I’m stuck in a snow flurry. My comrade, a pure blood vampire named Serana, takes a knee to catch her breath. We have just slain a group of vampires who stampeded the town to take my life. A roar from the skies rattles the earth around us. Swooping down, a dragon breathes fire, its glowing orange embers charring the guards who feebly attack it with arrows.
Brandishing my magical fists, I fearlessly approach the beasts. With all my might, I begin to blast the dragon with firebolts. My companion finally rises and uses her vampiric powers to drain its lifeforce. Within seconds, the dragon is slain. You’d think we be heroes.
“So you can cast a few spells. Am I supposed to be impressed?”
The guards of Falkreath, many of whom would have incinerated without my intervention, walk away without giving me a second thought. Never mind the fact that we saved many of their lives. It was easy to dismiss us once they saw that we were using magic.
Why the hell am I even helping these people? I thought, aggravated. And then I realized–I am not required to help these people, nor do I want to help them anymore.
Since the start of the game, the environment of Skyrim has been unwelcoming and at times downright inhospitable. Every player starts off as a shackled prisoner riding in the back of a wagon for an unspecified crime–for existing? Daring to breathe air in the same space as a Nord? Who knows. You don’t get a fair trial, and they force you to your knees, and they place your head on the chopping block. Your visit to this desolate iceland has turned out great so far.
Anyways, you barely escape with your life from Helgen, which is turned into ashes by a dragon. Eventually, you learn that you are the Dragonborn, a powerful individual who can speak the language of the dragons and use it to their advantage. You, the wise Greybeards of High Hrothgar tell you, are destined to be the savior of Skyrim. Naturally, I felt both overwhelmed and flattered by such an important title. But that was before I knew what being a savior involved.
Saving the world involves trekking across a harsh wilderness ruled by bandits, trolls, and sabre cats, hoping you’ll survive. Saving the world involves killing dragons and helping citizens with their sometimes (but really always) menial quests. It’s a brutal, arduous undertaking. That’s exactly why it’s so hard to hear dismissive comments from the people that you saved.
This wasn’t the first instance of disrespect I’ve received from the guards. Of course, the guards will constantly remind you to “stay out of trouble” and that if “You disrespect the law, you disrespect me!” But every time I use magic to fight, they sneer at it.
“Go cast your fancy magic someplace else!” they spit as they walk by me.
But guards are guards. They’re meant to be gruff, unyielding, and ignorant. They’re not meant to be my allies. They’re there to protect the lives of the citizens. My interests might not align with theirs. But there is at least one person whose interests will always align with mine: my housecarl. And my housecarl is always kind to me–oh wait. No she’s not.
If you complete the Dragon Rising quest, the Jarl of Whiterun will assign you one of your first housecarls in the game, Lydia. Now don’t get me wrong, I adore Lydia, but it’s taken me a while to actually like her and ignore her immense levels of sass. Seriously. For someone who is my housecarl, she mouths off at me way too much.
“Lydia,” I say. “I am overencumbered at the moment. Can you please take a few items? Maybe some nice armor and weapons that you could use?”
She groans. “I am sworn to carry your burdens.”
Often, Lydia got in the way of me fighting our enemies. She’d jump in front of me just as I would slash my sword and then shriek angrily at me.
“Watch what you’re doing! I’m on your side! Pay attention!”
Lyd. This is common sense. Don’t stand in front of a moving sword.
But I can’t complain about her too much–I did marry her after all. And adopted children with her. Once she stopped travelling the road with me, our relationship improved considerably. Since then I’ve taken on a few other housecarls, and I don’t have much to say about their behavior. (RIP Rayya, who died defending me from a vampire and whose body I never found.)
For as crude as the guards can be and for as much as my housecarl tests my patience, nothing is worse than interacting with the citizens of Skyrim. And that is because many of the citizens of Skyrim are outright–almost proudly–racist.
In my game, I am an Argonian, or a member of a reptilian race. Nords are most common and welcome in Skyrim, and the game makes sure you’re aware of that no matter where you go. The racism is so prevalent and institutionalized, it’s as if the developers put as much effort into creating it as they did with programming quests and designing graphics. Unless someone has trouble reading subtitles or is unable to hear the NPCs talking, there’s very little chance a Skyrim player wouldn’t have realized this by now.
Take this situation with an NPC, Rolff Stone-Fist. This player casually just approaches him and speaks with him. Out of all the ways that you could start a conversation–”Hi, my name is Rolff, I’m an morose asshat whose only friend is this bottle of cheap booze”–Rolff instead decides to drop a line about how much he supports genocide and inciting race wars.
“We ought to dig a big hole,” the Nord says gruffly. “And throw all them dark elves and Argonians in it, and let them tear each other to pieces.”
When the player speaks to him again, Rolff delightfully adds, “The only thing I hate worse than those scalebacks [Argonians] are them filthy Grayskins [Dark elves].”
Although Rolff is one of the most outspoken racists in Skyrim, there are other hostile shopkeepers and villagers who will just casually insert racial slurs into conversations. Many people collectively refer to Khajits and Argonians as “beasts.” Some characters call Argonians “boots.” As in, they will wear you like a boot. Some just straight up threaten you, instantly assuming when you walk into their shop that you’re there to steal everything.
P.S. Maybe I don’t want your overpriced crap anyways, Solaf. Ok? Maybe. I. DON’T.
This is where Skyrim falls flat for me. When the illusion of being the hero is shattered, and you’re left with the realization that even when you’re the absolute best person that you can be, people are still nasty to you. You can win your battles by swinging your sword or shooting sparks from your fingertips, but that’s never going to change how these people feel about you. Things don’t get better as you go along: Skyrim doesn’t register your good deeds and make it so that with each good deed, they treat you nicer.
I’ve reached a point where I feel like pursuing the hero’s life isn’t worth it. Like I should take up Astrid’s offer and join the Dark Brotherhood, the league of assassins. Or maybe operate from the shadows as a member of the Thieves Guild. Perhaps if I was working for my own benefit instead of for others, I would restore that sense of satisfaction that I had when I first started playing the game.
Don’t get me wrong: I still love Skyrim. I love the game for its immenseness; its multitude of things to do and ever changing possibilities and outcomes. Being the hero and following the main quests lets you explore exciting challenges: battling fire-breathing dragons, helping insurgents overtake cities, and even solving spooky mysteries. You experience firsthand how many threats the people of Skyrim face. There’s no question about it: clearly the people of Skyrim need a hero. Maybe even some of them do want a hero. But do they deserve one?