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.
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.
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.
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.