Hello. Todaybor day is Labor Day, and I’m talking about Assassin’s Creed in an essay I’ve been thinking of for a while. Hopefully next weekend I’ll get started and write a good chunk of the next sporking chapter.

Anyway.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla has a massive problem with its story, and what’s worse it kind of refuses to address it. I really like the mythology parts of the story, and the additions to the ongoing lore of the history of Assassins and Templars. But the historical story that makes up the main part of the game’s narrative is… I mean it’s about colonialism. And it doesn’t seem to know it?

Alright full disclosure talking about this game and its take on colonialism is a large part of Brett Deveraux’s blog post on the game so you should probably check that out first. It’s honestly better than anything I could put together. But I wouldn’t call my article a copy of his; Deveraux’s point is more that the game whitewashes the Viking invasion of England by removing the more unsavory aspects of their culture (slavery, killing innocents, and human sacrifice) and glorifying the concept of colonialism, whereas my point is more that the game, even in its attempts to whitewash pre-Christian Norse culture, still comes off pretty bad, and the game is pretty bad at acknowledging the colonialist overtones of the situation. In that it doesn’t. You’re playing as a straight-up villain and the game doesn’t do anything to confront that.

The story (at least the bits relevant to our discussion) goes like this: Eivor Wolfsmal is a Viking warrior whose parents were killed by a rival clan, and so he/she1 was adopted into the household of Styrbjorn, the jarl of the Raven Clan that they were loyal to, and Eivor is raised as the brother/sister of the actual heir to the throne, Sigurd. When Harald Fairhair unites Norway into one nation, Jarl Styrbjorn pledges his allegiance, and Sigurd gets upset that the little kingdom that he would have inherited was signed off by his dad without consulting him. So Sigurd decides to take his adopted sibling, Eivor, and the rest of the Raven Clan to England to carve out a new kingdom for themselves where they don’t have to answer to Harald Fairhair or anyone else. When they get there one of the first things they do is become allies with the Ragnarsons, the leaders of the Great Heathen Army, and help them install a puppet king onto the throne of Mercia, one of the four kingdoms of England.

When the game was being promoted, the developers made a point to say that they wanted to portray a different side of Viking culture. People stereotyped the Norse as warriors and brutes, but they were also settlers and explorers. Most of the sources we have about them were written by their enemies, so telling the story from their point of view allowed them to be more sympathetic, they claimed. And I see this defense brought up against this criticism by the fandom a lot, “Well this is from their point of view, so of course their way of life is depicted in a much more positive manner!”

Except it isn’t. Because you’re still going around destroying lives, stealing people’s stuff, and desecrating their holy sites. And at no point does anyone, Nordic or Saxon, really question this.

Now to be clear, the purpose of our protagonist and his/her friends in settling in England is explicitly conquest. They want to carve out a kingdom for themselves. They don’t seem to have anything explicitly against the Saxons, or Christians, but they are there to take the land for themselves. And in fact, upon finding an abandoned settlement that they decide to make into their new home, and realizing that they need supplies, the first thing that is suggested is raiding a nearby monastery. In fact, aside from building some of the alliances, the only way to gain the supplies you need to build up your village is by raiding monasteries. The game will not let you harm civilians like monks or pilgrims without penalizing you (although there is no story reason for this, and there’s no reason given Eivor would have trouble killing civilians being a Viking and all), and instead puts a bunch of soldiers in monasteries for you to fight instead. But you’re still robbing from monasteries.

The game desperately acts like we’re meant to treat the Raven Clan as immigrants; the word ‘immigrant’ is never used, but much of the conversations around the presence of Norsemen and Danes in England is written with the rhetoric surrounding immigration. The Saxons tend to assume all Scandinavians are Danes, when Eivor and his/her clan are Norse. This is a thing immigrants face in the Western world sometimes—like I’m Puerto Rican, but a lot of people who aren’t Hispanic tend to assume that my family’s Mexican because that’s the Hispanic nationality most Americans are familiar with.

[One time in middle school, bafflingly, there was a kid who asked if my brother and I were Indian. Like, India Indian, not Native American.]

The sympathetic Saxons often say things like, “Don’t worry, I think Danes are fine enough folk, unlike some Saxons.” That you’re systematically going around burning houses and churches is never brought up by these folk. If you look into the stable house in your character’s main settlement, there’s a note in which the Saxon horse master says “I didn’t know about Danes, but these guys give me a good feeling and I think I can trust them.” The stables and his house are, by the way, built out of materials looted from monasteries.

“Well the Saxons also conquered and colonized the land from the Britons!”

Alright, but that’s a couple hundred years in the past at the point. Well, sort of—there are still wars with the Welsh going on I suppose. But in any case, that doesn’t make the Vikings any better, because it’s not like they’re conquering to give the land back to the Britons. In fact you fight the Welsh too, and they’re presented as just another faction to fight and kill.

