Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and I were getting along so well, but now I’m not sure how I should feel about the 90 hours I spent playing it. This is because a reveal in Ubisoft’s take on Norse mythology completely recontextualizes everything about protagonist Eivor. And I guess the simplest way to put it is the viking isn’t who I thought he was. The version I was playing of him was a gay man, but as I progressed further into Valhalla and put the pieces together of how this character played into Assassin’s Creed’s larger story, I began to fear I had been seeing a distorted view of this person. Like an unreliable narrator guiding me along that I wasn’t going to be clued into until it was too late. And while some care was taken to not reveal that truth to me on my playthrough, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla does have an idea of who Eivor is, and that’s a reality no amount of player agency can escape.
Spoilers for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla follow. Reader discretion is advised.
At the beginning of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, you’re given a choice to play as either a male or female version of Eivor. The in-universe explanation for this is the Animus, the virtual reality simulator that allows you to explore people’s memories through their DNA, is picking up on two competing personalities: one male, one female. You can decide to hone in on one or the other, and that’s how you decide what Eivor’s appearance will be throughout. While that alone doesn’t seem to make much sense in the moment, what makes it weirder is that you’re able to switch between the two at will throughout the game, and it won’t have any actual effect on the narrative. Characters you’ve met won’t remark on your changed appearance and the game doesn’t lock any content based on Eivor’s gender, including romances. But on top of that, there’s a third option that will switch between the two when their strands are stronger, which defaults to female Eivor for a majority of the game, switching to male Eivor for very specific circumstances.
Despite the seemingly improbable nature of it all, Ubisoft confirmed both male and female Eivor were canon in some way before Valhalla launched, and there was a justification for how this was possible. But when you see how it’s all explained in Assassin’s Creed’s extremely elaborate world, the reason of it, while an interesting twist on paper, has wider ramifications about Valhalla’s queer representation, specifically impacting the possibility of Eivor being a gay man. This technically also has an impact on Eivor being a straight man, but we’re talking about Assassin’s Creed’s already messy relationship with depicting queer people here.
Near the beginning of Valhalla, Eivor has visions of the Norse god Odin, who is shown to have some kind of connection to our protagonist, even appearing during crucial assassination scenes and decision points to act as a sort of angel/devil on your shoulder. Notably, Odin looks and sounds suspiciously like the male Eivor. Playing as a man, the implication here seemed obvious to me, and knowing bits of Assassin’s Creed lore prior meant I was aware there was some form of reincarnation in this universe. But let’s put a pin in all this information for a second.
Eventually, a seer uses potions to allow Eivor to make greater sense of their visions of Odin, manifesting as a new map to run around in the seemingly endless open world: Asgard. We play as Odin (or Eivor seeing Odin’s memories, depending on how technical you want to get) in the lead up to Ragnarok, the end of the world in Norse mythology. Like anyone would, he wants a way out and is willing to betray a lot of people to do it. Without getting too in the weeds of how it all works, the long and short of it is the god sacrifices his left eye to be reincarnated after Ragnarok comes to pass. He won’t be able to escape his end in this life, but he’ll get to live on in another. The same goes for a handful of other Norse gods, including Tyr, Thor, and Freya, with Loki doing some scheming to assure he gets to live on as well.
After living through three of Odin’s memories, it’s revealed that Valhalla is about the reincarnations, or Sages, of the Norse gods. Tyr lives on as Eivor’s step brother Sigurd, although he does lose an arm again in his new life. Loki comes back as Basim, who carries with him a grudge going back to their days in Asgard. And the reason Eivor has such close ties to Odin’s memories is because they are the reincarnation he lost an eye to become. There’s a lot of Assassin’s Creed lore to explain to get the full context of what is actually happening here and how it plays into the overarching story of the franchise, but all you really need to know is that Odin was a man who existed a long time ago in this universe, and he ensured he would return in some form in the future because he feared the death of a cataclysmic event, one Eivor processes as Ragnarok.
So now that we know Eivor is a reincarnation of Odin, how does that change things? On its own, that doesn’t change much at all. When it does is how it contextualizes that third choice: the one where the game will switch between male and female Eivor based on whose signal is stronger. As it turns out, the only time male Eivor’s signal strength is stronger is during the Asgard flashback scenes. Otherwise, Eivor is a woman if this is the option you go with.
There’s a reason male Eivor resembles Odin so strongly: he is Odin. These two dueling identities exist in one person, but in the end, Eivor is a woman. She’s the one being represented in comics and novels, and might show up in a Kassandra-style reveal at the end of Valhalla’s DLC and be referenced in future games. This isn’t specifically communicated to a person who plays male Eivor, but it does mean everything you do as a man is actually being done by a woman. but you chose to hone in on Odin’s DNA while using the Animus.
This is all to say, if Eivor is a woman who is more or less being piloted by her male predecessor when you play as a man, in a wild, in-universe way, it retroactively makes Valhalla’s gay romances straight, as they were between a man and a woman, even if the player isn’t privy to that in the moment. The same can can be said for straight relationships as male Eivor because, unbeknownst to you, this is actually engaging in a sapphic relationship.
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Assassin’s Creed has had a pretty checkered past when it comes to its queer rep. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey came under fire when it let the player engage in same-sex pairings in the main game, only to force player characters Kassandra or Alexios into a heterosexual relationship in order to have a child, then somehow get recognized by GLAAD for its representation. After backlash and an apology, Ubisoft made changes to the storyline in question to make the relationship optional, but kept the child and the deed doing that brought them into the world as a requirement. It all was tied to the series’ emphasis on bloodlines, but when you spend an entire game allowing players to roleplay one way, it flies in the face of the game’s and the player’s interpretation of characters if you require them to enter an opposite-sex relationship.
I don’t really know how to feel about the situation, given that a lot of this isn’t at all communicated to people who play as male Eivor exclusively. There’s even a scene where Eivor renounces Odin’s influence, and when the god is no longer lurking in his mind, Eivor doesn’t magically revert to her true form unless you as the player make the choice for her to. But I would have hoped that after the stumbles Odyssey made Ubisoft would have been more careful going into the game that followed. I don’t look at this and see it as a “gotcha” moment, where folks at Ubisoft were thinking it would be a twist ending where they would pull the rug out from other people and say “you were playing as a woman the entire time!” But it does fundamentally change the entire game for some people, and while I’m less inclined to worry about straight men because they always get to play as characters like them in AAA games, queer men are often the last to get a seat at the table, even in franchises that are ostensibly progressive.
Divorced of context and the knowledge that a player will be engaging in romantic and sexual relationships that will likely resemble their own, it all sounds like a clever way to try to legitimize both versions of Valhalla’s protagonist, but when you don’t go all the way with validating different permutations, you do ultimately undermine them in the end. It just feels even worse when you find out about it so many hours after the fact, and now I have to wrestle with what it all meant to me now that it’s over. I came here to be a gay viking, dammit.