To the Ends of the Earth: A Review of Elder Scrolls V- Skyrim

My character, Serena, looking out from her balcony in the city of Solitude. Dark eyes, dark lipstick, dark mage's clothing- but a sunny personality!

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.

A beautiful Skyrim town with a castle towering in the distance.

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: MorrowindOblivionSkyrim. 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.

Legate Rikke, a stern faced woman wearing Roman-inspired iron armour, exercising her right to bare arms and standing before the red and gold banner of the Empire she serves.

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.

A woman rocking out with her lute out. In the hearth lit, stone hewn tavern she sings "We drink to our youth, to days come and gone. For the age of aggression is just about done."

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.

See if you can spot the dragon some miles in the distance. Beneath an overcast sky Serena's standing on a mountain pass here looking down into a foggy, rocky valley sprinkled with coniferous trees. Every inch of the land in the distance can be explored.

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.

About Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, (or Katherine Cross, as she is known in Muggle-speak) is a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. When she's not studying or gaming she can be found at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her blog can be found at quinnae.com and her writing has also appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.
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39 Responses to To the Ends of the Earth: A Review of Elder Scrolls V- Skyrim

  1. Maverynthia says:

    Well the only thing I’ve really seen of Skyrim besides dragons is the Flame Atonach (or whatever it’s called) Is there some ideally bodied male summon that can equal it? Why it bothers me so much is that once again women are at the beck and call of men (even though you can play a woman, it was a man that was used as the default face.) that ultimately they become a summonable plaything. That the summonable human creature is ALWAYS a thin bodied female shaped creature. To me it’s a slap in the face whenever people start talking about how inclusive a game is and here’s the “sexy woman slave pet”. She doesn’t even fight strong, she just slaps enemies and does some twirly backflip thing. From what I’ve seen, it’s like she isn’t even attacking, I often wonder if she’s just trying to do some sexy thing or if it really is an attack.

    Also, because the game is so big, lots of characters tend to be forgotten. The get their one shot side quest and bam your off to a new place. That Flame Elemental is one that is with the character throughout the game.

    • ProdiGal says:

      In all fairness, you can resurrect pretty much anyone’s dead body to fight for you (even permanently, as long as your level and/or conjuration skill is high enough), but I do see your point about the “sexy pet woman”. Though flame atronachs do hurl fireballs outside of melee range.

      And while it’s pretty obvious what the designers were going for with the flame atronach – a female body type absurdly overrepresented in games – I do think there is an interesting, deeper discussion to be had about how we “gender” non-human humanoid entities in general, from both ends of the process (both designin, and receiving/perceiving a design by someone else).

      • I was thinking about that in terms of why the designers saw it necessary to “gender” certain creatures, like Flame Atronachs and Spriggans. I suspect they were at least partially concerned that otherwise, all creatures would be perceived as male – either because of the designers’ own “default-equals-male” bias, or because they (probably accurately) thought most players would.

        Why no female-shaped being would weigh more than 130lbs were they human is another issue worth questioning, of course.

        • ProdiGal says:

          Well that’s exactly what I mean about gendering humanoids. Male tends to be seen as “the default” (the whole “men are generic women are special” trope), so the most effective route to having a character that will be perceived as female is to include what society deems female-only features, like breasts. And I think therein lies sort of a dilemma… if you try to make a humanoid visibly female by giving a “female” shape, breasts, etc., then you run the risk of reducing that character to merely her constituent parts (i.e. objectifying). On the other hand, if you don’t include enough of those types of things, you also run the risk of having a character that is perceived as male and whose identity is therefore invisibilified.

          But yes, regardless of whether this dilemma is true (or if I’m just making stuff up =P), the fact that you almost never see female body types other than A) thin and busty or B) athletic and busty is kind of a sign that there’s something else going on here.

          • Crabbadon says:

            I think you really hit the nail on the head; there’s a bit of a double bind between exaggerating secondary sexual characteristics and the character being gendered as male. Even with the (in the responses of other people) exaggeratedly female characteristics of the flame astronach and spriggan, their gender never struck me – it was just a matter of monster, fire, kill! and I couldn’t afterwards have described them as female. And I’m tripping over words here.

            (as it’s relevant to how I perceive these, I’ll disclaim that I’m transfeminine, raised male, androphile)

            • Crabbadon says:

              Hokay wow I just summoned one and yeah. It would make sense if, say, they were servants of Sanguine or something but as elementals, yeah it seems like a bad trope slipping in.

