You could say I found my womanhood on the island of Vvardenfell.
My life has been, in many ways, a master class education in the fact that games are never “just games.” You see, the setting of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was a key site of my life and my evolution as a transgender woman. In some real ways, my transition began with the realisation that I preferred playing as women in life sims like this. Morrowind’s beautiful, amazing open world was where I learned more about myself than I imagined, as I adventured again and again as a claymore wielding woman bedecked in armour. The world of Tamriel taught me things about myself too numerous to list here. Needless to say, I owe it much and it has a rather special place in my heart, even for its occasional failings.
With that powerful history in mind, I gleefully turned from the eastern realms of Morrowind to the snowswept north, the province of Skyrim, home of the Nord people. This is, at last, a worthy heir to the legacy set forth by Morrowind. 2006‘s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, unfortunately, did not meet this standard in my eyes. But Skyrim, at long last, meets the very high bar set by Morrowind.
We should begin by talking about how cities and towns speak to the spirit of a game like this.
The Death and Life of Great Tamrielic Cities
Oblivion’s greatest failing was that it lent no soul to its setting: the province of Cyrodiil, the scintilliant heart of Tamriel’s Romanesque Empire. Instead, the Imperial City felt like a large town set in marble. The province itself felt, well, provincial as opposed to cosmopolitan. The expectations set by the numerous in-game books in Morrowind that glowingly described Cyrodiil came to nothing, in the end. Yet, even excepting the size of the cities and towns, their lifeless geometric placement on the map, and their lack of grandeur, there was the soullessness best expressed by the vacant, uncanny valley stares of most of the game’s NPCs.
What Skyrim shows is something that Morrowind should have taught us all too well: Bethesda captures the frontier far better than the metropole. Morrowind’s setting on the island of Vvardenfell was at the very periphery of the Empire’s reach and that fact showed itself beautifully. Skyrim is set in a different periphery but a periphery all the same: a world of the wilds with cloudcapped peaks, vast valleys still fully given over to nature, and rifts hewn over millennia of geological evolution. The sense of being at the edge of the world is pervasive sometimes. It feels real, in other words. You feel as if you stand on a world where things have happened and where things are going to happen- a far cry from Oblivion where there was no ‘there’ there.
This is a province with cities that are not vast, but whose dense size is a better fit for the harsh wintry climate, as if the buildings themselves huddle for warmth. Solitude, the Imperial capital of the province, is built on an amazing rock formation that, as the loading screen reminds you, provides a natural shelter for its harbour against the powerful northern winds. That may seem small, yet it’s a master stroke that Oblivion glaringly lacked. Cities and towns in Skyrim make sense. They are located near resources, near trading lanes, on defensible land or on terrain that provides some other benefit. In other words, cities feel both planned and organic in the way that many real life settlements do. Morrowind had this feeling in spades. Oblivion had a pentagon of towns around the capital.
I dwell so much on these intangibles because they are what make giving over so much of your time to play such a worthwhile affair; they lend the world a sense of reality that enhances the simulation and makes the world simply more fun to run around in. Around each bend is unique terrain that feels less shaped by human hands and more by the forces of wind, erosion, and time.
Everything that needs to be said about this can be said via a comparison of the maps: Morrowind… Oblivion… Skyrim. Skyrim’s map may lack the detail of Vvardenfell’s but it does capture a more realistic and detailed world.
But what of the meat itself?
Woman as a Way of Being Human
Much has been made of the fact that your character is a Dragonborn, a humanoid with dragon blood that gives them the power to use the Voice; words of power that channel great magic. Hence every last one of your friends randomly going FUS ROH DAH! every five minutes. This has become the game’s signature, and as a mechanic it works remarkably well. It adds a layer of reward to the game- you find each word of power carved into walls with other Draconic speech; the ‘learning’ takes place via a beautiful animation set to a chorus that never quite gets old.
But what makes Elder Scrolls games a breed apart is that the main quest isn’t the only game in town. Skyrim is replete with quests, many of which are stunningly interesting, others more mundane RPG fare that nevertheless can’t help but to take you somewhere pretty. One of my favourite quests early on is helping a single mother and shopkeeper with a problem she’s having: a male bard with an entitlement complex (he even wrote the book on ‘romancing women’ in his particular town) has been pursuing her aggressively despite her continually saying ‘no.’ Your job is to make it clear to him that she doesn’t need a man to get by.
There are literally scores of quests that have this flavouring element to the world, that breathe life into characters.
On that note it’s worth discussing the women of Skyrim at length. There are strong women and weak women; good women, evil women, and everyone in between; women of faith and women of the arcane; vampire women and werewolf women; women in power and women barely getting by; women fighting for the Empire and women fighting in the Stormcloak rebellion that stands in opposition to it; a sharp tongued wizard with a beautifully eloquent darkness about her, and an absent minded professor wizard who lives for magical theory; women who are starstruck romantics, and women who need no man.
In a word, they are human.
What a concept.
There is never room for a lone woman to become a representative archetype as, say, an evil or seductive deceiver simply because there are so many diverse women. The game forces you to stare women’s humanity in the face by lending us as many motivations and personalities as the game’s men.
