The Vikings were much more than we’ve previously thought—or at least that’s what the reveal trailer for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was signaling loud and clear when it was released last year. For the first minute or so of the game’s trailer, Valhalla’s Vikings are depicted as not merely “heartless, godless barbarians.” Instead—the trailer claimed—Vikings were family-oriented, protectors of women, children, and their communities. Valhalla’s first promotional flourish hinted at a game that would challenge widespread ideas about the Vikings. Instead of depicting them as just ruthless murderers who simply pillage and move on, it offered a more nuanced position on a more complicated people and time.
But when mainstream entertainment products make these claims, it often seems like a red flag—or perhaps a setup for disappointment. For the remainder of its airtime, the trailer also promised that this franchise installment would allow players to experience ninth-century England #LikeAViking: by enacting brutal, bloody violence against the Saxons. Realistically, it wouldn’t be much of a promo for an Assassin’s Creed game if it didn’t do this: in the broadest possible terms (and aside from the usual Assassin’s Creed sci-fi metanarrative), the game’s overall historical subject matter is the Viking conquest of England, as much as (if not more so than) about Vikings making a home.
I’m not a historian of the Middle Ages, and so I willingly leave critique of the game’s representation of this specific period to those with more authority. But even in the first marketing release for the game, we can see echoes of the kind of juxtaposition that haunts many, if not most, mainstream historical games on the market: a desire to claim originality and difference, but paradoxically alongside a deep-seated need to speak to and fulfill preestablished expectations. The Vikings, according to the game makers, aren’t like the stereotypes you’ve heard. But fortunately, they promise, you will get to play as those stereotypes nonetheless.
Ultimately, then, at its core Valhalla is caught in a tug-of-war between several possible directions: the preestablished expectations for an Assassin’s Creed game, in which the conquest of space has become the norm; a Viking game that at least to some extent plays up to popular ideas about Vikingness; and this initially teased narrative offering a degree of revisionism.
“History is our playground,” Ubisoft’s marketing statement and mantra for the franchise, is ever-increasingly (and expertly) being fulfilled with each new installment. And so, while playing I kept asking myself, What does this game do because of, but also in spite of, having to offer a classic “Assassin’s Creed experience”? What do we expect from our historical games, and what else could they possibly be?
Valhalla presents the player with a massive, nominally “open” game world spanning Norway and England during the Middle Ages. It is undeniably breathtaking, beautifully lit, meticulously designed: the peak of what we now expect from games with a built-in photo mode.
And it’s full of things to see and do. The game’s map overwhelms with points of interest and details, so much so that decoding the many types of waypoint is a task in and of itself. As a result, Valhalla feels like the epitome of the current wave of big-budget, open-world historical games, which revolve almost entirely around overloading players with stuff and seem designed never to be truly “completed.”
It feels like an argument encoded within both marketing campaigns and the games themselves: the more stuff they have, the more space they allow players to explore, the more “alive” and reactive it feels to the player, the more “historically authentic” the game automatically is. The more time you spend there, the more immersed you are in the historical world, the more you feel like you understand how it worked “way back then” (or, rather, how the game developers are telling you it worked).
And it’s easy to get lost in simply exploring this world and experiencing its many ambient elements. Valhalla’s Mysteries—the kooky little side stories players can choose to investigate rather than following the main narrative from location to location—are often funny or meaningful, and sometimes just really stupid. Some are actually quite jarring, like having to tell two little girls that their father has drowned while hunting for treasure, after which Eivor, the game’s protagonist, laments, “This world is hard, and the gods care not.” These stories do a good job of painting a portrait of a hard, brutal historical world and the lives of people within it.
But as much as they offer small glimpses into this past, these vignettes (like the game’s wider ambient elements) don’t add up to anything really: you blink, and you can easily miss the audiovisual cues needed to pursue them to their ending, or you can otherwise ignore them outright. They’re an interesting inclusion, but they are fundamentally optional—never forcing any kind of disruption to the “Assassin’s Creed experience” on the player.
The franchise has now crystallized around a very specific formula. Whether the game takes on ancient Greece or Egypt, Victorian London, or another location, the cornerstones of this formula and the experience on offer are the domination and exploration of space. But while these elements seem to go hand in hand, they are not equal imperatives. The free exploration of space is implicitly encouraged, yet ultimately optional.
Meanwhile, the mechanics and modes of progressing through the game from start to finish are tied to the player’s ability to conquer. Because of this repetition, rather than in spite of it, it’s more difficult to feel or talk about a meaningful connection between what players are required to do in these worlds and the historical subject matter used to frame these actions. This is particularly ironic, because if there was one historical period that perfectly fits this mold, it’s arguably that of Viking conquest.
does the Viking veneer meaningfully add to the player’s experience of this very specific historical context?
Upon arriving on the shores of England not too long after the game begins, the player traces a path from the Midlands, forging alliances and installing friends in politically unstable lands north, south, east, and west, finally ending up in Winchester to unseat Alfred “the Great” of Wessex. But players are only very gradually granted entry to different parts of the world and allowed to explore them, as they increase their power and strength (read: capacity to inflict and be subjected to violence) and by making a certain kind of progress (also read: largely inflicting violence).
