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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Eerie Landscapes in 'AC: Valhalla' are Haunted by History

This winter, I spent hours wandering the eerie English countryside. Not the real one of course—we live in a time when things as vital as landscapes are severely restricted and even forbidden. I live in London, and when there’s not a national lockdown, would travel to Scotland to visit family for Christmas. Instead of my usual holiday forays up north into the wild, I spent the long, dark evenings absorbed by the world of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. In it, you play a Viking invader in ninth-century England. It’s an open-world game. Or, as some refer to it disparagingly, a “map game.” But, most certainly, it is a game where the landscapes loom large.

Often, Valhalla reminded me of a good English ghost story. There are ancient orders, ominous standing stones, cursed artifacts, and more than a few decrepit ruins. Out in the open air, there are the traditional dark woods, gnarled oaks, austere coastland, and lonely moors. Landscapes and ruins—two things open-world games seem obsessed by and utilize in various effective ways.

In Britain, at least, Christmas and ghost stories with moody landscapes and spectral atmospheres go hand in hand. Throughout the '70s, the BBC broadcast short films as part of its A Ghost Story for Christmas TV series. The majority of these were adaptations of M. R. James’ spectral tales written earlier in the century. One adaptation, A Warning to the Curious, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, begins with this mood-setting narration: “Along the coast of Norfolk there persists an ancient legend. It’s said in the Dark Ages, when the Vikings were a constant scourge, three royal crowns of Anglia were hidden in the ground.”

According to this legend, the crowns possessed a strange and primeval power that protected the country from invasion. A Warning to the Curious, like so many of James’ stories, focuses on the disturbance of an accursed object—but there’s also this deep, persistent fascination with the unnerving landscapes of England, particularly those found in East Anglia. As I explored Valhalla’s virtual Norfolk, I was reminded of a very particular landmark: the old medieval church located in A Warning to the Curious’ fictional town of Seaburgh.

Underlands

In Valhalla lies the ruins of the Brisleah Farm church. Depending on how far off the beaten track your explorations take you—quite unbelievably—this church is one of the first places in the game where it rains. Fighting past the darkness, drizzle, and broken tombstones, in the bowels of the old church, you find the bloody remains of a Viking clan. This is the beginning of Valhalla’s Beowulf quest. It differs from the Old English poem, an epic which follows the adventures of a Viking warrior in 6th-century Scandinavia, in several ways. Most notably, its Grendel is a (very large) human rather than a monster. However, the poem is just as captivated by stark scenery and miserable, ghostly environments.

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The original Beowulf poem is one of the first pieces of English literature where landscape is fully brought to the foreground. The monster Grendel is “haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens.” Likewise, the final lair of Grendel and his more monstrous mother is a “hidden land of wolf-haunted slopes, windy headlands, dangerous swamps, where the mountain stream passes down under misty headlands, water under the earth.” Grendel’s lair in Valhalla is less watery, but similarly hidden and subterranean. To reach it, you must travel down the vast shaft of a Neolithic flint mine known as Grime’s Graves.

In nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s 2019 study of all things subterranean, named Underland, he attaches being below ground to the concept of disposal. Beneath the surface is where “waste, poison, trauma, secrets” hide—or where we hide them. In Valhalla, Grendel is a deformed human exiled from the surface due to his otherness. He’s an uncomfortable truth hidden away until all his anger, hatred, rejection, and isolation bubbles up from the deep, violently.

The Beowulf poem is fantastic not just for its early, vivid depiction of the English landscape, but also the contrast it draws with much later, more contemporary, views of nature. The majority of open-world games view landscape through a Romanticist lens—lush vibrant forests, green rolling hills, sublime mountains. The landscapes of Beowulf are much darker. England is a more hostile place—its forests still thick and shadowy, its bogs yet to be drained, the hills not quite fully pastoralized. In terms of narrative, throughout Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla there’s this central conflict between Christianity and paganism, but running in parallel, in the realm of landscape, there’s also a tension between the idyllic and the inhospitable.

The Weird and the Eerie

It’s easy to bask in the panoramic beauty of a game like Valhalla, but like the real lands they’re based on, virtual England is a place built atop intense violence and atrocity. In Macfarlane’s essay “The Eeriness of the English Countryside,” he describes English landscapes as being “constituted by uncanny forces” and “part-buried sufferings.” Referencing another short story by M. R. James, “A View from a Hill,” where a picturesque scene is transformed into a stage of death and execution when viewed through a pair of binoculars made from the bones of the dead, Macfarlane shows how history can haunt a place.

