Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, at the beginning of 2016:
As a kid, I frequented video arcades regularly. As a parent, my son and I spent a good decade playing games together on his various systems. When he graduated and moved away to college, he took all his systems with him, leaving me with only my old Nintendo that won’t play cartridges unless you keep the Game Genie firmly inserted, and an Atari Plug-‘n’-Play Controller I got for Christmas a few years ago that interested me for about two weeks. On Black Friday 2014, I decided I wanted back in the 21st century gaming mode and picked up a used PS3.
Naturally I started off a generation behind the rest of the civilized world, but I didn’t care. After fifteen months without, holding a controller felt abnormal and rusty for the first few weeks. Once I got used to it again and figured out how to disable the “Digital Clear Motion Plus” feature on my TV, I could shake the dust off my trigger fingers, choose the games I wanted to play, sprint or meander through them at whatever pace I saw fit, and try some different universes beyond Final Fantasy and our other longtime mainstays…
…and it’s been a minor MCC annual tradition ever since. On average I would play three times per week, maybe two hours per session, and get through four to six games per year, except when I spent thirteen months on Borderlands 2, that other time I spent nine months of 2019 on Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel…and, as you can understand, when I ventured to Skyrim for eleven straight months in the Year of our Pandemic 2020. That February I’d entered the Elder Scrolls world for the first time. A month later, the real world fell to pieces.
Skyrim was my retreat from the pandemic, from the internet, from obsessively pervasive hyperpartisanship, from creative writing, and from more, more, more:
…that’s how I’ve spent 431 hours of my life so far since Valentine’s Day 2020. Very nice of Sony to add an extra field that tracks your total playtime for accountability purposes.
But with a lot of activities and other parts of life on hold or taken away in 2020, something had to fill the voids. Sometimes Skyrim also took away from other void-filling activities. Often when I wasn’t here on MCC writing and posting and self-entertaining at night, I was hanging out in Skyrim. My writing suffers while I’m half-asleep or depressed by a world that’s crumbling all around me, but I can totally wander Skyrim half-asleep and button-mash through its crappy fight system or turn off my brain while forging another two dozen Dwarven Bows with Absorb Health enchantments just for the experience points. And in Skyrim, I can still catch disease, but they’re guaranteed not to kill me or my loved ones.
In the normal annual entry, here’s where we would commence with a rundown of my retro gaming for the previous year, in the order played and with my trophy percentages included to reinforce the fact that I’m neither a gaming wizard nor a helpless grandpa. We begin of course with:
* Skyrim (final trophy count 93%): Valentine’s week 2020 to 1/19/2022. And, as it happens, we ended 2021 in Skyrim as well.
A lot of people enjoy repetitive pastimes. Some folks watch the same two or three TV shows over and over and over again. Some knit. Some tend to gardens. Some saw and hammer wood into cool shapes. Some do crossword puzzles. Some buy shiny minerals off eBay. Some do racist internet trolling. Some stare at walls and imagine a better life. Some jog. Some bake. Some drink. Some overdo pharmaceuticals. In 2021 I Skyrimmed.
Some of that was actual game play. A lot of that was spent crafting. As the game’s leveling system works, the more often you use your 18 different skills, the more experience you gain and therefore the more powerful you become, even if the skills you’re using most often have nothing to do with combat or magic. After a year I had my system down. After every adventure I went through the same routine comprising the following errands:
- Return to whoever gave me the quest to pick up my rewards.
- Go back to my main house (for the first eighteen months this was Breezehome in Whiterun, my first home in my favorite city).
- Use raw materials on hand to improve any weapons or apparel I found (points for Smithing).
- Cast Transmute to create silver or gold ore out of whatever ore I’d found or bought (points for Alteration), then go to a smelter and turn them into gold and silver ingots.
- Use those ingots plus any gemstones I found to make jewelry (more Smithing points).
- At an Arcane Enchanter Table, use filled Soul Gems to magick any weapons or apparel that weren’t already magicked (points for Enchanting).
