The Trees: Stories In The Bark, Seasonal Play, and Falling Leaves
Fall (or autumn) is a special season for countless reasons. It is a stop-gap between the worst season, summer, and the best season, winter. But it also stands out as its own little slice of yearly joy—especially if you live in an area where green spaces, parks, and forests/hiking trails are readily accessible. As far as games are concerned, seasonal specificity usually falls to winter since, well, lots of games have lots of snow! From Skyrim to Hitman, snow is a prominent set dressing. As for fall, it has been featured in lots of games but it deserves more love. Thankfully, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is an ode to the season of falling leaves.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla opens in Norway. It is dark and the way is often only lit by the moon, stars, and the aurora borealis that stirs and swirls overhead. Snow is packed deep and high. Eivor trudged through it, often leaving a trail. The trees are bare of leaves and what plant life there is is always half-buried or caked in snow. Unmoving water remains frozen while moving water rushes icily from its starting point far up in the mountains to the endless sea beyond. The perpetual winter is harsh but it makes up only a small fraction of the game. Soon enough, Eivor and his Raven Clan cross the seas to England. And where they arrive at is unlike where they began, in more ways than one. But as far as seasons and landscapes are concerned, the England of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla seems stuck in a perpetual fall. Dark orange, brown, and green hues make up the world’s color palette. It is beautiful. There is a certain sense of calming grandeur to the bucolic landscapes that the game calls home—to the point where larger cities and outposts feel weird and out of place when juxtaposed to the rolling hills, forests, farms, swamps, and rivers that dot the land. Wind blows and leaves fall. Light leaks in through dense tree coverage overhead, though pockets of light shine through brighter thanks to the fact that the leaves are changing colors and falling. Fall has come to medieval England.
Honestly, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla might be one of the best fall games I’ve ever played. To me, it is to fall when The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is to winter. This is achieved in many ways. What is most obvious is the sound design and color pallet—wind rustling through the trees evokes such an intense sense memory that one can almost smell the air itself, and the colors that the game traffics in evoke the best of fall-set landscape paintings. Heightened realism, even. Yet, what makes fall work in this game is the trees. Yes, just the trees (and their relationship to the landscapes they take root in).
The trees are as alive as the NPCs and in-game animals who walk amongst them. They shift in the heavy wind of a storm and bristle as the mild wind of a cool fall afternoon whistles through them. Sometimes these trees are packed densely in forests and other times they dot the lands in a sporadic, spread-out manner with their orange and green, and brown leaves coloring the landscape both up-close and from a distance. But the trees, like the humans who make up the world of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, are varied and have their own stories to tell. Lone, massive trees reign over hilltops, and crows caw from their branches. Sometimes pagan charms hang from the trees and other times a graveyard has taken root beneath the shadowed canopy of the tree itself. Bodies even hang from these trees every now and again. War and unrest don’t only affect humans, it touches, damns, and ruins nature as well. The trees touched by war are often warped, torn apart, burned, and, regardless, their stalwart bucolic beauty has been stripped bare and morphed into something twisted and horrific. This is most readily and easily noticeable in the swamps and moors of the game world. Those damned, ruined trees get lost in the fog and their twisted shapes hint at what hell has taken place, takes place, and will take place in these dangerous areas. But the trees of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla also tell stories rife with beauty and simplicity. Side missions are often found under them, farmers asking for help or more zany individuals asking Eivor to take on any number of weird tasks. Trees are guide stones in this way. Young children can often be found playing at the bases of trees that grow close to settlements. Dogs and cats rest beneath them. Deers and foxes and rabbits feed and take solace under their vast canopies. These simple moments and fleeting interactions are stories unto themselves, and if you watch them closely, then you might just be moved by their elegant simplicity—all under the backdrop of trees and forests. Even fallen trees—ones that have seemingly fallen naturally—have their own stories to tell, or at the very least, they lead players to stories. Erosion from rivers leads to some trees to no longer be standing, the ground is cracked and warped and the fallen tree has just become another sign of the passage of time. Now that fallen tree no longer breathes life, but it lets players extend theirs as fallen trees offer great cover during moments of stealth-based combat. Interactive and non-interactive NPCs can also be found around fallen trees. Sometimes villagers sit along fallen trees and fish into one of the many rivers of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. And sometimes they just sit there. The sun shines bright on a cold fall day and sitting in that sun as nature holds still around you can be blissful, and some NPCs basque in that. Interactive NPCs can be found at some fallen trees, too. Eivor comes across a Viking slumped alongside a fallen tree in a large puddle. The Viking has an axe in his head. He does not know that he is about to die, but he has found a comfortable spot to do so. Eivor talks to him about his wound and what will eventually follow. The Viking dies with his back resting on that fallen tree. Two dense, stalwart lives that no longer surge with the hum of life.
Watching the leaves fall from trees evokes a feeling of change, and change is a large theme in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla—finding new homes and new lives in new lands. There is a deep sadness inherent to the game itself. Melancholy is the chord most often played in the game when one digs deeper beyond the medieval humor/quirkiness and endless violence. But that sadness never takes complete hold—moments of warmth and humor and love are found amongst Eivor and his Raven Clan. They drink and dance and love and cry together. Eivor rides horses with new companions and they trade philosophies while passing through trails under trees and over hillsides. While falling leaves evoke a feeling of melancholy and change—specifically a change that is often out of our hands, a change that we just have to roll with—seeing the changing colors of the leaves and how they fall just makes me want to go outside. Few games have ever made me want to do that. I love the outdoors and spend as much time outside—whether that is running, skateboarding, hiking, or walking—as possible. But games rarely ever evoke a sense of me wanting to further my relationship with the outdoors. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla does just that. It makes me yearn for forest trails and parks and the sound of my shoes crunching through the leaves that blanket the ground during the fall. Fall is fleeting. We must take hold of it while we can and to experience time outdoors during this season while it is here. Eventually, winter will come and the trees will sway skeletal in the cold wind.
Yet, winter never really comes to the land of England in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (maybe it does, I am not sure, this game is like a billion hours long and I am only twenty-five hours in). The world is stuck in a perpetual fall. And it is a world I will probably return to every fall because it takes the beauty of fall and only heightens it to the idealized, natural, and bucolic vision of fall. And like winter in Skyrim, as global warming only grows worse and more noticeable each year thanks to irreparable damage wrought by industrialization, capitalism, and climate change denial permeating every rung of the corporate, economic, and governmental ladders. Seeing these seasons recreated in digital landscapes as sort of heightened and idealized visions of themselves is a beautiful thing, and not to get hyperbolic, but one day it might be all we have in regards to a sense of interacting with seasons that will one day be no more. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is beautiful, even if it fills me with sadness, and the way it evokes fall and how it imbues life and love and story into the game’s many trees has been a wondrous thing to behold.