I often think of Rebecca.
She was one of the many characters I have created in Skyrim over the years, and perhaps one of the most tragic. She began life as a serving maid in the Frostfuit Inn at Rorikstead, who after an argument with Mralki the tavern owner, stormed out determined to find her fortune in the world. She headed East planning to begin her new life in Whiterun.
Barely 500 yards out of Rorikstead, she was attacked and killed by wolves.
I sat for I don’t know how many minutes when it happened, staring at the screen debating internally whether to reload her save and start again, but I knew in my heart that this was it. Her story had ended before it began. A cautionary morality tale about the folly of going adventuring while angry.
Another of my characters was an elderly Nord warrior who had lived a good if quiet life until he was captured by Imperials while out hunting. He was saved by the timely arrival of a dragon and took it as a sign that his beloved Skyrim still demanded more from his as-yet-unfulfilled soul. He joined the Stormcloak Rebellion, though quickly saw the harm both factions were doing to the land with their squabbles. He walked the Seven Thousand Steps and took the mantle of Greybeard willingly, donning the robes and committing to studying the true Way of the Voice. He walked the land wielding only his voice and a quarterstaff, and became a true force for the land itself. Of all the characters I’ve played, The Old Wulf (yes, I know) was perhaps the most powerful by the end, thanks to modding.
And that is a large part of the wonder and power of Skyrim. It’s possible – encouraged, even – to turn the game into exactly the game you want, for the character you want to play. Alternate Start goes a long way in that regard, allowing your character to begin their story in a tavern, shipwrecked, owning a home in one of the cities, or many other options. Yet more mods (such as New Beginnings) add to this list. There’s a lot to be said for the vanilla start too, and seeing where your story goes from there. Whatever character you want to play, if you want to use them there are mods that will enhance and improve your game experience.
All mods are optional of course, though some stories told in Skyrim might require more than others. Another of my characters was Ytara, a 12 year old street urchin in Riften who rose to become the Guild Master of the Thieves Guild before her 14th birthday. That took quite a lot of modding (mainly to allow playing children and have correctly fitted clothing and equipment) but the effort was well worth it, and I had a blasting playing this tiny, cunning sneak thief.
But this isn’t really about modding, great as it is. It’s about Skyrim itself. The whole setting is not just compelling, but ripe for the telling and retelling of so many tales. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of quests, dungeons, tombs and more to explore (check out this map!), and each character approaches them differently. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have taken a character through Bleak Falls Barrow (probably the first “true” dungeon you’re likely to encounter in the game) and each time I approach if differently, and in character. A brash overconfident Nord barbarian will storm in with a roar and a swinging Warhammer while Ytara went in silently with a dagger. My current character – Tessa, an Imperial detective (don’t ask) – snuck in quietly, prepared for anything. Other characters used magic to varying degree. How I approached this, or any other part of the game, shapes how it plays out.
It’s fair to say that Skyrim is a naturally unforgiving place (and again, modding can make the game harder or easier, depending on your taste), and there’s the cliché that the sneaky bow wielder is the “easiest” play style in the game. To a large extent that’s true, and it also means how difficult you want the game to be is in your hands as the player. If you want an easy time there’s a path for that. If you want a challenge, pick your play style accordingly to suit the character you want to be.
Skyrim, more than any other game (and to a lesser extent the Fallout series, its alternate universe cousins) connects with me like no other computer game has. This is a game I have put thousands of hours into and don’t regret a moment. And I know I’ve barely even scratched the surface of what’s out there to discover, because what I’m really exploring with each playthrough is the character I’ve made. Skyrim is the setting for their tale, and it’s glorious.
I still wonder who you might have become, Rebecca. Damn those wolves.