[Warning: Spoilers. Lots.]
The natural surroundings are very pretty, if a touch bleak: Nordic. The rest of the scene leaves more to be desired. I'm tied up in the back of a lurching horse-cart and a bit of conversation with my morose fellow-travelers quickly indicates we're off to attend an execution: our own. It appears I have been caught trying to cross the border illegally, and the local migra have decided to shorten me by a head for my presumption. On top of that, one of my fellow passengers turns out to be a local resistance leader, a Stormcloak, fresh from murdering the ruler of the area, no less. We don't ask for autographs.....
Our journey ends in a courtyard in lovely downtown Helgen, where we are unloaded and processed, with the obligatory "You've got the wrong man!" mini-drama provided by a fellow-passenger. The center of the courtyard features a block, an axe, and a basket, and the sturdy specimen at the front of the line, bit of a showoff he is, manages to take leave of his head in record time and with a commendable style. At this point, Skyrim is beginning to look like the world's shortest role-playing game, unless of course you're meant to play it with your chopped-off noggin tucked under your arm as one of the undead.
But, since bureaucracy is sacred, you have some official forms to fill out before you are officially deformed. Here is where you get to define who and what you are, in game terms: your race (human, elven, or "beast race"; there are ten major varieties), gender, and other details, some as small as the amount and color of dirt on your face. Only race carries with it tangible consequences, in the form of specialized talents and weaknesses. Lizard-like Argonians can breathe underwater, for instance; feline Khajiit can slash with claws and see in the dark; human Imperials are convincing enough to sell ice to Eskimos; snooty High Elves can dish it out but can't take it when it comes to magic; orcs can go berserk, giving them the battlefield presence of a rogue wood chipper; the local Nords are all but frostproof; and so on and so forth.
My whim forms me into Vivian, Queen of Air and Darkness, a female Wood Elf from the south, more for their inborn talent with the bow than their power to command animals, not that I have either a wolf or an arrow to my name at the present moment. The scribe grunts, "Don't see many of your type around here," and I remember, a bit late, that the Nords running this show are xenophobes and elves are high on their shit list. There goes my chance for a last-minute pardon, I guess....Time to check out the view from that headsman's block.
Oh, and not to spoil your swing or anything, sir, but isn't that a dragon that just landed on the tower roof?
All hell breaks loose, and my imminent execution drops right off the Imperial to-do list as old Ugly, given name Alduin and you will be meeting him again, begins to tear buildings to pieces, breathe fire, and generally assert his presence and personal needs. My regicide fellow-prisoner takes to his heels, and I follow his example. This is, in game terms, the tutorial level, where my companions in flight are full of helpful tips on how to locate and manage my assets: food, weapons, armor, potions, magic, and a few more specialized toys such as lockpicks and lore books. I stumble into and terminate a number of exceedingly inept foes, the improbability of my novice victories cleverly masked by the general chaos, and finally I am free and a safe distance outside the wyrm-wrecked town.
My companion in this mad dash turns out to have been an Imperial soldier, lately one of my executioners, though all differences of that sort tend to vanish, at least temporarily, when dragons show up. No hard feelings: he even invites me to join the Imperial army before we part ways. But I figure I'd rather catch a few of the local sights first....
To live another life, in another world, the first prerequisite is obviously to be in that world. You need an introduction, in both senses of the word; to be put in, and to be instructed in the rules, in not too obtrusively didactic a manner. The opening of Skyrim, though a bit lacking in interactivity at first, succeeds brilliantly in both respects. It shows you the way things work, and offers further scaffolding at the end, where you have the option of immediately entering one of the main quest lines, that of the Imperial army (or of the local Stormcloak rebels, if you end up escaping with one of their members). But there are a thousand other things to do if join the army now fails to appeal to you: find a town and get a job cutting wood to build up your bank balance the hard way, talk to people in the local tavern to find out who in the neighborhood needs what done, take off along the road or off the road in almost literally any direction, or simply stumble over a mine occupied by a dimwitted collection of bandits and stab and snipe your way through, emerging with a pocketful of gold, some useful toys, and a local reputation as She Who Is Not To Be Screwed With, which was what my elven alter ego ended up doing.
So, we're here. Where's here, though?
