“Ragnarök defines the Norse mythical cosmos as one that has not just a beginning but an end,” says Jackson Crawford, an Old Norse scholar, explaining why the story appears in so many games. “All time meaningful to the living will end, and the end will be horrible and violent.”
According to Viking storytellers, when the end of time comes, the stars will disappear from the sky, floods will engulf the land and the skies will burn. After the world withers from a harsh winter, giants will invade the realm of Asgard as human civilization descends into chaos. Odin will be 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 climax of creation, but its final resting place.
Ragnarök made its way to Assassin’s Creed, Viking RTS Northgard, Senua’s Sacrifice and many other games. God of War: Ragnarök will become just the latest to take us through the Twilight of the Gods when it launches next month. By now, the terrain is well-trodden, the story told in a hundred different ways. Yet, strangely, game developers are compelled to return to it and put their stamp on the myth.
world tree roots
“It’s a well-formed myth,” says Dr. Carolyne Larrington, a Tutorial Fellow in Medieval English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. “From the first hints of disaster with Baldr’s death, Loki’s punishment, the onset of the Great Winter, the chaos spreading across the human world, and then the attack of the frost and fire giants.
“It speaks to our fear of annihilation, whether through the destruction of the environment, nuclear weapons or cosmic disasters. The inevitability is, on the one hand, depressing, but, on the other hand, the courage of men and gods in the face of misfortune is inspiring. It is important to allow for the hope of rebirth and a better kind of existence in the new world.”
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök head writer Alex Harakis agrees. He says the team at Ubisoft Sofia was drawn to the myth because it’s “a story of hope rising from the ashes of defeat”. It has a universal appeal that spans time and place, but it is also a natural starting point for storytellers studying Norse tales. From our fragmented modern knowledge of the Viking myth, two events overshadow everything else: the Norse creation myth and the end of time. Among them, one is the most obvious candidate for adaptation.
“The creation myth is fascinating but quite surreal,” says Harakis. “Also, it’s a bit disconnected from everything else, although we make several references to it in Dawn of Ragnarök. The end-times myth, by comparison, represented the best for us – narratively speaking, it’s restrained but epic, it connects with the sagas that come before it, and it’s the culmination of Odin’s personal character arc. There was the added bonus that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla had already flirted with the subject without answering every question.”
spun by Norns
However, the structure of the myth leaves much room for interpretation. “Like all Norse myths, the myth of Ragnarök is not told in Old Norse sources in the kind of detail that modern audiences would like,” says Crawford. The fullest account is given by Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda – a 13th-century handbook to Norse mythology – which is based on the Seer’s Prophecy found in the even earlier Poetic Edda. Its roots go back to Iceland’s pre-Christian oral literary traditions, giving it a useful ambiguity for modern storytellers.
Harakis and his team of narrative designers could tweak the more subtle details of the mythos to tuck them into the existing Assassin’s Creed lore. Mythical events are reinterpreted as literal global disasters, and the central battle between gods and giants is stripped of its mysticism to fit into the game’s broader sci-fi narrative.
“One of the ways we reinterpreted the mythological fragments in our story was by reordering, or even cutting, parts of the timeline described in the myths,” says Harakis. “For example, the exact order of precursors leading up to Ragnarök, along with the way events began to unfold when they occurred. This allowed us to streamline our story and increase its dramatic impact.”
Even our fragmented understanding of Ragnarök gives storytellers useful anchor points for building a coherent plot. But it is the breadth and scale of these fragments that make them such a rich creative source. Touching on a variety of factions and inhabitants of the Norse realms, Ragnarök stands out as not only the best-known Norse myth, but arguably the most ambitious.
Northgard developer Shiro Games told Gaming that the story’s plentiful storytelling opportunities made it an obvious choice of setting for the strategy game’s first update. Fire giants, spectral warriors, and other creatures of myth were introduced as new types of units, a new biome was added to reflect the charred landscape of the world-that-was, and exploding volcanoes were added as deadly interpretations of the gods’ fight – the deep well of myth lore providing the perfect setting for a new game mode.
Video game developers are not alone in their fondness for the myth. You only need to look at Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarök or the many historical fiction novels that draw on the legend to understand its prevalence in contemporary Norse mythology stories. Go back further and you’ll come to JRR Tolkien’s version of the Poetic Edda in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, and skip a few more decades to find Richard Wagner’s 19th-century Ragnarök-inspired musical drama Götterdämmerung.
“People like climactic endings,” says Crawford. “The notion of a culture that predicted, not the eternal reign of its gods, but the defeat of those gods in a terrible battle with monsters is cinematic. And it undoubtedly has a significant message for understanding the pessimistic tone that runs through much of Norse literature.”
The calamitous scale of Ragnarök, along with the hopeful thread of rebirth that sustains it, seems painfully pertinent in light of recent years. “If you read the newspapers, sometimes it seems like every day brings the threat of a new ‘Ragnarök’, and yet we survive and persevere,” says Harakis.
“It is particularly relevant now that we face the climate emergency; the world as we know it will really be destroyed during the lifetime of our grandchildren,” says Larrington. “And it’s important that in The Seeress’s Prophecy, the world is reborn again and again, and Baldr, the dead god, returns.
“In Ragnarök, the world ends in ice and fire, while here it will be fire and flood. The humans are terrified and don’t know what to do, while the Einherjar (the dead of Valhalla) cannot prevail. That’s where we are, running in the face of disaster, not knowing what to do.
“The gods know it’s too late and the forces they’ve built can only put on a show of bravery. Perhaps for us it is not too late, and Surtr – the leader of the fire giants – with his flaming sword that splits the skies will not come to us. But like Odin, I fear that Ragnarök may be delayed, but it will come.”