Friday, 10 February 2017

Around Skyrim Without a Thune

Skyrim, how I love thee. The only game I've never grown entirely tired of playing (apart from Fire Emblem), Skyrim is still on my PS3, and this time Eve and I have undertaken a slightly different tack.

At the moment our character (a female Imperial called Helena Justina*) is level 63, she is relearning the One-Handed skill, and has maxed out Smithing, Two-Handed, Heavy Armour and only has Pickpocket below level 30. She's completed the Companions and Mages College quests and could become Thegn of Falkreath, Dawnstar, Winterhold, and Solitude if she chose to (she is the Thegn of Riften, but only because we wanted a house, Eve is passionate about loot and enjoys Alchemy much more than I). There's a large bounty on her head because I got a bit sword happy in Marketh, and went to town on the guards there in the stupid big quest - you may have gathered we don't like that particular plotline). We have raided tombs and barrows, defeated Dragon Priests, Draugr Deathlords and even ventured to the shores of Solstheim to adventure there.

So what's different? This all sounds pretty normal for the game, doesn't it?

The catch is, we haven't triggered the Dragonborn quest. Aside from the opening part where Alduin destroys Helgen, that quest has gone entirely untouched. There are no dragons at places like Mount Anthor and while we're picking the words for Thunes up as we play that's all; they can't be unlocked. We can't even undertake to weakly Unrelenting Force a bandit back a few feet if we're in danger of dying. Instead, we have been forced to rely on skills and magic, investigating thing that we do not usually make use of. For example, we have been using Illusion more than usual (it's not a favourite spell skill because a lot of the time it's simply too fiddly and seems to be more trouble than its worth) and investing heavily in the various armour spells you get in Alteration, even if we aren't brave enough to go without armour yet.

It is actually a fun way of playing, forcing us (well me, really - Eve's a bit of a back seat player unless it involves mixing potions or enchanting items) to change the way we approach things. I have a bad habit of leading with Shouts, using Fire Breath or Marked for Death in the first foray. Not being able to do that means that the character uses more stealth and sniping than usual. She doesn't charge into battle nearly as much as other characters we have played. Her skills matter more, she has to be able to strike hard and fast because there's no backup to reach for if things go wrong. Not having the Thunes has made me a better player in many ways because I use the game's inbuilt skills to buff her up and make her more powerful though magic (which means getting XP).

There's an element of humour to it too, running through the Robots, I mean Guards (sorry, my headcanon is that the city Guards are actually robots, which is why they say the same things and you barely ever get to see their faces) and hearing them make comments about dragon attacks. We both know full well that there won't be any until we actually trigger the quest, and even then they won't really start up until we trigger the Blades quest, another thing that will happen late in the game as neither of us has time for them.

The downside of playing this way is that at some point I have to undertake the main quest, which means that I'll have to face Ancient Dragons from the get go instead of progressing through the ranks of dragon kind in a nice orderly fashion. That does not seem so bad, though, it always seemed a bit odd that the game served up draconic foes in a nice, neat order to test your mettle against. This way the big guys will attack and get taken down (at which point I can turn Smithing Legendary because I'll get to make a suit of Dragon Scale Armour).

So, yeah. It's a huge amount of fun even if we have not really revelled in the many factions that dominate the game. I would definitely recommend playing this way as a change to the normal way Skyrim runs.

*The name is stolen from the Falco novels, where Helena is the Roman Private Informer's ally and squeeze.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Again, with Purpose

By K. Steitz

When I was an awkward, bookish teenager, my favorite novels were The Blue Sword and The Hero and the  Crown by Robin McKinley. Those books are still in my collection; their pages are dog-eared, yellowed, the spines are broken. I loved them deeply and visited them regularly. The main characters in both books were these incredible young women who never quite fit in, but cared desperately for their chosen family and fought tooth-and-nail to protect them. At the time, I didn’t think very hard about why I loved them, or how I had found some of the few books in the genre that had female protagonists- I just loved them.

As I grew, as we all must, I learned that fantasy is a genre for boys. It is about strapping young men who come from modest backgrounds and save their homes/countries/etc, or save their lovers whose names never quite matter. I learned that these are stories of wish fulfillment. These stories, and women, and the world, were almost always told through the eyes of men. I heard the phrase “wish fulfillment” and I thought, “Yeah, okay, that sounds right.”

But what if this genre isn’t just wish fulfillment? Now that we have stories told by and for men and women, perhaps we’re looking at something different? What still draws us to Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle? Now, so far from my teens, I wonder if it’s something different. Perhaps these resonate with us because it is not just merely fantasy or wish fulfillment, but because these plots, these heroes and heroines represent purpose fulfillment.

We struggle day in and day out to justify our 8 to 5 office jobs that are at their core, just busy work. We spend the majority of our lives navigating daily life for systems of government and capitalism that will never benefit most of us. We have no grand destiny, and many of us have lost our purpose, but we can read novels of fantastic people and places, making a difference, finding the courage to follow their dreams, to fight the good fight. Wouldn’t it be brave if we followed our own dreams? During these times, wouldn’t it be brave to make a difference?