I struggle now to remember the ins and outs of each individual quest arc: to help someone defeat someone else and conquer some part of England. There are memorable ones, certainly. But you ultimately know in the experience of each branching secondary mission that you’re moving toward a wider, overarching goal of “conquest,” each one a box to check.
The outright colonialist underpinnings of the game are, then, unsurprisingly, the logical end point both for this franchise and for the landscape of mainstream historical games, into which conquest-oriented mechanics and ideas are hard-boiled at this point. Yeah, it’s sort of funny to be the one invading England for a change. But the bluntness with which destruction is translated into gameplay objectives feels jarring from the outset, bordering on completely bizarre when burning random houses and villages comes into play. Meanwhile, the repetitiveness of pledging to different lords, kings, and rulers and sorting out their problems leads to the same old conquering of space that other games in the franchise and genre lean on so heavily.
Yes, the Viking veneer might fit very well over this refined, updated version of the franchise’s mechanics and interactive elements, but does this meaningfully add to the player’s experience of this very specific historical context? Or is it just that: the newest veneer? And is that all we should expect of mainstream historical games? Could they not be something more?
Parts of the game do promise something else: to witness a different kind of history and explore the world in a different way, such as the segment in London, and the way it represents a land and its people living in the shadow of a former empire. The city’s inhabitants literally exist in the ruins of what the Romans left behind.
This section of the game aptly illustrates the fallacy of historical periodization—that no time is so distinct from the previous time that there’s no overlap. In one sense, the entire game is fundamentally about this slow transition between old and new, of the layers of the past that can shift so delicately with one decision or another, with one new leader or another, with the passing of one way to the next.
Despite its importance, disproving such a fallacy seems far too delicate and nuanced to be an intended argument. This is especially the case when the game itself consists of hacking and slashing your way through the English countryside, your eye permanently fixed on a shadowy, deep-rooted conspiracy that is fundamentally unchanging with the times, despite alterations in surface appearance.
At one point, Eivor tracks an outstanding nemesis to a newly introduced part of the game world: Vinland. Undercover insofar as she can be, stripped of weapons and armor, through Eivor the player interacts not only with other displaced Vikings but also with Indigenous Americans who speak their own language. They tell their own stories, entirely subtitled but completely untranslated for players. What was presented as just another formulaic part of the game—in which the player travels somewhere, kills someone, completes an objective—felt like something actually novel.
Well, it could have been, anyway. The problem is, as Yussef Cole noted on Twitter, this section—like so much else—is entirely optional. Again, anything that might move the player away from a ridiculously overpowered “Assassin’s Creed experience” isn’t forced on them. The “historical” is always ultimately in service of and subservient to the established expectations of a wider franchise.
There are other ways of feeling the lost potential of Valhalla, the parts that could always do more if those making the creative decisions imagined them being valued by players. In the summer of 2020, claims about a pervasive culture of sexism and misconduct at Ubisoft were widely reported. As such, the fact that the first trailer centered a male-playable version of Eivor makes it easy to be deeply suspicious when the game prompts you to make a binary gender choice, or recommends that you let your player-character’s gender be dictated by “the Animus” at various points in the game.
I was pleasantly surprised that female Eivor stayed with me for most of the game when I picked the latter option. And that, when I was made to play as a man (but not as Eivor), it actually does make some sense. But offering the option to eschew playing as a woman at all tarnished what otherwise felt like a game fundamentally designed to be woman-led.
On one level, Valhalla is actually a game that tries to make you care about your clan, about building a home, about taking care of your people. But it never truly requires you to spend all that much time in the home you build. This is so even when the game offers an ending that literally shows Eivor eschewing a hollow kind of eternal power and glory for the family she lost and the friends made along the way.
Yes, these games try to convince you their worlds are real and alive by filling them with things to see and do. But, in the end, the process of “progressing” from start to finish is largely consumed by repetitive, violent story arcs with some variations that otherwise recycle old favorite franchise mechanics. Which is great, if all you expect is the newest and most improved Assassin’s Creed game.
When you become so overpowered that nothing is really a challenge to you anymore, Valhalla is of course really fun. When you get to that point, what Valhalla promises is the apex of contemporary historical games: the pleasure of escaping into an unchallenging version of the past as the hero and treading the well-worn road of individual conquest. I don’t know how (or even if) we get away from this very specific rut of mainstream historical video games. For now, it always seems to win out over games that could do something more, if only it was assumed that players could expect, or even want, to have their preconceptions challenged.
“The time has come to speak to them in a language they will understand,” says Alfred of Wessex about a minute or so into that initial reveal trailer. In case the viewer is unsure about his intent, the word WAR is written in bold and underlined just above the wax seal he is meticulously placing on his newly composed decree.
From that point onward, the more or less three-quarters of the remaining trailer airtime is all about giving players exactly what they expect, speaking in a language it is assumed they too will understand. Fighting on the battlefields of England, hulking, capable Vikings wield axes and bloody vengeance against English soldiers. This is the language of videogame power fantasy, the language that mainstream, open-world, action-adventure historical videogames only really know how to speak. For now.
Linda Rain / Flickr