Assassin's Creed Valhalla owes a lot to TV's Vikings

The Viking Age has seen a major revival in popular culture over the course of the past decade. The wave of interest began with games like Skyrim that were mostly based on flashy, inaccurate stereotypes like horned helmets and frothing warriors driven only by insatiable battle-lust. History’s period drama Vikings, which premiered in 2013, started to steer the ship of public consciousness toward the actual sagas and historical sources that predated these stock characters, featuring adaptations of real events and people that demonstrated Vikings were, at the end of the day, regular folks who wanted love, wealth, and recognition more than simply a chance to bury an axe in some poor Saxon’s skull.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla clearly owes a lot to the show’s depiction of the era. If you asked someone who hadn’t studied medieval Northern Europe to name just one famous Viking before Travis Fimmel brought the legendary Ragnarr Lodbrok to our screens, they would probably have had a hard time. Now, names like Ragnarr, Lagertha, Ubbe, and Rollo are recognizable to many. When an early quest in Valhalla mentions negotiating an alliance with the Sons of Ragnarr, fans of the show will instantly have some idea of who they’re dealing with.

Both Vikings and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla present a moody, stylized vision of the era. They shave the sides of their heads and braid whatever hair is left. They often wear rugged, primitive-looking garb with lots of jagged leather and bristly fur, proving we haven’t fully gotten away from the image of the Viking warrior as a bestial northern barbarian. Historically, a Norseman’s battle kit in this era wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic or embellished, usually consisting of a chainmail shirt and a steel nasal helm with some padding underneath and a lightly decorated tunic over the top. They were practical, not ostentatious.

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Both adaptations also indulge in the idea of Vikings as superlative warriors, a narrative likely inspired by their literate enemies trying to save face by playing up the outlanders’ prowess and ferocity. If you got your ass kicked and your wallet stolen in a bar fight, you’d probably want to make the guy who did it seem really big and scary, right? The monks of Lindisfarne did just that. Dr. Jackson Crawford, an Old Norse specialist from the University of Colorado, points out that the Viking Age Norse were “Fighters All, Soldiers Few”. The average Norwegian adult was more likely to have a basic competence in warfare than a random Saxon farmer from the same time period. With a more decentralized society and a much smaller population, this was almost essential in Scandinavia. But the elite, highly-trained specialists of each culture were probably not so different in their fighting ability. Much of the Vikings’ success was really owed to things the Hidden Ones of Assassin’s Creed know well: speed, stealth, and technology. In this case, that technical edge came mostly from ingenious breakthroughs in ship building.