There are a lot of thoughts swimming around in my head about this one.
If you were to look at my Steam profile and organize the games I have played according to their total playtime, one thing would become readily apparent: I have given a lot of my life to Bethesda Softworks. It breaks down like this: 891 hours with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (although that comes to 986 when you include the Special Edition), 745 hours with Fallout: New Vegas, and 677 hours with Fallout 4. Ring me up, that time totals just over 100 days of total playtime.
These are single-player games, mind you, meaning I spent all of this time with no one but Bethesda’s writers, a bug-and-glitch-filled world, and my own imagination. Now, if you were to ask me if I regretted spending that amount of time in these digital worlds, I would say no after a moment of hesitation. I understand that the replacement of those 100 days of practice with, say, writing… That’s a large chunk of EXP. But the draw of Bethesda’s games is escapism, pure and simple. And escapism is vital to my mental survival. Just like someone would escape into a book or a movie, these games let me assume the role of someone who is much more outgoing and assertive. And yes, someone who is, at times, aggressive, and often violent. Someone I definitely am not.
Violence is often portrayed as necessary in these worlds. Just to travel from one place to another, a sword or a loaded gun is a necessity for personal protection. There are games that you can complete without having to kill anyone (another Bethesda published title, Dishonored, can be beaten this way, but why though when you can play like this), the same can’t really be said for the setting of Skyrim or Fallout. Skyrim is in the midst of a civil war with no Empire to guard the roads to and from cities; Boston and New Vegas are only just starting to recover from the aftermath of the Great War, held down by threats both seen and unseen. Bandits and raiders abound, the Institute kidnap people, the Thalmor threaten Talos worship with death, and Caesar intends to bring his Legion to bear (pun intended). Not to mention all of the wild creatures like dragons and deathclaws that call these environments home.
I don’t play these games strictly for their violence, even though the gameplay is part of the draw. After all, Fallout 4 is probably the one with the best combat system, and even then, the gunplay gets boring without any real context or purpose. For me, it’s mostly about the story, and Fallout: New Vegas takes the cake on that one. I’m the weird guy that reads the books in Skyrim (I think The Locked Room is one of my favorites), and I don’t think the main story in Fallout 4 is as atrocious as other critics say it is (I mean, it’s no War and Peace, but still). I’ve explored the heck out of these games, and in at least one instance (with Fallout: New Vegas) even helped me become familiar with the real-life location (my dad and I found Goodsprings and visited the haunted Pioneer Saloon once, even spoke with one of the owners for about an hour, it was a neat experience). I don’t know the games well enough the speed-run them, but I have spent enough time in them that exploration is no longer as fun as it once was. As for New Vegas, I just spent a lot of time completing Tale of Two Wastelands, which combines Fallout 3 and New Vegas into a single game, and even then, I’ve played them into oblivion.
In fact, the only reason I’ve spent as much time in these worlds as I have is due of all the modding I’ve done to them. Skyrim especially. I can’t play the base games on their own. It’s why I’m so excited for the New California mod for Fallout: New Vegas to come out, as well as the rest of the Beyond Skyrim project.
So, what am I left with after 100 days in Bethesda’s buggy worlds, through all the CTDs and missing textures? As my dad told me once, “Strive to be as bold and goal-oriented in life as you would be in a video game.”
I think about that a lot. I wish life gave me an experience bar I could fill up by doing random things. Unlike in Fallout 4, when general ‘experience’ can be gained just as easily from building a power generator or discovering a new location as killing a super mutant or robot, it takes a considerable amount of effort in the real world to find success in any one activity. It takes even longer for that practice to produce anything meaningful. In improving my skills as a writer, smithing in Skyrim comes to mind. Hammering out a thousand iron daggers can help you smith that coveted dragonbone longsword, metaphorically speaking. I have to build my vocabulary and grammar skills in different ways to help me express the ideas I want to express. And in the writing opportunities I’ve had, I’ve been equally frustrated and blessed to be able to write for businesses of all types, from electricians to diving instructors to aviation fuel vendors and everything in between. Some businesses were simple. Some took a lot of research to make understandable to the common person. And some were so concerned with buzzwords and jargon, they could have pages of text on their website but not communicate anything meaningful. It takes a lot of knowledge to write, and you never know when a spare piece of research or information source is going to be useful for your future storytelling and writing ability.
I’ve learned a lot of different lessons from Bethesda games, and I consider it one of my wildest dreams to be able to craft a story the way their writers do. The possibility that someone like me could make a living telling stories and writing like they do is amazing. Did you know Lawrence Schick’s official title at Zenimax Studios is ‘loremaster’? Put that on my resume!
My favorite writers are the ones at Obsidian Entertainment that worked on New Vegas, John R. Gonzalez, Chris Avellone, and his whole team. Vault 11 (which was, in turn, inspired by The Lottery by Shirley Jackson) and the entirety of the Dead Money DLC are highlights of my experience. Old World Blues had me rolling on the floor, it was so hilarious and irreverent compared to the bleakness of Big Mountain. One of my future articles will absolutely be on how they wrote the Mormon wasteland missionaries Joshua Graham and Daniel in the Honest Hearts DLC, on whom I think they did a superb job. And while I think Chris Avellone overdid it a little bit with Ulysses in Lonesome Road (probably more due to time crunch than anything else), I think it proved its point on how people can change the course of history just by the roads they choose to walk.
Will I ever be as bold as my player character is in Bethesda games? I don’t know. But maybe I’ll become a strong protagonist someday. Admittedly, standing up for myself is one of my weaknesses, especially when pressured (I can’t imagine that’s strange, though). But I won’t become a loremaster without growing a spine. As I stated before, it’s escapism that drew me to Bethesda games in the first place, all starting with Morrowind back in the day. For someone with mental health problems, distractions are a blessed diversion from the constant self-criticism. It’s actually a good thing to distract yourself from your problems after you’ve done all you can (provided you don’t overdo it). I feel successful when I progress the story, when I slay the giant, when I build the settlement.
That’s what Bethesda is best at: creating a world you can lose yourself in. And after the non-stop, consistent battering and negativity that I’ve trained my mind to think about itself, it’s nice to become someone who don’t take no crap from nobody. In fact, it’s just fun to be someone else for a while, period. Especially someone violent, for some reason. My preference? Take the ‘Terrifying Presence’ perk, pick up your favorite Q-35 Matter Modulator, travel to the Tops Casino, and tell Benny where he can stick that lighter of his.
Hint: look away, children.