Words by James Davies
Note – The following contains some implied knowledge of Skyrim and its game mechanics. If you haven’t played Skyrim – what are you doing?
Video game stories always used to work one way. There would be one narrative that you would follow, level by level, world by world. It’s dangerous to go alone. Your Princess is in another castle. This story was not your own, it was simply the story of the game, and was the same each time. Recently, this dynamic has begun to change, and drastically. What I’m referring to is Emergent Gameplay – a story crafted and experienced by the player’s perception of random events. And it can be quite brilliant.
Our tale takes place amongst the snowy mountains of Skyrim. I was travelling with two loyal companions: Jordis – housecarl of Solitude – and Meeko, my dog. Whilst on our way to some quest or another, we happened upon an Ancient Nord tomb. Of course, I decided to take a look. Inside, we were met with one huge chamber, with no entryways or exits other than two small doors in the right and left walls. The room was empty except for an ornate chest at the opposite end, and behind it an even more precious reward. The curved-wall of a Dragon Shout – the ultimate treasure to be pillaged from any tomb. Hastily, I stepped towards it. But this was not my first adventure, and caution thankfully made me pause. I told both my followers to wait for me here, about halfway into the chamber, and I saved my game, allowing me to resume from this point if I somehow died. I made the rest of the journey across the room alone, and was glad I did. Just as I reached the chest, the ground gave way, revealing a trap door that I had fallen straight in to. I landed about 20 feet down, in a cage, surrounded by bodies. I was clearly not the first adventurer to fall for this. In front of me my captor, an elderly wizard, began to monologue about what a terrible fate had befallen me. I ignored him. After all, I was a hardened warrior, Dragonborn, unstoppable.
It’s worth noting at this point that I’d brought what was about to happen upon myself. If you haven’t played Skyrim, just know that things level up as you use them. So if I wanted to, say, level up my One-handed (read: sword-using) skill by setting the difficulty to ‘Master’ level and slashing away at my immortal horse for a while, that would be an easy way to do it. And that’s exactly what I’d done a few days previously, completely forgetting to change the difficulty level back afterwards. This meant that whilst I didn’t know it, I was extremely vulnerable to magic. We’re talking one-hit-kill vulnerable.
Anyway, I ignored the wizard, and began to pick the lock to the cage, which was conveniently right in front of me. My first pick broke, meaning the old man noticed my intended escape, and turned hostile. Well, more hostile than your typical raving old man who kidnaps people. He shouted something about killing me now instead of running experiments and fired an ice missile towards me. No big deal. I began to brandish a fireball of my own but then boom – dead. I didn’t understand what had happened. I was strong, far too strong for a single attack to kill me. Clearly I had made a mistake, but it wouldn’t happen again. Fine. That wizard would pay.
My game resumed as it should, at the point I’d saved, just after telling my companions to wait for me. This time I went around the trap to loot the chest and Dragon Shout, but I still wanted that old man dead. And I was prepared. Fireball in hand, I jumped into the trap door, and fell again into the cage. As before, the mage began to speak of my misfortune, but this time I cut him off with a blast of flame to his face. This did almost nothing, other than anger him. Ice missile – dead.
What was I doing wrong? I reloaded once more, jumped into the hole, and this time, I waited. Maybe if I let him talk, he would open the cage himself. It was at this point I got a good look around the room outside my cell, and I noticed something glistening on a table behind my captor – a Stone of Barenziah, essentially a collectible item, one of twenty-four hidden throughout the game. Now I had a real reason to keep diving into this trap. I needed that stone, as well as my vengeance. He talked through his monologue, and I discovered that at the end of it, he would kill me regardless. Another lethal shard of ice – another death. Great.
Several attempts later, I’d given up revenge, but there was no way I was letting that Stone stay where it was. And I’d developed a plan. Load game. Fall into hole. Use a rather useful Shout that would freeze in place all nearby enemies for a few seconds. Pick lock. DO NOT attack wizard man. I had learned from experience that when attacked (removing the freezing effect of the Shout) he would simply kill me long before I killed him. Steal the Stone of Barenziah, and whatever else I could quickly lay my hands on. Run.
Finally, it worked. I managed to bolt down the corridor leaving him behind me, still frozen, with his belongings safely in my inventory. I ran upstairs, through a maze of winding corridors, up and up until I finally came out at one of the two doors I had seen when I first entered this accursed tomb. I was free. I saved my game, overwriting my previous one to save space. There was just one problem.
My companions weren’t where I left them. They should have been in the centre of the room.
When I froze the wizard, their AI must have assumed I was in danger and come to rescue me. Of course, they had never managed to reach the cage on my prior attempts as I was always dead long before they arrived. But this time I’d escaped… and they’d deliberately wandered down towards the evil I was running from. They must’ve taken the opposite door, the one in the left-side of the wall, else I’d have seen them when I was making my way to the surface. If I tried to follow them, I would surely die. Again. But there was another option. If I left the tomb, they should automatically spawn out alongside me. Or they would, if I hadn’t told them to wait inside. When I stepped onto the snowy steps outside and saw no-one was with me, I had a decision to make; leave, and keep my treasures, or return and desperately attempt to save my comrades from enemies much more powerful than myself. What was once just a simple exploration of an area between quests had now become an epic adventure of its own. I had to rescue my friends. After all, they had seemingly tried to do the same for me.
I stepped back inside. The same empty chamber. No Jordis. No Meeko. They must still be in the maze of corridors leading down below. To the wizard. Slowly, I walked towards the door in the left wall, making sure my weapons were ready, despite knowing they would do me little good. Inch by inch, I worked my way down, cautiously sneaking round every turn. Let’s be straight here; I was terrified. After a few minutes of not seeing – or hearing – anything, I feared my allies were surely dead. I turned a corner, and in front of me was Jordis. Just standing there, in the middle of a corridor. Alone – but alive. I ran and spoke to her, but unfortunately ‘WHERE THE HELL IS MY DOG?’ wasn’t a dialogue option. The best I could do was tell her to follow me. At least now I had one companion. We descended the nearest staircase and entered the room at the bottom. I recognised it too late – the room with the cage. As I darted backwards through the doorway I expected to see ice hailing past me, but nothing happened. Slowly, I walked back in to the room. The table I had stolen the Stone of Barenziah from was on my left, just as I had left it, but to the right, things were different. Meeko was sat looking at me cheerfully, just in front of the open cage door. And at his feet, was the wizard.
Somehow, my (extremely weak) dog had managed to do what I, the leader of every guild in Skyrim, could not. Bloody good job, Meeko. Finally, the three of us left the tomb, and even though nothing had changed, I felt much more attached to my fellow adventurers. Yes, Meeko was brutally murdered not long afterwards by a giant, and I killed Jordis myself when she stepped in front of an arrow, but for a while, we were bonded.
This series of random events gave me not only my best experience in Skyrim, but one of my favourite in gaming, ever. Hardly any of it was intended, and none of it was part of a given quest or storyline. It was incredible, because it was my own true adventure. There was no set way that it would begin, or a certain way it would end. It’s experiences like this that set gaming apart as a medium, and why it encourages such love amongst those that embrace it.
images from Skyrim, copyright Bethesda Studios