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.
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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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.
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).
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.
On to the more substantive issues, starting with:
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:
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).
But that fact – that the game baldly presents the Saxons as being in possession of an inferior culture – leads us to:
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.
290 thoughts on “Collections: Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and the Unfortunate Implications”
Of course, there were virgin lands for the Vikings to settle. Generally called Iceland.
If you want underdog, have them go there and have people come after them causing trouble. Or have the kings they fled make trouble.
A high proportion of Iceland’s DNA descends from female Celtic people – that is, Irish slaves brought over with the colonisers (one – a thrall named as Malcolm – figures in Njal’s Saga). Fleeing one kind of oppression but bringing another with them.
Have the people who come after you bring those women. Then you can rescue them and marry one who’s happy to be rescued.
I started reading Vinland Saga and a lot of the suggestions are there, or at least in the backstory. Protagonist’s dad was a warrior turned anti-slavery idealist who fled to Iceland, the land without kings (settled by other Norsemen who didn’t want to live under a king, not that things are perfect there.) His past comes for him. I’m still *in* the backstory, so I don’t know how the ‘present time’ plays out.
Aesthetically it seems accurate. Mail armor, proper helmets and shields, wooden castles (the manga opens with two groups of Franks fighting each other; lots of crossbows), lightweight ships.
Though the protag seems a shounen superhero (nimble badass with dual shortswords or daggers and no armor), the translator notes the author misuses ‘jarl’ badly (for warrior; IMO ‘carl’ would have been better though not perfect), and one of the Frankish leaders is drawn as a huge caricature.
Vinland Saga is badass, and I am happy to interpret all the over the top feats of violence as just emulating Norse Sagas. Definitely looks a lot more accurate than most Viking fiction.
Iceland being “a land without kings” is pretty much historically accurate in and of itself. As Iceland was settled, Denmark and Norway were increasingly being consolidated under the reigns of kings, and so there was definitely an element of “I’m moving out to the frontier where a man can be free” in many accounts of the settlement of Iceland.
This was a great read and super informative. I would be very awesome if you could do a writeup like this for every Assassin’s Creed game. I think they all have very interesting historical settings and get some things right and some things wrong and add some interesting bits for their alternative history involving the pre-cursors and pieces of eden, etc.
This is a video game. A lot had to be sacrificed for gameplay and sales. Take the back scabbard, for example. You want to be the animator for climbing, running, swimming, falling, jumping, etc, with a massive sword or axe at the side or in the character’s hands? It breaks the fun of the game to put this kind of realism into it. They don’t even do horse riding animations well. And even if you could do it, it would be very expensive both in development resources and compute during gameplay (poly count, collisions, physics). Way easier to just put the gear on the back.
The same can be said for other shortfalls. Slavery was a much more important part of the story in Odyssey and Origins, so it was more in your face. In Valhalla, they wanted to tell a different story, so they skipped the parts that weren’t germaine. While I’m also disappointed it wasn’t addressed more, I see why it was done.
I agree with a lot of your analysis, though. Settling into magically abandoned prime realestate was very unexpected and jarring. Raiding only monasteries for resources is dumb. More diversity in the villages and towns would have been better, and the bland, rundown architecture could have been nicer. They did a better job of that in Odyssey. The villains also seem one dimensional. Where are the economic motivators?
I think there is a bit of criticism of Norse mythology and religion with Ivarr. Eivor really chews him out for his blood eagle, but she lets it go because it was a real thing in her culture.
What I found interesting in this context, spoiler alert, is that after defeating Ivarr, I felt he fought well and deserved to be carried away to Valhalla. However, when later defeating Dag, I denied him his axe! Ivarr betrayed me privately, but Dag publicly. Did Dag not fight well, with honour? Did he not believe he was doing what was best for his people? What of Ivarr? I think this is the kind of thing the developers were after. That kind of contemplation of our actions in the game. How does adding more authentic portrayal of slavery, religion, and economics help us think about and make decisions with this kind of personal consequence? It’s not enough to merely show these. They should be impactful and meaningful to the story.
The thing that actually bothered me the most is that in Vinland I spent the time to gather all resources required to get the armor set, but I didn’t get to keep it when returning back to England. Infuriating!
> That kind of contemplation of our actions in the game. How does adding more authentic portrayal of slavery, religion, and economics help us think about and make decisions with this kind of personal consequence?
Because showing or not an ugly part of an historical group’s history has importance beyond what’s fun or not. to play in the context of the game. The pop-culture historical representations ends up having a big importance on how people see those time periods.
Your article is a great read until you start with the neoliberal and start bashing China. Your country has children in cages China sends children to school.
School…or camps for ethnic cleansing if those children happen to be the wrong ethnicity or religion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xinjiang_re-education_camps
I’m not interesting in humoring any tankies and their denial of reality. The United States has real flaws; China is, however, a totalitarian regime crushing dissent and free speech in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, with a brutal authoritarian justice system.
Genuine question, where is the line between ‘real flaws’ and ‘crushing dissent’? I am by no means a historian (not even an amateur one), but it seems to me that there is a tendency to vilify China (which is not always unjustified…) in all actions without necessarily understanding WHY China does what China does.
And yes, I am aware that within the contexts of this discussion (i.e human rights and free speech), China doesn’t score so well, and that intentionally (if the reports are true) genocide-ing people and people falling through the cracks of society are not the same. I am not trying to defend China’s record of free speech (although whether free speech should always be considered a good thing is a different discussion), but it does seem to me that painting China as always totalitarian and authoritarian in every action and thought is counter productive to better relations between nations. Obviously Not Running People Over With Tanks is also something that should be encouraged.
One thing that occurs to me is that you argued before that a ‘western professional volunteer’ style army doesn’t work for every culture because different culture are…well different. Shouldn’t the same apply to different styles of government?
Again, I’m not trying to be a troll. But it seems like much of western literature about China is written through a western perspective with western biases, morals, and assumptions (free speech is good, democracy is the best, eating dogs is bad). On the other hand, I am accepting and acknowledging that China does some very not good things and it’d be pretty cool if they stopped doing those not good things. As you can probably tell, I’m quite conflicted, but engaging in discussion helps me (if no one else) clarify my own thoughts and perspectives.
They have concentration camps so large we can observe their expansion from space (https://www.rand.org/blog/rand-review/2021/04/chinas-disappeared-uyghurs-what-satellite-images-reveal.html). The reports are true; you may dispense with the ‘if.’
Chinese government destruction of Uyghur villages and cultural sites is so extensive that google’s Dynamic World Land Cover system effectively interprets it as deforestation: https://twitter.com/Nrg8000/status/1534970932238110720
So I’m not here ragging on China for elements of their culture. I am ragging on China for their grotesque human rights abuses.
First of all, thanks for replying, I thought this comment would go unread but it turns out I have to be subscribed to receive notifications.
I wasn’t aware that satellite images could be that precise, but it seems that I was wrong and so I stand corrected. I have never doubted that China was capable of this, only the reliability of the reports, which has now been proven to almost certainly be accurate. This makes for some very uncomfortable thought processes which I am still working through.