Peeling back a landscape’s history reveals “the skull beneath the skin of the countryside.” Valhalla’s England is brimming with uncanny forces—war, invasion, conflict, suffering, and contested ownership are everywhere. As Macfarlane mentions in his essay, the ghosts here have nothing do with ectoplasm. Instead, England’s spectres are entirely historical. Real, horrific events rotting just beneath the tranquil, pastoral surface.

Valhalla is obsessed with the ancient, the cursed, the wyrd. Newness rubs shoulders with the old ways at every opportunity, and there are even hints of the demonic and occult. One of several activities that recurs across its giant map are the “cursed symbols.” Players are tasked with solving environmental puzzles and clearing these pockets of darkness, many of which are found deep underground or nestled away within tree hollows.

Valhalla’s landscapes are also more generally eerie. Sometimes it’s simply the way light catches against the silhouette of a barren hill or moor. Other times an unearthly atmosphere will rise up from the land, pockmarked as it is with barrows (or fairymounds, as they were referred to in times of old), Roman ruins, and stone circles. Sometimes you’ll stumble into a labyrinthine cave network, filled with dark trinkets, the skulls of stags, and even burning wicker men. In the game’s Gloucestershire area there’s an entire quest relating to the pagan festival of the burning of the giant wicker man (yes, like the 1973 film, there’s someone stuck inside). In East Anglia there’s a hellhound known as the Black Shuck, which prowls the countryside. Another string of quests sees you fight a coven of daggered witches—collecting their weapons, you’ll eventually find a Roman ruin beneath the earth containing a statue of what looks like the Green Man (a pagan symbol of rebirth), who you’ll need to stab in the back with said daggers in order to access the treasure buried even deeper.

Road to Ruin

Valhalla’s standing stones are a particularly eerie feature. In Anglo-Saxon times, these arrangements—places like Seahenge and Stonehenge—were said to be the work of giants, or petrified people who had dared break the laws of the land (such as dancing on a Sunday or milking a neighbor’s cow). One concept that can help us understand all this eeriness is “hauntology.”

A pun coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the early '90s, hauntology refers to the study of nonexistence and unreality (so the opposite of ontology). Contemporary philosopher Mark Fisher makes extensive use of this concept, describing hauntology in his book The Weird and Eerie as “the agency of the virtual … that which acts without (physically) existing.”

For me, there’s no greater example of this than in Valhalla’s ruins. While open-world games are often dominated by landscape, mirroring the history of art where scenic oil paintings—once considered inferior—grew into a position of relative dominance, the ruin has seen a similar ascendency. Just as Romantic poets mulled over the allure of rivers and mountains, a passion for ancient ruins bloomed too, with painters like J. M. W. Turner and John Constable touring Britain in search of architectural wreckage among the rolling hills.

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The Tate Britain’s Ruin Lust exhibition has described ruins as a “curious object of desire,” seducing us with decay and destruction and reminding us of a “glorious past now lying in pieces”—a melancholia for lost ages. As with hauntology, this is a kind of dyschronia—a confusion of time. The past infects the present, refuses to let up, haunts us, and it often does so through objects like ruins. In Valhalla, this spectral essence is embedded in the virtual landscape, all of which in some fashion echoes the people and events that came before. Like the Roman religion’s “genius loci”—protective spirits believed by the Romans to linger in specific places—Valhalla’s landscapes seem to be tainted with a distinct historical presence. Physically, ruins are just crumbling structures, and yet there also exists this tangible atmosphere and mood when we wander through them.

By the 9th century, the Romans had long disappeared from England—and everywhere else. And yet despite their nonexistence, their presence continues to be felt throughout Valhalla. In many ways, they are larger than life, the dimensions of their columns and colosseums blown up to even grander proportions. Written in the same century is the poem “The Ruin.” It depicts a deteriorating Roman city, describing its decomposition in unusually close and careful detail. There’s also the notes of melancholy—“the work of giants is decaying.”

Valhalla’s landscapes echo England’s long, grisly past. Its ruins, battlefields, and ancient stone circles communicating through eons. Yes, on your long journey you’ll encounter your fair share of beautiful, idealized vistas, but what I appreciate most about the game is its representation of darker realms—the underlands, the ruins, or a somber, chilly hillside on a moonlit night. Those eerie English atmospheres prick the imagination like a good, Christmas ghost story.

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