My name is Jacob Clifton, and I am a bad gamer.
...Well, a bad role-player. Part of it is, I think, that coming into gaming in my mid-thirties means role-play has lost a lot of its appeal, since real life provides far too many opportunities for that as it is, but honestly I just can’t understand the appeal of being anyone other than myself.
What that means is that when I play a game—beyond Mass Effect, the games I’ve learned I love most are the Bethsda open-sandbox franchises, Fallout and Elder Scrolls—I play as myself. I suppose I’m missing out on part of the adventure, but I’m more interested in exploring other people’s stories than my own.
Minor spoilers, as usual—and plenty of nitpicking to be done—but not really the point.
Starting Skyrim, my second real videogame experience, I figured early on there would be two storylines: One relating to dragons and prophecies about me, personally, and the other a political story about an annexed territory reconciling itself to—or against—home rule. There’s nothing I like better than a revolution, so I decided to save the bulk of that story for last, to end in style.
What that meant, then, was largely ignoring the most important stages of the game, in order to travel around and see the sights and generally level up. Which, to my task-oriented mind, is only sometimes satisfying. And so, as I would in any venture, I set about making spreadsheets: Curricula, different series of quests I could undertake—get all the Dragon Priests, or become beloved in every city-state—before heading into the final fray.
Then I discovered that you could get married. I am fascinated by the romance element in modern games—seeking as it does to bridge the lonely experience of gaming for hours with the adventurous experience of making connections, friends, enemies—and especially as they provide an index to the ways the entertainment industry makes a place for non-standard (straight male) gamers. I knew what I had to do: I made another spreadsheet.
Opening up dossiers on every possible husband in the game, I narrowed the list by red flags—this one a werewolf, that one a drunk—I’d arrived at five fellows I thought would fulfill this part of the game. Which was the hardest to obtain? Argis the Bullwark, a Housecarl in the staircase city of Markarth. A sturdy Viking with a smart facial scar and a distaste for spelunking.
What followed was probably twenty hours of hardcore gaming, as the various requirements were met. In order to even get to him where he sits—waiting for love—in the empty (but up-for-lease) Vlindrel Hall, one must: Earn eight grand (I’d never had more than a hundred bucks to my name), gain the favor of Markarth’s local Jarl (five missions right there), and become a hero of the city (five random “good deed” encounters with the people). I had chosen correctly.
One such task brought me face to face with one of the bachelors who’d very nearly received a rose: A midnight angry drunk whose “good deed” involved punching him in the face for a dollar. Dodged a bullet there. Another task involved becoming closer with a certain mercenary band that I’d somehow intuited were werewolves, which I found distasteful, but I did benefit from working with them—just enough to get my husband—in later parts of the game. Heavy random adventuring and side-quests brought in the cash... Or so I thought.
When I came to the Jarl’s palace to buy my home—up to which I’d been creeping, every so often, to listen at the door in some sort of punchy fit of attempted role-playing—I was turned away: Apparently I’d miscounted my gold, and couldn’t afford the place. Three hours later, after returning several times with more and more manic (and futile) amounts of cash, I turned to the internet: Turns out Markarth is the one palace with a glitch that removes evermore the possibility, once you’ve jumped the gun.
How to proceed? I couldn’t go through all that again. I hadn’t slept, I was going crazy. The internet explained that in order to solve the problem, I’d have to go just far enough along that political storyline to trigger a coup, replacing the Jarl and his court with a new regime. That’s another five hours—thrilling ones, diplomatic near-misses and political hair-splitting—along a plot I was doing this to avoid, but eventually I got my coup. And my house.
Part of the marriage mechanic in the game is to visit the Temple of Mara, on the other side of the game map, to pick up an amulet signifying your desire to wed. I’d quickly come to call it the “DTF Necklace” because of the bizarre conversational options it opened up: Old blacksmiths, weird cutpurses and the occasional Amazon warrior all seemed suddenly very interested in my romantic leanings.
I found Old Argis at the dinner table, in a new house I hadn’t even had time to explore, and he explained first to me that he was my Housecarl—he came with the house as a sort of Viking Shadout Mapes—and that second of all, he was ready to get married. (In real life, when I make these spreadsheets, this is exactly what I imagine happening, so it was not a huge shock.)
Back to the Temple to set the wedding date, and then home—once again, in a fit of roleplaying enthusiasm—to sleep in my new bed, in my new house. We’d wake up in the morning, “fast-travel” (a teleporting game mechanic to save running-around time) to the Temple, and have the whole thing wrapped up by noon. I woke, instead, to a nightmare.