            • Twyst says:

              SPOILERS – there is a dude you can summon from the Sanguine Rose.

    • Actually, there are several summonable creatures of different types. Of the three classic TES atronachs, the Flame Atronach usually has female secondary sex characteristics (I say that because they have no genitalia and are usually refereed to as “it” in in-game references), the Frost Atronach has male (in Oblivion, at least, these fit the bill of “idealized, buff male” – I’ve not seen them in Skyrim yet), and the Storm Atronach which is neither – it’s a mass of stones and lightening that occasionally coalesces into a humanoid shape. In Oblivion (again, I don’t know if they’re in Skyrim yet) there was also the Xivilia – which I think had about as idealized a male body as is possible. In-game text suggests these “genders” aren’t real – the Atronachs are a lower form of Daedra, and the Daedric “Princes” are specifically stated to be without gender – most of them prefer appearing as one or the other, but some vary and others chose neither.

      None of this is to argue against your point, though – I’m in this space mainly to listen, and I just wanted to give some more info on the kinds of summonable humanoids in the game. Why the Atronachs and a handful of other creatures have the appearance of gender at all is something I’ve questioned since Oblivion. Also, the Flame Atronachs are usually encountered first, meaning they’re a lower level that their male-bodied and gender-neutral counterparts – which I see as a problem. I will say they’re a hell of a challenge at lower levels, and I’ve run away from more than a few – it would just be nice to find myself at level 50 still chugging health potions in a desperate fight with an obviously female humanoid.

    • Kathy says:

      Check out the storm atronach, its certainly not female, although it is hard to say its male. Only one of the Atronachs has a female form. In fact, they are the only female looking summon I can think of. Plus, though the Flame Atronachs animations might be… lame, they are fairly strong creatures.

    • John says:

      Yes, you can also summon Dremora Lords, Daedra, the Shade of Arniel Gane, Frost and Storm Atranoch’s, none of which appear to be feminine.

  2. Alex says:

    This review is beautiful! Seriously, just a pleasure to read. Thanks for writing so in-depth about your perspective on the game.

  3. Laurentius says:

    It’s a good review and there is hardly anything I can’t agree with. I am not so enthusiastic though, I guess TES game are not my sort of cRPGs, sure i am playing Skyrim and will continue to do so because I am enjoying the experience unlike Oblivion where I gave up after like 10 hours and never came back. Combat is still clunky but it can be overlooked, but what is the weakest spot for me is lack of story that would really dragged me into this beautifully crafted open world and PC that so completely devoid of importance and personality ( at least so far ). Why was I even able to choose my name, where the only place I have seen it so far was some bounty put on me by guards for stealing. I know that NPCs have voiceovers but I can’t even introduce to them by my name, which leads to how dialogues are even weaker then in Fallout3. I can’t barley make statements or opinions, most of the time I can only ask questions and accept or decline some quests in complelty neutral matter. Even simplistic model of Paragon/Renegade system from ME seems like fathoms of complex personality PC can express.
    PS. “Hey I just killed my 6 dragon, do you people of this town even know my name? No, then GTFO” – that’s how I often feel j/k ;)

  4. Alex says:

    Oh, also, I meant to say, I love Skyrim’s normalizing approach to gender and sexuality… yeah, women do lots of things, including fight and wear armor. No big deal. Yeah, you can marry someone of the same sex–no big deal. Why would anyone ever think otherwise? <3

    • Zaewen says:

      Perhaps its because I haven’t gotten overly far into the main plot yet, but during my play through I’m seeing a schism between what women are actually allowed to do and what the game (through characters and dialouge) tells me women are allowed to do. I know there are female Jarls out there, Maven Black-Briar is awesome, and Captain Ivanova (sorry, that actor will always be known as Ivanova to me) is badass, and that women can be found in all stations of Skyrim life. But then I over hear many women talk about how hard it is to be a woman in Skyrim, that they’re treated like chattel, that they’re expect to learn to sew instead of smith, etc and I hear men insult women with gendered slurs and treat them as less than. It’s a weird duality and kinda of jarring. A form of game design that lets them have their gender-fairness cake and eat it too.

      Great post though Quinnae! You really captured what it is I love about the game and why I’ve spent far too many hours playing the game lol.

      • Quinnae says:

        Hey Zae!

