There’s plenty about Valheim’s environment that will take your breath away. Sweeping forests with lush canopies and dense, complex undergrowth that make navigation a charm. Atmospheric set places like the Black Forest and the Swamp that invoke appropriate feelings of dread simply by existing. Dynamic lighting that could find a home in any AAA project, creating beautiful sunsets that gleam off of the water.
Pair Valheim’s vast world with fantastical creatures and bosses that have a difficulty curve ripped straight from the likes of Dark Souls, with an engaging combat system to match, and it’s no surprise why the Viking-themed survival title is the internet’s latest viral obsession.
These things have certainly stood out during my personal exploration of Valheim, which has been well-worth the hype thus far. With some friends, I’ve created a nightly ritual of digging for metal, being woefully underprepared for the big bads, and making minor improvements to our very humble settlement.
All that is well and good, and Valheim should be praised for its ability to satiate the craving for fans of almost any genre. One of my pals even found entertainment in digging the deepest hole they could– until they got bored– in the aim of finding “what’s on the other side.”
Despite the focus on Norse cosmology and mythology, what keeps me coming back are the aspects of the game that are grounded in reality. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the trees, which have been dubbed by many as the game’s greatest enemy. There’s a simple pleasure in hacking away at a tree with your axe, only to watch it fall in a random direction with a mighty crack, rolling down hills and felling any smaller saplings in its path.
The fact that trees can kill you only adds to the thrill. But that’s just a gateway to all of the small little touches that Iron Gate Studios managed to weave into its debut title. On the aforementioned server, we built a campfire inside of our first attempt at a longhouse.
We thought our roof, completely enclosed to keep the elements outside, was sufficient. The angles were just right and it was perfectly symmetrical, which was a cornerstone achievement for such an architecturally inept group. After a long day of hunting and resource gathering, we returned to our domicile to find the rafters filled with smoke.
The game would not let us sleep until the smoke had cleared out, and our health was in jeopardy. We quickly realized that, to have a fire inside, one must have some way of letting the smoke out. This isn’t something that a tutorial tells you, but it’s an experience that you have to grow from. Likewise, I began thinking I was awfully poor at deer hunting when the creatures would frantically run away before I was within earshot.
As it turns out, they can smell you if you’re upwind, giving them a built-in early alert system. You have to position yourself, following the path of the wind and the indicator in the minimap, to make sure you can sneak closer.
There are so many small touches of realism that I could prattle on about– building physics, visible fish, the way that a heavier cart depletes stamina at a faster rate than normal – and, over 15 hours in, I’m still stumbling upon these small intricacies.
It’s an important, and often overlooked, aspect of world-building. It’s well enough to give players a wide open map to journey across, and all kinds of monsters to fight, but these have to be introduced alongside a sense of comfortability. We recognize trees that fall when they’re cut, or smoke filling a house without proper ventilation.
For most people, these are subconscious acknowledgements of the real world. We become associated with these things without even realizing that they’re important details for giving an environment some sort of legitimacy. It’s gotten to the point that players don’t even notice the presence of realism until it’s absent. Games are often knocked or discounted for being too disconnected from reality, though there’s a market for that.
A good, enthralling title, one that reaches the point that Valheim has in terms of popularity, taps into both niches. There’s plenty to offer for those like myself, that notice all of those sprinklings of authenticity. From that appreciation, and the intimate relationship that I’ve built with the world as a result, there’s a drive to explore– a hunger to discover more.
The balance comes from the fact that these mechanics don’t serve as a means to make the game more difficult. Eating is important to keep up with, but neglecting to eat won’t cause any deleterious effects past limiting stamina. While repairs are crucial for maintaining bases, which can degrade in the rain, no resources are consumed.
Valheim’s realism is so apparent that it’s easy to recognize, but not too much so that it would turn those looking for a similar experience to, say, Minecraft, away. Survival games are what you make of them, and that’s the beauty in it.
For me, that’s staring at a tree, mentally studying the physics of its fall.