When I was a teenager, my parents took me to Stonehenge. Walking the path that runs along the side of the circle, listening to the audio guide, looking out at the stones to my left, I didn’t hear their warning that I was about to walk straight into the small, shin-high barrier, and tripped. They still talk about this often, how in awe I was.
Stonehenge is front and centre in a lot of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s marketing. The series has always used historical landmarks to entice, and then stuffed them full of collectables and main story missions that cast them as backdrops for their increasingly convoluted overarching plots. In the present day section of Valhalla an email on Layla’s computer even lampshades this tendency. “How could that NOT be an Isu site?” it asks, referring to the series’ precursor god race.
But Valhalla surprised me. There’s no mission that takes the player to Stonehenge, no collectable there. It’s one of many stone circles in the game, and no different from the others. They each have a small puzzle. Eivor’s special abilities allow them to see a pattern on the stones, which lines up when viewed from just the right angle. There, Eivor crouches, the camera pulls in, and their health regenerates. It’s a nod to the Isu power of the places, presumably, but absent anything else to do, the actual player action is simply to soak in the atmosphere. It’s the closest thing Ubisoft could do to adding the verb “appreciate” into their repertoire.
But they want you to appreciate Valhalla’s sweeping landscapes without any of the discomfort that might be necessary to actually explore them. Critic Austin Walker once called Assassin’s Creed Odyssey frictionless. “There are no animations for picking up resources like bundles of oak logs from trees and … paying off a bounty on your head is both cheap as hell and something you can do from your menu,” he wrote. Valhalla is the same, if not smoother. There are no bounties. Picking up resources again has no animation, but in Odyssey those oak logs were at least for making arrows. Now, Eivor has no need for crafting. The only thing they grab is berries and mushrooms crammed right into their mouth or pockets for the future.
Eivor can move anywhere without pausing for a second; there’s no undergrowth to catch their ankles, they can outrun bears and scale any cliff. But they also move through an England that is beautiful and only ever beautiful. Every season is represented: summery golden sun through trees, autumn foliage, winter snow. Wildlife lets you get very close before fleeing, the better to see it. Even the rain is an infrequent drizzle, which anyone living in England will tell you is flat out wrong.
It’s not the inaccuracy that’s the problem, though. It’s this idea that landscape is something that you can press “X” to appreciate. That day at Stonehenge, I didn’t walk off the path because I was in awe. I walked off the path because I was trying, desperately, to be. As if I could find just the right spot and soak it up from the ground like Eivor does. But to really love this land, its nature and its history and the parts that are both, requires engaging with its friction, not finding the right angle to stare from.
Robert Macfarlane, in his book The Old Ways, talks constantly about friction. He doesn’t phrase it as such, but his description of travelling some of the oldest paths in Britain focuses on the concept as much as it focuses on the beauty of the island, if not more. At the beginning of his trip on the Iron Age Icknield Way, he describes falling off his bike and breaking two ribs. There are as many descriptions of exhaustion, getting lost, and endless biting insects as there are soaring descriptions of views, wildlife, and ancient monuments. Of a particular Scottish hill pass he writes “it is among the most affective places I know,” and then, a sentence later, adds: “people have died in the Lairig Ghru.”
“Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum,” writes Macfarlane, a definition that easily describes Eivor’s world. “I prefer to take ‘landscape’ as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme) and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment.”
His emphasis on bristling notes that it’s borrowed from an earlier quote by writer and poet Nan Shepherd, but that borrowing makes it the primary focus of the paragraph. Even when focusing on beautiful sensory descriptors, the verb choice evokes prickles, ragged edges, things you can catch yourself on.
Many of the things that he describes, like smells and textures, are not possible to experience in a videogame. Valhalla is also restricted by its sheer size; necessarily made up of a limited number of assets, many notably borrowed from earlier games in the series. I would not criticise this process, particularly given how additional detail would inevitably require more crunch from developers. But a lack of bristle is an artistic choice, not a limitation.
It’s visible even within the game itself. England is deliberately contrasted against Eivor’s native Norway. The land there is tough to move through, with snow drifts to slow you down, unscalable ice, and water that’s deadly cold. It’s still beautiful, but the land provides some resistance. You have to appreciate it on its own terms.
Macfarlane’s writing, as well as my own experience, makes clear that doing so is the only way to make the landscape truly fulfilling. Treating it as a backdrop rather than something that bristles makes it something you trip over trying to find the perfect angle to view it from, an angle that doesn’t exist. Appreciate the bristle, and it’s everywhere.
But Valhalla’s presentation is closer to how the land has actually been treated. A beautiful backdrop is nice, but the frictionless experience is the most important thing. The real England is a record of that process more than it is anything else. Paved roads, forests forcibly tamed into fields, hedgerows cut into stark squares. Even most of the stone circles are in disrepair because they were ploughed right through in the Middle Ages.Throughout history, the people of England have wanted to smooth out nature’s bristles to better fit their purposes in the same way that Valhalla smooths the player’s interaction with its world.
While I’ve been playing Valhalla and reading Macfarlane, several people I know are contesting the HS2 railway that threatens some of what little ancient woodland still stands on this island. My father is one of them, and he talks often about the way that the government wants to scythe through the red tape of their own laws in the same way that they want to cut through the trees: with chainsaws that provide no resistance. He is not under any illusion that their legal contests or physical occupations will actually stop the railway being built. He just wants to provide a little friction.
Jay Castello is a freelance writer. If they're not down a research rabbit hole you'll probably find them taking bad photographs near a riverbank or old tree. You can follow them on Twitter @jaymcastello.