Feature Article

Assassin's Creed Valhalla's Narrative Director On Crafting A Unique New Story

Darby McDevitt discusses Assassin's Creed Valhallah's protagonist, as well as how Ubisoft is distinguishing the latest entry in the franchise.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla has officially been revealed and, as the rumors indicated, the Viking era plays a big role. While Viking fiction is common in video games, especially of late with the likes of excellent games such as God of War and Hellblade, developer Ubisoft Montreal is taking a different tact. Norse mythology is well-worn territory, so Ubisoft is telling a more grounded story. Sure, it will undoubtedly feature elements of Norse mythology, but at its core, Valhalla about the struggle of a people trying to find a new home.

Leading that effort is Eivor, a warrior raised on tales of battle, who must carve out a new place to belong for a clan of Vikings pushed out of their battle-ravaged home. To learn more about Assassin's Creed Valhalla we talked to Darby McDevitt, narrative director on the game. Over the course of the discussion, we discuss what it's like to create an entirely new hero for the series and said hero's place within the larger Assassin's Creed mythos. On top of that, we learn about Ubisoft's ambitions for the game, what sets it apart from other games available now, as well as previous entries in the franchise.

GameSpot: What's the general story of Assassin's Creed Valhalla?

Darby McDevitt: Assassin's Creed Valhalla is a game set in the 9th century, at the height of The Viking Age. The player is invited to take part as a Viking raider and also a leader of a clan from Norway. The general outline of the story is that, at the time period in which we begin, the 870s AD, it's a time of strife in Norway. So after a short time in Norway, this clan, led by Eivor, and other characters who I'll get into later, are eventually driven out of Norway to seek life elsewhere for political reasons, for matter of survival, and for narrative-driven reasons as well.

Then the bulk of the game transports you to England, when in the historical period--if you're familiar--is the time of the Great Heathen Army running rampant.The player will insert themselves into that chaos and carve out a place for themselves by building a settlement, raiding, getting into big battles, meeting lots of incredible historical and fictional characters, and trying to make a new home for themselves in England.

Given your history with the franchise, what has it been like to get a brand-new character to work with?

McDevitt: It doesn't change it too much--Edward [Kenway] was fairly new in that he was a prequel to Connor [Kenway]. I had to write him from scratch. I don't think I'm approaching Eivor in any different way than I approached Edward. You still need a character with a clear motivation, a clear set of relationships, a clear set of wants and needs, flouted desires, and ambitions.

I always do a ton of research to make sure that the problems that overwhelm them are deeply rooted in history and real life. It's important to me and Ash [Ashraf Ismail], just as it was with Black Flag--I also worked on Origins in the beginning, setting things up as a narrative consultant. We always try to root the character's problems in something that's grounded in history rather than deeply derived from the lore of Assassin's Creed, which can often get overwhelming. So we want to start with a human problem first and that's what we did here.

Does that mean that Eivor's place in the grander battle is akin to Edward's? Because Edward was someone who stumbled into the conflict between the Assassin Brotherhood and Templar Order, rather than being born into it like most of the other protagonists.

McDevitt: On the highest level, we could say it's a very similar role. In the beginning, it's an outsider looking in and Eivor is introduced to the conflict and the characters who are a part of this conflict, and they're drawn into it in a way because their goals are aligned frequently. But to go any further would spoil the story.

At least on the surface, the two stories are radically different, but the idea of a third-party outsider looking in is definitely a part of it. But Edward, of course, his immediate concept was to take advantage of this conflict to get rich whereas Eivor is very different. But at least from a starting point, yes, in this game we start from that third perspective to look at these two groups.

And I would even say, in terms of the grand scheme, what an Assassin's Creed game is for many people varies depending on your level of love for the series. Some people, for them, Assassin's Creed is the lore and the philosophy and the historical conflict. If that's your idea of an Assassin's Creed game, then [Valhalla] is very much your Assassin's Creed game. I know other people look to it, asking, "Is there stealth? Are there assassinations?" They're more into the gameplay, the ludonarrative aspect of it. It's also an Assassin's Creed game in that sense. And the difference there is that Edward's perspective on this whole thing was that he was a pirate at first, in the same way, in this game, you begin as a Viking.

