The hero of the 2020 videogame Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Eivor Wolf-Kissed, has no charisma. But players can develop Eivor’s charisma, and if they do, the game rewards them with new interactions and new outcomes, both in side quests and in the primary narrative. Valhalla is an open-world game, and its developers invested enormous effort to create the huge, densely interconnected world through which their hero travels. But Eivor’s journey is also a more fully human one, marked by complex social interactions and character development.
Eivor’s charisma stat, for example, depends on the player’s successes at “flyting,” an innovative game mechanic that allows the hero to compete in a minigame best described as a Viking rap battle. In the gameplay recorded in the accompanying video, Eivor wins a flyting challenge from the NPC Jungulf, earning both gold and a charisma bump. With the gold—as in dozens of similar games—Eivor can buy upgraded weapons and armor. Charisma, on the other hand, operates within a different game economy. Among other things, a more charismatic Eivor can command crowds, deflect tedious encounters, and convince strangers to reveal secrets. Another benefit appears in the side quest “Permission to Weep,” which is recorded in the video. Here, Eivor encounters another Viking warrior, Sten, who is trapped by his inability to grieve. Sten recognizes that Eivor is a fellow warrior, and he hopes that Eivor might grant him permission to weep. And Eivor can do this, but only after developing the necessary charisma.
Both flyting and charisma are evidence of Ubisoft’s sustained attempt to offer players a hero who is more complex than the one-dimensional warriors that populated earlier and simpler videogames. In other words, Valhalla’s creators are using the unique properties of computational media—the procedural and interactive affordances of computers—to do what storytellers have done for thousands of years. Eivor’s journey demonstrates that AAA game designers continue to experiment with the computer’s unique abilities in their effort to render more realistic worlds populated by more fully human characters.