As to your other point, I am not accusing you specifically of focusing exclusively on ragging on Chinese culture; rather, this is a more general trend that I have noticed in foreign literature, which in turn shapes china’s response. That trend is for foreigners to write exclusively about china’s politics, almost always portrayed in a negative light. To write about anything else is seen as drawing attention away from china’s wrongdoings, or being a China apologist (which I am not trying to do here). In other words, there is very little in the media that does not portray China as an aggressive, authoritarian, genocidal, pandemic inducing shamble of a mess. Here, I would also like to note that you responded only to the section of my comment regarding the concentration camps. Fair enough, you can’t be expected to indulge every rambling comment on your blog in its entirety. But when that happens often enough…well.
A common response is “well this is how I criticise all countries, including my own.” That’s all good and fair, but it’s not taking into account the audience. I assume the majority of the audience of English literature is North American or Western European. When you criticise your own nation, you don’t NEED to defend its positives, because it is widely understood by you and your audience what those positives are. But most of that audience does not have the same knowledge of China (or really any other area of the world), so when every news article is about the latest outrage China has committed (which should definitely be reported!) to the exclusion of all other news, it paints China as being overwhelmingly bad with no redeeming qualities. And yet news outlets will decry asian hate crimes without realising that they have contributed to the very problem they are denouncing others for.
As you said so yourself, inaccuracy in pop culture matters because it seeps into the subconscious mind and affects our thoughts and actions. This also applies here. Don’t believe me? Look on just about any non-Chinese social media that features anything non-negative about China, and see how many bat-eater comments are present in the comments. I don’t think I need to spell it out as to how that translates into real life interactions.
I’m not asking for you and other platforms to stop holding China and other governments accountable. All I’m asking for is for people to recognise that there is beauty and good among the ugliness, just like there is in every other culture and nation. And maybe every once in a while, share that beauty and good.
If one is attempting to identify cases where Christians are a religious minority and subject to persecution, China is a relevant example, and America decidedly is not.
Since the criticism in the article is specifically about how *Christianity in particular* is treated as an ‘acceptable target’ for colonialist Norse to dismiss and overwrite with their own culture, China is relevant to the piece in that context.
Likewise, if you want modern examples of settler colonialism, China is relevant (because of what is happening to the Uighurs). The United States is relevant for PAST examples; its settler colonial period has already proceeded to completion.
This isn’t a case of presenting atrocities associated with A and ignoring those associated with B in an attempt to make B look good. It’s that A’s atrocities are relevant in context, while B’s are not.
Dr. Deveraux also did not discuss Tamerlane making pyramids of skulls all over Central Asia and the Middle East- not because it didn’t happen, or because it isn’t morally wrong to do that, but because it isn’t relevant to the topic of discussion.
Without going there on the China issue, to say that US settler-colonialism “has already proceeded to completion” is more tendentious than you might realize. An argument you often see among leading critical scholars of US settler-colonial history, like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” is that US global military interventionism has been structured at least as far back as the War of 1898 (a term often preferred over the more standard “Spanish-American War” in order not to downplay the importance of US colonial counterinsurgency warfare against Cuban and Filipino independence fighters) as a direct continuation of earlier frontier settler/ranger violence against the indigenous, in all kinds of implicit and explicit ways.
In the last chapter of that book, much of which is excerpted here, Dunbar-Ortiz quotes a number of passages to this effect from the prominent neocon ideologue Robert Kaplan, whose 2005 book “Imperial Grunts” is even framed around this very same thesis, albeit intended as a neutral or even positive description rather than a critique: “The War on Terrorism was really about taming the frontier.”
You can argue it; the problem I see is that you can’t really have settler colonialism without the settlers. There weren’t *that* many ‘ethnic American’ (so to speak) civilians moving into Cuba or the Philippines to take over farming and other activities directly. Likewise, there is almost NO American civilian presence associated with US deployments in the Middle East, aside from civilian contractors who are there to directly support the army.
I think it’s definitely the case that many of the habits of mind and institutional traditions of the settler-colonial period have carried over into 20th and 21st century American thought and action. But while Robert Kagan may be talking about the War on Terror as “taming the frontier,” I don’t think we can credibly argue that he seriously plans to replace the population of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen with American homesteaders. And if he did want to, being realistic, he’d fail- Americans wouldn’t want to go and the project would not materialize.
This kind of thing is why “settler colonialism” is a separate term from things like “colonialism” itself and also “imperialism.” There are a lot of ways for a heavily armed state to show up and start oppressing, attacking, or afflicting the local population *without* wagon trains full of settlers.
That’s of course a fair point, and I don’t think anyone like Dunbar-Ortiz is arguing that the US goal in, say, Vietnam was to clear out the Mekong delta region as lebensraum for a thousand Levittowns full of blond-haired blue-eyed families with 2.5 children and so on. Of course there are plenty of arguments about settler-colonialism as the deep underpinning of the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, and before it the US and apartheid South Africa, but as with the China issue, that’s a whole other can of worms.
The argument as I see it is more about the nature of the military violence involved, i.e. the sense that absent a genuine peer-on-peer Great Power conflict, the ongoing mission is to perpetually pacify vast swathes of “Injun Country” (as Kaplan points out, the often-underappreciated origin of the military term “in-country”) where the US military is nominally on the side of sovereign authority, but in practice is confined to a loose network of forts in the midst of de facto insurgent-held territory, where shockingly cavalier brutality against “enemy” civilians is an ordinary and accepted part of the counterinsurgency toolkit in a way that it wouldn’t necessarily be if the subject population was from a white and/or European “peer nation” (the “from Wounded Knee to My Lai” argument, if you will). Which in turn has interesting ramifications for ACV’s depiction of Viking settler-colonialism in Britain as categorically lacking any violence against civilians at all, as if the game’s message is “see, we Anglo-Saxons had to put up with this settler-colonial stuff and it wasn’t so bad, so why are all you brown people acting so upset about it now?”
The argument as I see it is more about the nature of the military violence involved, i.e. the sense that absent a genuine peer-on-peer Great Power conflict, the ongoing mission is to perpetually pacify vast swathes of “Injun Country” (as Kaplan points out, the often-underappreciated origin of the military term “in-country”) where the US military is nominally on the side of sovereign authority, but in practice is confined to a loose network of forts in the midst of de facto insurgent-held territory, where shockingly cavalier brutality against “enemy” civilians is an ordinary and accepted part of the counterinsurgency toolkit in a way that it wouldn’t necessarily be if the subject population was from a white and/or European “peer nation” (the “from Wounded Knee to My Lai” argument, if you will)
Lots of countries with no recent history of settler colonialism have shown themselves more willing to brutalise people who are culturally alien, and lots of occupying armies have found themselves confined to small areas in a sea of local hostility. I don’t really see how bringing in settler colonialism, as opposed to standard human xenophobia and the nature of wars of occupation, adds to our understanding of US foreign and military policy.
I’m curious if you’ve played Assassin’s Creed III and your thoughts about the settlement system in that game, along with the implications that particular game makes. This sort of settlement system in a common mechanic in the franchise, with the root systems dating all the way back to Assassin’s Creed II and making an appearance in all of the franchise’s pillar titles.
I also think there’s a strain of ‘since we are doing this against white people, it’s okay.’ Popular culture discussion during the game’s development and right now highly emphasizes British and American sin as a core cause for historical ills, and I think the writing team leaned into it. Evidence of this includes the depiction of Christians, which are more in line with modern negative stereotypes of evangelical Christian communities than anything historical.
