I’m standing on top of a hill in Gloucestershire – Cleeve Hill, in fact. It’s not the same as the one I see off in the distance every day as I head out for a government-sanctioned walk, but it’s older, more primal. I hear voices emerging from Belas Knap, an old barrow burial ground, so I put my hood up and stalk on over. Bandits are ransacking the graves, so I take my trusty axe from my belt, raise it high and go on to mete out my justice, Vikingr style. In this moment, I’m not Robyn – I’m Eivor of the Raven Clan, and England is mine to command.
Of course, I’m talking about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. (Belas Knap is an English Heritage site now and probably has security up the wazoo – no bandits about these days.) I’ve racked up about 75 hours of gameplay since getting it for Christmas, and I’m nowhere near the end of the game. It’s virtually all I’ve played for the past three months, and I’m unlikely to stop any time soon. More than any other game series, Assassin’s Creed has been a saving grace throughout the endless disappointments of the 2020s, and without it, I would likely be in a very dark place indeed.
In January 2019, I was formally diagnosed with anxiety, but I’ve been plagued with it all my life in truth. I’m a worrier, and I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t. My anxiety got worse throughout the year as my parents split up and I finally got diagnosed with a thyroid condition after weeks of dismissals from the doctors. I got a virus in the following January that wiped out all my energy, but after I got over that, everything seemed like it was starting to settle down. I had higher hopes for the year.
Then COVID-19 rolled into town and it all went down the shitter.
Suddenly, faced with this viral threat I couldn’t control, I started Googling every last little symptom I experienced. Work slowed down to the point where I was staring at a screen for hours with nothing to do, having gone through even imaginary bullshit tasks to keep myself occupied. These things combined do very bad things to one’s brain. I was convinced I was worthless, that I had some kind of life-limiting disease and at worst, I would pass it on to my partner who already has a weaker immune system thanks to his diabetes. After numerous panic attacks and a lot of sleepless nights, I finally got my shit together, spoke to my GP and started medication. I embarked on CBT sessions and started getting some semblance of myself back. I’m still not there, but I’m getting better.
And when I start to fall back into that pit of endless despair, Assassin’s Creed is there to steer me back. I started with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in the summer, a game I hadn’t really clicked with before. It felt too overwhelming when I first started playing it – there were an insane amount of quests, many daily or weekly ones with relatively short timers on it, and an almost endless world to explore. As it turned out, all I needed was a global pandemic. I dove back into Odyssey’s version of the Peloponnesian War with aplomb, sailing from island to island to track down each little dot on the map until I could say with certainty I had seen it all. Each quest is designed to hit you in short, sharp fashion and you can complete a step of a quest, or one of the shorter side quests, in just a few minutes. The dopamine hit was real, and I found myself dipping in for half an hour here, a couple of hours there to feel as if I’d actually done something with my day. As Kassandra, I felt accomplished – a far cry from how I felt as myself.
In a summer where travel was largely forbidden or dangerous, the chance to swan off to Greece and its glorious islands, even if through a screen, was more welcome than ever. And all the while, I was exploring ruins before they became ruined, strolling through squares and past landmarks that I had seen in real life (I often joke that I was able to navigate Florence and Venice thanks to my extensive knowledge of Assassin’s Creed II, but it’s also a hilarious truth) and soaking up the sunshine on beaches and hilltops inbetween stabbing people with my spear. It was the ideal escape.
Fast forward to December, and I finally got my hands on a PS5. After blitzing through Spider-Man: Miles Morales and dabbling in Sackboy: A Big Adventure, I eventually got around to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla in January – just in time for Lockdown 3.0. This lockdown has felt different to the others. The first time, we didn’t know what was happening, and while it absolutely knocked me down and spat in my face, I at least had the summer months to look forward to. November’s lockdown was nothing in comparison and we had the promise of Christmas waiting in the wings, even if it turned out to be a smaller, quieter affair than most of us were hoping for. This time, it’s been dismal, cold and dark, so perhaps Valhalla proved to be the right tonic for that. The beauty of Norway in all its frigid glory gave way to a more untamed England, but one that’s still recognisable – so if I could only explore my back garden until Easter, then maybe I could rediscover my homeland from a different perspective.
My favourite parts of Valhalla have been finding those places I know and love and seeing just how different they are. I delighted in raiding Evesham Abbey – the place I grew up – and seeing what would become my hometown burned to shreds. Traipsing around the Forest of Dean (or Denu, as it was known then) reminded me of how magical it still feels to this day, and gave me a desire to seek out the more hidden, pagan areas of Gloucestershire that I know I’m yet to find. Cumbria, the land of my birth, wasn’t really part of England as the Vikings knew it yet, but I galloped hard across Eurvicscire, seeking the breathtaking view of the dales.
Some of the game’s most memorable bits are hidden in ‘world events’ – little sidequests that you stumble upon as you roam around the map. They have fixed locations, unlike the time-sensitive quests of Odyssey that could pop up anywhere, but through the world events, I’ve discovered an England like no other. I have met the 9th century equivalent of Keith Flint from the Prodigy, who proceeded to yell ‘smack my bishop’ as I pounded my fists into the face of a particularly obnoxious priest. I’ve brought a band back together after they fell out, springing one member from jail and using my poetry skills to give another her muse back. Axehead might be a favourite of the AC community but I much preferred meeting Degolas the archer, who smeared his arrows with pig shit and gassed out his entire family home, and then shoving him into a much needed bath.
There have been gentler moments, too, like the game of hide and seek between Eivor and a rambunctious group of children, and the time when Eivor recovered a fellow (dead) warrior’s axe from children playing games with it, thus allowing him to enter Valhalla. Moreso than any other AC protagonist, Eivor carries a measured wisdom alongside her violent nature – the soul of a skald, you could say. It’s in these moments of empathy and care that I feel hopeful. Sure, it’s great fun to go smash some Saxon heads, but little vignettes like this keep drawing me back in for more, if only to distract myself from the cruel world outside. There is always more to find, always more to explore, and always more to lose myself in.
I’ve already mentioned that excessive Googling of symptoms is one of the things I struggle most with in my battle against my anxiety, and Valhalla has proved an excellent distraction. Not only does it get me out of my head, but it means I’ve got something in my hands that isn’t a phone. The lightning-quick PS5 loading times mean that I don’t have the opportunity to search for anything, and I’ve fallen back on a physical notebook to jot down the requirements for any altar offerings. It’s not something I can do all the time – after all, I can hardly drop work to go and play the PlayStation if I’m feeling particularly twitchy – but knowing that I’ve got that escape ready when I need it is often comfort enough.
I am hoping that this lockdown will be the last one. While I know I’m going to struggle getting back into society when it finally does end, I know that at least there is a place I can go to when things get too overwhelming. Ninth-century England aside, there are numerous Assassin’s Creed games I haven’t tackled fully yet – Assassin’s Creed Revelations among them – so when the stresses of the present become too much, I can leap back into history and explore the world from a different view.