Collections: Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and the Unfortunate Implications

We’re going to be a bit silly this week (in part because the ending of this compressed semester has left me with little time) and talk about the recently released historical action-RPG computer (and console) game, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, set in 9th century Norway and England.

And, as with the last time we did this, I should note that this isn’t a game review. As a game, AC: Valhalla is perfectly serviceable and quite fun. I don’t think it got the same amount of developer time as its predecessor, Odyssey, but it is also a more focused experience than Odyssey was, which runs to its benefit. Everything here basically works and while I find some of the game design decisions puzzling (the largest being how long the game makes you wait hours before you have a full set of all three armor types and all weapon types, given that you may be getting bonuses to them in the skill tree many hours before you find any at all), it is overall fine. It’s fun.

It also lets you snuggle the cats. I am very big on this choice.

But you aren’t here for my game reviews. You are here for me to talk about the history behind the game. And normally, I would leave a product like this alone (this is only thinly historical fiction, given the crazy background plot that ties the games together). But each Assassin’s Creed game includes not just meticulous recreations of historical places (and to be clear, I mean the physical buildings and landscapes, not the cultures or politics, but also some form of this statement:

Inspired by historical events and characters, this work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities.

(yes, the odd decision to use and then not use the Oxford comma is preserved from the original). That is Valhalla’s version of the statement. That statement is making a claim about the product that follows. Some of those claims are explicit (this is based on real history at some level) and some are implicit (our diverse team means this game was produced in a careful, sensitive way). And those claims deserve interrogation.

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The Nitpicks

My thoughts on Valhalla fit into two main categories: complaints of historical accuracy that I think are largely unimportant, but fun to note, and complaints about tone and framing which I think are important and worth discussing. We can start with the frivolous stuff. If you want to skip to the meat of the analysis, you are welcome to jump right to the next section, but I know some folks like to know about this stuff, so here it is.

First off, because it is a core area of my specialty: the weapons and armor. The military equipment we see here is very hit-or-miss and there are honestly quite a lot of misses. They at least have, for the most part, the relatively light design of battle axes correct, in both their two-handed and one-handed varieties. And I can understand from a game design standpoint the decision to not give the player a one-handed sword and to instead fill that role with the more iconic one-handed axe; NPCs use one-handed swords, so it isn’t that they don’t exist, merely that our character doesn’t prefer them. Technically, sword-and-shield and spear-and-shield are both possible, but only with a high level perk, which is pretty silly given that these were the most common non-elite fighting styles of the era by some distance.

But things go poorly from there. There is a ‘flail’ type weapon, despite – as we’ve discussed, actually – flail chain weapons being both not of this period, poorly attested in general and also not common in this part of the world in any period. The large two-handed swords – the only kinds of swords the player can use – are around three hundred years too early and don’t really resemble their later variations either (they are much too thick and heavy, being mostly up-scaled period swords, which makes them look absurd). And yes, there were two-handed swords in antiquity in Thrace and Illyria (the falx and rhomphaia) but this is both not that part of the world, not antiquity, and these are not those swords. I am befuddled that, with two other two-handed weapons that fit the period (a thrusting spear and a two-handed axe) that they felt the need to include ‘greatswords.’ Also, they are carried by way of back-scabbards, which…sigh…no.

The armor is generally a bigger ‘miss’ than the weapons. There is a lot of soft ‘leather’ armor here of exactly the sort that was not used historically. What is baffling uncommon is mail – especially among the Norse and Danes (there’s a bit more mail on the Saxons) – which would have been, in this period, by far the most common metal body protection. Pretty much all of Eivor’s warrior band ought to be wearing mail. Instead, there is a lot of scale armor; scale was certainly used in this period in England, but it was a lot less common than mail (there are also things like brigandine armor roughly 400 years too early). I have noticed a real trend of game developers using lots of scale armor when mail would be more correct; I wonder if it is easier for an art-team to produce the assets for it or if they think it looks cooler. But in any event, audiences looking for a realistic sweep of ninth century equipment will not find it here. I would say, for the more ‘exotic’ player armors, that I think the developers here missed a trick – the game sets up early that we have people from the Near East and even the Far East in the player’s clan. I think that would set up an opportunity to have the honestly rather more varied and potentially visually interesting armors from the Near East – a lot more scale, but also Near Eastern lamellar or even Chinese-style lamellar coats. Alas, no.

Barbarian-fashion, with nonsense biker-leather armor and lots of random, unkempt fur. Even vikings cared about their appearances!

In terms of clothing, it is both hit and miss, but a bit more hit than miss compared to equipment. Some of the Norse and Danish wear is ‘hollywood barbarian’ (lots of rough fur, inexplicably low-coverage clothing in freezing climates, lots of random leather) which remains truly frustrating. But most of the clothing isn’t this way. One odd area is color: medieval clothing, contrary to what you often see in films, was colorful, often with lots of bold primary colors (bright reds, yellows, greens, blues). In Valhalla, the developers have opted to use clothing color to signify faction (friendly Danes wear green, the Norse blue, hostile Danes red, hostile Saxons yellow) and to keep non-combatants in drab colors. I get the design reason (they want you to pay attention to enemies, not non-combatants) but it is frustrating, apart from the monks, that this makes so many of the townsfolk drab and dull. Still, it was very nice to see Norse and Danes in bright primary colors, often with lovely border-stitching on their clothes and lots of clear care.

In terms of architecture, I very much like that buildings in settlements, especially high status ones, are often well built, with lots of designs and carving work in the wood. I am less thrilled with the way churches are done: typically in plain stone with plaster; some color is often added by lighting effects through stained glass. But these are medieval Catholic churches, they should be brightly painted and colored in the interior and in most cases – especially in big towns and monasteries – very well kept up. If you want to see this done better, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a deeply flawed game that nevertheless does medieval town architecture and clothing quite a lot better (but maybe watch a Let’s Play; while KC:D is fun once it gets properly going, it’s a case where I don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze; I invested the time to get properly into the game and I don’t think it was really worth it).

One of Valhalla’s inexplicably bland churches. Also, why are the big banners so ragged and faded? This is an active religious center! It would be kept clean and well cared for!

Diversity

This isn’t really a nitpick or a substantive issue, so I am giving it its own section in between the two. Let me be frank: I fully understand the desire of the developers to deviate from history on some of these points in order to make a more inclusive game. These games do not market themselves as pure historical simulations, so this does not bother me; in fact I think it is broadly a positive thing that game studios are doing this (so long as they are open about fudging the history). So if you were hoping for a lot of table-pounding here, you are bound to be disappointed. Still, we’re assessing the game historically, so it seems worthwhile to point some of these things out.

First, on gender diversity, so far the game has built up a quiet contrast between the English, who are gender-stratified, and the Norse and Danes, who are much less so. Saxon troopers are all male, but Danish and Norse NPCs include women. All of the Saxon leaders I’ve met so far in the game are male, while one of the first jarls you meet in England is a woman ruling in her own name. Saxon clothing is sharply gendered (men in pants, women in dresses), but Norse and Danish clothing generally isn’t (which is a clear design choice, since this is very much not true historically). And, as with AC: Odyssey, if you play a female main character, absolutely no one seems to care or notice.

Now, on the one hand, there isn’t nothing to this characterization. ‘Shield-maidens’ do show up in the sagas and archaeological evidence of Scandinavian women from the period buried with weapons has turned up (although to be clear it is not nearly the sort of ‘slam dunk’ evidence it often gets presented as in the popular media; grave goods don’t always tell you very much about what someone did, so much as what they owned or the status they had). I’d argue the balance of the evidence favors the idea that some Scandinavian women did fight some of the time.

That said, while the evidence for female warriors is difficult and subject to interpretation, it is abundantly, obviously, overwhelmingly clear that political power was overwhelmingly concentrated in male hands in Norse and Danish society, that males were functionally exclusively the rulers, and that the vast, overwhelming majority of warriors were men and female warriors, if they existed, were rare, notable exceptions. Norse and Danish ‘viking’ society was still very patriarchal. The game, in creating this contrast between historically patriarchal Saxon society and ahistorically non-patriarchal Danish and Norse society (again, there’s some history to this, but the treatment in game is a fairly big over-correction), I think, really draws attention to just how far they are going to fudge this point historically.

But I absolutely understand the desire not to bash the player’s head with this and to take the opportunity to open the game up in this way. Honestly, if the game played it the same way AC:Odyssey did, I wouldn’t mind it at all. If anything, it would make more sense here: the idea of a woman warrior was evidently, from the sagas, at least plausible to an audience of vikings. The same cannot be said of the idea of a female mercenary in the Greek world – the role and status of women in Greece was really quite restricted, even by the standards of some ancient patriarchies (for instance, as compared to the still-very-constrained-because-this-is-still-a-patriarchy position of women in Rome). I do worry that this depiction – and it’s clear that this Valhalla is partly feeding off of Vikings is going to end up creating an overly romanticized view of Scandinavian society in this period. So let me say it again: ‘Viking’ society was still very much a patriarchy in which nearly all political power was held by men, and almost all of the fighting was done by men. My bigger problem on this point is the contrast it sets up with the English, a point we’ll come back to in the next section.

I am similarly unbothered by the decision to make the player’s home camp very racially diverse. The camp features – at least where I am now in the game – two Middle Eastern characters, two East (or possibly central? The game isn’t quite clear) Asian characters and one African character. I will say that, as travelers and traders, it is not crazy that people with these backgrounds might be in England, even in the ninth century. The decision to include so many characters from Asia and so few from Africa is a bit more frustrating; I’d expect to see a lot more North Africans in 9th century England than either Middle Eastern or East/Central Asian characters (because it is closer, as a matter of trade-routes). But given the relative size of video-game markets, it isn’t hard to see why that decision might have been made (but I do find it frustrating, especially since the one African character is, uh, a magical child…which is not great – and yes I know he is a legacy character and no that doesn’t make it better).

I will say that I found this decision a bit out-of-place for a game set in 9th century England, which, unlike either, say, 3rd century (Roman) England or 13th century England, was not nearly so well integrated into global trade networks. Now, I liked that AC: Odyssey had a good amount of Mediterranean diversity (if anything it should have had more; and if they ever make AC: Rome it should have a ton) where it is a bit more understandable because fifth century BC Greece was well-integrated into a large Mediterranean trading network which also hooked into trade routes stretching through North Africa, India and into China along with Europe. So whereas the gender component makes less sense in Odyssey compared to Valhalla, the racial component makes somewhat less (but not zero) sense in Valhalla. In short, this is a lot of ethnic diversity for a setting that was not very diverse, even compared to itself in earlier or later periods (but again, the idea that there might be merchants from these places in England in the ninth century is not crazy).

But as with the point on gender, I am not really bothered by this decision. Would a small village (the player’s settlement) have multiple characters from other continents in 9th century England? Almost certainly not. But would there have been traders from far off lands in England? Absolutely, although one would expect that many of the ‘exotic foreigners’ would be Spaniards (including, of course, Spanish Muslims, given the date) or Italians. Could there have been Middle Eastern or even East Asian traders, travelers, merchants and the like in 9th century England? Sure – not many – but sure.

My only problem with this all is that, of course, nearly all of the foreign characters are in your settlement – rather than in the big cities with big markets where you would actually expect to see people from far off lands – which further heightens the Norse-Saxon contrast I am going to complain about in a moment.

So, is there a bunch of design decisions which essentially concentrate the gender and ethnic diversity in places where the player will see it in an effort to broaden the game’s appeal. I am fine with that. This game isn’t pretending to be a historical simulation and I understand the desire to set it up this way.

This is about to get both very grim and difficult to illustrate, so instead here is a picture of a cat.

On to the more substantive issues, starting with:

Viking Colonialism

My more substantive issues go to the overall tone of the narrative and the society that is described here. And I think the problem can be neatly summed up in just one thing about the game: the game will ‘desyncronize’ you (meaning produce a game over) if your character kills civilians, including if, while raiding a monastery, you kill the monks. You are a viking (one thing they do right: viking is a job description, meaning ‘raider,’ not an ethnic identity) who does not kill non-combatants. This is akin to the famous joke about the pirates who don’t steal anything.

We should be clear about what is happening in England in c. 875 when the game takes place. After almost a century of repeated Norse and Danish viking raids on the English coast (which, to be clear, were not merely raids for physical goods; they were slave raids as trading in slaves (‘thralls’) was an important part of the Scandinavian economy), the arrival of what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the ‘Great Heathen Army’ (in 865) turned that into a war of conquest. The Norse and Danes overran the English kingdoms (save Wessex) and settled in the area, subjugating the population, taking the best farmland from its former owners and generally wrecking the place in the process. Our sources are very clear that this was not a particularly pleasant process for the existing population and the surviving English kingdom of Wessex responded to it with a series of reforms that radically militarized the kingdom.

