“Ragnarök defines the Norse mythic world as one that doesn’t just have a beginning, but an end,” says Old Norse scholar Dr. Jackson Crawford, explaining why the story appears in so many games. “All significant time for the living will end, and the end will be horrible and violent.”
According to the Viking storytellers, when the end times come, the stars will disappear from the sky, floods will swallow the earth and the heavens will burn. After the world withers from a perpetually harsh winter, giants will invade the realm of Asgard as human civilization descends into chaos. Odin is swallowed by the wolf Fenrir, while Thor and the World Serpent Jörmungandr end each other’s lives in battle. Its destruction is total, marking not only the culmination of creation but also its final resting place.
Ragnarök has found its way into Assassin’s Creed, Viking RTS Northgard, Senua’s Sacrifice and many other games. God of War: Ragnarök will be just the latest to take us through the Twilight of the Gods when it releases next month. Now the ground is well trodden, history repeats itself in a hundred different ways. Still, strangely enough, game developers are forced to return to it and put their own brand on the myth.
Roots of the World Tree
“It’s a well-made myth,” says Dr Carolyne Larrington, professor of medieval English language and literature at Oxford University. “From the first hints of doom with the death of Baldr, the punishment of Loki, the onset of the Great Winter, the chaos that breaks out in the human world, and then the attack of the frost and fire giants.
“It speaks to our fear of annihilation, whether through environmental destruction, nuclear weapons, or cosmic destruction. The inevitable is on the one hand depressing, but on the other, the courage of men and gods in the face of destruction is inspiring. It is important to allow hope for rebirth and a better kind of existence in the new world.”
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök lead writer Alex Harakis agrees. He says the team at Ubisoft Sofia drew on the fable because it’s “a story of hope rising from the ashes of defeat.” It has a universal appeal that crosses time and place, but is also a natural starting point for storytellers studying Norse stories. Of our modern, fragmented knowledge of the Viking myth, two events overshadow all others: the Norse creation myth and the end times. Among them, one is the most obvious candidate for adaptation.
“The creation myth is fascinating but quite surreal,” says Charakis. “Also, it’s kind of disconnected from everything else, although we make quite a few references to it in Dawn of Ragnarök. The End Times myth, by comparison, represented the best for us – narratively contained but epic, connected to the sagas that came before it, and the culmination of Odin’s personal character arc. There was the added bonus that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla had already flirted with the theme without answering every last question.”
Spun by Norns
However, the context of the myth leaves much room for interpretation. “Like all Norse myths, the Ragnarök myth is not described in the Old Norse sources in the kind of detail that we as a modern audience would want,” says Crawford. The most extensive reference is given by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda – a 13th century handbook of Norse mythology – which is based on the Seeress Prophecy found in the even older Poetic Edda. Its roots lie in the pre-Christian oral literary traditions of Iceland, lending it an ambiguity that is useful to modern storytellers.
Harakis and his team of narrative designers could tweak the finer details of the myth to fit into the existing Assassin’s Creed lore. Mythical events are reinterpreted as literal global catastrophes, and the central battle between gods and giants is stripped of its mysticism to fit the game’s larger sci-fi narrative.
“One of the ways we reinterpreted the mythological fragments of our history was by rearranging, or even cutting out, parts of the timeline described in the myths,” says Charakis. “For example, the exact order of the harbingers leading up to Ragnarök, along with how events began to unfold once they happened. This allowed us to refine our story and enhance its dramatic impact.”
Even the patchy understanding of Ragnarök gives storytellers useful anchor points from which to build a coherent plot. But it is the scope and scale of these fragments that make them such a rich creative source. Touching upon a variety of factions and denizens of the Norse kingdoms, Ragnarök stands out as not only the best-known Norse myth but arguably the most ambitious.
Northgard developer Shiro Games tells TechRadar Gaming that the story’s abundant narrative opportunities made it an obvious setting choice for the strategy game’s first update. Fire giants, spectral warriors and other creatures of myth were introduced as fresh unit types, a new biogram was included to reflect the charred landscape of the world that was, and erupting volcanoes were added as deadly renditions of the battle of the gods – the deep well of myth which provides the perfect backdrop to a new game mode.
A fateful prediction
Video game developers aren’t alone in their love of myth. You only need to look at Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarök or the many historical fiction novels that overflow the legend to understand its prevalence in modern Norse mythology stories. Go further back, and you come to JRR Tolkien’s take on the Poetic Edda in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, and go a few more decades to find the 19th-century music drama Götterdämmerung, inspired by Richard Wagner’s Ragnarök.
“People have a taste for top finishes,” says Crawford. “The idea of a civilization that predicted, not the eternal reign of their gods, but the defeat of those gods in a terrible battle with monsters is cinematic. And it arguably has an essential message for understanding the pessimistic tone that runs through so much of Scandinavian literature otherwise.’
The catastrophic scale of Ragnarök, along with the hopeful thread of rebirth that underpins it, seems painfully timely in light of recent years. “If you read the papers, sometimes it feels like every day brings the threat of a new ‘Ragnarök,’ and yet we survive and persevere,” says Harakis.
“It is especially important now as we face the climate emergency. the world as we know it will truly be destroyed in our grandchildren’s lifetimes,” says Larrington. “And it is significant that in The Seeress’s Prophecy, the world will be reborn fresh and new and Baldr the slain god will return.
“In Ragnarök, the world ends in ice and fire, while here it will be fire and flood. The people are terrified and do not know what to do, while the Einherjar (the dead of Valhalla) cannot prevail. There we are, running in the face of destruction, not knowing what to do.
“The gods know it is too late and the forces they have created can only put on a brave show. Perhaps for us, it is not too late, and Surtr – the leader of the fire giants – with his flaming sword that splits the heavens will not come for us. But like Odin, I fear that Ragnarok may be delayed, but it will come.’