Survival of the Toughest

Hi.  Oh wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here!  In case any of my many, many loyal fans and visitors to this site (hi mum, hi spambots) really miss me and want to know where I’ve been writing about games all this time I have actually been posting some stuff for Beefjack.com (a proper, like, gaming site, I know!  My stuff can be found here) and I’ve started up my EVE Online blog again over here.

In the meantime I wrote a little article about the wonderful and brilliant Day Z that I and half the internet have completely fallen in love with, and survival games in general.  It didn’t really fit on either of my other thought outlets so here it is.  Feedback and comments are, as always, very welcome.

Welcome to the apocalypseSurvival Days

I have had a recurring dream since childhood.  The setting can change, but the overall dream is always the same: I get chased by an angry mob of everybody I have ever met and I have no option but to run.  The dream’s always the same, there will be a point when I keep slipping or feel like I’m running through treacle, and then it ends with me diving into some makeshift hiding place only to be found by the horde and at that instant wake up in a cold sweat.

My reason for sharing this deeply personal anecdote with you, dear readers, is because yesterday I accidentally recreated this dream in the ARMA2 mod Day Z, and in doing so realised why the survival genre is such a brilliantly absorbing one.

Zombies are bad, but other players are worseDazed

We humans are designed for survival.  Living comes easy to many of us in the 21st Century, but survival is still with us, knitted into the fabric of our DNA, our subconscious dreams and our conscious worries.  For all the millennia of changes humans have lived through we haven’t had time to evolve to our new lives, so the same instincts that drove our ancestors to hunt, forage, kill and seek shelter drive us still.  It’s the reason we form strong social bonds with family and friends.  It’s the reason why we love fatty, calorific foods much to the detriment of our waistlines.  It’s the reason we have nightmares as our brains force us to practice fight or flight situations.  It’s why we still get angry and violent when there might be little to get angry or violent about.

It is survival, and it’s why yesterday for a few glorious but terrifying moments in Day Z I forgot I was playing a game at all, pursued by a town’s worth of zombies up a barren hill into an abandoned shack that’s door, I realised too late, could not be shut.  Instinct had kicked in, adrenaline had taken over, I thought I was really there, and was frankly relieved when the zombies burst in to my useless shelter and sent me back to the server lobby.  It was just a game! Thank god.  And then I remembered all the kit I’d lost.  ARRRRGGGGHH!

Day Z, for those that haven’t heard, is a new mod for PC soldier-sim Arma2 that starts you on a beach on an island infested with zombies and 50 other players with no objective other than if you don’t move you will die of thirst and starvation.  So you better get moving!  It’s been so popular it’s been responsible for Arma2‘s rise to the top of the Steam charts for a spell last week, and for Amazon selling out of Arma2 CD keys.  So why has it been so popular, and how can yet another zombie based action game be so ground breaking?

Nightfall provides cover, but you can't see a thing without throwing attention grabbing flaresDon’t Die!

For a start it is so refreshing to be given such a clear and naturally compelling goal: Don’t die!  For years games have spun ever entangling narratives to give us reason to move from A to B and traverse the obstacles and enemies that lie between.  “Your princess is in another castle”.  “Look out! Hitler’s opened the gates of hell!”.  “There’s even more terrorists in that next building!”.  “Oh no! Zombies!/Dragons!/Aliens!/Dr.Robotnik!”.  Etc, etc.

Last night, though, respawning after my terrifying defeat I spent 3 hours looking for a fresh water source in Day Z’s apocalyptic wasteland.  That’s it!  No back story to uncover, no NPCs to save, and no achievements to unlock.  I just needed water or else I would die.  Despite that, it was easily the most engrossing few hours of gaming I’ve enjoyed this year.  I spent 3 hours sprinting from shadow to shadow, looting fallen players, scavenging zombie infested farms, taking a massive detour around another player who didn’t respond to my “friend or foe?” call, and making an audible whelping noise when I crested a grassy hill in the dark to find the silhouettes of 6 shuffling zombies 5 feet in front of me.

