Sunday, January 08, 2012

Dovahkiin, Dovahkiin...

Skyrim is fucking depressing. (There are spoilers ahead, so those of you who haven't played but intend to - or those who aren't too far into the game - or those who just hate the thought of things being, even mildly, revealed before their time may not want to stick around for this. Just a head's up.)

Don't misunderstand me; I am so in love with this game that I occasionally have to deliberately ignore it, take breaks, lest my gaming widow wife grow irate enough to light my PS3 on fire. I'm helped along, a bit, by the fact that she's recently discovered (rediscovered?) her own avid gamer side; it's a lot easier to justify spending hours wandering through Tamriel when she's spending her own hours playing Disney Universe and Skylanders. Helps to have the upstairs TV working again, too, so that we can each do our own thing without interfering with the other.

Skyrim is a beautiful, engaging, fun game to play - despite its bugs (there's nothing quite like getting stuck in a crack in the ground hours from the last time you saved to make you want to scream and break things), and despite the occasional repetitiveness of the quests and the random chatter (just how many guards out there have taken arrows to the knee? How are the still able to move so damn fast when they spot me botching a pickpocket attempt?) It's also, quite frankly, saddening and occasionally even discouraging to play.

Tamriel is a Crapsack World. I haven't been playing The Elder Scrolls very long, as these things go - I started when Morrowind got big, played Oblivion but was horrendously disappointed, and after hearing the great reviews of Skyrim knew I would have to jump into this one, too. Well, let's be honest - I was standing in a Gamestop, heard the choral version of the Elder Scrolls theme, and immediately knew I was going to be playing this one, too. Obsessively, more than likely, which is not far from the truth. The whole point of Morrowind was that, as the reincarnation of Saint Nerevar, the prophecied Nerevarine, you were to save the island of Vvardenfell and the province of Morrowind from the release of the ancient foe, Dagoth Ur, who lived beneath the volcanic Red Mountain. You succeed, and yay! The mountain doesn't erupt, and the province isn't destroyed!

Only, we learn in Skyrim, it does. Destroys most of the island, makes the Dunmer people into refugees in the lands of their ancient enemies. Right about the time you were winning the last game, apparently.

Speaking of Oblivion, you spend the whole game there fighting to protect the last emperor of the line, keep the Daedric hordes bottled up in their bleak hell pit dimension of blood fountains, lava rivers, and miscellaneous spiky hooked decorations, and keep the Empire together. At the end of the game, Martin sacrifices himself, but hurray, the Empire is saved. Except, wait, Skyrim tells us that 200 years later, the Empire has gotten its arse whupped soundly by a bunch of pointy-eared freaks, has given up its religion, and is now embroiled in civil wars that threaten to tear what fragile shell remains asunder. Also that said pointy-eared freaks are plotting to grind humanity under their pointy-toed boots. (You want to know what the elven future looks like? Picture a pointy-toed, jingle belled boot stamping on a human face... forever.)

Hey, I get it - these conflicts are what drive the game, they're part of what provides the drama that keeps things flowing. Without conflict, after all, it's just you walking the neat, clean streets of a tidy Imperial province. Considering how boring Oblivion was after you finished the main quest and closed all the gates, well, we can all figure how well that game pitch would have gone over. But still, having the point of the first two games invalidated like that - especially Vvardenfell blowing up, as you have to play for a goodly while before you get that particular revelation - was a bit of a kick in the teeth. I feel like a veteran of the "War to end all wars," returning home in triumph pleased to have bought, with blood and sweat, a peace for all time... only to watch World War II break out a scant two decades later. And after that one was settled with a few million lives, the Cold War and its threat of nuclear armageddon.

(Yes, I recognize I'm being hyperbolic here. That's half the point of a blog.)

Chris reminds me of a bit from the Incredibles, where Mr. Incredible is being interviewed. "No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for... for ten minutes!"

But that's not why Skyrim is depressing.

What's depressing, is you never seem to be able to save anyone. About all you can do is avenge their death, or inform their loved ones that, yes, they've died. Bear witness to a thousand horrors. I'm on the main quest right now, having finally grown tired enough of watching dragons fly away merrily when I'm gaining the upper hand in a fight (but before that magic moment when they crashland because I've damaged them enough) to make some serious efforts towards getting the Dragonrend shout (and, may I say, it's nice to actually see an Elder Scroll in one of The Elder Scroll games. Not that I've gotten that far, but again, digression). To get to Blackreach, I have to go through Alftland, another Dwemer ruin, this one half swallowed up by a glacier. All well and good. Only, as I enter, I find the remains of a research camp that had been trapped inside by a storm. As I go along, I find notes from the team - Falmer had been picking them off one by one, and eventually took the whole party for their larder. On one dead man, tucked away in a hidden corner, I found a note talking about how he and a companion had been trapped by a broken ramp during their escape - his companion, without hesitation, had thrown him up the incline onto the next platform before turning back to fight for her life. He had fled, and eventually, died here in this forgotten little corner. Going along, I find the broken ramp - and the dead orc who had sacrificed her own chance of escape to save her companion. She resembled Boromir from the end of Fellowship, a pincushion of goblin arrows. Continuing, I find the Falmer camp - complete with the remains of their "meals". The rest of the research team, all but the leader and his bodyguard.

No, the leader had fled in a different direction upon release, deeper into the complex, seeking "what he had come for". I find him just before the entrance to Blackreach, where he (and his bodyguard) immediately attack me as a thief, come to steal the fruits of his labors. Ah, megalomaniacal insanity.

But Yag - the orc, killed after throwing her companion to all too temporary safety - got me thinking about how many situations like this there were in the game. Ranmir's wife, in Winterhold - turned to thieving to help support the two of them, killed in a Nord tomb on her first outing, the note she'd meant to leave behind to ease his mind never delivered. He thinks she's left him, and turns to drink. Narfi the beggar, living in the ruins - literally - of his family's farmhouse, pining for his missing sister. You can go look for her - she's in the river, near the bridge. Lie to the man and tell her she'll be back one day, or give him her ring and your sympathies, both endings leave a taste in the mouth worse than one of Namira's feasts. A farmer held prisoner in Mistwatch begs you to save his wife - turns out she's the bandit leader. Oops.

Occasionally, you get to save people. There was a prisoner in the Thalmor Embassy when I snuck in there; I got him out alive, and he now hangs around the Thieves Guild. Where he spits every time I approach and accuses me of causing "enough trouble." There's Malborn, the elf who helped me and whom I, in return, rescued in that same quest... he's hiding out in Windhelm, getting ready to run for Morrowind if I can ever find the assassin he's terrified of. Oh, yes, he's stalked by assassins now.

Every victory is its own punishment, apparently.

But I'll keep on fighting, despite all of these little victories that cut like knife wounds, for much the same reason that investigators keep investigating in Call of Cthulhu - because, for all that the world is doomed to be an Elder God's snack cake, here and now we're alive and what we do matters.

Also, because it's so much fun to sneak up on a dragon and smack it between the eyes with a Legendary Blades katana. FORS RO DAH!

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