I’m replaying Skyrim, and I’m a fucking monster. It’s the Ice Mages that prove it.
Put it this way – I am a terrifying thing, a blind-in-one-eye Redguard with a skull tattooed on her face, covered in bronze Dwarven armour. I kick in the doors of dungeons – places where people live and work, even if their work is perhaps a little dubious – and I straight up fucking murder them. With a massive axe. While screaming at them in Draconic.
That’s all part and parcel, I guess, of the genre. That’s fine. When I played my first game through as an stealthy archer/mage/backstabber, I never really noticed – though I was killing people, perhaps much more efficiently than I am clunking around in my heavy armour, it didn’t feel unfair. If one of them cornered me and got a couple of decent hits in, I’d go down pretty easy.
But now? I can get punched in the face all day, and it would cause very little disruption to my activities. I fight dragons by waiting for them to land and hitting them over and over in their big leathery chops while they try, unsuccessfully, to bite off both my arms. I eat swords and piss victory. So there’s a sensation of cruelty when I slip off the path of the main quest – because it’s not a great main quest, is it guys – and just doss around the wilderness, looking to get in a fight.
I find watchtowers and shout bandit captains off them, laughing as they tumble into the valleys below. I best draugr and skeletons in combat, sending their bones clattering to the dusty floors of their tombs. I set trolls on fire, just to watch them burn. All this I can handle. All this I can write off as standard fare, as someone doing “heroic” things.
And then, one day:
I am fighting some bandits in a cave, as is tradition, and I cut the first one down with a single blow from my axe. The second one, of slightly higher rank, manages to block a couple of swings before I catch him and he begs for mercy – but I will give him no quarter, and I shatter his spine before turning around and screaming FUS RO DAH at the two approaching me; one I deal with while he’s sprawled on the floor, and the second manages to get to her feet. I off her with ease. I notice my health is slowly ticking down.
An ice mage has been in the corner of the room all this time, shooting missiles at me, and I run towards him to kill him. He switches over to Frostbite, projecting a cone of cone from his outstretched hands, and I slow to a crawl. Each step is painfully deliberate. I can see the terror in his face as he screams, frantically trying to stop me from killing him the way I’ve killed every single one of his friends in the last twenty-five seconds. He backs away. He’s giving it everything he’s got in a frantic attempt to get out of this shit alive.
But then, even if he survives, what’s he going to do? Where’s he going to go? Can he go back to the Mage’s Guild, after what he’s done, what he’s seen? Why’s he allied with these bandits, anyway?
And BAM, I reach him, after stomping towards him inexorably like some golem, some Frankenstein’s monster, and I swing. I trigger the special kill animation and hook my axe haft over his neck and then headbutt him to death, mashing his face to pieces against the placid, grinning mask on the front of my Dwarven helmet. I can see where his ice-bolts have lodged in my body, piercing the metal and flesh alike, each one representing a significant chunk of his magicka, each one he was sure would bring me down.
He collapses, stone dead. Dungeon cleared. I am a hero of Skyrim.
The game has become some weird inverse-view dungeon-crawl, now, where scrappy fighters and rogues and allied mages do their best to live and work in the inhospitable climate of Skyrim, whispering tales around their campfire of the Redguard who wanders the landscape at random, headbutting people to death. Sometimes I turn up and they scream and try to drive me away but they can’t. They can’t ever. I’m a hero, see. I’m not playing the game wrong, or even acting like a villain in the way it would recognise that term.
In those few seconds as I pulled myself through that poor fuck’s magical defences and killed him with my face, I felt a connection to him that made me feel pretty uncomfortable. Which is refreshing.