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.