very similar is of course no coincidence. Peacocks aren’t exactly common in Iceland, so the Old Norse word is a loan from Latin. As an aside, the fact that pái starts with a p tells anyone who knows their historical linguistics that the word has to be a loan word, as Proto-Indo-European initial becomes very early in the Germanic languages (which is why Latin has pater while English has father, for example). This is called Grimm’s Law and this is probably not the right place to go further into that.

So Dorian Pavus and Ólafr Pái have this in common, that someone – a game writer, a father, a saga author – decided that “peacock” would be a good way of describing them. They’re proud men, they care about their looks and their outfits, they know how to carry themselves. They’re great additions to any good story, and while they may stand out for all the right reasons, I don’t think they’re as weird as some would like to think.

 

* A couple of asides/recommendations: a) read Laxdæla saga, b) if you’re interested in Old Norse nicknames, there’s an entire dissertation about them by Paul Peterson. The name Pái is treated on page 202. And if you like both of these things, Saga Thing is the podcast for you.