Sean Connery once said that “there is nothing like a challenge to bring out the best in a man.” Of course this is just as true for women as it is for men, but the statement contains a certain subtext about masculinity. Failure to thrive under pressure is the trait of a boy, not a man. There are these calls to action that are supposed to define us as men. Defeating a challenge is one; capability for violence is another. Men are generally well aware of the cultural pressures on us to be violent. Even though most of us are not violent people, we still sometimes feel the need to respond to the pressure by asserting that we would be very dangerous if we wanted to. The two ideas are at odds: societal norms that say men are violent while violence actually has nothing to do with masculinity. It can certainly be argued that a male’s inclination toward violence coupled with the ability to back it up has served both males and the human species as a whole quite well in the past. However, what was a virtue in the past is not necessarily a virtue today. And even if violence were hardwired into men, we’re still much more than just blood-thirsty beasts. And the reason we play violent games is more than our own bloodlust. So why, then, do so many games portray violence and masculinity as being so closely intertwined? Let’s take a look at some of these games. In particular, we’ll look at: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare; The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion; and a lot of God of War. Just a warning, this whole article is going to be chock-full of spoilers, so read cautiously. What these games all have in common is that they make a statement about the connection between masculinity and violence. They deal with issues like “is violence rewarding,” “can violence defeat evil,” and “is violence just how men deal with their emotions?” What lies beneath all of those statements are these facts: men are not very free from cultural norms, men are not empowered or nurtured properly as men, and society seems to have no idea of what masculinity is at all.
Skyrim is a little more satisfying, a lot more cute, and way more friendship-killing than ever with this Skyrim mod. Want to watch ponies torch the general public of Skyrim? Think of your delight as the ponies vomit fire and ice upon your dragonborn ass. The only thing this mod is missing is gigantic hunks of pony meat to loot from the corpses. I can only hope that this mod is expanded upon in the future, adding more ponies than just Fluttershy, gigantic hunks of pony meat, and friendship-is-forever armor (craftable from the adorable pony’s bones, of course).
Tsunderin: When purchasing a game, I tend to take hearsay with a grain of salt. Not only because it’s the smart thing to do, but because the kind of game I like usually tends to skirt on the outside of what internet gamers consider ‘passable’. This is to say that it took me until around six months ago to actually get around to playing Oblivion. Even as a launch title for the Xbox 360, I thought the scenery graphics were quite impressive—though with my friend pressing gems such as Pimp My Ride on me as much as possible, my basis for comparison may have been a bit lax—and the overall story seemed intriguing. I was impressed, or at least I rather enjoyed it. Of course, there were some issues I had, but all in all it was a good game. After getting my brother into it as well, we both began exploring the universe of the Elder Scrolls (though I can safely say he was much more interested than I) and the question remained: why the hell didn’t we buy this earlier? However, this was also the time around E3, the annual gaming conference. This potent combination of a checking of game information so often it could be considered an obsession and a newly discovered love for a long established series led to a frighteningly fast abduction of myself into the glorious hype that was, and continues to be, Skyrim.
MadameAce: Well, I’ll be honest. This review exists solely because listening to Lady Geek Girl bitch at me to do it has grown rather tiresome. And hey, maybe after I get this out of the way, she’ll stop yelling at me to review Arkham City. I have a couple reasons why I so adamantly don’t want to review Skyrim. First of all, I’d much rather be playing it than typing up something both witty and review-y. I normally multitask everything, and half of what I write or read is done while I’m playing games. Skyrim is just so engaging, though. I can’t play it while I write this because this would never get written. It’s so fun that I had to take my laptop to the other room, and I’m still not committed to this review, because I’m too busy thinking about all the fun I could have killing dragons and looting the toes off giants. So if this review comes across half-assed, and if it sounds as though I just admitted it would be half-assed, that’s because it is and I did.
Of course, it might also be that way because I didn’t sleep last night, so falling unconscious is something else I’d rather be doing right now, too.
Tsunderin: In addition, I would have preferred writing this after I beat the game—which I’m pretty certain neither of us have done—but considering how extensive this game is, that may end up only being a pipe dream. Like many others I started out playing at marathon lengths, days at a time stuff. But, I never ended up doing anything relating to the main quest. In fact, I’m still at the point after where I just beat my first dragon and am showing no signs of actually doing the main quest. Dragons are coming back? My character doesn’t give a shit, she has graves to rob.
MadameAce: Probably the reason I find Skyrim so engaging comes about through the gameplay. Western RPGs are not normally my thing. I tend to stick to things like Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, and while those are technically RPGs, they have a very different way to progress the story. In those games, you play as someone who’s not you. You’re Cloud, or Squall, or Sora, and the story can really only go one way. Skyrim is much more personal. The character is your own, and you can chose what quests you want to go on and in what order you want to do them. You can choose your weaponry, whether or not to use magic, what species you are, which side to join in the war or not pick a side at all.
