Why are Viking video games so popular right now? As a culture, we love Vikings. We love them more than pudding, dinosaurs and winning at national football.
That wasn’t always the case. Way back in 793AD, the inhabitants of Lindisfarne Monastery were clearly less than enamoured with a war band of bearded and surprisingly well-washed Viking warriors. The Monks had their island ransacked; relics were destroyed, copious amounts of treasure stolen, and slow-footed tonsured brothers were Monk-knapped. Fortunately, in the interim between then and now, time has been kind to the Vikings – turning the once formidable foe of Christianity into a veritable licence to print money.
Indeed, over the last few years there have been numerous games set in the Viking era that have gone on to make longship loads of cash. Kratos was reinvigorated with a legendary hack and slash through Viking Mythology in God of War. Recent estimates suggest that the latest game in the storied franchise has sold around 20 million copies. Then there’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, a game that has given the long running series a much needed shot in the arm and delivered record breaking sales in the process. Finally there’s the Viking flavoured survival game Valheim, which, whilst still being in early access, has already passed five million copies sold.
So, what’s the deal? Why are Vikings not just enduringly popular but arguably the most popular they’ve ever been? Quite frankly, my puny brain was not capable of solving this conundrum, so I turned to an expert for the answers.
Philip Parker is the best-selling author of ‘The Northmen’s Fury’, a “lively and penetrating reassessment of a people who terrorized Europe for three centuries.” The Sunday Times said of the book, “It is quite a feat to write history this good.” Clearly Mr Parker knows what he’s talking about. I tracked him down in a not-so-epic quest of a three-second Google search and, after arranging a Tête-à-tête, I came away with all the answers I needed.
“The Vikings are a multi-faceted people,” Philip told me “and there’s a lot about them that appeals to the 21st-century taste.”
The two aspects above all, I think, that are attractive, are the sense that Vikings are a group who do not fit so comfortably into the mainstream narrative of history, who were classic outsiders – at least from the perspective of the peoples they raided – and who did not conform to the early medieval hierarchy of free peasantry, nobles, churchmen and kings. The sense that you can operate outside the normal constraints of society and ‘get away with it’ is, I think, something that’s always been alluring, but all the more so now, as it gives people a sense of agency in an increasingly complex world within which they can feel rendered powerless.
Vikings offer a compelling fantasy to a denizen of the mundane modern world, one in which they are allowed to feel liberated in their awesomeness.
Philip continued: “There is, too, a sense of almost licensed violence about the Vikings, that it was deemed perfectly acceptable to use the axe and the strong-arm to get one’s end, if that end were honourable. In the very constrained urban societies of the 21st century, that’s darkly attractive – in game, or film, of course, not in real life!”
This permitted violence is a natural fit for a video game. Most of the aforementioned games above are framed around the killing of other creatures. The theme of ‘Vikings’ provides a compelling character and narrative structure to house this standard video game remit within.
So, how historically accurate are these video game representations of Vikings? Do they bear any resemblance to the reality of life during the Viking Age or are they pure fantasy based on modern sensibilities? Philip had the answers.
There was a time when the portrayal of the Vikings was horribly inaccurate. That began with the horned helmets which seemed to sprout on every Norseman’s head – when, of course, there’s no historical evidence for any such thing. Even by 1958, though, with Kirk Douglas in The Vikings, things have got better on that score, although Viking society is always a bit of a two-dimensional thing in portrayals before very recent years; all violence, raiding, drinking and womanising.
There was also an obsession with things like the ‘blood-eagle’ in the past, which isn’t attested anywhere and may even have been a misreading of a text that speaks of carrion birds hovering over the battlefield. Nowadays things are a lot more accurate – though a sense that the Vikings were fighting absolutely all the time is wrong – in England after the 870s a lot of them spent much of the time farming, as the land was divided up. They did, after all, have to eat, and they had been farmers and fisher folk at home.
We’ve seen this shift in the recently released Assassin’s Creed Valhalla which, despite the copious bloodletting, offers a surprisingly nuanced take on the Viking way of life, offering players the opportunity to build and develop a community of hard working farmers, daring explorers and dedicated brewers.
