In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so. In this rare, collectible Double Decadent, that time span is doubled, because we felt like it.
In Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 Thor movie, the Asgardians—the pantheon of Viking gods—are portrayed as being hyper-advanced medieval extra-terrestrials with questionable fashion sense and a troubling interest in the affairs of men. It’s hilarious fiction, very loosely based on snippets of Norse history that have come down to us through the ages.
But could parts of it be true? Leading experts in the field of ancient-astronaut pseudohistory say yeah, sure, it could be true, why not. Their theories were aired this April in “The Viking Gods,” an episode of the History Channel’s program Ancient Aliens. Here’s the nut:
Lindisfarne, England. 793 AD. Several hundred Viking raiders make landfall on this small tidal island on the coast of North Umbria to plunder a great monastery of its rumored treasures. An account of the attack on Lindisfarne says the assault coincided with extraordinary whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons crisscrossing the skies. Could these strange events be coincidence? Or could it be evidence that otherworldly forces may have been allied with the Vikings?
This respected science television show makes a case that the Viking gods were, in fact, an advanced alien race. But what if our alien overlords weren’t paternal allies, like the Asgardians of Marvel lore? What if they were, instead, intergalactic zookeepers, in the vein of “People Are Alike All Over”?
This latter variety of overlord plagues Erik The Swift, Olaf The Stout, and Baleog The Fierce in The Lost Vikings, a 1992 game on the Super NES (among other platforms). Before the three heroes get lost, they spend their days doing normal Viking stuff—primarily, one imagines, shaping longship keels, chugging mead, and cultivating fearsome facial hair. One day, the intergalactic despot Tomator decides he wants to add a trio of Scandinavians to his collection, and they are suddenly beamed aboard his vast ship. Unfortunately for Tomator, these Vikings know the value of teamwork. In order to escape, they must use their respective abilities— swiftness, stoutness, and ferocity—in concert.
Tomator’s ship boasts Spaceball-class dimensions, and each super-level houses a massive space ark of angry space creatures for the Lost Vikings to overcome. Erik, Baleog, and Olaf have to become the Tinkers, Evers, and Chance of great spaceship escapes. The first Tomatorian zoo enclosure—“Prehistoria”—has the horned hostages making their way through a dinosaur-infested obstacle course.
It’s not dissimilar to a memorable level in the 2013 Double Fine adventure game, The Cave. In fact, The Cave owes a lot to The Lost Vikings in terms of its basic construction and offbeat humor. As The Cave begins, the player selects a team of three from among a diverse group of seven characters (or eight, if you count the creepy twins as two). Unlike the Vikings, these heroes have nothing in common aside from their questionable morality and poor choice in friends. Each must enter the sentient, self-narrating Cave and traverse their individual dark nights of the soul.
Like the Lost Vikings, all three must work together to advance, but it’s not predicated on any particular combination of skills. There are generic levels in The Cave that link special character-specific areas. The Time Traveller, for instance, quantum leaps back and forth between a museum of the future and the prehistoric past. It’s a terrific setting. Killing a dinosaur in the past turns a future dinosaur museum exhibit into a puddle of oil, and if you leave one of your companions in Flintstones time, he exists in the future as a bleached skeleton.
But the Time Traveller can accomplish these feats no matter who her companions are. At one point, you’re forced to murder a brilliant caveman inventor by squashing him under a boulder, thereby ending his family line in the future. The perpetrator could be the Monk, or the Scientist, or the Knight—whoever you have on hand. And there lies the main problem with The Cave; beside the character whose level is being tackled, it makes no difference which companion you use to push the game forward.
The Adventurer’s level, in particular, highlights this disappointing reality. Her scenario takes place inside the tunnels of a giant pyramid, full of pressure plates and booby traps. The two non-Adventurers—whoever they may be—are basically reduced to the role of mobile paperweights, depressing floor switches and allowing the Adventurer to crack her whip and reap the rewards.
The Lost Vikings, meanwhile, have specific jobs. Rather than being a collection of individuals, they’re more a cohesive unit. If The Cave is the star-laden, underachieving 2013 Los Angeles Lakers, then the Lost Vikings are the 2004 Detroit Pistons—skilled role-players who know their own strengths and use them to complement one another. Erik runs fast and can jump impressive distances. Baleog carries a sword and isn’t shy about sticking aliens with the business end. Olaf carries a shield, which comes in very handy not just in its designed utility, but also as a stepladder or parachute. If one fails, they all fail.
There is also the question of motivation. The omnipresent narrator of The Cave—unlike the meddling Norse gods—closely observes his charges, but he never interferes. He’s happy to crack jokes, laugh maniacally, and occasionally explain how matters stand with this purgatorial retinue. (Of course, one could argue that he’s present the whole time, being the Cave itself, but that’s a whole other existential argument.) Beyond the obvious questions—how did these weirdos all get here, and for what reason?—the Cave’s purpose is opaque. It’s not clear if he’s a geological demiurge who exists solely to torment or if he’s the heroes’ only means to eventual salvation.
The Cave’s denizens remain blithely ignorant of their disembodied captor’s existence. The Viking trio, on the other hand, have occasional Stranger Than Fiction moments when they’re nearly self-aware. Between levels, they consider their strange predicament. “Do you guys ever have the feeling we are being watched?” one Viking asks. “Yeah, almost like someone is controlling our every move,” says another.
Spooky. Like their Cave-dwelling brethren, the Lost Vikings are blessed with what amounts to an infinite number of lives. The titular narrator in The Cave simply notes that there is “no dying” within his chasmal bounds. He’s too busy firing off zingers to care about something so trifling as life and death. The divine presence in The Lost Vikings is more of a meddler. Even the Norse gods have limits to their patience. If you die too many times on the same level, Thor becomes displeased: “This is the voice of Thor, Viking Lord Of Thunder. I am real angry with you guys.” The Vikings quite reasonably ask why Thor can’t present his complaints face-to-face. Thor has an answer for that, too: “Would you want to be seen with Vikings that have failed 15 times to get through a level?”
But the fearsome threesome hardly needs Thor’s “encouragement.” They all want to get back home to their wives and children and longship keels. And, working together, they eventually do just that. Many of the Cave’s damned souls, on the other hand, find no such peace. Without the uniting guidance of the Viking lords, they eschew the team-based approach and instead use each other when it suits them. The Cave sags as a result. It all suggests that even if the Norse gods of lore did once beam down to our planet, they at least had our best interests at heart.