By Sarah Doherty Granoff
In the frozen waste between Windhelm and Winterhold, in the snowiest and northernmost expanses of the continent of Skyrim, Fort Kastav sits, imposing and gloomy, just off the main road. Once a military structure, the fortress is now home to a collection of conjurers and necromancers, and lashes out with potentially deadly lightning bolts against any adventurers who wander too close.
Inside Fort Kastav’s prison, I slip quietly from shadow to shadow, waiting for the right moment to strike. I listen carefully, wary of alerting the mages to my presence. I could take down one mage in a direct fight, but if they were to call in their friends things could get dicey with all of those fireballs flying around. I hear the approaching footsteps of a necromancer, singing idly to himself: “With three beers down, the Orc did frown…”. It sounds like he’s alone. It’s as good an opportunity as any. I pull back on the string of my bow – an Ancient Nord piece I found while looting a tomb – take a deep breath, and release an arrow towards the mage.
It’s a perfect shot, and the necromancer’s body goes limp and crumples to the ground. I quickly start moving across the room. Soon another necromancer may come through to reanimate the body and try to track me down, and I need to claim my prize and leave before that happens. I walk towards a bookshelf in the room’s southeast corner, and smile as I catch sight of one of the volumes. “The Yellow Book of Riddles” – a book I haven’t read before. I slip the small book off the shelf and into my inventory, then quickly gulp down an invisibility potion and vanish back into the shadows. This will be a perfect addition to my library.
Bethesda’s 2011 game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of my most-played games, with more than 800 hours clocked on Steam. It’s a game I come back to every few months, a familiar land in which I can lose myself for hours after a stressful day.
Skyrim is rightfully praised as an immersive, absorbing experience – a richly crafted land with an abundance of detail and lore hidden in every nook and cranny. It’s one of those games where everyone who plays it tells a different story about their own experience. The much-loved RPG offers an open world of adventure, magic, and danger to its players, and allows them to author their own stories of the legendary Dragonborn along whatever path that player desires. But my favorite stories in Skyrim are the ones that are formed by accident.
A certain number of breaks are inevitable in the illusion of a world this large, and those breaks in the world of Skyrim have become the stuff of legends, or at least of memes. Skyrim is a land where every city guard will cheerfully say that they used to be an adventurer like you, until they took an arrow to the knee. Peering into these tears in the fabric of the world offers up wonderful opportunities for emergent storytelling. Perhaps, not too long ago, some legendary archer made it their mission to kneecap every adventurer they encountered at range, prompting a dramatic increase in the number of city guards.
These moments of emergent narrative often form the basis of player stories in Skyrim. Every player will have some unique, personal tale about that time the courier ran up to them when they were in the middle of fighting a dragon just to deliver a letter from the Jarl, or when the bandits in that one fortress failed to notice anything wrong as their friends dropped dead from mysterious arrow wounds one by one. This personalization of experience is part of what brings players back to Skyrim again and again.
Most of my Skyrim stories revolve around books. These books, scattered across Skyrim in various houses and tombs and bandit encampments, offer up a variety of interesting lore about the greater world in which the game’s main story takes place. From “The Lunar Lorkhan” I learned that the two moons in Skyrim’s night sky are actually the severed pieces of the god that created the mortal plane. “Kolb and the Dragon” showed me that “choose-your-own-adventure” books are popular with Skyrim’s children. And “Songs of Skyrim” finally told me the lyrics and meaning of the dragon-tongue chant in the title theme.
These books are something of a wedge issue among Skyrim fans. Some players look at the walls of text, almost none of it related to the main plot, and ignore them. I’m the opposite. I view the books scattered across Skyrim with the same sort of eye towards emergent narrative as I do the guards who all had illustrious adventuring careers cut short by well-timed arrows to the knee. I love these books. I love the questions they pose. Why does the bandit who fights with a mace have a book about alchemy next to his bedroll? What is a copy of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Whiterun” doing all the way across the continent in Falkreath? Does anyone in Skyrim actually have volume three of “The Real Barenziah”, or must my collection be forever incomplete?
Curating my library in Skyrim gives me a new way to interact with the game, even after all the hours I have spent playing it. I see the shelves full of books in the Jarl’s palace and start planning a heist. I wonder if the city guards notice that volumes seem to vanish in my wake. I keep my eyes peeled for new entries to add to my collection as I complete quests for the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood. I return from my adventures in the far corners of the world to my house in Whiterun and organize the bookshelves, making note of what books I still need to find. I reread my copy of “The Yellow Book of Riddles” and remember how I slipped in and out of Fort Kastav like a ghost, eliminating the conjurers and necromancers inside with arrows fired from the shadows. As my library in Skyrim grows (with one hundred twenty three unique books so far), so does my collection of stories about the game itself. And every few months, I remember one of those stories and open the game again, reentering the snowy world of Skyrim for another adventure, and another book is added to my shelves.
Sarah Doherty Granoff is a current BFA student at the New York University Game Center. She has also self-published a number of games, including several about her experience as an autistic woman. You can find her games at https://octopi-with-hats.itch.io/. Sarah is working with our interns on an anthology of Bronx-based Twine games.