To say that the game sanitizes this history is a profound understatement.

The England of the game is suspiciously both resource rich and surprisingly empty. The player’s clan settles, with a minimum of fuss, in unoccupied (save for ‘bandits’) high value land directly on a river – prime real estate that one supposes the English just forgot about (technically there was already a camp here, so the developers have done us the favor of having NPCs move in before us, violently clear the land of its local population and then just leave so that we can more or less peacefully move in). Seriously, in one quest your clan’s hunter goes on and on about how resource rich and full of animals the land is; this is not marginal land. The resulting settlement is, apart from some foreign merchants and specialists, entirely Norse; there is no subjugated or enslaved underclass (we’ll get back to that in a second).

Your settlement is then expanded and built up entirely with goods derived from raiding – specifically raiding churches and monasteries (you literally do not seem to be able to resource raid other types of settlements, stick a pin in that, we’re coming back to it too). But in those raids, you only ever take piles of resources locked in giant gold chests – resources you are repeatedly told the local Saxons just uselessly lock up in their churches (silly Christians!). And while you might be opposed by Saxon soldiers, when you raid these places, you not only don’t need to kill any of the monks or farmers, you cannot – doing so results in a game-over state. Your warriors may burn some buildings, but they pop back to normal shortly and these settlements repopulate even before you leave. In short, your raiding doesn’t so much as inconvenience the civilian population.

Instead the early game missions generally represent the Norse and Danish invaders as a positive impact on the local population. The first two mission chains in England involve replacing the ‘bad guy’ anti-pagan king of Mercia with a good guy reasonable king Ceolwulf (and his good guy reasonable son) and rescuing the Dane-ruled settlement of Grantebridge where, I kid you not, we are told that this settlement was just a tiny village when the Danes moved in and built it up into a big, multi-cultural trading town and all of the local English folks are just totally OK with this and it is just the mean nasty Saxon army (led by a bad guy member of an evil conspiracy) who are ruining everything. Apparently all of the Danish vikings only really came by for infrastructure week.

This problem is infinitely compounded by the way the game treats, or more correctly does not treat, the Norse practice of slavery. Thralls – that is, enslaved persons forced to work, typically, as menial laborers – are mentioned only at the very beginning of the game and never subsequently recur. This is an enormous problem in terms of representing Norse society and a stunning one given that slavery was not left out of Odyssey. Slavery was extremely common in the Norse and Danish world of this period. As far as we can tell most free households would have had at least a few enslaved ‘thralls’ and larger households would often have had dozens. Eivor and Sigurd – the main characters – being effectively nobility (a Huscarl) and royalty (a jarl and king’s son) respectively would both have many enslaved thralls in their households.

Moreover, slave trading was a major part of the Scandinavian economy in this period. The ‘trading’ settlements the Danes were setting up at Grantebridge would almost certainly have captive Saxons as one of its primary exports and it is very likely that our little settlement would have made heavy use of captured locals as enslaved labor. None of this is so much as mentioned in the text. Slavery is presented, more or less, as something only the initial Norse bad guy does and then never mentioned again. Imagine the equivalent of a game set in the American South or the Caribbean pre-1865 in which slavery was simply not present at all and you have the rough scope of the problem here (I should point out that the Assassin’s Creed games actually set in the Caribbean did acknowledge the presence of slavery, quite explicitly).

Now I’m sure as I push deeper into the game I am likely to get some ‘bad guy’ Norse and Danes as well as some more ‘good guy’ Saxons and so on. But these games are huge; hiding the complexity and nuance behind 30+ hours of game time doesn’t save making the first 30+ hours a love letter to Manifest Destiny.

And that, of course is the problem: the broader implications of this kind of game design for thinking about colonialism. I do not think we are all collectively bothered by how Viking-themed products make us think about 9th century settler colonialism in Northern Europe. But colonialism more broadly, and the still popular fantasy of colonists finding empty ‘virgin’ lands to settle, is still a major issue in the consciousness and politics of many countries. Obviously in the United States this is a big issue because we are a country where a colonial population and an indigenous population live side by side; the morality and ethics of who owns what and how is fiendishly complex and still very much in flux. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China is doing some ethnic cleansing in order to engage in settler-colonialism right now (in case anyone was under the truly silly beliefs that imperialism and colonialism was somehow unique or particular to Europeans or that colonialism was somehow incompatible with anti-capitalist regimes).

This is one of those cases where I think that both Ubisoft’s decision to have that disclaimer about their diverse development team and the decision to root their games in painstaking recreations of historical geography imposes a special burden. Absolutely, there are other games that indulge in the ‘virgin lands’ fantasy – Minecraft, Factorio, Dwarf Fortress – but they generally avoid putting that in a historical context and instead focus on fictional, fantasy worlds that can actually have empty lands. That is its own, sometimes odd problem (see the minecraft video linked above), but this version, where the lands are not only not empty but actively improved by being invaded and violently subjugated by a superior people (and we’re going to get there in a minute) modeled off of an actual historical event is just stunningly irresponsible storytelling.

Which in turn brings us to:

Burning Churches

Now it is to be expected given the context of this game – where our character is a Norse invader in predominantly Christian lands – that the Christian religion would be a relatively hostile and unwelcoming force in the game. And some things – the gleeful Norse discussing how foolish the Christians are to put their wealth in monasteries – are tinny to the ear but understandable in context.

That said, if this was any other religion I would have no qualms about calling its depiction mildly offensive, so I am going to go ahead and say that here.

In the first thirty hours of the game, my character’s experience with Christianity runs as follows: our band of Norse raiders describes Christianity somewhat derisively to each other (fair enough, but if this was any other religion, it seems like there would probably be a token Christian in our raiding group to push back on the mockery). Then we loot some monasteries, which contain lots of wealth in chests, but not in religious items on display, or precious books. I assume this was done to make monastery looting feel less bad and sacrilegious, but the sanitizing feels pretty awkward here, especially when the game seems to go out of its way to imply that this concentration of wealth is useless. This is a point where presenting an unvarnished pillage-and-slaughter would have actually helped the game; imagine by comparison a game in which you raided, say, a Buddhist Temple, but instead of the valuables being in the forms of objects of devotion (statues, prayer wheels) they were just piled up in chests. At no point so far in the story does any character – including many of the Christians we meet – comment on this religious desecration, which is all the more remarkable given that looting churches and monasteries, and only churches and monasteries, is the only real way to get supplied to build up the settlement. Secular settlements apparently lack food and timber.

From there we have the first three areas of England: Grantebridge, Ledecestrescire, and East Anglia. In the first, the bad guy is a cross-wearing Saxon who has suborned a traitor among the Danes there (this is the area where the Danes built up a nice trading town during infrastructure week); his forces are Christian (made explicit during an interrogation) and evil. In Ledecestrescire, a bunch of Norse and Danes are looking to put one Christian Saxon lord on the throne and remove another. The ‘bad guy’ Saxon hurls ‘pagan’ like a racial epithet. The friendly Saxons are incapable and unmanly (a point we’ll return to below) and require you to do basically all of the work but are also presented as almost entirely secular. They do not mind that one of their allies is torturing men (to death, in one case) inside of a pillaged church – and the player is not expected to mind either. We later become drinking buddies with Mr. War-Crimes the Boneless (a point that the player does not seem to get a choice about – I wanted my Eivor to hate that guy because he was a bloody-minded fool, but was never given the prompt, even though I sided against him in every argument).

Then it’s on to East Anglia. The game is very open about the Christianity of the would-be king there, Oswald. He is also presented as weak and unmanly (see below) and requires training in your viking ways in order to be even marginally competent in a fight (I swear the developers missed the fact that the Saxon nobility were also warrior aristocrats). Oswald’s character is pretty simple: he is excessively weak and compassionate (the two are practically equated) and the later is directly linked to his Christianity. This leads him to make bad decision after bad decision as the Danes (and you) around him shake their heads in frustration and disbelief. While Oswald eventually wins in the end, it is not really from the strength of his compassion, but from his emulation (poorly) of your warrior wars and then you and his Danish allies mopping up his (bad guy Danish) enemies.

While doing this, I had a few religiously themed world-encounters. On the one hand, Norse and Danish rituals are shown to be positively effective: berserker brews work, potions to induce hallucinations produce true prophecies and visions which provide tangible benefits, and Odin straight up talks to you. The narrative repeatedly presents Norse religious responses as correct, right and effective (but, you know, leaves out a lot of the slavery and ritual murder from them). On the other hand, the environmental experience of Christian sites, beyond the looting, was one ruined church in which a woman in religious garb told me that God had commanded her to knife a bunch of people, including me, which then turned into a combat encounter.

And then there is the Anchoress. In the basement of a small chapel (it’s a puzzle to get down there) you encounter an anchoress (called this, explicitly) who is praying in isolation. To be clear, anchorites (anchoress being the female) were Christian religious practitioners who take a holy vow to remain in isolation in a single place (part of the vow!) and venerate God, serving as a kind of living saint for the community. To ‘complete’ the world event (which rewards XP) you have to convince her to step outside and end her isolation. She worries she will have to do penance (you have talked her into violating her vows), but on getting outside and seeing the beauty of the world, she is enraptured and thanks you.

Let’s consider this through our heuristic of “what would we think about this if it were a religion other than Christianity?” Imagine a game where your character comes upon a Buddhist monk in a small shrine and easily talks them into violating their vows by acquiring some property or engaging in sexual intercourse (using reasoning from your religious tradition, no less), after which they thank you and then the game rewards you experience for having desecrated their sacred vows. This is roughly what you do with the anchoress (whose vow is to stay isolated and in place).

So far at least, this depiction is frustratingly unvaried. Christians are uniformly either religiously intolerant bad-guy jerks or else tolerant but weak and decadent ‘good guy’ damsels that need saving. Frustratingly, while there is quite a lot of time spent (understandably) building up the Norse religion, at no point so far do we have, say, a kindly Christian priest explaining their religion, or characters actually quoting the Christian scriptures (something anyone even vaguely aware with the Middle Ages would know they did pretty frequently) to support some idea. What we do get is that Christian Saxon ‘mooks’ shout religious slogans (including how they are bringing God’s mercy) while trying to kill you. That and seemingly lots of quests and world events that involve Eivor solving some poor Saxon’s problems with a bit of unvarnished Norse wisdom. Christianity in this setting exists in only two modes: violently religiously intolerant, or tolerant only out of decadent weakness. This is not a great dichotomy.

Now look, I get it, Christianity in 9th century England was an intolerant, hegemonic religion. But you are a foreign colonizing invader rolling in wrecking their holy sites, (not) killing their religious practitioners and toppling their governments: you are intolerant and hegemonic too! but while the game is happy to present framing calling out Christianity for its short-comings, the player is (as noted above) repeatedly and absurdly spared this. Unlike in the actual historical event, there is no sign that your warriors are rapidly becoming Christianity-curious (the actual Great Heathen Army was converting en masse within a generation; arriving in 865, Guthram converts to Christianity in 878, a little over a decade later. You are arriving in England around 874, just four years from this event – there should already be a fair number of Christian Danes).

If this were just an issue of the presentation of religious, I wouldn’t be so bothered – this is fairly mild stuff (except for the Anchoress bit) – obnoxious and offensive, but only mildly so. But the problem is intensified by how this fuses together with the previous point: just as the Danes and Norse seem to arrive and immediately show their superiority by improving the place through colonialism (oof), they are also presented as being in possession of a superior culture, particularly in the form of what is presented as a superior religion (which unlike the game’s Christianity is, as noted, sanitized of its distasteful elements – Christianity is still hegemonic, but no Norse blood sacrifices) as your Norse faith repeatedly solves problems and presents unique wisdom, whereas the local Christians never do this.

And of course that plays straight back into the problem with sanitizing Scandinavian raiding, slavery, and gender roles: the Christian Saxons do not get the same treatment, setting up this stark contrast between an a-historically pure and moral set of Norse characters and a more historically grounded, flawed Christian Saxon society (all the more awkward because one of the things the Christian church militated against in Scandinavian society was slavery, since many of the enslaved people there were Christian).

And this is my Eivor’s boat-cat. He is adorable and fortunately, unlike the rest of this game, not a white-wash of colonialism.