I’ll close by saying the AC franchise has generally tried to walk a tightrope with the history it depicts, usually aiming to nudge popular historical knowledge towards academic accuracy so long as it doesn’t risk sales opportunity by alienating audiences. Those competing demands have resulted in games that simultaneously teach popular audiences new historical trivia and anecdotes while not challenging the general western image of the depicted era as a whole.
This is the most brutal thing I think I’ve read on this blog so far. I love it. I’m mildly worried about this critique that like many AC games, this one will have a twist intended to address/recontextualize a lot of the ahistoricity and ludonarrative dissonance. But you’ve already headed that off at the pass by referencing that many players won’t even get that far into it, so even if that’s true (I won’t be playing the game but if Joseph Anderson or NeverKnowsBest every do a 35 hour YouTube retrospective on the series, I will be watching that) it doesn’t invalidate this essay.
> This is the most brutal thing I think I’ve read on this blog so far.
I really recommend the series about Sparta.
A very, very good commentary on the game. I’ve just started playing it and, well, it feels like Vikings the tv show: The Game. I wish they’d gone more in a historically accurate direction with the Vikings, showing them warts and all, as you say. Things like the houses look beautiful and seem (to my layman’s eyes) reasonably accurate, but then they’re wearing Skyrim style “big tough barbarian” armours. I share your feelings on Kingdom Come: Deliverance as well, it is beautiful and you can tell they’ve done their research, but just not a very good game.
What worries me is that this game, as well as the Vikings tv show, will popularise a lot of inaccuracies about the Vikings and Norsemen that will be incredibly hard to remove from the minds of the general population. These days, people know Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets, but the Vikings/AC way of portraying them is almost as bad as putting horns on their heads. It is an important part of my own country’s history (I am Swedish) and I just want to see it portrayed well in a modern medium. There’s the old book Red Orm from the 1950’s that holds up still today (especially in how its characters switch religions throughout the book), but as far as I know nothing newly written or filmed. The Icelandic Flight of the Raven movies from the 1970’s are also fairly accurate as far as I know, but again, nothing more current.
Littel side note: Red Orm (or known to me as “Röde Orm”) is until now the best viking novel I’ve read.
And yes, I know Cornwell. Still Röde Orm as No 1.
Put simply many enlightened people don’t see attacking white, Christian civilization as problematic.
Neither do many unenlightened people, as long as it’s the “whiter,” Odin-worshipping Norse civilization doing it. See also Viking fanboyism among white supremacists.
The problem isn’t “enlightened people” or the dread Social Justice. And in this case it isn’t the white supremacists either.
The problem is that Western culture has a specific set of tropes that have arisen around the Vikings. And there is a tendency to write in excuses for their atrocities (or whitewash them out of existence entirely) because they check so many of the “cult of the badass” checkboxes. So the part where they would regularly enslave people from, say, Ireland and sell them somewhere in the Mediterranean? Often gets written out of the record. The part where their religion included human sacrifice? Either ignored or written up as “wow that’s so metal” as a term of approval of how ‘Fremen’ they are.
If a bunch of white supremacists had written the game, the Norse would have been whiter, but the plot might well have been broadly comparable- superior (and ‘whiter’-coded) Norse move in, brush aside puny Christianity in Nietzschean triumph, and teach those (less-white-manly-coded) Englishmen how to be brutal, ‘hard,’ and ‘pure.’
The problem is that Western culture has a specific set of tropes that have arisen around the Vikings. And there is a tendency to write in excuses for their atrocities (or whitewash them out of existence entirely) because they check so many of the “cult of the badass” checkboxes. So the part where they would regularly enslave people from, say, Ireland and sell them somewhere in the Mediterranean? Often gets written out of the record. The part where their religion included human sacrifice? Either ignored or written up as “wow that’s so metal” as a term of approval of how ‘Fremen’ they are.
But part of the reason why those “cult of badass” tropes have risen around the Vikings, and not around more recent colonialists like the Spanish Conquistadors or British East India Company, is that the Vikings’ victims were mostly white Christians, and therefore don’t activate modern society’s “helpless victims of oppression” switch.
If you polled people at random, I suspect you would find that more of them thought the former British Empire was a good thing, than thought the Vikings were. If they were asked in secret, that might even be true of Ubisoft workers. But would they dare say that in each others hearing?
I guess if you polled a representative cross-section of society, that might be true (although I suspect that that would be more because most people would put “Don’t know/no opinion” for the Viking question than because of any strong belief in the benevolence of British imperialism), but amongst what we might call the creative classes — the people who generally set the overall cultural tone — I doubt it. Even if they’d answer a poll saying that the Vikings were bad, I think they’d have a much more visceral and emotional reaction against British colonialism than against anything the Vikings did. There’s absolutely no way that a company like Ubisoft would make a game whitewashing the British conquest of India in the same way as ACV whitewashes the Viking invasions of Britain, and if for some reason they did, the negative press would be overwhelming in a way that it obviously wasn’t for ACV.
It’s because the 1700/1800’s European conquests were much more recent, and have had a much more immediate effect on modern day culture and politics. Much more straightforward as an explanation, much more sensible that some “white victims” thing.
Ancient/medieval/etc. cultures/wars/etc. the world over almost never stir up modern political arguments no matter where they are.
I’m with Dillon on this one.
By far the bigger part of it is that the grievance in question is such ancient history that the ethnic groups party to the grievance are pretty much *gone.* Christianity won decisively over Norse paganism. The Anglo-Saxons assimilated the Vikings. Modern Scandinavia has no institutional continuity with Viking-era Scandinavia.
As such, while the Vikings may have done damage, it’s historically easy and safe to say “well, they did damage BUT.”
By contrast, the conquistadors *won.* They objectively did succeed in destroying those civilizations and the ensuing mass deaths objectively did wipe out something like 90% of all human life on two continents. As such, it’s harder to overlook the dark side of what happened there. It’s not equivalent to the Vikings because the Vikings didn’t *succeed* in destroying Christianity and wiping out 90% of the population of the British Isles.
If one white-coded group within the relatively recent past HAD actually succeeded in killing off 90% of the population of another white-coded group, HAD annihilated their culture, if their descendants were the ruling elite of that region to this day, and if all of this had happened recently enough to still be relevant to present-day political conflicts…
I think that we’d be walking very carefully about portraying the killer-faction positively in video games.
It’s not just that the victims are brown or white, it’s the extent of the victimhood.
The 90% death toll was inevitable regardless of how angelic or demonic the Europeans acted like. They didn’t even have the germ theory of disease.
Funny how Nahuatl has ten times the native speakers that Irish does, and Quechua and Guarani each have about 40, huh? Almost like reports of the deaths of the indigenous of Spanish America are greatly exaggerated…and that exaggeration is the most notorious slander of all time, the Black Legend. Those three languages had co-official status in Spanish America with Spanish, up till the mid-1700s…right around the time England made it illegal to speak Irish at all.
Mostly because unlike the English in Ireland, or the Moors in their own country, the Spanish did not intend to kill off the indigenous of the New World. They just accidentally got them sick. But European diseases were far less devastating in Spanish America than in English America, because the Spanish organized quarantines. Because they did not want the natives to die. (Neither did they set conversion to Christianity as the condition for receiving medical aid, as the English did to the victims of the Irish Potato “Famine”—”famine” in quotes because when you intentionally exacerbate food-shortages, even as food continues to come in and be fed to livestock, that’s not a famine. That’s a Holodomor.)
