It's surprising that there aren't more Vikings in video games. They would seem a natural fit, what with their perceived penchant for bloodshed, manliness, adventures, and looting. Compared to, say, knights or ninjas (especially ninjas), Vikings in gaming haven't really had their due.
There are a few good examples scattered about. Blizzard's early platformer The Lost Vikings, originally released for the SNES in 1992, has become a cult classic, while the less famous Heimdall, first released in the same year across several formats by Tomb Raider developer Core Design, was an ambitious adventure title steeped in Norse lore.
Both these games succeeded in capturing a playful side to the traditional Viking image. The former, irreverent and silly, played up the comedic machismo of Viking culture, its burly, bearded trio of protagonists serving as progenitors for Blizzard's telltale brand of comedy dwarf seen in the Warcraft series, while the latter had a painterly Disney-like quality to its visuals that was in many ways ahead of its time.
More recently however, Viking culture, and more broadly, Norse mythology, seems to be undergoing something of a revival in video games, particularly in the indie sphere.
Examples include Jotun, an isometric action-adventure based around toppling giants through Viking purgatory; Eitr, a dark dungeon crawler featuring a Shield Maiden as its lead; The Banner Saga 2, the sequel to the beautifully animated Viking-themed strategy adventure from last year; Hellblade, DmC developer Ninja Theory's story of a Celt's struggle with mental illness in a dark Viking world; and Kyn, a recently released Diablo-like game with a colorful and cartoonish bent.
But why is there this recent attraction to Norse cultural themes among developers? For Jotun's creative director Will Dubé, the appeal of Norse myth is clear. "I've always loved centuries-old stories like Beowulf or the Divine Comedy, so when I stumbled upon Norse mythology, I was amazed by its depth and its craziness," he says. "You have Thor dressing up as a bridesmaid to smash a giant's skull in, a cow with poison rivers coming out of her udders, and many more stories. I was surprised that an authentic take on the mythology didn't exist in mainstream entertainment. At that point, we knew it would make a really interesting setting for a game and dove right in."
Jotun's beautiful art style certainly does justice to the massive scale of the Norse epics, its giant bosses dwarfing protagonist Thora completely. Will cites Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, and the first Legend of Zelda as the primary influences on the game, and this is evident in the gameplay.
Given that Jotun involves the story of a character called Thora, it is something of a coincidence that the game I am most reminded of when viewing it is a classic Mega Drive title from my childhood called The Story of Thor (Beyond Oasis in North America), to which it bears something of a visual similarity.
Dungeon-crawling RPG Eitr, the tale of a lone Shield Maiden battling through draugr armies, is a darker prospect than Jotun. An artfully dingy affair, it is a throwback to Diablo, albeit one served by the addition of gorgeously fluid pixel art. Tobi Harper, one half of the two-person design team responsible for the game, claims that he wanted to go beyond mere lip service to Norse myth when designing the game.
"We feel that Vikings and Norse mythology are often mistakenly believed to be the same thing—when we started researching Norse mythology it was a simple Google search of 'Vikings,'" he says. "But we quickly found that not all Norsemen were Vikings, and that to be a Viking meant to be a raider; that is where the word Viking actually comes from. So what became appealing to us was that there was this whole ancient culture that really we didn't know much about, and by simply researching it we fell in love with it."
Something both Jotun and Eitr share are visually-striking heroines. Jotun's Thora and Eitr's Shield Maiden, both henna-haired and armed to the hilt, are aesthetically opposed—the former built like a powerlifter, the latter lithe—but prove equally capable warriors.
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"Lagertha Lothbrok (or Lodbrok, a famous warrior woman of old Norway portrayed in the TV show Vikings) was a direct inspiration for our Shield Maiden," says Tobi. "We loved the idea of a female heroine, and it seemed too boring to go with the normal brute male. We wanted Eitr to stand out, and we feel that we simply don't have enough female protagonists in gaming."
Eitr should find itself in good company then, given the excitement surrounding The Banner Saga 2, in development at Stoic. "One of our newest characters—who you'll see in the demo of The Banner Saga 2—is Folka, a rough-and-tumble, frontline shield maiden," says the game's lead writer Drew McGee.
Similarly to Jotun's lead Thora, the designers elected not to make Folka a waif. "We designed her with both combat and narrative in mind," says Drew. "The look of her character also needed to sell her position as part of a shield wall, so we made her more stout than our nimble archers."
The first Banner Saga, released properly in early 2014, was well received, a Viking fantasy that proved equal parts The Oregon Trail and King of Dragon Pass. For the developers at Stoic, the appeal of Norse culture was immediately clear from early development.
"I wouldn't say the aesthetics were the primary appeal for making a Norse-inspired game, but it certainly wasn't a detractor," says Drew. "Mythologies from around the world are incredibly awe-inspiring, each with their own visual uniqueness."
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The first Banner Saga was a notable release in part because it really captured, more than any other Viking-themed game released up to that point, the struggle of their nomadic lifestyle. Most games about Vikings play up the adventurous spirit or strength of these warriors without really delving into the harshness of the world, but The Banner Saga's roving caravan parties, mere specks against a sprawling, unforgiving landscape, communicated hardship with aplomb.
"The Banner Saga was originally intended to be a pseudo-medieval setting in the vein of so many fantasy epics we know and love," Drew says. "But the hard edge of Norse mythology, the unforgiving, die-in-battle-to-get-to-Valhalla mindset, the moral ambiguity, and finality of Ragnarök really pulled at us."
Larger-budget projects such as the anticipated Hellblade, developed by Ninja Theory, promise a similarly reverent take. It explores the plight of Senua, a Celt with psychological trauma battling through a Viking underworld. Her assailants are reminiscent of the horned and pelt-clad hulks from John McTiernan's 1999 film The 13th Warrior, and show off the famous Viking ferocity that blackened the reputation of these Northern raiders for hundreds of years, until their eventual ennoblement from the quills of Romance poets.
Kyn, in contrast, takes a lighter, more colorful approach that looks back to Core's Heimdall in a way. A PC action-adventure developed by Netherlands-based studio Tangrin and available on Steam, it is a mission-based tactical action-adventure played from an isometric view, and allows the player to command a party of up to six characters. Victor Legerstee, a developer at Tangrin, says he used Norse mythology as a basis to explore a story with humanity at its core.
"Norse mythology for us is more about themes than visuals. For example, the Æsir–Vanir War, a story about two clans of deities fighting a brutal war, has many interesting themes that are relevant today. Both clans have different ethical views, abilities, and aspirations. They are much like humans; they have relationships, defend their territory and can be wounded and killed. The Æsir start to feel threatened by all these different tribes moving closer to their territory. When the Vanir develop these new magic abilities, synonymous to any technological advancement, the Æsir feel forced to start a brutal war. This is one of the central themes in Kyn."
It's an exciting time for gaming among fans of Norse myth, and all of these developers are bringing something different to the attention of players. Perhaps if they prove a success it could provide an avenue for more games focused on specific mythologies and world cultures that don't rely on the same old concepts. Victor sums this up well when asked to summarize the appeal of Norse mythology from his perspective as not only a game designer, but a storyteller and world builder as well.
"I think European mythology is interesting in general. A lot of games focus on specific well-known mythologies, like the Egyptian, Greek, and very often English or Arthurian knight stories. But we have a lot more mythology and folklore that is quite unexplored in games. There are of course some interesting well-known visual aspects to Vikings, like the ships, the architecture, and yes, helmets with horns. Although some people will cringe at the whole helmet with horns thing, since Vikings never used those."
Well, I suppose some creative license is to be expected.
Follow Ewen Hosie on Twitter.