The swamp cried ominously 200 meters across a river on the opposite shoreline from ours. A green hue emanated from the fog from two emerald torches delineating an entrance to a crypt. We set out on a viking boat, a Karve, as “leeches” as big as humans swam silently underneath. Silhouettes of draugr dotted the landscape, and something far worse, an oozing mass, left a poisonous trail as it wafted through the muck. We had mere seconds to jump from the boat to the entrance of the crypt before we were overwhelmed. As my partner performed an expert fishhook turn, we left the boat and jumped, throwing ourselves into the crypt and whatever dark menace lie below. The rooms were covered with some kind of muck-filled layer, with draugr growls on the other side. Methodically we pushed further and further in, revealing a massive underground lair with rewards, dangers, and a chance to take precious iron back, to be used for weapons and armor.
Valheim has taken the gaming community by storm. Released at the beginning of February, it amassed over a million sales in a little over a week. As of February 13th, with 27,117 reviews sitting at “Overwhelmingly Positive” on Steam, it is proving to a lot of people what to expect from early access, survival games, and even possibly showing off a future of indie aesthetics.
You play as a Viking in purgatory. The world is procedurally generated, and you are carried by a flying crow into the meadows next to a Stonehenge-looking structure. On each stone, you must mount the trophies of five bosses scattered throughout the world. To prepare yourself, you build structures, equip gear crafted from materials from both living and dead matter, and survive against up to 35 types of minions, monsters that seek to kill you and rob you of your stuff. Die, and you lose the belongings on your person, as well as drain some of the skills you’ve worked hard on through dozens of hours. The game can be played alone, or with up to 10 players working together.
The game is a culmination of the past decade of common themes of survival development. It’s no accident that Minecraft was released about a decade ago (November 2011), and there’s a lineage of games from that experience hence that relies on exploring, crafting, building, and fighting, in such a way that it activates both hemispheres of our brain. On the one hand, our right hemisphere keeps a broad and open watch over the territory, with a desire to avoid threats that might lurk as we chop down a tree, or when we go fishing. At any moment in Valheim, the world can throw enemies at you or your teammates, so a broad attention is necessary. On the other hand, the world is robust with systems for fighting, building, and crafting, so a focused attention on the particulars is also important, which gives us a need for our left hemisphere. The best survival games address both. No Man’s Sky, a survival game with procedural generation set in a science fictional galaxy, addressed the need for focus on the particulars, but never managed to convey a threat or interest in broad attention besides an appreciation for the beautiful backdrops. And there’s a whole genre of game in the battle royale which takes the “kill or be killed” philosophy that requires a right hemisphere vigilance to its highest level. Valheim is able to do both while maintaining a sense of wonder, astonishment, fear and trepidation.
The worlds generated are massive. So large in fact that if one were to start at one end and run to the other side, it would take the better part of an hour to make it end to end. In this massive space, the world begs to be explored and dominated, and luckily Valheim provides opportunities for both. Food is a requirement without being a necessity, as it dictates your maximum health rather than be your health entirely. Building new structures is as easy as using a hammer to construct a workbench. Both require wood, and luckily for the Vikings in purgatory, trees are everywhere. Settling down in one spot reveals a deep and rich crafting system that unravels as you play, including teleporters which can be used to link areas of interest. Going nomadic allows the player to build linking structures across the landscape that the game remembers as you play, leading to a deeply rewarding feeling in a player’s memory. But just because you can go anywhere in this huge randomized world doesn’t mean you should. The worlds in Valheim are made up of 5 biomes, with more on the way. Our transition into the swamp is never easy, and while the mountains above are alluring, rumors abound of its deadliness. Plains, though they sound benign, are home to “death mosquitos” which have come to be known as some of the harshest enemies around. The game is tantalizing for what it reveals and what it withholds, creating this addicting sensation that I have not felt since playing Minecraft all those years ago.
What excites the mind in solo play transcends itself in cooperative play with friends. There is no limit to how far apart players can be, and with so much to do, players can focus and divide the labor equally. Build a moat around a settlement while your friend (with better gear), raids a dungeon. Everyone can mine in the black forest, but someone should put up torches to ward off the Greylings. Be ready with wood to take through the new portal in order to build a structure around it ASAP. No matter the style of play, Valheim does an exceptional job of not only providing different styles, but in creating needs for multiple people to approach a problem together. For all those players who lingered on the outskirts of multiplayer survival experiences of the likes of SCUM, RUST, or Ark, but did not want to succumb repeatedly to PvP ganking, this is the game you and your friends have been waiting for. Whether in combat or out, Valheim caters to the mercenary or the pacifist.
Perhaps the most novel aspect of Valheim is in its aesthetics. The textures of the game harken back, according to the developers, to a time before hardware acceleration. Think the late 90s and early 2000s of blocky, patchy textures. At first, looking at the game in motion, it is easy to dismiss the style as typical of early access or indie studios. But the more you play, the more you realize that the supposed bug is actually a feature. The game makes up for it in spades in movement and post-processing. Everything moves in Valheim. Compared to the intrinsically static worlds of Minecraft, trees sway with the wind, grass turns over, water flows with tides, and rain patters the soil as well as the roof. The aliveness of the environments cannot be overstated, for when you see a troll maneuvering through the black forest, and you’re squinting, desperate for it not to be true, the movement of the world adds to the game’s depth by obfuscating those terrifying truths. Combine that with post-processing: depth of field effects that blur out those ideal environments that you have to get closer to investigate. Or perhaps the lighting, my goodness the lighting! Hues of blue, purple, and orange commemorate each sunrise and sunset, the kinds where beams of light filter through the trees, and send a message to the Viking that time has begun…or that it is running out. In total, though the textures boggle the mind for their atavistic throwback, the choice to use this in tandem with effects more easily wrought by AI in post-process, means that indie developers can create a style without having to spend so much time on authenticity. Similar to other games sporting procedural generation, it liberates artists to create and have their artistry on display everywhere. Furthermore, it gives a studio a chance to iterate quickly and robustly, putting out content at a pace worthy of the “early access” name. Because of this smart choice, I have no idea if Iron Gate is home to five developers…or fifty.
Iron Gate AB promises a wealth of content for 2021, with four major updates as well as some other secondary options “if Odin wills it”.
With over a million sales and counting, Odin has decided.
The “early access” moniker may push some people away from the game, as well as the aesthetics, but truth be told, the game feels full. People have put 100 hours already into it, just glancing at the Steam reviews shows that. And since I have played, I have barely scratched the surface of the back end systems of crafting and upgrading. At $20, the game may take the cake for being the most underpriced title in recent memory for what it provides. The game, like some of the best games out there, is paced like the golden ratio, and as the player proceeds spiral like outward more and more, so the game reveals itself to be a stunning entry into the survival genre. Though it does no one thing new, its smart implementation of several key aspects of video game mechanics over the past decade proves to us the insight and keen eye of the developers behind it. Just several minutes playing the game reveals a passion behind it, a dedication to Viking lore and the romanticism of a bygone era. It is a fantastical place, and it deserves to be explored with you and your fantastical friends.