'Assassin's Creed Valhalla' Isn't Historically Accurate - But That's A Good Thing
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On November 10th, we will be leaping off of our longboats and onto the shores of medieval England, the land of promise in the upcoming Assassin's Creed Valhalla. After jumping feet-first into a preview last week, I'm pretty amped. Vikings were people of action, absolutely, but where they went is of equal importance to what they did.
The game will encompass a variety of locations, from the chilly mountains of Norway, to the rolling grasslands of England, and even the secluded settlements of Vinland (also known as North America). We recently had the opportunity to speak to Raphael Lacoste, brand art director for Assassin's Creed Valhalla, about what it was like to build this world from the ground up.
The beginning of the game sees Eivor, our plucky protagonist, ousted from Norway in search of a new home. In order to represent England not only in its physical landscape but also its exaggerated strangeness to the Vikings, the team undertook a number of scouting trips across the country.
"So for instance, when we went on scouting trips in Norway, and in England, we went not only in cities and museums, but we also spent time doing some hikes," explains Lacoste. "We went to Puzzle Woods, we went to the Peak District. We spent some time being in nature while in England, and I think that was very important because it helped us to show and to be really immersed in the variety of these landscapes. And that gave us a lot of inspiration to bring this kind of visual identity to the different regions."
In 873 CE, the era that Valhalla is set in, Britain was a patchwork, with influences from the Pagans, Anglicans, and of course, the Danes. It was divided into seven kingdoms, four of which will be featured in Valhalla: Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia.
If you've played Assassin's Creed Origins, you'll remember how certain regions had a palpable personality, and it's this approach that has been replicated in Valhalla. Each of these kingdoms has a "bold vision," says Lacoste, so the player will know exactly where they are, rather than needing to ask your friendly neighbourhood Saxon for directions. Northumbria, for example, is covered in snow and has an "omnipresence" of Vikings, epitomised with bewitching Norse temples (that are probably against King Alfred's planning permissions).
As the player travels south, each region has a season attached to it, and the lush grasses of Wessex that cover the cliffs of the Seven Sisters is a sign that summer is well and truly here. "We push that to the next level to make sure that every single region is really linked to the quest arc, and has a very unique atmosphere," summarises Lacoste.
Gazing at the rolling hills of Ledecestre (Leicestershire, these days), watching the sunlight pop out of the gloomy clouds, I almost forget that I am playing as a ferocious and formidable Viking invader. Until I'm shot with an arrow and fall off my horse. This element of balancing the simmering geographical and cultural tensions at play in this era was a "great challenge" for the team of Valhalla.
"It's maybe the most contrasted game of all the games we've built so far in Assassin's Creed," Lacoste explains. The "cultural clashes" of Scandinavian, Saxon, and Ancient Roman architecture were softened with the influences of traditional painters, such as Caspar David Friedrich, giving rise to a romantic view of a turbulent England. "What we try to do is always play with a slider," Lacoste elaborates. "I don't want to make a game that's too grounded because, you know, if you want to see reality, just open your door, go outside, and you will see the real world!"
Ubisoft has undertaken a whopping amount of research to represent this corner of the world during the Dark Ages. But it is surprising to note that historical accuracy has sometimes been sidelined while building the world that Eivor will explore.
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"For the gameplay, we do have to make creative choices sometimes for the good of the game," says the art director. "It's important for the game to have very clear feedback for the player. So, we have the example of the raids. We know at this time in English history, we didn't have any steeples on the churches, and we didn't have any towers. But, we needed those things to tease the player to these locations, to be able to know where they can raid, and have this kind of activity."
As well as games, Lacoste has credits on a number of blockbuster action films like Terminator Salvation, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Jupiter Ascending. With notable TV shows like The Last Kingdom and Vikings, and the convergence of games and films in the last few years, I was curious to know how his own experience and these sources informed the direction of Valhalla.
"For the visual direction, for sure," Lacoste answers. "For character design, we looked at movies and TV series, because there's so many interesting details. For the stitching of leather, all the engravings you can find on copper, on different materials, on wooden structures... films and TV series were a good inspiration."
Conversely, for the characters themselves, the Assassin's Creed Valhalla team went against the grain. "We tend to see that the Vikings are very violent people, depicted in a very gritty landscape or very desolate, desaturated terrain and lights, and we wanted to show something different," explains Lacoste.
"So you have another freedom - you can play the violent Viking if you want, but you can also be the Viking chilling in the environment, just enjoying the landscape, playing with cairn stones, waiting for the sun to rise, wearing very fancy outfits, getting fancy tattoos and stuff like that. I think we're giving the freedom to the player to take whatever direction they want."
Though the end products are like chalk and cheese, the game industry and the film industry have a lot to learn from each other, says Lacoste. "So in games, I'm one of the senior guys on my team, and I feel it's still a very young industry. We still reinvent the wheel very often, we have a new challenge coming for every new generation of console," he explains.
"But when I was in the film industry, I was feeling like a young guy. And you have these guys with, like, 40 years of experience. They know exactly what they're doing. And they have an extraordinary knowledge and amazing culture. So, I really was there like a student, like, 'Give me information! I want to learn how to paint, how to design environments!'"
"I think there's some, a lot of very interesting fundamentals from the film industry that could be applied to games," continues Lacoste. "Like in environment design, the way you light cinematics, the way you frame things. And the way you think about composition, that's very important, because it's not random. People would think that we use procedural tools to generate for us, but no: every single tree has a shape, and we want to make sure that the shape of the branches is interesting, and can be memorable if you want to make something here. So the oak tree is one design, you know, and we turn the trees in all directions to make sure that we have an interesting shape."
The connections between filmmaking and game design will become "more and more obvious" as the two camps pull from the same technical toolbox, Lacoste says. "There are a lot of technical advantages for the film industry to learn from games, because we have these real-time engines, being able to really play and see the results like, instantly, they can really play and be immersed in an environment. But, also, you have more and more of a bridge of talents, you know, people coming from film and games, and because of that, it's a bridge of talents, but also a bridge of technique."
Whether Odin has a black director's chair where he presides over the events of mere mortals in Valhalla remains to be seen.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla is released on November 10th 2020 for Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC and Stadia; and on November 12th for PlayStation 5 (November 19th in the UK).
Featured Image Credit: Ubisoft
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