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'Assassin's Creed Valhalla' Is Obsessed with Story, and Its Deceptions

A story about controlling the narrative, for a time when facts and their meaning are all disputed.
December 24, 2020, 2:00pm

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

This post contains spoilers for one of the early chapters of Valhalla following Eivor’s arrival in England.

Somewhere in the middle of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, we learn that our player character, Eivor, has been betrayed. Ivarr Ragnarsson has taken your trust and trampled it beneath his heels by murdering a young lord of the realm. He did not do this because he was angry or for revenge. He did it so that you, Eivor, would then break a peace with a local king, rousting him from his castle so that Ivarr could kill him and ritually display him on a mountaintop as a warning to the rest of England. This, he assures us, will make him Ivarr the Kingkiller, a nom de plume unmatched. 

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This betrayal, this war under false pretenses, is not enough for Ivarr. It is not enough that he tricked a friend into betraying her cause. He has to go further. As he says directly, “this saga we have written together, it needs an ending.” It is not enough to kill a young man who trusted him. It is not enough to make a war happen under false pretenses, spilling blood and ending lives for no gain. Ivarr needs to reveal his plotting to Eivor so that she will engage in a battle to the death. A kingkiller, a schemer, and a betrayed who either slew his friend or was slain by her: these are the qualities that Ivarr is chasing. And so he is killed on a mountaintop.

Eivor is betrayed not by Ivarr, but by story. Ivarr is wholly dedicated to controlling and manipulating the tales that will be told about him down through time. He wants a spoken lineage, not a living one, a kind of warping of reality around himself so that we know that he was important. He dies, but lives on in the telling of the tale.

This focus on story dogs Eivor across the 50+ hours of Valhalla, and it happens because this is yet another Assassin’s Creed historical playground. This time the game is set in the 870s, during the mass invasion of England by an assortment of Scandinavian “vikings” who fundamentally changed the geopolitics of the island for decades. Eivor and her brother Sigurd, a scorned prince denied his birthright, make their way to England to seek their own fortune through wars and alliances. Modeled on the Norse sagas, the game is largely composed of region-specific tales where Eivor makes her way to a region, finds a problem there, works to solve it, and then secures an alliance so that her own people can live peacefully in their new home in England. 

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On a practical level, this solves a common problem in the Assassin’s Creed games around plot pacing. An episodic structure takes us all the way back to the original Assassin’s Creed with its individual cases, and the whole thing feels more manageable for it. Instead of an uninterrupted flow of ideas, Valhalla gives us little segments that stick together to build out in a form that critic Cole Henry calls “literary.” It also gives room for all of the “stuff” of the game to happen. After all, below these segments, below the story of Eivor and her brother, lies the metaplot of the entire Assassin’s Creed series: Templars and Assassins warring over the remains of an ancient people, the Isu, and their reality-warping technology. Assassin’s Creed has been a stack of stories for 13 years now. 

Yet this is the first AC to frontload questions about the very nature of story, and it’s significant because we live in an era of openly competing narratives. This is a franchise that has always addressed its questions of history in a way that feels a little like someone who read the wikipedia page for A People’s History of the United States. By giving us a fiction about a technology that allows people to go back into history and find out what “really” happened, it always shows that there are two ways to understand the past. There’s the way that The Man tells you it happened, and then there’s the real shit that no one wants you to know about it. 

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To be clear, that impulse is a real and generally good one. Winning ideological fights about the past often translates into winning ideological fights about the future. Editing textbooks to call slaves in the American South “workers” is not a slip, but is instead a way of re-writing reality to reduce the evil of slavery to something harmless and ordinary. Being reminded that human life has been radically different at many times in the past, and that the victors have written the stories after the fact, is a good thing for a person to reckon with. The AC games use this as a jumping off point to say that, yes, this is true, and also the past few thousand years or so have been a collective hoodwinking that needs to be battled.

So from their most fundamental position, these games argue that stories have power, and the control of stories is ultimately the thing that matters the most in the world. Playing this in 2020, after spending four years with “fake news” and a constant war between different positions of “alternative facts,” these claims about stories feel hypercharged. There have always been competing narratives about what’s happening in the world. That’s not new. What’s newer, or at least accelerated, is the pace at which these shift. Things become solid and melt into air at high speed, proliferating across social media at fiber optic speed. Today masks don’t work. Tomorrow they work, but only certain kinds. Next week, everything was a hoax until it happened to me, and now it’s deadly serious. 

