Yesterday Ubisoft released the awesome trailer for Assassin's Creed: Valhalla.
I adore the other AC entries, and more importantly, I am a massive Viking nerd, so it's safe to say that I was excited.
I have dedicated years of research to Viking Age Scandinavia and Norse Mythology in order to write my fantasy trilogy "The Hanged God".
I have visited countless museums and sites, combed through archaeological findings, deciphered rune-stones and read Viking Age law-texts. I also spend my best summers sailing onboard the world's largest reconstructed Viking warship. I know my Vikings.
So, I thought it would be fun to share some of my knowledge of Vikings with you all by taking a look at the Assassin's Creed trailer shot by shot and talk about the historical accuracy and influences Ubisoft pulls from.
First off, I should say, that as a writer of fiction I know very well that it is impossible to be 100% historically accurate, nor is that my expectation.
Even historians and archaeologists aren't 100% in agreement about what the past really looked like, but more importantly, in fiction, our goal is above all to tell an engaging story.
Sometimes that means that we have to ignore historical facts, or twist certain facts or events to our advantage in order to make our plot work and create the piece of fiction that will be the most engaging to our audience.
That being said, I think this can be fun and we can all learn something both about the Viking Age and about visual story-telling (aka, why some things aren't historically accurate). Let's dig in...
Beautiful opening shot (in truth this whole trailer is beautiful, it needs to be said).
There is A LOT to say about this opening shot, but let's start simple.
Look at those sharp, snowy mountains. Although it's a common belief among non-Scandinavians that all of Scandinavia looks like this, with huge mountains and fiords, it does not.
Fiord, snow, mountains, pine trees. We're in Norway. There are also places in Sweden that could fit this description, but this is meant to be Norway. We are told as much in the short description of the game which states that our hero, Eivor, will lead "a clan of Norse warriors across the icy North Sea to flee Norway's endless war and dwindling resources."
That's all good for now, but the fact that we're dealing with Norwegian warriors is going to come up again later, so let's make a mental note of it.
Moving down from the mountains, we see this stunning structure. This is a perfect representation of a stave church.
Stave churches are Christian churches from the Viking Age.
Yes, you read that correctly: Christian. There were many stave churches throughout Scandinavia even before the Norse populations officially converted to Christianity.
This particular model, is almost identical to a very famous stave church which still stands today in Norway.
The Borgund stave church.
It's thought to have been constructed around the year 1200 and is now a museum that you can visit in Norway.
Other stave churches also survive in Scandinavia. Many of them were built around the same period as the Borgund stave church. The earliest archaeological evidence of them we have is from the 12th century.
Assassin's Creed: Valhalla (ASV from now on) takes place in the 9th century, so a few centuries earlier than the eldest known stave church. This does not necessarily make the presence of a stave church an inaccuracy.
The Gulating Law (a Norwegian law text written down in the 11th century and that dates back to the 10th century) has sections that talk about the building of churches, so we know that Christian churches were built before the 12th century. Whether they took the form of stave churches however, is uncertain and little more is known.
To sum up: we have a 12th century style Christian stave church at the top of the village.
It looks very cool, so one can hardly blame Ubisoft for wanting to include it.
Whether it will act out its function as a Christian church in the story remains to be seen. It would be very cool if it did. That would put some possible religious tension in the story from the very start.
Okay, moving on to something else in this opening shot...
(I told you there was a lot to talk about)
Look at all of those lights twinkling away. It looks so cosy and snug.
There is only one minor issue: Viking Age Scandinavians (let's just call them Norsemen from now on) did not have windows in their homes. The Norsemen did not master glass in the way we do today, so if there were windows in their houses as shown here, there would be no glass and the cold North wind would blow straight through the house and make the winters feel especially icy. The fire would really have to be burning hot to want to open up to the outside in cold conditions like these.
Without those lights though, this town would look dead and not very welcoming at all, so I suppose that it is to usher us, future players, closer that our kind Norsemen are letting the icy wind into their homes.
Last, I have two super nerdy details that I just made me smile, but I'm a nerd and that is why we're here, so...
Since it's difficult to see, I have circled the ship's steering oar (today we use rudders fixed to the bottom of the boat). These steering oars are all in the water.
It is a little known fact, but on the Viking ships I know, we twist the steering oar out of the water when we're in harbour. My understanding is that submerged in the water all the time the wood might absorb moisture and weaken it.
Now, it's clearly icy cold, but the ships are in the water. Freezing waters around the hull of the ship could cause a lot of damage, so that makes me worried.
Norsemen made shelters on land for their ships to over-winter and for them to be repaired. These ship-houses were called Naust (which is still the word for boathouse in Norwegian).
Pictured above is a reconstructed Naust at Nordvegen History Centre in Avaldsnes.
Everyone! We did it! We completed our run-down of the first screenshot!
Well done. We've got more work to do, though, so let's move on.
Here we can see more clearly that there is indeed no glass in windows. Those houses would be very cold.
"But if the Norsemen heated their houses with fires and had no windows, then wouldn't the house be full of smoke?" one might ask, and that's a good question.
This is why longhouses had smoke-holes in the middle of the roof. You can see one on the large longhouse in the screenshot above, it's like a chip in the middle of the roof.
By using a smoke-hole you would retain a lot of heat, but the smoke had an escape. It also provided dramatic light for storytelling.
(As pictured in this great photo from Trellborg's Yule celebrations)
The longhouse in ACV also looks very large compared to the archeological standard. It's certainly larger than any reconstructed longhouse I've seen and it appears to be 2 floors as well.
In the above screenshot we also see our hero's awesome axe, which is most definitely too awesome to be used to chop wood. (Fear not, we'll have a proper talk about axes later)
What really grabs my eye here is the clothes our Norsemen wear.
The women seem to wear tunics like the men, and no dresses with pretty brooches and beads hanging between. There is also a surprising lack of jewellery and ornaments. Everything I know about the Norsemen suggests that they were a bit vain when it comes to their fashion.
They liked bling, and they liked colours, decorations. Anything to make their outfit pop!
A common item also seems to belt pouches, which we see none of here. I would also expect to see people wear personal knives in their belts, at least as working tools.