A couple of weeks ago, Mr. J dropped a link for Valheim into the group chat we share with our gaming buddies. I clicked and watched the trailer for a co-op survival game. It looked cool, but I was about a third of the way through Valhalla and a third of the way through my current WIP—the book I’m under contract for, the book that is due March 31. I figured maybe later. Next time. Whenever.
Then Mr. J told me about the axes.
I have long wanted an edition of The Sims where you start with nothing. You’d land on an island with nothing but skin and senses. You’d have to make a tool and use that tool to build a shelter. You’d make another tool and use it to hunt. Feed and clothe yourself. Then you’d gather seeds and plant them. Upgrade your shelter to something resembling a house. Skill sets would narrow as you developed certain knacks: farming, construction, fine carpentry, masonry, metal-working. Eventually, a village would form. A society would grow up around it. It’d be like The Sims and Sim City combined, and I’d probably forget to eat, sleep, and wash for however long it took for my people to conquer the stars.
Valheim doesn’t promise space ships or even modern technology. But there’s an island—a world, really, but an island to start. You’re in purgatory, and while you’re there, you’re supposed to kill a number of legendary enemies for Odin. Or something. I mean… there’s a story? There’s a reason. But there’s also this ax and I’m too busy deforesting purgatory because our longhouse isn’t big enough for all the mead we’re trying to produce, plus we now have twenty chests of deer heads rotting in a corner, and more turnips than we can soup or feed to the tame boars that have learned to jump fences. And someone discovered another crafting improvement last night, so we need to reorganize everything.
Also, I now have iron lamps in my house, and they are gorgeous. There’s so much light! I can now see where I turned a floorboard the wrong way and that I’ve used two different posts on the balcony. I need to fix that. Right after we raid another Swamp crypt because I’d like an iron gate in the new stone wall surrounding my yard.
The path from axes to iron is a story I’ll tell my grandchildren. It’s got sea serpents and trolls and wraiths. It’s scary and hilarious. And it wouldn’t be half as fun if I wasn’t playing with eight other humans who have somehow forgotten we’re there to kill bosses or something. I mean, what’s a legendary enemy or two when there are wolf-leather upgrades to figure out? When we can have a throne in front of our improved fireplace, and need to make time to discuss Village 2.0 because we’re mining farther and farther afield, and the logistics of getting all of this ore back to the base are beyond our current infrastructure?
I’m generally not a fan of co-op games. They all start well, but because I like to move at my own pace (read: slower than everyone else), I always feel like I miss a lot of content along the way. The story won’t hang together as well for me. I also get ticked when party members loot everything before I get there, even though they’re not responsible for the fact I had to spend thirty minutes framing the perfect screenshot from every angle. The sunset rippling across the water, the snow swirling through the trees, the view from a mountain top, the troll stuck in a gorge. These are the memories I will, well, put in a folder and probably forget. But for that moment, they make me happy.
Now that we’re all more than 100 hours into Valheim, there’s some of that. I have arrived at a mountain top, pick in hand, only to find deep excavation holes where there should be a large vein of silver. I don’t begrudge my fellow purgatorees their upgraded wolf-gear. But I wouldn’t have minded if someone had marked this particular island as fully exploited before I spent two days constructing a new crafting center. Maybe. I mean, I did have fun building, and I learned a lot, and there is another mountain of silver one island over. Just a short boat ride away. So, it’s not all bad, but… Fine. Whatever. I’ll just build another something-or-other two islands over. We have portals now. Portals everywhere.
I like that we can all be on at once, chatting over Discord and doing our own thing. We’ll invite the group to come to see what we’ve built when we’re done. I don’t know if, as an adult, you ever acquired the habit of stopping by model villages to tour houses you’d never buy? It’s like that. We’ll wander around our village, checking out each other’s setup. A new chimney arrangement, a well-placed garden sculpture, an innovative stairway, etc. Then we’ll go home and try to incorporate that into our next build.
When we’re not working on our village, we go adventuring together. In twos, threes, or all of us together for a boss fight. And this is when we build the stories.
Our first boss fight went something like this:
“What happens if you put a deer head on this altar?”
We killed it before it killed us, and then we built our village around its grave because, hey, why not? It was pretty flat there, and we had no idea what else we’d be doing in this game. We’ve discussed moving the village to a better, more convenient location a few times, but we’re all attached to our organic sprawl. Also, we have iron lamps and gates. They don’t move. They should be moveable.
Our first encounter with a sea serpent is one for the books. Mr. J and I had discovered a large, promising island to the south. I think we’d been playing for only a couple of days at this point. We’d just figured out how to build rafts and cross large bodies of water. So, we were on the island, exclaiming over all the copper deposits, while the rest of our group built a raft and hopped on for the trip over. Listening to them on Discord as they encountered a sea serpent is a memory I’ll treasure forever. It was hilarious. There was yelling, cursing, maybe even a little screaming. It was one of those occasions where you really didn’t need to be there. Listening was good enough.