Day Z isn’t the first survival game. Even in the last couple of years titles such as Minecraft, Fallout: New Vegas, I Am Alive, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Dead Island and Project Zomboid have all contained some or all of the same survival mechanics: an open world, scarce resources, living off the land, punishing toughness and the tough punishment of permadeath.  Oh, and a constant, crippling atmosphere and tension.  Oh god, the tension!

What makes Day Z stand out from those games is that it strips away any of the peripheral distractions like Fallout‘s storyline, Minecraft‘s collecting and architecting or Project Zomboid‘s skills and perks.  Day Z focuses purely on survival.  It takes ARMA2‘s existing open world, combat mechanics and inventory system and replaces all story and objectives with 4 HUD markers indicating thirst, hunger, temperature and blood.  The objectives don’t need to be spelled out: You need to keep those indicators green.  The storyline doesn’t need an intro cutscene or reams of text: It’s written by your actions as you go.

Not goodNumbers games

I think the appeal of something so simple comes as a subconscious backlash to the RPG-ification of all genres over the last decade or so of gaming.  Sure, in any game we are playing a role but the stats based RPG gameplay that originated in Dungeons and Dragons board games and has worked it’s way from traditional RPGs like Baldur’s Gate into other genres via groundbreaking titles such as System Shock has now proliferated into all games and genres.  I challenge anyone to find a modern game that doesn’t involve some form of levelling up, earning skills and improvements or acquiring unlocks and bonuses through meeting set achievements.

It all comes back to instincts.  The reason we enjoy ‘playing’ as a species is to practice our survival skills: fighting, puzzle solving, reactions.  Equally the compulsion to horde loot in Diablo or to find a bow with a better damage rating in Skyrim comes from the same package of instincts that have helped the human race survive so well over the last million years.  You want more and better stuff than your rivals.  You want to level up to the maximum possible because bigger numbers are better.  It is in our genes.

Yet there is only so many times levelling up yet another character (or vehicle, or football team, or whatever) can provide satisfaction.  You start to forget why you even care that your Old Republic bounty hunter is level 36 rather than level 35.  Survival games remind you by taking away all the distractions and placing you in seriously dangerous surroundings: You care because it’s life or death.

Sanctuary!Playing roles

Day Z also takes role playing back to what it should be about: Playing a role defined by the way you play not the stats you apply to your character.  Its stats and skills are broken down to the simplest calculations: machineguns are better than pistols.  Darkness is stealthier than light.  It’s character progression is equally natural: Do you use that last inventory slot for more bandages or more ammo?

Despite this simplicity clear roles are appearing in the 50-person servers of Day Z games.  The hunter-gatherers live off the land, catching, cooking and eating wild animals, avoiding zombie infested towns and replenishing water bottles at lakes.  The looters forage the towns and cities for new gear, food and water, every incursion a balance between risk and reward.  Meanwhile the bandits form ragtag, distrustful groups of player hunters, earning their survival through the murder and looting of other under-equipped players.

The only goal is survival, the only highscore is the number of days you lasted.  That’s why Day Z is the embodiment of the budding genre of survival games, and why survival games are in many ways the embodiment of gaming in general.

And perhaps a therapeutic cure to life-long recurring dreams?  Here’s hoping.

Colonial Irrigation

Oh, no, I don't really WORK OUT as such, just 50 crunches before breakfast and a weekly spinning classMore news!  I say ‘news’, what’s actually happening is we’re branching out into that peculiar no-man’s land between news story and advert that you see on those other gaming websites all the time. You know the ones I mean.

