Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Desperate Housewives of Skyrim

Robert Rath | 29 Nov 2012 16:00
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To anyone who's been in a relationship, this seems really weird, a combination of loveless sterility and domestic exploitation. If I treated my real-life girlfriend the way characters in Skyrim treat their spouses, she wouldn't be my girlfriend anymore.

Without a doubt, part of the problem is that relationships are a challenging thing to get right in any game, much less an RPG. Relationships are difficult to portray in games because the audience's familiarity with a real-world experience narrows the margin of error. None of us know what it feels like to fight a dragon, so developers have a lot of leeway to fudge details - but everyone knows what it's like to be in love. Our brains are so attuned to picking up social cues and emotional undertones that when we see a relationship so stilted and lacking in intimacy, it's hard not to feel that doubt and hostility are bubbling beneath the surface.

Skyrim's character models, unfortunately, contribute to this sense of dissonance. Whenever Camilla talked to me, her face never changed expression. Even when her voice lilted with the pleasure of seeing me, or she gave me (what I'm sure was intended to be) a breathily sexy farewell, she had the same blank expression. According to finely-tuned human instinct, blank expression plus over-emphasized emotion means someone's faking it, just like lack of physical contact and communication means loveless marriage. This is how my parents acted, I kept thinking, after they got divorced. For a long time I thought I was projecting the dreary narrative onto Helsher and Camilla because of my family background, but no: The game itself fed me these cues, however unintentionally.

The real tragedy is that I actually liked Camilla as a character. Though she wasn't my first choice of wife, if I'm honest - I liked Ysolda's plucky goal to become a businesswoman, but her marriage quest glitched and never came up - there just seemed something that felt narratively right about Camilla. She was one of the first people in Skyrim that I interacted with at any length, and there was something that felt genuinely human about her romantic problems and her relationship to her brother. She'd always treated my character well, and her voice actor managed to instill her with a sense of gracefulness and even a touch of awe whenever she spoke to me. Going back to the Riverwood Trader seemed like something my character would do, to go find the girl who liked him before everyone knew him as the Dragonborn. Sure, the veneer of her being a three-dimensional character was thin, but it was at least there.

By marrying her I destroyed all that. Instead of a character, she became a cross between an ATM and a vending machine. Marriage proved the end of her story, rather than a beginning. She never grew or changed further as a character, and her dialogue whittled down to six or seven maddeningly repetitive phrases. Her cyclical blandness, while catering to my every need, made me feel like I'd moved from Whiterun to Stepford. No matter what I did to elicit even a basic reaction from her - bumping into her, standing in the fire, dropping dragon bones on the floor, casually lounging around the house as a werewolf - she just kept stirring the pot, giving me a glassy stare and saying: "Hello my love! Back from some adventure, I bet!" This, I'm sure, is why Skyrim forums and YouTube videos are full of players that admit to murdering their spouses. Despite both interspecies and gay marriage being legal in Skyrim, divorce is apparently a taboo, leaving homicide as the only option if you (understandably) can't stand to hear that "welcome home" stock phrase one more time. Frankly, after hearing "Goodbye, my love," at least a hundred times, this juror wouldn't vote to convict.

I never murdered Camilla - not my style really - but I did start to avoid her a little. I'd wait until the gold from the shop accumulated before picking it up so I didn't have to hear her dialogue too many times, and I stopped asking for home-cooked meals. Moving to another house crossed my mind, but I was big into smithing and Breezehome was conveniently situated next to Warmaiden's. Also, as a character who didn't use much magic, I was perpetually poor from blowing wads of cash on health potions and didn't want to drop the Septims for another crash pad.

One day though, I finally found a way to be a good husband - or at least not a bad one. When I came through the door I saw Camilla sitting in a chair with her hands in her lap, chin up and impassively gazing at the wall.

Creeping around the other side of the fire so as not to disturb her, I took the chair next to her and stared too. If this is what she was going to do, we could at least do it together.

Both of us sat by the fire, looking intently at nothing, our faces as blank as the wall that stared back at us.

It was a special moment.

Maybe we should adopt a kid.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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