In the mythology of the frozen North, the Gods know their place. As we peasants till the earth with our frozen knuckles waiting for the sun to return, we expect results from those above. If the crops failed, we could blame the crop-bringer Thor as much as praise him when frostbite held back. If famine persisted, we could sacrifice our own King to him. Finally, if that failed, we'd sentence him to being forgotten. Early Christian missionaries were baffled by a people who had adapted every part of their mythology to pain, disease, darkness and the inexorable crawl of famine. A God above the judgment of man? Who you couldn't touch or kill? What fun could that possibly be?
The Norse have been thoroughly represented in computer games; their names plundered for games as diverse as StarCraft, Max Payne, Age of Mythology and the brilliant-but- forgotten Hammer of the Gods (Holistic Design, 1995). Among them all, Norsehelm Productions' Ragnarok (aka Valhalla) is the most brutally unforgiving, and therefore fitting, take on the impossibly bureaucratic and complex Norse mythology. It continues to provide an object lesson in game balancing 15 years after it first began shattering the dreams of anyone who dared to step outside the safety of their village.
On the surface, Ragnarok is an unassuming rogue-like PC game possessed of a peculiar amount of traditional RPG mechanics. Many of the NetHack elements are there, but the constraint of a tightly formed mythology and mission structure makes the chaos and random area generation infinitely more compelling. While much less is possible for the player than in most rogue-likes, the tension and paranoia of the game turn random dungeons into heart-stopping affairs.
The game introduces you to a somber situation via text on an introductory screen: "Your village, once peaceful and thriving, is deserted and overrun by creatures from the nearby forest." Your list of quests doesn't begin small; simply go to the battle at the end of time, and be sure to bring the gods all the weapons they'll need to kill the creatures of chaos, before they die themselves. There are no "please clear my basement of rats," only "help end the world in a slightly less depressing manner." And so, you venture out as one of six classes and fumble through a system of codes that need methodical unraveling before you can hope to live past a single screen of the forest outside.
You can read scrolls and drink potions, if you find them, but the scrolls are "ragged" or "papyrus," the potions "grimy" or merely "orange." They could bless your sword with a much-needed +1, or far more likely, kill you horribly, described in the sparsest prose at the bottom of the screen, "You die." Your only choice is to work your way around the safer edges of the world, picking off what you can while scouring for scrolls of identification that will let you avoid drinking or reading anything disastrous. Slowly but surely, it's possible to turn the odds in your favor and begin crawling through the lists of quests. On your second playing, Ragnarok's genius is apparent; where "grimy" was a boon for one character, for the next it means instant death.
You Die (and die and die)
This controlled chaos means more than just replayability. Ragnarok is nothing short of a simulator for the capriciousness of the ancient world. Life for characters in the game is as brutal and forceful as the time it represents. Whereas other games are happy to use Norse mythology as an identikit racial mode that plays nicely with others to provide a mix of abilities or units, Ragnarok's torment of its players teaches them to submit to fatalism and fully embrace the Norse way of life.
Element by element, what begins as survival morphs into an aggressive assault on the game mechanics, as you menace the unseen data spreads. You figure, for example, that a scroll of blessing can be used to empower a scroll of identification. That scroll can then identify everything in your backpack. Eating certain monster corpses gives you powers. With each scrap of knowledge, the game bends to your will. In the process, dozens of your heroes will perish, in one form or another, falling prey to those two ever-hanging words: You die.