Here, in this case, is Skyrim, northernmost province of the Empire whose heartland lies a good deal to the south in the province of Cyrodill, where the previous game in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, was set, about two hundred years prior to the start of Skyrim. To the east is Morrowind, which gave its name and setting to the third Elder Scrolls game, the earliest that still runs on modern computers without awkward expedients such as DOSBox. Although the game-worlds are not at present interconnected, the stories are: most of the in-game lore books in Morrowind reappear in Skyrim, for instance, and at one point you even meet yourself, your character from Oblivion, in the form of the Daedric prince Sheogorath, Lord of Madness, to which position you were promoted at the end of the Oblivion extension The Shivering Isles. (The genderless and shape-shifting adaptability of the Daedra, not to speak of their immortality, ensures a seamless fit with whatever your character was at that time.) Skyrim itself is cold, rocky, bleakly beautiful, and populated chiefly by Nords, large, hearty, but they definitely do make them smarter... engaged largely in drinking themselves senseless in the local inns, digging ore out of mines, and chopping down the surrounding forests as fast as they can, their heads filled with a confused mix of genuine grievances and bloody-minded nativism and racism.
But let's get back to the action....
After a few more detours, most ending with a small heap of dead baddy bodies and another pocketful of coin and equipment the original owners have no further use for, my Vivian finds Whiterun, capital of one of the nine Holds the province is divided into, and the place that I suspect most players end up calling home because of its convenience and central location. Surviving Helgen has qualified her as an expert on dragons, suddenly a topic of lively interest in Whiterun, whose Jarl (Earl) is anxious that his city avoid a similar fate. Sure enough, just as you are telling your story, word is received of a dragon casting hungry eyes on one of the outlying forts. You accompany a party of Whiterun's finest out to the site, led by the Jarl's fire-breathing militia commander, a woman who is visibly less than happy at the conspicuous lack of victory or death enthusiasm among her command, and with some effort, since your offensive capabilities are still relatively modest, you rodeo-ride the scaly nuisance into the next world.
At this point, things begin to get odd. The dying dragon calls Vivian dovahkin, delivered in unmistakable oh-shit tones, before disintegrating into a glowing cloud that you absorb and a skeletal carcass that you can loot for bones and scales, both high-value items, particularly the former. The guardsmen, or such of them who may have passed on the dragon's invitation to lunch, are impressed. They tell you, in a realistically jumbled and confused manner, arguing with each other, of the old Nord legend of the dovahkin, the Dragonborn, the warrior with the body of a mortal but the soul of a dragon, who alone can finish an immortal dragon once and for all by absorbing its soul as well as killing its body. You quickly discover you have also acquired the ability to perform Dragon Shouts, a varied genre of magic whose initial manifestation is the ability to blast anyone in front of you back on their heels. And why, precisely, did your lady Wood Elf illegal immigrant end up so blessed? You're never told. The gifts of the gods do not come with Read Me files attached. But however Vivian got it, you're stuck with it, and with all its consequences, the tangled heap of which constitutes the game's main quest line.
First things first. The commander, who is from away and who does not think nearly as much of local legend as her simpler-minded minions, shoos you off back to the Jarl to report the final score, Whiterun 1, Dragon 0. On your trip, a Very Loud And Portentous Noise is heard from far up on the mountain to your right, which the Jarl informs you is the summons of the Greybeards from their temple at High Hrothgar near the summit of the mountain. An intrinsically ambiguous summons, since the Greybeards are famous in about equal part for their knowledge of dragon lore, particularly Shouts, and for their heretofore utter indifference to the world below them going quickly and noisily down the drain. One of your tasks will be to drag these worthies kicking and screaming into the real world, so that they can benefit others with their talents rather than spending their lives in lofty but useless spiritual diddling.
One minor oddity about High Hrothgar is that its faculty is all-male. This makes it virtually unique in the Skyrim world. Even though succession is evidently to male heirs first, several of the Jarls are women, as are quite a few of those in what might elsewhere be considered traditional male domains, such as soldiers, of all ranks up to general, sawmill operators, and blacksmiths. The Arch-Mage, formal head of the College of Winterhold, the center of magical learning, is a man, but the Chief Wizard who actually runs the place day to day is a woman, as is the head of the Dark Brotherhood, the local murderers' union. The Thieves' Guild and the Companions, a slightly dodgy set of swords for hire, are both led by men, but both contain smaller elite groups headed by women. Even the undead are co-ed. Same-sex relationships are implemented in a much more tenuous fashion, though. Oh, you can marry someone of the same gender (even of a different species; Santorum, eat your heart out) and no one will bat an eye, but you'll be lucky to escape a panda in the zoo feeling, since there are no other openly gay or lesbian characters in the entire game. This is surprising and a bit disappointing, since the same publisher's earlier Fallout: New Vegas had included at least a few.
