I’m an avid survival game player, and yet Valheim’s design continues to occupy me with its ingenuity.
I’ve analyzed the game’s progression system and its use of design negative space, but there is another ingredient that makes the game so compelling. It has to do with the proper balance of danger and coziness.
In fact, pairing a fairly punishing death system that offers numerous ways to die with an atmosphere of warmth and coziness has truly helped Valheim shine and capture an audience of many types of players.
In Valheim, coziness and danger engage in a satisfying push and pull. Need wood for building? You may get crushed by a large tree as it falls. Want to build a tall structure? Slipping off the roof in the rain might cause your death, so it may be better to wait for less severe weather. Cooking a lovely warm stew? You’ll need it to survive in the swamps or the cold of the mountains, or just as a comfort at home base. Made a cozy fire to keep you warm at night? You could die of smoke inhalation if you didn’t build enough ventilation.
Paired with the freedom and rough playfulness of the building system, players are experiencing their own coziness in unexpected ways. But it’s the two systems working in concert that makes the magic happen.
A baseline of danger
In theory, everything is dangerous enough to kill you in Valheim, not just the creatures lurking in the forest. You know exactly what I’m talking about if you’ve ever accidentally taken down a tree in the game … which then took down another tree or rolled over your body, killing you.
All actions require your careful attention, especially when paired with the Dark Souls-esque combat system, which focuses on parrying, dodging, and stamina management. If a simple greydwarf catches you in the forest, even later in the game, you may not be able to withstand the danger without enough food, or if you’re in the rain.
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Day and night are game states in Valheim that come with simple yet impactful parameters. Doing work around the village during the daytime is largely safe, but you’re racing against the clock to get your chores done for the survival of the village. The darkness announces itself with a dramatic sunset, and losing a little more sunlight every minute is a beautiful thing that also underlines how pressing the game’s pressing time constraints are.
It becomes truly dark in Valheim once the sun has crossed the horizon. Dangerous creatures lurk in the forests, eyes following you everywhere you go. The moon is your companion, but only in the open valleys; venturing into the forest at night is a serious risk. You’re cold, and your stamina does not regenerate as quickly as it does when you’re running through the woods in the warmth of the sun.
Night excursions can have real consequences. Leaving the village unguarded at night may mean you come back to broken walls and smashed beds, because trolls love venturing out after sunset.
The serene beauty and calming atmosphere of Valheim may lure you into a false sense of security. Every aspect of the game includes a baseline of danger, from logging to building a house.
Valheim takes a completely different approach to the food and hunger systems that exist in most other survival games. The food system is not a resource sink that you need to take care of constantly. It is, instead, additive to the experience.
Eating food is a means of balancing the risk of your activities. Eating food increases your chances of survival and mitigates some of the danger, giving you more wiggle room while you’re adventuring.
Eating food — and more importantly, what kind of food you eat — becomes a strategic choice instead of just chowing down a couple of cheese blocks for survival. For example, if I know I’m only going out to chop some wood or grab some copper in the black forest, I might just eat some berries and honey and be done with it to have enough health to fight off a troll or some greydwarves. But if I want to go into the mountains or plains where more dangerous enemies lie in wait, I have to consider eating some more appropriate food to balance out the higher risk. Those food items are also more costly to cook.
I can also, in theory, never eat anything. I don’t need to feed my character, ever, if I don’t want to. It’s purely a choice of how I want to balance the difficulty for myself. If I’m feeling confident, maybe I’ll go out without eating! The system isn’t a nag; it’s just another lever you can choose to pull in your struggle to survive in this world.
Beyond that, it is not an arbitrary resource sink like in most survival games. You don’t have to maintain a food bar. Food is contextualized with the activities you are about to do, and eating more valuable food aligns well with doing more dangerous activities.
Valheim review: Survival is satisfying, but comes at a cost
In Valheim, running through the woods while out in the rain or fog is not only atmospheric; it impacts your decision-making when trying to survive. Stamina and health regeneration are heavily affected if your character is cold or wet, making practically everything you do a more dangerous task during bad weather. You can choose to stay in when it’s raining, or you can decide to risk it, and you may get stuck in the rain unexpectedly. But the system is always there, in the background, and you have to account for it in your planning if you want to stay alive.
Both the weather system and the day-night cycle system are the underlying drivers of Valheim’s tone. Elements of danger are peppered into the game in unique ways. When you do tasks matters — it impacts your chances of success. Can I climb around on this structure I’m building in the rain while my health regeneration and stamina are reduced? Will I fall to my death? Will I be able to build this roof fast enough to avoid the rain damaging the wooden structure? Do I have enough warm stews to keep from freezing to death if I go into the mountains?
Image: Iron Gate Studio/Coffee Stain Publishing via Polygon
By asking players to consider all these parameters, the simplest actions become meaningful due to the added complexity and potential for your death. Nothing is perfectly safe; just about everything can kill you somehow if you’re not mindful of your actions.
Sounds stressful, doesn’t it? Well, that brings us to the next point.
I have seen players and developers alike bring up the term “hygge” as a contrasting principle to Valheim’s sense of danger, and I absolutely love its inclusion into the design space of the game.
Hygge is a Danish word, originating from Norwegian, that refers to a specific kind of coziness. The Nordic term encompasses many things: contentment, friendship, and the well-being found in cherishing the simple pleasures. It is a term specifically used to describe the appeal of, say, a warm fire, a warm stew, and cozy socks during a gray winter day. It is often connected to things that are homemade and have an appealing simplicity. Sound familiar?
The inclusion of hygge seems to be the final touch that gives Valheim’s baseline of danger the balance it needs to make the game a fully rounded experience. Your home — or, for a lot of people, your many homes and outposts — becomes your safe haven, your place of coziness. It’s where you rest, decorate, and recharge. Even where you drink mead with friends and where you rest your head. A place where you cook and strategize, and where a warm fire and the smell of a stew welcome you to prepare for new ventures into the cold, damp wilderness.
Your home is the antithesis to the dangers of the woods. Outside the safety of your longhouse, your character needs to learn by doing — a concept that we culturally find anxiety-inducing — but inside your house, growth comes from decorating and adding to your home. Placing additional furniture items increases your rest; placing additional workbench items gives you more options when building and upgrading. Out in the woods, you need to painstakingly learn everything you need to survive by doing it, but expanding your space is your path of progression while you’re at home.
In this sense, hygge and danger are on an ever-evolving seesaw to keep the player on their toes. In game design, this is akin to how we design deliberate flow states.
Image: Iron Gate Studio/Coffee Stain Publishing via Polygon
According to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow research, an experience is perfectly laid out if the challenge presented never exceeds the player’s capability while also not dipping into being too easy. Going too far either way causes anxiety or boredom, but bouncing neatly between the two zones — Valheim uses hygge and danger — presents the perfect conditions for flow.
Our brain functions differently when we’re in a state of flow. For example, we lose our relationship with time and make memories differently. So if you have ever played Valheim and found yourself confused with how — six hours later — you have barely looked up from the game, this is the reason why.
Getting this balance right is no small feat, and the very few games that manage it really stand out from the crowd — just like Valheim. Giving the player an easy-to-understand and easy-to-engage-with handle on how they want to tackle the dangers of the world, while invoking such strong themes, is where Valheim gets things very right.
Moreover, by handing some control of the balance to the player, Valheim embraces the idea of flow and progression within it with such mastery that all its success is truly deserved. As argued in my last article about this, I think the trust that the game puts in the player is its biggest strength.
Offering elegant solutions without the fear of overturning existing conventions? That is what I want to see from games.
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