Early Assess: Slamming My Meaty Fists Around Valheim Is All That Sustains Me Anymore

Leveling up is just part of the Valheim experience.

My name is Crenk. I am a Viking woman who loves women. And some day soon I shall gain the strength to vaporize a shitty little lizard in a single, decisive blow.

In the skin world, my name is Renata. I am a 20 year old media critic who also loves women. And I have picked up and dropped a lot of hobbies. The latest among them is Valheim, a new Viking-oriented survival game that is doing absolute gangbusters on Steam.

Learning new skills comes easy for both Crenk and myself — one of the perks of ADHD. I get real joy from the learning process and the hobbies I pick up along the way. I love(d) learning guitar, and Japanese, and archery, and competitive Valorant and… Eventually a shift happens. I start focusing on the idea of growth above the joy of the thing itself. That’s what we’re often taught to do. That’s what capitalism reminds you of every single day. It lies to you by saying that progress is the reward for work, and that time translates to skill and to worth.

But Crenk doesn’t plateau. Crenk only gets better, faster, stronger, and punchier. In Valheim, every second of work is rewarded with experience points. Everything has a level: woodcutting, swimming, unarmed combat, jumping, rolling, sprinting. The list goes on. And all these things get better as you exercise them. Time spent on something and your ability to do said something become analogous. Why walk when I can run and build up my sprint power? While I wait for meat to cook, I might as well chop down a tree. Not because I need the wood, of course, but because it’ll raise my tree-cutting skill. I can always become more efficient after all.

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valheim leveling

Valheim isn’t the first game to use a skill system like this. The Elder Scrolls has a nearly identical system, as does State of Decay and even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Linear progress is, after all, the heart of most stat-based video games. You win a battle in a turn-based RPG to gain experience. If a character dies, they don’t learn anything. Failure is disincentivized because it’s not productive (I’ve written about this specific feature of game design and capitalism before).

There can be an uncomfortable internal logic to progressions systems like this. I work, therefore I am. These systems don’t just exemplify this idea; they reinforce it. Which isn’t to say these games completely ruin your ability to find joy in the things you do. Of course they won’t. But a reward structure that prioritizes skill gain and time spent on something over craft or intrinsic joy starts to worm its way into your head. 

A friend of mine used to get furious at me whenever I turned in school assignments late, having worked on it for less time than her. She said it was unfair. I always thought I just worked on problems differently, sprinting at the end in a way that was just as stressful and overall productive as her, but the omnipresent grind of capitalism (not to mention the U.S. education system) don’t really allow for nuance like that. If I get the same grade for less “work,” then that somehow devalued what she had done. It meant I was cheating. This logic doesn’t just affect how we see ourselves, it undermines our ability to think of ourselves relationally.

valheim stamina

Luckily, as conscious media consumers we have the ability to actively resist the effects of these systems. Sometimes that means changing how you play a game. This is where cooperation nature comes in handy in Valheim, and sets it apart from much of The Elder Scrolls. My friends don’t give a shit if my Unarmed Combat Skill is at Level 7 or Level 8; they care if we can figure out how to build a roof using Valheim’s byzantine structural integrity system — where half the support beams you can build seem more like decorations than something to keep a hut from collapsing on our heads.

Even if we don’t manage to get the roof to be as tall as we want, and die from smoke inhalation and troll feet, we did something together. When I feel myself falling into old habits — into thinking I just had to spend more time to be good enough at something to make it worth doing — I stopped playing Valheim by myself.

I know I cannot be Crenk, the block-fisted lesbian Viking in the depths of my soul. Nor do I want to be, really. But the myth of linear progress she represents still pulls at me even as I step away from the many Necks I’ve yet to beat to death. If I’m going to play more Valheim, and I think I will, it’ll have to be in a community. With my friends I can just enjoy the meters and their constant ticking progress. I can focus on making something cool with people I care about instead.

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