Certain early events in the game trigger an encounter with an assassin’s guild, which I vaguely knew would happen but didn’t know how or what it would be like. What it was like was: Awful. Trapped on the morning of my wedding in an abandoned shack (“The Abandoned Shack”) with a masked woman who wanted nothing more than to put me through a series of ethical tortures in order to prove a point about assassins. I would have loved it, any other time, but I had marriage on the brain and I was not interested one bit in her drama. But she would not relent.
After dealing with her whole thing, I was able to leave the Abandoned Shack—sun only beginning to rise—and I crossed my fingers, hoping I could teleport to the Temple and get my life back on track. But no! Random dragon encounter. A huge black beast circled me, cutting off my escape, and I fought that monster harder than any of the dozens of dragons I’d already killed. Dispatched after a few curse-filled moments, I set out again.
I arrived at the Temple of Mara in a soft rain, just in time to see everyone I had ever met in the game—and an equal number of strangers, who proved to be Argis’s relatives—filing out of the Temple, hurling epithets at me as they went. In my memory, they spat. Argis was nowhere to be found. Inside the Temple, the Priest I’d contracted couldn’t look me in the eye. I waited outside, in the rain, for a pathetic hour before returning: He wasn’t the one, the Priest explained, I needed to apologize to.
After an embarrassing amount of time revisiting our favorite places, I realized I was role-playing to a fault, and he’d be back at the kitchen table, because he is the product of an artificial intelligence and not the sentimental romantic I’d apparently made him in my head. After a very apologetic speech, toes kicking the floor of a house I’d still not really explored, he agreed.
And you’d better believe we sat in that church all night, waiting for the sun.
What I loved about the experience is how random elements, triggers and mistakes added up to a story that took just as long as any storyline—the ones the game provides or the ones I’d made up—and every bit as emotional and challenging as them, too. Nobody else will fight a dragon on their wedding day, or get kidnapped on the eve of their wedding by magical assassins. Nobody else will secretly work to bring down a coup on the Jarl to whom they’d sworn fealty, just for the chance to take off the DTF necklace so people would stop acting so weird all the time. That disaster was just for me, and I loved every second.
But even more intriguing, as my game continued with Argis in tow, were the two effects I’d never imagined. Number one, the man who was supposed to be my bodyguard had become something precious to protect: No way, after all that, was anybody going to hurt him. That’s cute, but mostly it’s odd to see the way it still effects my gameplay.
The second bit, though, isn’t just about me and my particular game. See, although Argis is a Housecarl and a bodyguard, he’s also now a Spouse. And this is where the Attitudinal Index part comes into play: How far we’ve come, how far we have to travel, and the basic hilarities of being (or playing) gay in a somewhat safe-but-still-janky public space.
As a Spouse, this huge Viking has two extra responsibilities: One, he nets me a hundred bucks a day from a “store” he apparently runs—despite being by my side at every moment—and two, everyday involves a “homecooked meal” I can add to my inventory. I’m new enough to videogames that I’m only assuming this is an RPG staple, the wifey at home who cooks and produces money like some kind of robot; I’m guessing the standard is not to take her everywhere, as I’m guessing none of the ways I’m playing the game are all too standard.
When I ask him to make me some food, he promises there’ll be another one tomorrow. When I ask him if he’s got any cash, he hands it over with a tender, “This is your half, love.” It’s adorable. And it is weird.
The fact is that when Argis says these weird things, it’s a cute glitch—and in real life, my actual husband saying any of this wouldn’t make me bat an eye—but if I had a computer wife and she said those things, I’d get grossed out pretty fast. Not about what’s happening, but why: Marry your Amazon fighting-partner, it would be weird to have her dialogue suggest she never leaves the house; a woman player in a straight marriage would hear the same odd things out of her burly man—but I think it does point to an exact moment, in the early 2010’s, when we were in some ways almost there and in other ways, less so.
It’s not a criticism, I don’t see a way to get up in arms about it—I almost think it’s better this way, as a reminder of where we came from and where we’re going. Because it does speak to certain underlying assumptions about the way we play games and the way we relate to one another that don’t necessarily work seamlessly for the vast majority of us—women players, gay and lesbian players, people who actually know how to roleplay, unlike me, and get to take on different genders and sexualities—but it’s made all the more confounding by the fact that no matter how high those numbers get, within and without the world of gaming, we’re still—for all intents and purposes—minorities.
Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps The Good Wife, Bates Motel, and Defiance for Television Without Pity.com. Check out jacobclifton.com, Twitter and Facebook.