In the mythology of the frozen North, the Gods know their place. As we peasants till the earth with our frozen knuckles waiting for the sun to return, we expect results from those above. If the crops failed, we could blame the crop-bringer Thor as much as praise him when frostbite held back. If famine persisted, we could sacrifice our own King to him. Finally, if that failed, we’d sentence him to being forgotten. Early Christian missionaries were baffled by a people who had adapted every part of their mythology to pain, disease, darkness and the inexorable crawl of famine. A God above the judgment of man? Who you couldn’t touch or kill? What fun could that possibly be?
The Norse have been thoroughly represented in computer games; their names plundered for games as diverse as StarCraft, Max Payne, Age of Mythology and the brilliant-but- forgotten Hammer of the Gods (Holistic Design, 1995). Among them all, Norsehelm Productions’ Ragnarok (aka Valhalla) is the most brutally unforgiving, and therefore fitting, take on the impossibly bureaucratic and complex Norse mythology. It continues to provide an object lesson in game balancing 15 years after it first began shattering the dreams of anyone who dared to step outside the safety of their village.
On the surface, Ragnarok is an unassuming rogue-like PC game possessed of a peculiar amount of traditional RPG mechanics. Many of the NetHack elements are there, but the constraint of a tightly formed mythology and mission structure makes the chaos and random area generation infinitely more compelling. While much less is possible for the player than in most rogue-likes, the tension and paranoia of the game turn random dungeons into heart-stopping affairs.
The game introduces you to a somber situation via text on an introductory screen: “Your village, once peaceful and thriving, is deserted and overrun by creatures from the nearby forest.” Your list of quests doesn’t begin small; simply go to the battle at the end of time, and be sure to bring the gods all the weapons they’ll need to kill the creatures of chaos, before they die themselves. There are no “please clear my basement of rats,” only “help end the world in a slightly less depressing manner.” And so, you venture out as one of six classes and fumble through a system of codes that need methodical unraveling before you can hope to live past a single screen of the forest outside.
You can read scrolls and drink potions, if you find them, but the scrolls are “ragged” or “papyrus,” the potions “grimy” or merely “orange.” They could bless your sword with a much-needed +1, or far more likely, kill you horribly, described in the sparsest prose at the bottom of the screen, “You die.” Your only choice is to work your way around the safer edges of the world, picking off what you can while scouring for scrolls of identification that will let you avoid drinking or reading anything disastrous. Slowly but surely, it’s possible to turn the odds in your favor and begin crawling through the lists of quests. On your second playing, Ragnarok‘s genius is apparent; where “grimy” was a boon for one character, for the next it means instant death.
You Die (and die and die)
This controlled chaos means more than just replayability. Ragnarok is nothing short of a simulator for the capriciousness of the ancient world. Life for characters in the game is as brutal and forceful as the time it represents. Whereas other games are happy to use Norse mythology as an identikit racial mode that plays nicely with others to provide a mix of abilities or units, Ragnarok‘s torment of its players teaches them to submit to fatalism and fully embrace the Norse way of life.
Element by element, what begins as survival morphs into an aggressive assault on the game mechanics, as you menace the unseen data spreads. You figure, for example, that a scroll of blessing can be used to empower a scroll of identification. That scroll can then identify everything in your backpack. Eating certain monster corpses gives you powers. With each scrap of knowledge, the game bends to your will. In the process, dozens of your heroes will perish, in one form or another, falling prey to those two ever-hanging words: You die.
You manage to teleport yourself to Slaeter’s Sea. You are hit by a hatchetfish; you die. You zap yourself with a wand; you die. You grow an extra finger; you die. You commit magical genocide on a race of bats, heavenly rangers appear; you die. As you continually perish, the game deletes your save file but keeps your ghosts around to torment you; literally a case of anti-experience points. The more you lose, the harder it gets. Become careless and the forest outside the village screams with ghosts and zombies, former selves come back to punish you for not being strong enough.
From the simple graphics to the deliberate pace of weapon acquisition, every aspect of Ragnarok is tinged with the sadness and fury of Norse mythology. Vast forces swirl around you, and the epic quest will be fulfilled through divine luck and an iron will much more than skill or experience. As the game world grows and you can escape into all the realms of Midgard, the monsters grow more powerful by orders of magnitude, all capable of smashing apart your hours of play but urging you on with the promise of dropped loot and an edible corpse.
Underneath the rhythm of difficulty and weirdness sits something utterly unique; you are being slowly religiously converted. Not into the literal worship of 16-color gods only a handful of pixels high, rather your approach to the game can take on any form, as long as it adjusts to the possibility of the next keystroke teleporting you inside the stomach of a Hel dragon, having an entire class of items written out of existence forever or finding yourself deep in a mushroom-powered hallucinogenic death sequence. The result of this abusive relationship is the player gradually becomes more Norse in his style and method of play. They simply have to in order to climb over Yggdrasil, the world-tree and finally across Bifrost, the rainbow bridge to heaven where the gods are already half-dead, having waited so long for your arrival.
Make Me a Believer
RPGs have always been steeped in eschatology; the study of the end of the world. Heroes go from sleepy amnesiacs to saviors and Gods in a matter of hours, without ever disturbing the gel in their hair. By the time we reach the end we are a walking inventory of potential. Like all good saviors, death is impossible, and we can roll back the stone to reveal the save file. To save the world, heroes have to be blank slates, their paths to greatness inevitably slicked with blood.
Norse heroes are different in one subtle way: They are equals of the gods in every respect, who are mortal, bound by laws and have gods and giants of their own to fear. There is no resurrection, only rebirth. Forget becoming the God of War and reveling in vaguely homoerotic triumph on a brooding throne; the real battle has just begun. Norse mythology is, and always was, playable. Every journey is heroic. It demands people accept chaos, and then shows them how to tame it. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the falcon cannot hear the falconer – the hero wades in, eye-deep in hell, and prays for good fortune.
Ragnarok is ultimately a gaming paean to an ancient way of life. It is neither faithful nor meticulous, but acts as a manual for true believers. To be Norse is to know you’re already doomed, and the gods are coming with you. We are trained through the game’s trials and errors – through actually eating the corpses of our failures – to understand it wasn’t all feasting, horned helmets and heavy metal. A true test of faith.
Christian McCrea is a freelance writer for The Escapist.