Wot I Think: Dead In Vinland

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A man finds a severed bull’s head and flees from the worms crawling in its rotten cranium. Dead in Vinland is a management/survival RPG in which you’re tasked with leading a family of exiled vikings as they attempt to keep themselves alive and sane in a strange new land. Strange is the operative word, and in between managing resources and relationships, you’ll be dealing with all kinds of oddities.

Sometimes it’s weird and wonderful, but sometimes it’s a low-brow parade of weak jokes that don’t fit the setting. Through it all, there are interesting choices to be made though.

Here are three short stories that capture the breadth of my experiences in this mead-soaked survival sim.

Knut, a blacksmith with arms as thick as tree trunks and a literal tree trunk for a wooden leg, is the man who discovers that severed bull’s head. He lifts the head up, and while inspecting it, notices dozens of worms crawling up his forearms. The gruff, bearded viking fails his courage check, drops the rotting head, and runs back to camp, shrieking in terror.

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Flame-haired Welsh warrior Blodeuwedd, whilst scavenging on a nearby beach, finds some clothes hanging from a laundry line. After gathering up the grotty garments, she discovers a fetid pile of mud and maggots. She blows chunks all over herself, gains the ‘stinky’ trait, and takes a penalty to charisma. Apparently, no-one wants to talk to her now she’s coated in vomit.

Blodeuwedd’s sister Moira is near-suicidal with depression. While exploring the woods, she finds a tree coated in sticky sap. Tasting the sap, she’s overwhelmed with a euphoric sugar high. Her spirits lifted from the High-fructose ent syrup, she decides to gather some for the camp. On her way back, she stumbles, spills the sap, becomes severely depressed again, and takes her own life. This tragedy destroys the family, losing me the game. Believe it or not, this is only the second worst thing that’s happened to me involving tree sap.

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When it comes to storytelling, Dead in Vinland weaves wonders with a few strange scenarios and some skill checks. The character traits your shipwrecked Viking family begin the game with, as well as the ones they gain along the way, come to define their arcs and personalities, offering up funny and tragic vignettes that vary on each playthrough.

This is fortunate because, despite attempts to spin a grand yarn of love and betrayal, of gods and monsters and magic, a lot of the actual writing ranges from goofy to completely tone deaf. There’s mythology, sure, but there’s also catty love rivalry, dick jokes, flat stereotypes, and some oddly modern phrasing (“Check it out, Odin!”). Low-fantasy can be great for humanising characters when done well, but the result here is less Prose Edda, more Love Island.

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Strangely enough, this blend of reality show banter and folklore can sometimes work. Early on, your camp is assaulted by the loveable Björn Headcleaver, who pokes you all repeatedly with a sharp axe and demands a weekly tribute of your precious resources. Since it’s already a struggle to keep everyone alive without giving Björn your berries, rope, or whatever else he’s decided he wants that week, I often came up short. One week, Björn’s donkey-riding, fly-covered emissary Elof decided that he’d waive the tribute if Blodeuwedd and Eirik’s outspoken teenage daughter Kari could eat mud without throwing up. The ensuing constitution checks were infused with emotional weight, as Kari forced down mouthfuls of mud to protect her family, refusing to give Elof the satisfaction of complaint.

Moments like that stuck with me. And then I found an ancient relic that told me that my mum smells like a cave troll.

This might come across as the sort of marriage between fantasy and humour that something like Divinity: Original Sin achieved so well, but these elements often feel at odds with each other. For every tense survival story, there’s a knife-wielding enemy inventively titled ‘knives guy’, or an attack called ‘come at bro’. You can look at Eirik’s character sheet, and find out how permanent back pain prevents him from harvesting effectively. You could even think about how this small, throwaway trait might contribute to his morose nature, how he constantly feels like a burden to his family, and marvel at this subtle storytelling. Then you might recruit Shanaw; a bone-wielding “Wild Girl” whose dialogue and demeanour is a mess of tribal cliches. Or happen across an exchange between Blodeuwedd and an exoticised Arabian dancer named Parvaneh, where Blodeuwedd’s martial prowess is reduced to that of a jealous lover as Parvaneh huddles up to Eirik for protection.

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The depression I mentioned earlier is one of five statistics alongside fatigue, hunger, sickness, and injury. If any of these reach 100%, the character dies. There’s a slew of new camp members waiting to be recruited around the island, but if any of the four family members you start the game with go, you’re toast. There’s also potentially lethal dehydration to worry about, should your survivors get too Thorsty.

Oh, and if you can fit in an anatomically correct stomach for the hunger icon, maybe something a little more thoughtful than a noose for the depression stat?