        I am inclined to agree and perhaps I should’ve spoken to this in the article. This is not a post-patriarchy Whileaway, that much is for sure. On the other hand I admit that I smiled when I saw those lines because they constitute an acknowledgement of sexism which casts the game’s gender environment as a patriarchy that women are fighting with, aware of, and even winning in some key places. This is both a good aspirational picture for a certain gender setting and a fairer representation of what our experience in that gender order might be.

        In terms of whether that type of commentary normalises our patriarchy or not, it could go either way. But I do feel that Skyrim’s portrayal thereof is interesting and a cut above the rest.

        I would also add that the word ‘bitch’ gets used an annoying number of times (although at least one guy who’s used it gets a nice comeuppance). But that’s also jarring and annoying in a game where no other swears make an appearance. I wish they’d stick with the insults that the setting’s languages give us.

        How many Morrowind players don’t crack a smile when they recall “You N’wah!” being shouted at them by some Dunmer who was about to kill them?

        But yes, thank you for your kind and thought provoking words! As a final aside, I will say that one of the women jarls is an older woman. She cares for her people but has a rough, provincial edge about her that I like. She’s a ‘crone’ in the Wiccan sense of the term and I rather enjoy her. It’s good to see an elder woman who isn’t a stereotype (they’re most often cast into villainous roles or roles where the whole point is a comedy about ‘lol look at the old lady do x!’)

        • Zaewen says:

          Yea, I think I’ve met that Jarl and she was pretty awesome. Like I said, I’ve just barely started into the main quest line, so most of my experience is just from running around and hearing the town banter. (I spend far too much of my time stealing everything I can get my hands on and/or doing side quests).

          I dunno, I guess my unease/annoyance at this gender dynamic does kinda stem from feeling it normalizes our patriarchy without a real sense of awareness outside of cast-off commentary. Perhaps that sense will go away as I get more into the bigger quest lines and see some more commentary on it.

          You’re right though, it does do a heck of a lot better job with regard to gender than a LOT of games out there. It does make me smile every time I see one of the many strong women in the game, and there is thankfully a good many of them.

          • Veyz says:

            I think alot of this ‘schism’ is because the Elder’s Scrolls games have many different cultures clashing and interacting, instead of just one – some of these cultures are male-dominated, some egalitarian, some matriarchal, and just about everything in between – and due to recent migrations by just about every race and the expanding borders of the Empire, they co-exist without having yet blended into each other (much). If you try to take them as an unified ideal, you’ll just end up with a headache, because they’re not. It’s fertile ground for just about any story you want to tell, which I suspect is why it has been constructed that way. Also, it’s important to remember that even a gender egalitarian system is not a utopia, and that many issues (even gendered issues) persist through such equality.

            I also find it heartening that not all the humanoid mooks are male, because I’ve always felt that sort of thing reflected the Disposable Male paradigm. Overall, I feel the game is doing both feminists and masculists many more favors than most games and, for that matter, most fantasy worlds, do. I think it deserves to be applauded for that, because clearly they are trying which is a huge part of pushing social norms in the right direction.

            Also, I’d add Vex to the list of awesome female characters. She’s pretty damn awesome. :) There was also a court wizard whose name escapes me at the moment.

            • Quinnae says:

              On some levels I definitely agree with you about the sort of cultural mish-mash in the game and the sense of competing strains of ideology, although I’m not sure which cultures are in any sense matriarchal (I admit I’m not a maven of Khajit or Argonian lore, however).

              I also find it heartening that not all the humanoid mooks are male, because I’ve always felt that sort of thing reflected the Disposable Male paradigm.

              Just as an aside here, the “disposable male paradigm” isn’t really a thing so much as it is an after-effect of “male as default.” When film directors, screenwriters and game designers (who are in the vast majority male, this is important) decide “hey, I need a horde of *people* for our hero to mow down” they copypaste generic men onto the battlefield. Because men are people. For the same reason I’m supposed to accept when I’m told that “he” “him” “his” etc. could refer to women, in theory, or that “Mankind” really includes all of us, and so on.

              A while back one of our editors wrote an article about this subject which explains its origins in misogyny rather than a ‘separate but equal’ hatred of men qua men: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=1816

              The concept of “disposable male” erases who came up with it (men) and why it exists, creating a false impression that we have these nasty ideas about men because they’re men and that they are *parallel* to misogyny (rather than an outgrowth or expression of it).

              All of this said, I firmly agree that there are just as many women baddies as men and that this is a good thing.