Steve's note

K. Steitz is a kickass poet, roller derby... player (is that the right word) and feminist. In 2013 she released her first poetry collection A Record of Night and she blogs at But ah, my foes and oh, my friends.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel?


It's an issue of growing concern, as it waxes in strength across the West, threatening the hard-won cooperation of the EU and America, threatening in the latter to tip into full-blown Nationalism. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: The quality of being patriotic; vigorous support for one's country, I have to say I am not a patriot. Or at least I don't consider myself to be one. In the UK it is a word that is too often associated with the far right of politics, with skinheads and racists. The chant of 'two world wars and one world cup' sums up the attitude of many people and a lot of them are the sort who ask non-white citizens 'when are you going home' rather than accepting multicultural values. I feel it's an unthinking, unreasoning thing, that we're expected to adopt without considering what we're actually supporting. It speaks of exceptionalism, often held in the most myopic terms, wilfully ignoring the work done elsewhere in the world that may be of equal or even better quality. Like the appeals to a British character, it ignores things in order to make its point and spread throughout the population, relying on stereotypes. We might be proud of the British sense of humour, but what nation would admit to being a bunch of humourless idiots? Appeals to science and literature will be met with responses of other countries' achievements and they are right to do so. Shakespeare may be seen as the father of British literature, but he is simply one of many such literary giants (and it could be argued that the UK invests too much in his oeuvre to the detriment of other playwrights and poets). Of course, his canonisation as a sort of secular saint was in itself an act of patriotism, as the 18th Century country sought to create clear blue water between itself and the Papist continent. There was a rejection of Catholic values and at the same time a sort of demonisation of the 'un-English' way of life the mainland espoused. This can be seen in many of the novels that comprise the Gothic, and even in later works like Dracula, where Europeans come in two forms, positively strange or rakish and sex obsessed (even if that is through the medium of blood).

I don't see how anyone, living in the modern age, can be entirely patriotic, indeed I would argue that patriotism is not a desirable trait unless it is harnessed to a keen analytical brain that seeks to make things better for the people of the country. If that will is lacking, it is simply a desire to maintain the status quo, acting a way to shore identity up. Things might be bad here, but at least we're not French, or whatever. Consequently, aside from the Loyal Opposition version of the impulse, I am forced to agree with the idea that it is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Where I do find pride in my country's achievements it is almost always in the past, rather than as a reflection of our current character (most of which I believe to have been hijacked by international capitalism and repackaged and sold back to us in the form of tat). Even so, I feel you have to take things with a pinch of salt, so much of the history that children are taught is a form of propaganda, a way to explain how the nation arrives at the present day without paying too much attention to detail. I often find myself wondering how many patriots know about Britain's invention of the concentration camp, the Indian Mutiny, Khartoum, and the worst excesses of our Empire (which you could argue we acquired because of a mix of racism and the East India Company running up massive debts from their constant wars). 

This being said, there are things I am proud of about my homeland - it isn't all doom and gloom. Here are five of them:

1) Goth and Punk. Britain has a good habit of taking American art and reinventing it. The two subcultures of Goth and Punk are very much examples of this. The Ramones' sound crossed the Atlantic and was seized upon by disaffected youth, transformed into Punk (which in the UK was as much about class warfare, anger at elders and a desire to reject 'normal' behaviour as anything else), and that grew into Goth, which took the same energy and turned it inwards, focusing on a sartorial, graceful rebellion. They are both beautiful, wild, flowers, full of promise and cynical fervor. I consider them one of the truest expressions of Britishness. 

2) The British Invasion of Comics. In the 1980s a wave of British writers started working at DC Comics and transformed the form. They brought a hard bitten, mature tone that was a world away from the funny suits and escaping villains taht had dominated the genre before. It gave us work lilke Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, Watchmen and Sandman, and paved the way for Transmetropolitan, Lucifer and the Invisibles.

3) Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage/ A pair of visionaries who committed to building the first computer, the Difference Engine. They laboured for many years and ultimately failed, the Difference Engine waas a disaster. But the fact remains they had the foresight to try and pioneered the field for later generations.

4) Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man. The second book of British poltiical theory, The Rights of Man lays out the tenets of classic Liberalism as a creed, and is a book of philosophy dedicated to combating the totalitarian state envisaged by Conservates at the time. As such it is a tonic and a good reminder of what the ideology stood for. I don't agree with all of it (I've never met a rational human being, but bless Liberals for trying to push that as an idea). 

5) Britain's History of Dissent. I have a fondness for underdogs, and for the awkward, eccentric people of the country who go their own way. But I'm proud of the nation's history of dissent, of campaigning, from the Peasant's Revolt onwards. I like that we're a nation that keeps trying and which holds our leaders to account. The Borgeious perspective of an ordered society where there's a place for everyone and everyone is in their place, holds no lustre to me, any more than the stage-managed nature of politics does - I like debate, dissent, exploration of ideas. Anything that allows that is good, in my opinion and I believe we must never stop dreaming of a better way of doing things, and trying to make the world a better place.