And lo, when the first Red Dead Redemption came down from the mountain bearing the ten commandments for open world games set in a rural environment, upon the tablets were written:
"Thou shalt have bandit camps.
Thou shalt have treasure hunts.
And most important of all: thou shalt have weirdos."
To be more specific, thou shalt have short and narratively self-enclosed "Stranger missions” with colorful and absurd characters, including a man who insists that you deliver flowers to his dead wife’s corpse, a man in love with a horse named “Jeb’s Girl,” and a top-hatted gentleman who portends your death.
As the 2010s went on and the open world genre solidified into a dominant design paradigm, many games dutifully followed this commandment, including The Witcher 3 (remember the guy who wants to paint Geralt in the nude?) and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (remember the sexually insatiable old Greek woman?)
But who could have foreseen how enthusiastically, how aggressively, and how systematically Assassin’s Creed Valhalla would commit to the open world weirdo? The sheer number of them is a sight to behold; their prevalence is one of the game’s defining features. In place of traditional sidequests, which have largely been abandoned, Valhalla has “world events” with individuals of dubious sanity peppering every part of the map like fleas on the fur of a great shaggy dog. They can often interrupt the rote, all-too-familiar rhythm of open world busywork, aggressively grabbing the player’s attention with a burst of the macabre or the absurd. Very early in the game, you come across a man with an axe lodged in his head. It’s just a flesh wound, but he does need to take care of it, and the game gives you the option to tell him about it and pull it out. Rather than being concerned, “Axehead” asks if you want to go grab a pint of mead, and seems stoked when you reassure him he’s headed to Valhalla. The whole thing is weird enough to write an appreciation of (if you’re a Kotaku journalist) or, if you’re a regular player, pause your podcast: Wait, what just happened?
There’s something charming about the jaggedness of these stories. They can feel personalized, individually authored, even a little rebellious, like lewd phrases carved in wet cement. Far from contributing to the immersiveness of the game’s world, they instead gesture toward its artificiality, reaching out to you and reminding you that humans made this thing. The seams show; the scripting is more obvious than it is elsewhere. Some are easily broken in ways that might never be fixed, like the tale of a fisherman crushed by a giant rock that, in my game at least, became impossible to resolve. Some feel like inside jokes that you aren’t quite privy to, or the end-product of late-night Slack convos.
At the same time, there’s also something disturbingly programmatic about them. Over the course of the game’s many hours of mostly homogenous content, they become reliable pellets of weirdness, wasabi peas in the neverending trail mix of bandit outposts, Roman ruins, monastery raids, and period-appropriate dice games. Their interruptive and potentially subversive idiosyncrasy gets overwhelmed by their sheer quantity, the sameness of their difference. The more you complete, the harder it is to escape the deadening sensation that they comprise a market-tested microgenre designed, like everything else in the game, to mildly titillate the open-world player for 5-10 minutes at a time.
Over time, they even start to congeal into subcategories with distinct and recognizable themes. In some ways, this consistency allows them to be more meaningful than they would be in isolation. But in other ways it speaks to everything that’s wrong with the “Stranger” quest form:
Someone Has Declared Himself King
Several of Valhalla’s world events are about petty egos perched insouciantly in tiny kingdoms of their own making. These are people with Vermin Supreme energy, crabby sovereign citizens defying a political order that is rapidly solidifying around them. A man in Grantebridgescire calls himself king of a small islet in the middle of a river; a “Bishop of the Ruins” imposes his hatred of music on the surrounding peasantry; a big fella in Suthsexe gets miffed when you steal treasure in front of his subjects, a half-dozen burning scarecrows. Meanwhile, in remote Sciropscire, a leathery loner quite literally plays “King of the Hill” against the entire world, fighting anyone who would dare invade his perch … at the top of a hill. Like many of the game’s world events, the “King of the Hill” incident cleverly subverts the ossified muscle memory of the open-world player, the instinct that tells you to move on to the next map point as quickly as humanly possible when a bite-sized task feels done. As soon as you beat him up and walk away, he goes right back to declaring himself king of the hill—at which point you have to go back and beat him up again. This happens several times; he doesn’t seem to learn.
Someone Is a Fanatic
Several world events depict people who are just about ready to leave this world because they’re more focused on the next one. Axehead belongs to this group, but so does another early character who sets the trend: in the game’s Norwegian prologue, you climb the sheer face of a snow-capped mountain and find a traveler with a wagon, looking out over the edge of a cliff. He asks you to throw a bunch of crates over the cliff—his belongings, which will be there for him in Valhalla. And then, of course, he throws himself. In an event that occupies another potential category (Someone Needs You to Murder Everyone in a Bandit Camp for Questionable Reasons), you encounter a man in Grantebridgescire who believes that he is already in another world—the realm of Alfheim, fighting dark elves (bandits) on behalf of the light elves. And why not? Slaughtering bandits is ugly business; might as well make it mean something.