            • Veyz says:

              [...] I’m not sure which cultures are in any sense matriarchal (I admit I’m not a maven of Khajit or Argonian lore, however).

              My knowledge is of Elder Scrolls lore is fairly hazy myself, so it’s possible I’m wrong, but I seem to remember at least one race being that way.

              Just as an aside here, the “disposable male paradigm” isn’t really a thing so much as it is an after-effect of “male as default.”

              It most definitely is a thing – it not even merely a media trope, but a view with broad implication for real world men which affect us in a variety of ways, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle in many broad aspects such as war, support, welfare and work safety.

              Further, the “default is male” in violent stories* is an outgrowth of the simultaneous banality of male death and the contrasting shock and tragedy of female death. This is itself an outgrowth of “Men are strong and this have a duty to protect; Women are weak and have a duty to survive.” Which is both incorrect and harmful to both sexes and erases anyone who doesn’t fit it’s assumptions about each sex.

              Thus, when a story calls for people either dieing in droves or has a need to portray the threat of death, most of the characters will be male, because their deaths can** treated as unimportant.

              The concept of “disposable male” erases who came up with it (men) and why it exists, creating a false impression that we have these nasty ideas about men because they’re men and that they are *parallel* to misogyny (rather than an outgrowth or expression of it).

              The concept of the disposable male does not make any of these assumptions by itself. The concept is, at it’s heart, that male death is banal. Also, to lay the blame for it solely at men’s feet is simultaneously naive and sexist. Both men and women*** are complicit and aid in the continuation of the current system of high proscriptive and limiting gender roles and all of the abuses it perpetrates or allows.

              To assign the blame solely at the feet of a single sex (any single sex) is sexist. Further, it is completely pointless to assign the blame at all because the kyriarchy uses all of us to keep everyone else (and ourselves) confined to our narrow cages of acceptable behavior.

              On a related note, the disposable male is misandry, not misogyny, however misandry mirrors misogyny and thus the two are utterly linked. Misogynistic attitudes beget misandric attitudes and misandric attitudes beget misogynistic ones. They are utterly related because the kyriarchy erroneously assumes a gender binary, and thus what is not assigned to one sex is assigned the other.

              In this case, the Disposable Male is mirrored by the Weak Female. The assumption being that women cannot defend themselves, and thus men must sacrifice themselves in their defense. Together, they are both misandric and misogynistic and reinforce each other. Thus, to ever truly to be rid of one, the other must be dismantled as well. This is also why I am critical of both assumptions, instead of one or the other.

              *You see a lot more women in non-violent stories unless they are also set in a space overpopulated with males
              **But will not always be,
              ***But not all men and women

            • Quinnae says:

              This is going to be a little long but I think this could do with being said…

              Also, to lay the blame for it solely at men’s feet is simultaneously naive and sexist. Both men and women*** are complicit and aid in the continuation of the current system of high proscriptive and limiting gender roles and all of the abuses it perpetrates or allows.

              To demonstrate that men in positions of power are responsible for this is not in any sense “sexist” against anyone, least of all men.

              It’s hardly debatable to point out that the vast majority of mainstream screenwriters and games writers are men and this upsets any notion of “misandry” in the creation of the ‘disposable male’ trope. Also, yes, both men and women are complicit but because they lack *equal power* and because women are not *creating* the culture you’re talking about, it also upsets the classic power analysis that the word “misandry” implies.

              Further, the “default is male” in violent stories* is an outgrowth of the simultaneous banality of male death and the contrasting shock and tragedy of female death.

              Again, this has much more to do with the ‘second sex’ specificity of women and the generalisable humanity of men than it does with male death being banal. It does not arise out of hatred of men, it’s an after-effect of the way women are conceived by men.

              And furthermore, women’s deaths as “meaningful” are part of the sexist tropes that bind women’s media portrayals (see: Women in the Refrigerator). When we die, oh yes it’s so meaningful and important… for the male lead, so he can be motivated to actually exercise agency and advance the plot. Our “meaning” is almost always in relation to men.

              Sex roles are not a separate but equal phenomenon where men and women have parallel but equivalent oppressions; this erases quite a lot of historical reality with what amounts to a facile liberal conception of inequality that has no conception of power.

              You fret about “assigning blame”- I’m not talking about blaming people as much as recognising where power is. Call it what you will. Men die in wars that men in power send them to fight in. Men die in mine shafts that men in power send them to mine in. Men are often targets of violence… at the hands of other men. Men are portrayed as lecherous louts in the media… written by other men who are having a titanic laugh about it. If you ignore who is doing what to whom you cannot make a complete analysis of power.