- At an Alchemy Lab, use any ingredients I found to make as many potions as possible (points for Alchemy).
- Run around to various vendors and sell off everything I’d just made, which earned me points for Speech until that was maxed out and all its slots were filled.
Repeat until ludicrously rich. When it was clear I would never want for money again, I kept crafting and selling anyway because I could. That’s what one does in a video game. Making all this stuff and then tossing it in a chest of infinite capacity seemed a silly waste. Over the months I got to know pretty much all the vendors in all the land, including the orc strongholds, the Thieves’ Guild, the more clandestine thieves in each city, the Khajiit wanderers, and so on. In between storylines and side quests, and often during them, I went through the procedure again and again and again and again and again. I’ve hated crafting in all other games up until Skyrim. It was a way to boost my character’s stats and clear my head at the same time, especially after a long and/or stressful day IRL. In 2021 such days weren’t rare.
When I wasn’t crafting or wheeling-‘n’-dealing, I was adventuring. Previously on Skyrim, my heroine Ramonda was in a much more worrisome place than me, as she ended the year deep in the Dark Brotherhood storyline. It wasn’t enough that she was already the much-prophesied Dragonborn, a Thane in every major hold but Windhelm, the Archmage of the College at Winterhold, the head of the Thieves’ Guild, and a pretty okay bard, not the worst in the land. No, after the Thieves’ Guild storyline taught her that the consequences of her actions tended to be minor and fleeting no matter how harsh her misdeeds were, she felt compelled to push her luck and joined the continent’s notorious league of shadowy assassins, those most heinous masters of evil, the Dark Brotherhood. In this darkest period of her life, Ramonda earned still more cash she didn’t need, and the respect of skillful lowlifes, by murdering a slew of mostly innocents. Some had dark sides. After a time, it was clear some didn’t. Things escalated until she was hired to assassinate the Emperor Titus Mede II himself, who was quite the sanguine conversationalist as he awaited the final fate he already knew was coming. He knew the job was dangerous when he took it.
Eventually Ramonda learned she was also the Brotherhood’s prophesied Chosen One, as if she weren’t already tired of hearing that on other fronts. Things got even messier, the prophecy of course came true, there was a jester who was like the Joker but with a voice twenty times more annoying and therefore deserved to be killed where he stood, yadda yadda yadda, the Brotherhood was laid low and nearly all their members were killed off except the Chosen One herself, two surviving coworkers, and their patron daemon who’s doomed to spend eternity undead, paralyzed in a coffin, and using telepathy to keep nagging Our Heroine to do repetitive, homicidal side quests for her. She was hideous and easy to ignore.
The Dark Brotherhood wrapped on February 4th. Ramonda’s adventures continued throughout the year, each ending as follows:
- 2/8: Finally got around to stopping the sinister head dragon Alduin, the game’s main Big Bad, almost as an afterthought, nearly one year to the day after starting the game. This heroism led Ramonda to a possible path for redemption, or at least for burying her past, which no one ever really mentioned ever again except maybe one bitter shopkeeper in Whiterun whose brother was among the victims and who kept calling Ramonda a “miserable wretch” as if he just knew.
- A few days after 2/8, I think: Killed the ancient dragon Paarthurnax (voiced in a sub-baritone rumble by Charles “Mario” Martinet), who had granted me the necessary power to defeat Alduin, but who had never been held accountable for his own numerous atrocities from long ago. This was tragically distressing to his best pal, the one character voiced by Christopher Plummer, who never spoke again after that.
- 2/17: Returned to the Companions, that band of heroic werewolves, and after several successes was nobly promoted through the ranks to become their new leader despite rejecting the tedious werewolf lifestyle.
- 2/24: Wedding date! After much vetting of candidates, Ramonda married Balimund, the humble blacksmith from the seedy city of Riften, who was impressed to meet a woman in his same profession. He didn’t bother to dress up for the ceremony, but at least he had a steady job and no other apparent sins.
