How Ubisoft created the authentic Viking experience
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a vivid, massive, and imaginative game that allows players to go back in time to the year 873 and step into the shoes of a Viking. Players get to experience the Viking Invasion of Britain, and travel from Norway to attack and settle in other lands, including North America. There are snowy peaks, vast fields, rich grasslands and murky swamps to cross.
In the first week since its launch, Valhalla is already the biggest Assassin’s Creed game launch in history, according to Ubisoft’s official press release.
As players fire up Vahalla, which released globally on Nov. 10, they might not know that behind the coding and programming were three years of work by a team including a dedicated historical research unit at Ubisoft to create an authentic Viking experience.
Julien Laferrière, Ubisoft’s lead producer of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, has been working on the long-standing franchise since 2008, with Assassins Creed II and has continued to refine the game mechanics and level of detail in the series.
“There is something really magical about it, it’s my fifth Assassin’s Creed game and it’s always special,” said Laferrière, in a phone interview from his Montreal office a week after the game’s launch. “Making a video game is a human adventure and for us it involved working with amazing human beings including 550 in Montreal, and over 1,000 around the world.”
In the game, players become familiar with the important concept of a Viking “settlement” which acts as home base for the player, and is located at Ravensthorpe, a real location in England.
“Vikings were famous warriors, but they were also very effective settlers and that is one of the reasons the settlement in the game became such a pivotal piece to the experience,” Laferrière said. “It shows the human side of Vikings and gives you your reason and motivation for your quests so you can come back and provide more for your tribe.”
It is not simple for any form of media to capture the essence of being a Viking, especially since the time of the Dark Ages of England has little recorded, unbiased history. Reviewers believe Laferrière and his team were able to nail it because of the level of research they did and the experts they consulted.
Laferrière and his team at Ubisoft conducted various field inspiration trips including visiting Lofotr Viking Museum in Ostad, Norway in October 2018. At the museum, Viking re-enactors allow visitors to go back in time and visit a longhouse, have Viking feasts, and see authentic craftsmanship.
“We went to Norway, Denmark, and England to step into the footprints of Vikings…get their perspective with our five senses,” Laferrière said. “We tasted their food, meat, and we celebrated in long houses and so on. We wanted a very visceral understanding of them, and the trips gave our guts the know-how of what it means to be a Viking.”
When playing the game, an option is given to play as either the female or male version of protagonist Eivor Varinsdottir. This was an important and deliberate decision for the team at Ubisoft.
“Women of the Norse people were treated equally and fought alongside men. Choice of gender was an obvious one for us and as an RPG (role-playing game) we want to provide options,” Laferrière said.
If Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels authentic, Ubisoft can also thank the historians of Norse studies who were consulted. Darby McDevitt, the narrative director at Ubisoft Montreal, consulted with Dr. Jackson Crawford, an Old Norse scholar from the University of Colorado.
The storyline for the game is heavily influenced by ancient Nordic sagas that are designed “not based on a traditional hero’s journey but on the picaresque concept of a stick going down a river,” McDevitt told a history podcast hosted by YouTube channel Invicta in November.
The creators wrote Valhalla as a family-influenced drama structured in arcs, like a TV show. Each arc starts and ultimately brings the protagonist back to the main settlement in England.
Throughout the journey, the main character, Eivor Varinsdottir will recite Skaldic poetry, paying homage to the classic Egil Viking Saga. In addition, in the settlement, players can participate in “flyting”, an ancient form of rap battling where you exchange poetic insults and try to outwit your opponent.
When the hero and entourage travel by longboat in the game, players can also ask crew members on the ship to tell stories. Developers provided over 70 different stories for crew members to tell, and many will be about old Norse sagas.
Translation on runes in the game are authentic Nordic imagery, courtesy of Dr. Jackson Crawford. He was also the one who recommended the main character’s name, Eivor, since it meant “eternal defender”, which is representative of the purpose the character plays in the story.
Canada’s L’Anse aux Meadows featured
Some early reviewers have mentioned that the game scratches an itch for gamers, as it is grounded in historical reality but also is a good story-driven action game. To some it is almost like digital tourism by being able to experience and become immersed in classic time periods such as the Dark Ages of England.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla also has an extended map that includes a little taste of Canada in the game, when Vinland becomes a playable location players can travel to. Today, a part of Vinland can be found at the Nordic National Historic and UNESCO Site L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Players are given the opportunity to travel to there and meet First Nation tribes already settled there. Although the game takes place before the documented time when Vikings are thought to have actually arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador, later expansion packages may delve deeper into the North American angle.
When players saw gameplay footage online of Eivor traveling to Vinland, it struck a chord in the Atlantic province.
“As someone currently residing near the Vinland settlement In Newfoundland Canada this is awesome,” YouTube user Odins Raven wrote in late November.
Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism also weighed in.
“We were delighted to learn that this new game features some of L’Anse aux Meadows. We were not aware of the game until we received your email,” the head media relations, Erin Skinner writes.
“Unfortunately, having not been directly involved with the Project, Newfoundland & Labrador has no further comment at this time except to say we wish Ubisoft the best of luck with the success of the game,” Skinner wrote.
Reviews for the game have been positive, with a net 80 per cent approval rating on Metacritic. Long-standing gamer and critic from The Next Web Nino de Vries has poured over 50 hours into Valhalla.
“This game is right up there with Assassin’s Creed Black Flag,” de Vries said in a Zoom call from Amsterdam, comparing the game to the recent entries in the series, Origins and Odyssey.
He had a sense of wonderment landing on the shores of England and starting with a small tent and eventually building a large settlement for an entire tribe. De Vries liked the voice acting and representation of being able to play a strong female Viking character in the game. He also thought the game had a consistent feel of discovery throughout.
“There is a lot of meat in the story and I think Ubisoft has hit the right balance of being able to turn over massive open world games like Assassin’s Creed in a short time period without compensating for quality compared to other gaming studios,” de Vries said.
De Vries would like to see Ubisoft take Assassin’s Creed to Feudal Japan or dive into a period of 17th century Dutch history next.
“With Valhalla they have shown they can take a time period like the Dark Ages of England with little known information and deliver a compelling and authentic narrative.”