Let's jump forward. I've decided that Vivian will be cheerfully conscienceless about saving the world for the time being, instead concentrating on building up her capabilities, not to speak of her bank account. It doesn't matter; as in all Elder Scrolls games, you're the star, and the show will wait for you, although if you put it off too long, the final epic battles will turn into anticlimatric afterthoughts. Alduin, who saved your ass at the beginning and will try to fry it at the end, is designed to give you a decent fight if you're around level 30-35; if you dither until you're level 70 to call him out, he has about as much chance as a toad under a steamroller.
This is the “another day, another dungeon” part of the game, but that phrase makes it sound more boring than it really is. To begin with, most of the tombs and caves have their own back stories, which can be immensely involved and have unexpected repercussions both immediately and throughout the game. And as you learn more, the stories subtly shift; first impressions are almost certainly wrong. Black and white slowly but steadily fade to scarcely distinguishable shades of grey.
The Falmer, for instance, are a race of blind underground elves who at first appear invincibly malignant, with a single-minded determination to exterminate you and everyone else they can lay their hands on who has any connection with surface life. They're grotesque and hateful, vermin who swarm through the ruins of the steampunk underground Dwarven cities whose masters have long since vanished. And they farm giant bedbugs. Then you begin to learn their back story, in bits and pieces.... that they had been refugees, throwing themselves on the mercy of the Dwarves after being defeated by human armies and having their homeland stolen from them.... and the Dwarves in turn had betrayed them, fed them poisons that deformed and blinded them so that they could be used as slaves, never imagining that they would outlive their masters. You notice that torture chambers are part of the standard setup in dwarven ruins, knives and spikes and piles of salt.... one of your companions whispers, “I can't even imagine the kind of pain those implement would inflict. The old Dwarves were a cruel race.” Beautiful architecture, high technology, vast ambitions.... and enhanced interrogation. Hm. Reminds you of something?
Does this mean you stop killing Falmer? No. There's no negotiating with them, no matter how much you wish you could. Those to whom evil is done / do evil in return, as Auden put it.
At one point, you find a huge statue that the Falmer have constructed, the only one that has ever existed that shows them as they once were, Snow Elves, calm and civilized and noble, before they were betrayed and blinded and enslaved. And when you find the statue, there's another human perched in front of the face, someone you're hunting for other reasons, digging the jeweled eyes out to sell. In the ensuing fight, the cavern collapses and the statue is destroyed. So much for the Falmer; enjoy your share of the guilt. The eyes fetch a good price, though. I don't think anyone leaves them behind.
You get into a lot of situations like that. Some of the players' most interesting temptations and compromises involve Daedric artifacts, objects of power that often come with complex and compromising price tags. The Daedra are the godlings of the Elder Scrolls world: unlike the true gods, the Daedra enjoy sticking their fingers into human affairs, driven by a perverse sense of humor, curiosity, self-righteousness, boredom, and a desire to see just how far mortals will go if something shiny catches their eyes. Some have a reputation as "good".... or at least non-lethal.... and some are guaranteed to cause trouble. Here's a lovely enchanted mace, for instance. Want it? Beat that priest to death with it, not once, but three times, because the Daedra who runs the show is enjoying himself so much he resurrects and recycles the victim. Here's a nice sword, mortal. Unfortunately, it's been sadly neglected. Like to get it back into shape? Just use it to kill a dozen people or so. But they have to be your friends. Sorry about that. Conditions aren't negotiable. So are you in or out?
