Prior to the announcement of the release date for Assassin's Creed Valhalla at Ubisoft Forward, I sat down with the game's narrative director Darby McDevitt and assistant level design director Laurence Letalien.
We talked about numerous aspects of Valhalla--such as traditional side quests being "almost nonexistent," in-game romances expanding to include long-term options, and combat transforming to focus on moment-to-moment decisions--but what struck me the most was that you can switch between female and male Eivor whenever you want throughout their story, and that this feature actually ties into one of the major mysteries in the upcoming Assassin's Creed game. The way that Valhalla weaves together the different parts of Eivor's story and will drop additional nuggets of lore about the Hidden Ones' evolution into the Assassin Brotherhood sounds pretty cool too.
The Mystery Of Eivor's Identity
Unlike Kassandra and Alexios in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, you're not picking between two different characters in Valhalla. Regardless of whether you play as a man or woman, you're always playing as Eivor. However, just like Kassandra and Alexios, Eivor isn't a blank slate protagonist. Before you even pick up the controller and start making dialogue choices, Eivor already has an established personality, set of morals, and aspirations. All of this will shape the type of choices you'll be able to make.
"One of the things we wanted to do was start out with a character who's already an expert, who's already a legend, who people already have a deep respect for," McDevitt told me. "We typically start with a boy in their late teens and he's got some growing to do and you're going to see him make mistakes. And we decided, 'No, Eivor is like 26-27 when the game starts.' So already, everyone talks about how legendary Eivor is and there's a bit of a cool arrogance that comes with that but there's also a sense of humor and a bit of a leader who doesn't suffer fools lightly and maybe gets a little hot when things don't go their way, has a very tactical mind but is also a bit selfish--they want glory for him or herself, they want to be known and want to be honored as a brave and courageous warrior."
When designing this background for Eivor, it was decided that they'd be a character that the player could play as a man or a woman. "Sometimes you do things because you know players will really enjoy it and will appreciate it," McDevitt said. "I think that even before Odyssey came out, we knew that [the choice of protagonist] would be a feature that people would like. Hardcore fans, who have an investment in how the Animus works with genetic memory and know you're supposed to be living the life of a specific ancestor, they took issue with that. But the feature itself was really appreciated by a lot of people. So we knew that we wanted to do the same thing--we wanted to give you a choice."
I'm one of those hardcore fans who has issue with having to choose between Kassandra and Alexios. For those who don't know, Assassin's Creed in a collection of time travel stories. Characters in the present day use a device called the Animus to relive the events of specific individuals by reading a user's DNA and allowing them to relive their ancestor's memories, with advancements in the tech now allowing anyone to relive the life of anyone's ancestor provided they have a DNA sample of the ancestor in question. Even with these advancements though, Odyssey makes no sense--Kassandra and Alexios are two different people and both exist in lore, they shouldn't have the same story. The game should have just made you play as Kassandra as she's the actual canon (and better) choice.
Valhalla sort of circumnavigates this problem by making the choice between a man and a woman into the same person--but given how DNA works, it still doesn't make much sense that you can switch between both genders throughout the game. Only one should be the canon for your version of Assassin's Creed history, right? In order for Valhalla to make sense, Ubisoft realized it would have to once again make additions to Assassin's Creed lore.
"From the beginning, we also said that we have to make [the choice of gender] work in the Assassin's Creed universe," McDevitt said. "And I remember pitching two versions to the creative team of how that would work and we ended up going with one of the two, so the other one is still available for another team to use but we have this cool way that's based in areas we've already investigated for Assassin's Creed. We asked, 'How would you, with one genetic memory stream, have two identities?'"
McDevitt continued: "So we just threw our arms around that concept, threw our arms around some other lore that we've established in earlier games, and we tweaked it and twisted it and said, 'Okay, we can do a game where in the genetic memory stream, you can choose to be male or female and you can switch at any time you want.' The reason why that is, is a mystery that will slowly unravel as you play the game. You're not going to turn on the game and five minutes later go, 'Oh, okay, that's why.' But it's something that we want players to experience as they're going through [Valhalla] and hopefully by the end, or at least deep into the story, maybe there's an epiphany moment, where you say, 'Oh my God, that's why--okay, that's pretty cool. That's insane.'"
Everything Weaves Together
Assassin's Creed games typically come in two flavors: There's the games like Brotherhood and Syndicate that primarily build on what came before by addressing past issues and expanding on what worked and then there's the more revolutionary titles like Assassin's Creed III and Origins that implement brand-new mechanics and features that push the franchise into a different direction. Valhalla seems a lot more like the former, building on what Origins and Odyssey did right without implementing a brand-new foundation that's going to drastically shift the direction of the series. One of the big improvements being made in Valhalla is how the protagonist's story will unfold. Valhalla will have multiple major storylines just like Odyssey (which has three--Odyssey, Hunt the Cult of Cosmos, and Between Two Worlds--and each unlocks a different ending) but instead of each storyline existing separately from one another like in its predecessor, Valhalla will see its main narratives and tangential stories regularly weave together at certain points to tell an overall more coherent campaign that's easier to follow.
