This winter, I spent hours wandering the eerie English countryside. Not the real one of course—we live in a time when things as vital as landscapes are severely restricted and even forbidden. I live in London, and when there’s not a national lockdown, would travel to Scotland to visit family for Christmas. Instead of my usual holiday forays up north into the wild, I spent the long, dark evenings absorbed by the world of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. In it, you play a Viking invader in ninth-century England. It’s an open-world game. Or, as some refer to it disparagingly, a “map game.” But, most certainly, it is a game where the landscapes loom large.
Often, Valhalla reminded me of a good English ghost story. There are ancient orders, ominous standing stones, cursed artifacts, and more than a few decrepit ruins. Out in the open air, there are the traditional dark woods, gnarled oaks, austere coastland, and lonely moors. Landscapes and ruins—two things open-world games seem obsessed by and utilize in various effective ways.
In Britain, at least, Christmas and ghost stories with moody landscapes and spectral atmospheres go hand in hand. Throughout the ’70s, the BBC broadcast short films as part of its A Ghost Story for Christmas TV series. The majority of these were adaptations of M. R. James’ spectral tales written earlier in the century. One adaptation, A Warning to the Curious, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, begins with this mood-setting narration: “Along the coast of Norfolk there persists an ancient legend. It’s said in the Dark Ages, when the Vikings were a constant scourge, three royal crowns of Anglia were hidden in the ground.”
According to this legend, the crowns possessed a strange and primeval power that protected the country from invasion. A Warning to the Curious, like so many of James’ stories, focuses on the disturbance of an accursed object—but there’s also this deep, persistent fascination with the unnerving landscapes of England, particularly those found in East Anglia. As I explored Valhalla’s virtual Norfolk, I was reminded of a very particular landmark: the old medieval church located in A Warning to the Curious’ fictional town of Seaburgh.
In Valhalla lies the ruins of the Brisleah Farm church. Depending on how far off the beaten track your explorations take you—quite unbelievably—this church is one of the first places in the game where it rains. Fighting past the darkness, drizzle, and broken tombstones, in the bowels of the old church, you find the bloody remains of a Viking clan. This is the beginning of Valhalla’s Beowulf quest. It differs from the Old English poem, an epic which follows the adventures of a Viking warrior in 6th-century Scandinavia, in several ways. Most notably, its Grendel is a (very large) human rather than a monster. However, the poem is just as captivated by stark scenery and miserable, ghostly environments.
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The original Beowulf poem is one of the first pieces of English literature where landscape is fully brought to the foreground. The monster Grendel is “haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens.” Likewise, the final lair of Grendel and his more monstrous mother is a “hidden land of wolf-haunted slopes, windy headlands, dangerous swamps, where the mountain stream passes down under misty headlands, water under the earth.” Grendel’s lair in Valhalla is less watery, but similarly hidden and subterranean. To reach it, you must travel down the vast shaft of a Neolithic flint mine known as Grime’s Graves.
In nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s 2019 study of all things subterranean, named Underland, he attaches being below ground to the concept of disposal. Beneath the surface is where “waste, poison, trauma, secrets” hide—or where we hide them. In Valhalla, Grendel is a deformed human exiled from the surface due to his otherness. He’s an uncomfortable truth hidden away until all his anger, hatred, rejection, and isolation bubbles up from the deep, violently.