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There almost seems like two eras of Assassin's Creed--one, the early era, builds towards this major narrative beat. And now we have more individual, self-contained stories. Does Valhalla fall into that latter camp or does it start building towards one future thing?

McDevitt: As far as [Valhalla's] story goes, we do continue the story that began in Origins and continued in Odyssey. We take that and we build on it in a big way. We also did a lot of thinking about how to connect all the games, at least the lore of all the games, to make it feel like everything we've done over the past dozen games has little feelers and little entry points into this game. Even if you're a hardcore fan of the series and you start digging below the surface, it might take a year to really get all the small details we brought to life.

We really try to do it so it's not in a cheap way, it's not an Easter egg or small note in the corner of the map that says, "Edward will soon be here." We tried to design the world and the narrative so that everything connects. People who get all the way through [Valhalla], they 100% this game, they will have to take a few weeks to soak in the amount of detail we put into this one. So, it's not only the continuation of the Odyssey storyline, it's a really good capper for what has come so far.

I don't want to give the impression it's the last game. That's something I want to avoid, but it's a good summation.

What has it been like to return to Assassin's Creed, given that the series has evolved in a big way since Black Flag--even though you did work on Origins a bit--especially with the greater focus on choice-driven storytelling with dialogue options and character customization? How do you respond to a change in player expectation?

McDevitt: The first thing you do is you go soak in the last couple years of what fans have said--casual fans and hardcore fans, new fans and old fans. You soak in all that and you try to see what the conversations are. Of course, Ash and I--I've been working on this brand for 12 years now, Ash for a long time--we have our own things that we love about the brand, things we'd love to do with it. We take all that together and we try to say, "Here are the new features that we have to play with--we definitely want to play with multiple dialogue options, we want to play with branching paths. But how do we do that in a way that respects what's come before?"

[Creative director Ashraf Ismail] and I, on this topic alone, did a lot thinking about how we can leverage all this Assassin's Creed lore to really do things that keep the games current and keep them within this new genus--Origins is like a new feeling for Assassin's Creed--but how do we make all those decisions actually fit in the lore that's been established so that old-time fans aren't just satisfied, but impressed by the things we've done? I think we've managed it pretty well.

How do you approach Eivor as a character? I don't want to generalize Assassin's Creed protagonists, but usually, they have this roguish charm to them and they have a quick wit and they're sharp--which does fit most of the previous settings. But having a charming Viking leader walking around telling jokes and doing finger guns doesn't seem like it makes sense. How do you approach creating a new character to fit into a relatively different type of set-up for Assassin's Creed while still making them likable?

McDevitt: Well, first of all, Eivor is a very unique character. I'm proud of the way we approached this one. I won't get into too much, but they're definitely a leader. They have a sense of humor, I wouldn't call them wisecracking. But they're not stone-faced. I don't know how to get into it without spoiling too much.

One of the things that's definitely an interesting challenge is: How do you make a leader? In a lot of the older Assassin's Creed games, you start as a neophyte and you work your way up through ranks and you're introduced to this world. We thought it would be much more interesting just to just start as somebody who had a reputation, was respected already, had years of experience as a Viking raider, probably skews a little bit older than the other characters at the beginning of their stories--they're always 19 years old. In that sense, Eivor is very unique and different.

It was also very important for us to create a coherent personality. I always find there are two ways to go with a role-playing game where you get to have dialogue choices. You either get to be a blank slate and you create your character--which is one way of doing it--your choices decide whether you're a wisecracking character or a stoic, or you have a distinct personality and your choices orbit in the spectrum of possible responses--they take the drama in different directions but the character remains coherent. We opted for the latter, we really wanted a coherent personality that people can say, "That is definitely Eivor. That is something that Eivor would say." We don't want players to have multiple different types of Eivor. That was a creative decision we made and it worked out really well.

Is there anything you can say about the antagonists? Is there a central antagonist--a pope-like figure, for instance--or is it more a group-like menace?

