How Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla turns English history into a Viking playground
When your franchise is about to release its 12th major installment, you’d probably be worried about creativity fatigue. Assassin’s Creed‘s formula gives it an advantage that other series don’t enjoy. Each game takes place in different historical era. One year, your Assassin’s Creed adventure takes you to Revolutionary America. Another year, you’re exploring Ancient Greece.
Now, the series is tackling the era of Viking invasions in Anglo-Saxon England.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla comes out November 10 for Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Last week, I played it for about 5 hours. You can read my impressions of the long demo here. I also talked with Philippe Bergeron, the game’s director of level design.
I asked Bergeron about some of Valhalla’s new features, but I was especially excited to chat with him about the challenge of adapting Anglo-Saxon and Viking 9th century history into a video game.
A new world
GamesBeat: How is the world of Valhalla different, design-wise, from what we’ve seen in past Assassin’s Creed games?
Philippe Bergeron: One thing that came out very early in production, we knew we were coming off of Origins and Odyssey. That established a sort of RPG formula, and as far as the world was concerned, just having a lot of content, always something to distract you in the world. We knew that it was cool to play those, but if we were to release another one that had that same formula, it might feel tired at some point. Something we wanted to do is play up that sense of exploration in the game and let it breathe a bit. We took a lot of inspiration from games like [The Legend of Zelda:] Breath of the Wild, or even Red Dead Redemption, where the world is a bit more sparse, if I could use that term. Things breathe more. You can see your opportunities coming from farther off. It adds a sense of observation and discovery to the world.
We also removed a lot of the iconography we used to have, where we would tell you, kilometers ahead, this is a military location, this is a cavern. You would know what you were getting into. At some point that becomes very mechanical. It almost looks like a checklist of items you’re just ticking off. Instead we went for a formula that was slightly more mystery-based, in a way, where we communicate, here’s some wealth. Here are some mysteries. Here are some artifacts. We don’t tell you what form that’s going to take. It has a feeling of Zelda mixed with the Witcher.
In the Witcher you would come up to one of the question marks in the world, and you wouldn’t know exactly what was behind it until you got into the setup. It has a bit of a feel like that, where you come up to these locations, and OK, what am I doing here? What’s the puzzle I need to solve? That’s also something we worked a lot on, the puzzle-solving aspect of discovery. Any time you find a location, it’s not just a collectible that’s there for you to pick up, which in some of the previous games we might have had as setups. Now we make you work a bit in each situation to analyze what the setup is and try to find your way to get your collectible or get the piece of gear that’s hidden there.
GamesBeat: One thing I appreciated in my demo is how I’d discover these organic quests in the open world. Are these a big emphasis in the game?
Bergeron: We sort of use it as our palate cleansers, if you will. Because when you think about the Viking age and the stories that come with it, and the stories we tell in Assassin’s Creed, it could very quickly become earnest and somber. It comes with that era, and also with the sort of tone that is Assassin’s Creed. That would have been very heavy as a mood for the player, if that’s all we had. That’s where those world events come into play. They’re these moments of narrative discovery, really, that permit us to touch with surprise and different tones in the game that we normally wouldn’t have been able to use. It lets us show different flavors of the world, but also different sides of Eivor’s personality. We have quite a few of them in the game, spread out through all the different territories.
GamesBeat: The settlement area reminded me of Assassin’s Creed III’s homestead. Was that something you looked back at?
Bergeron: We came to the realization a bit after the fact. Obviously, we’re all fans of the brand, so I think naturally that came about, because we had done it a bit in the past. But in this, the settlement came to be when we were talking more about the narrative structure of the game, where we wanted each territory to be its own condensed and dedicated story. But we didn’t want you to get lost in that world. We wanted to have a feeling of familiarity in this large, open world that you can sometimes get lost in. And so one thing, for instance, in previous games that was missing is that sense of ownership and familiarity and intimacy, because you’re always on the go. You’re always going somewhere. Having this place that you could come back to and see the Crows and develop physically, but also emotionally, through the people you meet, was important to play that balance of this large, open, sprawling world. It’s a good mixture of discovery and exploration, and then the intimacy of family, community, and your own personal progression.
GamesBeat: What’s the research phase like when you’re working on a game so steeped in history?
