That sounds simple enough; the setting and core loop are mainstays among video game mainstays. But “Valheim” succeeds, arguably rising above its component parts, because of the path it charts for its players, and the tangible sense of accomplishment at each step’s conclusion. After a “Valheim” session, I usually felt a bit tired. The game doesn’t hold your hand, and it asks players to be inquisitive, to experiment. But each time I played, I ended up radiant with the warmth of a job well done, and anxious for my next chance to do more.
It’s helpful to think of the game as an inverted pyramid: low complexity at the bottom, and increased complexity at the top. You start at the tip of the pyramid, with limited options: just a stick and a rock. Combine those to make an ax. With this crude ax, you can hunt down your next meal or chop down a tree. Pretty simple.
But crucially, as you advance, the higher tiers of the pyramid later in the game don’t duplicate the earlier processes. If you want to make a sturdier iron ax later in the game, you’ll need to venture into a crypt in the swamp (dangerous!) to mine a muddy pile for scrap iron, then schlep back to your smelter, which, in all likelihood, you built by your original base miles from the swamps, to smelt the iron. To that end, you’ll need a bunch of coal, which requires dumping excess wood into a charcoal kiln. If you want to mine the scrap iron faster, you’ll need a better pickax, but that requires a special wood that doesn’t drop from the default starter tree.
It’s not just that mid- and late-game crafting recipes are more complex, or require more ingredients. It’s that the developers have ensured that every resource-gathering expedition is an adventure. Valheim’s world is colorful and lively, but not exactly generous. For hours, you’ll be operating at a subsistence level, using up what you’ve gathered about as quickly as you got it. Shockingly, that combination of adventure and scarcity doesn’t scan as repetitive. You put in the work to get exactly what you need. When you’re done, you feel good about it.
When I started playing “Valheim,” I settled on a rule for my playthrough: No Google. There were minor exceptions, of course — when I captured a boar, for example, a Reddit post helped me realize I could only tame it if I moved a nearby campfire that was scaring the animal — but mostly I committed to figuring out the game on my own. Now, with roughly 60 hours of unhurried but industrious play under my belt, I’m confident that was the right choice.
That’s because the game’s biggest asset is time; Google, its greatest enemy. “Valheim” doesn’t trouble itself with tutorialization beyond some foundational lessons at the very start. This leaves the player with two primary options: Sort out the game’s remaining systems and mechanics by futzing around in crafting menus and experimenting, or find a guide online. Well, what does the game suggest you do?
Mechanically, the game is loaded with speed bumps, the stamina bar being the most obvious one. Most actions are gated by the stamina bar. Mining one vein of copper takes minutes; the rock takes multiple hits to break, and you frequently run out of energy. A big element of combat is maintaining distance from your opponent to take a breather, waiting on the stamina bar to refill. Even routine expeditions for resources take on the cadence of public transit, stopping and starting as you alternate between sprinting and trudging along. Other in-game systems will also impose upon your stamina: If you’re cold, wet or tired, the bar replenishes more slowly.
Chopping down trees — one of the game’s recurring chores — is a multistep process. First, you knock down the tree. Then, with a few more swings, you breaking the trunk in two, after which you can finally smash each half into smaller pieces of collectible wood. If you’re diligent, you’ll also uproot the stump. Then, onto the next one.
I’ve chosen to interpret the game’s inherent slowness as validation of my playstyle. But I have to admit, there’s a gap between how I envision “Valheim” when I think about it — Puritan, hard-working, of the land — and the actual fidgety feeling of playing it. The game’s loops take time. Everything in the game takes time. And something about that makes even meager progress feel earned. But often, the reality of playing “Valheim” is jumping between blast furnaces as they churn out one additional metal bar, throwing that bar into a chest, and then bouncing back to the furnace for the next single bar. The sum feeling is definitely less that of the rugged, salt-of-the-earth Viking making the most of the land, and more the vibe of a harried line cook. Still, it’s good work.
There’s another way to interpret the game’s ambient directionlessness and the things it leaves out — the sort of stuff that writer Raven Wu memorably described as a “coy refusal to give answers” in an essay for Into The Spine. “Valheim” has learned the lessons of its forebears (“viral set-in-the-woods early access survival” is a genre unto itself). Its mysteries are a community building exercise. Googling the game, watching videos, scouring the subreddit — these are near-essential parts of the “Valheim” experience.
Once you’ve spent enough time in “Valheim,” you’ll begin to notice a mysterious onlooker in the night. A robed figure with one glowing eye, he watches you from a distance. Draw near, and he vanishes in a cloud of smoke. The game doesn’t ever explain it, though community members have filled the void with their own theories. Some have scoured the game’s files, uncovering details that hint at the figure’s divine origin. “Valheim” creates the curiosity gap; the Internet steps in to bridge it. Doesn’t matter if you’re curious about lore, crafting recipes or creative builds. How else are people supposed to figure out that campfires and boars don’t mix?
“Fortnite” would be a diminished game without its lore, without the outside world in the form of licensed characters and TikTok dances butting into the cartoon arena. “Minecraft” wouldn’t be what it is today without YouTube’s Coestar and “X’s Adventures in Minecraft.” “Valorant” is less interesting if you ignore its esports scene. “Destiny” looks quite different if you take away the grimoire freaks and the guys who pore over loot stats.
“Valheim” is a good, even great, game. But these days, games have to be more than just games. And “Valheim” is pretty good at that, too.