But that fact – that the game baldly presents the Saxons as being in possession of an inferior culture – leads us to:

Fremen Vikings

For readers of my Fremen Mirage series, you will recognize what is going on here almost instantly.

This game indulges deeply in the Fremen Mirage. The Norse and Danes are consistently presented as harder, tougher and more manly than the puny, whimpy Saxons (at least, again, in the early areas. If Alfred the Great is an absolute badass but is also buried 40+ hours into the game, I am not giving credit for things most players will not see; I haven’t gotten down to Wessex yet).

Just to run down the list: the Norse and Danes are hard men from a tough land who consequently are better fighters and just generally more morally virtuous (see below), straight-forward and honest (while also being capable of ruthlessly battle-tactics), whose society has strong masculine coding (in traditional western terms) which is (see above) extended to women. Naturally they are matched by the Saxons who are everything they are not: soft men from a rich land who are poor fighters and often deceptive and lacking virtue but who also lack ruthlessness in war and whose society is excessively ‘feminine’ (by traditional western standards). All of the Fremen Mirage boxes are checked here. All of them.

The Norse and Danes are represented as consistently better fighters than the Saxons, to the point that basically all of the Saxon NPCs in the first several areas are hapless weaklings who are absolutely incapable of winning fights on their own (special notes for Ceobert and Oswald, both of whom stupidly get in over their heads repeatedly, are effectively ‘damseled’ and need to be saved. And sure, damseling a male character is a neat inversion…or it would be, if it wasn’t that this is just the gendered component of the Fremen mirage treating ‘decadent’ men like women with the deep-set misogyny that implies!) and the character models are often even physically smaller (Oswald’s Danish wife, for instance, has notably taller than him, but the Norse and Danish NPCs just generally tower over their Saxon counterparts). Oswald, mentioned above, even straight up says the trope, complaining that East Anglia is a kingdom of farmers and merchants, not warriors. Which to be clear is an extraordinarily stupid way to characterize an early English kingdom where all free men are liable for military service. But it is also the Fremen Mirage elevated from subtext to just plain text.

The gender issues now come back because one of the key components of the Fremen Mirage, you will recall from the series, is that not only do Fremen societies produce manly men, but they also often produce manly women (while decadent societies produce womanly men and women). That’s a part of the Mirage back to at least Tacitus. And to be clear, that is not empowering feminism so much as virtue viewed from a society (like the Romans) which blithely assumed that men were better; it is misogyny masquerading as empowerment. And of course the game indulges in this too, as noted above.

All of which is then made deeply uncomfortable by the fact that these Fremen Übermenschen are also literal ‘Aryan’ invaders colonizing a foreign land and displacing the local (‘effete,’ ‘decadent’) population (and yes, technically the Saxons are also a ‘Germanic’ people but the game never presents them as such – note the point on religion above) for literal Lebensraum, getting away from the endless squabbles (and overbearing kings) of your homeland.

Conclusion: A Love Letter to Colonialism

Which brings us at last to the conclusion: Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is a well-designed game; it is also a deeply irresponsible game. Let’s recap here: this is a game where the Norse and Danish, in possession of a superior culture and unencumbered by effete Christian morality take root in a new, populated land by force and immediately proceed, by virtue of their superiority, to begin ‘improving’ the locals. This is, without exaggeration, exactly the vision that historical colonialists presented of their brutal imperial regimes and it differs from the actual, historically traumatic experience of the 9th century invasions in exactly the same ways as more modern experiences of colonialism (that is to say, it is just as sanitized and exactly as sanitized as what you would have gotten if you asked the British Home Office how things were going in, say, Jamaica, in 1750 or India in 1900).

This would be, by all accounts, bad enough. Constructing sanitized, a-historical defenses for colonialism is – and I hope everyone is here with me – quite bad. And to be clear, this isn’t an issue of ‘acknowledging the complexities’ of colonial interactions (the ‘Romans were nasty, but they did bring aqueducts’ school of thought), because the game has systematically cleansed the setting of the actual facts of Norse and Danish colonization in this period: much of the violence, the slavery, the destruction of infrastructure, the slavery, the theft of land and resources, and the slavery (to name just a few). The game never presents the situation Eivor is in as ‘salvaging the best of a bad situation’ – rather the arrival of the Danes and Norse is repeatedly presented as an unmitigated good to the Saxons.

But, as I just implied two paragraphs ago, I think there is an extra layer of irresponsibility here. Any historian who works on this period will tell you – and I know mostly because they keep telling me – that pre-Christian ‘viking’ (read: Scandinavian) imagery and history is routinely mobilized by the modern incarnations of white supremacist and frankly Nazi ideologies. Scandinavian runic writing, the Scandinavian ‘cross of Odin,’ and even the under-cut hairstyle often associated (falsely, by the by, even though TV shows keep using it) with ‘vikings’ have all been appropriated by racist extremists as symbols of their movement.

Now, am I saying that this means we all need to abandon these symbols to the Neo-Nazis? No. But clearly any game set in this historical period ought to tread very carefully, because this is difficult ground. And certainly, a game that openly brags at the outset that it has, “a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities” ought to be on its guard to make sure that the themes and tone of the setting were crafted with care to avoid accidentally swerving into unfortunate implications.

But Valhalla does more than just swerve a little. In its effort to avoid troubling the player with any of the ugliness of – and I must stress this again – the viking invasion of England – the game’s first 30-40 hours, as they stand, are essentially Nazi race-ideology apologia, even down to replicating the hierarchies of Aryan race theory (with the Germans and ‘Nordics’ on top but the Anglo-Saxons lower but by no means near the bottom), complete with its views on religion (Norse mysticism ‘good,’ Christianity ‘bad’) and – by virtue of the period and setting – much of its iconography.

Now, do I think that the developers set out to create a sanitized defense of colonialism (much less an apologia for Nazi race ideology)? Of course not. But they ended up doing it anyway.

I don’t know if the design and story decisions here were original to the development team or if they came from corporate (what we know about Ubisoft makes me think the latter is much more likely), but it’s not hard to see the decisions that led to this point. Having Eivor or Sigurd engaged in slave raiding would have been too alienating, so it was taken out. Having the main character even potentially war-crime-ing their way across England might enrage the censors, so that has to go. But of course each of these changes cuts in the same direction, until the whole project is so slanted that it falls over.

And it is hard not to come away with the feeling that our “multicultural team” simply did not have their Unfortunate Implications Radar up when it came to colonialism perpetrated against white people (even though white people can absolutely be victims of imperialism or colonialism – ask the Irish, or the Poles, or the Ukrainians) or with the sharply negative depiction of a world religion when it was Christianity (even though Christians can absolutely be the victims of religious persecution – ask the Coptic Christians, or Chinese Christians). And even then, I think the fact that this failure causes the game to run the risk of becoming a cultural tool of white supremacists speaks to the degree that, if we are to condemn something anywhere, we must condemn it everywhere.

Does all of that matter? Yes, I think it does. As I have argued here many times, fiction is often how the public conceptualizes the past and that concept of the past shapes the decisions we make in the present. Is one video game going to lead to a return to colonialist thinking? Of course not. But a culture in which such sanitized narratives are common is a culture far more willing to make those decisions; these stories matter in the aggregate. And so it is incumbent on designers and developers to construct their stories and their worlds with care, especially when they are set in the very real past.

To be clear, my preference here is not for Ubisoft to have not made this game, my preference here would be for Scandinavian settlement in England to have been presented, warts and all. Especially in these depictions, I would contend that historical accuracy is an absolute defense (there are exceptions to that rule, to be sure, but I don’t think this is one of them); I don’t ask for censorship or prudishness here, but for courage. In this respect, I think the much smaller title, Expeditions: Viking does this quite a bit better. It still puts you in the place of leading a clan of Norse raiders and even makes those characters (most of them) likeable. But it also doesn’t shy away from the society being built on slavery, or the violence of raiding. It is far more honest about the kind of society your character lives in. It even presents you with a choice in the end of focusing more on integration with your neighbors in England or taking a more violent path, as opposed to Valhalla, which pretends that those two routes are effectively the same – that you can improve and integrate with this society by conquering them.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is willing to show the player nudity and gore. It will show, in intense detail, hands and heads being cut off, people being speared. It is perfectly happy to use profane language. But it blushes at showing the player anything like the reality of this historical period and in the process constructs a deceptive apology for colonialism. It is a decently fun, but deeply irresponsible game.

Ubisoft, please: do better. Earn that title card about your diverse team.

252 thoughts on “Collections: Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and the Unfortunate Implications

  1. “That is its own, sometimes odd problem (see the minecraft video linked above)”

    Um… what’s wrong with the Minecraft video? Its just a funny game mechanic, similar to how in Sims you can trap people in a pool by removing the ladder when they get it. Does everything have to be super serious these days?

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    1. I feel like Folding Ideas’ Minecraft video has raised questions which are answered in Folding Ideas’ Minecraft video.

      I understand if you don’t find his analysis persuasive, but I do and I think he is quite clear about what he thinks the problem is.

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      1. I feel that folding ideas went out of his way to do that in such a way could talk about colonialism and implicate gaming, especially since as a sandbox Minecraft empowers players to do with the world as they see fit it’s only natural some players exploit the world for maximum efficiency.

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      2. I’m not persuaded because I’ve drowned plenty of Sims in virtual pools back in the day, but feel no inclination to do so as an adult. A game is a game – an abstraction from reality where anything can happen, from slavery and colonialism to building pizza shops and playing tennis. Forcing a narrative where game developers have to think of real life morals is stifling the freedom of expression.

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  2. Thank you!

    Sometimes I feel as an odd one when I dislike various media presenting murderous raiders as 100% perfectly fine.

    > Absolutely, there are other games that indulge in the ‘virgin lands’ fantasy – Minecraft, Factorio, Dwarf Fortress – but they generally avoid putting that in a historical context and instead focus on fictional, fantasy worlds that can actually have empty lands.

    > Factorio

    Not sure is it missed by most players (or is it just me), but in Factorio both player and wild bugs seems villainous cancer destroying nature.

    Player wrecks surrounding area, with pollution destroying trees in large area – with large amount of work put into depicting degradation of trees from beautiful ones into dying and then completely dead remain. And update just added/will add also depiction of water pollution.

    Not sure how it can be missed or treated as positive. And given effort put into depicting pollution effects, it seems very intentional.

    (Mindless bugs are also depicted – maybe unintentionally – as overruning and destroying planet, resembling other invader. And as it is an explicitly another planet and are kept at level of bees unfortunate implications are (nearly?) removed)

    > Dwarf Fortress

    Here given setup – with an actually young world, simulated from beginning of history and since it was created “virgin lands” is actually justified. And with necromancers, zombies, actual demons, endless wars, magic causing massive areas to be horrifyingly hostile (eyestalks growing instead grass, rains of infectious blood with magic diseases) the empty lands makes perfect sense.

    And DF has plenty of problems (interface and bugs), but unfortunate implications is probably not one of them.

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    1. And sorry for going on a bit of tangent, it was case “hey, I am kind of qualified to comment on this part!”.

      And again, thank you as I am from some of groups that were mentioned as “and, yes, members of this group also were horribly oppressed”

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    2. Dwarf Fortress’s history is pretty odd in real-world terms. It only goes back far enough, and populations only end up covering enough of the land, that maybe we’re the very first humans (dwarves), somewhere in the Paleolithic. But you play as a settled, agrarian population, so maybe this is the spread of the Neolithic revolution – but that’s thirty thousand years later, so even that early we’re already missing out on a world full of hunter-gatherer peoples (dwarves) that you’d have to displace when you make your settlements. But of course the technology is clearly not Neolithic – you have metalworking, complex machines, and apparently make steel using the Bessemer process – so who knows when this is.

      Of course, DF isn’t the simulation of a real history, it’s the simulation of a mythological history. But ToadyOne doesn’t shy away from ugliness very often, and would probably be down with adding the displacement and subjugation of the locals to his game. Maybe we should point him at Bret’s blog.

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      1. DF has an incredibly hostile world full of megabeasts, demons, necromancers, murderous carp, and biomes where blood rains from the sky. I think that’s more than enough explanation for why so little of the land is colonized despite the high level of technology.