Someone is a Fraud
In a frontier setting so deeply suffused with delusion, superstition, and a less-than-functional information economy, you run into more than your fair share of no-good flim-flamming charlatans trying to pull one over on you and take your hacksilver. In the gorgeous red and lavender hills of Ledecestrescire, you find a potion vendor who asks you to bring him bear testicles and lichen to make an instant-wealth elixir; somewhat predictably, he drugs you, robs you, and leaves you for dead in a cave. And the world of Valhalla is filled with ever more creative scammers, including a man in Sciropscire who hides behind a dead body on the side of the road and pretends to make it talk; a man, identified as “Bad Father” by the game, who invents a sacrifice-hungry sea monster to justify drowning his own daughter; and a mystical “Fertility Rock” that ends up being some guy who just impregnates women himself. Some are even Fanatic/Fraud crossovers: for example, the “Devout Monk” who keeps proclaiming from a wooden stool that he has renounced all earthly possessions—until you take his treasure and he tries to kill you, at which point you also learn that he’s keeping several dead bodies in the shed behind his house.
Someone Smells Like Poop
A not-inconsiderable number of world events revolve around a throwaway character whose main attribute is that they stink really bad, or at least more than the average medieval person. One such individual is a Lincolnscire archer named “Degolas,” whose entire family is suffering because he refuses to stop coating his arrows in feces; another is a woman living in the sewers of Ledecestre, who demands snake eggs until you give her enough for her to unleash a massive, toxic fart on the unsuspecting people in the town square above. But scatological humor pervades tales in other categories as well—for example, the somewhat incoherent incident with a figure named the “Briar-King,” who has taken over an abandoned church and sits on a throne that might be made of excrement.
By no means does this taxonomy cover all the ornery and abject fools that dot the English hills; many more of them go beyond these themes, including ones that exist purely to make some sort of pop-culture reference (“Alisa’s Adventures in Wunderlandscire”; a nod to Essex-based band The Prodigy) and ones that end up, against all odds, delivering a poignant micronarrative. The most affecting one of all might be “Sunken Hope,” which takes place in a ruined tower jutting out of a lake in the middle of remote Eurvicscire. Two young girls ask you to find their father, who has gone diving for treasure. He is dead; you can either lie or tell them the truth. Either way, you never see them again.
A world event like “Sunken Hope” demonstrates that this microgenre need not be confined to Monty Python-esque throwaway gags. The vignettes can be expressive and meaningful, evoking the many forms of immiseration and precarity that define life in this place, at this time, for the hopelessly non-aristocratic person. They can push back against the series’ unfortunate tendency to overshadow the material conditions of history (which, at least graphically, the games display in amazingly crafted detail) with a “Great Man” narrative of kings and conquest and shadowy intrigue among literally superhuman elites. They can highlight the conditions of the average peasant (or at least the somewhat more … memorable peasant) in ways that the other much-derided narrative technique of open world games, environmental storytelling, can never pull off quite so vividly.
And in the aggregate, even the jokey ones can end up being meaningful, at least insofar as they crystallize broader themes that the game tries to explore in its more central narrative threads. The many vignettes about self-declared monarchs pretty clearly invite you to examine the emptiness and arbitrariness of the settler-colonial authorities you yourself aid so frequently throughout the game, whether you’re installing a new king in Mercia or helping the jarl of Grantebridgescire consolidate her power. The ones about religious fanaticism, Norse and Christian alike, reveal in starkly minimalist terms just how much a teleological spirituality—an orientation toward death, apocalypse, the eventual transcendence of the material—can compound the darkness and misery of medieval life by allowing people to forgo concern for this world in favor of the next.
The ones about delusion, and more specifically self-delusion, resonate even more acutely with the delusions of grandeur you find elsewhere—including the burgeoning Mad King energy of Sigurd, protagonist Eivor’s adoptive brother, who comes to view himself as a god. Alongside Sigurd, but in smaller ways, the petty megalomaniacs of Valhalla embody the psychosis at the root of frontierism, the way it requires a narcissism of epic, deranged proportions to believe yourself divinely entitled to take another's land. They reveal that the same delusions that motivate the everyday medieval peasant, scrambling to stake some claim to a hostile and harsh environment, drive the kings and jarls of the world, who simply have the resources to make their delusions real.
So these world events do not simply furnish the player with an opportunity to chuckle at the medieval equivalent of Florida Man. They add ideological and psychological texture, sprinkling a certain kind of megalomaniacal folly everywhere in a way that makes it seem almost like a dominant structure of feeling or spirit of the age. Those who would prefer not to think of the “Dark Ages” as a benighted era of barbarism and illiteracy probably won’t be happy to encounter the umpteenth micro-story about a Fart-King who lives in a chicken coop. But the game has a macro-perspective on this era that the micro-events help build: a historical—maybe even moral—argument about frontierism and the irrational narcissism that sustains it.
