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“The games we normally call open worlds – the locked off cities and level-restricted grinding grounds – don’t compare to this. While everyone else is faffing around with how to control and restrict the player, Bethesda just put a fucking country in a box. It’s the best open world game I’ve ever played, the most liberating RPG I’ve ever played, and one of my favourite places in this or any other world.” – PC Gamer UK

 

SPOILER ALERT!

 

After such a long wait and so much anticipation, it was inevitable that the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim be prone to a dash of anti-climax. It was also inevitable that it would be subject to the usual responses – hopes and dreams either dashed or realised, depending on your outlook and the percentage of troll blood in your ancestry. Most people were expecting the game to be another masterpiece, based on the developer Bethesda’s incredible track record, but there have been all too many instances when things do not live up to the hype: Age of Conan, anyone?

Another inevitable hurdle in the game’s reception would be the way it was compared with its forerunners. As a massive fan of the immediate predecessors in the series, The Elder Scrolls III and IV, hereafter, Morrowind and Oblivion respectively, I was all too well aware of the ways in which these two games had often been pitted against each other in the realms of opinion. Most would argue that Morrowind was more cerebral, better, more complex and more realistic as a game-world, if less well realised graphically and physically, through its engine. Some people loved Morrowind and loathed Oblivion; the latter had less variation in its armour types, simplified weapon proficiencies, more generically generated interior decoration; whilst others preferred Oblivion, largely because it still matched Morrowind for scale and diversity and on account of its excellent, if now dated engine and its initially stunning appearance.

I can understand many of the specific criticisms, but, having been won over utterly by both games, I find the overall judgements difficult to understand. The pros and cons of either still amounted to an unbelievably satisfying whole. Whatever one’s individual opinion about the games, and many people, from all walks of life, have loved both dearly, there was certainly no injustice in both games winning Game of the Year among many other awards. They are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, two of the greatest open-world role-playing experiences ever created and rightly deserve their place in the pantheon. Only Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins has reached such heights in recent times; a game stronger on story, containing far superior voice-acting and, I feel, a higher standard of writing; both in dialogue and exposition, in books, scrolls, etc. But it was a game that lacked openness. The world, though big, was tiny by comparison to the vast open spaces of The Elder Scrolls games. Dragon Age Origins should be seen more as a long awaited and finally worthy successor to Baldur’s Gate 2. Both are games with closed maps, linked by area transitions, with no scope for exploration outside designated areas. The Elder Scrolls series, on the other hand, with their vast, free-flowing open landscapes, “Put a fucking country in a box,” as the PC Gamer UK review puts it.

Being thus aware of the various qualities and differences of Morrowind and Oblivion, I was prepared to be confronted by Skyrim’s differences. It was inevitable that there would be some frustrating changes, inevitable stream-lining and simplification, but also a lot of innovation, improvement and added complexity and depth in other areas. Time could only tell as to what the overall impression would be, but I knew that Bethesda were unlikely to make a substandard product, especially considering the incredible success and quality of their main interim vehicle, Fallout 3.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim starts in media res.

You, the protagonist, have been captured along with a rebel leader and a few other randoms and are being transported in a wagon to a rendez-vous with a chopping block.

It’s a nice way to set the scene, which oddly reminded me of the taxi ride into Pala at the start of Far Cry 2. Upon arrival at the fortified town where the execution is to take place, one is called forward and asked to state one’s name.

Thus begins the process of character creation. Once this is done, one is led to the block, where one’s avatar exhibits a rather disappointingly passive acceptance of fate, and kneels before the executioner.

It is at this point that a dragon turns up and, quite literally, all hell breaks loose.

http://bit.ly/DragonAttack

My first response, unfortunately, was a rather visceral disappointment with the graphics and textures of the game. The skins seemed decidedly low-res in some cases, and the textures were large and clunky when viewed up close. These reduced nicely into finer-looking detail when using a more distant zoom, yet having spent so long modding the textures in Oblivion and replacing 128 x 128 pixel skins with 2048 x 2048, for a disturbingly photorealistic finish, it felt oddly like a step back from its predecessor. I also noticed early on that the palette seemed rather wan and muted; the colours were not rich and seemed washed out in the pale light of this northernmost province of Tamriel. This all came as a bit of a shock, especially considering that when Oblivion was released it was pretty much at the pinnacle of graphical achievement; I thought Skyrim might be the game to surpass everything, looks wise. I never expected to be so disappointed that my graphics card could run it smoothly, at 40 fps, with everything maxed!

My next response was that the characters felt a little flat. Not, thankfully, as pre-generated and soulless as the speakers of Oblivion, but still, not anything like as dynamic, passionate and emotionally engaging as those in Dragon-Age Origins. I had, ever since hearing Max von Sydow’s voice-over in the trailer, been expecting a game replete with very theatrical, naturalistic and emotive voice-work, yet the NPCs in Skyrim seemed to have a slightly false pitch in their voices. They sounded like actors, reading, whereas the voice artists of Dragon Age Origins were thrillingly human.