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The management flow works as follows. If you’re running low on water, you’ll need to set a character with a high scavenging skill to gather some. Water needs purification, which reduces the intensity of your campfire, so you’ll probably want someone chopping wood as well. Only, chopping wood increases depression and fatigue, so someone with a decent crafting skill should probably build a rest area and a bar. Brewing beer means you need wheat, so now’s probably a good time to build a garden, too. On top of all this, the harsh weather is constantly degrading your structures, reducing their usefulness. If games can be characterised as a succession of meaningful decisions, then Dead in Vinland absolutely succeeds here. Rarely a moment goes by that you’re not at least a little torn on how best to proceed.

Each day is divided into a morning and evening section, so each character gets two actions a day; they can rest, then gather wood, or heal another character at the healing tent, then hunt. The constant need to keep your camp fed, watered, sheltered and happy, alongside the negative effects of every action you take, means that there’s no downtime. There’s always a new decision to make over how best to allocate your survivors, always a mental checklist of priorities and the looming threat of Björn’s retribution if you don’t make tributes on time. After assigning characters their jobs, you can sit back and watch that half of the day play out, and between the wistful folk music and the family’s constant struggle against fate, the sense of melancholy and determination can be powerful.

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You’ll also be balancing all this against the constant need to explore the island. Random encounters sometimes progress a narrative involving mad tyrants and old gods, and even when they don’t move on the plot, they often provide valuable supplies. You’ll assign exploration from a camp area, similar to the other tasks, and a progress bar will fill depending on that character’s exploration statistic. Fill the bar, uncover a new map section. Cue rotting bull heads, tree sap, and dozens of other odd scenarios that can drastically alter the course of your game.

There’s also combat, and I’ll just be blunt as a flint axe here; it’s a Darkest Dungeon clone that’s not especially interesting the first time, and becomes a gruelling chore after fifteen hours or so. While it wouldn’t have made sense to make combat lethal for individual characters when the story relies on their continued presence, the fact that the only penalty for a complete party wipe is a series of injuries strips encounters of the stakes that made Darkest Dungeon so tense. Throw in limited tactical options and a pace that’s caused me to gain half a stone in three days from the amount of “Please hurry up” sandwiches I’ve made, and you’re left with something that, while functional and beautifully animated, detracts further from the interesting parts of Dead in Vinland the longer you play.

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So you have fights without much tension, and dialogue that frequently pulls you out of the experience, but expansive crafting trees, interesting anecdotes that arise organically from a constant struggle against harsh conditions, and difficulty that’s meaty without being too oppressive. There’s always something to work towards; a new portion of the map to explore, a new upgrade for one of your structures, and this is always at odds with your survival. Do you work a new addition to your camp to the brink of exhaustion to build a place to harvest fruit, or let them rest, but risk not having enough food to see you through the night? Do you try to cure your survivors starvation with rotten food, knowing sickness might lead to worse problems?

At its best, Dead in Vinland is compulsive, and a great example of systemic roguelike storytelling. Just be prepared to scratch your beard constantly at some baffling writing decisions. Or, be prepared to buy a fake beard, I guess. All Viking games should now come with beards. New rule. You heard it here first. Also, mead. And an axe. You’d think we’d be able to download axes by now.

Dead In Vinland is out now on Windows and MacOSX via Steam and GOG for £15.49/$18/€18.

34 Comments

  1. Rashism says:

    “…maybe something a little more thoughtful than a noose for the depression stat?”

    What were they thinking?

    • Budikah says:

      It’s called dark humor. Some of us find it amusing.

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        Mikemcn says:

        I’m not laughing.

        • Dr. Why says:

          “Oh, and if you can fit in an anatomically correct stomach for the hunger icon, maybe something a little more thoughtful than a noose for the depression stat?”
          An anatomically correct stomach, are you fucking kidding me?!
          Who even cares about stuff like this. It is a tiny icon with no relevance to gameplay.
          The noose is the most appropriate thing possible, given the characters actually kill themselves if they get too depressed and all the rope you gather the entire game.
          I swear we’re all becoming a bunch of crybabies who complain about every little bloody thing.

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      Mikemcn says:

      Yea, i found that bit appalling.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      I’d use a weeping squirrel icon.

    • Scrofa says:

      This is brilliant!

    • 1SDAN says:

      As someone who dealt with depression from highschool to now, I wouldn’t say a noose is an inappropriate symbol. If anything a simple sadface or tear would be grossly understating the gravity of depression.

      • poliovaccine says:

        Yeah, this. I’ve tried to kill myself enough times I actually got embarrassed out of trying again, so I mean, when I hit that point I legitimately tried to think of a better symbol, and I couldn’t – the more I thought about it, the more depression seemed like the continual inability to resolve that fundamental binary issue of “to be or not to be.” Like the spectre of death and therefore infinity and therefore pointlessness to my own existence was always looming, almost moreso when I should have been cheesiest. I put this in past tense cus I’m better lately, but it’s not like it’s ever really gone, meds or none.