"One thing I learned writing Black Flag was that if you're interested in the story and you just followed it, people would follow it really well and they'd have a great time and they'd think it was a good story," McDevitt said. "But if you were the exploration-type, you'd stop doing the story for like four hours and you'd go off and explore and then you'd come back and you'd be lost, like 'What the hell is going on in this story? Who are these people?' And we learned a lesson from that. So early on, we gave Eivor a very personal motivation--some personal things that he or she is trying to figure out and we wrapped that into this other story about their clan wanting to go to England and start a new life, start a new settlement."
McDevitt continued: "So those two stories are overlapped on each other. For Eivor, it's, 'How do we build up a settlement, how do we gain alliances throughout England so that we feel safe and influential, but also there's this personal problem I'm dealing with and as I'm going out into the world, that problem keeps following me.' So we've kind of wrapped the stories in that way and then there's a few other tangential things, but again, it all feels braided together fairly nicely."
This is also where Eivor's belief in the mythical comes into play. "The Norse use the metaphor of a tapestry to describe fate," McDevitt said. "And the Norns--they are the weavers of fate--they have long ago woven this thread and this tapestry and your life has already been set out for you and your job is to live it and accept it as best you can. And that's kind of how we approached the narrative--there's these threads and they weave in and out of each other."
The aforementioned tangential stories are territory arcs and world events. Valhalla basically drops the onslaught of side quests that cluttered the mission screen in Origins and Odyssey. Instead of map markers, actual images on your in-game map and structures in the world lead you towards additional activities that you can complete--these are the world events. The territory arcs do have markers (unless you turn off Guided mode) and they are these longer multi-part quests--think along the lines of the Mykonos arc in Odyssey (ya know, the best side story in the game and the one that allows you to romance Kyra, the best romantic option in the game by a significant margin).
"We made sure that we had something unique in each of our territories," Letalien told me. "We have different flavors, different people you can meet. There's a good chunk of content in each of those territories. The way that our narrative structure works, there are little arcs in each territory and you choose which one you want to do first. So there's a big chunk of content throughout the story but also there's a lot of stuff where you can see something going on or just stumble upon it, like our world events--I don't know if you saw this one in the demo, but there is one where you can recruit a cat onto your boat and it becomes your raider with you."
Though the territory arcs are the big pieces of content, some of the smaller, individual world events can span multiple territories--which further ties together the many tales that Eivor will come across. "So we have each character's story as their own world event but we do tie them together--the cat is an example but maybe you can also stumble upon someone and have the option of bringing her or him back to your settlement or pick up specific objects that need to be taken elsewhere," Letalien said. "So we have those little stories [that cross] territories but each territory has their own specific ones too."
With so many aspects of Eivor's story woven together, Ubisoft decided to do the same for Valhalla's world. You can travel by foot or horse across Valhalla's fairly large landmass, but the far faster method is by longboat. Valhalla allows you to summon Eivor's longboat from any body of water as opposed to needing to find a port, and a massive system of rivers that cut throughout the map allow you to quickly navigate from one territory to the next. Smaller streams throughout each territory allow you to quickly get around via water as well--there's even a new auto-follow system. Just summon your longboat, turn in the direction you want to go, press the button for following the stream or river, and then Eivor's crew will take care of the rest while you sit back and play with your new kitty because only a monster would deny a cat from joining their Viking adventure.
"A canal system is a good way of putting it," Letalien said. "The way that we built our entire map was in thought of that exact mechanic. So you can travel throughout the world on your ship with your crew--you can recruit more raiders and fight alongside them throughout the story--and it was important for us to build this navigation path where along the way, maybe you'll encounter a raid where you need your crew to fight or maybe there's a military location and you want to take it out but you don't want to do it alone and you want your crew to be there with you. So you can use it pretty much wherever you want, which is super, super cool."
The Hidden Ones And Assassin Brotherhood
Of course, this isn't Viking's Creed, it's Assassin's Creed and that means Eivor's story will pull them into the war between the Assassin Brotherhood and Templar Order in some capacity. After jumping way back in time with Origins and then even further with Odyssey, Assassin's Creed is creeping towards the time period of the original 2007 game. Valhalla takes place in 873 AD--pretty close to the original Assassin's Creed, which takes place in 1191 AD. Yup, after 13 IRL years, we've almost come full circle.
Despite the distance from Origins and proximity to the original game, both the Assassin Brotherhood and Templar Order we see in Assassin's Creed still haven't been formed by the events of Valhalla. "It's still the Hidden Ones and still the Order of Ancients," McDevitt said. "But we're only about 250 years from the original Assassin's Creed. So we really wanted [Valhalla] to start giving you the feeling of how [both groups were] changing and what had happened since Bayek's time too. So there's a lot of stuff--if you start exploring, there's a lot of cool lore to discover."
And of course, Layla's story as a modern day Assassin will continue in Valhalla as well. You won't just be playing as Layla outside the Animus either--her story takes her into Eivor's memories to complete puzzles and challenges within the simulation of 873 AD England. "There are these glitches in the Animus that are threatening to tear holes in the simulation so you go and platform around and solve puzzles," McDevitt said. "They get harder and harder and then you get a reward at the end of each one of them and more story, more narrative."
However, when it came to whether this third entry in her tale would conclude her arc, both McDevitt and Letalien remained coy in order to avoid spoilers. "I don't want to spoil that, but this is a very fine third act," McDevitt said. "Now whether Layla's story is a three act story or five act story, you'll have to wait and see. I think the conclusion of [Valhalla] will leave a lot of people satisfied, I'll say that."
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