Skyrim (A.K.A. the many deaths of Hrun the Barbarian)

Video games, especially of the fantasy RPG variety, have their own internal logic. This doesn’t often make a great deal of sense. Eating or sleeping can somehow heal first degree burns or gaping chest wounds. Your character can carry up to 300lbs of equipment and heavy armour while running around like a loon, but carrying 301lbs of stuff means they are rooted to the spot, although strangely they never slowly fall over backward in true comedy style. You never seem to feel the need to relieve yourself, despite consuming large quantities of food and drink, implying that your prophetic hero is suffering from crippling constipation and a bladder the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

Much of this stuff we dismiss through a willing suspension of disbelief. Video games don’t follow the same rules as real life, and we don’t want them to. You don’t want to spend in-game time washing your mage’s face, clipping his toe-nails or rummaging around in a bag trying to find that coupon for Potions R Us, so the boring stuff is either handwaved or made easier by magic, to stop your pseudo-medieval world giving you dysentery. Sometimes the thing that prevents the suspension of disbelief is you and your in-game actions. In one of my favourite games, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (more commonly known as just Skyrim), you are the legendary Dragonborn, the only thing standing against the world eating dragon Alduin. You are important, and your actions can change the world, although don’t think that means that any shopkeepers will give you a discount without levelling up your speech skill.

You can call your character anything you like, and of course, that means the temptation is there, as it always is, for such appealing monikers as Namey McNameface, Swords Aplenty, Bardlypants McGee. It is quite possible that Frogswollocks Ballwangler will be the legendary Dragonborn. Your appearance is also up to you. Presumably, the Dragonborn is meant to be a Nord, the Scandinavian hardy windswept types that inhabit this bit of this particular fantasy world, but there’s nothing to stop you being a cat-woman with a mohawk or a lizard man in his underwear.

Your actions are also left to chance. If you like, you can spend all your time getting into bar brawls or being a petty shoplifter, or maybe just chopping wood. The plot doesn’t go anywhere unless you interact with it, in true sandbox style.

The main impediment to that suspension of disbelief is your own ability. While I don’t think I was that bad initially, my barbarian, Hrun, suffered many humiliating deaths in which his status as supposedly legendary hero took a bit of a knock. Named after a minor character from one of Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, Hrun was a warrior build, proudly wielding a two-handed weapon, heavy armour, and a can-do attitude, swinging his weapon wildly and hoping for the best, to make up for his inability to block anything.

This approach was reasonably successful at first, as Hrun escaped his own execution with the aid of a dragon (the aforementioned Alduin), fled from a burning town, killed some guards, a bear, wolves, a few giant spiders, and drank an ale or two to celebrate. It wasn’t until he interacted with the first proper dungeon that Hrun ran into a few difficulties. Managing to defeat an even larger spider (a giant-giant spider?) and releasing a thief, he then trigged an obvious trap and was impaled on some spikes, his rag-doll form collapsing to the floor in a bleedy mess.

From this point on more embarrassing deaths followed. Plummeting off a cliff. Plummeting off a cliff while riding an ugly horse (the horse somehow landed on top of him). Torn apart by fledgling vampires while trying to defend his new horse. Sliced to pieces by a frost troll. Charging valiantly into a camp of bandits, only to end up like a hedgehog but with arrows instead of spines, and on fire.

Due to a bug in the game, one of the arrows in Hrun’s arm remained for the next two saves, still there when he decided to do a bit of shopping, the traders apparently deciding that mentioning the piece of wood through their customer’s limb would be impolite, or perhaps not worthy of comment. Another one with an arrow through his arm? Third one this week. Just watch out he doesn’t try and put a basket on your head so he can shoplift without you seeing.

Initially Hrun didn’t grasp the whole save your game thing, and so when he finally saved up the 1000 gold coins needed to buy a horse, one which he could proudly ride off into the sunset on, he was terrified of it being killed. New car owner’s syndrome and all that. The horses in Skyrim aren’t exactly lookers, being built for endurance and chunk rather than appearance, but Hrun was attached to it.

Every beastie in Skyrim wanted to kill Hrun’s new horse, who had a tendency to charge directly into battle immediately, Leeroy Jenkins style, even when hopefully outmatched. Hrun was perpetually living in fear that Horsey Mchorseface would die, and that would be 1,000 coins down the drain. When fighting dragons, Hrun had to park horsey a fair distance away to prevent the latter becoming flame-grilled horsemeat ready for a supermarket lasagne. Of course, the horse eventually came to a sticky end, killed by a troll tag-team in the snow. Crying tears of grief, Hrun showed respect for his fallen comrade the only way he knew how, by looting the horse’s body, one of the troll’s body, trying on a new hat, eating six cheese wheels, and then dying once again himself at the hands of the angry second troll.

Eventually, on yet another life, Hrun’s new sidekick Lydia came to a similar end, which was a shame as he needed her to carry all his stuff.

What’s the point of all this? That this is what happens when your epic storyline meets player choice, and that videogames are fun when you can do random things, go your own way, and die in heroically stupid ways. Rest easy Hrun, you brave idiot you.

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