        I think I’d be more offended by a trite little sad face or a tear than I ever would by the noose. That sounds like they asked the blackly depressed guy around the office what it should be haha.

    • SuddenGenreShift says:

      If the depression stat is mostly something that makes you kill yourself when it gets full, which is the impression I got from the review, it seems appropriate; any problem would be with the mechanic rather than the icon.

    • wummes says:

      I would say entirely aproppriate.
      Because it represents true depression, the kind that ends with suicide.
      Not the imagined 1st world kind for bored rich people. The kind they invented a multi billion$$ anti-depressant industry for.

      Too bad no real writers were hired and the tower defense style combat just sucked. It could’ve been different AND great.

  2. Babymech says:

    Everything in this review except for the “42 reasons” line just made me very interested in experiencing this. Negative or positive, the rest of it seemed really… interesting. I hope it lives up to that.

    Also, I continue my amazing streak of getting through to post without proving my humanity to RPS. Huzzah.

    • Ravenine says:

      You do realize that “42 reasons” is a direct reference to Douglas Adams, right?

      • malkav11 says:

        A direct and clumsily obvious one, which is probably what was being objected to.

        Though I suppose at least it’s not Ernest Cline. “I have forty two reasons to give you. Which is a reference to the sci-fi comedy classic novel series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.”

        • Ravenine says:

          If you have objections to DA being referenced, you need to be placed against a wall and introduced to the finer points of bullet trajectory physics.

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            Phasma Felis says:

            Douglas Adams is great. Referencing Douglas Adams in a grim Norse survival fantasy is like putting ice cream on curry.

          • malkav11 says:

            It would be great in, say, World of Warcraft or something where completely out-of-universe pop-cultural references are just part of the game’s style. This doesn’t seem like the right context.

          • Babymech says:

            I am happy that something like that makes you laugh. Hopefully they also have a reference to a dead parrot, to truly reach the comedic pinnacle you hope for.

          • GeoX says:

            People who don’t like tired pop culture references should be murdered? I can’t help but feel that you’ve sort of lost rhetorical control here.

      • lasikbear says:

        That’s stupid and 90% of references are lazy replacements for writing an actual joke

  3. SixStringer89 says:

    I haven’t played this game but what an awesome read! thoroughly enjoyed that :)

  4. Someoldguy says:

    If chopping wood for a fire made you depressed enough to kill yourself, the world would have been depopulated of people before anyone discovered how to mine coal. Warming yourself around the fire your effort created ought to be a net morale gain for the gatherer, no? I love resource and mood management games but little irritants like this get to me.

  5. Frank says:

    I played the first quarter or so of Dead in Bermuda and was intrigued by the systemic/simulated approach to character development and interactions. Sounds like more of the same here, so I’m sold… as soon as I’ve grown tired of the first game.

  6. TheBetterStory says:

    This sounds altogether too silly and random to be enjoyable to me. I think I’ll stick with Vinland Saga for my viking epics for now.

  7. JakeOfRavenclaw says:

    This is possibly the most negative review to ever convince me to check a game out, which I think counts as some kind of achievement. Definitely a good read :-)

  8. Stickman says:

    It sounds like an interesting game written by 12-year-olds. It’s sad that it sounds like so much of the humor is totally off key and unnecessary.

  9. reddog says:

    Often there’s news of a story-driven indie game with a cool-sounding concept, and it piques my interest, but then I remember how few game developers seem to understand the role of writing in their games, or seriously try to become better at it than others. Sunless Sea is good, Torment is good… is there a third one, with graphics? Some text-only IF ones are very good.

    I think it’s one those things where people think there can’t be that much to it, because they haven’t really delved into it, similarly to how everyone is a poet at some point in our teenage years, no matter if we’ve actually read any poetry or not. I’m not saying game devs are stuck in their teens, but gamer culture in a broad sense often seems to shy away from appearing too brainy or cultured, instead favoring a carefree approach to things, maybe because it’s roots are in the childhood land of arcade fun.

    It’s human to think that the status quo of “game lore” is enough, if that’s all you know. I know I’ve read way too much Dragonlance and classic rpg-type quest text myself. Today’s lesson from grumpy old me: broaden your horizon, younglings!

    ps. I’m not a native speaker of English, so please no snarky comments about my style.