I love all my options in the game. I love buying a house and furnishing it in one town and then going over to a different town, robbing everyone and murdering people, and gaining a ginormous bounty on my head. It’s fantastic.
Tsunderin: This is one of the aspects that I love most about this series: there are just so many ways to play a character and none of them are wrong. This is what sets it apart to me, not even comparing it to JRPGs, but even to other WRPGs. Let’s compare this to a game like Mass Effect. It can be argued that a player’s Commander Shepard, the customizable protagonist in Mass Effect, is unique every play-through and can affect the story in drastic manners. However, there is a difference between choosing between a renegade/bad and paragon/good (or paragade/renagon if you want to get specific) and deciding to say “fuck you” to the alliance and murdering the smarmy-as-fuck Turian counselor. If Mass Effect were Skyrim you could totally do that. What I’m saying is that while, yes, both stories have a main quest line that you have to do to officially beat the game, Skyrim lets you do that however you want whereas games like Mass Effect let you do that within a certain parameter of linearity. The difference between ‘open-ended’ and ‘your choices don’t actually matter, but we can pretend they do’.
Now that we’ve danced around it for about a page, I think it’s time to get into the actual plot of Skyrim. The game starts out with you riding in a cart filled with several other Nord males and quickly you find that you’re heading off for execution! Fun! Apparently, you have been assumed to be part of a plot to overthrow the reign of the empire in Skyrim (the Northern area of Tamriel) as the Nords, the inhabitants of Skyrim, wish to obtain their independence. They felt like they were especially close because the leader of the rebellion, Ulfric Stormcloak, is said to have dragon powers. This is interesting because in Oblivion it’s known that only the emperor and his bloodline have dragon powers, and only then so they can shut off Oblivion (the land of the daedra) from the mortal realm.
Events unfold in the usual fashion at an execution until it’s your turn. I have to admit, even though it was the very beginning of the game, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat nervous at the realization that yes, the axe being held high was going to come down on my lovely Dunmer neck. Or rather, it would if a dragon didn’t come and ruin their fun. From this point chaos breaks out and in the chaos you pick between leaving the area with the Imperial army or the Stormcloaks. However, your choice here has no impact on who you side with during the civil war, or even if you participate in the civil war at all. I went with the Stormcloaks—or rather, I went with the door that I found first that just so happened to be the Stormcloak route—and I haven’t helped them at all since then.
After finishing this introduction part, you’re free to do whatever you wish, eventually leading up to you finding out that you’re the Dragonborn/Dovahkiin and you have dragon powers too, so you can send the dragons back into extinction. You could follow what the characters tell you to do, or you could just go explore Skyrim. This may just be my graphics boner speaking but Skyrim is a gorgeous area. From the first time I entered Riverwood I was just entranced by the water graphics and I feel no shame in saying that I ended up just walking/swimming around that river for a good half an hour. Each area you reach carries the perfect ambiance. Ruins are buried amongst snow or draped in fog up on the loneliest part of a mountain. Forests are bright and somewhat mystical, full of harvestable items and the ever-looming possibility of getting ambushed and murdered. Each town is different, showing immediately what kind of people you’ll run into (for better or for worse). For example, the first time I went into Whiterun with its quaint little houses and warm color scheme I knew that I would love it (and from what I see online, I’m not the only one). To no surprise, I did. I loved and still love that town and the people that reside there. On the opposite end of the spectrum, my first visit to Windhelm and its cold, grey, snow-covered walls quickly made me defensive. It definitely didn’t help that the first inn I went into I was immediately pestered by some drunk telling me to leave because I was a Dunmer. Excuse me? Perhaps you would like to meet the edge of my blade. Needless to say, I could feel the cold bitterness of the Nords straight away and I don’t think I’ve actually been back there since. If I do, I might end up killing a guard if I hear them say “What? Somebody steal your sweetroll,” again. Or maybe I’ll just go straight to the top and bash Ulfric’s racist head in (note: I don’t know if this is actually possible). That just wouldn’t be good for anyone. But I digress, the graphics in this game are amazing and really lend themselves to having the player being completely absorbed in their surroundings.
MadameAce: Something about the game I would like to mention, some organization called the Dark Brotherhood keeps sending assassins to kill me. I mean, here I am, minding my own business, murdering and looting travelers that I saw first, and all of a sudden an assassin tries to murder me. WTF, right? I eventually just joined the Brotherhood, because then I at least get paid to kill people. Apparently, I got in because I murdered the matron at an orphanage, but she was abusive to the kids, so there.
And then I murdered the Emperor, and that paid a lot.
My actions in the game probably say a lot about me as a person, but instead of dwelling on that, I’m too busy wondering if it’s hypocritical of me to be both a Companion and a Dark Brotherhood member, as well as a member of the College of Winterhold. Then again, who really cares, I just want to kill me a dragon and steal its soul.
Fighting is a lot of fun in this game. I kept hearing horror stories about bears, saber tooth cats, and trolls being really fucking hard, and… they’re not that bad. I got attacked by a bear while fighting a dragon and I still won.