Bergeron: It takes quite a while. We often start with a bunch of different settings we’ll pitch, and we gauge it based on our own interests, what we’re interested in finding out about. It can take a year, almost two years actually, to do the research properly. But we usually start out with just the idea. What interests us as a different setting? Then we do a first digging, let’s say, a foot deep, and see what are the different moments, the different characters of the era, the political situations or the conflicts that are there. Once we find something that has enough breadth and enough depth that we can sink our teeth into it, we’ll choose a more concrete idea of what setting we want to do. And then that’s when we, as a team, all pitch in.
In the case of Valhalla, we had one team that was researching Norway. We had another team that was researching Northumbria, the northern part of England. Another team was on Mercia, the central part, and another team was on Wessex. And all those teams were deep diving into all those different areas of the game, the history of them, the culture, who was living there, what were the different factions, what the day to day was like. What did they wear? What games would they play? What entertained them at night? That’s how we identified the tone and the feeling of each of these places, and then we started extracting stories from there. That’s where the more historical battles and things like that, that’s when we start researching that stuff.
It’s all very organic at first, and then once we have a solid idea of that setting and that time period and all the different actors and locations, that’s usually when we’ll call out a scouting trip. In our case we had 18 people that went to Norway. We went to England. Saw a whole bunch of different locations. We had to craft that tour based on the locations in the game and the different people or the different — mainly the locations and the culture that we wanted to portray. It’s a mix of museums, but also experiences. We got to sail on longships. We got to have a feast in the longhouse. We brewed some beer. Doing a deep dive on culturally what it was, as well as the traditional museum tours and interviewing people over there. It’s quite drawn out, but I think in the end you can feel it in the game.
GamesBeat: You mentioned these different kingdoms that were in England at the time. How do you make them feel different from each other?
Bergeron: We have a mix of solutions for that, or tools. One thing we did is, because we have weather patterns that we have access to as features in the game, we decided to separate the world into different climates. It’s agnostic as far as the actual time of year, but what we do is geography-based. The more north you are, it’ll be more wintery. The more south you are, it’ll be more sunny. That already gives you a weather biome separation depending on where you are in the world. That’s one aspect of it that gives you a difference in lighting and the way the weather features play in there.
Based on the historical research, we’ll usually choose a tone or a backdrop story. When we were looking at the history of England, we chose a period where the Danelaw was already established. The Anglo-Saxons have been pushed down to the southern part of England. We created an archaeology layer, if you will, within the world. We had one section of the game that was, this is where the Vikings had initially landed, and it’s completely decimated. It’s a war-torn area of the game. This is the area where the Vikings are now settled, where they’ve built their communities. Thriving Viking settlements and cities. And then south, in Wessex, we had the breadbasket of England, where the Anglo-Saxons are stronger. This is where Alfred the Great has his headquarters in Winchester. All of these stories become the fruit or the fuel for how we dress up the world. They have a different feel in each of them, both visually, but also in the stories that we tell through the different quests.
GamesBeat: Assassin’s Creed has always been known for climbing up tall buildings, but the architecture of Anglo-Saxon England was relatively simple. Did you have to take any creative liberties to make buildings taller or cities more dense?
Bergeron: It was something we were worried about when we’d initially chosen the setting. How compelling is it going to be for climbing? We were good on the wilderness side, because the past two games have focused heavily on wilderness. We knew we were good for it technology-wise. But we were worried if we’d be able to cover that brand aspect. By doing research, we found out that England has eras of history relative to the people that went through there. The Romans arrived in England in their era, and there was still a lot of Roman architecture. There were still aqueducts there. The city of London was an old Roman city that had slowly started falling apart, because people didn’t understand the technology the Romans were using. They would take apart the stone and pipes and so on that were there. What we ended up doing is re-creating a version of London that has that Roman architecture, but it’s torn down, with the Vikings settling within the ruins of what’s left. Those Roman ruins that are still there in the time period act as our navigation, parkour, and climbing challenges in the game. These are akin to the monuments you’d have in Origins, with all the Egyptian architecture. It’s all grandiose. It’s just overtaken by vegetation at this point.
That gives us a solid playground, and also something that attracts the eye when you’re talking about the exploration feel, seeing things off in the distance. These things are really well contrasted with the rolling hills of England. Beyond that, we identified three main cities that we wanted to have in the game. We have London, York, and Winchester. Those are much closer to the cities that we had in AC1 or AC2. Much denser, with parkour lines in there. It gives us a good contrast with the wilderness and the openness of the rest of England, and then coming to these dense cities that have their own narrative arcs in them. They have an entire suite of world events within them. They’re a territory in their own right.