Gearbox software (of good but never great FPSes fame) have released a shiny CGI video of their upcoming game, Aliens: Colonial Marines.  Utilising Moon music, it’s in the ‘action-packed but in slow-mo’ genre of trailers that Gears of War so kindly introduced to the world, and reveals almost no details about the game itself other than it contains some Aliens, and some Colonial Marines.  It reminds me of a film…..Starship Troopers maybe?  See what you think (read on for even MORE news!):

The trailer, however, is but a mere rat in an air-vent setting off your motion scanner, distracting you from the chest-bursting horror that is the release date has slipped until Autumn (a.k.a. ‘the Fall‘)!  To help you recover from that scare, how about you watch some actual gameplay footage from last year’s E3 while I go start the ship’s self-destruct sequence:

Laterz

Bisaac gets a retlease

Isaac will be available in stores just like this one!

More news!  Today word reaches us….err, wait, what’s that?  I usually only write overlong, rambling essays once every other crescent moon, why am I suddenly writing short daily news articles?  I don’t know what you’re talking about!   And no, it certainly isn’t to do with that news writer job I might apply for!  The people need to hear the latest gaming news, isn’t that reason enough?  Yes, I know I read it somewhere else, but how do you think Trevor McDonald gets his news?  Because he was at the scene of every major newsworthy event of the last 30 years!?  No!  Quite.  Now keep quiet, you’re eating into my precious, precious, imaginary word count.

Right, sorry about that readers, my internal dialogue somehow spilled onto the web for a second there.  I’ll have to keep this brief:

The superlative Binding of Isaac is to get a proper retail release in a special ‘Unholy Edition’, which includes a DRM free version of the game, a free Steam gifting key, the soundtrack, a poster and a 40 page “Devzine.”

A “Devzine” is presumably a magazine made by the developers, and is one of those horrible new words formed by smashing two perfectly good old ones together, like bromance, Subo and spork that will inevitably lead to all language being combined into one massive word every one will bark at each other in the end days before a giant George Orwell returns from the grave to blast us with lasers from his eyes, tutting “I did warn you” so loudly, the entire world explodes.

The Binding of Isaac: Unholy Edition will ‘hit’ stores on the 16th March.  Here’s a picture:

Monitors not included (just as well, they're hideous)

Minecats

You better craft a bigger litter tray

What do you get if you combine 2 of the last year’s most popular internet searches?  A super-injunction against zumba?  Pippa Middleton’s arse gets a twitter account?  Osama bin Laden killed by dubstep?  Well, possibly, but what I was really thinking of was cats in Minecraft.  Which is exactly what the latest Minecraft update has introduced.

One of the new landscapes, the jungle biome, will now contain Ocelots which can be tamed using raw fish and kept as pets, just like Salvador Dali did (he kept an Ocelot as a pet, I mean.  I have as yet been unable to verify if raw fish were involved).  As the video below demonstrates you can then accrue an army of cats to follow you around like a crazy old cat lady.  Alas, you can’t use them to attack things.  My powers of journalistic insight have also ascertained that they squirt hearts out of their heads for no apparent reason.

Apparently this is all very cute, but on a day when my own cat woke me up at 5am by clawing my neck to shreds I have been unable to see it as anything other than a horrifying nightmare, which is at least in keeping with my interactions with all the other mobs in Minecraft.

That is all!

The PC gaming year that was 2011 – Part 2

Another game about permanent death

.. and I’ve seen it before

.. and I’ll see it again

.. yes I’ve seen it before

.. just little bits of history repeating

Dame Shirley Bassey there, singing about PC games.

Have I ever told you about my first video game?  I’m not so sure that I have.  The first video game I owned was Super Mario Bros 2 that came with the NES I got one Christmas in 1990 or thereabouts.  The one infuriating feature of that game and pretty much every game of that era that remains so strongly ingrained in my memory, buried somewhere between memories of stubbing my big toe on mum’s coffee table and catching myself in the zip of my jeans, is that you could not save your game.  None of the games at the time let you save your game, apart from very rare exceptions (the first Zelda title did in 1987) the consoles and game cartridges just didn’t have the memory to support save games.  It took hours and hours to complete Super Mario Bros 2, even with a healthy knowledge of the hidden warp pipes to skip whole worlds (all of which would have to be found personally or learned from the playground, as the internet wasn’t an option) you could still spend an entire day reaching level 90 only to run out of lives and be booted unceremoniously back to the start.  Or worse a power cut would take it away, or you’d brush the overly sensitive reset button on the front of your NES and all those hours of hard work were worth nothing.

