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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

'Assassin's Creed: Valhalla' Needs More Epic Viking Tunes

The seas were blessedly calm as we sailed across the channel and straight up the Seine, into the heart of Francia. The skald led us in song, our voices booming across the placid waters, thundering in our veins. We leaped from our longboat onto the shores of Francia, shouting glory to the All-Father as we charged up the beaches. The sounds of glorious battle filled the air. Squelch, squelch, squish, grunt, clang, yell, grunt, clang, squish, squish, squidge.

Without any outside help from Spotify, that’s what battle sounds like in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Not the clangor of blades, nor a rousing drumbeat and song to keep our hearts aloft. Just lots and lots of squish sounds. Really loud squish sounds too. Shoot an arrow into a Frankish warrior? Squish. Step in some deep mud? Squish. Hit someone with a sword? You guessed it: Squish.

Let’s get one thing straight before we go on: I adore Valhalla. It’s one of my favorite games of all time, and one of the first games I’ve ever felt truly represented in as a queer woman. Spending time with Eivor Wolf-Kissed is a joy. It is the strength of the game as it is that keeps me coming back for more. I just wish there were more music. I wish there was any music when I’m on land and away from my crew of backup singers.

Any time you're sailing around in your longboat, your crew will serenade you with Norse sailing songs. They're haunting, atmospheric, and they set the tone as you sail the misty rivers of Early Medieval England. But once you set foot on dry land, the music stops entirely. Well, almost entirely. If you're lucky, you'll get some exploration music now and then—you can increase its frequency in the audio settings, but even maxing this out, most of my sojourns on land are dead quiet.

Dark Times

Music from the Dark Ages is definitely less well known and abundant than music from later eras. Folk music isn’t always very well preserved or even written down. Plus, this was a time when there was a sharp divide between religious music and secular music. The advantage religious music had was that it was painstakingly written down, and those records survive to this day—it’s why we tend to think of droning chants when we think of medieval music. But we know that people of this era did listen to and create secular music. They made music and played instruments, they swore, they cursed, and they sang songs that would make even a modern audience blush. We even have accounts of Anglo-Saxon religious musicians decrying “vain and idle” secular songs, the kind of thing you’d hear spilling out the doors of a packed tavern on a warm midsummer night. If Norse music stuck in an ancient monk’s craw badly enough for him to scream about it a thousand years ago, it really must've been the good shit.


Since we don’t exactly have sheaves of surviving Iron Age folk songs written down somewhere in standard modern musical notation, we have to ask ourselves: What did pagan and secular music sound like? The Assassin’s Creed series is a masterclass in historical reconstruction and educated guesswork. Filling in the gaps of our knowledge of a particular period is all about creating a vibe that meshes with what we do know, and it’s something the AC series excels at. That’s how we have such a lush ancient Egyptian musical soundscape in Origins. All historical music involves a certain degree of reconstruction—which is to say, educated guesswork. The Norse in particular left us with a lot we can assemble those guesses from.

We know from archaeological evidence there were a host of wind instruments from this period, even the occasional string instrument. The earliest known depiction of a triangular harp comes to us from less than 200 years after the period when Valhalla takes place. We even have contemporary accounts from outside observers who comment on Norse music.

“I have not heard uglier singing … It sounds worse than dogs barking,” said Ibrahim bin Ya’qub at Tartushi, a 10th-century merchant. It’s not exactly a glowing review, but doesn’t it make you kind of want to hear it? According to other accounts, Norse peoples may have had their own variety of throat-singing as well, and often used their shields as musical instruments—singing against them to create reverberations. Honestly, that sounds dope.

Music was a tremendous part of life for the Nordic people. Almost every account of contact with them includes a comment about how much they sing—and drink (they also drank a lot). Ravensthorpe, the Nordic colony you cofound as Eivor Wolf-Kissed, should be awash in song day and night. Eivor should sing traveling songs as she rides across the countryside (astride a horse or a bear). The weirdest thing is that we know the Valhalla dev team knew these things. The few songs we do hear in-game, whether they’re the mournful Gaelic ballad sung by Ciara in Ireland, or the booming chants you hear aboard your ship, they’re clearly drawn from some detailed research. So why is the English, Frankish, and Irish countryside so quiet?

The Day the Music Died

Open-world games weave together the strands of different disciplines to create a sense of place. Narrative, visual, and auditory artistry create a true sense of Elsewhere. This potent brew turns an 80- to 90-hour game into a series of memorable moments—discovery, terror, excitement, and joy. Without the trifold anchor of visuals, music, and narrative, those memories aren’t as potent or vivid. Galloping across a verdant countryside astride a polar bear is a striking visual, and it should be paired with an equally striking (and bangin’) soundtrack.

A great open-world game makes more than memories, it makes sense memories. Hearing the rising exploration music from Breath of the Wild doesn’t call to mind the feeling of a controller in my hand, but how it feels to run through the grass, up a hill, to see Hyrule laid out before me, stretching from my feet to the mountains and the horizon beyond. There are even examples within the Assassin’s Creed series.

When I hear the mournful strains of Ezio Auditore da Firenze’s “Family” theme I see the streets of Florence—squared-off campaniles rising over ruddy terracotta roof tiles. I remember the sound of young Ezio’s boots scrabbling over those tiles, sneaking out of a lover’s bedroom, hair tousled with youthful vigor—unaware of the hardened killer he would need to become in order to survive what would soon befall him and his family.

I’ve done all I can to make Valhalla’s existing music more prominent. I’ve turned down sound effects, turned up all the music settings, but there’s just not enough of it, and it isn’t frequent enough. Eivor’s life is one full of adventure and memorable moments, but as a warrior-poet, it should be full of music too. Just knowing that in a few years I won’t have the musical bookmarks to remind me of my time in her furry boots makes me feel like the Assassin’s Creed series has lost something essential.

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