              This is why the concept of “misandry” is usually nothing more than a poor reading of inequality. It’s not too different from trying to claim that white people suffer a special kind of racism, or the wealthy whinging about “class warfare.”

              Women may act as handmaidens or enforcers to this order, especially now where it’s possible to have (in the small minority) women in government or at the heads of corporations, but it is not *our* order. It preceded our direct involvement in it. We’re merely being ‘included’ now.

              Kyriarchy does not mean “no one has any responsibility.” It means *everyone* has a responsibility, but it also does not deny that this accountability is often asymmetrical based on who has what amount of power. It is not unimportant that the tropes you describe are created by men and largely for the enjoyment of men (good luck trying to convince me that every FPS ever made was not designed with a default male audience in mind).

              Thus, to ever truly to be rid of one, the other must be dismantled as well.

              The notion that we cannot solve the whole problem without addressing “both sides” is also a seductive fiction that again traffics in the false notion of parallel oppression. It’s as if gender roles come from somewhere out there, in a great amorphous cloud where no responsibility lay. That isn’t the reality of the situation.

              I understand why it’s attractive to think this. It fits into a rudimentary definition of ‘equality’ that feels satisfying and will meet with approval (‘Hey if women can have a feminism, why not have a masculism! There, it’s equal!’) But equality is about redressing power imbalances, not just inclusion or the creation of a power-blind sameness.

              To make a few final points, the notion that mens’ deaths are banal while women’s are not is false because, if no one else, sex workers and transgender women make it false. Their deaths are as banal as they come, it can be hard motivating people to care about the fact that men routinely murder sex workers and trans women. Life goes on, scarcely a word is said, except maybe on Law & Order where we may fit their weekly exotic death quota.

              Conventionally attractive white/WASPy bourgeois cis het women are the pedestalised object of immobilising chivalry and the wet dream of every man who fancies himself a knight. For the rest of us, the idea that our lives are so intimately precious because we’re women is complete bollocks.

            • Veyz says:

              It’s hardly debatable to point out that the vast majority of mainstream screenwriters and games writers are men and this upsets any notion of “misandry” in the creation of the ‘disposable male’ trope. Also, yes, both men and women are complicit but because they lack *equal power* and because women are not *creating* the culture you’re talking about, it also upsets the classic power analysis that the word “misandry” implies.

              These people are perpetuating a set of assumptions which was handed down to them by their parents and by the society at large. The reason most these writers are men is because of separate issues involving work; get an anti-feminism or non-feminist women in that seat and very little will change, but they are operating on the same set of assumptions. These assumptions only exist because so few people, both men and women, challenge them and worse, both perpetuate them actively by gender policing their children until they conform. Women are most certainly creating this culture because culture not only what is shown on screens, but what is done in home, at work and everywhere else.

              Also, I am not certain what “classic power analysis” the usage of the word misandry implies, or at least, what you are getting at when you say it. Would you care to elaborate?

              Again, this has much more to do with the ‘second sex’ specificity of women and the generalisable humanity of men than it does with male death being banal. It does not arise out of hatred of men, it’s an after-effect of the way women are conceived by men.

              I disagree. It is an outgrowth of the assumptions made about the sexes; assumptions which are mostly incorrect, or, more precisely, erase everyone who doesn’t fit that narrow mold.

              And furthermore, women’s deaths as “meaningful” are part of the sexist tropes that bind women’s media portrayals (see: Women in the Refrigerator). When we die, oh yes it’s so meaningful and important… for the male lead, so he can be motivated to actually exercise agency and advance the plot. Our “meaning” is almost always in relation to men.

              I don’t refute this. I hate Women in Refrigerators as a trope. But the point is the same that it wouldn’t be motivating if it wasn’t important.

              Sex roles are not a separate but equal phenomenon where men and women have parallel but equivalent oppressions; this erases quite a lot of historical reality with what amounts to a facile liberal conception of inequality that has no conception of power.

              Generally, I avoid saying anyone is more oppressed than anyone else because it brings up all the problems that Oppression Olympics usually brings on. Moreover, it is completely useless to decide who “has it worse” because we do not need to make that distinction to help the people negatively impacted by those restrictions.

