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- Assassin's Creed Valhalla
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla puts players in the shoes of a Viking in the mid-late 800s AD. We don’t know a lot about how the tone of the game will be, but placing Vikings as the protagonists of the game already raises some concerns. I had hoped last week’s “first look gameplay trailer” would clarify what we could expect from the plot, but as it didn’t give us much in the way of deals, all we have to go on for now regarding the story is the reveal trailer.
Vikings weren’t exactly the kindest folks of their time. The events shown in the reveal trailer are set during a bloody invasion of England by the Norse. So far, it looks like Ubisoft is content to whitewash history and portray the Vikings as misunderstood settlers who play with their kids and spare women and children. However, the truth as we know it paints a very different picture.
Will Ubisoft Give a Realistic Portrayal of Vikings in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla?
Vikings sell, but Ubisoft may be doing history a disservice by choosing to tell the story from their perspective. Portraying the Vikings as “not just invaders but settlers” and minimizing their intent to conquer by having them let women and children run away in the trailer is ridiculous. Considering that a significant influence that caused the Vikings to raid is theorized to be the combination of rampant female infanticide and use of women as a status symbol, actual Vikings probably wouldn’t have reacted as they did in the trailer.
It also looks like Ubisoft wants to lean into the “noble savage” trope by emphasizing aspects of Norse Mythology. I will be shocked if these poor “settlers” aren’t portrayed as misunderstood spiritualists who are only looking for a piece of land to call their own. That’d work, except you can’t settle an area that’s already settled. We tried that in the US, and it led to about 300 years of tragedy.
The fact is that Norsemen weren’t humble warriors fleeing from some sort of catastrophe. They were technologically advanced and traded throughout the known world. Most raids were likely led by tribal chieftains who didn’t want to submit to growing kingdoms in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. These chiefs were theorized to target England because infighting between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms made them look like a ripe target. The Norsemen were would-be conquerors that failed to invade England outright during the time portrayed in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
Why does it matter if Alfred the Great is portrayed as a villain?
History is a nuanced thing, but the Viking invasions of England are close to the clearest cut “good” vs. “bad” conflicts in history. Opposing the player, seen in the trailer, is King Alfred the Great of Wessex, who, by most accounts, was a learned and merciful leader that encouraged education and improved the general quality of life in his kingdom.
In contrast, the Viking hoards, who had turned their sights from raids to full-on invasion in 865, were slavers and oathbreakers. After several attempts to make peace with the Vikings, making pacts with them which they broke, even after swearing on their gods, Alfred fought to preserve his kingdom.
It’s evident from the trailer that the English, who are not really the “English” yet, but Wessexian, are aligned with the Templar. That’s why Alfred the Great, the King of Wessex who repelled the Viking hoards, is portrayed like he’s Lord Farquaad. It’s obvious you’re supposed to be cheering for the Vikings in the battle in the latter half of the trailer. However, Alfred is just defending his kingdom, and the Vikings are slaughtering soldiers who are trying to prevent their loved ones from becoming thralls for the hoards.
By 878, Wessex was the only kingdom that hadn’t fallen to the Vikings, but despite the odds, Alfred’s forces defeated their foes in the decisive Battle of Edington. Alfred pursued the Vikings and sieged their army at Chippenham. After being starved into submission, the Vikings surrendered, and Alfred negotiated a lasting peace with their leader Guthrum. Guthrum converted to Christianity as part of the treaty and by all accounts chilled out on the conquering thing. Other tribes of Vikings would continue to raid England during Alfred’s reign, with one more major invasion in the 890s. However, no one came as close as Guthrum did to conquering Wessex until after Alfred’s death.
Alfred went on to reoccupy the Roman settlement of Londinium (London) in 886, and the city has been inhabited since then. He also codified Saxon laws into the Doom Book, forming the basis for common law, the root of the legal systems of 1/3 of the world’s legal systems today. Around this time, the Saxon peoples of England submitted to Alfred, and he became the King of the Anglo-Saxons and first in the line of the House of Wessex. Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, would be the first to unite the whole of England and was the first to be described as the King of England (though he didn’t style himself by that title).
Why don’t we play as the English in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla?
Wouldn’t it be more interesting to play as the underdog? That’s usually the position Ubisoft places players in when picking a setting for Assassin’s Creed games. The truth behind this is that hardly anyone has heard of the Kingdom of Wessex. Assassin’s Creed: Wessex doesn’t sell nearly as well as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Ubisoft’s primary goal is to make money.
Assassin’s Creed has always been at its best plotwise when the two opposing sides were flecked with gray instead of strict good and evil. Almost every entry in the series has featured a conflict with a historical basis in which both parties are morally ambiguous in many of their objectives. Obviously, the history is abridged and subverted to insert the Templar versus Assassin elements, but characters and events tend to hold to their roots.
With Valhalla, Ubisoft is either going to have to pull a 180 at some point during the game, which would be an exciting tact, or cast the Vikings in a much better light than they deserve. Otherwise, the game will either glorify or minimize the fact that the Norse were doing their damnedest to colonize England and displace the people who already lived there.
Why does it matter?
Historical fiction is entertaining. The genre has seen a revitalization over the last decade through popular TV shows like The Borgias, Vikings, and The Last Kingdom. However, it can also be dangerous when the need for an exciting plot outweighs the need to present factual information.
I personally didn’t learn about the Viking invasions of English in detail until I took History of British People in college. With the current emphasis on STEM education, a lot of people’s historical knowledge concerning England in the late 800s is going to come from Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
So, if Ubisoft chooses to whitewash the Vikings, they minimize the accomplishments of the Wessexians and choose to resign their story to obscurity in favor of glorifying their would-be conquerors. Alfred is a real hero, and his life shouldn’t be cast aside because a fictional assassin Viking is “cooler.”
All too often in these historically-based games, studios twist or invent aspects when what actually happened is more inspiring. I’m hoping that’s not the case in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, but the trend of only being historically accurate when it’s convenient is one that runs rampant in gaming.