This winter, I spent hours wandering the eerie English countryside. Not the true certainly one of course—we reside in a time when issues as very important as landscapes are severely restricted and even forbidden. I reside in London, and when there’s not a nationwide lockdown, would journey to Scotland to go to household for Christmas. As a substitute of my normal vacation forays up north into the wild, I spent the lengthy, darkish evenings absorbed by the world of Murderer’s Creed: Valhalla. In it, you play a Viking invader in ninth-century England. It’s an open-world sport. Or, as some confer with it disparagingly, a “map sport.” However, most definitely, it’s a sport the place the landscapes loom giant.
Typically, Valhalla jogged my memory of a superb English ghost story. There are historical orders, ominous standing stones, cursed artifacts, and quite a lot of decrepit ruins. Out within the open air, there are the standard darkish woods, gnarled oaks, austere coastland, and lonely moors. Landscapes and ruins—two issues open-world video games appear obsessed by and make the most of in numerous efficient methods.
In Britain, no less than, Christmas and ghost tales with moody landscapes and spectral atmospheres go hand in hand. All through the ’70s, the BBC broadcast brief movies as a part of its A Ghost Story for Christmas TV sequence. Nearly all of these had been variations of M. R. James’ spectral tales written earlier within the century. One adaptation, A Warning to the Curious, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, begins with this mood-setting narration: “Alongside the coast of Norfolk there persists an historical legend. It’s stated within the Darkish Ages, when the Vikings had been a continuing scourge, three royal crowns of Anglia had been hidden within the floor.”
In line with this legend, the crowns possessed an odd and primeval energy that protected the nation from invasion. A Warning to the Curious, like so lots of James’ tales, focuses on the disturbance of an accursed object—however there’s additionally this deep, persistent fascination with the unnerving landscapes of England, significantly these present in East Anglia. As I explored Valhalla’s digital Norfolk, I used to be reminded of a really explicit landmark: the previous medieval church positioned in A Warning to the Curious’ fictional city of Seaburgh.
In Valhalla lies the ruins of the Brisleah Farm church. Relying on how far off the crushed observe your explorations take you—fairly unbelievably—this church is without doubt one of the first locations within the sport the place it rains. Preventing previous the darkness, drizzle, and damaged tombstones, within the bowels of the previous church, you discover the bloody stays of a Viking clan. That is the start of Valhalla’s Beowulf quest. It differs from the Outdated English poem, an epic which follows the adventures of a Viking warrior in Sixth-century Scandinavia, in a number of methods. Most notably, its Grendel is a (very giant) human moderately than a monster. Nevertheless, the poem is simply as captivated by stark surroundings and depressing, ghostly environments.
The unique Beowulf poem is without doubt one of the first items of English literature the place panorama is totally dropped at the foreground. The monster Grendel is “haunting the marches, marauding around the heath and the desolate fens.” Likewise, the ultimate lair of Grendel and his extra monstrous mom is a “hidden land of wolf-haunted slopes, windy headlands, harmful swamps, the place the mountain stream passes down below misty headlands, water below the earth.” Grendel’s lair in Valhalla is much less watery, however equally hidden and subterranean. To achieve it, you have to journey down the huge shaft of a Neolithic flint mine referred to as Grime’s Graves.
In nature author Robert Macfarlane’s 2019 examine of all issues subterranean, named Underland, he attaches being under floor to the idea of disposal. Beneath the floor is the place “waste, poison, trauma, secrets and techniques” cover—or the place we cover them. In Valhalla, Grendel is a deformed human exiled from the floor resulting from his otherness. He’s an uncomfortable reality hidden away till all his anger, hatred, rejection, and isolation bubbles up from the deep, violently.