Our second boss fight did not go as well. First, we left someone ashore and had to steer the karve (bigger than a raft, but not by much) back to get them. Then several of us died trying to hike over a mountain, succumbing to the freezing temperatures or the wolves. Thankfully, we had portal technology by then. We’d plopped one down on the opposite shore, meaning that after revival, it was a simple matter of running nearly naked through the village to the longhouse and hopping through a ring of fire. That done, we’d then have to drive our characters back up the mountain and try to get our stuff before we froze again. Or got attacked again.
We eventually found a path around the mountain and the altar for the second boss. Before taking him on, we posed everyone for a group selfie and then most of us died. Again. Multiple times.
Then there was the time we discovered the Swamp. Many, many deaths.
My first encounter with a Deathsquito. Yes, it’s really called that. I’m so scarred by that death that even a hint of Plains at the edge of my mini-map will have me scurrying in the opposite direction.
Rescue deaths are a thing. Your character’s body is so far away from explored territory that one of the group will volunteer to help you reclaim it. You’ll both die in the attempt. Boats will be eaten by sea serpents and crunched by hidden reefs. Mad goblins (oh, how I despise the Plains) will go bananas next to a boat and sink it. I die, you die, we all die. Together. Forever.
And it’s… So. Much. Fun.
Home Sweet Home
When we’re not slaughtering wildlife and taming the natives (killing them, okay? We’re killing them), we play at being happy homemakers and it’s truly mystifying (though maybe not) how many hours we’ve all spent just building things. I haven’t played a lot of survival-type games. I do know that in a lot of games I’ve played, however, one thing I’d have loved to have seen, that would have truly grounded me in that world, was a home base. Or just a home. A stake. Somewhere to store my stuff, at the very least.
At first glance, the building tools are fairly rudimentary. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that the limited pieces could be combined in a truly dazzling number of ways. We’re still using my first major build: the longhouse, which is basically a crafting nexus in the center of our village. I think all of us have renovated at least one part of it, though, and one of my favorite aspects of the game is arriving in the longhouse to see someone has put down deer skin rugs, or hung trophies and lamps. Moved a fireplace. Knocked a wall back to put up more shelves. Thrown up a new portal.
We eventually decided we needed a portal hub, so we built one down by the docks and moved all of our portals there. It’s like Grand Central Station. Two floors of portals pointing to all of our currently explored territories.
We have three bases now. There’s the home village, where we all ‘live’. My new crafting center, Relay Point. And another player has started a ranch in the Plains that I’m too afraid to visit. He calls it the Mosqnest. I’m assuming he means Mosquito Nest. Yeah, no. I’m still not over Deathsquitos.
We’re proud of what we’ve built. Our village is weird, but it’s the uniqueness of our homes—what we did with the tools—that makes it all so cool. One player has built a tower. Another is living in a treehouse. Across the road, he’s built a motte-and-bailey-type structure with an underground hidey-hole. Yet another player has a pavilion-style setup. Mr. J’s place is Viking-inspired. Mine is… I don’t know what mine is. I chose a spot with views and built from there. The front of my place is lined with balconies and galleries to take in that view and I love how it looks when rain moves across the valley. I can sit my character by the roaring hearth and watch the rain fall outside and it’s damn cozy. It really is.
Until the wolves start howling. Mr. J tamed a pair and brought them back to the village and then he fed them. We now have about eighteen wolves roaming between fences. It can get noisy.
But while our village suits us—because it’s ours—it’s not Reddit-worthy. Some of the builds people have posted. Just, wow. Notre Dame Cathedral. Stormwind Harbor (WoW). Whiterun (Skyrim). And breathtaking original designs that keep us awake at night as we figure out how to implement some of the key strategies in our next build.
As we clear the world of evil, it spawns back harder. The Black Forest is not safer for us having defeated The Elder. Greydwarves now travel in packs rather than pairs or loose groupings. With Bonemass reduced to a pile of bubbling ooze, we now have Skeleton Surprises. That is not a tasty dish of any kind. It’s massive bands of skeleton warriors and archers chipping away at our walls. If they get in, and they sometimes do, they kill all of our boars. It’s not unusual for us to find Draugr wandering somewhere other than the Swamp. Yesterday, we fell into a village of the damned in a Meadows environment. The Meadows are supposed to be safe. Boars, Necks, the odd dwarf. Not nests of rotting flesh.
The world is leveling with us. So, while there’s peace to be had in some areas, I can never totally let my guard down. This constant challenge is what keeps the game exciting. We’re almost ready to take on the Mountain boss. One of our group already has his sights set on the Plains boss. The rest of us will catch him up in a week or so.
If it takes us another two weeks to get there, though… Well, that’d be okay.
