Since we've only recently started covering video games on Comics Bulletin, we are not yet privy to advanced review copies. Which is why we're going to be exploring some different ways of covering new releases, beginning with these journals detailing our first few weeks with Skyrim, Bethesda's hugely anticipated follow-up to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
First up is Nick Hanover's existential experiment in character building…
I don't have the history with The Elder Scrolls that some people do, but I can at least say that I've been with the series since Morrowind, an entry that I loved despite how often it frustrated the hell out of me. Personally I've always been more of a JRPG fan, with Fallout and The Elder Scrolls being the two Western RPG series that I unabashedly love, unlike Fable and Dragon Age, which I quite enjoy but don't have the same passion for.
In the case of The Elder Scrolls, the fun for me has always been the epic openness of the world of Tamriel, where provinces are more than just ecological palette swaps, they're almost entirely different planets. I started up Oblivion prior to getting Skyrim on release day and while it was still easy for me to get lost in the game, it only made me all the more desperate to immerse myself in Skyrim. Oblivion may not have aged as poorly as Morrowind, at least in regards to design, but it was all too easy to see the flaws of the release, from the hideous character design and often generic dungeons. The sidequests are still some of the best in the series, and the main storyline isn't as bad as some of Bethesda's previous attempts, but even just a cursory glance at any Skyrim trailer makes it clear how far the series has come.
So when the game arrived in my mailbox (and after I'd been mercilessly tricked by my girlfriend into thinking it hadn't been delivered) I was as stupidly excited as a six year old on Christmas morning. Bethesda had wisely placed a strict DO NOT SPOIL order on the gaming sites that got their hands on review copies, which meant that the details of the game's start and storyline had yet to be spoiled on release day. Which is great because for me, a huge portion of the fun of The Elder Scrolls is coming up with your own unique character with an equally unique backstory. JRPGs are played, to some extent, for the narrative that's written in to them and Western RPGs have historically offered more freedom, but in my opinion no other Western fantasy series has given you as much leeway with character development as The Elder Scrolls. There's a reason why nearly no one ever talks about the series' main storylines and that's because they're essentially icing on the cake of the real intention, which is to give you a wide open world that you can make your own.
With that in mind, I went about making my character a vintage punk wood elf, complete with Mohawk and red tribal tattoos and, later, leather armor. More importantly, I named our heroine Binx Bolling and set about turning her into a decidedly twisted fantasy variant of that classic existential protagonist. Here, Binx isn't traumatized by the Korean War but instead by her experiences being kidnapped by the Imperials for no discernible reason and then being led to her execution.
Binx may have been saved at the last moment by a dragon (perhaps a symbol of the potency of the near death experience?) but she was forever changed. Authority was suddenly the enemy, death an inevitability, and all that was left was the meandering nature of life, where anything could happen. As a first act of independence, Binx decided to pause as she was being led away from the carnage of the dragon's assault and decided to assassinate the evil torturer who was killing off Stormcloak prisoners. Was it politically motivated? Or was Binx just testing the waters of autonomy?
Regardless of the motivation, it initially traumatized Binx even further and she turned towards alcohol as a way of self-medicating. There would be many more experiences that would harden Binx, like the time she walked into what looked like a quaint little shack owned by an older couple, only to find their charred corpses out back. The only explanation provided was a note found inside the shack, about whether or not the husband should listen to his wife and move before the nearby dragon noticed them.
Not long after, as Binx was walking down the road, she tried to strike up a conversation with a Redguard. He told her she was boring and proceeded to try to kill her. He lost.
From there Binx found the scene of what appeared to be a grisly murder-suicide, with a Thalmor soldier lying dead next to what one could only assume were the victims of his rampage, a group of religious worshippers gathered at a holy site. Binx found refuge for the night but life would only get more absurd from there.
Strolling along the river, Binx came across a poacher who was hunting on imperial lands and spoke to her for a bit, regarding her as a kindred spirit. Meeting someone who was just enjoying the land, away from the chaos and war and carnage, led Binx to an epiphany: she was meant to protect that tranquility. Finding meaning in life inspired Binx to new heights.
Her new ideals were put to the test when she came across Embershard Mines, the home of a group of bandits that would likely attempt to kill her new poacher friend before long. Resolving that potential nastiness quickly, Binx was soon roped into a quest for two elitist capitalist siblings. She agreed to help them recover an aspect of their riches but planned on ransacking their business while they slept in order to give all their goods to her poacher friend in an effort to redistribute the wealth.
Over more than two weeks I've fully committed myself to this character, playing the game like it's a series of existential dilemmas and mostly staying away from the main story and its pending civil war. I've helped Binx plunder innumerable bandit hideouts, Jarl quarters and businesses, always reverse pickpocketing the loot, placing it in the inventories of those who need it most. The original Binx may have been surveying the downfall of Southern culture, but this Binx is surveying something larger, the downfall of an entire epic civilization, as the dragons of modernity usher in an era where a common wood elf with a taste for alcohol and thievery can be the most important figure in the world.
Skyrim's combat system may be just a step up from rock, paper, scissors and it may periodically glitch out in spectacular fashion, but there's something to be said for how easily you can create your own special experience within it. It's bea
utiful and expansive, full of characters worth exploring and scenery that you can revel in even when there's no loot to be had. I may be playing as a philosophically troubled and shell shocked wood elf who's terrifying with a bow, but there's no reason why you couldn't play as a catman who aspires to be the world's greatest chef or a Nord who merely wants to be a peaceful botanist. You can play this game in pretty much any fashion you want, taking the storyline completely seriously or ignoring it altogether in favor of other adventures, scripted or otherwise.