My next minor issue with the game arose in the process of character creation. I only have myself to blame, both for not reading the manual or checking the on-screen menus as closely as possible, yet when called forward and asked to state my name to the executioner’s scribe, I chose my race and name, and totally failed to notice the full range of other character generation options across the top of the screen. I had expected more prompting, as both Morrowind and Oblivion had guided one through character creation more closely and in a more staggered fashion. Naively, I assumed, as had been the case in Oblivion, that first I would be asked my name and later asked further details, such as class, appearance etc. Not so! Shoot me.

Indeed, I had to play the opening a second time in order to realise that this was, in fact THE moment when one created one’s character entirely, and that the absence of a choice of class or profession, was, indeed, real. There are no classes in Skyrim. It’s as simple as that. One’s starting skills are determined purely by race, and skills advancement happens according either to skill use, training with trainers or by finding tomes that teach skill increases. The rate of advance can, however, be effected by a particular blessing, say an enchantment from a moonstone, like the sign of the warrior, for example. This seemed rather annoying, as I had always enjoyed designing custom classes and selecting skills appropriate to my desired build. Still, I was willing to give it a go, and the perks trees now attached to each skill, which look suspiciously familiar to the feats and enhancements of MMOs like World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons Online, acted in the stead of class and profession. Either way, as much as we all loathe tutorials in games, the absence of more explicit guidance at the point of character generation seems like an oversight in a game so long, involved and complex. I wonder how many others might click through and be stuck with a generic head and body set?

My initial impression of the interface was not exactly positive. It had the stench of console about it and, whilst generally smooth-running, it has some awful glitches in it that will take a patch or two to iron out. I had a lot of trouble with the loot-all R button, causing a CTD on many occasions. It was often difficult to scroll from one item or category to the next, as the mouse would not always highlight the desired option. Patches ought to fix this, so it’s unlikely to remain an issue. Yet I was surprised that something so fundamental, structurally, had not been ironed out completely. Ideally, a new user interface mod will remove all the console-like elements altogether and replace it with a more PC friendly UI.

Having said all this, I was keeping a very open mind. Dragon Age Origins had initially looked disappointing to me, again on account of chunky textures and OTT armours and weapons, which too often had a plastic or rubbery sheen and seemed to lack real, physical weight. Yet I grew to love that game quite unreservedly because of its many other amazing qualities. Indeed, in time, the look of Dragon Age Origins won me over as well. It moved well, the colours were rich and intense, it had just enough epic landscapes and vistas, the interface, was, I felt, quite beautiful, and, oh, the soundtrack was great. At times, a tad bombastic, but on the whole, it was entrancing and reeked of adventure!

The default volume setting for Skyrim’s music is a mere 70% of max, possibly less, and at first I found myself wondering, where is the music? As a massive fan of the soundtracks of Morrowind and Oblivion (Indeed, they are on my iPod!) I was looking forward to hearing Bethesda’s latest efforts on this front. Once I’d adjusted the volume and could hear things perfectly well, I was very impressed. The soundtrack is extremely unobtrusive. It is beautiful, cold and spacious, like the best efforts of twentieth-century minimalism. It is both haunting and lulling and segues almost effortlessly between disquieting and soothing the player. Where appropriate it comes on all epic and grandiose, yet most of the time it acts to create a mood and emotional space that fits the windblown, icy landscape. It is a very impressive soundtrack indeed, and one of the many things which come together to make Skyrim one of the greatest gaming experiences ever.

And the simple fact of the matter is, initial concerns aside, Skyrim really is an astonishingly beautiful and amazing game. The world is not only massive, but it is endlessly interesting and engrossing. There are, yes, a lot of snow-covered mountains, which risk giving it a very samey feel across the board, yet there are sufficient sunlit river valleys, stretches of coastline, marshes, swamps, glades, dales, caves, grottos, lakes, ancient ruins, forts, bandit camps, farmsteads, villages, towns, and, of course, great and beautiful cities to give the game a feeling of intense variety. It is surprisingly surprising, and one of the major improvements on both Oblivion and Morrowind is the diversity of the caves and forts one can enter. In Oblivion these locations, the old mines, forts and Ayleid ruins, tended to repeat the same types of interiors and encounters, though in a wide variety of lay-outs. Such locations in Skyrim, so far as I can tell after a relatively short playing experience, but also based on anecdotal evidence from other players, seem to be far more original and varied in their design and content. As one reviewer stated, Skyrim is also the best Indiana Jones game ever made.