The idea that the Spanish killed 90% of the natives is simply not supportable by merely looking at the people who inhabit the former Spanish colonies. Not to put too fine a point on it, but exactly how “swarthy” do you imagine Spaniards are?
Mostly because unlike the English in Ireland, or the Moors in their own country, the Spanish did not intend to kill off the indigenous of the New World.
Neither the English in Ireland nor the Moors in Spain intended to wipe out the native population.
Neither did they set conversion to Christianity as the condition for receiving medical aid, as the English did to the victims of the Irish Potato “Famine”
I think you’ll find it was Protestant Irish landowners doing that, not “the English”.
”famine” in quotes because when you intentionally exacerbate food-shortages, even as food continues to come in and be fed to livestock, that’s not a famine. That’s a Holodomor.
The British government didn’t intentionally exacerbate food shortages.
The British government didn’t intentionally exacerbate food shortages.
The British demanded that the Irish export food during the potato blight. Every other European country that was hit by it — and they were many — responded by shutting down food export.
The British demanded that the Irish export food during the potato blight.
Firstly, no they didn’t. They might not have imposed export controls, but there was nothing stopping Irish landowners from choosing not to export food.
Secondly, even if they did impose export controls, it might not have done much good — one of the big problems with organising famine relief was that the transport infrastructure in many parts of the country simply wasn’t adequate for moving sufficiently large quantities of food around. Banning food exports isn’t much good if there’s no way to get the food to those parts of the country where it’s actually needed. Plus, whilst Ireland did export some food products during this period, staple crops only made up a small portion of these. Instead of redirecting them, it would make more sense to sell them and use the cash to import actual staples to replace the blighted potatoes — which is what the British government tried to arrange, albeit (obviously) unsuccessfully.
> 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)
I wouldn’t be _so_ sure about that, at least not in full detail.
One element of your summary of AC:Valhalla is that it finds little worth in English Christianity, outright accusing it of being a pointless extractive institution (e.g. having treasures locked in churches for no reason) at best and outright corrupt at worst.
That happens to be consistent with Quebec’s experience of Catholicism, in the 20th-century period leading up to the province’s Quiet Revolution (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiet_Revolution). Over a generation, the province went from one effectively controlled by the Catholic church (with deep and corrupt integration of the government and religious institutions) to Canada’s most secular province, to the point that it distrusts public expressions of minority faith and favours a policy of laïcité (look up the current political dispute over ‘Bill 21’, if you’d like).
To the extent that the development team was raised in Quebec society, they may be transposing the pattern of modern, civil society in the province onto this historical period. In fact, I would expect that the diversity boilerplate:
> 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.
… does not mean that the team had many devout, practicing Christians on staff in a position to challenge some of the problematic characterizations.
The meme of Christianity as pointless extravagance is pervasive. Jared Diamond’s “Collapse,” for instance, alternates between waxing rhapsodic about the engineering genius required to construct and place the Easter Island statues, and mocking the Danes for wasting their resources installing bells in Greenland churches.
I hasten to add, my brother gave me the book, and I gave up halfway through. I consider books by faculty lounge pseudo-polymaths to be complete wastes of time. But middlebrow intellectuals–the kind of people who read the Atlantic–lap that stuff up.
To be fair, high-brow intellectuals also read The Atlantic. Also, low-brow intellectuals occasionally publish in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/why-state-universities-have-no-other-choice-but-to-reopen/615565/).
I actually think Collapse is more rigorous than Guns, Germs and Steel simply because its argument is narrower, but Diamond does have his problems. While I think macro-histories are valuable, I share your general discomfort with the polymath mega-histories.
Better examples of macro-histories, if you are curious, check out D. Abulafia’s The Great Sea or Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization. Both macro-history done well (by historians).
I liked Collapse a lot better than GG&S. It was also interesting how it hid away its climate message until the very end. As I understand it, the argument about the Greenland settlers and fish has been obsoleted, though.
The arguments about both the cause of the Danish abandonment of the Greenland settlements and the destruction of the Eastern Island trees are continuing and unresolved, to my understanding. So the lessons anyone draws will mostly reflect the preconceptions he or she came in with.
One litmus test you can use (certainly not a perfect test, but better than nothing) is whether the author of a given pop-history treatise is trained in academic history at all, or at least some related discipline like anthropology or sociology, or whether their scholarly training is so far afield from history that they’re essentially a layperson whose credibility among a lay audience depends on the presumption that a critical mass of readers will see the word “PhD” and think “eh, close enough.”
Diamond definitely falls in this category (IIRC he’s an ornithologist whose historical/anthropological musings were first inspired by bird-watching expeditions in New Guinea) and so does someone like Steven Pinker, whose pop-social-science work is if anything even more widely loathed by scholars in the relevant fields than Diamond’s is.
I would rather rely on the Jury Theorem. Broadly speaking, there are many more possible wrong beliefs than right ones, so it is unlikely that many people will independently converge on the same wrong answer. So if a field is dominated by people who believe A, plus a few heretics who thing B, C, D and so on, you should start off assuming that A is true, until you have good reason to believe otherwise.
Put another way: You should be suspicious of any book that claims its author is right, and everybody else who has studied the subject is wrong. You are a lot more likely to have discovered a crank than the next Albert Einstein.
To be sure, some fields may be dominated by forces that encourage convergence on some particular answer whether it is true or not. Then it will be harder to tell what is true.
The central thesis of GG&S seems, to me, to be adequately refuted by pointing out the New World actually has more of most resources than the Old World, and things like the development of iron metallurgy were prompted in part by tin shortages rendering bronze infeasible. (Which is also why China kept being Bronze Age so much longer, since they had more tin, but does not explain why Africa entered the Iron Age the same time as Europe, often without bronze in between. I don’t actually know if anyone has adequately explained that.)
It’s been a few years, but that’s not how I remember GG&S. I don’t remember much discussion of mineral resources at all.
As I remember it:
In the introduction, he asks why Europe has dominated the world for the past few centuries, and why it was Europe that started the industrial revolution. He rejects the “racial superiority” answer, but he can’t find any other explanation, so he comes up with his own explanation.
Europe was successful because they were part of Eurasia. (North Africa counts as part of Eurasia because the Sahara is a barrier and the Mediterranean is a road.)
Eurasia lucked out in getting most of the plants and animals suitable for domestication, and also lucked out in being big and mostly oriented east-west rather than north-south. Orientation matters because it’s easier for crops to spread when you don’t have to keep breeding them for new latitudes.
Being big, Eurasia was home to an awful lot of people who built a great big trade network, enabling technological advancements of each civilization to benefit the others. Also, the big trade network and its big cities, and big livestock herds, bred disease. (New World livestock don’t have a natural inclination toward large herds.) This is why Old World diseases were a disaster for the New World instead of the reverse.
In the final chapter he asks why it was Europe, rather that some other part of Eurasia, but he has much lower confidence in his answer there.
One aspect you haven’t touched on is how the Celts are portrayed (and are hinted to being portrayed in the DLC) as straight up evil pagans and barbarians. This is another supporting element for your thesis here, I think.
