Before I set out to write this list, if you’d asked me, I’d have sworn there just weren’t a lot of games out there that explore or are inspired by Norse mythology. On the contrary, there are actually a fair amount, with influence drawn from Vikings, the Norse pantheon and traditional paganism spread across all manner and genre of titles. With the recent release of God of War, Norse mythology is front and center once again, bringing to mind some of the other wonderful games to play if you’re interested in the aesthetic and folklore. If you’re not utterly tired of mowing through Draugr and dual casting frost spells yet, read on.
Created by Swedish developers Arrowhead Game Studios, Magicka and its sequel Magicka 2 focus more on the arcane aspects of Norse mythology, and only loosely at that. However, while it may be light on some of the more popular themes associated with Norse mythology, it’s heavy on the elemental spells, giving the culture’s history of paganism and wizardry some much-needed time in the spotlight.
A thing I like about Through the Woods is its ability to tap into the imagination of Norse folklore. The game takes the player through several abandoned villages in a remote Norwegian forest, as protagonist Karen tracks her kidnapped son Espen. As she searches for him, she finds mythical beasts, empty longhouses, and ominous rune-inscribed stones that hint to a ancient, disturbing mystery tied directly to the fate of her son. In a way, Through the Woods feels like how many of the beings in Norse mythology came to be: sprung from the fantasies of young children who were told not to play alone in the forest.
The art of The Banner Saga, inspired by the visual style and techniques used on the 1959 animated Disney film Sleeping Beauty, is nothing short of enchanting. This tactical roleplaying series, like the other games on this list, draws from Norse mythology, but leans more towards an appreciation for “Viking culture”, with touches of influence taken from the various races depicted in its folklore. It’s an interesting, and vividly beautiful, take on the mechanics of battle. The third game comes out this upcoming July.
If there’s one thing that Munin understands that other games (cough God of War) don’t, it’s that Loki is an asshole and he ruins everything. In Munin, the titular character must navigate a puzzle platforming landscape and traverse through the nine realms of the afterlife in order to retrieve their wings, which were stolen by Loki. The art touches on some classic Norwegian environments like fiery mines, frozen mountains, and Dwarven labyrinths of gold, with little flourishes, like the rune-inspired typography, to tie it all together. Bonus: if you don’t know all the old stories or want to reinforce what you already know, there are snippets of the Norse myths in the game’s loading screens.
This title follows the story of a Viking woman, Thora, who seeks to impress the gods and earn her way into Valhalla following an unremarkable and inglorious death. Through its God Power system the game makes reference to many of the familiar names and faces of Norse mythology, from Freyja to Thor, and even to some of the less well-known aspects of the old myths, like Idunn’s apples and Mimir’s Well. The game’s hub is even called Ginnungagap, “The Void”, after the primordial expanse from which all life emerges in the creation myth of Norse pre-history. It’s a short play, but one that promises a veritable stroll through Norse mythology.
Given that Skyrim is available on virtually every console known to man, chances are you’ve already played it. That being said, a lot of the details of it are all but lifted wholesale from Norse mythology, with the names and details changed slightly to suit the fictional Elder Scrolls universe. It’s especially adept at copying the aesthetic, so if you like lurking around in candle lit ruins decorated with intricate knots, gold detailing, and the bones of ancient warriors, this is the game for you.
Centering on a Celtic warrior woman whose Norse partner has passed into the afterlife, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice actually combines elements of both Germanic cultures— but then, there’s a lot of overlap between the two anyway. The game is worth playing for so many reasons other than the lore than inspired it, but nonetheless, if you’re well versed in Norse mythology, you’ll appreciate how well the game’s developers, Ninja Theory, understand the nuance, metaphor and drama of its pantheon and how deeply they did their research.
It may get some of the details wrong and retcon the biggest storyline in all of Norse mythology, but God of War is still remarkable, in that it frames the folklore’s more abstract concepts in a contemporary and easily understood way. For me, it was helpful to see a physical representation of the ideas I’d struggled to wrap my head around for years, like the concept of the nine realms of the afterlife coexisting around the world tree Yggdrasil. I especially appreciated the presence of Mimir. Whereas many pieces of entertainment seem to use Nordic themes only on a superficial level, God of War teaches the old myths directly through oral tradition as the game progresses, helping to preserve the stories as it retells them. The game also injects a fresh wave of divine, soap opera-style theatrics into the pantheon, which was long overdue. After all, what is Norse mythology (or Greek, for that matter) without the narcissistic hijinks of its all-powerful members? The game looks like its setting itself up for a proper trilogy, and while I deeply resent its twist ending and what the impact it has on the canon of actual Norse mythology, I can’t wait to see where they’re taking us next.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.