Thankfully technology soon caught up and the ability to save your progress or at the very least get a level code to bring you back to the last level you reached next time you loaded took off in the SNES era, meaning we didn’t need to worry about failing or turning our computers off quite so much ever again.  In fact the safety net provided by the proliferation of ‘quicksave’ buttons, save checkpoints and respawning over the course of the decade mean the modern gamer rarely has to play the same stretch of game twice, and is therefore no longer afraid of death.

Some people think that is not such a good thing.

PermaDeath is Dred-ful

2011 – The year of PERMADEATH!!!

So if there is one gaming trend in 2011 that I’m fascinated by the most it is the sudden resurgence of Perma-death as an acceptable gaming occurrence, and in some cases the entire premise around which to build a game.  Of course the idea of a game that doesn’t let you save is not new, and the genre that holds perma-death as a core belief, roguelikes, has been quietly producing games since the 70s right through to now, but 2011 was the first year I’ve seen so many popular games released where death means death.  Plus I’ve largely enjoyed all of them instead of running out of the room screaming, which is a first (Spelunky aside) since those heady days of the early nineties.

What games am I wittering on about you ask?  In no particular order I am thinking of:

Binding of Isaac - I talked about this in part 1.  Whilst it shares more in common with early Nintendo games in its gameplay it does share all the basic premises of a roguelike with: no saving, no ‘lives’ (well, except for one very rare 1up item), and every new level is procedurally generated at random when you start.  The beauty of the Binding of Isaac is each game is thankfully short, so even if you reach the second last level and die, it’ll only take you 20 minutes to catch up.  But maybe next time there won’t be any keys around to let you into the item rooms on each level leading to a certain death half way through this playthrough?  Or perhaps instead the devil will appear after an end of level boss and offer you a super power up in exchange for a heart of health that makes the difference and helps you reach the final boss?  It’s the random nature of each game and the never-ending list of items and power-ups to be found that make it so replayable, which is essential for a game that forces you to start again every time you die.

Dungeons of Dredmor - Probably the most roguelike of the games I’m talking about Dredmor has turn-based combat, RPG levelling-up, item looting and crafting, and an increasingly difficult depth of dungeons to fight through.  Slightly disproving my point, though, savegames are an option in Dredmor.  However, Permadeath is still very much, err, alive.  Which just means you can spend all week getting further than you’ve done before, saving your progress as you go, levelling your character into a super Diggle hunter, crafting marvellous weapons of destruction, only to die in a slightly over-ambitious skirmish and lose everything you worked for with your saves being wiped instantly.  That said most of my attempts have ended in the first 2 dungeons, meaning I’ve barely levelled up or collected anything to lose.  While there’s a wealth of items to collect the biggest problem with the pleasantly humourous Dungeons of Dredmor is the decision to make almost all enemies Diggles.  They’re just so daft and repetitive.  They’re the RPG equivalent of Halo’s grunts.

Realm of the Mad God - Mad is the operative word in Realm of the Mad God.  Give it a go now if you haven’t before.  It’s totally free and plays in your browser.  Go on, play it now.  Stick with other players and try to be the first to grab any dropped loot.  You’ll die within 10 minutes, but have a good idea what I’m talking about then.

Finished?  Have fun?  It’s insane isn’t it?  I can’t remember a game in which you level up quite so fast.  Once again it’s a game released in 2011 that cares not for how much loot you’ve collected or what level you’ve reached.  When you die, YOU DIE.  Imagine if Skyrim did that to you?  Realm of the Mad God shares that pace and brevity with Binding of Isaac that mean it’s not too frustrating to start again following death, and it brings back that other aspect of early nineties gaming – trying to beat a personal best.  It’s certainly wormed its way onto my favourites tab.  My highest level reached?  A pitiful level 10, so far.