I never played it, but there was reportedly an interesting moment in the game “Ryse: Son of Rome” where one of the missions involves a Roman legionary cohort ambushed at night by Pictish barbarian warriors who are explicitly depicted during the battle as Minotaur-like creatures with bull heads, then in a cutscene after the battle, your character’s commanding officer points to the slain corpse of the Pictish leader who is obviously an ordinary human wearing a fur hat made from a bull’s head, and says something to the effect of “we see what we want to see.”
The Celts had been Christians for centuries by the Viking Age. They were famous for it with saints proselytizing and building monasteries all over Europe. In fact the Monastic churches ravaged by Vikings were founded by Celtic saints.
Pop culture in general and video games in particular love them some Celtic pagans, even when it makes no sense. See King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame in which the indigenous Welsh are depicted as pagan and the invading Anglo-Saxons are depicted as Christian despite the opposite being true.
I can’t recall the story well enough to say whether or not one side was depicted better, but the gameplay absolutely encourages you to go pagan rather than Christian. The magic and mythical creatures going the pagan route gives you access to are both way stronger and way more fun than anything going Christian gets you.
The great advantage of the Celts is that because the evidence is so scanty and often so far after the events that you can basically make up what you like. (For instance, writing off anything you don’t like as a Christian accretion.)
I very much appreciate your thoughts about this game and its immediate predecessor. I was able to enjoy “Odyssey” for far too many hours because I could buy into the hand-waving that was required for me to play a female protagonist while, for example, participating in the Olympics. In fact the game itself explained that traditionally women would not have been permitted but then set that aside.
It sounds like I’d have a tougher time with “Valhalla” because it sounds like that the equivalent explanation is lacking or nonexistent. I’d have to decide whether I could focus on boat cats (very awesome and totally logical) instead of glossed-over Norse cultural colonialism.
I also have to add to this my total disgust at the management of Ubisoft, which has become a poster child for privilege and harassment over these past several years. It’s an open question as to whether I’d even want to give that multi-national corporation another one of my entertainment dollars under the “best” of gaming circumstances, which-as your article demonstrates- AC: Valhalla does not offer.
Similarly, that is the prime reason why I wouldn’t play Kingdom Come: Deliverance- one of the lead developers is a profound, public fascist. As his company chose not to dismiss him and disavow themselves from his very vocal right wing fanaticism, so too do I choose not to support them now or in the future.
I feel like Ubisoft should have dropped the Assassin’s Creed titles a while ago.
The company clearly wants to just focus on the historical settings but the Templars/Assassins backstory has become a hindrance, and is now forcing depictions of whole societies down train tracks like “pro-freedom” or “pro-order”.
The problems became prominent when the latest titles, with their larger scale (Origins onwards), moved towards depicting great clashes of civilizations. Inaccuracies in the older games were always there, but the orders tended to vie for dominance within, with some leeway, a single culture, limiting any damage. Now we have a situation where entire cultures are regularly depicted along the moral lines of one order or another to fit the narrative, contributing to the ominous distortions that are pointed out in this really excellent article.
To be clear, Ubisoft should never drop historical settings for games – climbing Big Ben or exploring the Acropolis when you might never get to visit in person is such a great example of popular tech increasing public access to history and culture – but they should have wrapped up the backstory when it ended after AC3, and found a new narrative tool to fit where they wanted to take the historical titles.
I get that coming up with and marketing an entirely new series must be unappealing as opposed to continuing to milk the AC cash cow, but, as a result of that, we now see games like AC: Valhalla coming through that have the potential to make what is already a febrile political atmosphere even worse.
Sorry for the long rant, I just hope I’m not the only one thinking it! Great article again Bret.
I felt since AC: Black Flag that this was largely the case. Black Flag was a great pirate game with an unfortunate Assassin’s Creed game bolted on to the side.
I felt the same with AC Black flag and with AC Rogue as well (although the sailing/piracy elements were far better in Black Flag.) Rogue was a worse game for me because it forced you to engage more with the main Assassin/Templar storyline, which just wasn’t very good.
The joke is “Hideo Kojima called, he said your stealth game series has gone on too long and its plot is incoherent”. Of course that was before he was kicked off Metal Gear.
I’m curious if the author has ever played the board game archipelago?
The game is about a series of European powers “finding” a carribean or pacific archipelago, and then colonizing it to achieve some set of objectives that are played out in a 4x meets dynamic markets board game. The game is beautifully illustrated, but generated a ton of negative discussion at release. The islands are populated and a core mechanic of the game is suppressing discontent (through factors like religion or even softer factors like priotizing a less lucrative domestic market over the more lucrative export market) from the native local populace. This is a game that has cards titled “triangular trade” and “slavery”.
The game never pretends that you are good, but isn’t in your face about you being bad either which I think upset everyone. For your typical euro boardgamer coming from Catan, etc. I think the shock of seeing actual colonialism was too much. However, I always thought that the treatment the game gave to your actions was much more mature than the pure engine builders people were playing. Your literally encouraged to sell everything in the game (including turn order) which causes all the players to commodities everything. The net result always reminded me of something a professor of Latin American philosophy would say “colonialism changes the colonizers just as much as it changes the colonized.” When I started seeing the other players in the same tool light just as much as the natives on the island, I knew this game had some mature things to say.
I wonder if anyone ever tries to play as an abolitionist.
No abolitionist in the game. There is a hidden traitor mechanic that seeks revolution, but their tools are generally oppressive too and viewed as negative. Players can really get into the mindset of pacifism good (which reflects on the civilization narrative westerners told themselves; education is a card showing natives being taught by white people which pacifies and generally seen as a good).
For full disclosure, I’m not sure whether the designer intended to say these things. However, the inclusion of actual colonial themes allows those things to come through (even if unintentionally) which isn’t possible with the sanitized Catan or ac valhalla
I remember one strategy computer game that generated slaves as a resource in mostly some African provinces. One player got angry on a forum and said he didn’t want to have to trade slaves. A dev mildly commented that nothing forced him to trade slaves. The player then replied that it was so *profitable*, and the dev basically went “I’m not sorry for causing you a moral dilemma, then”.
The Puerto Rico board-game famously has brown “settler” cubes arriving on ships to work your plantations.
There were many free settlers in Puerto Rico at the time the game is set. They offered land to encourage settlers. Sure, slavery did exist in that time period, but the majority of settlers in PR were free.
The same settler token are also used in buildings such as office, university, guild hall, fortress, city hall and residence.
For a “clean” settler experience, Polynesia should be perfect, though.
What do you mean by “clean settler experience?” Polynesia and the Pacific Islands were largely colonized by Europe in the 1800s-1900s as well, and Native Hawaiians are the most famous group demanding to regain control of their islands from the mainland USA. Unless you’re going REALLY far back in time, with the “Austronesian migration” that’s said to have happened around 40,000 BC?
Polynesia is west of Austronesia, with much more recent settlement. For example, Hawaii, around 1000 AD.
Yeah, I think he’s talking about the settlement of islands by the original Polynesians.
To me, it’s simple: anti-Christian bashing is allowed, and has actually been the default in the West for some time, especially if it’s against Catholic Christianity. The “diverse development team” is supposed to check the boxes of the few diversity issues that elite Westerners consider important in this decade (non-whites good, non-Christians good, women good – and that’s all).
