I was hiking north of Riften, a few minutes after I’d been accosted by a Blood Dragon, walking by hot springs when I saw him across the steaming water. Head bowed, club dejectedly slung atop his shoulder. At his feet were the earthly remains of what I can assume was his only mammoth. He didn’t move to attack me as I approached. The Giant just stood there, towering over me, no longer caring for what the world could offer. He was alone and that was all he cared about. I stayed by his side for a time, joining him in his mourning. Would he be able to move on from this? I looked up at him once more, turned and walked away, up a hill and out of the sulphur infused pools. I continued to head north, unsure where I was going.

The lone adventurer

Skyrim feature screen (42)My time in Skyrim has been divided between several characters, all women, rotating between the many races that live in Tamriel. I have no real preferences beyond wanting to play as a female character. They’ve either been magic casters, sneak thieves, or master crafters. I’ve played through all the faction quest lines, with only a few stand alone quests that I haven’t completed. I find it difficult to play as someone who is evil, but equally difficult to play as someone who is completely good. Though I find it far easier to play as a character who’s their own Nord/Khajit/Wood Elf/Breton, etc, when I am not questing for factions.

In fact, in all the time I have spent playing this game, running around and doing things for the Companions or the College of Winterhold or the Dawnguard (and all the other factions) I have not had much fun. I’ve always enjoyed playing it without direction than with. I’d rather stumble across a random person in need of aid or an ancient mystery that could lead to treasure than to be told where to go and who to talk to.

The path of the lone adventurer, unfettered by allegiances, has appealed to me more and more as I’ve travelled the length and breadth of Skyirm.

There was this one cave I went in, because I had a good feeling (there were no dead things outside) that I might find some Spriggans and bears inside. Playing as a crafty type, with a focus on alchemy, armorer and enchanting, I was after some taproot for potion making and I needed some animal skins, any, to turn into leather. And if I could Soul Trap a few things – even better. Elks and deer being rather flighty means that going after carnivores for animal skins involves fewer arrows and a quick resolution rather than ages stalking the animal, but far more risk to life and limb.

The cave was huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge and had a small forest. There were bears, wolves and Spriggans coming out of every nook and cranny. Using my experience in stealth to my advantage, I hid in the bushes, carefully scaled cliffs and waited to unleash arrows with my Orcish bow from perches where I would not be reached. Slowly I moved through the lower reaches of the cave, killing anything that moved, and once it was clear I scrambled down and began searching for the skins and roots I had bought with my arrows.

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Having collected what I could find, I turned around and took in just how immense the cave was. And towering over me, in the centre, was what appeared to be a column of worn stone that could be scaled to reach another area inside the cave. I circled the column’s base and finally found a ledge that I could jump on to and begin my ascent. Realising I was out in the open, I switched to my Orcish fire sword in my right hand and charged a Firebolt in my left. Winding my way around the column, I encountered another Spriggan and dispatched it, leaving it a smouldering wreck.

Reaching the summit of the stone, I was ambushed by three or four more Spriggans, all at once. I had to jump around to stop them from overwhelming me, but try not to fall over the edge of the towering stone, while swinging my sword and casting balls of flame. With the death of the last of the cave’s inhabitants, I realised the summit had a small pond and island, closer inspection revealed much loot and then on another side was a bridge to yet another section of the cave and more treasure. Finally scaling back down to the floor of the cave, I made for home.

Stockholm Syndrome

The 376 hours I have played of Skyrim have not all been happy. The first 40 hours on my Xbox 360 involved a lot of cursing, as bug after bug broke my experience with what was a Christmas present. This love-hate relationship was charted on an old blog of mine and shows how I went from loathing the game to loving it. It took me almost a year to go from being disappointed by it almost each time I played it, to loving how I could become so absolutely lost in it.

What made the game even more enjoyable for me was the release of the Hearthfire expansion. I was still playing the game on my Xbox 360 at this point, but being able to build a home around the crafting or magical style characters I tended to play as meant that I could really personalise my non-adventuring time. It was almost like I’d become self-sufficient in the game in a way that is incredibly difficult for me to achieve in real life. And I could trade my goods with the store my husband or wife ran or I could head to the nearest market and sell there.

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I’d adopt orphans and give the run of the homestead. Have my steward hire a bard and have her or him serenade this fictional, yet trusting family. Our main worries were whether bandits, giants or dragons would turn up and try to kill our livestock. Life in Skyrim, away from the hamlets, villages, towns, cities and generally people was a simple yet rewarding affair. But each time I stepped into a populated area, I’d overhear things that were less pleasant. Bigotry was rife. I’d surmounted game breaking bugs, but couldn’t escape the characters that would surround me.

At least when I installed the Frostfall mod when I began to play on PC, I could go camping in the middle of The Rift for a while and “dance” with wolves.

Once upon a time, I use to kill for the Dark Brotherhood. When I was sent to kill the Emperor, I looked back at all those I had slaughtered in the Night Mother’s name. Knowing of the great conflicts that besieged the Empire politically and on the battle fields of that time, I wondered why he should be killed. Titus Mede II wasn’t surprised when I finally infiltrated his cabin abaord The Katariah. The wants of Amaund Motierre that had sent me there seemed ridiculous. I almost tried to leave the cabin to and put a dagger in Amaund’s back. But like a puppet, I killed the Emperor instead and fled The Katariah, having just destabilised the Empire while the Aldmeri Dominion continued to eye it up and the civil war raged on.

Jumping over the side of the ship, I swam for shore, not at all convinced that I had done the right thing. There was no alternative choice for completing the quest. The time to rebel had passed long ago, when I declined an offer to help bring down the Brotherhood.

Agency in the age of the Dragonborn

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Looking back at the time I have spent in Skyrim, if there was one thing that I had hoped would be improved upon, it was player agency: being able to make choices and do things that mattered. Conversations with the characters in Skyrim seemed less involved than what I had experienced in Morrowind and Oblivion. My ability to talk-back, to piss people off had been greatly reduced. What I said seemed to have little impact. What I did less so.

This lack of impact was obvious early on. Shouting, “Fus!” had no effect when Proventus Avenicci, in Whiterun, questioned whether I was the Dragonborn and whether such a person could exist. He didn’t stop talking over me to his Jarl, who believed I was the Dragonborn due to the shout issued by the Greybeards prior to our conversation. My actions throughout the game had little effect on how people would talk to me, unless I’d chosen sides during the Civil War or the Dawnguard quest lines. People would still talk to me, unless I was visibly a vampire or a werewolf.

I affected more skinning a sabre cat then I did trying to steer the factions or the main quest. There were so few grey areas in that game when it came to allegiances. What was the point in mastering not only the Thu’um, but speech as well if you couldn’t talk or shout people down from their positions of madness. I get being unable to convince a Daedric god to not be an arse, but General Tullius, Ulrich, the Blades, the Greybeards? Always a choice had to be made, no middle ground could be found and I could not persuade or intimidate one of them.

There was no way for me to complete my orders without slaying Titus.

I had had only one chance to bring down the Brotherhood.

But I could get better prices at Angeline’s Aromatics or convince the guards outside of Riften to stop being pricks and let me in.

I had made my choices and there was no way to go back on them.

There were few alternative paths beyond showing allegiance and not showing allegiance.

I have adventured for 376 hours in Skyrim and I still don’t love this videogame.

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