It usually takes me four to six months to complete a game of this magnitude. If I sort my Steam library by hours played, most of my games fall into two categories. 40-or-so hours, which is for quick, fun games like Tomb Raider, Metro, The Evil Within, Dishonored. Closed worlds and tighter stories. Then there are the open-world games where I’ll spend about 80-100 hours exploring before I finish off the main quest. In real-time, that’s months for me. I play on weekends. Sometimes of an evening during the week, but mostly on Saturday and Sunday.
I started playing Valheim on February 20. It’s now March 10 and I’ve logged 114 hours. One hundred and fourteen hours. We’re hitting Skyrim territory. In, what, three weeks?
It’s been a long, long time since I was this stuck on a game. Valheim has me burning through everything I absolutely have to do that day (like work) so I can jump back into purgatory and die. Most days don’t start with death or even end with it unless I’m building something complex and forget to feed my Viking and then let her fall off the roof. One time? She fell inside her chimney and onto the fire. And died. There should be an achievement for stupid deaths.
On the face of it, my game time is split between building and exploring. The exploring is what gains experience for my character with regards to weapon skills, combat techniques, and opening up new portions of the map. But I derive just as much satisfaction from designing and executing the perfect build, like Relay Point and my most ambitious project to date: a lighthouse. The lighthouse nearly broke me. After spending six hours on it one day, I abandoned my fifth attempt and vowed not to play Valheim for a couple of days.
“I need a break,” I said.
Guess what I was doing the next day?
I think one of the most amusing aspects of the whole thing, aside from the fact dying is more fun with friends, is that we’ve arrived in this mythical world with a very specific task. And we’re doing exactly what we’d do in real life. Making the world our own. Cutting down all the trees, slaughtering the wildlife, and failing miserably at negotiations with the natives. To be fair, everything wants to kill us. I do reflect sometimes on how the cycle of humanity is doomed to repeat itself even in a virtual world, though.
From a gaming perspective, that’s where the success of Valheim truly lies: in the ability of the player to make this world their own.
Now and then, I notice the pixels, but to be honest, they don’t bother me. They’re part of the experience. For all that the world isn’t quite finished, it’s still pretty. The moon sparkles off the water at night, rain spatters off the rocks (in cute little squares I sometimes mistake as hail), and the warm glow the spreads around a fireplace is downright cozy. It’s easy to ignore the fact Rejylejy (Ray-lay) is a rather square female. Her breasts more resemble over-developed pecs than actual mammaries, and her blocky braid disappears altogether when she’s wearing a bronze helmet, revealing the fact her neck is about the same width as her head. But she’s a plucky little Viking. She soloed a one-star troll the other day. And promptly mounted the head over her fireplace. And then decided it was too big for the space and put it in one of the chests of heads she has in storage.
For an early release, the game is in surprisingly good shape. It feels balanced and well-thought-out in regards to exploration and combat. It gets a little laggy at times, especially when two or three of us arrive at the same destination at the same time. Doors and chests won’t open for thirty seconds or so. Because we’re always in a hurry—there’s another vein to mine or a crypt to raid—the delay can be frustrating. I’ve even resorted to pushing Ray through a large window to get to where I’m going.
We’d leave the doors open, but the dwarves. Worst. Neighbors. Ever. They come in and trash the place.
There are a few quality-of-life improvements I’d love to see. The first would be a one-step-back undo button when using the building and terrain tools. I’d also like certain household items to be portable: sconces, furniture, and empty chests. I’d love to be able to break down older weapons and armor for components instead of hiding them behind my house until they disappear.
I’d like some angled stone blocks.
I’d also like to see more building tools and options. More decorator items. I mean, I get we’re supposed to be Vikings in purgatory and that none of this is forever, but for the time I’m playing? It’s totally forever and I want a sculpture garden, damn it. And some flowers and shrubbery for the garden.
A shared map would be cool but if we never get one, that’s fine too. While it’s frustrating not to be able to add another player’s progress to my map, exploring the world on your own does have its perks. Mostly another amusing death story, but stories are good currency. Always.
Larger servers could also be fun. But, honestly? I kinda like the limits on our world. That there are only eight of us. Eight is a great number. We have a community, but we also have enough world to explore on our own.
We ate the same dinner four nights in a row last week because I was too busy mapping the outline of the neighboring islands to cook. Our cats are restless. They’re used to getting more attention. I haven’t opened a book to read for days and I usually read three-four books a week. There are dust bunnies the size of actual rabbits collecting in the corners of the stairs.
We forgot to put the trash out this week.
I’m keeping up with my professional obligations, namely writing the book that is due soon, responding to email in an almost timely manner, and even remembering to tell people I had a new release. Everything else? Um… What else? I mean, there’s a foot of snow outside. The garden doesn’t need me right now. And the dust bunnies might have babies soon and they’d have to be at least as half as cute as the piggies in Valheim.
Mostly, I’m thankful that my daughter is old enough to care for herself (she’s in her second year of college), and that she’s happy to feed us while we disappear from real life. Also, that she’s very, very amused by the ugly of her parents becoming obsessed with this game.