Banished is a series of small goals that feed into one ever-looming command: survive. Every game starts in the spring, and before winter hits, you need to get enough firewood, gather a decent supply of food, and build some houses to keep your citizens from freezing to death. Just getting enough food is tough, because you rarely have enough time or free land to get a proper set of crops growing. Instead, you’ll be chopping down as many trees as you can before getting a fishery going in a nearby lake or river. Then you hunker down and hope nobody dies.
People, more than anything else, are your vital resource. They need homes, food, decent clothes, tools, emotional support, medicine, and more. Every mechanic, every building you can place, and everything else you can do relates back to that central theme of survival. If you can’t gather enough food, your people die. If they’re stuck outside for too long, or don’t have warm clothing, they die. Each time you fail as their leader, you’re reminded of the loss with a grating sound and a yellow gravestone. These serve as a one-two punch to punish you for failure because losing citizens makes it that much harder to keep up the resource flow.
Like most games of its type, Banished has a number of natural disasters that strike your populace. In many ways, they serve as a kind of random “boss fight” in the sense that they will often test one aspect of your infrastructure. Diseases test the health of your population, fires your city planning, and tornadoes your ability to rapidly rebuild before winter comes again. With Banished already amounting to a desperate attempt to stave off death, disasters can be absolutely devastating for the unprepared. When pests hit your crops and you’re already barely squeaking by each year, you’re going to start losing a lot of people. Those kinds of cascading failures contrast with the almost hilarious scenarios that surround SimCity’s giant robots or aliens.
While the process of survival is never-ending, holding out against the elements amid the hostility of the untamed natural world is a small but powerful personal victory. Villagers have names; they’re born, grow up, and eventually die under your intense supervision. Banished reinforces the human drama with its brutal difficulty and negative feedback loops. It’s fertile soil for some of the most remarkable emergent storytelling around. With relatively few, well-designed mechanics, the game weaves a powerful tale of empathy and desperation and is a high-water mark for narrative elements that mutually reinforce mechanics. Even better, this is a very human story divorced from the Western tropes common in the loosely imperialistic messages of other, similar games. It’s just you, your people, and their strong desire to live.