GamesBeat: Compared to some of the other eras Assassin’s Creed has been to, there’s not a ton of recorded history for Anglo-Saxon England. Can that be liberating as a designer, or can that make things more difficult, because you don’t have as much to pull from?
Bergeron: We were just talking about this the other day with the development team. For me personally, it’s liberating. I’ve worked on Assassin’s Creed since the first one. When we started out doing the Third Crusade, it was not super well-documented. We had an idea of who the grand masters were for the Templar order. We had an idea of what the city layouts were like for cities back then. But that was pretty much it. It gave us a lot of leeway to tell stories, to be creative with the architecture. As the series went on, the more modern you become, the more well-documented these things are.
One of the last ones I had worked on was Assassin’s Creed III, which was set during the American Revolution, and that’s very well-documented. Even though Boston and New York are not at all today what they were back then, those towns were still pretty well-documented, and also the history. What happened is still taught today in schools. People are very familiar with it. It gives us very little wiggle room to tell stories and find places for the Assassin to be, behind the scenes. And so the Viking age was actually very liberating when it comes to that. But it did also make it harder to research. There is research to do, but it’s more dense. It hasn’t been as synthesized. The CliffNotes aren’t as clear on it. It does require a bit more time on the research. But because it takes more time to research, then the average person doesn’t know as much, so it gives us more room to be creative with that stuff.
On a boat
GamesBeat: The river system stands out as an important feature for Valhalla. I’m curious about its development, because it seems like something we haven’t really had in an Assassin’s Creed before.
Bergeron: In the past games, starting from AC3, we had galleons. We had those large boats that were mainly meant for the open sea. Odyssey had the Greek boats they were using, but those were also meant for the open sea. We have the technology, and when we started the game, we said, well, what are we going to do with that this time? The way we were developing the game, there wasn’t that much place for the open sea. There’s one moment in the game when you’re leaving from Norway and you go to England, but that’s pretty much it. For the most part, any form of body of water that you see is going to be lakes or rivers. But they are part of the world, and it’s important in the Viking era.
When you say Viking, people think of longships. We knew that was something we needed to portray. When we looked at England from the very top level and started doing the geography, the topography of it, we had these huge rivers going through all of England. It reminded us a lot of highways. When I say highways, it’s a term we used on AC1 and on most of the games afterward. If you look at a top level of any city, you have your main thoroughfares that go through them, and that’s what we call our highways. In this case, the rivers acted as that. They’re clear paths throughout all of England, and we use them as the fastest way to get from one location to another. That was pretty much what Vikings would do. That was the use of the longship, to go from one place to another very fast with a huge group of people. It’s a Viking APC. You’re bringing an army to a location, raiding, getting on the ship, and leaving. That’s how that took form, and it gave shape to the raiding features in the game. Initially we were only targeting — oh, we’ll only raid a couple of locations. But it became a fully developed feature where you can pretty much raid anything in the game now, as long as it’s near a river. It was very organic. And again, it came from the setting we chose and the research we were doing.
GamesBeat: I know this game is trying to emphasize the stealth aspect of the series again. How does that change the way you develop the world?
Bergeron: In a way, that actually came out naturally for us. When we were doing the research and started putting it in place, we had that division of the northern part of England being much more Viking-controlled and the southern part of England being very Anglo-Saxon-controlled. When you’re a Viking going into these Anglo-Saxon towns, they don’t like you. They’ll look at you funny. You’re not desired there. But you need to go there and form your alliances and scout enemy territory, so how do you do that? This is where we started putting more emphasis on stealth. We developed our cloak mechanics, the ability to hide in a crowd. A lot of things we had in the previous games, but weren’t as useful in Origins or Odyssey. In this case, because you’re a stranger in a strange land, you’re the invader, everyone is hostile to you, so we needed to give the player tools to be able to go through these areas and feel that tension without being overtly attacked all the time. Which would have felt very aggressive if we went for that version of the game. That’s how those stealth features came to be, and how it fits in with the tone or the theme of being a Viking in England.
You can’t solo security
COVID-19 game security report: Learn the latest attack trends in gaming. Access here