Thursday, December 29, 2016

Climb Every Mountain : Skyrim

Wine released another patch, and suddenly the copy of Skyrim I installed a while ago became playable (the joys of gaming on a Mac. Wine works pretty good for older games, though).

Skyrim is an open-world role-playing-game released in 2011. The setting is an iron-age fantasy culture in an epic, stark, chilly mountainous region. Bethesda delivers again on this one; like many of the best games, the setting is not just expansive, not just detailed, but it is flavored. There is a particular kind of harsh, hardy, pseudo-Norse theme going on here that goes well beyond just people wearing furs and horned helmets riding shaggy horses across high plains and tundra.

I found myself getting rather philosophical during it. Which hurt my gameplay a little, actually. If you've just attacked a bandit camp, you then end up walking through the small treasures of their hardscrabble existence. Rough tables and split log chairs and a little rabbit on the camp fire. A wooden flute, some hides tented up to keep the rain off. Not that the villagers have it much better, with simple dwellings and crude utensils.

When you talk to the villagers, you hear stories of their life choices and their philosophical take ending up a farmwife in a small town distant from her home city, or a merchant trying to make ends meet. And the evidence of industry -- the simple blacksmithing setups, the hunting camps, even crude mining operations -- show a similar "getting along at the life you have" attitude among the bandits. Even the giants, although easily spooked, are content to stand peacefully among their herds of mammoth.

One always puts a little of oneself into a game. Even the simplest game still leaves a space for the player to read personality and backstory where perhaps it isn't there. In the case of two runs I made at Skyrim (with two different characters to try out different career paths), what I got out of the game was as much driven by chance and glitch.

It really started with my housecarl, Lydia, who the Jarl sent to me after making me a thane (kill one little dragon, and they just won't shut up about it). Anyhow, the voice acting of this character made her sound very sad and resigned when I told her to stay in the house while I adventured. And I had to sympathize. After all, this is a warrior in a warrior culture. It wasn't exactly that she wanted excitement, it was that in her mind the only proper way to live was to die in battle.

So I brought her along despite misgivings (misgivings because artificial intelligence is not exactly there yet. The AI's tend to run in front of your bow in the thick of combat. (When they aren't standing in the middle of a doorway you are trying to pass through, giving you a blank "can I help you?" stare.)

And I got suckered into helping a goddess clean her temple of an infestation of undead magic-users. A very pushy goddess. With all those spells flying about I really had to work at it to keep Lydia from running herself killed (although to her credit, the enemy AI in Skyrim is very bow-aware and does not make it easy for you to snipe them from cover).

But we won. And a cutscene was forced on me where the goddess "thanks" me (pushy goddess, did I mention?) and then dumps me unceremoniously outside the temple. And Lydia glitched. She was alive last I saw her, but she never left the temple. In my head canon, my warrior woman, servant and friend had found the destiny she was seeking. But that damn goddess better be treating her right!

I'd become intrigued with the crafting system. This is an exceptionally deep game, with almost too many stories to explore and multiple play styles are possible. Within crafting, you can do Alchemy (which is basically herbalism; you gather ingredients from the wild as you travel, then experiment with mixing them together until you find recipes that work). You can do Enchanting, which is intriguingly different and not a little disturbing.

Magical items in the Skyrim world are driven by captured souls. With a bit of training you can do this yourself; absorb the soul of a recently slain wolf, say, then use it to power up a flaming dagger that you can then hand off to anyone (or, more usually, sell). The actual enchantments are, in the game, entirely arrived at by reverse engineering; you find another flaming artifact and rip it apart to see how it was done.

The third crafting system is Smithing, with encompasses basic leather work and jewelry as well. This is nicely if sketchily illustrated with various simple forges and smelters and grindstone and anvils and so on, complete with animations as your character takes an item through the various processes.

You can in fact mine iron ore, smelt iron (or with a slightly different process make steel), hammer it into a sword, and rework the sword to be finer. This being Iron Age tech, you also need to take a hide (which could even be a pelt from the wolf mentioned above) turn it into leather, and cut it into strips to wind about the hilt.

The weird part, though, is that this is not value-added. It is a little hard to see the numbers clearly because in the early game merchants pay 30% book value on goods and mark them up 300% to sell. But basically, a sword is worth less than the processed materials that went into it. And if you are buying the raw ores from a merchant instead of mining them yourself, you basically lose money on the deal.

So basically you need external funds. And you don't learn enchantments (to really value-add the items you are smithing) unless you have magical loot to tear apart. All in all, it is extremely difficult to just sit around learning crafting. You progress vastly faster if you adventure.

So the first character I played was an Argonian. A lizard-man from far away. Who I played as so completely outside he had no idea what anyone was talking about, had no interest in the politics, and in any case couldn't tell the faces of all these humans apart anyhow. Or remember their weirdo names. I eventually ended up playing him as a sort of linebacker/scholar; on the one side, the first weapon he picked up was a two-handed axe and there wasn't a lot he couldn't deal with just by bull-rushing it and swinging away. But on the other side, he really, really loved books (that's why I bought a house; the books were getting too heavy to keep hauling around.)

This is actually common among Skyrim players, I found. A web search for "Bigger bookshelves in Skyrim" turned up easily dozens of threads on the subject.

My second was also outsider to the local politics. I made her as small as the sliders would let me go, and wanted her to be geeky determined to become the greatest smith ever. Except the game throws you into combat in the introductory scene, and pretty much forces you to get involved with a dragon.

Even the mining is complicated by the fact that there are bandits living in the mine you want to use (and wolves on the path). However, unlike many RPGs, Skyrim does not have a stat system. Whether you are a buff lizard or a slender Breton you kick ass exactly the same. And I had learned a little something about the magic system since my Argonian and at Easy settings beginning-character magic is insanely overpowered.

(There is also no class system in Skyrim. Anyone can learn anything. Most characters, NPCs as well, know a little about magic and fighting and crafting and, well, everything else.)

The problem I ran into with Moly the tiny Breton blacksmith, though, was that I'd installed the Hearthfire DLC (additional content for the game). Which allows you to customize the houses you buy. And expands a little on the craft-able items. And, oh yes, adds a few orphans. And I thought Lydia made me feel bad! No, now there was this sweet little child following me about whenever I visited town, and...

Turned out crafting was just too darned slow. I couldn't stand little Breccia (or whatever her name was) being out in the cold even one more night, so I picked up the best sword I'd made so far and struck out towards the most dangerous haunted barrows and troll-infested mountain peaks I knew about this early in the game.

Turns out I couldn't take in the poor kid without owning a house. And I had to have it furnished, too. On the second or third trip back to pay out yet more of the loot I was risking my neck for up on the mountains, and fulfill yet more obligation, I started to feel like I was dealing with Children's Services.

But I finally managed it. Took Lydia (Lydia2 if you are counting -- different me, but same game story, same dragon, and same overly-generous local Jarl) up the side of the mountain* to visit the monks for one last adventure to tell the kids. And closed the game -- at least for this four day weekend -- sitting in contented silence by the fire in my rustic home, watching the little girl play with her new doll.

*Yes, that is literal. Borrowed a couple of horses from the Stormguard. Skyrim horses do not give a fuck. Physics is their plaything. This is pretty much a glitch they kept because all the players loved it, like the fact that one square hit from a Giant's club will send you thousands of feet into the sky. People have been killed by meteorite-mammoths. The horses will ride up anything that isn't vertical. And make a pretty good attempt at that, too.

Thing is, I could never find the damned road up to where the monks were. So the well-honored alternative among Skyrim players is to find Comet the Wonder Horse and point her towards the cliff face.

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