Leif Johnson interviewed me recently for an article over at The Escapist about the use of Viking culture in Skyrim, and indeed the relative underuse of Viking themes in computer games. Well worth a look for those many of you who’ve been playing it over the last few weeks. I thought I might as well reproduce the whole interview here since, you know, otherwise my precious words will only go to waste. That would be unforgivable.
Do you think readers (or players, for that matter) respond well to Viking elements in traditional fantasy literature?
I suppose I’d say that readers or players respond well to any elements that are vivid, coherent, and well thought through. But Norse and Anglo-Saxon elements have been firm favourites in epic fantasy for a long time. Obviously those myths were a big part of Tolkien’s inspiration, and through Tolkien have become common throughout the genre. I suppose one thing that’s interesting lately is that a lot of the savagery, sex, treachery and moral ambiguity that is so much a hallmark of genuine Norse myth (and a lot of other myth, for that matter), and that Tolkien tended to minimise in his work, is leaching more and more back into mainstream fantasy.
So you’re playing Skyrim–what do you think of it, especially in comparison to similarly themed video games? And why?
So far I think it’s magnificent, I must say, and the setting is a big, big part of that. I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Elder Scrolls games. On the one hand there’s no bigger, more free-form and more immersive fantasy roleplaying experience out there. On the other hand the gameplay can be a little hokey and in the past I’ve found the worldbuilding can be an incoherent mass of fantasy clichés. Having a much narrower theme with Skyrim seems to have allowed for a much more convincing and atmospheric setting, and that percolates through to every part of the experience. Compare the blandness of the Fighter’s Guild in Oblivion – they’re a bunch of fighters who meet in various non-descript fantasy buildings – with the Companions in Skyrim, who seem to have a whole ethos and personality and live in an upended longship. The more scripted central plots – dragon attacks and so on – also seem to have become a lot more impressive this time around, and there’s a lot less repetition of bland, identikit dungeons filled with a random creature chosen to match your level requirements.
Do you think Viking elements (such as ambiance, characters, and even mythology) add anything special to traditional fantasy literature and settings? Or do they lack that same, hmm, magic?
There’s certainly something about the Viking mindset – the intense manliness and violence, the obsession with honour and disregard for death – that lends itself to heroic storylines, and indeed when that way of thinking is convincingly laid out it can seem far more alien than many fantasy stories do. As with any other story element, though, it’s all in how you use it, picking out those details and working them into a greater whole that seems vivid and arresting. You can have a tedious, obvious, clichéd Viking setting, all horned helmets, battleaxes and songs about mead, or you can have one that looks for something a bit more alien, unusual, and inspiring. I’d say that in the past the Elder scrolls tended towards the obvious with their fantasy settings, but Skyrim is a mighty stride in the right direction.
Do you think that Skyrim’s success will start a string of Viking-inspired novels and games? Why or why not? And will this be a good or bad thing for the fantasy genre?
Well there’s always been a strong current of Viking inspired novels, both historical fiction (like Robert Low’s the Whale Road), fiction that mixes historical and fantasy (like MD Lachlan’s Wolfsangel), and out-and-out fantasy in invented worlds. And Skyrim is far from the first fantasy roleplaying game to tackle the area. I fondly remember the hugely flawed but very atmospheric Gothic 3, though it had nothing like the detail and grandeur of Skyrim. Probably there’ll be some extra interest in the area, in the way that anything successful encourages imitation, but what I applaud about Skyrim isn’t so much that it uses Viking influences, as that it uses them with care and imagination.
Ever consider working elements of Viking lore more heavily into your work? Why or why not? (I know Logen and the Northmen have a strong Viking/Anglo-Saxon feel about them, so feel free to elaborate on that.)
Well one of the cultures in my work takes some of its cues from Viking and Anglo-Saxon culture, a sort of strange combination of Norse fatalism and Yorkshire common sense with a big emphasis on warring, feasting, death and honour. But I don’t know that I’d ever want to go more self-consciously Viking. I tend to be more interested in the mindset than the scenery…