              You fret about “assigning blame”- I’m not talking about blaming people as much as recognising where power is. Call it what you will. Men die in wars that men in power send them to fight in. Men die in mine shafts that men in power send them to mine in. Men are often targets of violence… at the hands of other men. Men are portrayed as lecherous louts in the media… written by other men who are having a titanic laugh about it. If you ignore who is doing what to whom you cannot make a complete analysis of power.

              I am not the one here ignoring where the power is; you’ve made a laudable cataloged of all the male power in the world, but completely erased all the female power in it. You ignore the power of women wield as mothers, and as the primary source of moral teaching in most traditional households. You ignore all the female writers in Hollywood who do not, in fact, treat the male characters any better than men have. You ignore the tremendous amount of Real Man(TM) gender policing with is directed at men by women, which in turn shapes them to conform to misogynistic view points. You ignore that women benefit from, and some shame men into, fighting in those wars. You ignore that women benefit from the protection the kyriarchy gives them, and those who actively support it to maintain this protection. Not every woman, sadly, is a feminist.

              But most egregiously, you ignore the female abusers of men, with your assumption that violence is a male thing. I can most emphatically tell you that some women are most definitely directing physical violence at men.

              This is why the concept of “misandry” is usually nothing more than a poor reading of inequality. It’s not too different from trying to claim that white people suffer a special kind of racism, or the wealthy whinging about “class warfare.”

              No, there is nothing special about any of that. Sexism is sexism, no matter who is dishing it out and who is receiving it. Racism is racism, no matter who is dishing it out and who is receiving it. Classism is classism, no matter who is dishing it out and who is receiving it.

              The notion that we cannot solve the whole problem without addressing “both sides” is also a seductive fiction that again traffics in the false notion of parallel oppression. It’s as if gender roles come from somewhere out there, in a great amorphous cloud where no responsibility lay. That isn’t the reality of the situation.

              The mirror is not an “equal and opposite” thing. They are related but not equal in the burdens they place on men and women. However, this does not mean women are always the ones with the larger burden. This does not, however, change the fact that these notions support one and other. Replacing one double standard with a different double standard is not progress. Gender roles do not come from a great amorphous cloud, but they also do not come solely from Men, instead they come from a complex ever-evolving system of legal and cultural framework which has roots in a huge variety of influences.

              Kyriarchy does not mean “no one has any responsibility.” It means *everyone* has a responsibility, but it also does not deny that this accountability is often asymmetrical based on who has what amount of power.

              Indeed, everyone does have a responsibility, however is not asymmetrical based on the presumption that a certain group is evenly and in all contexts advantaged over another. People have a responsibility to use the power they do have. However, you cannot assume someone has that power based on their demographic data because that power is very easily revoked by not conforming to your assigned box.

              To make a few final points, the notion that mens’ deaths are banal while women’s are not is false because, if no one else, sex workers and transgender women make it false. Their deaths are as banal as they come, it can be hard motivating people to care about the fact that men routinely murder sex workers and trans women. Life goes on, scarcely a word is said, except maybe on Law & Order where we may fit their weekly exotic death quota.

              I’m sorry, but intersectionality does not prove this wrong. Those deaths are considered banal because those women are considered not be “true women”, which is offensively wrong on so many levels.

              Conventionally attractive white/WASPy bourgeois cis het women are the pedestalised object of immobilising chivalry and the wet dream of every man who fancies himself a knight. For the rest of us, the idea that our lives are so intimately precious because we’re women is complete bollocks.

              I can’t help but feel you think I disagree with this. I do not. Nor do I fancy myself a knight, if that is what you implying.

              You have to understand that for rest of men who are not strong, cis het, conventionally attractive, conventionally successful or dominant, the idea that all men are is also complete bollocks. Men who fail to measure up to these standards are very quickly depowered.

            • Quinnae says:

              My attempted reply to you turned out to be five pages in Word.

              I’m not going to keep cluttering up this thread but I will make some final points. Prejudice is bigotry plus power, it is not about something that could be construed as feeling-hurting.

              Equality is substantive, addressed to the realities of groups and individuals, not just sameness. It is institutional, not only personal (which is why women entering male-dominated institutions often simply enact the patriarchal culture that preexisted their arrival).

              On the question of the way gender and power work, I’d suggest- funnily enough- Raewyn Connell’s 1987 magnum opus Gender & Power.

              I’d pay special attention to her extensive commentary on what she calls ‘sex role theory’ which is a close approximation of the paradigm you seem to be using.

