(Editor’s Note: Eivor can be played as either male or female, so this story will use they/them pronouns.)
When “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” debuts on Tuesday, players will step into the shoes of the Viking Eivor, the latest hero in a long line of complex playable protagonists that anchor Ubisoft’s massive video game franchise.
The game finds Eivor leading (along with their adopted brother, Sigurd) their clan to conquer lands in England after Norway becomes crowded with war and new leadership. Along the way, Eivor proves themselves to be both a fierce, fearsome warrior and a loyal friend and family member. It’s a duality, says narrative director Darby McDevitt, that will have Eivor pulled in different directions throughout the course of “Valhalla” — and the decisions for where the character goes will be with the player.
“We wanted a character who was both a lone wolf warrior, but also somebody who was always drawn back to take care of their clan,” McDevitt says. “And this is a kind of a tension that we see throughout the story, always torn between their own personal goals and the goals of the clan.”
And in a first for the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, Eivor can be played as either male or female, voiced respectively by Magnus Bruun and Cecilie Stenspil. Players were given the choice to play as a male or female character in “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” — but they were two different characters, brother and sister Alexios and Kassandra. In “Valhalla,” it’s the same character, but there may be more to the option to play as a male or female Eivor than originally meets the eye, McDevitt says.
Variety spoke with McDevitt and Bruun to break down the complexities of Eivor, how they brought the character to life and what that option between male and female really means.
(SPOILER ALERT: The below contains some details about the prologue of “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.”)
When Bruun sent in his audition tape for “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” he actually didn’t even know what he was auditioning for, given Ubisoft’s initial secrecy surrounding the project. He thought he was auditioning for an animated series called “Black Wolf Saga,” but eventually, his agent found out that Ubisoft was behind the project, and the speculation that it might be the next “Assassin’s Creed” began.
Bruun admits that he’s not much of a gamer, but even he was aware of “Assassin’s Creed.” And now that he’s fully immersed in the franchise’s world, the gravity of how big the series is has officially sunk in.
“Learning that it was ‘Assassin’s Creed’ was kind of amazing, and I think it really dawned on me how big this gig is when the trailer came out,” he says. “When that trailer got 100 million views in the first 10 days, that was something else. Like okay, damn, people really like this. This is gonna be amazing.”
And the Danish Bruun, who originally auditioned for Sigurd, which would go to Gudmundur Thorvaldsson, would seem a fitting actor for the role. “You can say I came with a nice toolbox, playing a Viking warlord for two and a half years on ‘The Last Kingdom,’” he says.
But finding the female Eivor posed a different challenge. McDevitt says it came down to the wire, combing through all of their options, unable to find the right voice for the part. The actor needed to have a “huskiness, but a warmth” that was difficult to find.
It was Bruun, then, who recommended fellow Dane Stenpil for the part. Stenpil sent in her audition tape, and it clicked: this was the female Eivor.
“She did a casting through an iPhone, sitting on her balcony while a soccer match was going on outside,” McDevitt says. “But even then, it was clear. Her voice had power, had a grittiness that we liked. She had huge range as well, emotional range.”
Inside the Viking
As Bruun and McDevitt describe it, Eivor is a character torn: between loyalty and ambition, and between choice and prophecy. McDevitt wanted them to reflect not only Viking toughness, but also Norse culture at large, giving Eivor a settlement and a clan to take care of.
That came across even in the voicework, Bruun says. He notes that, while Eivor is a hardened warrior, the player should “want to have a beer” with the character, and enjoy listening to them for potentially hundreds of hours.
“I remembered talking to Darby about the character, and that what we’re looking for was not the brute, the Viking with the deep, growling voice,” he says. “Because if you have to listen to that for 200 hours, you might get a bit tired of that, and also, you might not believe why someone might want to make alliances or fall in love with this character.”
For inspiration, McDevitt looked to the old figures of Icelandic sagas. “Egil’s Saga,” for example, follows an Icelandic Viking and farmer known to sometimes speak in verse. And so, Eivor was given a similar trait: a warrior, but also sometimes a poet, as well-trained in words as they are with the sword.
But, when it came to the layers beneath Eivor’s personality, he says he used Charlize Theron’s Furiosa from “Mad Max: Fury Road” as one reference.
“[Furiosa is] a very laconic character, a very kind of badass character, doesn’t say a whole lot,” he says. “But her whole mission in that movie is to save this group of people. It’s a similar role, where you’re badass, you’re an established warrior, you have a reputation as being a badass warrior, but at every turn, you’re always thinking about your people as well.”
And perhaps most important among those people is Sigurd, who, along with his father, took in Eivor when their parents were killed. The two have a strong, lifelong bond, and Eivor would “follow him to the end,” Bruun says. “Eivor would do anything for Sigurd.”
However, very early in the game, the player is presented with a prophecy, one that says Eivor will eventually betray Sigurd. That battle with fate — especially in a game where the ending is decided by the players’ choices — is one the creative team purposely wanted to touch on.
“We want to play with that. We want the player to have in their mind, how much can I really change?” McDevitt says. “We play with that specifically because of the Norse idea of fate. Some things you cannot change, no matter how hard you try. Other things, you can tweak.”
One Character, Two Souls
Early in the prologue, and later in certain points throughout the story, the player is given a choice: play as the female Eivor, the male one or “let the animus decide.” That unique third option has protagonist switching between male and female at various points throughout the story. Those switches aren’t random, McDevitt insists; in fact, they’re very intentional, and the further the player gets into the game, the more those switches will make sense.
“That option is there for people who want the exact story and how it happened,” he says. “This is a character with kind of two souls, let’s say. And you can play as one or both of those souls, or you can switch back and forth. If you want to understand the story fully, you pick that option, and it will switch at very specific times that are integral to the story.”
That even translated into different directions given to the voice actors. For Bruun, it meant having Stenspil to bounce ideas off of. It’s not often, he acknowledges, he gets to convene with someone playing the same character as him at the same time.
But for McDevitt, it presented the opportunity to show two different sides of Eivor, taking advantage of each actors’ strengths.
“For Cecilie, we wanted her to play somebody who’s very talented, very, very accomplished, but has always been sort of second to Sigurd,” he says. “And everyone’s always gonna look past Eivor to Sigurd to get instructions, when it’s actually Eivor who’s like, the most capable of doing these things. And that will play out as you see their relationship.”
“With Magnus,” he continues, “we wanted to emphasize the more devious side of Eivor, a sort of trickster, somebody who’s always got a wink in his eye, somebody who’s a little sly.”
It’s undeniably a unique take on an “Assassin’s Creed” protagonist, but one that they had in mind from the beginning, McDevitt says. After “Odyssey,” he explains, Ubisoft had asked his team to again present the option to play as a male or female character, but they didn’t want to do the same thing as they had in the previous game. Instead, they found a different way to integrate the option into the story, one he says will make more and more sense the further the player gets.
Beyond “Valhalla,” will the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise continue to present this kind of option? Maybe, says McDevitt. But perhaps in a different form.
“It’s totally possible we do it again,” he says. “It’s totally possible we do a game where you play as 12 people if the story was right, you know? Something like that.”
“That’d be cool, right?” he laughs. “Twelve assassins in one game.”
“Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” is available on Nov. 10 for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Stadia. A version for the PlayStation 5 will be available on Nov. 12.