“But Juracan, how can you complain about the morality of showing bad people as good guys? This is Assassin’s Creed! All the heroes are assassins! None of them are good people!”

Well… okay, but throughout the stories we see protagonists get very uncomfortable with the idea of murdering people as a job, you know? Altair has more than one conversation in which he expresses discomfort with killing Templars, especially since despite their axe-crazy attempts to take over the world, they are trying to fix society, and he’s told that it’s okay, and that being someone who wants to go around stabbing people for funzies would be a bad thing. There’s a conversation in Assassin’s Creed II where Ezio’s uncle specifically tells him not to be bloodthirsty, and another in the modern day segment in which Shaun points out that labelling themselves as “the Good Guys” is silly because, well, they stab people, and even if it’s justified in-story that’s still not a good thing. In Assassin’s Creed III Connor deliberately tries to avoid killing several of his major targets, starting instead with attempting to remove the resources and make them harmless or put them in jail—he only insists on killing them when those methods fail. Arno in Assassin’s Creed: Unity is explicitly on a revenge quest and even then most of his killing doesn’t stop the villains, which he’s called out on quite a lot. And in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate Jacob killing Templars left and right actually breaks London society.

In short, yeah, gameplay-wise it’s pretty straightforwardly a series about having fun while stabbing people left and right. But story-wise, while sometimes it’s very clumsily done, we have a number of examples of being told that indiscriminately killing people, or murdering for your own self-interest, is a Bad Thing. And I understand that the message is undercut by how fun it is to go around stabbing people, that’s not the direction the story takes, unlike this one in which pillaging is something everyone’s just fine with.

“In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag you play as a pirate! How is that okay and this isn’t?”

Alright fair point, but you do realize that despite it being fun as all getout, the actual story of Black Flag makes it obvious that being a pirate is, again, not a good thing? The protagonist’s friends and acquaintances all repeatedly tell him how much of a douchebag he is for looking after himself and chasing treasure above all else. The “pirate republic” in Nassau is plainly shown to be unsustainable because the infrastructure of a colony of people whose entire schtick is stealing from massive empires that could absolutely crush them once they get their stuff together was never going to be anything more than a pipe dream. Yes, pirates individually are portrayed sympathetically, as navy veterans abandoned by their government on the other side of the world making ends meet the only way they know how, by force; but the act of piracy itself and the attempts to make it into a way of life are depicted as, at best, futile and naive and at worst a system that enables violent sociopaths to do what they want.

Again, undercut by the gameplay and how much fun it is to get into naval battles and sword fights, but the story does make the point that you shouldn’t be a pirate.

And to be fair, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla does sometimes point out that the Nordic obsession with glory and dying a violent death is going to lead to problems for individuals in the long run. But it doesn’t seem to question that idea much more. If anything, it calls out the selfishness that happens in pursuit personal glory, but that’s basically where any criticism stops. Most of the Vikings are depicted as noble people, not just to their own but to the sympathetic characters outside of their culture as well. No one calls out our heroes for raiding, really; not even the villains. The Saxon villains are framed as hating Norse and Danes because they hate foreigners and pagans rather than a perfectly reasonable rage at seeing their people killed and their holy sites defiled. The heroes never stop and say, “Wait a minute, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this to people who haven’t done anything wrong to us personally.” At one point you’re required to go through a village burning the houses to punish the people there for sheltering your enemy; this is never framed as wrong. Eivor is unambiguously meant to be a hero—the Saxons and other Christians who don’t like him/her are framed as unreasonable jerks. No one in the modern day segments feels any need to comment on Layla living through the memories of someone that gets his/her kicks off of pillaging.2

There are these very odd moments, a couple of times in the story, where Eivor says something like, “This Jesus chap seems alright, but most of these Christians are fairly rude.” Yes, this is a thing that happens: a Viking raider paraphrasing Gandi of all people, who famously said that he liked Christ but not Christians. Except the difference is that Gandhi was in a country colonized and exploited by a predominantly Christian empire (the British). Eivor, on the other hand, is part of a force brutally colonizing and exploiting a Christian country.

Just imagine, if you would, showing up somewhere with your people to conquer, killing a bunch of people, burning their houses and temples, and being like, “You know these people are jerks because they don’t like me, my soldiers, and their families which we’re putting on the land we forcibly displaced them. How hypocritical of them!” You don’t get to complain that a group doesn’t like you when you’re actively persecuting them!

I know I keep emphasizing this, but the game has no idea what it’s doing! There are times in which our Nordic heroes try to convince Saxons to help them by arguing that under their benevolent rule, there would finally be peace between Danes and Saxons, as if the reason this conflict started was because of prejudice and racism and not, you know, an invasion that they started. It’s only barely commented on that the Saxon rulers you help put on thrones are nothing more than puppet kings being controlled by the Ragnarsons, and even when it is brought up it’s presented as a good thing! Your character promises peace for the people of the English kingdoms, suggesting that it’s only by letting the Great Heathen Army have their run of the place will Saxons and Danes be able to live in peace.