- 3/3: After abstaining for years from choosing a side in the ongoing Civil War, Ramonda finally met with General Tullius (voiced by Battlestar Galactica‘s Michael Hogan) and joined the Imperials in seeking revenge against Ulfric Stormcloak, the king’s murderer, and quashed his rebellion once and for all. General Tullius’ big inspire-the-troops speech was not among the game’s best-written moments, but Jeremy Soule’s score carried the emotional weight of a very busy final battle. Ulfric disappointingly died in about 15 seconds flat, but at least Ramonda was finally named a Thane of Windhelm and given yet another free house to add to her collection.
- 3/31 – 6/6: Fought an ancient vampire clan whose creepy Transylvanian castle popped up from nowhere on the northwest coast. With Ramonda at such a high level, the game’s AI system boosted the vampires proportionately and made them her worst enemy ever: every time she was bitten she had roughly 5-7 seconds (yes, I mean seconds) to use a Cure Disease potion or else be turned into a vampire permanently. This required a lot of potions and an aggravating number of do-overs from previous save points. On the bright side, the head vampire’s daughter Serana turned on him, became Ramonda’s BFF, and had some of the best lines in the game. Ramonda kept her around longer than any other follower.
- 6/16 – 7/7: In addition to her six free houses, built two more houses literally from the ground up, in a DLC segment that turned the game into “Sim Fantasy Home” as Ramonda had to keep acquiring raw materials, building each house brick by brick, and tracking down all possible furnishings. Both places wound up extremely cluttered with totally unnecessary possessions, but she could afford it. One of the homes was staffed with the most tone-deaf bard in all the land. If Ramonda ever returns from retirement, that bard is fired.
- 7/10: Learned there was a new employee at Thieves’ Guild HQ who could rearrange faces for the right price. Ramonda spent some fun-money and treated herself to some light upgrades.
- Also 7/10: Adopted two orphans — Runa, from the Riften orphanage (whose abusive Miss Hannigan was another Dark Brotherhood kill), and Sofie, from the streets of Windhelm. A third would-be adoptee, a Whiterun urchin named Lucia, had to settle for a gold coin and a smile because the game is cruel and won’t let Our Hero adopt all the kids even though she had the gold and the houses to care for them all.
- 7/23 – 10/29: In the final major storyline courtesy of the final DLC pack, traveled to the distant island of Solstheim and took on an undead Big Bad warrior mage who was himself a Dragonborn in a previous era, but then he went mad and dead and even madder. Solstheim was a new source of fascination in itself, though to this day one side quest remains incomplete, involving a missing werebear. If you have tips as to the whereabouts of a Skaal Vilage citizen named Torkild, please contact John Walsh right away. There may be an imaginary reward.
…and that was it for official quests. Ramonda then spent the last two months of 2021 scouring the entire Skyrim map from top to bottom in pursuit of the last remaining unexplored dungeons and other areas, to drain the game of every last possible ounce of playability before retiring the disk to the box it hadn’t seen in two years.