    • rollpapersmoke says:

      I understand were you come from @reddog but, I think your statement is mostly based in ignorance rather than reality. And I don’t mean it in a bad way, just saying that there’re really good games out there that have an amazing script and writing. Out of my head I can name a few: Firewatch, Oxenfree, Virginia, Night in the Woods, Her Story, Fran Bow, Gemini Rue, Undertale, Life is Strange, LISA, Dear Esther, and..
      Kentucky Route ZERO.

      If you haven’t played Kentucky Route Zero I’d strongly recommend you to do so. One of the best, if not the best, written games I ever played.

      • reddog says:

        Yes, absolutely, I’m sure there are many video games with good writing. “Many” meaning like at least 50 or something. Maybe even 100, or 200 if we want to go really crazy with our (admittedly pessimistic) estimate.

        I do remember hearing good things about several of those games you listed. I haven’t played any of them, although I own most of those. I’m one of those people with a huge, growing waiting list of games (and not just PC ones) and little actual time to play them. Thanks for the recommendations anyway!

      • reddog says:

        Could be worthwhile to add this thought here: I have immensely enjoyed many games where the writing sort of knows its place and doesn’t get in the way of the mood/setting/etc. Writing in a game doesn’t have to be brilliant for the game to be good.

        Games like System Shock 1 and 2 come to mind; you hardly remember it for its Masterful Prose, but it’s still well written in the sense that the written parts do what they’re supposed to do. They do not impede or lessen the experience in any way.

        Let’s throw out any pretense of high brow snobbery on my part: I like World of Warcraft’s writing a lot, especially the newer content. Not because it’s absolutely brilliant or something I would read from a book, but because it does what it does in a very precise and professional way. Blizzard really has some of the best people in the industry working for them. At heart the storylines are just a bunch of harmless pulp fantasy nonsense; but it knows what it’s doing. It does it with a very good sense of tone and style, and the snippets of storytelling are always just the right size, they never go on for too long.

        A different example related to WoW is Wildstar, a very similar game made by people who used to work for Blizzard. I tried to get into it, but there was very little to like about the setting and the characters, and especially the writing. It seemed like the developer thought it necessary to include tons of useless “lore” for the sake of lore, because MMOs have to have it. Pages and pages of brainless gibberish that no one ever reads to the end. It’s crazy. Wildstar is free-to-play now, if someone wants to check it out. It’s such a powerful example of superfluous “writing” that doesn’t really connect with anything.

        It made me think a lot about what makes games bad or boring (I actually wrote some of it down while I played it), so at least it wasn’t all a waste of time.

        • rollpapersmoke says:

          Yeah, I agree with your quality standard of writing for games. It has to adjust to the medium and (in my opinion) it’s narrative, emotional, and interactive potential, not just try to rely on high quality prose or intricate rhetoric. That’s why I previously mentioned games like Her Story, or Undertale, or Fran Bow, and I was about to add to the list Papers Please as well. I haven’t played WoW and I don’t play MMOs due to their lack of cohesive narrative and their pointless waste of time, but I’m surprised that you’ve mentioned it here and that intrigues me a lot.

          I hope you’ll able to find some spare time to play the games we mentioned or just games that aim for something different, I’m pretty sure that that way you won’t need to be even a bit pessimistic. Personally, I’m enjoying videogames way more nowadays in my adulthood than when I was a kid playing games for the sake of playing them, even when I felt they were really unfulfilling. So, I’d argue we’ve come a long way and I’m happy to see that these days we’re running out of time to play good games instead of having to play bad games to fill out our spare time.

          P.S: there’re also really incredible experiences to be had on the indie side of the spectrum. Check out “Where the goats are” or “Lieve Oma” on Itch.io.

          • punkass says:

            I agree with reddog.

            Writing doesn’t have to be literary to be good. I’m sure everyone enjoys the odd trashy film or TV show. The writing just has to be a good example of either high or low brow.

            You are right that there are a handful of well written games. Yet even games that come highly recommended often let me down. I will endeavour to play some more of the games you mention, but I can honestly count the number of games I’ve played I’ve felt were well written on one hand.

            And yes, lore should be shot out of a cannon. Show don’t tell! Christ, the world-building and characterisation of most games is arrested at high school level. Why do we continue to accept this? Maybe you haven’t, which is why you have a more positive experience.

  10. punkass says:

    I was imagining that this was just a dodgy translation, which means it could be saved by an update or some charity earned by being an insight into another culture. But this studio is French, and this doesn’t read like a direct French translation. Either the writing is just straight out diabolical no matter what the language, or someone has really missold them on their native English ability and then gone to town.

    I guess the Douglas Adams ‘joke’ tells you all you need to know about what you’re getting here. Are writers in the gaming industry really so expensive that no-one can afford the good ones? Or do games like Far Cry 5 show that money spent on good writing just isn’t money well spent?

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