The Great Whale Road is a video game set in a historical context. We have selected 650 AD because it is an interesting period of change in European history, and one often overlooked by popular culture (Beowulf aside). There are just enough sources available to create historical context and content, but also sufficient uncertainty to give us room for interpretation.
Joachim is a nearly fully trained historian (short of completing his master thesis 18 years or so ago), and we also had Belén, our history intern, review the literature for anything Joachim missed - ranging from general history of the period, trade and economic history, social history, art history, archaeology and even some palaeogeographical articles on early medieval coastal landscapes.
There are certain aspects of history which historians, archaeologists, geneticists, reenactors etc. do not agree on, and in these cases we go with what we think is most plausible and works best for the game. In the end (even historical) games are supposed to be fun.
Anglo-Saxons: A pick & mix of Germanic tribes which had been raiding the British coast already back in Roman days. They took over the lion's share of the island and were partially christianized by the start of the game (at least their kings were by then). They were spread across seven major and some minor kingdoms. Back then there were still greater ethnic differences between the groups - Saxons, Angles, Jutes. They could be found fighting each other, the Britons and the Picts.
Picts - You have to love them - a mysterious people, famous for running around naked and painted blue. Incredibly suicidal warriors, if the stories are to be believed. They joined forces with Irish Gaels and Britons and became the Scots of later centuries.
Britons - Again a multitude of larger and minuscule kingdoms at the edges of Britain. By 650 AD they still held Cornwall, and were going strong in Wales and the North. They were a mixture of mountain hillbillies in Welsh valleys and more or less Romans with a strange accent in other places.
Frisians - Some Frisians were also part of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, but it seems that most stayed on the continental side, maybe English cuisine was already invented by then. They found some of the most important trading centers and are key players in the trade around the North Sea. The Franks decided that they had some vital interests to protect at one point and the Frisians 'voluntarily' joined the Frankish kingdom.
Franks: The successors of the Roman Empire in the west, and the most romanized of Germanic kingdoms in the west. The game plays in Merovingian period, which is when the Frankish kingdoms consolidated and expanded.
Danes: These hardy proto-vikings can be found on the north flank of our world map. Our game is set during the Vendel period, the era between the migration period and the start of the viking age. These folks were surprisingly well connected to the rest of Europe for centuries, they were for example utilized by the Romans to put pressure on other Germanic tribes to protect the Limes border.
Bretons - Not to be confused with Britons these good people decided not to live on the same street as the Anglo-Saxons and did what thousands of English still do every year - they crossed the channel and bought a house in France. They were highly romanized Britons with a surprising number of strong female leaders and a flavour for violence surprising for refugees. The Franks actually instituted the first defensive march against the Bretons during the time our game is set in.
Saxons - These folks were as Germanic as it got in Merovingian times. Strictly pagan, infamous for barbecuing missionaries (most likely one of them went after their choirboys first), they repeatedly clashed with the Franks (who invaded time after time) until the Saxons were either assimilated or killed.
Ælfstan: A trader (read pirate) from Northumbria, who doesn't like Picts and is partial to magic mushrooms. Quite the old-school pagan he is convinced that he is related to Wuldor - the shield god and step-father of Donar (Thor).
Beowulf: Maybe he is the real deal, maybe he is just a loon. Anyway, he will be an Anglo-Saxon champion in the game.
Hjalti the Unwashed: A loan from the Icelandic sagas, but a by-name that is hard to resist. Usually Danes liked their weekly bath, but this guy seems to be the exception.
Bera the Grumpy: You would be grumpy too if you had to be on the same boat as Hjalti the Unwashed. Bera has outlived two husbands, who both died in axidents. Bera likes her axe.
And many more ...
What is known: Not a lot. The sources and archaeological finds are quite limited from the late roman period to the high middle ages. There are a few burial ships, a few images and a few side comments in historical documents.
Proto-Longships: We know that there was a lot more trade and therefore ship traffic in the North Sea than thought by previous generations of historians. Early longships, like the one found at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk, England) were built in the 7th century. Half-size replicas show that these ships could easily carry a mast and sail and where actually excellent sailing ships.
Our Assumptions: Historians have based many of their conclusions on a handful of buried or sunk ships found for a period of a few hundred years. We are therefore assuming that many of their conclusions are bollocks. The Britons will not have forgotten how to build trading ships, and the same will be true for the formerly Gaulish fishermen in the now Frankish kingdoms.
Trading Ships: Early versions of the Knarr were around as well as boats based on old Celtic designs.
Skin Boats: Larger Curraghs were in use by Irish and Britons, and we can assume that the Picts knew how to build them too.
Where: There was a fair bit of trade along the North Sea. From Spain to the British Isles, from the kingdoms of the Britons and Anglo-Saxons to the Franks and Frisians and so on. Goods came also from further afield via the rivers of the Frankish kingdoms.
What: It seems that trading was concentrated on high margin luxury goods. Weapons, armor, glass, ceramics, jewelry, spices, dyes and very importantly: slaves.
Women: While Christianity has taken hold in most areas already, the typical morality and gender separation of later centuries is not yet dominant. This only changes during the high middle ages, but even then it is possible to find the occasional female warrior and leader. During our period the differentiation between free and unfree is often more important than the difference between male and female. That doesn't mean that every woman was a warrior, but that they had a strong and independent position in most of the societies in the game. Let's assume that most early medieval women could do more chin-ups than most men today.
LBGT: Sexuality is not one of the key topics covered by the available sources, in Christian texts it is usually bad and in sagas it is usually further down the list compared to naming as many people and relatives as possible as well as the description of drinking games and violence. Luckily there are archaeologists, and those folks have discovered quite a few graves which held an unusual mixture of goods. The conclusion is that some Germanic tribes were quite relaxed about the definition of gender, and that there were men defining themselves as women and vice versa. When even the Irish can vote for gay marriage, gamers should be able to deal with lesbian, gay and transgender characters too.