Tsunderin: Oh, shut up. They’re hard and you know it.
MadameAce: No, you’re just a pushover.
Tsunderin: Tell that to the Daedra.
MadameAce: I’m more concerned about what I’m going to do with all those giant toes I’ve been collecting.
On a side note, currently Tsunderin and I are fighting about this one Dark Brotherhood member: Cicero, who’s creepy as all get out. I kind of like his character, though I turned him in at the beginning of the game. I think he’s interesting, even if he scares me a little. Tsunderin thinks I should have killed him when I had the chance. To be perfectly honest, he is probably the scariest person in the game, much scarier than the little girl who likes to murder people. Or maybe it’s not that he’s scary, as it is that he’s completely insane.
Tsunderin: You totally should have killed him. Honestly, I should have just killed him too instead of being the good, law-abiding citizen and framing him for a crime he didn’t commit. Morals, man. Unfortunately, I haven’t run directly into the Dark Brotherhood on my file yet but I know that I’ll either flat out refuse or join them just to turn on them and kill them all. That’s just the kind of person I am.
Much like Ace here, I too feel the apprehension at having my character join every guild possible. I’m not going to join the Brotherhood because I’m already a Companion. I would feel wrong if I joined the College since the closest I ever get to wielding a staff is shoving it on my weapon rack because I need the inventory space. And the Thieves Guild? I have no need for that! Maybe next character, however, I’ll have an amoral Breton who would just love to get in that thieving, assassinating action. …Not that I’ve thought about it.
This brings me to another point, the characters. Oblivion was somewhat looked down upon because the characters were nothing more than cardboard cutouts with the stale dialogue to match. Although you could get to really like or dislike some characters, the majority of them were just fodder to level up the speechcraft skill. However, Bethesda really went out of their way to not only improve the voice acting in Skyrim, but also to actually infuse character into their characters. In the previous game, I would be hard-pressed to find a character that would cause as much difference in opinion as Cicero or even Lydia does.
This game is by no means a dialogue focused game, but it doesn’t take intricate cut-scenes and hours upon hours of conversation to have a good character, nor a deep character. Deep-ish, anyway. Take the two brothers from the Companions, Farkas and Vilkas. Both of them arguably have the same voice, but from the way they talk and even by the way their hair is styled they end up being completely different characters. It’s a nice change from Oblivion where every Elvin male character was the same. Down to the voice. That haunting, giddy voice.
MadameAce: One thing that greatly bothers me is all the glitches. I first noticed how annoying they were when Farkas wouldn’t stop following me around and engaging me in conversation. Constantly. All the time. Whenever I went to Whiterun. And as long as he’s following me, I cannot fast travel or wait. And he cannot die. It’s impossible to kill him. This is the most annoying glitch a game has ever thrown at me.
Tsunderin: You have to admit, that was pretty funny though. However, the glitches in Skyrim sometimes cross that line from being funny to being annoying. They’re mostly funny though. The first glitch I ran into—I wouldn’t really call it a glitch, even—happened after I killed a dragon in the middle of a forest somewhere (forgive me if I don’t go look up the exact location). My pack was full, so I left and came back. From what I’ve seen, unlooted dragon corpses don’t disappear, or this is to say that I’ve waited a longer period of time to come back to loot a corpse so I had faith that it would still be there. However, it wasn’t but in traipsing around the general area I found where it was supposed to be. “How?” you may be asking. Well, when I got to the area where the corpse should have been, the area around me suddenly glitched into an underwater-y kind of texture and the ground disappeared. I guess the dragon was just angry that I kill-stealed that sabrecat it was fighting.
Other glitches can be useful—like glitching up the side of a mountain because finding the actual path is way too annoying at the time—but they tend to err on the side of funny. In fact, going on YouTube reveals tons of hilarious things that Bethesda may or may not patch in the future. I’m sure by this point you all have your favorites but let me show you one of mine.
MadameAce: I do commend the creators and the world. It’s so detailed, there’s always something new to explore, and there’s always a quest going on. The game doesn’t get boring after playing it for hours on end; so much as it gets more interesting. And it’s not really a game that needs played through multiple times, because the first time never seems to end. When I started, I made myself an Imperial, thinking, ‘oh, well, I’ll be a Dark Elf my next time through.’ Yeah, that’s not going to happen.
The world is very large, that traveling outside major cities on foot can take a while, but hell, if the scenery isn’t beautiful. Having the horse, Shadowmere, makes traveling so much easier, especially since he—or is it a she?—will also attack enemies and cannot die unless thrown off a cliff. It makes fighting mammoths so much easier.
I should point out that dragon attacks seem really sporadic, which also keeps the game interesting, because I can just be traveling alongside the country and a dragon will swoop down upon me.
…You know, this review is actually really hard to write, because there’s no story—well, there is, but being able to go off and do my own thing makes my game all about me and somebody else’s game all about him or her. In some ways, it actually does feel as though I’m in the world of Skyrim, and it makes for one hell of a gameplay.