After playing for a few hours, when I realised just how smoothly my avatar moved, how freely everything flowed, how vast and open the range of choices were to me, the initial reaction to the game’s appearance fell away and I saw it for the masterpiece that it is. So much effort has been put into this, and it shows. Yes, Bethesda pushed hard to meet their 11 / 11 / 11 deadline, but then, almost all new releases are at least slightly buggy these days, and if the designers don’t sort it out, the players will. Of course, we, the paying public should not be expected to beta-test games, but with something on the scale and complexity of Skyrim, a few issues here and there are inevitable. Nothing, as yet, has proven game-breaking, but then, I’ve clocked up a mere twenty-four hours and explored about one fiftieth of the map available to me, in which time I’ve accepted far more quests and undertakings than I have completed.

The game really does look beautiful. The landscapes are breath-taking, the cities fill one with a sense of awe and the mountains are a source of tireless eye-candy. Skyrim takes after its predecessors in many ways. Both Morrowind and Oblivion chose to focus on a particular province of the continent of Tamriel, Morrowind and Cyrodiil respectively, and Skyrim is named after the province it depicts; the northernmost, mountainous home of the Nords. We are thus treated to a lot of unashamedly Norse-themed architecture, clothing and local culture, which gives the world a rich cultural uniformity. The other races and people are all represented here again, though it took me a long time to find a Khajiit or Argonian! These two races look absolutely magnificent, particularly in the faces; though the feline Khajiit fur could certainly use a texture upgrade.

Like its predecessors, Skyrim also offers a main plot to give the player an overall sense of purpose, yet the game-world is so vast and the hundreds, if not thousands of often lengthy and fully-realised side-quests make it possible to play the game for literally hundreds of hours, without ever actually furthering this plot one jot. Indeed, on my second run-through of Oblivion, I entirely ignored the main plot entirely and engaged instead with all the other subplots, along with new quests and diversions made available by the vast community of dedicated modders.

Rarely will two playing experiences be the same. Comparing notes with a colleague at work, I learned that he is playing an Argonian (lizard-man) thief. So far, he has not furthered the central plot by a single step, but has instead joined The Companions and Dark Brotherhood and has been running quests for these two groups. The Companions are a group of do-gooding mercenaries who replace the fighters’ guilds of previous games, whilst the Dark Brotherhood return once again as a group of Daedra-worshipping assassins. There are further groups one can join in the game, each spawning a long, long list of often very lengthy and involved quests, right around the world of Skyrim.

The main plot itself offers real variation. The province of Skyrim, long ruled by the empire founded by Tiber Septim, has recently rebelled under a Nordic king and is in the thick of a civil war. The player can choose to support the rebellion of Ulfric Greycloak, or side with the Empire. In a sense, this a subplot to the principal plot whereby dragons are coming back to life and harassing the province of Skyrim; whilst the civil war rages, the province is weakened and some suspect a plot by the Thalmor, a group of evil elves, to take advantage of the situation.

No doubt the players chosen path will result in a very different journey through these central storylines; or, indeed, no progressing of the story whatsoever. After all, in a world where one can murder, pick-pocket, break into and rob pretty well every single NPC in the game, there are many other ways to entertain oneself. One can buy horses and property, decorate one’s house, acquire companions, and, I’ve heard it said, even marry in game. As with Morrowind and Oblivion, it is possible to pick up pretty well any of the millions of objects in the game; fruit, vegetables, cutlery; baskets, tableware, cooking pots, books (all of which can be read), scrolls, quills, inkpots, armour, weapons, clothing, jewellery… Just don’t get caught if it doesn’t belong to you. If you carry a pick-axe around with you, it’s possible to extract ores from seams and deposits in the mountains, caves or mines of Skyrim, smelt the ores, then use the refined metals to improve items. Indeed, one could focus entirely on crafting, alchemy, smithing, cooking, tanning and enchanting if one so desired; the pursuit of recipes and materials would, in itself, make a very satisfying game.

So, perhaps inevitably, once I’d gotten out there and really started running around looking at things, the game pulled me in like a black hole. When, after seemingly hours of climbing hostile, stunningly beautiful snowy mountains, skidding down snow drifts, crossing misty, sunlit streams, I caught my first sight of the ocean to the north, I felt tears welling in my eyes at the sheer beauty of the view. What followed is what makes these games so utterly unique.

I walked down to the water at sunset, noticing that my avatar, the latest incarnation of Bethanie Brinsett, here dual-wielding shock spells, with a bitey Orcish sword as a side-arm, was tired, on account of the intensity of the frowns on her forehead. It was seven in the evening and, whilst it was not essentially necessary, I decided to look for a place to sleep. Further along the coast I spied a shipwreck, lying on its side on the beach. I made my way along the sand, staying close to the water and keeping an eye out for mudcrabs, all the while admiring the beautiful sunset.

