Few indie games are hotter right now than the recently-released title The Banner Saga from Stoic Studio. As perpetual twilight blankets the realm, you must interact with complex non-player characters to find a way to save the world from the utter chaos which threatens everything you love. Three veterans of video game development – John Watson, Alex Thomas and Arnie Jorgensen – came together to craft a beautifully animated RPG inspired by Viking legend, and gamers everywhere have been raving about it. Combining real-time strategy with compelling storytelling and lush, hand-painted graphics, it’s been earning high scores with many of the internet’s toughest critics.
Just one of the many things that makes The Banner Saga such a memorable game is its magnificent musical score. Written by Austin Wintory, Grammy-nominated composer of the soundtrack for Journey, it features spellbinding vocals paired with evocative instrumentals, creating an ethereal background for the game’s Nordic tale. The score includes contributions from The Dallas Winds musicians, Mike Niemietz on electric guitar, Randin Graves playing the didgeridoo, and Taylor Davis providing violin solos. Additionally, the music is enhanced by vocals from singer Malukah (possibly best-known on the internet for her haunting cover of Skyrim‘s “The Dragonborn Comes”), Icelandic actor Jóhann Sigurðarson, and Peter Hollens.
Peter is a YouTube musician with an unusual a capella signature style, wherein he records himself repeatedly, singing all parts and making the accompanying music with his mouth as well. He and Austin Wintory have collaborated previously on some of Wintory’s compositions, and Hollens says Wintory is the reason he got involved with The Banner Saga.
“We’ve been working off an on together now for about a year, and I was so lucky to be a part of this game,” he says. “[Austin Wintory's] work is just amazing, and he is probably the only one in the world that could get me to sing in Icelandic.” Was Icelandic difficult for the Oregon native? He laughs, explaining that he has previously sung in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Chinese, Russian, “and even Gibberish,” but that Icelandic was far and away the hardest of them all. However, given how well the Icelandic lyrics tie in with the Viking-inspired story of the game, he has to admit that the work that went into learning to sing in the tongue-twisting language was “well worth it.”
According to Wintory, the entire score took about a year and a half to plan and assemble. Hollens says that recording his personal contributions to the soundtrack took only about ten hours. He unfortunately did not get to interact with either the game developers or his fellow musicians; they recorded separately and Wintory “brought it all together in the end and made it work!” He adds that “the music that Austin writes makes it very easy to find inspiration. Overall, I just went for a very strong operatic, emotional vibe.”
We don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, but Hollens admits he isn’t able to shed much light on the game itself anyway: “I’m only a little way into it, so I’m not sure how it ends yet.” He describes himself as “a HUUUGE gamer!” and adds that he would play more often if he had the time. “I used to play World of Warcraft all the time, and Diablo, and virtually any first person shooter, and I adore playing my friends in sports games. Late at night, sometimes I find myself doing silly things like baseball simulators and such.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, given his affinity for gaming, that Hollens is next slated to work with Jeremy Soule, the award-winning composer for many games including the Guild Wars and Elder Scrolls series. Soule is at work on a new game, the details of which Hollens has yet to fully learn, but “I’m pretty stoked to hear what he has in mind for that!”
The Banner Saga (PC, $24.95 USD for the base game) is available for download from Steam, GameStop, and several other online retailers. The game soundtrack is available for purchase by itself as a digital album from BandCamp.com, but is also included with the deluxe version of the game. As one reviewer describes the music, it is “the perfect soundtrack for going into war – or studying.” Keep tabs on more from Stoic Studio at their Twitter account; you can also follow Austin Wintory and Peter Hollens for more gaming music magic.