The magic of the unknown

After some months of abstinence I’ve gone back to Skyrim. The extra content in Hearthfire and Dragonborn pulled me back, and I realized there are still quite a few things for me to discover amidst the original game’s snow, ice and dragons. The world threatening conflict of Dragonborn adds a bit of much needed energy to the old world, so I’ll probably not finish that quest line quite just yet. You see, once I finished Skyrim’s main quest the last of the tension, the life, the sense that anything could happen, poured out of the setting and it became a less interesting space to be in. Dragonborn mends that a little bit, but only a little.

It wasn’t just finishing the main quest – it was the 90+ hours I had sunk into Skyrim. After so many hours I knew that everything I would do, everything I would encounter, would be variations on a theme. I’ve realized that if I’m to be immersed in Bethesda’s game there needs to be something unknown waiting on the other side of the next mountain. If the world is to feel alive, there needs to be systems I still don’t know, like hidden treasures of potential that could allow me to interact with the world and its inhabitants in new, deeper ways. If that potential would ever deliver was of less importance than the potential itself.

I can’t help but to do draw parallels to life itself. When I was younger life used to feel like an ocean full of unturned stones. But then I grew up and realized that while there were still plenty of stones to turn, I had already seen all kinds of rock – and every stone I’d flip in the future would end up being one of those. I know the mechanics of a life now. Life, death, work, love, family, promotions, redundancies, achievement, failure, disappointment, pride, oceans, mountains, cities, stars and empty space. Tomorrow won’t surprise me, and neither will the next decade.

Perhaps the dreariness this results in is a big reason for why people believe in not only gods, but UFO landings, life after death, magic, conspiracy theories and everything else that spells “faith”. Anything at all that promise an unknown country hiding somewhere beyond the horizon. Something that whispers “there is more” into your ear when the earth beneath your feet is about to give way.

Hope. I used to dislike the concept, but I get it now. We all thirst for it. A vague, shimmering shape in the distance. The magic of the unknown. Some people pursuit it in religion. Perhaps a group of us faithless seek it in game worlds, as some sort of substitute. Did Skyrim show me some of the magic I no longer see in the real world?

Through the noise #6

My gold digging equipment is left behind in some diamond filled crevice. Putting my ears to the tracks, I hear a tap dancing hobo from miles away. He’s tapping morse code, spelling out hypertext transfer protocol adresses. Beep for beeep, I write them down. This is the real treasure. 

Todd Howard’s DICE keynote
Todd Howard, the creative director of Skyrim, gives an interesting and revealing talk about how Bethesda creates their games. Definately worth your time if you’re into game development.

Top five regrets of the dying
Well,we’re all going to die. Here are the top five regrets expressed by the dying, according to someone that used to work in palliative care. Let’s not make this list ours when the time comes, OK?

The end of evil?
The word “evil” is deeply problematic, expressing nothing but ignorance of the real processes and desires that drive people. Whenever someone with power speaks of evil, reach for your gun! He’s either lying or he’s a fool. This article discusses why neuroscientists claim there is no such thing as evil, and I wish that idea could claim some ground in the public debate.

Gelaskins
If you’re ever looking for protection for your smartphone, tablet or laptop, check out Gelaskins. They make durable skins that look amazing. I bought The Great Wave (Katsushika Hokusai) for my netbook and iPad Touch a long time ago, and now I’m considering getting it for my HTC Desire Z.

51 words for snow

The eskimos are said to have fifty different words for snow. It’s not remotely true of course, but so goes the modern legend that we love to retell. I guess it’s a romanticization of the relationship to a natural phenomenon (and of the idea of indigenous people in tune with nature), probably saying less about eskimos and more about the people repeating the saying. We want to be closer to nature.

I think it’s often true that the modern human, with her apartment complexes and information feeds, secretly longs after the woods, mountains and rivers she has organized away. She desires a deeper sense of snow.

Perhaps those of us up here in the northern part of the world ought to have a slimmer version of the same myth, with our long winters. Thirty words for snow? Twenty? I probably have no more than a handful, but I sure know snow.

Truth to be told, I am sick of winter. See, we Swedes have a short summer. Spring comes late, and autumn always seem to arrive too early. Then we face many months of snow, cold and darkness. We count the day as blessed whenever our pale skin gets some sunshine, and we huddle in our brightly lit homes to keep the cold and the dark away. This winter I started longing for spring already in october.

Funny, then, that I enjoy the winterous landscapes of Skyrim so much.

Perhaps it is the contrast between sitting comfortably in a warm and bright apartment while exploring a steep mountain in an intense snow storm. Perhaps it is all the mysteries awaiting the curious who chooses to leave the beaten path. Or maybe it is the diversity of environments – the many variations on the theme “snow”.

Most of Skyrim is clad in snow, and yet it never ceases to surprise you. Moving from area to area, you encounter one unique snow landscape after another. The intense snow storm that seems to drown the world in white, the strong cold wind that blows newly-fallen snow from nearby ridges, the green grove that receives the year’s first snow, the…

Even as a swede, I have no words for many of the types of snow Bethesda has captured. That is not a reflection on my vocabulary but a celebration of Bethesda’s world design. If the saying about the eskimos had not been false, it’s easy to believe that even they would run out of words. I don’t know what strange country Skyrim’s art director comes from, but wherever that might be his people must speak a language with 51 words for snow.

It’s not only the variation. Each type of snow filled environment has been carefully crafted, giving you a rare sense of climate and weather. It genuinely surprised me how cold I felt when I climbed the game’s first mountain. Not only do the areas immerse you, but they evoke specific feelings. You will feel cold, but also melancholic, hopeful, filled with awe and so on. Couple the strong artistic vision of each landscape with the variation of environments and you experience an ever-changing emotional state as you walk the land.

With my dislike of winter, I would not have expected Skyrim’s defining feature – the one that made me fall in love with the game – to be snow.

Playing Skyrim

The move to Sweden was an ordeal. It should have been fairly easy – Norway is a neighbouring country, and I am Swedish after all (although with 50% Finnish sisu). But the completely insane housing market in Sweden (good luck trying to find an apartment without renting one from someone already renting it or paying a bribe of half a year’s salary), and the fact that we were defrauded gave us more than one headache.

Yes – defrauded. We we’re royally screwed on an apartment by a sociopath. It’s long story that I might tell another time, but for now I’ll just conclude that the parasite is doing time.

Anyway. Games.

The ordeal meant that most of our stuff waited for us in a warehouse, in the twilight zone between the previous apartment and the next one, and we had to wait until early December until we got it back. That translates to a lot of time without my PC or my Xbox 360. My already intimidating games backlog continued to grow and grow.

But it’s been well over a month since my hardware returned, so the backlog should surely have been reduced by now. Right?

Well, Skyrim happened. It’s not like I don’t want to finish Deux Ex: Human Revolution, it’s not like I don’t want to try out Battlefield 3, but…

I was never that impressed by Oblivion. And Skyrim is not a perfect game. But by god was it a long time since a game captured my imagination like this. When I’ve played it, I keep thinking about it even when I should be sound asleep. I think about the things I might want to try, and potential scenarios that might unfold the next time I enter its captivating world.

The game lives in the mind, and it was years since that happened to me. I remember having games stay with me during downtime when I was a kid, but these days it’s very rare… and I treasure whenever it happens.