Just as I reached the wreck, a dragon, randomly thrown into the mix, flew overhead and began swooping on some Tuskers – large, bloated crosses between a walrus, an elephant seal, and the maw of oblivion. Soon after its first sweep, the dragon spotted me. Not yet aware of the relative ease with which one can take down a dragon using combat tactics, I decided to take cover. I sprinted to the wrecked ship, jumped up onto the deck and pushed my way through the tilted door into the cabins. Once inside, it seemed I was safe from the dragon’s attack, yet what exactly lay inside the ship?

I spent the next fifteen minutes cautiously exploring the cabins and the hold. It was a big, cargo-carrying longship, now populated by oversized mudcrabs, including one of the most massive and savage ever encountered. Indeed, it brought to mind and gave credence to that all too common insult from Oblivion, often shouted by enemies: “I’ve fought mudcrabs more fearsome than you!” I worked my way through, electrocuting all the crabs – they were hostile, after all – then, after looting the hold, especially pleased to find some salt piles (an important reagent in cooking food, one of many new elements in the game) and other rare reagents and ingredients, I made my way to the angled bunks and slept until 0430AM.

Feeling fully rested, frowns now gone, I snuck out of the ship just before dawn, the sky already beginning to lighten. The coastline looked more beautiful than ever; the stars still visible in the wan pre-dawn twilight. Over the mountains, dark clouds gathered and the threat of snow was evident.

Fortunately, the dragon had long since cleared off, leaving a bunch of dead tuskers on the beach. I jumped down from the ship, looted their tusks and began my journey again, turning back inland through the wetlands that seemed to dominate this region of coastline. It wasn’t long before I caught my first sight of the city of Solitude on the horizon. Built atop a vast natural arch of rock, the town’s solid stone structures were perched high above a river that flowed beneath the arch. The sight was, once again, breath-takingly epic. With the pale sunlight glinting from the pools of water around me, the city of Solitude and its mountain backdrop, hung like a fantastic vision through the haze. I forded the river and began my approach…

Such experiences give games like Skyrim their enormously immersive quality. The touches of detail are often nothing short of delightful. In another instance, when raiding a fort occupied by bandits, having snuck in and assassinated the poor sod sitting by the fire in the front room, I heard a number of voices coming from nearby. Wearing headphones and marvelling continually at how accurate the directional properties of the in-game sounds were, I could hear everything perfectly clearly. There were three voices, and two were talking about other jobs they were planning, whilst the other chap was moaning about a girl who’d said she’d wait for him, but didn’t. I listened for a while to their conversations, baffled as to where on earth the voices were coming from. The room just off the entrance proved to be empty, and the voices were not carrying down the flight of stairs. It was then that I walked past the fire-place again and realised the voices were in fact coming down the chimney from a room directly above!

It is difficult to articulate the inner rejoicing that comes at moments such as these and, all I can say is, full marks to Bethesda for such exquisite touches, which proliferate throughout their products. So far, so utterly great. Skyrim will almost certainly take its place among the greats of gaming history, and may ultimately find itself elevated to the top of the list. It is nothing less than a masterpiece; a vast and painstakingly detailed work that, alongside its predecessors, and, indeed, its rivals, especially Bioware’s games such as Baldur’s Gate 2, Mass Effect and Dragon Age Origins, makes an increasingly strong case for the acceptance of computer games as one of the highest forms of artistic expression and story-telling, alongside literature and cinema. Skyrim is certainly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

 

 

It is worth mentioning that these screenshots appear quite static and, the surfaces somewhat flatter. The overall effect, including flickering shadows, shifting light sources, swaying foliage, dynamic weather, clashing weapons, sizzling magic, buzzing insects, rushing rivers, pounding falls, hammered anvils, snorting horses, huffing smelters, turning pages, pots and pans, clashes and bashes, singing birds and, indeed, singing bards, cannot be reproduced here.

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When I was a child and had little to do, I would often pull out the Players Handbook and whip up a few characters. It was fruitless task really, for I never expected to use the characters at all. The truth is I just loved rolling dice and poring over the tables and charts. I also loved naming characters and equipping them from the very limited starting gold they were permitted at first level. It was an especially effective strategy for a sorrowful Sunday afternoon.

This urge to create characters never left me and was later transferred to fiction writing. Come to think of it, I was keenly writing fiction as a child, albeit heavily-derivative genre fantasy and the odd scrap of science fiction. When I tried my hand at genre writing in later years, I found I was often more creative in inventing characters than I was with non-genre fiction, where I tended to model characters on people I knew in real life.

After my first encounter with Baldur’s Gate in 2001, I found myself once again drawn to creating Dungeons & Dragons characters. Baldur’s Gate only allowed for the creation of a single character (though I was later to discover that by starting a game in multi-player mode one could in fact create an entire party) and as a consequence, I didn’t initially have the chance to indulge myself. I did, however, re-start the game several times just for this purpose, bringing back to life such luminaries as Luven Lightfingers, and an Elven Ranger by the name of Yessir Eldith, who may have the good fortune to be commemorated in this series of character portraits.