This is a befuddling blunder of a Hot Take for the series to make at this point. The game set in the American Revolution is from the point of view of a Native American protagonist, lamenting how Europeans are driving his people out of their own lands for their settlements and wars. The game set in the Golden Age of Piracy displays the exploitation of slave labor and the elimination of indigenous peoples by European powers. It has an expansion about enslaved men and women becoming free and resisting the authorities in colonial Haiti. The game set in ancient Egypt (which HAD THE SAME CREATIVE DIRECTOR AS VALHALLA)3 is about an Egyptian man having to come to terms with his people never going to be able to relive their glory days as an independent empire after being conquered by the Greeks and then the Romans.

With the direction Valhalla takes, one would think that in the Egyptian game we’d be taking the side of the Romans.

The whole point of the Assassins, we’re told over and over again, is to stand up for the marginalized in society, to fight for the little guy to take down the ruthless and powerful. And yeah, there are some questions about how moral their methods are, but this one point remains. Except in this game, in which the Assassins (or the Hidden Ones, what they called themselves in this era) are perfectly happy to team up with and recruit from the Vikings as they conquer England because it gets them what they want.

And this would be a fascinating idea to play with, that the Assassins lose their ideals to reach their immediate goals and get one up on their enemies. Assassin’s Creed: Rogue does this exact same thing. It’s the entire point of that game, and it convinces the protagonist to leave the Assassins and join their enemies. Except Valhalla doesn’t do that at all, other than a brief conversation in which Eivor compares the Raven Clan’s goals to the Order of the Ancients’—to dominate and rule—only for Hytham, the Assassin/Hidden One in the Raven Clan’s village, to deny it’s anything similar and leave it at that without explaining at all.

The game desperately wants you to view the Norse and Danes, the ones conquering England, as some sort of oppressed minority immigrant or refugee community. And that’s not what’s happening! You’re invading! Violently! I know that there are a lot of reactionary douchebags out there who accuse immigrants of doing the same thing, wringing their hands about how “Our country’s being overrun by those people!” because people from a different culture are showing up. And that’s dumb. But that’s not what’s happening here! Eivor and the Vikings aren’t refugees. They’re not immigrants. They’re colonizers.

And I wouldn’t be fine, exactly, if the game owned up to it, but I’d be closer to okay with it. Villain protagonists are a thing, and it’s entirely possible to tell an intriguing video game story in which you’re playing as a villain and the writing acknowledges it. That’s all I’m asking for here: that the game admits what it’s doing and that you’re playing as a bad person. Imagine, if you would, a story set in Irish history from the point of view of one of Cromwell’s officers, and he’s portrayed as a straightforward hero, and I suspect you have an idea of how messed up this situation is. If you’re writing a villain protagonist, own up to it, especially when it’s set in a historical context like this.

1 Whether Eivor is male or female is decided by the player, and the story’s the same either way.

2 Another reason this comes across as especially bizarre is that in the modern day segment of 2014’s Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, one of the villains (of the Noble Demon variety) talks about living through the memories of his Viking ancestor during the raid at Lindisfarne, and being horrified at what a monster his ancestor was. Whoever wrote that bit of dialogue is probably confused as to the direction the story’s taken.

3 Well, kind of. Ashraf Ismail was creative director for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla for most of its development, but months before release it came out that, along with a bunch of other douchebaggery at Ubisoft, Ismail was having extramarital affairs and acting inappropriately with other employees, and he resigned from the project. Ubisoft later fired him. But he was in charge during most of the game’s development.

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  1. Faranae on 7 September 2021, 22:46 said:

    Imagine, if you would, a story set in Irish history from the point of view of one of Cromwell’s officers, and he’s portrayed as a straightforward hero, and I suspect you have an idea of how messed up this situation is.

    Oh no, don’t give them ideas!

  2. Juracan on 9 September 2021, 07:52 said:

    Oh no, don’t give them ideas!

    To be fair, I don’t think they’d go that far because Cromwell is a controversial enough and well-known figure that it’d be hard to get away with. I think. Then again the main antagonist in the historical storyline is Alfred the Great, who the heroes try to paint as a fanatical tyrant. Though the game’s ending paints him more sympathetically, the lead up to it is very bizarre, because the Vikings are acting like Alfred the Great is planning on forcefully conquering all of England to convert everyone to Christianity, instead of like themselves who are forcefully conquering England to make themselves rich and powerful.

    Also, I haven’t gotten to the “Wrath of the Druids” DLC yet, but from what I’ve seen it looks like their interpretation is “The Vikings and Irish totally got along and assimilated just fine!”

    But I still doubt that Cromwell would even be an option. The reason they went the way they did with Vikings is because Ubisoft knows they’re a popular subject in media, as is Norse mythology, and they wanted to have a game where you live out a Viking fantasy of being a raider and pillaging and all of that, regardless of whether or not it fit in with the themes and ideas of the series so far.