Random final stats and figures culled from the ridiculous number of things this game tracks:
- Level 146
- 915 in-game days
- 4,879,741 gold
- 73 spells learned
- 117 dragon souls absorbed
- 27 shouts used 492 times
- 229 quests completed
- 5,137 chests looted
- 10 brawls won
- 3,027 critical strikes
- 2,325 sneak attacks
- 588 books read
- 62 diseases contracted
- Favorite weapon: Legendary Daedric Warhammer
- Favorite spell: Transmute (see above)
- Favorite shout: Dragonrend
- 833 weapons made
- 2,486 pieces of apparel made
- 2,049 weapons upgraded
- 1,598 pieces of apparel upgraded
- 5,502 items enchanted
- 4,931 potions mixed
- 2,549 poisons mixed
- 671 locks picked
- 88 pockets picked (never really got into Pickpocketing except when the Thieves’ Guild required it)
- 2,703 items stolen
- 197 assaults
- 37 trespasses
- 25 murders
- 5 horses stolen
- 1 time sent to jail
- 4,610 gold worth of bounties placed on my head
- 884 gold in total fines paid (the rest were hand-waved away in my capacities as either Thane or Thieves’ Guild head)
Total victims, mostly evil:
- 2,335 people
- 1,336 undead
- 1,312 animals
- 904 creatures
- 303 automatons
- 90 Daedra (read: demons)
- 5 bunnies
Number of times that skills were leveled up to 100, then reset to Legendary status so I could start over and level them up all over again:
- Enchanting: 19
- Smithing: 11
- Heavy Armor: 5
- Alchemy: 3
- Two-Handed: 3
- Archery: 2
- Lockpicking: 1
- Restoration: 1
A Trophy total of 93% is the best I’ve ever achieved in a PS3 game to date, beating my old record of 86% for L.A. Noire. I missed one for collecting 15 Daedric artifacts because Ramonda couldn’t bring herself to commit to all the evil misdeeds required and, in fact, reneged on more than a few Daedric Lords just to hear them screech. There was one Trophy for harnessing the secret power of Auriel’s Bow, a special weapon with too narrow a specialty to hold my interest. Ramonda forgot which of her eight houses she stored it in and couldn’t be bothered to search for it.
Ramonda was also incensed to learn that she could’ve built a third house from the ground up like those last two, except that the Falkreath employee who would’ve made that deal possible was among the casualties of her Dark Brotherhood phase. She lost two (!!) trophies over that important little detail that the Dark Brotherhood walkthrough hadn’t bothered to mention up front, WHICH WOULD HAVE BEEN REALLY NICE TO KNOW.
A few alternate timelines were created and explored for the sake of trophies, then dropped in favor of the primary save file. “What If Ramonda Had Remained A Vampire?” and “What If Ramonda Had Remained A Werewolf?” were ten-minute dalliances with two of my least favorite mechanisms that were too boring to care about their respective rewards. In “What If Ramonda Never Stopped Murdering?” she traveled to each of the nine holds, killed at least one person in each, fought her way to the exits and sped away to safety on her trusty evil steed Shadowmere.
And in the final alt-reality where not even the Watcher would care to tread, I saved one of the seemingly simplest Trophies for last: Ramonda went to Whiterun one last time; murdered Nazeem, the most obnoxious upper-class NPC of them all; willingly went to jail; and then escaped. That’s all it took. With that Trophy in her clutches, Ramonda emerged from the Dragonsreach basement only to realize she hadn’t planned out a full escape route. She stumbled into the throne room with no money on her to pay her fines or bribe the guards away, and found herself besieged by every guard in the city led by Jarl Balgruuf himself. As the PS3 got dangerously hotter after four hours of gameplay due to a broken fan, the pandemonium slowed to a jerky crawl and Ramonda — armorless yet possessed of enormously high-level health — plowed through the maddening crowds using her shouts, barely made it out the front door, hopped on trusty Shadowmere, and rode as far away from town as she could with guards and Jarl still on her heels until the CPU just got too hot and the animation was too sluggish to go on.
In the main reality, Ramonda ended her adventures days earlier, surrounded by loved ones. She swung by Fort Dawnguard to pick up her BFF Serana and traveled to Heljarchen Hall, her eighth and final home, where Bailmund and her daughters lived. She sat down at the dinner table and listened as her other, better bard played the Dragonborn’s greatest hits on her lute.
The worst part about exiting Skyrim and returning to reality was knowing that whatever game I played next couldn’t possibly compare to the two-year Skyrim experience. So I made sure to choose the worst game on my unplayed stack. It’s comparatively old-fashioned, though its fight mechanics are technically better than Skyrim’s and I’m having to remember how to use my reflexes again. But it was time to move on from that vast refuge, find new digital worlds to explore, and see if I still fit into what’s become of this world.