Everything in pop culture builds off what came before, but sometimes it’s not so obvious exactly what inspired your favorite video games. Luckily game recognize game, and Source Code is where Playboy explores games’ eclectic origins and finds out what influences video game developers.
If there’s one culture most responsible for the modern concepts of gaming and all other aspects of what’s considered geek culture, it’s the Norse. When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the cornerstone for all fantasy to come with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he was putting on paper his obsession with the mythology of the northlands. Middle Earth—the seminal fantasy series’ setting—is simply the English translation of Midgard, the Norse name for Earth. The Norse created the now-clichéd and overused races of dwarves, elves, giants, and other mainstays of almost every fantasy novel and game in existence.
Indeed, virtually every fantasy trope we now take for granted was created in these ancient stories. The Norse gods weren’t arrogant jerks like those of the Greeks and Romans. Odin, the All-father to the gods, was on a life-long quest for wisdom and cared deeply for humans. He created language, writing, booze, and even poetry—all things he gifted to humans so we could better ourselves. Four days of our week are named after Norse Gods, and the religion lasted for centuries before being violently overthrown by Christianity.
But, like all religions, Norse mythology mirrored the ideals and spirit of its people. It focused on drinking, eating, sex, and, especially, fighting. Odin knew from the start the gods would die, so he spent his life preparing and scheming to put off the end of the world (called Ragnarok) for as long as possible. He spent that time gathering the best fallen warriors so they could spent the rest of time preparing for the final battle.
This literally meant feasting and drinking every night and fighting to the death all day. Dying in these mock battles was temporary and the fallen warriors just healed after the fight, got up, and did it again. Better yet, the whole point of life was to die grandly in battle. It was dishonorable to die of sickness or old age. So they fought fiercely in life to earn the right to fight until the end of time in the afterlife.
Basically, the Norse people created virtual deathmatches centuries before video games.
A GODLESS WORLD
There’s no other religion (certainly not in the Western world) quite like this and the literary aspects of Norse myths have managed to invade every aspect of popular culture. We’re obsessed with Vikings, Thor, Loki, and Odin in games, movies, and television. Everything from retro side-scrollers like Volgarr to epic RPGs like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and The Witcher take liberally from Norse culture and beliefs.
Stoic Studios’ The Banner Saga, in particular, is one of the most intriguing takes on this ancient culture. The tale of survival actually takes place after Ragnarok, where humans and giants are left to wander a harsh, godless world. It’s a game of stunning beauty and tragedy wrapped around deep and engaging tactical battles. The sequel is hitting early next year, so I took some time to chat with Stoic’s co-founder, John Watson, about why Norse mythology appealed to them.
“The stories and imagery of Norse mythology are vivid and engaging,” John said. “These ideas grew up amongst a culture that has as its centerpiece the will to survive and prevail.”
Stoic Studies intentionally doesn’t retell the original myths, but instead intertwines their own story with elements of the previous world. In essence, they’ve written the story of what happens next after the mythology ends.
The lore of Vikings is especially well-suited to games that focus on strategy and battles, but another game, Expedition: Vikings takes a historical approach to that time period. It’s a large-scale war game about the actual Viking peoples. It doesn’t have mythical elements, but instead focuses on how Viking beliefs shaped their behavior. Jonas Waever, Creative Director of the Danish developer Logic Artists, chimed in on how they adapted Norse history in the game.
“Popular culture likes to play fast and loose with history, and one of the central facets of our series is historical accuracy,” Jonas remarked. “We’re treating Norse mythology as what it really was: a faith; a set of stories the people of the time believed.”
Like most modern creators, Logic Artists was especially drawn to the moral ambiguity of the Viking culture, which seems in direct conflict to the Christian tales’ obsession with chivalry. Here, the players are rugged anti-heroes fighting for personal gain and the glory of their clan. "That probably appeals a lot more to a modern audience in a world that’s looking ever less morally black and white,” Jonas said. “The Vikings weren’t necessarily the blood-thirsty raiders they’re often depicted as, but they certainly had this mindset that ‘might makes right.’”
Moving away from war, Norwegian developer Antagonist is creating Through the Woods, a psychological horror game set amidst the backdrop of the immense lore to create an altogether different type of Norse experience. Dan Wakefield of Antagonist is the lone Brit amongst his Norwegian co-workers, but the company as a whole is keen to tap into their country’s dense history of myth and monsters to create something unique. Or, as Dan puts it, “Because we are making a horror game set on a menacing, unlit island, all this lore is a perfect way for us to express the dark history of the forest and the island on which it grows.”
Antagonist is hoping to capitalize on the trend that more people are open to the darker side of storytelling, which is what Scandinavian countries specialize in. “It’s partly their no-nonsense approach, the lack of overarching metaphors for the sake of metaphors and the absence of heroism in general,” Dan elaborates. Whatever the appeal, tales of Vikings and their gods have infused nearly every aspect of our culture and work especially well for gaming. Dark, violent, and full of lust, yet hinged heavily on honor, family, and exploration, Nordic culture and beliefs still hold value to modern society.
Stoic’s John Watson summed up the modern passion for these ancient stories best: “In modern mega-societies people can easily feel lost, alone, and without greater purpose. The repetitive activities of mundane life leave one feeling almost as a single insect in a giant hive. When reliving Norse stories, one can instead imagine being a crucial member of a pack of wolves.”
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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