Literary Play: The Story and Mission Structure of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla
Video games usually traffic in the language of cinema—often for worse. For me, it is far more interesting when games pull from the language and toolkit of the novel, or just literary stylings in general. This essay could be written about many, many games—from visual novels and smaller adventures to AAA fare and sprawling roleplaying games. For the sake of honing in my argument, I will be working through how Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla embraces and traffics in literary traditions.
Assassin’s Creed’s storytelling has long been dictated to the macro-story of the Animus via “sequences” which split the games up into chunks of missions that were bookended by key story points and expositions that moved the narrative forward. When it worked, it really worked, but more often than not it just made everything between those key missions feel like busy work or an excuse to pad out the games’ lengths. And then Assassin’s Creed: Origins happened. The series opened up in a way more akin to western RPGs—in both scope, mission design/layout, and narrative. In Origins, this was a benefit. The central narrative felt more focused and of a whole. The next game in the series, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, got lost in its own scale. It is such a large game but the story is an afterthought, and it is a bad one at that. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla finds the perfect marriage between scope and story in regards to this new form of Assassin’s Creed games. And it does so by treating the main story and side stories like chapters and passages in a book, rather than one unbroken beat-by-beat story.
Each central story arc in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is treated as its own nearly-individual narrative. It is integral to the overarching plot but it stands out as its own thing—with new lands, characters, mission types, and more. These arcs feel like the chapters in a large fantasy novel. They brim with life and action and each of them stands out. We are introduced to new characters and perspectives, as well as new enemies, and then, every now and again, we are given a link to the chain that is the overarching narrative that is always in play. Some games do this, but it feels unique to Valhalla in the sense that it is a chapter-book experience draped over a Ubisoft open-world game. This lets the game and its world breathe. Instead of feeling like the check-the-boxes-off open-world game that most Ubisoft titles fall prey to, Valhalla feels different, if only slightly. This is due, in part, to how the story and its quests are packaged and delivered. There is a deliberate structure to each arc—they all feel vibrant, alive, and they are incredibly compelling. As they come to a close, it feels like turning the page to end a chapter in a book. There is finality, but we know there is more yet to come. And sometimes we are granted with cliffhangers (though these are often resolved in the individual arcs themselves). The macro-narrative of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and the meta-narrative of the series as a whole are always in play, but it is in how each arc and beat are delivered that makes this game feel literary. Instead of endless mundane missions and then one mission that is finished with an impactful cutscene, the arc-layout of Valhalla makes every mission feel unique and part of the greater story at hand. For as large as this game is, its central narrative, while vast, feels incredibly lean. No wasted space, no filler. Everything feels important and it plays like a book one can’t bring themselves to put down.
Yet, it is not only the central narrative that feels literary. Every sidequest in itself feels literary, but not in the novel—chapter-by-chapter structure—sense. The side missions and discoveries in the world of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla feel akin to a short story collection by an author that we are familiar with, but this specific short story collection is still unfamiliar to us. Each side mission/mini-story node on the map is its own type of discovery. The side mission icon in the game is like the title of a short story. We have an inkling of what to go off of, but once we start reading that short story (or playing that mission), we are met with the sense that a story is yet unfolding and is unfinished rather than like we are experiencing a story that has happened and come to a close. That is the brilliance of short story collections—they are a bundle of the unknown, and the side missions in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla resemble that. We are familiar with Assassin’s Creed and the game’s setting, but each side mission is not telegraphed. We have a blip on the map to go off of and that is all. The intent and structure of these small stories play out in front of us as if we are watching sentences and thoughts and actions complete themselves, piece-by-piece.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’s story does not feel literary though. It is still very much a video game. While literary in structure and delivery, what is delivered is just a video game story. Characters’ lives and key plot points are guided by the player, and while the world does its best to feel alive and a character unto itself, it is still relatively static until the player interacts with it in some manner. Yet, the fact that it is delivered in a way that is unique to the series does a lot of leg work for making it one of the best entries in the Assassin’s Creed series thus far. Eivor, too, is a deeply compelling character and the game’s desire to mine the depths of the human experience (through the lens of an open-world Viking game that thinks it has a lot more to say than it actually does) helps the central narrative when it occasionally falters. But I am still drawn to it, mainly because it feels like I am turning pages in a dense, grand hard-cover novel that is as thick as a loaf of bread and 10x heavier. Finishing each arc in the main story feels like exhaling a deep breath as there is a sense of comfort and finality to each one, and it leaves me excited for what arc will come next and how everything I am doing plays into the greater story. The side missions and how they are spaced out, shown, and delivered are what most compels me about Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. It is quite rare for a AAA game to feel like it has a genuine sense of discovery and is actually curious—both about the world of the game and those that inhabit it. Valhalla excels in this regard and that is almost solely due to the side content. Each short story is interesting, and while they run the gamut from bleak to comedic, they all help blanket Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla in a steep melancholy. The story is about change, and each side mission deals with this in some regard. Time moves on, and moving on can be incredibly hard. The odds and ends of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla shows how vast the term “moving on” can be. I might forget the central story in a few year's time, but I will never forget the side missions (or short stories, if you like) that I came across. The most memorable ones affected me in ways that full games, let alone side quests, rarely do—from a young girl watching a lone leaf on a tree in the hopes that it doesn’t fall because if it does, then it means her father is dead to the side mission about a Viking skald who was cast from his clan because his taste for violence had gone away and who now enjoys his final days playing an instrument alongside a flowing river in a peace that he has never known before. Literary play means a lot of things and a lot of games do it a lot better than Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, but sometimes we need to lose ourselves in a giant (mediocre) fantasy novel, and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is that and more.