When I finally got hold of a copy of Icewind Dale, however, which required the creation of an entire party of 1st-level adventurers, I had the opportunity to really go to town. Sadly I have lost the old saved games from that initial burst of character creation and cannot recall the names of my first party, suffice to say that the barbarian, Arnalde Holdfaste, a name I revived from the final campaign I played with my brother back in 1989, featured. There was also a Halfling Fighter/Thief with the name of Whistler Skilift. I do recall having had some fun with the alpine themes.

In 2003, shortly after returning to Cambridge from four months in Rome, I bought Icewind Dale 2 (hereafter IWD2) from the Lion’s Yard Game store. The game was the last of the old Bioware Infinity Engine games and suffered in its reception for having adhered to the old Bioware Infinity Engine. It was considered rather outmoded in time when the FPS was finally coming to full fruition, but as has ever been the case with all Bioware products, the artwork, writing, soundtrack and gameplay were all first class. It was also the first official product to implement the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules – a welcome advance on the somewhat illogical and impractical 2nd Edition ruleset.

I sat down that afternoon and installed the game on my crappy little laptop. It was the first laptop I ever owned and wasn’t actually all that bad, considering the times. Running Windows XP, it had a 6gig hard-drive, a 499Mhz processor and 196MB RAM. It could just about handle Civilization III and had more than enough to run IWD2. I was living at that time in a small room at the very top of number 12 Madingley Rd, next door to my eccentric American friend Edward. Number 12 was a veritable mansion, built in the mock-tudor style and owned by St John’s College, and my room looked from on high across a large front lawn surrounded by yew trees and redwood cedars towards number 10, where I had lived for my first three years in Cambridge.

It was a strange time in my life. Having submitted my PhD some five months ago and still waiting on a date for my viva voce, I was working part time at the Anchor Pub where I had worked for two and a half years already. I spent my days re-working volume one of my autobiography, Sex With a Sunburnt Penis, applying for jobs, and playing computer games.

Sitting thus beside the small lead glass window with its diamond panes, I fired up the game to discover that, s with it predecessor, IWD2 also required the creation of an entire party. This meant a few hours of undiluted joy for me were on the horizon, though it also meant that role-playing elements in the game would be limited as there would be no scripted interactions between NPCs.

The group I came up with consisted of the following personalities: Milla Sorrow, Amra of Aquilonia, Freya Stark, Laurie Nosgrit, Zorl Bankie and Summer Thingis. Apart from having been a real person, Freya Stark had also been the name of my oldest friend Gus’s first character, which he had the presence of mind to choose at the age of 10. Amra was a blatant Conan ripoff, whilst Laurie Nosgrit was another resurrection from that final 1989 campaign, a Halfling Fighter/Rogue. Zorl Bankie was a name inspired by my South African friend Chris, who had told me that in SA a banky of zorl (sic) was a very large deal of marijuana, usually wrapped up in a sheet of newspaper. Milla Sorrow is a name I find I still rather like, but of course, most important here is the long-delayed subject of this already overlong narrative, Summer Thingis. Her name was the last chosen and it was created in an act of desperation, as I wanted to finish and get started. The name was taken from the English title of a French film that was playing at the Art House Cinema at the time – Summer Things. An extra ‘i’ and I was good to go. I chose a very fetching portrait for her and made her a pure-class cleric. After all, every group needs specialist healers. Thus was Summer Thingis born. Needless to say, she performed admirably well as the party’s principal healer and I developed a real attachment to her, as I did to the others in the group.

Largely on account of my being so fond of her portrait, I later made use of her name in a variety of other games, though she had to wait until 2006/07, after my return to Cambridge. Firstly in Neverwinter Nights 2 (Hereafter, NWN2), then again in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I had a different vision of her by the time NWN 2 came around and remodelled her as a multi-class Ranger / Rogue / Wizard. I had a rather bad habit of making unwieldy multi-class builds in NWN2, simply because I could and Summer was no exception.

It was really, however, with Oblivion that Summer came into her own. With its far more customisable character creation system, allowing for much greater versatility in builds, I made a custom class called a Rainsinger. The name bore no relationship to her role, but rather celebrated my love of both rain and bards. She was a rogue-based blade, light armour and caster class, born under the Sign of the Lady.

I first played with her whilst I was in England, then, in 2008, when I returned to Sydney, I began to mod Oblivion. This became something of an obsessive process wherein I spent weeks completely customising the game. I replaced nearly all the textures and meshes, tweaked the game mechanics, added hundreds of user-created mods including new quests, quest and gameplay overhauls, a new user-interface, new equipment, locations, NPCs, including companions who could be recruited as party members.

