How 'Assassin's Creed Valhalla' makes sense of stories about Vikings, pirates and George Washington
By Gene Park
(EDITORS: Contains significant story spoilers for "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" and numerous other titles in the series.)
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The most amazing thing about "Assassin's Creed Valhalla," a game about Vikings, is how it somehow articulately ties together the stories of pirates, ancient Egyptian curses and George Washington.
It seems alien to describe an "Assassin's Creed" game as articulate. The series has stumbled clumsily through its own lore, struggling to explain its most fantastical elements while simultaneously tying down those elements to a version of our reality. (The game is so modern that coronavirus exists in its universe). But that's the quiet surprise of "Assassin's Creed Valhalla." While it has taken some criticism for being overly stuffed with content, "Valhalla" uses its time wisely throughout, slowly building its argument as it manages to right a narrative ship that's been adrift since "Assassin's Creed III."
Fans of the long-running series know that the initial appeal of visiting great milestones in human history carried an undercurrent of science fiction: a time-bending tale about an ancient race of beings known as the Isu, and how they failed to stop a major calamity that nearly ended the world millions of years ago, giving rise to the age of humans. That's been the overarching summary of the broader narrative established in the first game. However, several confusing and outlandish events have happened at and since the end of "Assassin's Creed III," the original intended end of the series:
In "III," protagonist Desmond Miles dies by sacrificing himself to delay the modern calamity, which led to the goddess of marriage and fertility escaping into our Internet, a pivotal figure who later dies off-screen in the comic books;
"Black Flag" introduced the concept of "sages," human reincarnations of the ancient god race that appears throughout history;
In "Origins" and "Odyssey," the historical heroes of those stories somehow fought and lived through many of the grand myths of their cultures, with Bayek crossing the River Styx into the afterlife, and the Greek Misthios visiting the fields of Elysium, the arid valley of Hades and finally the lost city of Atlantis.
All of these additions to the story felt like throwaway concepts and ideas; few were revisited beyond their introduction in their respective titles. These disparate arcs have frustrated "Creed" lore enthusiasts for years, mostly because the games just didn't seem to know what to do with them. "Valhalla" makes a Herculean-effort to tie all of the above (and more) as part of a cohesive, narrative science fiction saga. To my surprise, Ubisoft Montreal kind of made it work.
It might be safe to assume that this wasn't part of some grand plan since the beginning, especially since the American Revolution in the third game was meant to be its finale. Due to the popularity of the series, Ubisoft made a decision to release new open-world epics in the "Creed" series every year before scaling back in 2017 with the current trilogy saga that started with "Origins" in Egypt.
Some critics have accurately portrayed "Valhalla" as having little urgency in its plot, and it's an accurate observation. The hero, Eivor (who can be played either as a woman or a man), gets their revenge story arc completed extremely early in the story, and the rest of the game is about conquest and settling in England. The game then gives you free rein to tackle a number of objectives beyond getting to know the Anglo Saxons of England.
"Valhalla" avoids the trap that CD Projekt Red fell into with "The Witcher 3" and "Cyberpunk 2077": Open-world stories don't work when you put a strict time limit on the narrative. In "The Witcher 3," it was a scramble to find your surrogate daughter. "Cyberpunk 2077" is worse - the narrative gives its hero a time limit before they die. Of course, nothing bad ever happens if you spend 50 hours doing anything else in the game's world, which is what the developers also want.
There is no such dissonance present in "Valhalla," which gives the player time to discover how this game manages to make a virtuosic attempt to tie the entire series together. Maybe "virtuosic" is too generous. Here, lead writer Darby McDevitt and Ubisoft's team are more like a garage band making the best of the instruments they haphazardly constructed together. The result is an oddly calming game that isn't keen on distracting you too much, and comfortable in letting itself wash over you like so much white noise.
In "Valhalla," the story lines are compartmentalized, similar to what "Odyssey" did. And like its predecessors, Eivor takes a trip to the fantasy lands of Norse mythology, carousing with characters like Thor and Freyja. The series has been coy about whether these adventures fighting gods and monsters were "real" in this universe's logic. Did Bayek actually visit Hades? Does Eivor actually visit and experience Asgard?
The most compelling theme of "Valhalla" is its fascination with how humans have told and interpreted stories through the years, from the selfish Greek gods to the miracles of Jesus Christ. What the assassins witness is history viewed through a mythological veil, the ancient race of beings portrayed as the gods and creatures they've learned through stories and religion. For Eivor, of course the ancient gods were named Odin and such. For Bayek, his memories interpret certain animals or enemies as gods, and we as the player are fortunate enough to live these experiences through the stories they told themselves in their heads.
Perhaps the easiest, most relatable way I can explain this concept is through my cat, Jack. Jack is an orange domestic shorthair tabby cat from West Virginia. I consider him my son, and since I'm Korean, my brain interprets Jack as Korean as well. I speak to him in Korean, and I interpret his trills as Korean responses. It's a ridiculous notion, but one that brings some comfort and joy in my daily life. If the modern-day heroes of "Assassin's Creed" were to dig into my genetic memories of this cat, Jack would be speaking in all types of Korean mannerisms and slang. Eivor sees the ancient race as old Norse men and women speaking their language, so that's how we the players view them as well.
"Valhalla" recognizes the beauty and unique perspectives we each bring to the stories we've known and loved throughout history. By refusing to show us a "true" depiction of the Isu civilization, and viewing it only through the lens of cultures we know, we begin to have a deeper connection to the past, even as the truth remains forever obscured from us. Stories convey history, culture and most importantly, the values we inherit and pass on in traditions and teachings. There are stories being created every time we forge alliances, as well as during times of rebellion, disagreement and discord. Stories strengthen the bonds of community, or can widen the fissures between them.
There's a quiet moment in "Valhalla" that best encapsulates this. Eivor travels to a far-off land, a new map that I dare not spoil even in this spoiler-ridden piece, to encounter a community of people completely foreign to them. Yet Eivor and the player are invited around the campfire to hear and share stories.
Eivor is a foreigner to this land, and in these early years of human history the language barrier is impenetrable. Yet everyone in this encounter is captivated by each other's words and stories. Even if the ties that bind these two different sets of people are not clear, they are all moved to appreciate the sincerity and spirit of the storytelling. They gain insight into each other's worldviews by finding these roots within each other's lives.
"Assassin's Creed Valhalla" is the surprising big-budget video game that recognizes this power in storytelling, that gods and monsters are only as fearsome as we can make them, and that stories are often faint, residual echoes of voices so long ago, reaching through a cracked mirror to reflect who we might be today.
The Washington Post