And yet, if the game wants to be woke or at least self-conscious about settler-colonial conquest, it runs immediately into the problem that the entire structure of open world games is itself a model of settler-colonial conquest. This one cleverly tries to hide that analogy by insisting that Eivor, a literal Viking invader, is pursuing “alliances” in each shire rather than conquering them, but in gameplay terms it’s still conquest: once you’re done with each region’s questline, she slides a little raven statue on a piece of the war room map. Playing pretty much any open world game can feel like your own petty couch-bound version of colonial extractivism: going into a swath of “virgin land,” teeming with resources, and taking whatever you want. Conquering the world shire by shire; displacing and exterminating the people who are already there; adding everything, from the biggest nuggets of “Wealth” to the most random trinkets you loot from corpses, to a Scrooge McDuck treasure pile that grows and grows. Even breaking up a rock cluster with iron ore inside—ore that just falls out in satisfying chunks, ready to be hoovered up with a rapid mashing of the triangle button—represents a fantasy in miniature for the player who lives in a contemporary reality of merciless competition and scarcity.
Valhalla’s world events have the potential, at least, to interrupt the player’s vacuum cleaner orgy of frictionless consumption. But they also get sucked into it, subsumed by it. Yellow dots represent “Wealth”; blue dots represent weirdos (as well as other “mysteries,” like legendary animals and Animus anomalies). Both can be collected in uniform and nonconfrontational chunks of gameplay that add to slowly-increasing collectible meters. In The Witcher 3, sidequests often resist easy consumption, either by presenting you with genuinely difficult moral choices or by ensnaring you deeply in the relationships and grievances of a hamlet in the middle of nowhere. In Valhalla, people’s stories become consumables in the most dramatically explicit way. The lives of others have been refined into little pills of strangeness.
In this way, the overall framing of the world events not only ends up neutering and containing their subversiveness, but also resembles other contemporary microgenres that render the lives of others as smooth, colorful, and uniformly packaged consumables. In the aggregate they start to feel like The Moth stories, the Instagram account “Humans of New York,” even certain TED talks: stories of astonishing love, pain, joy, or tragedy rendered homogenous by a genre structure that maximizes portability. In a quietly blistering critique of “Humans of New York,” Vinson Cunningham describes how Brandon Stanton’s photo-and-caption combos contribute to a “slow but certain lexical refashioning” of the very idea of a story:
"Once an arrangement of events, real or invented, organized with the intent of placing a dagger—artistic, intellectual, moral—between the ribs of a listener or reader, a story has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away. “Storytelling,” in this parlance, is best employed in the service of illuminating business principles, or selling tickets to non-profit galas, or winning contests."
The whole appeal of “Humans of New York” is that it’s supposed to confront the viewer with a frictional otherness: I am here, the subject says, and I am different from you, and I matter. But the glossy portrait, the encasement within Instagram’s neat grid, the brevity, the constructed tug on your heartstrings—all these features of the packaging allow you to consume the person casually and move on. They allow you to feel moved, and good about yourself, and a bit smug, without ever questioning your own place in the world or your structural relation to the subject of the story. A consumer society makes everything a consumable eventually, including the very forms of empathy and sympathy that threaten to subvert it.
In 2013, Nicholas Dames observed something similar about the contemporary American short story: a genre that was once, for many twentieth century writers, devoted to revealing the texture of people’s lives in 8,000-word slices of realism had largely given itself over to “elevator-pitch weirdness.” Like bottle episodes of a TV show, the most well-known stories of the '90s and 2000s became all about the conceit, the hook, the “what if ...” hypothetical. You would enter these micro-worlds, invited by their alluring otherness, and then you would leave them all-too-easily, carrying nothing back to your soul.
Something similar has happened in Valhalla. However weird, however confrontational, however much they interrupt the player’s consumption of medieval England, the world events represent the purest attempt yet to make a storytelling structure that fits snugly into the rhythm of the open world player’s countrywide acquisitive rampage. Ubisoft made a mini-muffin pan and poured the batter of human interest into it; as with every other component of this game genre, the goal is to stuff the player, bite by bite.
Dames asks a resonant question: “Does the short story form, even at its most ambitious, have the power to do anything more than bring us into its cave for a time, its casket of oddity? Does its refusal of amplitude disable it from producing the kind of empathy it seeks?”
You could ask the same question about the “caskets of oddity” in Valhalla. But it might be giving them too much credit to say they seek empathy at all.
Matt Margini is a freelance writer, the videogame editor of Public Books, and the author of a book on Red Dead Redemption for Boss Fight Books, which you can check out here and buy here. You can find him on Twitter.