Credible, the Vikings of Assassin's Creed Valhalla? We spoke with a historian from Ubisoft
Twelfth game of the "Assassin's Creed" series, "Valhalla" takes players back to the 9th century to a Viking colony, first in Norway and then in England. Terribly immersive, this epic is teeming with details about life at the time. The result of a collaboration between developers and historians, including Thierry Noël, who tells the story of this creative process at Europe 1 (a French radio station).
In thirteen years and twelve games, Assassin's Creed has established itself as one of the most popular video game licenses in the world. A success due in large part to its trademark: the careful reconstruction, for each episode, of a different period in history. Whether it's the monuments, like the Pyramids of Giza in Origins, the atmosphere, like the French Revolution in Unity, or the characters, like Socrates and Leonidas Crusaders in Odyssey, each opus offers an immersive plunge into the past. For the release of Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Europe 1 interviewed Thierry Noël, historian at Ubisoft, to dissect the work done this time on the Viking era.
Ongoing exchanges with developers
At Ubisoft, history is taken very seriously. Thierry Noël is part of the "research unit", a group of specialists (historians, geographers...) integrated into the studio and in charge of conducting research for games. "In the case of Assassin's Creed, it is essentially historical research with the aim of providing developers with a maximum of elements to feed the world. We're constantly exchanging with them, answering their questions, and drawing on our databases," explains this doctor of history. A ping-pong game that can last a long time: Assassin's Creed Valhalla took three years of work.
And it starts with the choice of the time. The series has already visited Egypt and Ancient Greece, the Crusades, the Italian Renaissance, the Golden Age of Piracy, the French and American Revolutions and up to the Industrial Revolution in England. "Our role, at the research unit, is to evaluate the potential of the periods envisaged by the producers: what we know about them, what was happening there, what factions were involved, what were the stakes and power dynamics, etc.," says Thierry Noël. This time, the choice fell on the Viking conquests in 9th century England. "Compared to the previous opuses, which took place in Antiquity, this time we had much less resources."
Rid the Vikings of stereotypes
In fact, this period is often referred to as the "Dark Ages". " This period of the Middle Ages is sometimes given a bad reputation, but it is quite a culturally rich period. On the other hand, it is rather poorly documented," concedes the historian. To begin with, we had to get rid of clichés. "The Vikings were not a people! It was an activity among others in the peoples of present-day Scandinavia, which we know very little about", he recalls. "The Vikings were the warriors who went on their drakkar for raids of trade, exploration, looting, and even went to settle in another part of the world.
If history has remembered the wars and associates the Vikings with bloodthirsty warriors, with them "everything was not conflictual, far from it", assures Thierry Noël. "The rare sources that document the Viking era, between 800 and 1100 approximately, were written by those who suffered their devastating raids, especially the Anglo-Saxons. Of course, it did not leave a very good image of them", the historian grinds. "In reality, there was a whole culture, a society that was richer than we think. It was a population that was curious, that wanted to discover the known world and even beyond, since we now know that the Vikings went all the way to America".
Reconstructing an era, "a meticulous work".
Although the Assassin's Creed series focused on the bloody battles, game historians have insisted on a more complete picture of Viking life, centered on exchanges with the inhabitants of the fragmented England of the time. An idea that translates in Valhalla by the settlement colony that must be developed. "Take the city of York: it was controlled by the Vikings, but it was a commercial city, cosmopolitan with people from all over Europe, Byzantium and even North Africa," the historian points out. "It is moreover in York that archaeologists have found a fascinating religious object: a small mold that allows on one side to make Christian crosses and on the other Thor's hammers. It sums up this era well."
An attention to detail found throughout the game, from buildings to characters to the muddy hills of the English countryside. "It's a meticulous reenactment work. We were asked what the locks were like at the time! We also researched the dyes used to determine the potential colors of the clothes," explains Thierry Noël. "For the authenticity, we relied on experts of the time. We worked with linguists specializing in Old English and Old Norse to try to reconstruct words used in this period because the lexicon which reached us is very weak".
Finding the balance between historical fidelity and entertainment
A historical framework to be respected. But which should not make us forget that it is a video game. "It's a game, so there's entertainment, action, emotion. But there is a rather strong historical authenticity. We're looking for the grey areas, we respect the period and its stakes as much as possible, while at the same time bringing in a bit of creativity," says the Ubisoft historian. "In the case of Valhalla, we asked ourselves the question of heights.
It's a game in which you climb everywhere. Except that in the 9th century, there weren't many architectures that exceeded one floor. Fortunately, it was quickly identified that there were a certain number of Roman vestiges in Anglo-Saxon England that allowed us to play with heights".
Like what Ubisoft had developed in the last two games (Origins, in Egypt, and Odyssey, in Greece), Valhalla draws heavily on northern mythology, from Odin to Thor through the kingdom of Asgard and the World Tree Yggdrasil.
"We know, in particular thanks to the famous 'sagas', that the Nordic peoples gave a great place to religious or legendary aspects, beliefs and superstitions of all kinds. We wanted to leave this part of myth in the game", confesses Thierry Noël. Specialist of Latin America, he dreams of an Assassin's Creed centered on another kind of myth: Simon Bolivar and the wars of independence.