My Viking is sat at a table in a chair made of fine oak wood, tankard of home-brew mead in hand. Besides them, in the centre of the longhouse, sausages bubble away in a metal cauldron above a large stone-lined fire pit.
Life wasn’t always so lavish for my chosen warrior. You begin your adventures in the tenth Norse realm, “Valheim,” with nothing but rags. Following a familiar rhythm set out by other survival games, you work your way up from next to nothing, plucking wood from branches and collecting stones from nearby hillsides. Despite grand appearances like the cosmic tree Yggdrasil looming overhead, Valheim begins modestly. My warrior shuffles through the Meadows, gathering strawberries and mushrooms. Eventually I’ve gathered enough wood to build a small cabin, along with a little fireplace, and even a bed to rest my weary Viking head.
Released to Steam’s Early Access at the beginning of February, and already a massive hit after selling over 5 million copies, Valheim describes itself as a brutal, co-operative survival game “set in a procedurally-generated purgatory”. It arrives not long after the likes of God of War and Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, both of which have proven that in the realm of video gaming, there’s huge interest in Norse mythology and all things Viking. But Valheim is also broad in its inspirations, with its stamina-based, dodge-and-parry combat reminiscent of Dark Souls and its wild, adventurous spirit evoking The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Of course, there’s also the enduring allure of survival fantasies — Minecraft after all, is the biggest game of all time. Henrik Törnqvist, co-founder of Valheim developer Iron Gate Studios (which is made up of just five people), tells me that he thinks there’s universal appeal to the idea of starting from scratch, “The desire to make something out of nothing is a concept I believe, and hope, most people can relate to.” Like many survival games, Valheim has you slowly building yourself up, progressing through different stages of technological development, from stone to bronze to iron age.
“The desire to make something out of nothing is a concept I believe, and hope, most people can relate to.”
One of the game’s biggest draws is its offer of a comprehensive outdoors survival fantasy. You can tame animals, cultivate land, grow vegetables, manage beehives, go fishing, hunt deer, cook sausages on an open fire, even brew mead. Most importantly, you can construct your own settlement. “Building things is the most important aspect of Valheim,” says Törnqvist. “We don’t just want players to build one base, but many. Hopefully finding ways to improve their creations or trying something new every time.”
This chimes with what Törnqvist calls the “structured progress” of Valheim. As you move into different environments or biomes, from the relatively idyllic Meadows through to the much darker and more dangerous Black Forest, and later to swamps, mountains and plains, it becomes increasingly impractical to keep just a single home base.
Through the use of sail ships and even magical portals you’ll travel all across the tenth realm, building secondary camps and settlements as you go. While these smaller outposts might not rival the larger architectural ambitions of your home base, they often feel just as cosy, tapping into a rising interest in escaping to the countryside narratives and our rising ambitions to nestle ourselves amongst wild, awe-inspiring landscapes, as seen in popular books like Cabin Porn, Cabins: Escape to Nature and Rock the Shack: Architecture of Cabins, Cocoons and Hide-outs.
Fantasies of starting from scratch and leaving our mark on the world through building also relates to other popular fascinations, like YouTube survivalist series that guide us through techniques and methods used to create increasingly sophisticated tools and buildings, as well as survival and prepper guides — post-apocalyptic, zombie, or otherwise. Henrik Törnqvist tells me he’s familiar with channels like Primitive Technology, and thinks there’s something to the idea of Valheim offering similar experiences. “Obviously nothing can come close to actually going out and practicing bushcraft in the wild yourself, but hopefully Valheim can provide a good substitute for those of us who don’t have the time or inclination, physical or otherwise, for such ventures.”
Valheim’s original creator, Richard Svensson, has long been fascinated by large scale simulations. “Prior to Valheim he authored a game in his own spare time called Tolroko (unreleased), which was a massive simulation inspired by Elite and John Carter of Mars,” explains Törnqvist. “It was great but the takeaway was it was redundant to implement simulation systems for their own sake, rather than for the player. Valheim sprung out of the desire to make a game where the simulations matter.”
These simulated aspects of Valheim’s world are an incredibly appealing aspect. Players are not only brought closer to nature, but continually interact with their surroundings in ways that recall the anthropological concept of homo faber (Latin for "Man the Maker") — what’s essential to humans is their ability to use tools and work the land by hand. “The physicality of the Tenth World is important to us, and it’s something I think is partially responsible for making the game feel more ‘real’, and ultimately contributing to our success. What I mean is there is some push and pull to the proceedings of gathering raw materials and building stuff in Valheim. Falling trees are a menace, mining is noisy (altering the wildlife), structures have to be somewhat sound or they’ll collapse, smoke needs an escape route, and so on,” Törnqvist tells me.
In our increasingly urbanized society there’s a growing wish for more friction and physicality — or a virtual substitute for the same feelings. Part of the appeal of outdoor activities and return-to-the-wild ambitions is how it strips back many of life’s complexities, and gets us back basics while also bringing us into closer contact with the world and often, with each other. Despite the internet’s ability to almost instantaneously connect us, we’re arguably more isolated and alienated than ever before — a feeling that’s only exasperated by the ongoing pandemic.
We’re arguably more isolated and alienated than ever before.
Henrik Törnqvist thinks Valheim’s ability to transport a group of friends into an expansive wilderness is absolutely part of the game’s success. “Valheim isn’t necessarily an exceptionally deep game, like Dwarf Fortress or something, but I think it has some staying power in that you can come back to it many times and always find something to do, be it hunting for food, crafting equipment, building an extension to your house, or taking on the next boss. Although Valheim has made a bit of a reputation for itself for being unforgiving, we hope it can brighten up the day at least a little bit for people during these times.”
Valheim is expertly crafted and a ton of fun and, while vikings are eternally trendy, for me it's the game’s expansive survival fantasy that proves so alluring. On top of this, Valheim allows us to reconnect to nature and physicality communally, rather than just as individuals which, considering present conditions, seems an exceptionally important point.