I don’t think it’s that simple at all, actually. For one thing, if you want to bring up anti-Catholicism as a sectarian prejudice in the US, historically speaking its most militant proponents haven’t been left-wing atheists or secularists, but right-wing Protestants whose anti-Catholicism has often been framed in explicitly racist terms, whether against immigrant groups like the Irish and Italians in the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries, or against immigrant groups from Central and South America right up to the present day.
For another, as other folks including Bret himself have alluded to here, the depiction of Christianity in the game can be read as tapping into a longstanding vein of secularist far-right ideology in which the more “advanced,” “civilized” stature of the modern-day white West is embodied in its having achieved the ability to embrace secularism, contrasted against non-Western societies like the Arab/Muslim world whose (alleged) inferiority is evidenced by their (alleged) fanatical dedication to religious dogma over “logic and reason.” How and why that ideology is dumb and ahistorical is a whole other can of worms, but suffice it to say, a “New Atheist” inclined alt-right type could easily embrace the anti-Christian themes of this game without having to change much if anything about their white supremacist ideology.
It is highly unlikely that any member of the ‘diverse team’ that designed this game was alt-right. In fact Brett’s whole point seems to be how the most enlightened and inclusive ideology produced something uncannily similar to white supremacism presumably unintentionally.
I’m not sure how you’re reading that as “Bret’s whole point,” he says pretty clearly up front that part of his goal is to interrogate the game designers’ implicit claims about their own enlightenment and inclusivity, and he pretty clearly finds those claims to be lacking.
To be clear, I don’t think one necessarily has to be alt-right or fascist to defend colonialism, in fact large part of what we’d regard as centrist neoliberal/neoconservative ideology is more or less explicitly colonialist, carrying on the colonialist ideological tradition of old-school classical liberals like Locke, Tocqueville, and JS Mill. (For example, the Robert Kaplan text I mentioned in a different comment, which directly celebrates the similarities and continuities between present-day US global military interventionism and the Indian Wars of the 17th/18th/19th centuries.) So the problem as I see it (and if I’m reading Bret correctly, as he sees it too) is that the design team might think of themselves as enlightened and antiracist, but they’re not clued in to a deeper sense of anticolonialism that would alert them to the possibility of reproducing old-school colonial racist tropes with a superficial racial/religious facelift.
Just to add: that’s how I read Bret too.
Fair points, all, but presently it’s not rabid right-wing Protestants doing things like asking whether membership in the Knights of Columbus indicates that you might have attitudes that make you unfit to be a federal judge.
Yeah, it’s not like the Democrats just elected the US’s second Catholic president. Oh wait, we did.
Get back to me when the Democrats elect someone who doesn’t oppose his Church’s teachings on virtually every controversial moral issue.
Ahem. Let’s all calm down just a bit and perhaps back a bit off of the heated conversation.
It doesn’t matter who did it historically, which has no bearing on who is doing it now.
To me, it’s simple: anti-Christian bashing is allowed, and has actually been the default in the West for some time,
For one thing, if you want to bring up anti-Catholicism as a sectarian prejudice in the US,
The US =/= the West.
Yes, but when you switch over to look at Catholicism-bashing in, say, France (relevant since Ubisoft is a French company and is based out of Montreal), you end up having to dig into details.
The broad narrative of “oh, all these ‘enlightened’ ‘modern’ types are fine with bad things happening to Christianity and whites but will freak out if your fiction includes bad things happening to anyone else!” starts to break down pretty quickly when you dig into details.
France, Britain, and the US all have their own histories with Catholicism and with prejudices against same. The US has its own relationship with its own special kinds of Protestantism, including special extremist varieties found in few if any places outside the US itself. Latin America has an *incredibly* complex relationship with Christianity. Et cetera. Et cetera.
If I wanted to make sweeping claims about how ivory-tower elites are anti-white or anti-Christian, my effort to make them credible would be complicated by these details… unless, of course, my idea of what “ivory-tower elites” mean is kept intentionally limited to “my stereotypes about academia and media personalities in the English-speaking world, specifically.” But if I do *that,* then suddenly America starts making up a larger proportion of the relevant sample size, being by far the largest single producer and shaper of English-speaking media and academia.
The problem is that while “the US is not the West,” the concept of “the West” is so vaguely defined that if it *doesn’t* mean just a proxy for “America, and to a lesser extent Europe plus a few mostly-white European colonies,” it becomes very hard to make even the roughest generalizations about it at all.
The problem is that while “the US is not the West,” the concept of “the West” is so vaguely defined that if it *doesn’t* mean just a proxy for “America, and to a lesser extent Europe plus a few mostly-white European colonies,” it becomes very hard to make even the roughest generalizations about it at all.
Why “to a lesser extent” Europe? Since when has America been the benchmark for determining what does and doesn’t count as western?
“Yes, but when you switch over to look at Catholicism-bashing in, say, France (relevant since Ubisoft is a French company and is based out of Montreal), you end up having to dig into details.”
Then dig them, and tell me if things like Voltaire’s international fame and the whole French Revolution thing don’t support the broad point.
Look: when one wants to find complications, one always finds complications. Since the topic here is Christianity, what better example than the endless complexities around monophysistism/diaphysitism/miaphysitism? I’m sure there’s some Very Smart historian out there who wrote a book about how “actually, the French Revolution had a more nuanced relationship with Catholicism”, or “how French anti-Catholicism is Completely Different from England’s”, and so on; but in the end, the churches were looted, the old privileges revocated, and the haute societé française has been consistently more hostile to the Catholic Church than the masses. Same in Spain, same in Latin America (which I’m aware most in US and Europe don’t consider “Western”, but people in these countries do).
” “my stereotypes about academia and media personalities in the English-speaking world, specifically.” But if I do *that,* then suddenly America starts making up a larger proportion of the relevant sample size,”
OK, but the thing is: America will be *rightly* very represented, since it is the big Metropolis where all the lesser countries in the Western sphere go shopping for trendy ideas. If you are American, you may not realise it, but a lot of what’s discussed in the other countries is of way more of American than local provenance. Just witness all the Black Lives Matter rallies / counter-rallies / support / derision that popped up in countries that definitely don’t have the same Black/White relationship history as the US. All the details and complexities of Belgium, Britain, France etc etc Black/White interactions didn’t matter; they copied the Metropolis. American race relations dominated the discussion. It’s even worse in Latin America, where nowadays basically every progressive take is a direct translation from English (and so are the majority of the answers to them).
“The US =/= the West.”
I know, and I stand by what I said.
” “New Atheist” inclined alt-right type could easily embrace the anti-Christian themes of this game without having to change much if anything about their white supremacist ideology.”
It wasn’t these guys who made the game, though, and neither are these guys who run the big cultural projects in the US / Europe (if not for anything else, because I dare say they number about 12 people).
The project was made by a (theoretically) “diverse, inclusive, empathetic” team for a big brand with a big budget. They’re not peripherical people; but employees of very, very central guys who profess the same creed as 90% of the American intelligentsia, and they act accordingly.
All true, unfortunately.
What’s going on is clearly that Ancient cultures don’t get judged in the same way modern ones do, and that vikings are considered cool: the game is developed accordingly. You are reading nonsense into stuff that is not there.