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Valhalla, and its franchise backbone, stage the world as a series of fights over what story is true so that the future and the past might be rewritten. In the real world, we know the mutated old saying: “if you don’t like reality, wait a few minutes.”

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In this light, Valhalla is a fantasy beyond the attainment of power beyond your day-to-day life. It’s a fantasy where what you do might stick around. It’s one where stories live on after you. It presents us with a historical fantasy in which a person’s accomplishments and narratives about them could live on to be told to the next generation as a cultural narrative. It’s a fantasy about stories sticking around and remaining resonant in a way that even our most encompassing media tales rarely do.

In the advanced stage of capitalism we’re in, story is property. In the face of the annihilating omnivorous maw that is the the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars franchise, tales of human being scrapping in small battles for English real estate and going on to glory for it is a quaint fantasy on the same level of an episode of Little House on the Prairie. On a narrative and cultural level, it does the same work as blitzing through a level of Doom Eternal with the biggest gun you’ve got: it’s designed to make you feel powerful. It’s designed to make you, too, feel like you could build a narrative from nothing to echoing down through history. It’s a fantasy that people mattered for any time at all, and it’s positioned against a cynical realism of our current moment. Now you get one viral tweet and a follow-up link to Soundcloud if you want.

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Story is powerful here. It allows individual people to break through and resonate through time. But my cynicism kicks in here, because Ubisoft, the developer and publisher of Valhalla, are also powerful wielders of story in a general sense. After allegations of harassment in the various studios owned by the company, there has been a steady stream of authority figures stepping down, quitting, and shuffling. The reasons for these are almost totally opaque to anyone outside the company, and it presents a conspiratorial scenario that makes the company look even more like their fictional Templar stand-in organization, Abstergo.

The story, after all, is that Ubisoft has continued to push the limits of gameplay and narrative with their new titles for current and next-gen consoles. They’re filling your stocking this holiday season. They are creating “the most ambitious lineup in the industry” constructed on top of “a roadmap to guide [the company’s] improvement” based on “a strong desire to defend the values of respect and benevolence on which [it] was built.” Happy companies make good games, we infer, and if the games are ambitious and good, how unhappy could people be?

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I left something out of my initial telling of the story of Ivarr and Eivor. In the moments before they battle to the death, Ivarr transforms a local king into a blood eagle, ritualistically mutilating his body as a message to denizens of the realm. Watching, Eivor retreats into herself and speaks to her god Odin. She explains that she doesn’t have the stomach for this ritual, and that she doesn’t understand the point. Leering, Odin explains: “The method will always outlive the meaning.” The act of performing the blood eagle, the steps themselves and the absolute pain they signify, the ritual, matters infinitely more than whatever it’s meant to signify to Ivarr himself or the people of England. 

Ivarr’s legacy is not about him. It is about the ritual of telling the story of a singular human that rose to glory above others. It is about the fantasy itself, the same fantasy that we connect to when we play these games about singular characters who unite countries under one banner or blaze across planets with shotguns or conquer demons and their souls. It is about plugging ourselves into a circuit that takes us through the familiar motions of stories that lift us beyond our current conditions and into a fictional world in which atomized, individualized life carries heroism with it instead of alienation.

Just like every Assassin’s Creed game, Valhalla is a story built on a story. Vikings and English war on a battlefield silently manipulated by Assassins and Templars. Our stories, our connections, to these games work the same way. Heroic fantasies of Eivor rest on a substrate of Ubisoft’s real-world narrative as a manipulative, masked global corporation that shuffles and disposes of humans like pawns. The entertainment monolith creates the conditions for us to feel like heroes, and they win the PR war in the end. No one is safe from the narrative powers of the victors.

As we travel into another year of heroic individualism, of stories built by companies with their own practices of abuse and its silent management, I wonder if we can take more time to pause and interrogate those stories beneath the stories. After all, Valhalla eventually stops in its tracks and realizes that you can’t live life freely if you’re being manipulated behind the scenes, and so perhaps it is worth applying some of Ubisoft’s own lessons to its corporation, shining light and interrogating the directly the churning heart of that fuels it all.