essay, playing, video games

A woman called dovahkiin: the search for identity in Skyrim

I defeated Alduin. By my knowledge of video game logic, I should be done with Skyrim. After all, once one kills the “Destroyer Devour Master” and the harbinger of the end times, the story should be over. The major threat is taken care of and the job’s done. I kicked undead ass, traveled to the afterlife, and slew the evil leader of the dragons. At some point I should have gotten a t-shirt. Yet, I realized after the fight, it’s not over for me. The game keeps going. There is always more to do.

In Skyrim, quests can be started at any time. From innocent talks with merchants to couriers catching up to you while adventuring, you are constantly presented with new opportunities to take on a new task and gain another title for yourself. By approaching one organization after another, you can gain access to new set of quests. The Thieves Guild wants you to do this and this. Taking up with The Dark Brotherhood prompts another collection of quests. Even the College of Winterhold has its lists of tasks for its students. Everyone from Jarl to the common guard wants the player to do something for them. In fact, it’s this repeated and central mechanic of the game that leads to the primary illusion of identity in Skyrim: you can become whoever you want. The more you perform an identity, the better you will get at it.

It comes from the combat. As you choose one style of attack over another, the game reinforces your choices. Using magic raises that statistic. The more potions you create, the greater the number of options to create stronger and longer lasting potions you get. It’s the same for every skill in the game. Your preferences toward one way of doing things is fed into a positive feedback loop: the more you do an action, the easier it becomes to do it and the more you do that same action. Over time, you settle into your pattern of behavior and rarely deviate from it. And eventually, it is assumed to be your identity in the game: a performance made into existence. You are a master at using magic because you have mastered using magic.

The same theme leaks over to the questing system. The more jobs done for a group, the deeper you go into their politics and get to know its people. By feeding you more small chunks of narrative, the game incentives you to keep going along a chain of quests. As you do more for a group, they recognize you on sight and your accomplishments are mentioned in causal conversation. They seem to know you more as you invest greater amounts of time with them. You climb ranks through their quests and come to gain new stations in their hierarchy. Yet, throughout it all you can always join another group at any time too. There are very few mutually exclusive positions in the game. Identity is always in flux.

It was this last observation that made me question the game. Once I had fulfilled my role in the history of this world and slew the ancient evil, I thought something would happen. I figured I would gain some insight or be granted some advanced power. Instead, I was dumped out of a portal at the top of a mountain and set back on the very task the game set before me at its opening: kill dragons, do quests, and have adventures. I had spent hours tracking down the right materials, talking to the correct people, and now here I was right back at the beginning. Nothing had really changed. All the time I spent with the various organizations came to very little but better gear. The path I had chosen was not my own. Despite all my work in creating a new identity, I was forever to be dovahkiin, the warrior with the soul of a dragon. I might run away from it for a time, but the game would find ways to remind me. A casual conversation or even yet another inconvenient dragon attack would once again bring up the fact that this was my calling as far as the game was concerned.

The truth was set at the first battle. Even though the game will allow you to pick you gender, race, and background, it also gives you a fate too. You might say that you are a Redguard woman who escaped to Skyrim to build a new life for herself, as I did, but the game will give you your new name and identity in this world upon the death of the first dragon. As the beast dies and its soul leaves its body, it is drawn to you. You absorb it and your eventual destiny is sealed at the same moment. You are now dovahkiin, “dragonborn”, and cannot escape this identity. Not even killing the source of the dragon resurrections, Alduin himself, will break this bond.

Skyrim may sell itself on the Radiant system of randomly combining elements of quests like locations, givers, and rewards to create new quests, but it an endless performance of empty actions. Few add up to anything other than another task for the player or yet another item in a growing checklist. There may always be more to do in Skyrim, but it does not contribute to some expression of the player’s self beyond that which the game gives. I may be able to play the content for hundreds of hours and experience new combinations each time, but I will always be a woman called dovahkiin, no matter what I may do in the game. There is no legacy, but that which has already been written; the blank canvas is merely an illusion of perspective. I will always be seeing the world through an “I” that was already written for me before I even started.