An Open World: How Assassin’s Creed Kept Me Sane in Lockdown

Eivor from Assassin's Creed Valhalla

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. 

Marching On

Marching On

My blogging at least once a month is going well, as I’m sure you can all see… February and March have been BUSY. Work busy, life busy, writing busy, generally busy all over.

At work, I just finished off a project on community management strategy for a gaming website that I’ve been helping out with for a number of years, helping them to transition their social network to their main website. It’s been a great experience and I feel like I’ve done everything I can to help support a community that has been there for me through thick and thin. So that’s been good.

Life? I just don’t seem to have time to do anything, I’m always out and about. However, one good thing I’ve been doing with my time lately is popping along to a D&D games night set up by Proud Lion, the local comic book shop. It’s great fun, I’ve met a lot of really lovely new people and I’m finally getting back into playing. My role-playing still leaves a lot to be desired, but I think I just need to get back into the swing of being another character. I’d like to sit down and do a proper character sketch when I have the time and dig deep into what makes my half-elf cleric tick.

Writing busy, THAT’S A THING THAT’S HAPPENING. I wrote, edited, finished and submitted a story to a short story competition for the Evesham Festival of Words. I have no idea if I’ll win, get shortlisted or even longlisted, but at least I finished something and submitted something. I’m pleased with the concept, but genre fiction doesn’t always perform that well at these kinds of things so I’ll have to wait and see.

Now that’s over and done with, I suppose I’d better get cracking with my ‘Ready, Set, Novel’ plan. I’ve completed a few of the exercises but got distracted as soon as Mass Effect: Andromeda came out (I have more thoughts on that to follow up with soon). Setting aside time to write just seems impossible at the moment – I only managed the other story because it had a 2,500 word limit – but I’ve got to do it if I ever want to get a book out there.

Also, a quick Mount TBR update – I’m up to 11 books out of 24! It’s pretty exciting to (almost) hit the halfway mark, so exciting in fact that I went and splurged on a Humble Book Bundle collection from a bunch of great female authors… Whoops. That takes the unread Kindle library up to about 130 books? Jeepers. That said, I’m totally ignoring the Kindle in favour of physical books at the moment. I’m currently on Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, which is full of wizards, and swearing, and feelings. I’m reading The Virtu and it’s the best. You should read it too.

Mount TBR Challenge 2017!

Mount TBR Challenge 2017!

My to-be-read pile is shameful. Ignoring my boyfriend’s Warhammer books, our shared bookshelf is positively drowning in stories that I’ve never read, with books stacked upon books as we struggle to make space for all the things I’ve not even touched since bringing it back from the bookshop.

My friend Charlotte, enabler of my book hoarding habit and all-round great gal, turned me on to a possible solution from My Reader’s Block: The Mount TBR Challenge. So excited by the possibility that I might finally crack through a few titles, I wrote a whole article about it for Nothing In the Rulebook — you can check it out here. The crux of it is that there are several different mountains to choose from, depending on how many books are in your pile and how many you feasibly think you’ll read. I went for Mount Blanc, which is 24 books.

So far, I’ve knocked two off the list — The Autobiography of James T. Kirk and The Lost Child of Lychford by Paul Cornell. They were, admittedly, not that long (although thoroughly enjoyable!) but they’re on the pile, so it’s not cheating.

Currently, I’m reading Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman on Kindle when on the bus, and The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells when at home. When flicking through my Kindle trying to find the next book to read, I realised that I had over 100 books sitting on there that had never been touched. Add the 50 or so on the bookshelf that have yet to be cracked open, and that’s a lot of bloody books. I can see myself aiming to scale up.

As I mention in the NITRB blog though, I’m hoping that this will help spur me on to keep writing myself. Although I’m not setting myself any hard and fast goals for the time being (New Year’s resolutions are always a waste of time for me as I end up breaking them fairly quickly), I am intending to at least produce a few things this year, and keep submitting to competitions. And if that helps me get a novel on the go, I’m all about that. But I’m also enjoying taking the time to discover some fantastic new worlds, as well as revisit others with a different point of view. So wish me luck — see you at the summit!

Between the Pages

Between the Pages

Believe it or not, I’ve not read that many books this year. It might not seem like a wildly shocking fact, but I used to read a book a week – sometimes two, if the mood struck. It’s not that I don’t have loads of books to read, it’s that I have a tendency to get a bit too attached to my 3DS or a show on Netflix. That’s the thing – with so much media to consume out there, when do I have time to do it? Something’s got to take a back seat, and sadly, it’s been books for most of this year.
However, with the weather getting colder, and the fact that I’d not joined the library service in this county yet weighing on my shoulders, I decided to pop up there and grab some books. I’ve now read more books in a month than I think I’ve read in about a year, which is great! Here are a few I’ve really enjoyed so far…
Barbara Hambly – Those Who Hunt the Night
God, I love vampires. I especially love vampire books with really 80s covers.
Set in Edwardian London, this is a mystery novel worthy of Conan Doyle, but with creatures that skulk in the darkness and a hero that rides an early Norton motorcycle. It’s not a huge book, but it’s gripping – I finished it off in just over a week. Although its main character is a human – the unlikely warrior James Asher, don at Oxford University with a secret past – the vivid nature in which the vampires are portrayed, particularly the dashing Don Simon Ysidro, won me over. Ysidro is a total babe.
Warren Ellis and Phil Jimenez – X-Men: Exogenetic
I’m a comic person too (Marvel pls), but I don’t have time to keep up with single issues, so I usually grab a few trade paperbacks when I can. Exogenetic, set in the events following M-Day, sees seemingly dead mutants revived with Sentinels lurking within their hollow husks of a body. It pits the X-Men against some of their biggest enemies, all at the hands of one particularly evil genius. It’s not Ellis’ most cerebral work, but it is great fun.  
Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice
Where to start? I can’t believe this is a debut novel. It’s so elegantly crafted, a true tale of revenge but from the eyes of a ship’s AI, no less, stranded in an ancillary body and left to seek out its destroyer. Most interestingly, the novel’s main character (and the Radchaii in general) uses the pronoun ‘she’ to refer to people of all gender. Although it threw me to start with, it made me realise just how male-centric most sci-fi books are, and it was a refreshing change to visualise a character as female upon first instance, rather than male. I’m thoroughly looking forward to reading the next two books in the series.
On the to-read pile, I’ve got The Relic Guild by Edward Cox, of which I have heard Very Good Things.
What have you been reading lately? Please post your recommendations in the comments!
xoxo – Robyn