And then there's the incident where you get into a drinking contest with a friendly stranger who turns out to be Sanguine, Daedric Lord of Debauchery, only to wake up miles away and spend the next little while disentangling yourself from the consequences of what you did during the time you now can't remember. These turn out to include a giant's toe, scandalous behavior towards statutes in the temple of the Goddess of Love, a prize goat, and intimate arrangements with a lady who fancies freshly boiled eyeballs. Or your visit with Sheogorath, the Madgod, who has chosen to vacation inside the mind of a “dead, homicidially insane monarch,” the late and very unlamented Pelagius III. Here, you do battle with Pelagius' various psychoses for Sheogorath's amusement before being awarded the Wabbajack, a staff that will turn a demon into a rabbit... or a rabbit into a demon. It also tends to attract random lunatics, devotees of Sheogorath, who demand you turn them into rabbits.... or sweet rolls or showers of gold coins.... or demons. Like its creator, the Lord of Madness, it's a bit unpredictable, but like Sheogorath, never a dull moment with it around.
Fast-forward again. Vivian is rattling down a road near Falkreath on the southern edge of Skyrim, in the company of a talking dog with a New York accent named Barabas, off to settle a disagreement between Barabas and his master Clavicus Vile, another Daedric prince. Uh-oh. Coming down the road at us is a humorless delegation from a group known as the Vigilant of Stendarr, who have taken it upon themselves to wipe out anything with any connection to the Daedra, whom they view in black and white, get-thee-behind-me-Satan terms. In other words, they're a royal pain in the ass.
One of the themes of Skyrim is all the different ways in which people can make a bad situation worse by inflexibility, racism, nativism, and general pigheadedness. Compared to his fellows, Clavicus Vile is a low-order nuisance at worst, but these self-appointed idiot Vigilants won't be able to leave good enough alone; they'll end up dead by the side of the road, because Barabas is himself an immortal Daedra and not likely to take kindly to being whacked at with a mace.
Unfortunately for the black and white mind, there is no right side to be on in Skyrim. American players often jump at the chance to join the rebels; after all, against the Empire, 1776 and all that... unfortunately, a player will soon find out that the Stormcloak rebels are led by a ruthless self-promoter and are a hotbed of nativist and racist passions, though there are honorable exceptions. At another point in the story, you come to a parting of the ways with one of your main allies if you won't agree to execute someone for war crimes committed literally thousands of years ago.... even though that someone has since switched sides and you wouldn't even be here, or for that matter alive, without their assistance. And neither the Imperial Legion or the Stormcloak rebels want to stop their damned war long enough for you to deal with the dragons. You can join one side or the other and solve the problem the simple way, by a mass killing of the "enemy," or you can preach the virtues of reconciliation. I had Vivian choose the latter, which culminated in a peace conference marked by a spirit of compromise and cooperation reminiscent of that found in Daily Kos I/P diaries. Oh, they agree in the end, after insulting each other in every possible way, and then stomp out of the room muttering "get you later," leaving my Vivian to wish there were a plot option to put both sides down, as there is in Fallout: New Vegas, for instance.
In the end, of course, Alduin the World-Eater fails; Vivian chases him all the way to Heaven and settles his hash in front of a replica Valhalla whose main halls look like the head offices of a Canadian bank. By this time, you're usually way too powerful for the job, and it's not much of a fight at all. And then you.... go back home, put your feet up, crack open a bottle of mead, and flip through the miscellaneous to-do list in your journal. Almost certainly there'll be one or two main quest lines you skipped in the rush, so if you always wanted to be a thief or a professional murderer, now's the time. The Dragonborn, off to the thieves' mecca of Riften to learn how to pick pockets.... In reality, the incongruity of role-switching to a relative nonentity is usually too great, and this is where most players tail off their participation rather than quitting outright. Or, more likely, they start up again with another race and set of attributes, and another plan to navigate through the game's multiple quest lines....
Why did we go there in the first place? It's certainly not a trivial investment of time. I would estimate that to see most of the map and do most of the things available in Skyrim would take two hundred hours of play at the very least. What keeps anyone here that long? Apart from the fact that I have to wait by a computer anyway to earn my living, and might as well amuse myself while waiting, for me I think it is the chance to visit a world where actions have consequences far more reliably than they do in reality. I say this to annoy religious acquaintances, but it's true as well: the only place I've ever had a prayer answered was in a video game. The only place that magic ever worked. The only place where it's practical to do a whole range of things that might be technically possible in the real world but would be spoiled irretrievably by the chance they might end in disaster. A fantasy vacation, in other words. And I wonder, once the sensory input is made more complete and seamless, whether some of us will ever want to come back to a reality that we control so imperfectly.