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The Elder Scrolls: My So-called Life as a Dark Elf

Essay

I’m not by any means what most people would consider a gamer. I’m mostly obsessed with word games (Scrabble, Boggle) and I used to be obsessed with chess (which I had to quit after one 6-hr long match that gave me heart palpitations). These days I don’t have much time to immerse myself in games, due to the whole “I have to be a responsible adult and go outside sometimes” part of life, so I end up playing those casual games designed for people who don’t have time for more involved gaming.

There is, however, a game that I occasionally let myself get utterly lost in, and that’s The Elder Scrolls series. The first one I ever played was Morrowind, and what a rapturous experience it was! I loved the feeling of infinite space, that you could walk from one end of the game world to the other without ever being stopped by artificial walls. Almost everything in the game could be picked up, opened, or harvested, and I delighted in collecting things.

At the time, I was in graduate school trying to get a PhD in English, and feeling utterly lost and unmotivated. After three years, the romanticized vision I had of being a literature professor had faded away and all that was left was the realization that I may have made a mistake, one that cost me a lot of money. I was waitressing more often than I was going to my classes, and finances were about as tight as they’d ever been.

Morrowind proved to be the escape I needed. I would stay up all night adventuring around, trying to build my dark elf (named “Freethrow” — it’s a long story) into a master thief. I never killed the innocent (at first), but I also didn’t hesitate to steal from the rich. Morrowind had so many delightful cheats that let you have infinite health, infinite magicka, and infinite endurance, and I exploited them with gusto, using my immortality to achieve unlimited power.

In Morrowind‘s economy, being rich meant you could literally buy your skills and level up very, very quickly. Instead of completing the main quest, I became obsessed with collecting as much gold as possible so I could level up, make insanely powerful spells, and essentially become a super-being. With enchant, conjuration, and alchemy skills maxed out, I had the power to become permanently invisible, fly, and run around the game world killing and taking whatever I wanted from other characters without any repercussions.

I was drunk with power. I became fixated on having complete sets of all of the most highly valued armor. At this point in the game, I had so much gold that buying things from merchants wasn’t interesting anymore. I scoured the internet forums and wikis looking for information about rare items to add to my collection. I had moved into an empty manor in Balmora and was stashing all my loot in chests, sacks, shelves. My house was like the fantasy-game version of that show about people who hoard things.

I was in my mid-late 20’s, and realizing that people around me were getting promoted at their jobs, getting married, having children and buying houses. Anytime I went home for Christmas, it was always the same conversation:

Chinese Relative: How is school? Are you a professor yet?

Me: Soon..I’m still working on my dissertation.

That conversation would repeat itself every Christmas, every Easter, every Fourth of July, every President’s Day (my parents really felt all holidays were good reasons for the children to come home).

And when my parents would ask me how much longer until I finished my dissertation, I’d always say “About one more year.”

Three years later that PhD was still a year away.

I would still dabble in Morrowind for my remaining years of grad school, playing it every now and again, spooling up my old game, returning to my old haunts, my guilds, the dusty manor I lived in. I’d inspect my inventory and marvel at my wealth, my success — I had, after all, become invincible.

But oddly enough, I had yet to complete the main quest. I was always telling myself at some point, I’d just go through the motions and beat the game. But winning no longer seemed interesting.

Five years later I finished the elusive PhD in English Literature. I moved to New York City to try and become a not-English-professor, and ended up landing a real job. I finally joined the world of all those other people, the ones I’d fantasized about all those years ago, only I was joining them about eight years too late.

As life evolved, and as I adjusted to suddenly caring about the work I do and being motivated by my job, I decided to start playing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. By this point, Oblivion was already four years old, but I’d never upgraded to a newer console (didn’t have enough money at the time) so Oblivion had always remained just out of reach.

Hearing the epic Elder Scrolls music as the opening sequence played brought me instantly back to those old days when I’d stay up all night, running around Morrowind, flying from town to town or jumping from the ground to sky just because I could. After finishing the very long opening quest, I emerged into a stunning, brilliantly rendered new world. The plants were new, the cities, the people, and yes, the items. Oh, so many glorious new items.

I wandered toward the Imperial City, thinking that I’d check out some of the shops (you know, just in case there was something I really, really needed). As I meandered from building to building, I found myself drawn to a majestic looking area with a huge gate and imperious statues. It was called the Arcane University.

As I approached the entrance, friendly but unyielding guards informed me that I wasn’t ready to enter the Arcane University. Apparently I had to complete a series of quests before I’d be permitted to attend the Arcane University.

And from that moment forward, I became obsessed with getting into the Arcane University. I ignored prompts to follow the main quest, and began working on the tedious side-quests that would grant me access to this unparalleled seat of magical education. I collected herbs for an impudent little alchemist. After hours of wandering in the forest in search of Nirn root and getting extremely lost, I fell off a cliff and died before remembering to save. It was infuriating.

I should have let it go. It was a boring quest to begin with, but I kept going. I went from Mage’s guild to Mage’s guild trying to get my letters of recommendation. One night, I decided to take the scenic route between cities and explore the mountains. I climbed higher and higher, and even higher until I couldn’t climb any higher. I wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain. I slid down the steep slope, jumping from rock to rock, swam across a river, and continued hiking for what felt like miles. That, you see, is the true glory of an Elder Scrolls game: a boundless freedom and sense of space that comes without the in-game walls that always hurtle you back into reality.

But all good things must come to an end. I eventually hit a wall. I was Columbus and I’d found the edge of the world. Now what? I stood against the wall and realized that I’d started playing a fantasy RPG, one where I could be anything I wanted, and I’d managed to recreate my old life — the one where I’d set out on a quest to earn a PhD, to walk the hallowed halls of academia and earn my seat among scholars. I’d once again become so distracted by some self-imposed goal that I lost sight of the main quest. Only unlike Morrowind, it wasn’t wealth that I wanted. It was respect.

I haven’t played Oblivion since that night. I’ve been too busy with work to turn on the PS3. But I’m looking forward The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and what strange things I’ll discover about myself by trying to escape into a new fantasy realm. Maybe this time, I’ll start a family.

Or not.

Cindy Au runs things and writes things, and you can see more of her at her Tumblr.

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