Few historical settings seem so appropriate for videogames as Viking-age Scandinavia. Even if you disregard its grim mythology and sagas stuffed with stoic comitati, it’s hard to dismiss the entertainment potential offered by a society that produced kings with names like Eric Bloodaxe. And yet, until Skyrim, videogame developers have done exactly that for the most part. That’s not to say that videogames are strangers to elements of Norse mythology (consider, for instance, the wolf Sif in Dark Souls or the Jormungand Brood of StarCraft), but extensive Viking settings and storylines in videogames are less common than air conditioners in Iceland.
For a time, it seemed like Viking lore would never fully recover from the Nazi stain.
It’s not immediately clear why. Even now, it’s evident that Skyrim‘s expansive Viking-styled settings and ambience partly account for the game’s wild popularity. While its Nordic trappings aren’t a far cry from the overused fantasy tropes of crenellated castles, knights, and forests (which, in fact, filled Oblivion, Skyrim‘s predecessor), they do feel just foreign enough to imbue the game with a novel aura. That unfamiliarity in itself is surprising, considering how long Viking lore has been around, but there may be historical reasons for its absence from cultural consciousness.
According to Martin Arnold, a professor of Scandinavian Literature at England’s University of Hull, a spirit of “popular enthusiasm for a particularly Germanic northern tradition bloomed at the beginning of the Romantic era,” especially in response to James Macpherson’s wildly celebrated Celtic “Ossian” cycle and the rediscovery of treasures such as the epic poem Beowulf. At its height, this interest grew to include the German composer Richard Wagner’s famed Ring Cycle, which drew much of its inspiration from Old Norse mythology and Icelandic sagas.
“The problem is that Wagner’s Ring Cycle and related works were absorbed into all kinds of dangerous ideas about white supremicism,” Arnold says. “In time, these assertions of cultural identity gradually took on a more belligerent form that was especially evident in Germany.” Indeed, by the time World War II erupted, key members of the Nazi high command such as Heinrich Himmler were established authorities in the field, and Viking runes were used to represent the Schutzstaffel (SS). “This was a catastrophe for Nordic mythology,” Arnold said. And for a time, it seemed like Viking lore would never fully recover from the Nazi stain.
But redemption came from an unlikely place. “In a curious way,” Arnold said, “it was the United States that really started to rescue Nordic and Viking themes by debunking the high culture stuff with releases such as Bugs Bunny cartoons that ridiculed the Wagnerian themes.” Not much later, the superhero Thor made his first appearance in Marvel comic books, and comic strips such as Hagar the Horrible did away with many of the weighty themes that had come to define the mythology. And, of course, no single person had a greater impact on the development of contemporary fantasy quite like J.R.R. Tolkien. While Tolkien only tangentially incorporated Vikings into his work — even his Rohirrim were more Anglo-Saxon than Viking — he showed that similar fantasy settings could still exist without all the baggage from the Third Reich.
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.
Skyrim doesn’t just rely on Viking clichés such as horned helmets. In fact, far from ignoring the thorny issues associated with the celebration of Viking culture, Bethesda seems to weave them into game’s narrative. The nationalistic and often racist ramblings of Ulfric Stormcloak occasionally leave him sounding like a fur-clad Himmler, and the Nords who support him sometimes seem eager to inflict their own version of Kristallnacht on the maligned Dark Elves. But these aren’t the only Nords we see. Half of the region still allies itself with the wider Empire, and these citizens maintain pride in their culture while espousing a more cosmopolitan view of their world. In some ways, it’s tempting to see their loyalty as a parallel to the many Norwegians who resisted the German occupation in the 1940s. At the risk of reading too much into Bethesda’s narrative, I suggest that such parallels render Skyrim‘s story a worthy metaphor of the struggle that Viking and Nordic themes have had to overcome since World War II.
The nationalistic and often racist ramblings of Ulfric Stormcloak occasionally leave him sounding like a fur-clad Himmler.
But does Skyrim‘s success mean that we’ll see an outpouring of Viking-based settings in future fantasy games and literature? Joe Abercrombie doesn’t think so. While Abercrombie has toyed with Viking elements in his own novels, he finds a Viking mindset more useful than the actual setting. If the Vikings have any attraction for contemporary audiences, he says, it’s because their themes mirror those of the contemporary zeitgeist. “Lately a lot of the savagery, sex, treachery and moral ambiguity that is so much a hallmark of genuine Norse myth (and a lot of other myth, for that matter), and that Tolkien tended to minimize in his work, is leaching more and more into mainstream fantasy,” he said.
Ted Halsted, however, believes that videogame developers have only tapped the surface of what Viking settings can offer. “The possibilities of the subject matter are limitless,” he says. “It covers all the aspects of the human condition, from love, to treachery, to betrayal, not to mention serpents so big that they encircle the world.” Arnold suspects that the fascination might have a far deeper source. “These are the myths of origin for North Europe audiences and for much of North America as well,” he said, while cautioning against the excesses the enthusiasm led to in the last century. “They provide a sense of who we are and what we derive from.”
Perhaps, then, the recent renaissance of Viking lore in videogames signals a new direction for fantasy, one grounded as much in history as in imagination. Perhaps the Viking mindset can affect the world of videogames as surely as it affected the political climate of early medieval Europe. Perhaps the saga of the Vikings never truly ends.
Leif Johnson is a freelance writer who confuses people by saying he’s from Chicago while speaking in a Texas accent. Yes, his name really is Leif and it rhymes with “safe.” See what he does when he’s not playing Skyrim at http://leifjohnson.co