Manstone Rock, a towering quartzite spire with a 175-foot waterfall at its bottom, stands on the western edge of England in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. From the mountainous mountains of Northumbria to the bland blue English Channel in the south, the whole in-game world can be seen from the top.
The scenic view used to be nothing more than a patchwork of flat, twisted polygons plucked straight from Google Earth.
The origins of Valhalla’s universe
The world-building process for this expansive reconstruction of 9th century England began similarly to that of the other games in the 12-game series. Ubisoft’s production team delved into the analysis as soon as they decided on a Viking-centered tale for the 2020 game. They looked at the land’s past, climate, ecosystems, and architectures to bring it to life.
Reading books, digging at pictures online, viewing movies, and brainstorming the best ways to reconstruct historical incidents while tying them into the game’s multifaceted storyline were all part of the process for Ubisoft level design director Philippe Bergeron. He reports that the research process took about six months, which is reasonable for a game of this nature.
The rough draught followed. The team used Google Earth to get a first look and a description of England and Norway. This digital model of our homeworld includes information about the terrain, height, and buildings essential for creating a realistic recreation of what actual Vikings would have seen as they boarded longships and crossed the North Sea in 873.
Anyone can take a 3D mesh model of a place from Google Earth and play around with it if they have the right equipment, and Bergeron claims that this data grab has been a foundational part of the Assassin’s Creed world-building phase since at least 2015. Previously, he says, planners relied on freely accessible topology maps and historical city plan drawings (which they still do).
As the development team receives this digital reproduction, they clean it up and rescale it to fit under the limits of Ubisoft Anvil, the company’s newly renamed game engine. What’s the end result? The first terrain layout that can be played.
The use of real-world terrain data lends legitimacy to Valhalla’s world while staying faithful to the Assassin’s Creed design. Still, as Raphael Lacoste, the art director for Assassin’s Creed, points out, don’t mistake authenticity with unwavering historical truth and realism. The most important thing is to create an entertaining game set in a gorgeous setting.
It’s not a documentary, and it’s not a historical game, says Lacoste. “Facts are important, fascinating, and inspirational, but they aren’t the only pillar we need to build a clear vision and experience.”
Using Google Earth
While the Google Earth data is beneficial, it just serves as a rough guide. The simple mesh serves as inspiration for the production team.
Let’s go back to Manstone Rock. In fact, the view from the top is reasonably consistent: sharp hills covered in grass, heather, and a few patches of trees as far as the eye can see. On the other hand, the Valhalla edition stands tall among hills, trees, rivers, and knolls.
Scale is much more critical. The actual distance between Manstone Rock and England’s eastern coast is 226 miles. It will take 75 hours to walk that distance. Not only would players abandon the game if they had to waste too much time flying, but Bergeron claims that Valhalla’s mechanics would deteriorate if you get farther away from the world’s centre.
The planning team works on historical and natural landmarks as the landscape shrinks. They rearrange positions and features to make an environment that players can love. When creating the natural environment, Lacoste says that integrity is crucial, so the team considers deforestation, vegetation diversity, biome distribution, and how human-made structures blend into nature.
Scouting on the ground
Mountains can lose their glory due to this scaling process, and rolling plains can become too plain. As a result, the team increases the height of ridges and hills while still adding undulations to the flat areas, according to Bergeron, who emphasizes that the ultimate aim is to make the visible world while also having fun.
The same can be said for towers, some of which are given a height lift, causing vertigo when ascending. The extra height also helps with “readability,” as Bergeron describes it. Simply put, the better the game is to “learn,” the more players can grasp what they need to do and where they need to go.
It lets the team see what is visible from where once they get a sense of total size, elevations around the world, and drop placeholders for towns and landmarks. Bergeron explains, “And you understand better how you need to change the landscape to sever any of those lines of sight so the planet doesn’t seem like it takes place in a little bathtub.”
Adding the finishing touches
The Valhalla production team, for example, discovered that from Manstone Rock’s home area of Sciropescire, it was possible to see the remote city of Jorvik (York), and they didn’t want such direct exposure. As a result, Bergeron describes, they tried to strengthen some hills and mountains in between while lowering the Northumbrian settlement.
When they’re finished with Google Earth, they delete the imported terrain and start again, accounting for all of the discoveries made during the draught process.
World-building isn’t limited to computers and keyboards. When working on Valhalla, the production team went on two in-person scouting trips to Norway and England. The first half of the session was spent investigating, collecting high-level references, and determining what they might contribute to the game. According to Lacoste, the second was more technical and included visits to particular areas.
He says, “We didn’t want to demonstrate all the cliche of what people thought it should look like.” That meant avoiding a grim, brutal, and bleak portrayal of Dark Age England, which can be seen in many other games, films, and TV shows set around the same timeframe. Instead, they decided to create a more complex England, complete with shifting moods, diverse landscapes, distinct seasons, and vivid colours. Lacoste describes it as a “love note” to the country and its natural beauty.
These journeys aided the team in defining the game’s look and sound. They took pictures, recorded footage, scanned textures, and even got some exercise. “Activities like kayaking in Norwegian fjords, seeing the northern lights in the Lofoten Islands, and walking the Peak District in England provided us with the most inspiration as a team,” Lacoste says.
Visiting locations aided the team in using photogrammetry to build Valhalla’s multinational environment. The team converted photographs, including those taken by aerial drones, into gameworld information using this method.
Valhalla’s structural universe is substantial in and of itself, but it’s nothing without light and colour. These intangible features breathe life into England, Norway, and other locations (the game’s forthcoming expansion, Wrath of the Druids, will include Ireland, for example), thanks to seven people working full-time on illumination.
Except in a stylized game portraying an approximation of the natural world, lighting is especially technological, and precision is critical, according to Virginie Cinq-Mars, an associate art director at Ubisoft. She believes that albedo maps, which indicate how much light is reflected and absorbed by particular materials, are crucial.
Photogrammetry is also essential, as images of surfaces in near-perfect lighting aid powerfully in recreating them for the game.
While lighting accuracy is crucial, when it comes to colours, reputation takes a back seat. According to Lacoste, a photographically precise depiction of any area would be much less interesting than an imaginative rendering.
In addition to its aesthetic value, it aids players in maintaining a mental map of the landscape, which, considering its scaled-down size, is still very large. According to Lacoste, this suggests that each country has its own colour palette and seasons.
Leaves flutter to the ground through Mercia during vivid autumn, and Wessex blooms with a green season. Norway and Northumbria are locked in eternal winter. Spectral auroras can also be seen in Norway, and the northern lights are a significant theme in the game.
According to Lacoste, Valhalla has the most visual diversity in any Assassin’s Creed game, and the variations make the player feel like the world is shifting around them as they explore new lands.
“These elements can seem basic, but they are essential for immersion and the elegance of the experience, as well as reinforcing each region’s visual identity,” he says.
With too much to do, many of these art and architecture options are meant to blend into the background as you hack, row, sail, swim, and sneak your way around Valhalla’s world. Take a break after clearing a complicated fortress to take in the sights. If you make the steep journey to the top of Manstone Rock, don’t forget to jump down into the pond at the bottom.