As for modern day attitudes towards Christians: Religious fundamentalists in the U.S. today are a toxic presence causing all sorts of problems, so very much deserve criticism.
You are guilty of painting with a broad brush a wide range of people, only some of which are extremists.
Hmm. Eight out of ten evangelical Christians who voted did so for Trump. They constitute around 40 per cent of his support (but much less of the US population). I think that counts as broad support in this group for ‘extremism’, given Trump’s known positions.
Most Christians worldwide do not live in the US, and are not evangelicals. In what way do the attitudes of evangelicals in the US, even if toxic or extreme, mean that it’s acceptable for Ubisoft to portray Viking era English Catholicism as almost completely negative and pointless?
Ubisoft also did this to Renaissance era Catholicism in AC 2 and Brotherhood, as well as protraying the Greek Christian Byzantines as evil in Revelations while the Ottomans were shown as diverse and tolereant (as in Valhalla, no sign of slavery at all in Ottoman Istanbul!). I think we’ve got evidence to say Ubisoft has a pretty strong anti-Christian (especially anti-Catholic) bias here.
Now there’s an extremist position.
Not all Christians in the US are religious fundamentalists and not all Christians live in the US. And I don’t think the evangelical Christians have much to do with the Saxons Catholics of IXth century England. Ubisoft had a game to talk about American evangelical Christians (Far Cry 5), but it seems that they flubbed it.
Fair point. Even us non-Usians tend to be more US-centric than is warranted.
Then ask yourself why the ancient culture of the Christian Anglo-Saxons is never depicted as cool or superior to that of the heathens, even when the heathens themselves came to think highly of Christianity.
If you think American fundamentalists deserve criticism, then criticise them, not their distant ancestors. How did this even enter the discussion, by the way?
“Put another way: You should be suspicious of any book that claims its author is right, and everybody else who has studied the subject is wrong. You are a lot more likely to have discovered a crank than the next Albert Einstein.”
I note that as I recall, Pinker’s _Better Angels_ and _Enlightenment Now_ were not “I am so smart” but “I am acting as a journalist and reporting statistics you may not realize”. Hans Rosling’s _Factfulness_ is similar… though also gave evidence that on questions of global progress, populations, even or especially elite ones, have converged on beliefs that are more wrong than random guessing.
OTOH over in economics we have multiple convergence points. I believe that the Keynesian ‘saltwater’ point is the one most informed by and responsive to evidence… helps that one of the other points seems to openly reject empirical evidence as a criterion.
Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature” might be the single most flagrant example in recent memory of the problem I’m talking about: a credentialed academic with the chops to know what he’s talking about within his own field (which in Pinker’s case is experimental cognitive psychology, i.e. stuff like hooking a first-year psych undergrad up to an eye-tracker machine in a soundproof room and measuring how long it takes them to look at a red dot flashing on their right) wanders into a field far removed from his area of scholarly training, assembles a messy pile of other researchers’ data that he has no idea how to properly analyze or interpret, then uses cheap grade-school-level sleight of hand to make it seem as if this data points to a conclusion that fits his ideological priors.
In the spirit of “snarky ranting blogs by righteously-pissed pedantic academics,” my favorite dissection of that book was a two-part blog post (part 1, part 2) by an archaeologist who looked at the achaeological data Pinker used to support his “prehistoric violence” thesis and came away flabbergasted. (“Life is too short for bad beer and this book is Coors Light, and at 835 pages, a 55-gallon drum of Coors Light.”)
Be advised on that topic that there is considerable (and very heated) debate on the levels of non-state/pre-state violence among archaeologists and anthropologists, so a different archaeologist might have given a different response.
Gat and Keeley – on which Pinker relies – are much more valuable than Pinker, in this respect. There is still real uncertainty on this question, but I think by and large the ‘violent past’ has the better of the evidence overall.
But if it weren’t for Pinker, I wouldn’t have heard of them, or of the debate. 🙂
Which I suppose might be the problem. Far more people will hear about and read Steven Pinker’s books than will hear of or read any of the counterpoints – meaning that his ideas will end up entering the mainstream and becoming seen as common knowledge. Even if academics who’ve studied the same areas disagree with him, most people will never hear about it.
I must say, that reviewer seemed surprisingly certain that Pinker was wrong, for a man who could provide no evidence to that effect, only excuses for the evidence supporting Pinker.
Commenting on the Pinker/”outside your academic field” stuff:
Any subject that deals with people (Economic, Psychology, history, and anything related) seems to have a particular type of pop culture/actual practice split. The pattern is something like:
1. The Pop culture one tends towards counterintuitive, simple stories that “go against conventional wisdom” in some supposedly politically incorrect way. “Men hunt, women gather” (actually, go with all sorts of gender stereotypes), “economics proves markets always work” are the main ones I’ve noticed, history has a range of revisions, counter revisions, etc. that go against each other and leak out over time.
a. In actual practice, the Economics that I’ve seen and do is more complicated, and matches more closely with everyday experience/intuition, than this pop culture model suggests. (market vs. government isn’t really a big thing.) It seems that other subjects are similar. What these fields do instead is expose patterns that a random person might not see, provide tools for better accuracy, etc. (The pop culture and versions I see seem to exist in different universes sometimes)
2. All are prone to outsiders thinking they know more than they do. There seems a dunning Krueger (I think, I am an outsider to psychology. 🙂 ) style problem here: The people outside the field most confident are often not the ones with the diligent, open to multiple points of view mindset that you really need to make accurate observations.
Where am I going with this comment? Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure, just throwing an observation out there.
Data and hard evidence means whatever the person analysing it wants it to mean. Natural science, on the other hand, doesn’t care whether the opinion of the target of a cushion thrown across the room at a high velocity for a human propelled object of that size and dimensions is that the cushion cannot possibly hit them or sting when it impacts.
It was Robert A. Heinlein who wrote that ‘experts’ are prone to believe expertise in one field carries over to others. And the narrower their area of expertise the more likely they are to think it.
That’s an observation as old as Plato’s Apology of Socrates.
Is it? Come to think of it that is exactly what Socrates says about the so called wise men he talked to! I didn’t think of that.
> It’s been a few years, but that’s not how I remember GG&S. I don’t remember much discussion of mineral resources at all.
I have read GG&S and I endorse Bullseye’s post, that’s exactly how I remember it. The book basically boils down to “this is why Eurasia was probably going to take over”, with like half a page of speculation about why the European end ended up beating the Chinese end. I think even just going by the book itself (though I may be influenced by Mann’s 1491) the title could properly be “guns GERMS and steel”. Population size and trade -> innovations, size and animals -> diseases.
I remember him being attached to Clovis First, but I’m not sure being wrong about that damages his argument, other than indicating humans could exist in the Americas without immediately eating the megafauna to extinction. And if they were coastal fishing humans that’s not that surprising.
For the GERMS bit, Plagues and Peoples is so so so much better.
Better at what? Describing the impacts of plagues, or describing why Eurasia had most of the plagues? Because the latter is what Diamond tackles. Then Mann’s 1491 looks at the impact of plagues on the Americas.
Man I knew this was going to be trouble the second I saw the adverts for it, but I hadn’t quite grasped the implications re: colonialism and supporting the ideals of white supremacy.