I expanded the sound-track, slowed the levelling speed to one-tenth its original, slowed down time so that it was merely half that of the real world, added weather effects, transformed the shape of all the cities and towns, installed new cities and towns, removed the borders of the massive world and exploited the unused land out there and added many other new features to the game. I say that I did this, but it was all the work of the amazing modding community wherever they might be in the world. From websites such as TESNexus and Planet Elder Scrolls, I downloaded these at times quite extraordinary modifications and improved the game dramatically.

It was a lot of very hard work, but the results were astonishing to say the least. When you consider that the original skin textures on characters were 128×128 pixels, and these were upgraded to 4096×4096, you can get some idea of just how much more detailed the features of the characters in the game were. In most cases, however, the textures were merely four times the original size, yet this still gave the game a dramatic facelift. Some notable mods were Quarl’s Texture pack III, Exnem’s EyeCandy Body, Ren’s Mystic Elf Remake, the CM Companion mod, Growlf’s Hot Clothes, Improved Trees and Flora 1 & 2, Animated Window and Lighting System, Let the People Drink, Better Cities, Enhanced Magic Effects, Natural Environments, and the essential Oblivian Script Extender and Oblivion Mod Manager, to name a few. Two particular favourites on the quest front were the incomparable Lost Spires and the very engaging and useful Origins of the Mages Guild.

The sheer number and size of mods did cause some problems. The game was not entirely stable and crashed when minimised, and occasionally, but rarely, just plain crashed. It also tended to cause some quite heavy lag in populated areas and I did at times, particularly in cities, suffer a significant drop in FPS (Frames per second). This was not such a problem, even when the FPS dropped to a nadir of 12, compared with the standard 60, as I tended to walk through towns for the sake of role-play, thus improving reducing load pressures, and without combat, spell-casting or action sequences taking place in towns, it in no way hampered game-play.

The original Oblivion folder was four gigs in size, but the additions took it out to a total of nineteen gigs. Ouch.

I played this modified version of the game intermittently, but over a two-year period. I’d fire it up here and there and immerse myself in the province of Cyrodiil, with its lush, swaying foliage, long grass, rolling hills, high mountains and quaint medieval towns. It looked so good and the new mechanics made it play so well, that I was especially inspired to take the game as slowly as possible. I made Summer and her three companions walk or ride horses everywhere, only occasionally using the modded transport network to take a ship from say, Leyawiin to Bravil or on to the Imperial City. I was so enamoured of the new look of the game and the sheer vastness of the world that I nicknamed it The Beautiful Game. And it was, indeed, beautiful. Especially when under the influence of a certain cannibinoid, I found I could sit amongst the trees and watch them thrash around during a heavy thunderstorm for a very long time. I often did nothing other than wander around in the forest, pitch my portable tent in a clearing and sit beside it.

One of the great advantages of having installed so many mods, especially new lands, buildings, forts, castles, houses, estates, villages and what have you, was that I often stumbled upon things I had no recollection of installing at all. This made the game doubly enjoyable as having already played the game thoroughly and become very familiar with the landscape and quests,  it had become almost entirely novel again.

Sadly all this work came unstuck when my operating system developed some fatal errors and I was forced to do a complete overhaul, including finally making the switch to Windows 7. I rescued all the files, but the game would require a complete rebuild. A hobby I have only recently, one year on, found the time to pursue. It’s a work in progress.

Meanwhile, Summer continued to see action in the MMO Dungeons & Dragons Online.

Using the 3.5 edition rules, DDO again gave me licence to make her a multi-class build. I recreated Summer as an Arcane Archer – a Ranger / Wizard / Rogue – levels 9/3/1 respectively at last count. The final build, bearing in mind the game cap of level 20, was to be 14/5/1. I doubt this shall ever come about as I have since deleted the game in accordance with my new years resolution to stop wasting time and start doing more productive things with my spare time. I’m pleased to say, this has achieved the desired result.

Long live Summer Thingis!

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The first love of my life, apart from Jason the dachshund, was Dungeons & Dragons. It was 1981 and I was nine years old when my brother came home from school one day raving about a game he had watched some chaps playing in the playground.

“Several people can play. There’s not even any board. One guy is the Dungeon Master and he explains everything to the other people and they have to decide what to do. The Dungeon Master has maps and books with all the descriptions and rules in them. The players all pretend to be someone and they have to fight monsters and stuff. And they use these dice, with like twenty-sides and twelve and eight sides. It’s a fantasy game. It’s untold!”

He had, in fact, been watching people play for several days, sitting under a fig tree in the senior playground. His enthusiasm had grown steadily and, once he was hooked, he decided to recruit me so we could play at home. Naturally I was curious, and being the younger by two years, I often looked to my brother to introduce new things to me.