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        1. I’ve never liked attempts to explain the world being almost empty via “The whole world is super-dangerous, of course they’re not going to colonize.” And thanks to RWBY*, my thoughts on the matter are way stronger than they should be. If the world is so dangerous that an established kingdom can’t successfully set up a new settlement within maybe a couple days’ travel of its outer walls, how the hell was that kingdom established?
          Rome wasn’t built in a day; once, it was just a tribe of people, without the resources available to Rome after it had been established. If Italy had been too dangerous for Romans to go out and settle what in our world is Veii, how the hell did Romulus survive long enough to build Rome? And for that matter, if Romulus could build Rome, why wouldn’t the Etruscans have built Veii?

          Not to mention that megabeasts, demons, necromancers, and evil biomes only seriously threaten a relatively small fraction of most worlds. Individual threats can menace a wide region, to be sure, but they cause less carnage and devastation than most wars (both in terms of total kill-counts and in terms of looking at historical wars and asking if a dragon would be this thorough in devouring the locals’ grain). Unsurprisingly, evil biomes tend to be hellish to colonize, but plenty of non-evil and even benign regions are uncolonized.

          The reason why there’s so much empty land in Dwarf Fortress is two parts performance concerns to three parts “empty land is critical to the game’s core premise”.

          *Specifically my engagement with the fan community, which included several posts where I took the rather pathetic Grimm attacks of the first couple volumes as some kind of plot point which would lead into the villain’s motivation.
          Some more so than others. Ironically, the ones where blood rains from the sky are among the less dangerous; sure, the soil’s probably salty as hell, but you can still get water from rivers or caverns, and plenty of crops grow underground.

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          1. A much more plausible explanation for dwarves having Victorian tech with empty land still on the map would likely be that dwarves are really good at technology and breed slowly. Both of these are as canonical about dwarves as Scottish accents, after all.

            If tech grows fast and population grows slow, the “virgin lands” colonial era will persist way deeper into the tech tree than it would for humans. (Orcs would be the opposite extreme, blanketing the land before they even learned how to chip flint tools.)

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          2. That’s a better explanation, yes. (Dwarf Fortress’s dwarves don’t have Victorian technology, but they’re certainly more advanced than the rest of the world.)
            It doesn’t help much when there are humans, goblins, etc around, who also haven’t exploited the virgin lands.

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    3. Not sure is it missed by most players (or is it just me), but in Factorio both player and wild bugs seems villainous cancer destroying nature.

      I disagree with the idea that the biters are opposed to nature, or at least that they’re clearly opposed to nature. They seem to just be another part of the alien ecology. I’m not sure where the idea that they’re destroying nature comes from.

      I also disagree with the idea that the player is framed as villainous. The planet in Factorio is almost completely empty; the only living things on the planet are the engineer(s), fish, hyperaggressive bugs, grass, and trees. Oh, and algae if you pollute water enough.
      There can’t be any murder, war, or genocide; there is no other sentient being to commit it against (unless you count the ones that respawn in less than a minute). Killing the biters is morally defensible, because they will attack you on sight and frequently attack your base; it’s self-defense. That just leaves fish (health-packs) and trees, which just isn’t enough of an ecosystem for its destruction to feel immoral. Removing every part of the ecosystem without an explicit mechanical role was probably necessary for Factorio’s famously-smooth performance, but it also makes the destruction of the local ecology feel less destructive.
      I have no doubt that the Factorio devs intended the industrialization of the planet to feel morally gray at best. I just don’t think they succeeded at that goal.

      Oh, and let’s not forget that the game’s intro blurb talks about protecting yourself from “the natives,” which basically makes the manifest-destiny subtext into text.

      > Dwarf Fortress
      Here given setup – with an actually young world, simulated from beginning of history and since it was created “virgin lands” is actually justified.

      …did you read the text you quoted? That is literally how the author described all of these games.

      …but they generally avoid putting that in a historical context and instead focus on fictional, fantasy worlds that can actually have empty lands.

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    4. > (Mindless bugs are also depicted – maybe unintentionally – as overruning and destroying planet, resembling other invader. And as it is an explicitly another planet and are kept at level of bees unfortunate implications are (nearly?) removed)

      It’s been some time since I last played Factorio, but I always thought that these bugs are the native species on the planet. Is there anything in the backstory that suggests they are “invaders” as well?

      I always found Factorio to be incredibly on-the-nose with this colonizer/invader theme. You already mentioned the pollution, which is not only visualized but also a core game mechanic, as the bugs only attack you when you pollute their environment too much. In addition, at least in my games the bugs never had a really chance to win; they always were mostly a nuisance that needs to be defended against. Occasionally you’d need to go on an expedition to burn down their village and murder all the inhabitants if you need the space for expansion.

      I agree that these bugs are probably supposed to be “mindless”, but to be honest there is not much evidence either way I think. For all you see in the game, they might just as well be sentient beings living in tribes around the map and fighting a desperate fight for survival against a technologically superior invader. I definitely felt as the villain while playing it.

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      1. Yeah, and pollution is pretty well done in Factorio : small amounts of it are going to be harmlessly absorbed by the land and the trees, while larger amounts (eventually inevitable with your exponential growth) permanently damage trees, which then are less able to absorb pollution !

        Playing on much harder settings than default involves being extremely careful with your pollution, lest you end up in a vicious circle where pollution absorbed by nests makes biters, against which you have to defend by producing ammo and replacing lost turrets, the production of which emits even more pollution, &c.More effective processes matter a lot in this situation, like the (somewhat ‘magical’) efficiency modules or using solar panels for power… but which, like IRL, require a lot of space… which you might not have yet !

        But yeah, come a certain point (usually when you manage to ‘liberate’ a source of oil), the biters become outmatched by your techno-industrial might, even despite them evolving (from time, pollution released, and nests killed). It might be only a gameplay feature, but I tend to think of this as a statement about our history too.

        One possible shortcoming is indeed that “empty land” issue – how to explain the new biter “settlements” that are regularly created by biters physically walking to an unoccupied space (generally far enough from an existing nest, and not too close to your own buildings), then morphing into a new nest there. Why weren’t there a nest to start with already? But I guess that this could be hand-waived away by saying that this is the biters reacting to your crash / presence, even without any pollution involved.

        The biters will ONLY attack your base if pollution spreads to their nests, or if one of these “settler parties” runs into some turrets (and/or is blocked by a wall). (Or if you bait a group of them close enough to your base I guess…)

        (The initial distribution of no nests at crash site, and more and more, larger and larger, and ever more evolved nests the farther from the crash site you go, is pure gameplay of course.)

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      2. Yeah, and pollution is pretty well done in Factorio : small amounts of it are going to be harmlessly absorbed by the land and the trees, while larger amounts (eventually inevitable with your exponential growth) permanently damage trees, which then are less able to absorb pollution !

        Playing on much harder settings than default involves being extremely careful with your pollution, lest you end up in a vicious circle where pollution absorbed by nests makes biters, against which you have to defend by producing ammo and replacing lost turrets, the production of which emits even more pollution, &c.More effective processes matter a lot in this situation, like the (somewhat ‘magical’) efficiency modules or using solar panels for power… but which, like IRL, require a lot of space… which you might not have yet !

        But yeah, come a certain point (usually when you manage to ‘liberate’ a source of oil), the biters become outmatched by your techno-industrial might, even despite them evolving (from time, pollution released, and nests killed). It might be only a gameplay feature, but I tend to think of this as a statement about our history too.

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      3. One possible shortcoming is indeed that “empty land” issue – how to explain the new biter “settlements” that are regularly created by biters physically walking to an unoccupied space (generally far enough from an existing nest, and not too close to your own buildings), then morphing into a new nest there. Why weren’t there a nest to start with already? But I guess that this could be hand-waived away by saying that this is the biters reacting to your crash / presence, even without any pollution involved.

        The biters will ONLY attack your base if pollution spreads to their nests, or if one of these “settler parties” runs into some turrets (and/or is blocked by a wall). (Or if you bait a group of them close enough to your base I guess…)

        (The initial distribution of no nests at crash site, and more and more, larger and larger, and ever more evolved nests the farther from the crash site you go, is pure gameplay of course.)

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    5. There’s also the fact that DF is unfinished.
      With the development of Hillocks and mention of sifferent starting scenarios in the roadmap, I’m fairly sure that Toady wants to flesh out the world around you a lot more. It’ll take a lot of legwork during the economy update to make this meaningful in terms of gameplay though.

      A pristine tabula rasa is just easy to code.

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    6. > Not sure is it missed by most players (or is it just me), but in Factorio both player and wild bugs seems villainous cancer destroying nature.

      The wild bugs in Factorio are usually represented as being aggressive in response to the player’s encroachment. The fact that they get bigger and more violent in response to the player’s pollution really makes them look more defensive than anything else. IIRC the developers themselves represent the bugs as defending themselves against the player.

      Besides, we all know that the real enemies of Factorio are the trees.

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      1. Really? I actually like early factory areas adjacent to (not IN, but adjacent to) large forests. Trees stop the pollution spread, at least early on when it is low, which can really reduce the early time pressure to set up a complete defensive ring on higher difficulties.

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        1. Oh yes, trees are incredibly useful at containing pollution and delaying the inevitable showdown between the player and biters. The joke comes from the fact that for a fully automated base, trees are often the only serious impediment to continuous expansion, since they require either a lot of drones or nuclear weapons to clear out.

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    1. I think it is safe to say that Dr Deverauex isn’t going for an exhaustive list, merely a couple of groups who are currently (or very recently) undergoing persecution due to faith; these two serve as examples that it can and does still occur.

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  3. Something I haven’t see anyone talking about is the appropriation of the Wabanaki style of bow that Eivor uses early on. Leaving aside the dispute over when the bow was developed, the game steals the design and labels it a “Hunnish” bow. The pro-colonial subtext of the game itself aside, the stealing and renaming of a First Nation style of bow to remove the origin is itself an act of colonialism.

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  4. And of course Nazi ideology despised Christianity and its Jude’s-inspired concern for the weak, and extolled a mythical Germanic paganism, most notoriously in its sponsorship of the Bayreuth Wagner performances for state propaganda purposes.

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  5. Excellent analysis. I’ve been enjoying the gameplay in Valhalla a lot, but admittedly I’ve had to turn off a chunk of my analytical brain to do so. This period of history is not my field (I mean, one of my Ph.D. areas was medieval history, but it was one of four or five and I focused on the 100 Years War era for that bit anyhow, and I forgot most of it almost immediately), but even before the game came out I was musing to some acquaintances about the possibility that this game would be a bonanza for white supremacists and neo-Nazi types. Inadvertently, yes, but as noted above, not thinking that through when it is so freakin’ obvious rather boggles the mind.

    There is a growing body of scholarship focused on game design that highlights exactly this tendency to glorify and whitewash colonialism in video games. Such whitewashing fits very neatly into American exceptionalism and general cultural blindness. And in terms of religion, I’m not Christian but the way the game treats Christianity is offensive on both a historical level and on an ethical level. Perhaps even more annoying, given the context, is that the way the game deals with Christians actually hurts the gaming experience, as it takes what should be a complicated and rich wrinkle in the game environment and turns it into a shallow caricature, one with very little narrative value.

    Oh, and so far, no Jews, damn it. We never get any love in these games.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Rob! I had a quick falling-out with this game; I was really impressed with the (frankly, fantastical) Norway setting at the beginning of the game, and I trusted UbiSoft to handle the fact that we were roleplaying invaders, invading lands and pillaging Christian sacred spaces and sacred objects with a with a defter touch: maybe we would see examples of Christians behaving nobly against up, acting in accord with their faith? Maybe we would see (as in real life, and as portrayed in the Vikings television program), Norsemen intrigued by Christianity.

      I’ve seen none of that so far. I’m Catholic, and a pretty thick-skinned one at that, but man, I’m just not going to keep playing a game that asks me to ransack (beautifully rendered!) digital recreations of monasteries, sneering derision, and without offering a reasonable counterbalance. I had expected to be annoyed with a certain amount of whataboutism and false equivalence claims with respect to the VIking-Christian conflict (in which the Vikings were, transparently, the aggressors); I did not expect the game’s moral universe to simply side with the Vikings.

      So, I won’t be finishing this one. Which pains me. I was excited to play it, I love exploring digital worlds and this looks like one hell of an exploration game. But I just can’t bring myself to play through an odiously false narrative that acts as if it is directly hostile to my faith and the things I hold as sacred.

      I think what Ubisoft has made here, is a love-letter to Germanic paganism. If this is the treatment Christians can expect in a AAA title in 2020, I hope they don’t take a stab at portraying Jews in 2022.

