You may have noticed the extreme paucity of posting here. I’ve been busy with work I’ve had a lot going on in my life I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim every moment I’m not working, eating, or sleeping. Or watching my wife play.
I knew Skyrim would essentially devastate my life once it came out. It’s predecessor, TESIV: Oblivion, was named after what it doomed people’s social life to. The Elder Scrolls games are huge, open-ended sandboxes with nearly infinite replay value. It takes scores atop scores of hours to complete the “main quest,” and many times that to complete every “side quest,” something few people ever do.
In many ways, the latest three games in the series represent everything most games are not. While the sword-and-sorcery fantasy setting may seem generic (it does owe much to Dungeons and Dragons), the unique spin on classic tropes and deep, complicated political, religious and ethnic history of the games’ world make it anything but. To a lot of players’ chagrin, beauty standards are not something the games’ makers, Bethesda, concern themselves with overly much – while its easier to make a “pretty” person in Skyrim than it was in Oblivion, it’s equally easy to make a battle-scared, leathery-skinned, dirt-encrusted one. In fact, Skyrim seems to have expanded your options in either direction, giving you the ability to make wrinkles and dirt more pronounced and adding a variety of facial scars to choose from, including cataract-covered eyes.
And therein lies the greatest appeal of the Elder Scrolls games: Your character is your own. You choose from about half-a-dozen “races,” you choose to be either male or female (no other options, I’m afraid) and you choose what you look like. And I mean you really choose what you look like – you can spend hours tweaking the width of your nose, the tone of your skin, the shape of your eyes, your hair style and color. In Skyrim, you get some control of your body shape, although the range is basically lean-to-muscular with men being much more toned. Alas, this is still a fantasy world where body fat is non-existent (but at least you can round out your face a good bit).
There is a complicated sociology to the Elder Scrolls world that has only grown more so in Skyrim. Our real-world racism is mirrored in the ethnic prejudices between groups of humans – the African-appearing Redguard, the Romanesque conquering Imperials, the Germanic-appearing Nords – and even among more fantastic “races” like the variety of Elves and the humanoid feline and reptilian races. All of them have long, complicated histories of strife, from religious conflict to grievances over past enslavement to claims on territory. Rarely is any one group entirely right – in Skyrim, there’s a rebellion against the Empire primarily due to religious persecution. Then, you learn the faction rebelling is nationalistic and racist in the face of the Empire’s multiculturalism. You can pick a side, or no side.
Sexism also exists in this world, but in an interesting way. The women of Skyrim will speak of the difficulty of being female in this land of kings and clans, but it’s much more common to find them in positions of authority, power and respect than in our own world. An elderly woman rules an entire “hold,” while female guards, mercenaries, bandits, and assassins are common. Playing a female character, I encountered a woman who was being sexually harrassed by a bard that wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was allowed to try to talk sense into him, and when that didn’t work, I started a fist fight. After pummeling him into submission, he agreed to back off. In another instance, I solved the murders of several young women and had the high-ranking male mage responsible arrested for the crimes.
That I didn’t feel like these were some sort of white-knight fantasies speaks to the last, greatest strength of the Elder Scrolls series. There’s no back-story assigned to you. When the game starts you are an anonymous prisoner slatted for execution. You aren’t picking up a scripted role – you are who you choose to be. This is powerful. In my case, I’m a Redguard woman in her forties, just old enough to have grown up during the Great War that ravaged her homeland. Orphaned by the conflict, she’s spend her life fighting to survive – as a soldier, a mercenary, and even a bandit. Aside from basing it on in-game history (the Redguard’s homeland was ravaged during a bloody Empire-against-Empire conflict) I made all of that up, but nothing in the game contradicts my own personal mythos. Through it I can manifest events too rare in our own world. A misogynist forced to stop harassing a woman not by a noble man, but by another woman who turned the tables on him. A racist that yells death threats at people’s home at night losing a barfight to a Black woman. A violent predator locked away by citizen that took the initiative to hunt him down.
It’s not a perfect game, of course. Mechanics, glitches and gameplay issues aside, there are annoying quirks like how some armors look one way on a male character or in your menu, and look entirely different when you put them on a female character – usually becoming skimpier and less, you know, protective. But in sum, Skyrim – and the prior two TES games – are refreshingly feminist.
So if you don’t see another post for a while, sorry. Slaying dragons.