Desktop Dungeons - Again there is a free version of this if you want to try it (there’s also a spruced up complete version on the way).  This was the first game I played this year where permadeath was a key feature.  The turned based combat, loot drops, permadeath and dungeon delving are all taken from roguelikes and again they’re packaged up in an accessible, addictive, coffee-break lengthed blast of fun.

Made by the Spelunky guy.  He's got a thing about PermadeathSo…yeah.  that’s just a thing I noticed in 2011.  Will permadeath feature in more games next year?  Or were roguelikes just this year’s 2D platformers?  Will Modern Warfare 4 feature a ‘Realism’ mode where when you die the game shuts down and can’t be played ever again even if you take it back to the shop and get it replaced?  Will I take the hint made by the fun I’ve had with the 4 games mentioned and take a dive into a true roguelike, like Nethack or Brogue perhaps?  Probably none of the above.  But I will be playing Binding of Isaac and Realm of the Mad God again.  And again…  And again….

The PC gaming year that was 2011 – Part 1

Spooky2011 now officially over it seems a good time to review the year that was, and what a year it was for PC games!  The world seemed to fall apart around us month by month, but thankfully those hard working developers large and small kept producing a vast amount of high quality video games to keep us all distracted from impending Armageddon.  There has already been a few opinions on whether 2011 was a vintage year for gaming.  Perhaps the quantity of titles masked the quality of them.  Perhaps the need, in this big-budget money driven industry, to make games that are known to be popular over games that are original and new has been to the detriment to the art form, and the fact that the vast majority of big games this year were sequels and the remainder were new stabs at tired genres would probably back that up.  Whatever the case though, I don’t think anyone can disagree that there were a lot of great games released in 2011.  I can’t remember a year in which I had so much fun.  So to round it up there’s a couple of things that happened this year that I think are worth noting over the course of a few blog posts.  First of all, 2011, the year that was….

2011: The year of Indie abundance

With the big developers sticking to what they know best (more on this later) it was again down to the independent developers to provide something new and exciting for the jaded gamer in 2011.  Although Minecraft only officially came out this year I think it’s fair to call it 2010′s game, and along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it stole the show from the AAA developers last year with the 2 being my favourite games of last year.  This year I don’t think any Indie game was quite that good, but so many came close and this can only continue to inspire a future of small, cheap, original and superb games from creative and unrestricted indie developers.

So in a very particular order of ‘quite pleased by’ through to ‘most pleased by’ 2011 produced (deep breath):

Spacechem - You only had to wait until 1st January to get your first gaming fix of 2011 with this delightfully brain-twisting puzzler.  It’s hard, confusing and feels a little bit like doing science homework but if you want originality in a neatly presented package with just the right amount of narrative to give you reason to carry on then that box was ticked on day one.

Limbo - Visually stunning, great use of sound, shame about the puzzles and the fact the first 10 minutes are the best part of the ……OH CHRIST!  A SPIDER LEG!

Victory Pose!Chtulu Saves the WorldFrom my limited knowledge of what ‘the kids’ are listening to nowadays I understand 2011 was all about the early nineties sound, and so it seems that gaming in 2011 had a big early nineties thing going on too.  Acronym of the year must go to SNES, and Chtulu Saves the World probably played the greatest homage to the best console ever (you can quote me on that, future historians).  Chtulu plays like a SNES RPG, like Final Fantasy IV era FF games, but gives away its year of birth through the reams of hilariously knowing writing that takes the piss out of its own genre’s foibles as well as every other genre and media form.  From the story, to the characters, enemies, weapons (there are SO MANY characters, enemies and weapons) and even the options menu this game is silly, you’ll know in the first 2 minutes whether you’re going to enjoy its brand of humour.  If you do, play it on easy, blast through the annoying combat and you can enjoy one of the funniest games of the year.  Plus at £1.99 full price on Steam and clocking in at 10s of hours of play it’s also the year’s best bargain (ignoring ‘free-to-play’ things).

