Lead or Die (But Probably Die Anyhow): Thoughts On “Banished”

Banished is the sort of city-builder that makes you late for work.

A lot.

Shining Rock Software’s city-builder is one of those games that I’m not even sure I enjoy–I mean, I think I do. Take a look at my Steam profile: nearly a hundred hours at the time of this review. But what inspires it, I have to wonder? So let’s take a look. In Banished you are the leader of a group of people who have been banished from their own villages for one reason or another. Why? It’s never explained. There isn’t a storyline or a plot arch to follow–it’s just understood that these are your humble beginnings.

You are left to your own devices on the best way to push a small civilization of criminals and outcasts forward in a vaguely medieval world. Perhaps this expulsion is the reinforcement behind how completely alone your people feel–the only outside input comes from nomads and the occasional traveling salesman. But perhaps the premise is simply meant to quietly prepare you for how brutal it is. Banished is a hard, hard game.  But its difficult is measured and stealthy. You’re cruising along–everyone’s clothed and warm, and you’ve got a sweet little alehouse on the way (that oughta keep the ungrateful bunch of bastards happy). Everything seems fine, if uneventful.

"Well sure--I'll buy your Satanic produce..."

“Well sure–I’ll buy your Satanic produce…”

When out of the corner of your eye, you notice that one of your houses isn’t getting fed enough. No worries, you think. Winter’s almost over, and the year’s crops’ll be grown and harvested before it should become a true issue. When suddenly BOOM BOOM BOOM. Around a dozen of your villagers die of starvation. Women and children, man.

Women and children.

If this were real life, that many lives might take its pain out of your psyche–and you might find comfort in the sweet embrace of your local frozen river. But it’s a game. You hit ESC. You start a new game. You shake the Etch-a-Sketch of these people’s lives one more damn time. You won’t make the same mistake again. Two hours later you’re drinking too much coffee and a fever dream of all the digital moms and chillun you’ve executed through neglect visits you every fifteen minutes or so. When did you become such a monster? Aren’t you awesome at Civilization and Sim City? Are you doing this because, secretly, you want these families dead?

Did I mention there are the occasional disaster beyond starvation?

Did I mention there are the occasional disaster beyond starvation?

I don’t know–maybe that’s just how I play Banished. Because it’s easy to get immersed in it. You’re not dealing with full-scale cities and civilizations, really–you’re dealing with dozens of people. Hundreds at most as the game progresses. So each death prompt really makes you access what’s going on–what you’re doing wrong. The stakes are high–and the game takes pains to remind you of that fact. I love these sorts of strategy games, and maybe the difficulty is what keeps bringing me back to it. Maybe its the unique design and careful, minimalist execution. But one thing’s for sure: I need to build another woodcutter, because I’ll be damned if one more kid freezes to death on my watch.

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