Aged nine and eleven we didn’t exactly have enough pocket money to rush out and buy the game rules, so to begin with my brother wrote an adventure, based on what he had seen at school. It was called the Keep of Terror and was, in every regard, what would later become known as a classic dungeon crawl. He drew a map of corridors, rooms, stairwells and underground caverns with an accompanying booklet defining the contents, replete with monsters, pit traps and even a pendulum blade trap. He had obtained a sufficiently rudimentary understanding of the rules to be able to help me create a character, and thus was my first ever avatar born: A Fighter by the name of Heedik. Without the appropriate dice, he approximated everything on three six-sided dice (3d6) and we sat down one afternoon in his bedroom to play.

I was instantly, and I mean, within seconds, totally and utterly engrossed. As I began to explore my first dungeon, armed with a long-sword, wearing leather armour and carrying a shield, my imagination came alive in a way that no story or film had ever managed to achieve. For first time ever, I was the protagonist. In the flickering torchlight and haunted illumination of the cobwebbed arrow-slits, my life depended not only on the decisions I made, but also the dice-rolls. When I opened a door to be attacked by three skeletons armed with rusty old weapons, I was thrilled, terrified and delighted, especially once I crouched over their shattered remains to pilfer a valuable gold necklace. My long, long, long and ongoing fantasy adventuring career had begun.

We replayed the Keep of Terror twice, then, that same week, pooled every cent we had managed to save, just under twenty dollars, and set off for Mind Games in Bondi Junction. We weren’t entirely sure what we should buy, but for some strange reason, rather than simply buying the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, we bought two adventures instead. In Search of the Unknown and The Palace of the Silver Princess, B1 and B3 respectively.

I had a few dollars more than Matthew and bought two dice as well – a D20 and a D8. We rushed home and got stuck into reading these “Modules”. In no time flat, my brother, ever the Dungeon Master, was taking me through In Search of the Unknown.

Like most modules back then it too was a classic dungeon crawl – the long-abandoned lair of a vanished wizard. After years of neglect, the place had been overrun by monsters and overgrown with strange, in some cases sentient plants. Other adventurers had tried and failed to explore this musty hideaway and the entrance corridor was grisly with their decaying corpses.

Feeling it was time to move on from Heedik, and now more aware of just how makeshift my brother’s initial crack at the rules had been, I picked a character from the pre-generated list at the back; a first-level cleric called The Mystical One. It was a crap name, it must be said, but I rather liked it at the time. Accompanied initially by a few more robust NPCs (non-player characters for the uninitiated) The Mystical One survived the challenges of In Search of the Unknown and, believing at the time that it was only possible to have one character at a time, I stuck with him.

It wasn’t until our birthdays came around that we finally got hold of the rules and things became a lot clearer. My brother also succeeded in recruiting his best friend Shah, and I got my best friend Gus on board, thus significantly increasing the player roster.  Of course, they could hardly be there on a regular basis, but my brother and I played almost every day after school. One weekend, whilst the two of us were staying at Shah’s house, The Mystical One finally met his demise at the hands of a village of enraged Lizardmen on The Isle of Dread. I was somewhat upset about this, but also felt ready to move onto another character.

Needing a new avatar, I again turned to the long list of pre-generated characters at the back of In Search of the Unknown and chose a thief by the name of Luven Lightfingers. This time he stuck, and, despite being somewhat pissweak, he proved more capable at keeping himself alive. Within a year Matthew and I had bought the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, in the first edition of course, and we simply adapted our game to this far more complex and ultimately satisfying rules system. Luven, survivor that he was, would go on to reach 9th level over the next few years of gaming.

More than just a character in a fantasy role-playing game, Luven Lightfingers was my first true alter-ego. Cunning and resourceful, dextrous and skilled, intelligent and sharp, he was my hero. But, best of all, he was me. I imagined him looking rather lank and devious. The shady guy in the corner, a pick-pocket, a pilferer, yet he was also one who favoured helping the disadvantaged and tyrannised. He would, if at times in an underhanded and unconventional fashion, always try to put an end to evil where he found it. He had the common touch and was not fond of the excesses of the aristocracy. He was himself no assassin, was not an evil man, and appropriately this was reflected in his alignment – chaotic good. The Players’ Handbook, and here I quote from the 1989 2nd edition, has the following to say about the chaotic good alignment:

Chaotic Good is known as the “Beatific,” “Rebel,” or “Cynic” alignment. A Chaotic Good character favors change for a greater good, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. They always intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of alignment with the rest of society. They may create conflict in a team if they feel they are being pushed around, and often view extensive organization and planning as pointless, preferring to improvise. While they do not have evil intentions, they may do bad things (even though they will not enjoy doing these things) to people who are, in their opinion, bad people, if it benefits the greater good.

Around the age of twelve, with Luven rapidly approaching tenth level, my brother, who had started to display an increasingly mean streak as a Dungeon Master, tried to kill off Luven in Against the Giants. Having snuck his way deep into their compound in the mountains, Luven came upon a treasury, the centre-piece of which was a large, iron-bound chest. Naturally excited at the prospect of some quality loot, he proceeded to search for traps and found none. The chest was locked, yet the lock was not beyond his skill and Luven sprang it without difficulty. Sadly, however, there was in fact a poison spike trap which he had failed to detect, and as the lid popped open, a spike shot into his arm, tipped with a lethal poison.

