But that doesn't mean that game developers gravitated toward Vikings; in fact, instances of true Viking settings in videogames have been so rare that it's possible to sketch out their history in a couple of paragraphs. While the Scandinavian raiders do appear in some of the genre's earliest titles, most notably in two 1983 text-based adventures known as The Saga of Erik the Viking and Valhalla, more traditional "knights, castles, and elves" titles have dominated the fantasy games on the market. When Vikings did pop up in videogames in the early years, they usually did so in humorous settings (as in Blizzard Entertainment's famed first effort, The Lost Vikings) or in strategy titles such as Age of Empires II that kept personal interactions with the Northern raiders at a comfortable distance.
Even now, many players don't realize that they're actually fighting the spiritual descendents of Fenrir when they're fighting giant wolves in another game."
The turning point came with Rune, a gorgeously bloody hack-and-slash that propelled Vikings into the videogame world with a force akin to that first raid on Lindisfarne in 793. According to Ted Halstead, Rune's lead level designer and writer, Rune was quite likely the first "real" Viking game. "It simply hadn't been done before," Halstead said. "Until Rune, other games borrowed from Norse mythology, but they disguised it for some reason. Even now, many players don't realize that they're actually fighting the spiritual descendents of Fenrir when they're fighting giant wolves in another game."
Other games followed in Rune's bloody footsteps. In 2003, Bethesda itself provided a glimpse of what awaits in Skyrim with Bloodmoon, the second expansion pack for Morrowind. The adventure game Viking: Battle For Asgard landed in 2008, and the same year witnessed Silicon Knights' ambitious Too Human, an initially promising blend of science fiction elements and Norse mythology. Blizzard Entertainment even injected a popular Viking-based race known as the Vrykul into the second expansion for World of Warcraft, and by January of this year, the Scandinavians themselves were getting in on the act with Magicka, which peppered a thin base of Norse mythology with often-farcical references to popular culture.
Skyrim thus marks a crest on the Vikings' long but steady voyage back to popularity. While Skyrim and the Nords aren't true parallels of medieval Scandinavia and the Vikings, Bethesda's creation nevertheless comes closer to capturing the feel of medieval Scandinavian society than any other game that's come before. Even its themes mirror many of those found in the sagas. The focus on dragons, Martin Arnold points out, has its roots in Beowulf and the Volsunga Saga, which both featured Nordic heroes hunting down dragon-like creatures in their lairs. "The Volsunga Saga in particular was essentially the story of Odin's quest to create the ultimate warrior," Arnold says, which has significant parallels with Skyrim's Dragonborn.
But Skyrim's very setting is one of its greatest assets over other fantasy games. Joe Abercrombie, a British author known for his First Law trilogy of fantasy novels (and who had to be pulled away from Skyrim for this interview) admits that he found some of the previous Elder Scrolls games "an incoherent mass of fantasy clichés," and that he thinks Skyrim's Scandinavian-styled setting is a mighty step in the right direction. "Compare the blandness of the Fighter's Guild in Oblivion with the Companions in Skyrim," Abercrombie said. "The Fighter's Guild consisted of a bunch of fighters who met in various non-descript fantasy buildings, while the Companions seem to have a whole ethos and live in an upended longship." Skyrim's Viking setting, in other words, allowed Bethesda to maintain the series' fantasy aesthetic while giving it a newfound stylistic coherence. This, possibly more than anything else, gives Skyrim a flavor that feels refreshingly exotic when compared to its predecessors and competition.