This post contains spoilers for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
I’m having some issues with Eivor in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. More specifically, I’m having issues with the game taking away my perceived1 control of Eivor in situations where I feel the game could have left it up to me as a player how to react.
Eivor makes comments now and then that I find entirely off putting. I’m assuming that I’m supposed to think they’re cool and all Viking violence-y, but what they really do is break immersion and force me out of the state of identifying with Eivor.
I think it would have been less jarring (and honestly even less enjoyable) if I wasn’t at other times allowed to choose for Eivor.
If I had no control over Eivor to start with and they acted brash all the time, I probably wouldn’t have played at all.
It’s possible that my dislike for Eivor’s lack of restraint is because it seems unprovoked. It’s not in reaction to anything, it’s just a comment here and there that seems so out of touch with what Eivor has said and how I’ve been allowed to respond.
“How about you give me some coin for my trouble?”
“How about I cut your tongue out?”
– Eivor threatens the dock master in one dock or another.
They scare another person by threatening them with a blood eagle. And this is when I’ve chosen to use charisma to solve a problem.
They give me whiplash. One minute they’re kind and considerate and the next they’re cruel and violent.
I think what I’m looking for, and failing to find, is a consistency of character that allows me to know who Eivor is. My Eivor. Not the Eivor of someone else.
This disconnect never occurred with Kassandra from AC: Odyssey, not for that matter with Bayek in Origins. I think what they had and what Eivor is lacking is a consistent tone of voice. Even when Bayek was gregarious and all smiles, there was a grim undertone to him.
Eivor doesn’t feel as if they have one steady personality that I as a player can rely on and take comfort from. I don’t know who they are.
Is Eivor calm, considerate and reasonable, or a brash, impulsive person who threatens violence at the drop of a hat?
The game doesn’t seem to know, and because of that, neither do I.
This is compounded by an issues that occurs when the narrative comes to a close.
At a certain point in the game, Layla Hassan, the individual that has up until that moment been the person controlling or re-experiencing Eivor, is replaced by another character who happens to be the individual causing both Eivor and Aesir a bunch of trouble. It is a moment of profound betrayal, not only of the people who are trying to get to the bottom of the whole animus/ saving the world thing, but also of the player.
The modern world storyline of Assassin’s Creed is confusing to say the least, but what is established is that Layla Hassan and her friends are trying to save the world, while Basim, the person who in the end replaces Layla, is only out to save himself and Aletheia, his lover who is trapped in the Staff of Hermes.2
This is however kind of irrelevant for what emotions are evoked when Layla is replaced. I felt as if the rug was pulled out from under me, and the small sliver of control that I had was replaced by a feeling of “it doesn’t matter what I do, my input is irrelevant.”
I personally did not stop playing at this point, but I’m not going to lie – I certainly felt like stopping. Not only did I feel as if the game took away control from me with regards to Eivor, but I also felt as if I was betrayed on a much deeper level. What I held as true was now totally up in the air and nothing was certain anymore.
There are moments in games when betrayal deepens the player’s connection to what is happening and when it feels like a constructive way of prompting an emotional response, despite the response being negative. Dragon Age II and Anders blowing up the Chantry seems like the most obvious example. Using a character like Sylens in Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West is another example, although the emotional context is different. Sylens is pretty much defined by his betrayals.
But changing Layla for Basim wasn’t on that level. It wasn’t a betrayal of *me as Hawke* or *me as Aloy*. It was a betrayal of me as the player.
The layered nature of Assassin’s Creed, play a character that relives the memories of another person, is mildly odd in itself. I am playing Layla and Layla is reliving Eivor’s memories. Replace Layla and what happens? I start asking “who am I now”. After x amount of hours, that’s a heavy question to ask and answer. Should I as Basim as Eivor continue, or am I betraying Layla as Eivor?
I certainly feel as if I’m betraying Eivor, if nothing else. They have been safe in the hands of Layla, but in the hands of Basim? Who tried to kill them? How safe are they there? My instincts say “not at all”.
So in this very unsettling layer cake of various betrayals, the one thoroughly stabbed in the back turns out to be the player and it doesn’t feel very good at all.
Some people I know stopped playing after the switch to Basim. Others might not have been bothered by it.Some of us finished the game due to mild compulsions but for my part I did it with reluctance and I won’t replay Valhalla because of it.
- Perceived, because in the end it is always the developer that determines what the player character can do in a narrative game. As a dev, I can give the player the appearance of choice, but because the game sooner or later will reach a specific conclusion – albeit with minor variations perhaps – I as a player am never really in control. Through developer sleight of hand, I can however feel as if I am.
- Look, I told you it was confusing.