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    2. > the possibility that this game would be a bonanza for white supremacists and neo-Nazi

      Interestingly, one gaming community that I frequent which contains various white supremacists and neo-nazis hasn’t taken much of a shine to valhalla, with those enjoying the game talking about exploration and gameplay, not themes. Though that format of game (Ubisoft exploration with RPG trapping) isn’t appreciated much in that particular community. And maybe the white supremacists don’t care much about this game because you only fight other white people in it?

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      1. I’ve been playing along farther than when I first read this, and equally, later in the game, one of the Order bosses goes on about how “We Norse are just plain superior to these awful Saxons!” and the PC’s reply is, roughly, “don’t drag me into the sewer you live in”, before killing them.

        You can’t ask for a plainer renunciation of the Aryan-bullshit race hierarchy scheme than that, so Ubisoft at least has that going for them.

        (All the “filthy this”, “pagan that” namecalling is … more or less historical, though I think they’re overdoing it.

        Especially when it’s the Saxons calling the Vikings filthy, for those of us who remember the Very Slightly Later complaints that the Norman conquerors were too cleanly and outcompeting the Saxons romantically.

        O, irony.)

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  6. I was expecting the “Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything” link to go to the Vegetales song.

    It’s been a while since I read it, but as I remember Vinland Saga is pretty sympathetic to the English and Welsh as victims of colonialism, and depicts thralldom as an evil institution even with a “good master”.
    Apparently they still haven’t gotten to Vinland yet.

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    1. As of the last translated volume I’ve read, they’re currently on a trade mission to the Mediterranean to raise funds to go to Vinland, but have gotten involved in a small civil war among the Norse first. I suppose we should be satisfied that getting to Vinland is finally on Thorfinn’s to-do list, at least.

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  7. Wonderful read! It’s the first time I’m learning about this site, and you already won me over. Absolutely accurate and astute observation about Valhalla’s and Ubisoft’s overly corporate idea of historical portrayals in general.

    One thing I wanna add though about this part:

    >(I should point out that the Assassin’s Creed games actually set in the Caribbean did acknowledge the presence of slavery, quite explicitly

    This was because Ubisoft puts the player in the underdog position, who fights against the establishment. Therefore you obviously fight side by side with other marginalized people. Which goes directly to one of Vallhalla’s main issues: presenting the Viking invaders as the underdogs fighting against the evil English establishment.

    And thus, having the Vikings be – well, actual Vikings is out of the question for Ubisoft. It would mess with the narrative of AC and even more, mess with their income. Because as you say, the game doesn’t exactly tell Nazis that their romantic Viking dreams are unfounded.

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    1. If they wanted to do an underdog story set in early medieval England, I don’t see why they couldn’t make the player a Saxon fighting to defend/reconquer his homeland from the Viking invaders. Is it just that Saxons aren’t “badass” enough to get people to play a game where they’re the main characters?

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      1. Total War: Thrones of Brittania certainly framed it that way.

        (though there is the point that unless you are a specialist, norse and saxons would probably look pretty similar to an outside observer…

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    2. I honestly think frzing either side as the “underdog” in this case feels a bit weird. (individuals of course, depending on position)

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  8. This post reminds me very strongly of an old David Mitchell rant from somewhere where he talked about how it the phrase “rape and pillage” seems far more innocuous than “rape” alone. Culturally we do a lot to sanitize the vikings/Scandinavians of this period even in Britain where as you correctly identify they were a colonizing invader.

    I’d also like to raise a further point though it’s one I’m a bit unsure about. It feels to me like something of a shame that we can’t discuss Norse colonialism without relating it to early modern empires who reached their ascent nearly a thousand years after this moment. I understand that those empires are far more widely known today but I worry it muddies the waters to explain this colonization of England by referencing British colonial examples. That is not for a moment to deny those examples but I wonder it limits how deeply we can engage with this time

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    1. I don’t see the problem. Relating earlier history to something more recently and obviously horrifying helps put the old events in context, and helps undo some of the distancing effect of remote time.

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    2. The word “rape” has changed meanings over the years, it used to mean “seize by force”, but is now used for sexual assault.

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      1. Er. So ‘rape’ comes from the Latin rapio which does have as its core meaning “to carry off” often with an implication of speed or force, but it meant “to carry off for the purpose of sexual assault” as part of its meaning even in the Roman period (used this way at least as early as Cicero). So this is a shade of meaning that arrives LONG before the word is being used in medieval sources to describe pillage.

        The thing is, for slave societies like the Romans or the Norse, there wasn’t much difference in those meanings. Women carried off in raids for the purpose of slavery were very often carried off for the purpose of sexual assault and sexual slavery. There is, as I understand it, abundant evidence that this was happening in viking raids and that enslaved thralls were sexually exploited by their Scandinavian slave owners.

        In practice it is an ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless, that for most of human history, rape – in the modern meaning of the world – was considered one of the perquisites of the conqueror and therefore a normal part of war. It is only relatively recently, speaking in the grand scale of human development, that we have moved beyond that bit of inhumanity.

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  9. Pedantry: The Home Office is the British equivalent of the Department of Justice, so they’re probably not the people to ask about colonial goings-on except for a few years in the late 18th century. In 1750, you’d be talking to the Secretary of State for the Southern Department and in 1900, there was a separate India Office.

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  10. Normally I try not to overanalyze historical context in a videogame because many times the issue gets overblown, but this article is very well written and I find myself agreeing with many of the issues presented here because of how strangely Valhalla handles it.

    Let’s be real: It could’ve been presented in a better way. It never needed to be 100% accurate, but there are so many contradictions in the way this particular entry clings to history on one hand and completely ignores or subverts it in many other ways. It’s just… “weird”. It makes no sense in so many ways and this article describes many of them.

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    1. The latter, I suspect.

      Also we should recall that definitionally “the Enemy” in an AC game is always defined as “Followers Of The Evil Order Of Evil Evilness”. [I kid, but not too much, since the depictions of the Order Of The Ancients are not exactly sympathetic, even when they approach trying to be evenhanded in some earlier iterations.]

      The axis of comparison in AC games is “good guys who love freedom and hate all oppression” vs. “bad guys who love power for its own sake and are usually sadists in their person”.

      It ain’t exactly … subtle. Like, it gets to the point of “obviously only wicked people would ever choose the Order”, especially so far in Valhalla. I recall some of the previous games (but it’s been a while) being more subtle and sympathetic there, so one could see why a basically decent person might choose the Order, even if it ends up corrupting them.

      (And it’s at least one angle against anything like Nazi-apologism for the franchise; even people who are Nazis embrace that their side is very much about authority and control, not Freedom To Do Anything You Want.

      There’s no way anyone who’s played AC games could imagine “Assassin’s Creed: Fortress Europe” [and man, would I EVER play that] as anything but “Brave Brotherhood of Good freeing Europe from the Jackboot of Hitler, who is obviously The Big Boss of The Order in this installment”, right?

      I do expect Ubi Montreal was just … not paying attention to second-order “how other people who are awful bigots will interpret our game about magic space-alien-power Vikings”.)

      (I agree completely about Bret’s analysis, by the way, especially the material culture and “you’re getting the Norse way too whitewashed”; I do medieval re-creation for fun, and [hey, look at my handle!] have spent a lot of time looking at Saxons and Danes, and … yeah, I just have to ignore most of that to enjoy the game.

      “Why is this lady wearing an apron dress with a SLEEVELESS GOWN, out IN THE SNOW?”)

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      1. The axis of comparison in AC games is “good guys who love freedom and hate all oppression” vs. “bad guys who love power for its own sake and are usually sadists in their person”.

        What line of reasoning could have led them to believe that a bunch of vikings would be a good fit for the first category? A gang of slave raiders do not really sound like people likely to hate all acts of oppression. Unless they made an exceptionally bad career choice.

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        1. Siding the vikings with the pro-freedom side was most likely a necessity of marketing and premise. The game’s pitch was almost undoubtedly “Assassin’s Creed where you play as a viking,” and the series premise also requires that you be playing a freedom-loving anti-oppression member of whatever they’re calling the Assassins in eras before the historical Hashashin were a thing. They’ve done a Templar game in the past, but that was in 2014 when actual Nazis were much less present – a game with the “maybe the authoritarians aren’t pure evil” theme would not be as well-received in the present climate.

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        2. Nobody suggested Ubisoft thought things through very well!

          (See “literally all of the modern-day wrapper plot”.)

          I’ve enjoyed playing the AC games, but I certainly won’t claim they do any serious mental homework to keep their premises super straight or that the basic idea isn’t full of holes.

          Though equally, “the Vikings” aren’t “the Good Guy Brotherhood” here.

          A couple of them are (I’m still early in the game, and don’t want to spoil things, but the PC is at least courted by them, and this is no surprise to anyone who’s played any AC game ever, and that the PC’s brother is equally courted by them by blatantly telegraphed as “going to be a problem case” is also no spoiler).

          Neither Brotherhood nor Order are represented by an ethnic or national group, in any of the games, really.

          (In the original, I think all the Order were Templars and all the Brotherhood were more or less Syrian/Arab, but even then the groups were presented as contingently being arranged like that, not ethnically inherent.

          And AC1 was a looong time ago.)

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          1. > (In the original, I think all the Order were Templars and all the Brotherhood were more or less Syrian/Arab, but even then the groups were presented as contingently being arranged like that, not ethnically inherent.

            In the original, all the assassin brotherhood members were Syrians/Arab, but the Templar targets are 3 crusaders (in Acre) and 6 Syrians/Arab (in Damascus and Jerusalem), plus the head templar, who was a crusader.

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    2. The Montréal studio is for all intents and purposes an American one, Ubisoft’s French roots have no absolutely no impact there.

      And that’s assuming a French company would somehow naturally be keen to portray the English in a manner that is disparaging, which is nonsense. The French don’t dislike the English as much as Britons are lead to believe.

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      1. > The French don’t dislike the English as much as Britons are lead to believe.

        It depends on the whether the French follow the rugby or not. French rugby fans are the biggest Briton haters in those parts 🙂

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  11. “I would contend that historical accuracy is an absolute defense (there are exceptions to that rule, to be sure, but I don’t think this is one of them)”

    What would the exceptions be?

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    1. I can’t claim to know the author’s mind, but an obvious exception would be when “Changing X would ruin historical accuracy” doesn’t answer the actual criticism—ie, when the criticism is about the framing of X rather than its existence. A slightly less academic-sounding exception would be when the historical accuracy you’re using as a shield is right next to glaring inaccuracies (whether in the form of pop culture pan-medieval mashups, hilariously ahistorical weapons, or dragons).

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      1. Or if you include a “historically accurate” event while ignoring or whitewashing the context, thus creating an intentionally biased depiction of the event.

        For example, you can accurately depict a failed military offensive as a glorious and tragically doomed sacrifice for The Cause, while gliding over the part where the side launching the offensive, and The Cause, were blatantly the bad guys.

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  12. Great article, as usual. It does make me wonder on a somewhat larger point though. The sanitized colonization is an incorrect depiction of the period, but I have a sinking feeling that if you asked a bunch of people, and I specifically mean people who aren’t historians or educated particularly about this place and time, they would

    A) Think Valhalla is a period accurate depiction
    B) Be resistant to any correction of their misapprehensions.

    At least in my personal, anecdotal experience, people like nice, simple narratives where trends are either the best ever or the worst ever, and don’t have bumpy, interrupted roads of thought. Just earlier this week I had a hell of a time convincing a co-worker and a self appointed punic war buff that Hannibal did indeed lose things like the battles of Nola, or those fights near Tarentum. First he didn’t believe they existed, then “it’s different assaulting a fortified position”, then when I pointed out that in things like the second the Romans sallied out, “Well, Livy’s a liar”, even though he’s perfectly willing to use Livy’s work as a source for other things in that same campaign.

    I don’t personally get it myself, and I’m curious as to why misapprehensions are so able to persist in the face of the facts that ought to dispel them. Do you have any insight into the phenomenon? Especially in your classes, have you ever had someone who just refused to accept that something they believed was incorrect?

    Best wishes.

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    1. I can’t provide any insight to the Hannibal super-fan, but with regard to colonialism, it’s not hard to see how the misapprehensions (white) people have around colonialism would be more comforting than the truth.

      A lot of (conservative) people pin an unhealthy amount of their self-worth on coming from a historically great nation/race/culture/bloodline/whatever, either explicitly or implicitly (through a worldview where such things are emphasized and a view of history focused on their predecessors). When “my people were great” is something you’ve staked part of your identity on, people criticizing someone you’ve identified as “your people” feels like a personal attack. Just as some people are willing to ignore personal issues when acknowledging them would compromise their ego, some people are willing to ignore historical inaccuracies in their beliefs when acknowledging them would compromise their “racial ego”—and sanitized versions of colonialism are a lot easier on the liver.