SmashingAtom Zombie Smasher - Insanely fun, apocalyptic, explode everything-em-up that once again proves there is no end to the different genres zombies work in.  AZS is basically a Real-Time Strategy game with a turn based ‘preparation’ layer between levels, making it sound a tiny bit like a Total War game, but believe me it is something completely different that I’m not even going to try and explain.  Look, just try the demo, it’s great.  It’s one of the few games I actually enjoy losing, there’s just something right about the game ending with your valiant efforts being all for nothing as the zombie infection spreads across your entire city.  Which is just as well because I have only ever beaten it on the patronising ‘Casual’ mode.  AZS also wins the award for soundtrack of the year, in my humble opinion.

Terraria - It’s not a 2D Minecraft, but it does involve mining and crafting.  Where it differs is the complexity of things you can find and create and the structure that increasingly difficult monsters and bosses bring to the procedural proceedings.

Like a cute AlienCapsized - Indie developers love a side-scrolling platform/shoot em-up and 2011 was no different, but Capsized really is as good as the genre gets.  It is beautifully drawn, has a wealth of slowly discovered weaponry, the best use of a gravity gun outside of Half-life 2 and every level is different and interesting.  You really need to play this one to the end so you don’t miss out on the low-gravity floating-island hopping of the last couple of levels.  Then play the gravity-gun only ‘armless levels’.  Just perfect.

Frozen Synapse - I’ve talked about this before.  I’m still enjoying it when I occasionally hop on for a game.

Gemini Rue - I’ve done this before too.  It’s ace.

Wait til his mum finds outBinding of Isaac - Another game that drips with early nineties inspiration, the Binding of Isaac plays like a bastard child of the Legend of Zelda and Smash TV that was locked in the basement for the length of its childhood with nothing to do but relive its rogue-like nightmares over and over again day after day.  Providing you’re ok with the setting this is an incredibly addictive time-sink that I’m still enjoying even after finishing it once (and trying and failing to complete it about 50 times) there’s just so many items to unlock and achievements to achieve.  That setting, though?  Well, the Binding of Isaac is a cartoon game with biblical overtones whose main protagonist, Isaac, is a naked child who shoots tears and pee at his horrifying enemies who are all flys, worms or contorted caricatures of himself.  His goal is to find and kill his own mother (in self-defence), and the power ups include a dead cat, his mum’s high heels and sanitary towels, and bomb diarrhoea.  It’s, err, not for everyone, but that just makes me like it even more.

The kid done goodBastionLast and (just) best in my little Indie round-up of 2011 is this beautiful action-RPG that’s light on the RPG, heavy on the action and absolutely dripping with artwork, atmosphere and superb narrative (and I mean literally, the narration is superb).  Considering the story sees you trying to salvage a home and search for survivors in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by genocide, war and weapons of mass destruction the game built around this dark heart just looks so nice and sweet!  The graphics and artwork are lovely.  The combat is fluid and fun, with unlocked weapons providing different tactics rather than just more firepower (except for the last couple).  And the way the story unfolds through the narrator’s Big Lebowski style southern-US drawl is charming, original and, come the final moments, genuinely neck-tingling.

One of the most exciting things about Bastion?  It built so much hype pre-launch that the game was snapped up by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for publication (who’ve published Batman: Arkham Asylum, Lord of the Rings Online and FEAR 3 among others), proving that Indie games are getting a lot of attention from big investors nowadays, and whilst Minecraft and others have proven you don’t necessarily need the backing of big publishers to make big games, it has got to be a positive sign that the most creative source for games are getting proper backing and attention.  Are publishers tiring of backing massive-budget games in the same old genres where one failure can bankrupt a publisher and endanger an entire network of developers?  I don’t know about that, but the gap between ‘AAA’ games and ‘indie’ games is definitely getting narrower which can only be a good thing for the future of games.