The very first Imperial captain you come across is a dark skinned woman; countless more women who fight and/or are in positions of power and authority abound in the game. You find women who are most at home with an axe, men who are most at home with a poem, and interestingly a lot of people who are quite at ease with both. Women are not there purely for display while the men do all the thinking and talking. In Solitude, a Nord lieutenant, Legate Rikke, is just as at-ease hunched over a strategy map as her male colleagues.
The game’s narrative also presents you with political complexity. A volcanic eruption in the neighbouring province of Morrowind set thousands of the native Dark Elves on the long road to other lands in search of greener pastures. Many came to Skyrim where they ended up staying despite the often as not racist reception of the Nords. One book in the game reads like a right wing screed, bemoaning the Dark Elves’ “failure to assimilate” and blaming them for “choosing” to live in ghettos. It all sounds rather familiar and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Bethesda is making some interesting political commentary here. Indeed, this issue is at the heart of the complications that beset your choice to side with the Empire or the Stormcloaks at the beginning of the game.
The Stormcloaks are freedom fighters who seek independence for Skyrim, and yet they are very much a ‘Skyrim for the Nords’ group. The Empire, even for all of its abusive machinations, has little problem with the province’s growing racial diversity. The politics becomes even more complicated, of course, and this is yet another reason I’ve come to enjoy this game. You enter a world already enmeshed in complicated, worldly political theatre as this hero-with-a-destiny. Great events are in motion and the world bristles with gossip, arguments, and songs about it all. Some bards will sing of the Empire’s glorious preservation of order, others will sing a toast to the Stormcloaks and their eponymous leader, Ulfric Stormcloak.
Often as not, as you hear tales of woe, anger, and political ferment you sometimes doubt the side you chose. A remarkable feeling that mirrors the self-doubt that plagues real politics. This is a game that, mercifully, avoids the stark good/evil meta-themes of other high fantasy settings (not that there aren’t a few necromancers needing slaying).
The Crunchy Bits
A primal and particularly Scandinavian sort of beauty dominates this game; I can stand on a mountainside and look into the valley below knowing that I could walk every square metre of that plain. Very few games can say this and it adds a depth to the sweeping breadth of the title’s beauty. But that stylishness also infuses one part of the game’s interface that pleasantly surprised me. At the beginning of the game I lamented the loss of the ability to choose your birthsign. Those constellations were a part of the flavour of the old games, but I fully understood (and approved of) the slimming down of the array of statistics you have to manage. Skyrim’s system is both lightweight and flexible enough to accommodate several playstyles.
But the skill/level-up screen seemed to say to me “I’ll take your constellation and raise you a nebula!” Your skills are displayed as stunningly pretty constellations set in great nebulae that enshroud them under the three main aptitudes: Mage, Rogue, and Warrior.
This is, however, a classless game. You level whatever skills you choose, and unlike in previous TES titles the leveling of any skill contributes to your next level. Previously you chose ‘major’ and ‘minor’ skills from a lengthy list and only if one levelled those particular skills would it count towards your next class level. Gone is this confining system, replaced with something that leaves you more nimble with your talents than ever before. At present I’m playing a wizard with a great talent for thievery and the game fully accommodates this.
The magic system is also significantly improved. Although it remains awkward to change spells in mid combat (a Dragon Age-style system would have greatly benefitted Skyrim), you can now cast a different spell in each hand and the new ‘perks’ system (which operates similarly to WoW talents) enables greater granularity for magic. Dual casting fireball, for example, has a staggering effect which a single-handed cast of the spell will lack. There’s quite a lot to love here.
All that’s missing are Celtic bagpipes in the soundtrack, really. But the soundtrack the game does have is still amazing, and it resurrects almost note for note some of Morrowind’s old themes. Music that had become so synonymous with adventure for me that I sometimes ran the tracks in the background of other RPGs I played when I tired of their more droll music.
Skyrim is that rarest of games that fully realises the grand sweep of its ambition. The forbidding and harsh beauty of this hardened land is vivid and alive, the people feel more real, and in a vast improvement over Oblivion the spoken dialogue is extremely well done. The landscape is dotted with signs of life, even in this frontier land that is quite far from the (supposedly) glittering centre of the Empire. One finds mills with water wheels and windmills turning, farms with livestock, bandit encampments, small cottages and tiny hamlets mixed in with towns of various sizes, and occasional passersby. There is too much to tell, in many ways. The subplot quests for organisations like the Thieves’ Guild are massive undertakings all on their own which could easily be turned into (good) fantasy movies. You can marry someone of the same sex in Skyrim. You can look at a strategy map on a table and ‘use’ each pin on it to learn a location for your game map. The Dwemer ruins, in all their steampunk glory, are back. On and on it goes.
My greatest hope for this game is not that it becomes Game of the Year. That’s assured. But rather the hope that for some young child out there it plays the same role that Morrowind did in my own life: kicking open the doors of possibility and teaching, in a very real way, the all important lesson that you should be who you choose, and that you ought to be able to push headlong and succeed regardless of who you are. Morrowind was one of the first games that taught me that my sisters could kick ass. Given Skyrim’s lofty heights of achievement, I feel just as assured that it will teach a whole new generation of young people the same thing.