      Now, to divert common bad-faith counterarguments: No, I’m not calling everyone who describes a sanitized version of colonialism or similar historical inaccuracies a racist. To start with, I generally find it more useful to describe specific actions and statements as racist than to describe people as racist. (Partly for “tactical” reasons—people are likely to start ignoring you if they think you’re calling them racist—but partly because defining some people as racist implies that “non-racist” people are clean of racism. Reality is more complicated than that.)
      More to the point. I don’t think everyone who sticks to such beliefs is trying to preserve their white pride. There absolutely is an irrational desire for everything to fit into a simple, convenient narrative. Look at Adam’s Hannibal stan, or a conspiracy theorist trying to fit every organization and group they don’t like into the org chart of their preferred conspiratorial overlord. Again, I can’t provide any insight into that impulse, but it shouldn’t be hard to see why they, too, would latch onto the simplified narratives provided by the racial egoists I described earlier.

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      1. it’s probably much more pallatable to colonize evil white men than poor defenseless brown people, hence whyb colonization is suddenly fine when doing it to white people.

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        1. It’s less about good and evil and more about context. Like how white people invading brown people is something even the most pro-imperialism assholes recognize as reminiscent of events most people think were a bad thing, while white people invading white people just looks like another medieval war.

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  13. Thank you for putting in my thoughts into words. I’ve been a longtime follower, first time commenter. It’s kind of amazing how the only Viking media that actually tackles this is a freaking Japanese manga of all things.

    As an aside, I’d love to see your take on Vinland Saga.

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  14. It’s not surprising that so much visual media would present the past as being more run-down, drab, and overall ill-maintained than it was. After all, that’s what historical sites and artifacts look like today, so there’s a subconscious association between such things and old-timey stuff. Having everything look centuries old is essentially a form of visual shorthand for something taking place centuries ago.

    It’s still ridiculous, of course, and it makes the “Middle Ages” seem more static. (After all, having so many buildings that look like they’ve already outlived a dynasty or two still be in active use for their original purpose without any newer buildings serving the same purpose implies a rather stagnant society.)
    There’s a popular perception wherein the Greco-Roman world (consisting of ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and maybe Alexander the Great if they remember he wasn’t quite Greek) brought progress to the world, which was lost during the Dark Ages and only resurrected during the Renaissance. This is, of course, ridiculous! Progress isn’t a trait which some societies have and others don’t; every society progresses in some regard (and usually many) as long as they have the resources to do so.
    (There are examples of societies regressing, but only after losing some resource or circumstance; e.g. Rapa Nui losing boat-building technology after serious deforestation, or the loss of writing after the Bronze Age Collapse destroyed most centralized governments. Even active attempts to keep a culture stable usually fail to stop progress, for the same reason that progress can be invisible to contemporary authors—it’s usually only revolutionary on scales longer than a human lifetime.)

    What was I talking about? Oh yeah, faded banners. They look old, because that makes the setting seem old, which makes it seem historical. It’s an easy way to code historic authenticity into a setting, and it’s what people expect—if Ubisoft portrayed a more realistic medieval Norse settlement, they’d have laymen talking about how ahistorical the decorated churches were and how ridiculous vikings in colorful clothes look.
    Which isn’t really a defense so much as an explanation. Making a history that aligns to people’s expectations won’t dampen sales meaningfully, and might get people talking about the historical inaccuracies in your game. Making a history that aligns to reality could dampen people’s excitement about playing a badass Viking-assassin, which could hurt sales long before anyone writes an article about how all of those ridiculous details are actually historical.
    And to a modern corporation, the bottom line is always more important than the truth.

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    1. Now it is to be expected given the context of this game – where our character is a Norse invader in predominantly Christian lands – that the Christian religion would be a relatively hostile and unwelcoming force in the game. And some things – the gleeful Norse discussing how foolish the Christians are to put their wealth in monasteries – are tinny to the ear but understandable in context.

      Speaking of context, I wonder if there’s any connection between all of these greedy antagonistic Christians and the Templars who serve as series-long antagonists in most of the other games. I’d be shocked if nobody jumped to that defense when someone criticized the game’s two-dimensional portrayal of medieval Christianity.

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      1. There is a connection. They’re the same people, yes.

        Explicitly The Order Of The Ancients, the same big bad enemy of every AC game.

        (I noted it above, and it’s certainly no defense of their portrayal of Christianity, since half the good guys ought to be Christians, too.

        Christians in other games were on both sides of the Brotherhood/Order divide, it’s weird that there aren’t really any protagonist Christians here.

        I am tempted to think it’s because most of Ubi Montreal’s research on the Old Norse was watching The Vikings …)

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      2. That’s a good explanation, right there. The AC series has generally portrayed organized Christianity as being a tool of the Templars, and while Odyssey and Origins both featured the Templars’ predecessors using Greek and Egyptian religion to their own ends, I think that when Ubisoft found the opportunity to juxtapose wild and free pagan Vikings with authoritarian Christian Anglo-Saxons they just couldn’t help themselves.

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        1. Pop culture has been enthralled with vikings for like a decade now. They’ve eclipsed romans and greeks as the go to mythologic and fantasy source for cultures.

          People just really love vikings and cultures that undergo this pop culturification tend to have their horrible parts buried. Look once more at the spartans and romans for other great examples of this trend.

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    2. > After all, that’s what historical sites and artifacts look like today…

      Note, however, that they got this right in Odyssey. In the former title, the temples and statues were painted and looked well cared for, at least those still in use.

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  15. A wonderful article, and thank you very much – it’s really remarkable how the need to be inoffensive and establish such products as having broad appeal leads to reiteration of some of the most basic tropes of colonial fiction. I suppose it does show how deeply they are baked into certain Western (but not only!) imageries of time and space.

    I would like to, however, ask about – or perhaps offer an alternative reading – of the issue of patriarchy in the Old Norse society you bring up. Not that I want to disagree! The issue with the cultural portrayal of Old Norse society as permissive and gender egalitarian is pretty serious, and I think there is a link between the “civilizing Viking” and “civiized, gender equal, diverse” tropes – in the same way that certain versions of state feminism or support for particular, liberal notions of LGBT+ rights can contribute to the nationalist/imperialist projects; it’s what Jasbir Puar famously called “homonationalism”.

    However, I think that there exist ways of addressing the issue of gender roles and hierarchies in the Old Norse society that go beyond the contemporary notion of patriarchy as rooted in biologically essentialized sex. Now, I am speaking as a queer/trans theorist with side interest in history (my early dreams of becoming a medievalist have all been shattered against the pavement of paleography and Church Latin), so I apologise in advance for any methodological freewheeling so characteristic of my field. I also apologise if this turns out to be quite rambling, I am typing it quickly between other obligations.

    Several scholars of gender and Old Norse society (or, generally, gender in the early-to-mid medieval Northern Europe) note that it could be productive to think about it not in the terms of man/woman binary, but rather a power-masculine-warrior/weakness-feminine-noncombatant distinction. Under this framing, the fundamental dividing line runs not between biologically* differentiated men and women (even though this division is definitely important!) but between the parts of society that can embody the warrior ideal (overwhelmingly, but not necessarily exclusively men, young and adult) and those who can’t (women, but also children, elderly, slaves and – after Christianization – lower hierarchy of priesthood).

    What this allows us to do is to move beyond very presentist notions such as a “female warrior”. As in Carol Clover’s conceptualisation of “maiden warriors”, a woman warrior under such framing should not be understood as at all identified with femininity or womanhood. In fact it is only through her (?) rejection of femininity (including the demand to remain fully sexually unavailable, lest the fact of being penetrated would remove her from the sphere of power**), can she be allowed to take on the social position of a warrior. As such, the presence of this sort of a warrior does not really disrupt the social hierarchy of gender, but rather reinforces it. It also poses a fascinating question of gender identity and gender role.

    I suppose that it just saddens me that fiction – especially big AAA works – so rarely try to engage with issues of gender hierarchies, patriarchy and so on with any kind of nuance. It is either this kind of (generally harmless and preferable) milquetoast vision of diversity that Valhalla presents, or obnoxious “warrior women are SJW INVENTION and we are SERIOUS HISTORICAL FICTION” of stuff like Kingdom Come: Deliverance. There is so much space for exploration of what gender and sexuality could be in a different place and different time, and the sources available for it especially in the Old Norse context are so rich that it is just a great shame we can’t have a more complex vision.

    Once again, apologies for being probably not very coherent.

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    1. “obnoxious “warrior women are SJW INVENTION and we are SERIOUS HISTORICAL FICTION” of stuff like Kingdom Come: Deliverance. ”

      Please. KCD was set in 15th-century Bohemia, and, as Bret said, “historical accuracy is an absolute defense.” While there have been some women warriors in other times and places, including them in KCD would have been irresponsible pandering.

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      1. KCD deliberately abandoned history in some spots. Particularly its portrayal of cumans, where it made them deliberately more oriental and hostile than they would be historically.

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  16. Thanks for this, I have just got to England in my playthrough and was feeling a sense of unease – I put it down to the game depicting the English as an enemy, being English myself, but as I continued to play I couldn’t shake it. What is clear to me now is that I was tugging at the threads of some of the points in your article, specifically the lack of engagement with difficult subjects such as rape, pillage and persecution based largely on ethnicity and religion.

    I had noticed that slavery hadn’t been raised again since the main character is almost sold into it in the first 20 minutes of the game, but you expose a far more insidious potential consequence than simple lack of historical accuracy.

    I will continue to play for now I think as it is a robust(ish) and largely enjoyable game, but based on this articulate analysis I think I will read some more of your blog whilst i’m here.

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  17. On the less consequential inaccuracies presumably in the interest of gameplay front, one that’s really struck me is the proliferation of large stone castles, often with rounded turrets, that I would more associate with the late mediaeval period.

    I also note that my home town of Oxford appears to be a bustling urban centre with a large tower that looks suspiciously like Carfax (completed c.1122) and a “scire” named after it, when so far as I can tell if there was any settlement at all here at the time it was small and of minimal consequence and shires were a West Saxon administrative division not found in Mercia. I presume that corporate also figured that the general public think of Oxford when they think of Olde England, and have never heard of Abingdon or Wantage.

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  18. Pretty much lines up with what I expected. You rarely get a good depiction of early-medieval scandinavia, and most of them dont even get… genre-right?

    It feels weird when Franzens “The Long Ships” from the early 1940s feels like a better depiction (and that one isnt very accurate either, but at least it presents the ongoing conversion process)

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  19. This is an amazing piece Brett, thanks so much for this! I have put 40 hours into Valhalla already, it’s a fun game, but the historical implications are definitely evident and it’s disappointing that the devs didn’t explore the full ramifications of Viking raids, slaughtering monks and all.

    I had a very technical question. In the game, when you sail your longship under bridges, the crew disassemble the mast and lay it flat to allow the ship to pass under bridges. Is that a historically accurate depiction of longships? Were masts detachable/foldable? Thanks!

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  20. Pretty much whenever media gets into Viking raids on England I’m always reminded of Sea of Trolls, which was a very formative book for me growing up. The main character is a kid enthralled by Vikings who, even as he experiences the horrors of slavery, can’t help but come to like many of the people he’s interacting with. Their virtues are just as much on display as their vices.
    But what sticks with me the most is that after he has gone on his adventure and the Vikings agree to return him home in thanks for all he’s done, he realizes that they’ll then go up the coast to raid and capture more slaves. And he genuinely doesn’t know how to square that knowledge with the people he’s come to think of as friends. This dichotomy of how genuinely good people can be to their in-group and how monstrously bad they can be to the outgroup without any personal qualms was very striking to me.

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  21. Fantastic article, although I must take umbrage with one of your conclusions. That is, the argument that the game somehow constitutes “apologia for Nazi race ideology” while simultaneously depicting Norse life as anachronistically non-white and “feminist”. Surely, the very core of the white supremacist obsession with all things Norse is because it serves as an imagined “pre-multicultural” space, reflecting an “original” expression of “white” civilization. Nobody is going to draw upon AC Valhalla for that kind of imagery, for all the reasons you’ve thoroughly listed here.

    I just found that to be a strange inclusion, one which somewhat detracts from the broader thesis (the sympathy for colonialism), which I think was more compelling.