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Valhalla’s well researched approach is often the exception however, “Modern media often gets stuck in a rut between the Vikings as irremediably violent and a reinvention of them as peaceful and misunderstood traders.”
Philip explained, “this is a false dichotomy, as they were both. A Viking expedition took what it could, trading in places where that was possible – such as the Baltic – but turning into raiding where it was not. More considered modern media understands the complexity of the Viking world, but sporadic reporting just focuses on the violence, making them one-dimensional cut-outs.” Judging by the recent successes of God of War, Assassin’s Creed and Valheim, a more considered and authentic take on Vikings is the approach that is resonating best with video game audiences. All of these games, in their own way, offer a three-dimensional and deep depiction of the Norse.
Another reason why Vikings are popular in video games could be in-part due to the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, when most people think of Thor they think of a blond Chris Hemsworth and his titanic pecs, not the red bearded Mjölnir swinger of mythological past. What are your thoughts on this Philip?
I think Marvel have doubtless had an impact on the Vikings’ popularity. A film franchise of the power and reach of Marvel is bound to raise the level of consciousness, both in positive ways – more people may be motivated to find more about the Vikings – but also negatively, in that their one view becomes the ‘only’ view. Thor as a result probably is better known now than ever before but he wasn’t the only God and something of his ‘humanity’ and fallibility is lost. The story of him catching Jormungandr and nearly pulling him on board before his companion panics and cuts the line is something that almost humanises the gods in a way modern film franchises don’t quite do.
We’ve been talking a whole lot about the past but, to close the interview, I wanted Philip’s take on the possible future. Are there any eras or aspects of Vikings that he thinks should be explored in modern media but have so far remained untapped? What could the next big Viking themed video game focus on?
“I think the great Viking exploration of the North Atlantic is somewhat neglected,” responded Philip. “It’s an extraordinary tale of voyages into a vast ocean that is relatively unknown to non-specialists. The extraordinary process of the discovery of Iceland and the establishment of a new society there, including the Althing, the world’s oldest continuous parliament and the only place in the Middle Ages with hot water ‘on tap’ from the volcanic spring pools is fertile territory that is underused.”
You’d think that would be more than enough ideas for a prospective video game publisher but Philip isn’t finished yet.
Then there’s the leap to Greenland – what was it like in such a remote society with only a boat or two from Iceland or Scandinavia coming every year? And how did they adapt, or fail to adapt, with the colony finally dying out in circumstances that no-one has yet fully explained.
The East is comparatively neglected, too, with Swedish Vikings establishing trade routes down the Volga as far as Constantinople, risking rapids and hostile tribes each year to barter in the great markets of what they called Micklegard. It’d be great to see more talk of the Varangian Guard, too, which is a fascinating institution.
That the Vikings begin as petty raiders and ended up as the honour guard of the successors to the Roman Emperors is an extraordinary story. There’s so much more than the raids on the British Isles, which seem to be largely the focus of a lot of media. The Viking epics and histories are an almost endless store of fantastic tales and there’s a mass of material that it would be good to see being exploited more.
Well, there you go, plenty more history to inspire video game developers for years to come, thus ensuring that the current popularity of Vikings in modern media will only continue to grow.
In the meantime, those wanting to interact more with Viking history now have the perfect gateway. Following on from Origins and Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla just launched its educational Discovery Tour DLC.
A huge thank you to Philip Parker for his time and knowledge. You can follow Philip on twitter over at @PParkerauthor. Be sure to check out his epic history of the Viking world, ‘Northmen’s Fury’, as well as his latest book, ‘History of World Trade in Maps’.
Playing with History is our ongoing series spotlighting video games and the real-world people and events that inspire them. From walking with dinosaurs in Jurassic World Evolution and talking real-life zombies in Days Gone, to learning about the Peaky Blinders, and chatting Ghost of Tsushima with a samurai expert, there’s plenty you may not have known about your favourite video games.