              On the subject of women’s violence, Zillah Eisenstein’s treatment of women as torturers, murderers, and patriarchal politicians is incisive and gripping. Sexual Decoys is an analysis of women’s role in the “age of terror” and the role we’ve come to play in American imperialism.

              Raewyn Connell is also one of the world’s leading masculinities theorists. I would recommend her book Masculinities and her later work The Men and the Boys. I think she brings a rather unique perspective. Suffice it to say, she elaborates on a lot of the issues we’ve raised here.

              Unlike hucksters such as Warren Farrell, she actually brings a careful intellectual eye to the various questions of men in society and as gendered actors, rather than apologia for, or denial of male power. Connell’s sociological work is dense at times and while I live for that sort of stuff it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Michael Kimmel’s Guyland, while not perfect and disagreeable in some parts, is a sympathetic treatment of the complexities of male reality.

              I really, however, cannot take the time to literally write essays about the issues you raise, I’m afraid.

              Yes, power is complicated and pure identity boxes never capture reality; but I would look to Connell’s analysis of the interplay among masculinities for a better picture of how that complexity works and the nature of how and why men oppress other men.

              On the subject of women who benefit from patriarchy/kyriarchy:

              Andrea Dworkin’s Right Wing Women and Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class. I’m sure you probably hate Dworkin with a fiery passion and some things in this book will do little to change that view, I’m sure. But this unsung treatise of hers is a timely examination of why conservative women support patriarchy and what they get out of it. Davis’ work examines the specific interplay between white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy (and the ways women get caught in the middle).

              If you want your mind blown a little bit, Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography is an excellent examination of how, in her words, “in an unfree society a free woman will be a monster.” She uses the Marquis de Sade’s writings to examine this idea, as well as her take on what pornography is capable of (the work straddles the false dichotomy of pro/anti-porn feminism).

              Men as marginalised and dispossessed by the brave new world? Check out Susan Faludi’s Stiffed (Guyland addresses a bit of this as well).

              Want to understand why trans women are targeted for oppression? Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl.

              It’ll be easier than us talking past each other for several hours, and given the fact that you readily acknowledge a lot of reality, I think you’re quite open to what nearly all of these writers have to say.

            • Veyz says:

              Yes, sorry, I tend to have that effect. I generally see things as being interconnected, but given that it’s all too easy to pull in everything in creation into a current discussion, which has a tendency to make them explode in complexity exponentially. I’ve been trying to reign that in, but old habits die hard I guess.

              I certainly understand the lack of time, and I appreciate the reading list; I’ve added most of those titles to my non-fiction reading list.

              Also, as a general aside I do not hate Dworkin, although I do take a dim view of some of her views which I’ve been exposed to second hand, including the one she is infamous for. However, since I’ve never actually read any of her work, I have always suspected she is quoted out of context. Moreover, I do not mind reading non-fiction I think I’ll disagree with because I find immense value in exposing myself to wide variety of ideas for various reasons.

  5. Raja says:

    Skyrim is a work of art and the best damn game in the TES series. God I can’t wait to see what DLCs they release

    • ProdiGal says:

      Or what mods the player base comes up which (on PC). Which is what I love about Bethesda… although they release their own mods and such, they also have a robust editor for people to mess around with. It’s a fresh change from other companies and their ripoff DLC, especially when they try to swindle you into buying a “collector’s edition” by withholding some of the actual game content *COUGHBIOWARECOUGH*

  6. Mike says:

    >>> God I can’t wait to see what DLCs they release

    The infamous ‘horse armor’ thing was not so long ago, and the players already learned to love and expect the DLC.

    • Twyst says:

      You know what, my horse keeps fighting dragons. I kinda want horse armor so i dont have to keep such a close watch on it :| (tho i do know the horse armor is reviled, and rightly so)

      • Omar Little says:

        I just want a horse that is actually useful for something.

        Oh wait – Bethesda can’t code it.

        • Omar Little says:

          Again, I’m not doing this to be a troll. I fell this is a legitimate gripe – mounted combat should be something in the game given the fact that modders were able to get this working for the predecessor to this engine in Oblivion, and get it working well (once the clunky script extender was installed).

          They figured out to do this in Mount & Blade, for crying out loud. I know this is sort of an “apples an oranges” comparison but that worked rather well.

