Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Gets History Right Where It Matters

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Gets History Right Where It Matters
Screenshot: Kotaku

If Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is indeed based on historical events like its intro screen says, it is based very loosely. Yet for all its simplification and misrepresentation of the Viking invasions of Britain, there’s one thing the game depicts really well: the idea that England’s history is one of immigration.

This hasn’t been a great decade for the United Kingdom. Successive Tory governments, seemingly hell-bent on strip-mining their own country no matter the cost to its people, have overseen two highly divisive and needless referendums, the first on Scottish independence, the second and far more disastrous on the country’s departure from the European Union, throwing Britain’s entire economy into the toilet in the process.

Boris Johnson’s government in particular has shown itself to be immensely unqualified for the job, he and his cronies failing their Covid response so badly that an island nation with one of the world’s best public health systems has still found itself one of the deadliest epicentres of the pandemic.

And yet! This incompetent gang of rich brats and sweaty-palmed grifters have by their own metrics been a success, in so far as they can keep on getting re-elected, partly down to the dysfunction of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, but also because they’re the dog-whistling standard bearers of a resurgence (or a calcification among older demographics) of a certain idea. A rejection of the country Britain has become since the 1990s, of the fast-changing modern world, in favour of a Britain they remember foggily from their childhoods, or tales from their parents, or old postcards, or biscuit tins.

Rather than remain a part of the European Union and everything it stands for, there’s a sizeable part of the UK’s population — not everyone who voted for Brexit, but it’s there — who would rather “Britain be for the British”. And when they say that, thanks to its larger population’s overt influence on the nation’s politics, they really mean “England for the English”.

That’s… an outright racist approach, reflected in the fact that fears over immigration were one of the defining policy bedrocks for “leave” voters in the Brexit referendum. Believing that England is for the English relies on there being a definition of “English” in the first place. “Others” who arrived in the UK in the last century following successive waves of immigration, whether they be from the Indian subcontinent, Caribbean, Africa or more recently continental (and particularly eastern) Europe don’t fit this, and so aren’t welcome.

But what does it mean to be English? Who qualifies for this prestigious group? Did a people one day crawl out from the mud, stride across green hills and claim an empty land? Of course not. British history is defined by immigration, displacement and multiculturalism, sometimes peaceful sometimes violent, something that for all its other efforts Assassin’s Creed Valhalla gets very right, and which serves as an excellent — and timely — reminder of.

Valhalla rarely mentions the idea of an “England” at all other than as a geographic entity. Instead, it knows that England in the 9th century was a place of tremendous social and political upheaval, featuring a number of disparate and often hostile groups, some who had been there a lot longer than others.

The game stars two Kingdoms — Mercia and Wessex — who hate each other, and are predominantly Saxon, a group who didn’t start arriving on British shores until the 5th century. There are Britons, in the game given modern Welsh accents, the remnants of the ancient Celts who had lived in England much longer than the Saxons. There are Picts in the north, with modern Scottish accents and a strong barbarian energy, brief mentions of the Irish (who are being saved for a later expansion) and finally the newest people on England’s shores, the Vikings (or Danes, as they’re more accurately called, even if Eivor has to keep correcting folks that she’s actually Norse).

In this way England is rarely presented as anyone’s rightful home, especially since you spend so much time amongst the Saxons and Danes. Set amidst the remnants of Rome’s departure and before the Normans arrive, it’s shown in Valhalla — and fairly accurately, given how history turned out — as a prize that folks are fighting over, whether they’re ancient inhabitants or not.

Screenshot: Kotaku Screenshot: Kotaku

In addition to all those people living alongside one another — or pushing others away — there are also their faiths. The Danes have brought their Pagan beliefs with them and the Saxons are devout Christians (whose coexistence is again reflected directly in some minor quests), but the game is also full of older religions that linger on the edges of the map and even in one fiery storyline bleed into Christian practices. Valhalla’s architecture tells much the same story, with crumbling Roman ruins mixing with Saxon huts around Viking longhouses, all resting alongside each other in the same cities and towns across the map.

While Assassin’s Creed Syndicate took place at the height of Britain’s imperial might, and as such is instantly recognisable, Valhalla is set in an England that’s almost alien, with little present in its architecture or people that we can point to 1000 years later and say, yes, that’s what we today would define as “English”. In this way Valhalla is showing a kind of national origin story, a glimpse at its genesis through a coalescing of people and ideas.

Screenshot: Kotaku Screenshot: Kotaku

As the Saxons ultimately emerged as the dominant group in this struggle, going on to wield the most power in England’s early politics and language, so we see a take emerging towards the end of the game’s storyline, one that places the Saxons as custodians of the land to the exclusion of all others, a philosophy that is then injected into the core values of the series’ arch-villains, the Templars.

After a battle in a church, King Aelfred’s sidekick Goodwin, exasperated, basically says “England is for the English”, pointing out Eivor’s foreignness and spitting “This island will never be your home”, oblivious to the fact that his own people were relatively recent arrivals themselves. It’s almost word-for-word the same kind of thing you’d see in a racist uncle’s Facebook comments section today.

Yet opposed to this view are the multicultural successes of the Viking settlements depicted in the game, and the work of men like Stowe (below), who as you can see below had a more genial approach to Scandinavian settlement, one which speaks to the fact that while the popular (and let’s be clear, historically accurate) idea of Norse raids and larger invasions were destructive incursions, Viking settlement was often a more harmonious affair, as evidenced by the continued genetic legacy of the time, especially in the north of England and Scotland.

Screenshot: Kotaku Screenshot: Kotaku

I’m not saying that Valhalla was made specifically as a response to Brexit-type beliefs, or even had them in mind when writing the game. But the game’s thoughtful exploration of the demographics of the time are nevertheless incredibly useful in the current climate as an example that history in a medium like this, no matter how loosely it’s applied in some areas, can still be an incredibly valuable educational tool in others.

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