I needed to roll a 10 on a d20 to make the “saving throw”, but when I threw that die I rolled a 9. My heart sank, and I looked at my brother as though to say, “Surely, no?” Yet I received no sympathy.

“Too bad,” he said. “Luven’s dead.” Indeed, he seemed almost to revel in the demise of my beloved Luven. We fought, there were tears, and I ran away and locked myself in my room.

The following day, however, still mourning his death as much as I had the death of Jason the Dachshund that same year, I remembered that Luven was in fact wearing a Ring of Protection +1, which gave him a positive modifier on his saving throw dice-roll and thus should have seen him survive the deadly poison. I took this information to my brother, but he refused to accept it.

“It’s too bad, he’s dead,” he said, re-iterating his cold response of the day before. “But,” I kept pushing, “we forgot about the ring. That’s the rules,” yet my brother would not budge. He must have decided he had had enough of Luven Lightfingers and wanted him to stay dead. Again, there was fighting, anger and tears and this time the situation prevailed for several days. Ultimately, my father was forced to intervene to try to convince Matthew that it was in the best interests of family harmony that he allow for the resurrection of Luven. My brother would not quite agree, but I at last decided that I didn’t, in fact, need his say so on this one. So far as I was concerned, Luven was still alive.

My attachment to Luven Lightfingers never quite diminished and he has enjoyed further resurrections over the years in various fantasy settings; especially in the many later iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, be it 2nd or 3rd edition, or in computer games such as Baldur’s Gate I & II, Neverwinter Nights I & II, Icewind Dale 1 & II and Dungeons & Dragons Online. I have, of course, used many other avatars, some of whom will be featured here, but so deeply nostalgic do I feel for Luven that here and there I can’t resist bringing him back to life in some form or another. I suspect he will crop up again in the future, in some as yet unforeseen campaign, although the pleasure I receive from naming characters will likely ensure he won’t be my first choice.

Dungeons & Dragons has shaped many aspects of my life and, since I was a child, role-playing has been my escape. When I didn’t like my situation, I would pretend to be somewhere else or go somewhere else; when I didn’t like myself, I would pretend to be someone else; and when I didn’t like someone else, I would pretend to take them out with an arrow. Dungeons & Dragons was no mere game and it rubbed off on me as a way of looking at the world. Ever since I first embarked on In Search of the Unknown I’ve never ceased to view people, including myself, as “characters”; some friendly, some hostile, some worthy of love. Just as I developed my characters during my obsessive childhood until I grew bored of their capability and started afresh with a new character, so it was with me and my associates. Characters in life have often seemed like commodities and when people, through overexposure, became reduced by waning interest to caricatures of themselves, I am often forced to go back out in search of the unknown in the hope of finding the novel.

When I became unhealthily obsessed with the MMO, Dungeons & Dragons Online in recent years, I found myself constantly switching “toons”. One character would have a good long run from 1st level up, then sit for a while as I grew restless with them and wanted to run a different build. So it was that I went through Hallifax Bender, Bethanie Brinsett, Jaspar Krait of Luskan, Snowfell Vanish, Summer Thingis, Honeydrop Sundew, Lusetta Sorrowdusk, Lucessa Rainsinger, Applefrost Loveblossom, Jyzze Badajon and the indomitable Yardley “The Scissors” Bruce, to name a few. Each of these toons had their own style and personality, and though hardly a game that inspired role-playing, being in groups, miked up and chatting with five other random strangers from faraway places such as Brazil, China, the US, Spain, UK and Israel, inspired a certain role-play in itself. Still, I could never quite work out who I wanted to play – healer or assassin, tank or buffer, crowd control or hardcore caster of arcane magics.

I found this restlessness with characters also translated to people, especially once I started using online dating websites. The profiles looked to me just like character sheets and I was torn in deciding which one I’d either like to “play” or have in my party as it were. Indeed, I soon realised that my obsessive switching between toons had shortened my narrative attention span so that I couldn’t date someone without already thinking about who I’d like to date next. Most people I met had a certain appeal, but perhaps it was insufficiently broad to warrant whole-hearted enthusiasm. I have always played multi-class characters, and I guess I expect people to have a wide range of interests and to be extremely versatile thinkers and conversationalists. They can judge me however they like too! I also have a tendency, both in life and in roleplaying, not to give much thought to the endgame. I’ve always far preferred the beginning with all its immersive excitement and novelty. I’d like to think that I have moved on from this phase now – one can but hope.

So, here we have it, the avatars. Luven first, as there could be no other first, despite his predecessors. I’d like to think that, unconstrained by the forces of entropy, they might live on forever. And so it is that I have chosen to commemorate them here.

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