McDevitt: It would be impossible to go into that without spoiling some things. The character you see in the trailer is King Alfred of Wessex, who definitely was the primary historical antagonist of the Vikings at the time. King Alfred is the only one who withstood their assaults and came out breathing on the other side. Everyone else fell to the Great Heathen Army. So in that sense, King Alfred is an antagonist, but it would be wrong to say that he's the central antagonist of the game. That identity, I want to leave for later--I want people to discover that. It's a vast and sprawling game with a lot of different layers and each of those layers will have a different conflict.

Origins and Odyssey had this mythical, almost magical element to them and in Valhalla's trailer there's a tree and some sort of spectral figure, and then Eivor says, "Odin is with us." How much of the Norse mythology is built into this new Assassin's Creed and how much of it is a grounded journey for these Viking warriors trying to find their place in the world?

McDevitt: The way we approach Norse mythology in Valhalla--we wanted to take a grounded approach, but we wanted to portray this culture as people who legitimately believed in these things. This mythology, this religion--it's infused in every aspect of their life. They bargained and bartered with the gods before raids, before feasts, before harvests. We wanted to portray that in as grounded a way as possible.

For somebody like Eivor--who in the midst of battle would believe these things about these gods--we felt they'd believe they could see Odin. We wanted to start from there, to keep the player swimming in that feeling. I'm not going to go too much further than that, but this is the same team that made Origins and our feeling about how to integrate [mythology] is similar. We want to create a similar feeling of being suffused in the mythology, but also the daily practice of this religion. Especially since you're going to be in England, which is a Christian nation. There were a lot of interesting frictions, but also some attempts at understanding one another.

We wanted to take a grounded approach, but we wanted to portray this culture as people who legitimately believed in these things

One of the cooler parts of Black Flag was its exploration of the philosophy of the Assassins--the failure of Nassau and the fall of the Golden Age of Piracy poking holes in the idea of a nation built on personal freedoms. How much is the Age of Vikings, as a setting, used to explore the Assassin philosophy and their place in society?

McDevitt: That too is verging on spoiler territory. But I will say, we wanted to tell a story in which this Viking played a pivotal role in the evolution of these two groups in this millenniums-old war, despite whichever names they've happened to have. We wanted Eivor to have some effect on these groups. We don't want Eivor to casually be a bystander as this thing is going on. Every Assassin's Creed game should be about some kind of moment where you're supposed to be here, it's important to be here and witness this movement. We took that as our primary goal with respect to Assassins vs. Templars.

Odyssey's The Fate of Atlantis DLC started to bring back the modern day story. Is that something that Valhalla will further explore or will that story be left to the wayside for now?

McDevitt: We continue Layla's story. We have a lot of interesting new approaches to the present day story that we're excited for people to see. It's something I've wanted to see for many years and we finally had the idea in a way that we could pull it off, which I won't get into. But we definitely continue Layla's story. That hasn't changed.

This is the first Assassin's Creed for a new generation of consoles. Most people will want to know what that means from a technical perspective, but as a storyteller, how do you approach this generation of hardware and the potential that it holds for you?

McDevitt: I'm actually going to pivot away from that question because we do approach narrative in this game in a very unique way and I think it will be one of the stand-out aspects of the game--the structure of the narrative. Because the structure of the narrative is different--it actually didn't rely on next-gen tech at all, it relied on structuring story experiences in a way I haven't seen in any game as far as I can think of--this will definitely be a unique story structure for Assassin's Creed fans. But I would even dare say it's quite unique for any game. I don't think people have experienced a story in quite this way--how we present it to you, how you consume it--it's very unique. And again, it doesn't rely on next-gen at all. It relied on being willing to experiment with a different way of presenting information to players and leading you through the world.

I'm a bad person to ask about next-gen anyway. All I know is that we're releasing on PS5 and Xbox Series X and that's all I know. But again, I'm of the mind that good storytelling just relies on a really good marriage of form and content--technology is actually the least you need to worry about. We always say South Park tells fantastic stories and they're just pieces of construction paper cut out and animated at 12 frames per second and it's fantastic because the writing is fantastic and the format is so good. If you're too invested in technology, there are certainly exceptions, but you can get caught up on that question and it can lead you down some bad paths. But I think we've actually done it right and I'm excited for people to actually get their hands on this.

