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I have clocked 160 hours in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. I have claimed every conquerable land, mowed down every murderous Saxon, and surprised myself by playing through this game with each facet turned to “hard,” instead of my usual, sheepish “normal” difficulty route. I have loved every second of sneaking and slashing and slaying. Eivor is the protagonist of Valhalla, and she (I chose to play her as a woman—Eivor’s gender is the player’s choice) is a badass. She’s burly and takes what she wants, whenever she wants. She is a Viking who can slaughter 30 Druid enemies with one ax in under two minutes. But she cannot defeat the most difficult boss in all of Assassin’s Creed history: stacking rocks.
Valhalla offers many sidequests and diversions for players to spend their time on. But rarely have I felt more frazzled by my media diet than when trying to stack the series of hellishly unassuming cairn stones scattered around ninth-century England cliffs. Clearly intended to be a restful stop for the meditative reflection our exhausted Viking warrior needs betwixt bloody battle after battle, these side “mysteries” are anything but. Each cairn challenge has the same basic setup: Eivor is given a set number of differently shaped rocks, and she must stack them up high enough to reach the required height marker to “validate” the rock pile and complete the quest. The physics and gravity are extremely sensitive, so setting down your successive rocks even just a little too hard will bring the whole pile down. Any millimeter of weight difference on one side could spell your toppling failure, and any peaceful breath of wind could destroy your newborn child of stone.
There are 13 cairn challenges total in Valhalla. The first handful are easy. You convince yourself that you are sage and cultured as you soak in the symbolic history of the ancient rock-stacking practice. As you level up and explore more land for your village to form alliances with, however, you encounter the increasingly difficult cairn challenges, obstacles that you do not yet know will take over a huge chunk of your life. Then, there is no turning back. The days turn to nights turn to weeks. The height requirement marker enters your dreams. Welcome to the last two months of my personal Helheim.
I know I am not alone. All over the world, players who usually “platinum” massive open-world games like Valhalla are stuck. The cairn stones are equal-opportunity game-breakers. There is no workaround, no cheat code, no change to difficulty options to be made. You simply have to pray to Odin and try again.
I joined thousands in hunting YouTube for a how-to for the hardest cairn challenges, and sighed with existential relief reading the difficulty we shared. Just a handful of comments from fellow frustrated players:
These people are now my family, and they are all invited to my wedding.
I’m sure the team devoted to the cairn stone challenges worked very hard, which makes this tragedy all the more potent. When Eivor sits down to begin stacking, bittersweet audio memories from her deceased loved ones play. It’s a nice, melancholic touch to remind us of all she’s been through. Then the rock stacking begins. And you have immediately forgotten what you were sad about, and are instead only full of rage.
I began Valhalla in March of this year and let it consume me entirely, especially as the dread of quarantine’s one-year anniversary hit me. Nothing scares Eivor. She has seen unspeakable things from a young age, and still holds her head up high. But the gal can’t stack a damn stone if her whole clan depended on it. This makes our hero somewhat relatable. I can fight for my rights in our currently politically terrifying times and carry myself with grace amid frantic disaster. But a sink full of dirty dishes, or a package needing to be dropped at the post office? I am emotional rubble. Anxiety takes over and I just can’t do it. While I am near certain that reflecting on this nuance of 21st-century life was not the intended effect by the Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla developers, I cannot help but notice that it is often the most menial, mundane tasks of all that eventually break even the strongest of us, even demigod Vikings.