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  22. I remember that AC Odyssee had a “discovery tour” mode, where actual historians commented on places and peoples as you walked through the virtual landscapes of ancient Greece. Did they leave that feature out of Valhalla?

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    1. This feature was introduced in AC: Origins, as a patch several months (more like a year, iirc) after the original game came out; the same is true for Odyssey. If there is one for Valhalla (and I don’t know if they’ve announced one) it’ll be a while before it arrives.

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  23. I was glad to see the mention of Expeditions: Viking at the end because I was thinking of it for almost the entire essay. I’m tempted to add that that game also has you talking to Odin… who ends up spending most of his time musing about ruler tropes and cultural and narrative constraints while implying that all reasonable options involve atrocity.

    I suspect they still rather sanitized the slaving, given that thralls kind of aren’t a thing that you see much of after the first part of the game. (and also Gunnar the Peaceful’s general attitudes towards thralldom)

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  24. Thank you so much for your fair, thoughtful treatment of Saxon Christianity, and of Christianity in general. I appreciate the statement that “if this were any religion other than Christianity, it would be offensive, so I’m going to say it’s offensive.” Too much media gives an unfair, one-dimensional portrayal of “hur dur dumb Christians” without as much as a second thought, and I want to thank you for calling out the double standard in Valhalla between Christianity and the Norse religion.

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    1. I hope this won’t be taken as amiss or unduly ignorant, but…

      The Great Heathen Army came to English shores looking to carve out a kingdom, A lot of them settled in England. But they didn’t just massacre and displace the entire Anglo-Saxon population; they mingled. And, as usually happens when a conquering army settles in a populous territory, the army’s culture tends to assimilate into the local culture over time.

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        1. China never adopted steppe religion. India didn’t go Christian. Not sure if the Normans were Christian before they took Normandy. The Roman Empire didn’t become specifically Roman in religion, apart from imperial cult. The Mongol Empire didn’t adopt Mongol religion. The Irish didn’t go Protestant under centuries of English rule.

          I don’t think your generalization holds, compared to “proselytizing exclusive religions beat out others”.

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        2. There is a tendency to assume that “religion” means the same thing in different cultures. Eg. for wesern christians religion is a very important part of our national and cultural identity (even if we dont identify as devout) for the norse, that just does not seem to have been the case. Religion was seen as primarily a pragmatic thing “Perform the right rites so the gods look after us”. What resistance there was against christianization seems to have largely been connceted with refusal of christians to participate in these rituals.

          Thats not to say that norse pagans (to the extent that “norse paganism” is even a thing…) didnt believe in their gods or anything like that, but what their religion meant was asymmetric compared to christianity.

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  25. Honestly I wonder if the extreme reaction Kingdom Come Deliverance garnered, by trying hard for historical accuracy, might be why Ubisoft prefers to go as milquetoast as possible. Not so say that Kingdom Come was flawless, there are some questionable decisions in that game, but during that discourse it seemed like historical accuracy almost became something that should never be strived for in a game.

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    1. KC:D was developed by some smallish studio from the middle of nowhere (i.e. Central Europe), wasn’t it? They could afford being politically incorrect, it’s not like they had much to lose, or little to gain, not to mention being driven by a vision rather than company policy. Meanwhile Ubisoft, the opposite. Big companies go milquetoast because it earns them more money.

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  26. > pre-Christian ‘viking’ (read: Scandinavian) imagery and history is routinely mobilized by the modern incarnations of white supremacist and frankly Nazi ideologies. Scandinavian runic writing, the Scandinavian ‘cross of Odin,’ and even the under-cut hairstyle often associated (falsely, by the by, even though TV shows keep using it) with ‘vikings’ have all been appropriated by racist extremists as symbols of their movement.

    /me
    – check what ‘cross of Odin’ looks like.
    – spew my tea from my ‘cross of Odin’ tea mug (my favorite, no less !)
    – keep reading and end up reassured that “the overwhelming use of [the Celtic Cross with Celtic knotwork] is non-extremist and, in the absence of other hate symbols, does not denote white supremacy or racism.”

    It better be, I got it from Welsh monks !

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      1. It’s a baptists-and-bootleggers issue, IMO. White supremacists try to appropriate all the cool things, and also progressive preachers are happy to help give the cool things to white supremacists as a form of piety display: “Look how much stuff I’m denouncing, look how good I am at identifying covert white supremacy.”

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  27. As a side note, the Ubisoft Montreal disclaimer goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the whitewashing of the Viking conquest of England. I will guarantee you that while their team is technically diverse in terms of ethnicity and nominal religious faith, it is culturally dominated by upper-middle-class progressives–who, by in large, tend to view organized, orthodox Christianity as an repressive, oppressive system in need of dismantling and, when they do think of paganism, think of it as a freeing, liberating thing that allows people to let their freak flag fly.
    (And, also, the structure of the AC series lends itself very well to the “Cult of the Badass,” something the Norsemen were all about.)

    So, if you’re wondering why Ubisoft Montreal is playing into the colonialist narratives, it’s possibly because they really do think, at least subconsciously, that the Norse were the superior culture to the Anglo-Saxons and should have displaced them, even though they didn’t, and for good reason.

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  28. Very good analysis, thank you. I’m enjoying the game, but find it’s largest historical reference for the period appears to the HBO show Vikings more so than any real source. The whole tattoo/skin-art gameplay loop is a dead giveaway; we have no evidence to suggest “Viking culture” practiced tattooing/skin-art.

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    1. https://nancymariebrown.blogspot.com/2014/02/ragnar-lothbroks-viking-style.html

      > Then there’s the eye-makeup and the tattoos. All the Vikings in the History Channel’s series seem to have tattoos, while some, like Floki and the seer are remarkable for their gobs of black eye-shadow. Both of these were singled out for attention by Arab travelers.

      > The Arabic sources on the Vikings are collected and translated in a handy volume by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness (Penguin, 2012). The 10th-century Arab traveler, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who described the Viking funeral I wrote about two weeks ago [2-12], is our only source for the idea that Vikings liked tattoos. He met a party of Viking (or “Rus”) traders by the Volga River and wrote, “From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs and so forth.”

      > The eye-makeup comes from a different source. In 965, Ibrahim Ibn Ya’qub traveled through northern Europe. He came to Schleswig–the Danish Hedeby–which he described as “a very large city on the coast of the ocean.” It was “poor in grain and the climate was bad. The inhabitants mostly eat fish.” Then he mentions the make-up: “Both men and women use a kind of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes.” That pretty much leaves it up to interpretation how much make-up they used and where they applied it.

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      1. The eyeshadow may be practical as well as decorative, a substitute for sunglasses. Some Australian cricket players apply dark sunscreen below their eyes to reduce the glare and thus see better when facing towards the sun. Don’t skiers and people on boats have similar problems with sun reflected off the snow/water? Seems likely for Vikings.

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      2. Ibn Fadlans description of tatoos is actually very muhc more complicated (basically, the phrasing is unclear, so its not clear if he is talking about tatoos, painting on skin, or just decorated clothes, different translations give radically different meanings)

        (there is an askhistorians post about it somewhere)

        The problem is that is basically the only source we have for norse tatoos (and it is ambigious) we have no contemporary tatooing needles (though we do have a couple of bronze age examples) and it is not mentioned in most sources (nor is it mentioned in any of the early laws as something associated with paganism)

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  29. I like viking themes, norse culture and all that, after Odysser -which I love- I was excited to play Valhalla but Ubisoft portrayal of norsemen and saxon is cartoonish. It smells of moral dissonance from the first minutes. It’s like Leonidas and his freedom Speeches in 300… Maybe 200 years from now ther will be AC Blietzkrieg. Imagine playing ss Helmut and burning communist villages.

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  30. Bret: great piece, even better than your very high average. But, really off-topic, you do run afoul of a pet peeve of mine: the misuse of “misogyny” where one actually means “sexism.” They are not synonyms, and a misogynist is not simply someone who holds patriarchal or male-chauvanist values, but a man who actively *hates* women.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. I don’t know if the design and story decisions here were original to the development team or if they came from corporate (what we know about Ubisoft makes me think the latter is much more likely), but it’s not hard to see the decisions that led to this point. Having Eivor or Sigurd engaged in slave raiding would have been too alienating, so it was taken out. Having the main character even potentially war-crime-ing their way across England might enrage the censors, so that has to go. But of course each of these changes cuts in the same direction, until the whole project is so slanted that it falls over.

    TBH, if Ubisoft were so uncomfortable with the way their protagonists behaved, they should probably have chosen different protagonists.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s got to be a way to have us play a cool viking without feeling like jerks. Maybe they could have depicted the Norse fighting each other, and put the protagonist on whichever side looks more sympathetic. Or have the protagonist be one of the Byzantine Emperor’s Norse bodyguards.

      Like

    2. Or what they could have gone with is the protagonist as “odd-man-out” among his fellow Vikings, with the rest of them wondering what on earth their deal is and why they don’t go around looting, raping, and slaving like everybody else does. And also, at least at the beginning, the other Vikings should question their warrior-ness when they don’t join in on the “fun”, and the protagonist has to prove them wrong by demonstrating that they are extremely good at killing people and willing to do it.

      Like

  32. This seems like a bit of an unforced error on Ubisoft’s part. Surely it would make more sense to have the Saxons be the protagonists and the people who are invading their land to plunder and enslave be the bad guys.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s tricky, though, because they obviously wanted to make a Viking game, which doesn’t just mean a Viking character (which would be easy enough to do by having the PC be an outcast who decided to defend the Saxons) but Viking bands doing Viking raids.

      Perhaps you could start the game with the PC as a full-on Viking who then makes a face turn?

      Like

      1. I feel like they didn’t just want to make a viking game. They wanted a viking game wot is set in the most historically famous viking period.

        You could easily set this game over 100 years later as a norse person living in an established norse community that has been there for a century only to be burned out from the resurgent forces of the saxons. You could thread in sveyn forkbeard and cnut the great and the struggles for the english throne from there.

        It would be a less problematic story, if only by virtue of skipping the initial period of colonialization and its horrors. And, unlike, say, north american colinialism, the norse did seemingly integrate well into anglo saxon culture after the immediate burst of invasions, intermarrying, adopting the religion, et cetera as opposed to, like, largely genociding all the natives.

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        1. Yeah…that was mostly because they were forced to because the Anglo-Saxons defeated them on the field of battle, not because they were morally superior to the people who colonized the Americas.

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  33. I can’t speak to the rest of the stuff in this article, but the reason for little chainmaille is _COMPLETELY_ because it is a pain to render realistically. Thousands of tiny individual components, that have a cloth-like but not-cloth way of moving, with more stretch in one direction than another? That’d kill render times, even compared to hundreds of relatively flat plates of ‘scale’.

    Though what gets me is how games developers are so bad at doing rigid armor- they almost always just slap cuirasses onto the same skeleton as a normal or soft-cloth body, and so you get the odd imagery of a steel cuirass twisting and bending with the spine.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. At least in the UK, slavery has been a bit of a ‘hot button’ topic this year. (for reference, for readers years from now, I am writing this in November of 2020.)
    A statue of Edward Colston got chucked into the water at Bristol Docks by protestors earlier this year, and there has been much agonising and soul-searching by some institutions such as The National Trust over properties where families lived who had links to the slave trade and plantations.

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    1. We musnt forget either the british role in ending the african slave trade and criminalizing it in all their holdings, it sort of decreases the moral justification these people have for tearing down old historical statues and replacing it with statues of themselves.

      I mean that line of logic means we should also flatten aushwitz as well as old roman monuments because of the atrocities committed in their past.

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  35. Great post. There’s probably not room in games for too much complexity, but in this scenario the designers missed one major and one minor element – the Irish and the British (Welsh and in Strathclyde), both Christian. After the initial Viking assaults the Irish were on both sides – with coalitions of Irish and Vikings fighting other similar coalitions or assaulting British and Saxons (the first major Viking success after the Iona raid was the two-year siege of Dumbarton, the stronghold of the north-western Britons, by Ivar the Boneless, who took the spoils to Dublin). The germ of the later Kingdom of the Scots was also Norse-Irish.

    re one comment – any depiction of Jews would likely have reinforced an unfortunate stereotype, as a Jewish trader would be there to buy slaves to ship back to Spain.

    I can recommend Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die – a book on the viking ethos, with its stress on winning whatever one can from inevitable final defeat. It does not shirk from the grimmer side.