I could tell it was going to be a ‘Vikings good and manly, Saxons weak and bad’ narrative right from the start, but hoped that there might be a little more nuance in there somewhere…
I don’t know if there is any anti-capitalist regime incompatible with colonialism, but I know that China is de facto FAR from being anti-capitalist.
That being said, the article is very interesting, although i did not finish it yet as i wanted to react to this ^^
–> going back to it.
(going off your description here, i haven’t played it myself) it would seem that for the christians, the game goes against your longstanding idea of people in the past believed their religion.
I was quite positive about Crusader Kings III. It’s not flawless, but I think it makes an excellent effort and largely succeeds at what it aims to do.
I loved to read this one. Little predictable but creepy.
“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.”
The boat-cat is a she. 😛
I asked a game dev about the mail/scale thing. He says it’s just easier to recognize scale mail as armor (and not cloth) “when viewed from a reasonable distance”.
” 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)”
Umm… boss, if it is an ABSOLTE defense, then by definition it does not allow exceptions.
Maybe, you would rather say, “I would contend that historical accuracy is an pretty good defense “
Umm, boss, the first part of that sentence is a specifying clause. That might go to explain why the defense, while absolute in this set of cases, might not be absolute in other sets of cases.
This is a great read! I read it once when it came out, and came back now after having finished the game a few months ago. Now, I disagree with you on a few points, but it would be weirder if I agreed with everything. The only major thing I feel I need to point out though is this:
“I am not giving credit for things most players will not see…”
That’s a really unfair way to judge anything, since you are missing the broader context. It’s like claiming a movie is misogynistic for having a rape scene without watching the rest of the movie to see how the fallout is handled. I apologize for the crass equivalency, but I don’t have time to come up with something better. Throughout the game, and by the end of it mainly, the whole Anglo-Saxons being weaker than Norse people is pretty clearly not the game’s opinion but the Norse people’s opinion. It’s a fantasy they created for themselves to justify their wanton pillaging and murdering. I mean, the game itself mechanically proves that incorrect with many strong Saxon enemies. So the whole “this is subtle nazi propaganda” is just a really weird conclusion. This is a game that fetishizes the past in the same wrongful way many other historical works of fiction have done about Rome, medieval kingdoms and whatever else. Nothing more, and, I’d argue, hardly as problematic as some people claim.
The end of a movie recontextualizing an earlier scene is not really the same thing. Presumably anyone who sits down to watch a film will watch the entire thing. How many people get all the way to the end of a 40 or 60+ hour video game like AC: Valhalla? Moreover a film is a static experience; while there may be Easter eggs or references in the background, everyone is seeing the same scenes from the same angles and hearing the same lines from the same performers. Open world games like Assassin’s Creed ones have a lot of skippable content, however. I don’t think it’s unfair to hold the opinion that the parts of the game that are in the beginning and are part of the main story are the ones that most people will remember.
I just saw this BBC article about a version of AC:V being used in the classroom to teach the history of the era:
Yeah, all the more recent AC games have a “history mode” that basically removes the entire narrative and allows you to explore the world from a “historical” context with little animations or write-ups describing daily life or major historical events. I haven’t used this feature in AC: V, but previous iterations have been pretty decent.
Very interesting read, thank you! I would add that one of the ideas you include under the ‘Fremen Mirage’ – that harsh environments produce tough, manly men who are justified in subjugating the weak, effeminate natives was a pretty constant theme, in different forms, in colonialism from 17th-Century America, through 19th-Century India and Africa and the 20th-Century Philippines (I have no expertise in antiquity but I understand it was also a favourite of several ancient Greek thinkers – I think it features in Herodotus?). I’m sure you’re aware of this, but I thought it could have been a little more explicit in the text. I will now go and read what you actually say about the Fremen Mirage!
When talking about looting churches and wealth in chests… that’s not even actual wealth. Those huge gilded chests are chock full of building materials and tools, not anything particularly valuable like gold.
These Vikings are, in effect, raiding garden sheds for tools.
Gold is useless. You can only buy things with it. Like building materials.
England having garden sheds as temples is on brand at least.
It feels petty of me to bring this up, but this is exactly the kind of dedication to historical accuracy I’ve come to expect from a series which has had…
-An American Revolution that never mentioned the Royalists (Assassin’s Creed 3)
-The freedom-fighting Assassins siding with an empire that culled its elite warriors from enslaved children taken from the states they conquered (Assassin’s Creed 2: Revelations)
-A puzzle game sequences that reveals that the Holocaust was caused by alien artifacts (Assassin’s Creed 2)
I know this is two years late, but I just got here. Via your Rings of power article. In addition, I have to say, in all the things you rattled off, the biggest problem I had and one that made sure I would never respect Valhalla was that it breaks with the established rules of earlier Assassin’s Creed games.
I never liked anything after AC 3 anyway, but this is so astounding it breaks my silence.
The early games were upfront; three individuals who directly inspired three Greco-roman gods existed in the world, or had existed. One had left behind a few detailed recordings, and a second had effectively uploaded her consciousness into a computer.
There was no magic, only- sigh- Clarke’s third law about advanced technology. I am very tired of the law, but it was quite consistent. The precursor race, Isu, had been the first rulers of earth, with humans as their slaves. The Isu population dwindled, and eventually the slaves broke free, taking with them the golden spherical databases that over time came to be called “Apples of Eden.” This uprising was led by Adam and Eve, who had infiltrated the capital; “Eden,” to steal the apples, which in Isu hands activated the obedience protocols written into humanity. They could not escape while the Isu had these and so the uprising stole or destroyed as many pieces of Eden as they could on the way out.
It’s been awhile, and I’m shaky on the timeframe, but more or less in parallel, I think, the sun went through a cycle of extreme turbulence that fried most of the Siu’s equipment, and killed about half their population- presumably the ones who were on the side closer to the sun. Therefore, humans, and the human-Isu hybrids born into slavery gained their freedom, and the Isu were left with low enough numbers that their race vanished form the earth. Mostly.
See the one who uploaded herself into a computer. She’s still around, and still has long-distance access to the Pieces of Eden that mankind walked off with, and wants to enslave humanity once more, as is her right, etc… However, she cannot get out of the server she is locked into. Meanwhile, that databank was part of a much larger apparatus that had been designed to shield earth from that solar flare but, I think- it was damaged during the human uprising. In the millennia since, it has repaired itself, but there is not’ anyone not eh planet who could turn it on when they need it.
In addition, since the sun goes through cycles of this, they’ll need it.
Throughout the millennia, the pieces of Eden scatter across the globe, and their functions are forgotten, but human-Isu throwbacks are still born now and then, with a shadow of Isu capabilities, a form of second sight and other goodies; and they can use these pieces when they find them; with a much lower chance of Juno getting into their heads. It helps to be closer to eh same species that she was.
Our present day hero is a throwback, from a very long line of those descendants gravitating together. He’s as close to pure Isu as you can get. And he doesn’t know any of this. The early stories were about finding all that out, and dealing with it, and getting the batteries to turn the shield on.
No magic. No Norse gods. In fact both, eh romans and the catholic/Christian/I don’t know the denominations had had some of the story right, albeit in a very garbled form. Magic, Odin, etc… They were right out. From what I hear, this Odin is supposed to be an actual power, not a holographic remnant of an earlier civilization.
That is not the rules of assassin’s creed, back when I still payed attention. And it sounds like Valhalla broke every single one.