Vikings—the tough Norse warriors who wore horned helmets while raiding villages—hark all the way back to the ‘80s and ‘90s. But in the last two to three years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of games featuring or starring these ruffians.
I first noticed this growing trend of Viking-themed games last month, after I played the co-op roguelike survival game, Tribes of Midgard. The Vikings in this game were depicted as savvy survivors and capable warriors who are able to work together to build a new civilization. A very classic depiction of these Norse warriors, and one that fits nicely within video games’ obsession with the survival genre. For whatever reason, that game seemed like the 200th Viking game I had heard about recently. Of course, that number was completely wrong, but the actual number of Viking games released in the past three years is higher than you might expect.
Since the start of 2019, there have been at least nine different (but major) Viking-themed games released. Toss in 2018 and that number gets even bigger, with six Viking titles released that year alone. If you toss in the rerelease of Blizzard’s The Lost Vikings earlier this year that adds up to 16 games since 2018. And that’s just counting bigger, well-known games. I wouldn’t be shocked if this number would be much higher if we went down the rabbit hole of mobile releases or the full extent of Steam releases within the same timeframe. The point is that in the last few years, Vikings have truly invaded video games.
But why is this happening, exactly? The fine folks at Paranoid Interactive, the devs behind city-builder Frozenheim, explained that the very idea for Frozenheim came about around three years ago.
“But the hype for Vikings started years earlier when Skyrim and the first Thor movies appeared,” said Konrad Sumało of Paranoid Interactive. “Almost every new game or movie that was created later became recognizable by a wide audience as it was already a part of current pop culture.”
Sumało also shared that other games, like Ancestors Legacy and Northgard, were “huge inspirations” for the team. According to Sumało, these Viking games highlighted the popularity of Norse mythology, as well as the easiness of adapting the character trope into different genres. Plus, while Vikings are certainly popular and cool these days, they are still far less common to see in a game when compared to a modern soldier or a zombie. As result, Sumało feels that making a Viking game can help make your project “stand out” more.
In a lot of ways, Vikings also feel like the perfect characters for a video game. Because of the iconic Viking armor, onlookers immediately understand that they are badass warriors who use cool weaponry. Most games feature combat and violence of some kind, so Vikings fit perfectly into that type of interactive experience. Yet, while they are known for their brutality, they were also pioneers and explorers, giving devs a lot of options in their Viking-themed video games.
They would travel the world, trading with other cultures they encountered. Researchers have discovered that Vikings were not a monoculture of pure white warriors, as some may believe, but a more diverse group that visited places like Spain, Baghdad, and Constantinople. This mix of peaceful explorers and deadly invaders has allowed games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to tell more diverse stories and create both nasty villains and relatable heroes.
Another bonus pointed out by Sumało is that they often visit parts of the world that make for lovely digital settings. Big snowy mountains, endless forests, icy caves, etc. These Viking stomping grounds are perfect settings for big RPGs or action games. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s huge Norway map is gorgeous and a joy to explore, with all of its snowy hills and quiet, out-of-the-way locations.
For better or worse, the western world is familiar with Viking gods, especially with the advent of media around Marvel characters such as Loki and Odin. These properties are full of big fights and betrayals — perfect, if not simplistic fodder for a video game narrative.
In some games, like 2018's God of War, Vikings aren’t seen—but their myths, gods, weapons, and world are used heavily throughout. Kratos isn’t a Viking, but instead a visitor from another land. However, he wields an ax and hangs out with various Norse gods during the events of the game. In God of War, Norse mythology isn’t just a background theme used to freshen up the franchise. Instead, the game depicts the various Norse gods you encounter as complex and flawed beings, all of which come together for some dramatic flair. Kratos, of course, doesn’t care, which might be why he’s able to kill said gods so easily. But even grumpy old Kratos, like many devs these days, can’t resist the siren’s call of the Vikings.
Whatever the reason, current popular games suggest the trend isn’t stopping anytime soon. no Valheim exploded earlier this year on Steam and has already sold nearly 8 million copies on PC. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was a giant hit, selling more copies during its first week than any other game in the franchise’s history. Even smaller Viking games like Tribes of Midgard have proved popular too.
As with any trend, it’s likely that one-day things will cool down and tastes will change. But for now, it seems the era of Viking video games isn’t over yet. After this, who knows what will be the next popular trend. Maybe cowboys or ninjas?