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  36. I think this is a very interesting and thorough article. I haven’t played the game myself because I am waiting for a better setup to play the newest games, but you thoroughly covered a lot of the dissonant feelings I got from the pitch.

    One way I felt that the game could circumvent this, would be to focus on a small clan of “nice” Vikings which was explicitly separate from other Vikings. This specific clan would not have slavery, wanton murder, or pillaging and have modern attitudes in gender/slavery, but the other Vikings were presented as cruel and with all negatives. Then the game would take on the character of an alternative history where a clan of Vikings with surprisingly modern sensibilities expand their influence and values (though unfortunately with violence, if one is to have gameplay). If the English were presented with more nuance, and this clan was shown to live more symbiotically with them, it would help against the colonial undertones. (Though far from removing them.)

    This could be helped by the Vikings being placed in Norway. Most of the Vikings of this time were from Denmark, so it could be digestible that a minority clan in Norway could have such different attitudes. Moreover, Vikings from Norway are also today known for their peaceful pursuits in addition to their vices, such as exploring the arctic and settling partly empty (but sometimes populated) territories such as the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and North America. Where there were people already, they would also conduct trade, though of course they let their violence show too. I think it wouldn’t be too unbelievable that a subset of them could develop some anachronistically peaceful ideals. Anyways, I am of course not trying to romanticize the Vikings here, just trying to sketch a path to how they could be more palatable to consumers today.

    Alas, I have to raise some questions about some of your writing:

    >But, as I just implied two paragraphs ago, I think there is an extra layer of irresponsibility here. Any historian who works on this period will tell you – and I know mostly because they keep telling me – that pre-Christian ‘viking’ (read: Scandinavian) imagery and history is routinely mobilized by the modern incarnations of white supremacist and frankly Nazi ideologies. Scandinavian runic writing, the Scandinavian ‘cross of Odin,’ and even the under-cut hairstyle often associated (falsely, by the by, even though TV shows keep using it) with ‘vikings’ have all been appropriated by racist extremists as symbols of their movement.

    >Now, am I saying that this means we all need to abandon these symbols to the Neo-Nazis? No. But clearly any game set in this historical period ought to tread very carefully, because this is difficult ground.

    Regarding the last sentence, I really have to question whether it is the responsibility of the, as you put it, appropriated culture to dissociate from the appropriators. I would imagine them being the victim in this situation. Is it fair for people handling Scandinavian material to have to “tread very carefully” and possibly compromise their vision and creativity to not be associated with the Nazis who stole it? After all, the Nazis appropriated the swastika as well, but it would be bizarre to go to a Buddhist temple and demand everything that can be construed to support the Nazis to be removed. For a more concrete example, if someone decides to adapt an Icelandic folk tale that shows an idealized and idyllic Icelandic society, would they have to “tread carefully” because it could be construed as a “Aryan Nazi fantasyland”? (Perhaps the movie “Frozen” would not be too far from this, though it at least has the Sami.) In fact, I would suppose that having to always actively acknowledge and dissociate Norse cultural elements from Neo-Nazis/racism actually gives the latter more ownership of the elements.

    This isn’t just something that would affect interpretation of old culture, but something that can have big consequences today. These days, certain elements of Scandinavian/Nordic culture are waning and becoming less important, and so it relies on the people being willing to conserve them to survive or be reborn in some form. If Nordic culture gets an implicit connection to Neo-Nazis, then people would be more reluctant with this preservation to avoid association.

    What I have in mind (I am Norwegian), is the written language of Nynorsk. Nynorsk was initially created to democratically empower a disenfranchised rural population. Since the “official” language was Danish as imposed by the Dane rulers, rural Norwegians, who were overlooked by the Danish crown, couldn’t understand it and therefore couldn’t participate in the democratic process. Today, Nynorsk is used by only 12% of primary schools and is almost never present within cities. It is a unique language that has many words and elements from Old West-Norse, something that connected to languages with a smaller base, i.e. Faroese and Icelandic. Nynorsk also carries within it remnants of the culture of rural Norwegians. Therefore, there is a valid argument for preserving this language, especially important now that there is a trend in moving into cities and streamlining communication. However, if we accept that Norse/Nordic culture always have to explicitly distance themselves from Nazis/White supremacy, people will be more reluctant to put effort into preserving it due to the association. Even if we say that on paper it is no problem, the connotations will still be there (and many people are already uninterested in preserving the language as it is.) This is why I react a bit to your paragraphs.

    And for a final short thought, I don’t know if sanitizing the Vikings actually would fit with Nazi ideology. AFAIK, Nazis are big adherents of asserting racial supremacy through violence and would probably be interested in slaves (Lebensraum), so removing these from Vikings is not something I would see a Nazi do, but rather something they would be proud of. It seems especially unfitting with the gender and racial diversity present within the protagonist’s clan. But I can see that it could sort of sanitize the Nazi-ideals in some people’s eyes, so it is still serious. And the colonialist overtones are still there, of course.

    I think it’s a testament to the thoroughness of your article that I never intended this response to be this long. I suppose your writing just stimulates my own thinking, so very well done. Despite my previous misgiving about a minor part of your article, I really enjoyed reading this. Again, well done!

    Like

    1. Regarding the last sentence, I really have to question whether it is the responsibility of the, as you put it, appropriated culture to dissociate from the appropriators. I would imagine them being the victim in this situation. Is it fair for people handling Scandinavian material to have to “tread very carefully” and possibly compromise their vision and creativity to not be associated with the Nazis who stole it?

      I have much the same reaction to Classicists who continually go out of the way to denounce the far right. Not only does it (as you say) put the onus on the appropriatees to disassociate themselves from the appropriators, I don’t even think it’s very effective — If you continually say “I just study the Classics for the love of them, not like all the bad people who study them for nefarious ends!”, people are going to think that the appropriate default attitude towards Classicists is that they do have nefarious ends, else why would you need to put so much effort into saying that you yourself don’t?

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  37. After some thought, I would think that Valhalla is much more problematic, not so much for the glorification of white supremacist stereotypes, but for the glorification of multicultural stereotypes.

    As you might be aware of, multiculturalism is currently a much higher threat to Western Europe than is white supremacism. The assimilation of immigrant populations has been breaking down for several decades already, resulting in the creation of diasporas that feel no pressing need nor desire to assimilate, and furthermore keep a resentment for the past of colonial subjugation of their origin countries, resulting in a form of colonization of Western Europe by these populations. (It doesn’t help that they often bring with them a racist, sexist and bigoted culture.)

    It got even worse in the recent years with the rise of a very political Islam. A recent poll has shown that more than half of young French Muslims put Islamic law over secular Law : https://www.marianne.net/societe/laicite-et-religions/des-francais-farouchement-laiques-fracture-chez-ceux-de-confession-musulmane-les-resultats-dun-sondage-exclusif
    (Note that American culture, which Ubisoft is (ironically) carrying here, is among the reasons blamed for this situation.)
    No wonder that secular teachers and Christians are getting killed in this situation.

    So the release of AC Valhalla, a game where you play foreign non-Christian multicultural(?) invaders coming to colonize a Christian land, and where Christianity, the indigenous population and their culture(?) are depicted as inferior to yours, and where no assimilation is (seemingly?) taking place (unlike what happened historically), is a deeply problematic game to release in Western Europe right now. (And remember that young men are the prime target audience.)

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  38. Concerning the Oxford comma: I’ve been editing for 33 years, and basically standardized on the Oxford comma early in my career. Why? Because using it never decreases comprehension, using it often makes the meaning much clearer, and frankly, don’t we have better things to do with our time than interrogate each “and” to see whether a comma is strictly necessary? My authors don’t usually care about grammatical arguments, but they do care a great deal about ‘better things to do with their time”.

    Concerning color: I remember the moment of enlightenment when I saw my first well-preserved Roman ruins, which included many small patches of color, and the light went on: “Right! These guys were human. They used colors. All the bland blond walls? That’s the result of going on two thousand years of intense sunlight and weathering and all the plaster falling off.” Blatantly obvious, right? But my brain never made the connection until I actually saw the colors in person. That opened my eyes to a lot of other “how people saw things” insights.

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    1. Rigidly demanding an Oxford comma is the kind of tedious pedantry i associate with people who complain about split infinitives. An unneeded comma breaks up the flow of a sentence, introducing an unnecessary pause and causing the sentence to stumble. The quoted passage is a good example. Authors who care about how their prose reads should care about punctuation too.

      Obviously discussing minor grammar points from an article about a game that’s an apologia for colonialism, slavery and a neo-Nazi worldview is a trap we both fell into 😉

      Like

      1. To be clear(er), *I* don’t “rigidly demand it”, and my authors are writing science, not fiction or literary pieces. And I’m assuming a global context, where (if you’re lucky) a large proportion of your readers have English as a second language and are less proficient with it than a native speaker. Literary writers must also, as you note, account for the meter and rhythm of the sentence. But you’re wrong if you think the comma inserts an *unnecessary* pause; the comma only makes the pause explicit. Pronounce “A, B and C” and you do not pronounce two pieces (1 = “A”, 2 = “B and C”)… you pronounce three pieces (“A”, “B”, and “C”). If “B and C” function as a unit and are pronounced as a unit, then you need a conjunction (e.g., “A, as well as B and C”). Otherwise you create a comma splice. Which isn’t problematic because of grammatical pedantry: it’s wrong because it forces the reader to back up and figure out whether you mean the first or the second option. (I’m a descriptive grammarian: I focus on how grammar is used in the real world to improve clarity.)

        But honestly, it’s easier to just learn to use the Oxford comma and spare your brainpower for more important issues, which was my point. Why waste time weighing the value of every comma? If, during your final buff and polish, you find an extraneous comma, then by all means delete it. Most often, you’ll find it does no harm or actually improves clarity.

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      2. I have no background to discuss the game(s) but commas are my thing:

        Editors (and readers!) need consistency as much as possible, rather than to have to stop and think about whether a sentence can be read with more than one interpretation every. single. time. someone does not include a comma in a series. When people rigidly apply the rule of NOT using the so-called Oxford comma, they take the chance that they will leave the reader momentarily adrift. How much easier all around to simply apply it every time?

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  39. “inexplicably low-coverage clothing in freezing climates”–I presume (I haven’t played this game, but I know the genre) that the low-coverage clothing appears primarily on the female characters. Women warriors are hot, but only if they fight half-naked. The patriarchy endures.

    Like

  40. The game designers could have very easily made the game anti-colonialism AND give the victims a historically accurate victory by doing it from the perspective of the Angles instead of the Danes.

    Or they could do a mid-game twist by shifting to a new character who fights for the Angles and sees what’s actually happening, as if the Danish portion was deliberately lying. Like someone switches out the simulation software and they’re like “here’s some proper perspective on the matter now.”

    Instead we get a game that says colonialism is good and kind.

    Ubisoft can jolly on back to the Eastern Hemisphere if they’re going to promote the system that destroyed my half of the world.

    Like

    1. Thing is, Ubisoft actually did a pretty good job of portraying the negatives of colonialism in Assassin’s Creed III, Liberation, and IV (and the Freedom Cry DLC that came with it). It’s just that, apparently, colonialism is fine when it’s pagans doing it. Because reasons.

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      1. > it’s just that, apparently, colonialism is fine when it’s pagans doing it

        … and when the colonized are white and christians

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  41. Wow, Bret! If you wanted conversations, you got it!

    I enjoyed reading in spite of being a non-player. As usual, here’s the few typos I found:

    and the later is directly linked -> the latter is
    game rewards you experience -> your experience
    capable of ruthlessly battle-tactics) -> ruthless battle-tactics
    wife, for instance, has notably taller than -> is notably

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    1. I think it’s more likely:
      game rewards you experience → you with experience

      Some more:

      his emulation (poorly) of your warrior wars → warrior ways
      puny, whimpy Saxons → wimpy
      an unmitigated good : “Mitigate” means “make less severe; alleviate; give relief from”, not just “lessen”, so I don’t think it makes sense to talk about an “unmitigated good”. It could be rephrased in various ways, perhaps with “unmixed” or “absolute”.

      Like

  42. What’s weird is even the television show (and the other televisions show like that other one) this game is so clearly aping didn’t shy away from vikings being, well, vikings.

    The main characters regularly kill, maim, and abuse civilians in their raids and battles. If a network TV show can get away with killing and enslaving priests, women, and even children, you can do that in a video game too.

    Like

    1. In a television show the characters are doing it. In a game, “you” are doing it. I can see why that would be less palatable.

      Like

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