One of the big aspects of previous Assassin's Creed games has been this Nemesis-style system--is that something you've considered adding more story to?

McDevitt: We're building on a lot of the things that Odyssey has done but I'm not going to get into too much detail as to what that is.

Arguably one of Black Flag's standout features is its shanties. Will we be getting the Norse mythology, Viking equivalent in Valhalla?

McDevitt: I'm not going to tell you too much. I will say the Viking longship does play a big role in the game. We've tried to make it as interesting and fun as possible to sail.

How much--without spoiling it, obviously--is Eivor's role as a leader rooted into Valhalla's gameplay and story? Are there opportunities for infighting that you have to subdue, for example, or are there moments in the story where Eivor has to account for their leadership decisions? How does this game tackle moments of grey outside the black-and-white conflicts?

McDevitt: Well, you'd make a fine narrative designer [laughs]. Definitely, the story is going to have to touch on topics like the difficulties of leadership. I'm not going to get into too much, but we would not leave that narrative stone unturned. Especially since Assassin's Creed games have a history of spanning a number of years so we want you to feel like your time in England takes many, many years. You settle down, you build a settlement, and you watch it grow with all the pains and celebrations that go with that.

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In the time you've been making Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, God of War appeared and it's a big Norse mythology entry in gaming. Have you played it? What did you think about it? Are you prepared for the comparisons between God of War and your game and is there any part of God of War that you saw and thought, "Oh, that's cool," or, "Oh, we're also doing that," or, "Oh, I wish we were doing that"?

McDevitt: God of War is great--yeah, I've played it. It's fantastic. I wouldn't say we're too worried because most games, when they touch this topic, they actually skew very heavily towards the mythology. So that's the front-facing feature--you play God of War so you can go punch Baldur in the face, meet all these characters, and travel to fantastical environments.

Very few games actually treat the Norse Viking experience as historically grounded. I think the urge is to always immediately lead with the mythology stuff, but we really want you to feel like you're living in the Dark Ages of England, that you're exploring the Roman ruins left behind 400 to 500 years earlier by the Romans and the remnants of the Britannic tribes before that and even the Saxon Pagans before they all converted to Christianity.

All these layers haven't been done before in a game and I don't think there's ever been a Viking game that's tried to be the ultimate grounded Viking fantasy. That's where we found our place to shine--and I think we have. We've created this massive world to explore, to raid, to assault, to meet interesting people, but you're going to do it as a human, as a person who has to ride a horse to travel long distances and get to where they want to go rather than fly or something.

What do you hope the impact of your story will be? What do you hope the legacy of this game will be? When you're looking back on Valhalla, once the entire arc is complete, what do you hope fans take away from it?

McDevitt: There are probably a few things. One, we've put so much care into the design of the world and the narrative is infused into this world so much that I really want to create a space that has just the right balance between satisfying players' curiosity and getting lost in a world, getting lost in the exploration and discovery of this world. On the other end of the spectrum, telling a real, human story about an actual culture that existed and flourished and thrived and eventually died away--the end of The Viking Age is just a few hundred years after this. So it's a little flash in the pan for this culture that most people associate with a lot of mythology. I'm really excited for people to really understand what was the Dark Ages of England, what was The Viking Age, what kind of day-to-day problems and conflicts did they suffer through and work through. Those two things.

Video games are a very special medium where, in my best moments, sometimes I'm going through this game and it's a narrative-driven story that feels like a traditional story--it has a beginning, middle, and end. But there are times where it almost feels like a Brian Eno record where it's just an ambiance that you soak in and you just love it and around every corner is a new discovery. And I want my game to be half-and-half--a Brian Eno record plus a Roxy Music record [laughs]. That's ultimately what I want from this game: that it's an incredible place to be and that there's not a single moment that wastes your time, that every moment--both the quiet moments and the loud moments--are all worth your time. And, sort of spiritually, let's say, enriching--that might be a little too high-minded [laughs]. Artistically enriching, let's say.

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Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

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