  7. Nathan of Perth says:

    I really really really really need to find a way to upgrade my computer for this………

    Wonderful review, Quinnae, evocative and informative. My brother and I were playing Oblivion last night to get back into the Elder Scrolls headspace and it had really hit me how much Oblivion seemed to suffer from a nonsensical world map. How many abandoned forts could one place possibly have around the capital? Why on earth were there cities placed in these odd locations. Why weren’t there more signs of habitation in the heart of the empire, there should be villages near and far. Good to see thats being addressed, as well as the number of voice actors.

    And the music, oh god I’ve had the main theme on replay on youtube…

    • Ms. Sunlight says:

      Yeah, I love the fact that skyrim feels like it has a diffuse population, with lots of little farms and mills dotted around the countryside. It feels much more populated than Oblivion did which is great. It really reminds me of Morrowind, in a good way, although I wish there was more colour and variety in the landscape.

      • Nigel says:

        “…although I wish there was more colour and variety in the landscape.”

        Whaaa? After Fallout 3 Bethesda artists have gone buck-wild with color and variety in Skyrim, it’s practically a technicolor explosion! The northern lights alone are heartstopping, let alone forests, plains, swamps, waterfalls, hot springs, fjords, glaciers etc. Are we playing the same game?

        • Ms. Sunlight says:

          Compared to Fallout 3, yes; compared to Morrowind, no. Don’t get me wrong, it’s gorgeous – the northern lights as you say, and I think this game has the best-implemented water I’ve ever seen. It does feel like I’m spending a hell of a lot of time slogging over grey rock, though, and there’s nothing as atmospheric as Morrowind’s Bitter Coast or Telvanni mushroom towers.

          • Nigel says:

            I haven’t played Morrowind, but I can see what you mean from the screenshots. I’m sure the massive success of Skyrim means we’ll get to see another Elder Scrolls title, hopefully one with sailing?

  8. Omar Little says:

    I did with Skyrim exactly what I did with every other Bethesda game -

    Bought it and played it for about a week and change and now I’m scratching my head as to why I played it as much as I did. I really have nothing to say about it from an objectionable content/progressive content standpoint mainly because I’m struggling to remember a single line of dialogue or even a single character’s name (Other than Ulfric Stormcloak whose name gets repeated at a drop of a hat).

    I realize that Bethesda games aren’t really about characters – they’re about a big sandbox you can spend time in. In this sense, it’s a nicer world than Oblivion but not as cool as Morrowind was. Morrowind was an utterly alien landscape with an interesting world that unfortunately didn’t unfold onscreen unless you spent a lot of time reading books and figuring out who Vivec, etec really were. Oblivion seemed like two steps back and Skyrim maybe one step ahead from that.
    I just haven’t really been grabbed by anything I can do in that sandbox, other than walk. A lot. And retrieve stuff for some gold, loot some furniture, and go through some dialogue options that feel frustratingly limited. I can wander around a map for forty five minutes collecting ingredients to cook a virtual meal – in the time I spent doing that, I could have cooked a real one and had a lot more fun.

    I apologize if I sound like a troll here hating on a game that a lot of people here and a lot of people that I know love. Everyone who likes this game – I feel your points are valid. I just don’t think that I’m the kind of gamer that gets a lot of joy out of what a game like Skyrim provides.

    Also, two random gameplay beefs which just ruin it for me.

    One – Some modders figured out how to put mounted combat and spellcasting into Oblivion. For free. You might want to figure out how they did it.

    Two – I fail to see how the Great Dragon Invasion is a real threat to the land of Skyrim – all I ever have to do is let the dragon follow me into town where it can summarily get trounced by 3-4 guards. How do I know this will work? The guards are always the toughest things in the bloody game. To keep me from stealing kitchenware that takes up inventory space that I can’t sell anyway, because every merchant magically knows “I have stolen goods.”

    • Nathan of Perth says:

      I always did think the city guards were absurdly overpowered. I could see them levelling with the player, but not WAY AHEAD of the player.

  9. 0thello says:

    Well minus the incomprehensible glitches and the slow down on the PS3 version I’d say I actually prefer Elder Scrolls series to the Dragon Age one.

    I might have to make a comparison piece of it.

  10. Ultraviolet says:

    late to the whole thing but explicitly male summons ftw in Skyrim – Dremora Lord and Lucien’s ghost is what it’s at. Lucien was sexy in Oblivion and kinda is still and i’m saying that as an almost totally gay woman :) i wish female summons had some of the raw strength of the Lord and subtler but equally powerful presence of Lucien. I suppose i have made up for it with CP-follower Uthgerd in Daedric ;) Where there’s a will there’s a way.

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