Next up in the 2011 round-up - Perma-death and Detective work

Skyrim review

Some misty mountains, though not THE Misty Mountains, obviously, that's another 'entertainment brand'

George got up from his desk, grinning at his final accomplishment.  “There,” he muttered to no one as he closed the tome before him with a flourish.  “Finished!”.  He ran his slender elven finger over the inscription on the front of the book.  The backpacker’s guide to Skyrim, for Bosmer Wood Elves.  He wrapped it carefully in thick woven paper and tied it tight with strong string.  “Time to get you back to Valenwood,” he got up and strode towards the door of his office but froze in horror when he noticed the tall, broad, armour-clad shadow blocking the doorway.

“AH!” he sprang back reaching for his dwarven sword, scavenged from the depths of an ancient dwarven dungeon and improved by his own skilled hands over weeks of crafting.  He looked up to the face of his assailant, ready to strike.  “Oh, it’s you!” he immediately relaxed seeing the face of his housecarl Lydia.  “Can you step out the way please, you’re blocking the doorway.”

There was an awkward pause.  She didn’t move.

“Lydia, do you mind….”

“Hi, George!” she interrupted, “What you doing in there?”.

“Oh.  Well, I’ve just finished the travel guide I was writing.  It’s done!  I can get it home!” he grinned again.

“I didn’t know you were writing a travel guide,” Lydia peered at the parcel under his arm.

“It’s the reason I was in Skyrim in the first place.  Didn’t I tell you about that?”

“Nope, I thought you were sent here by the gods to defeat the dragon menace,” she frowned.

“Oh, well, I guess that too, but I didn’t know about that when I set off from Valenwood to write a travel guide for my fellow wood elves,”  he patted the well wrapped booked under his arm.

“So, what did you say about Skyrim?  Are you recommending it to your elven brethren?”

“God no!  It’s been absolute hell!  From the moment I crossed the border I’ve been abducted by Imperial troops, accused of spying for some Nord rebels, had my head placed on an executioners block only to be saved by the arrival of a fucking dragon.  I’ve been accosted by wolves, hunted by bears, chased by trolls, haunted by wispmothers, set upon by bandits, ordered about by rebels and Imperial soldiers alike, had to bow to countless Jarls, been turned into a werewolf, can’t sleep for nightmares of a terrible black phantom persuading me to join a murderous cult, toyed with by gangster godmothers, invited to a tea party with a mad daedric prince inside the mind of a long dead king…”

“What the…”

“…Don’t even ask!  I’ve had to crawl through fetid skeever tunnels, swim frozen rivers, climb frozen mountains, everything’s bloody frozen!  I’ve had to eat every bug, mushroom and monster anatomy I’ve found to see if it’s any use in potion making,” George paused to catch his breath.

“And don’t get me started on the dragons!  Everywhere I go everyone seems to think I’m some kind of god-born dragon slayer!  Oh look a dragon, they’ll say, don’t worry George will get rid of it we’ll just hide in our houses here until he’s done.  And then when I do finally kill the thing everyone carries on as if nothing has happened.  They leave corpses in the streets for….for forever as far as I can tell!  What is wrong with you people!?”

George wanders how to get his big moon shaped ball out of the tree

Lydia was shocked.  She racked her brain for something positive to mention, “Ok, ok, you are a bit of a special case George but what about the people?  Us Nords are a kind and welcoming sort aren’t we?”

“Oh sure you are.  Very friendly when you need me to go on another bloody quest for you!  Every where I go people are running up to me and asking me for help.  God, I can’t even have a quiet drink in a town Inn without the bartender bringing up endless tasks the town need completing.  The people I do befriend who want to go adventuring with me walk into traps, get in the way of my arrows, bark at enemies when I’m trying to be stealthy, hide when I’m trying to attack and are forever getting stuck in doorways!  Speaking of which could you just step aside Lydia, I need to…”

“Well, you’ve been here a long time and must have met many women in your travels, George.  You must have found… you know, a suitable companion out here in the wilds?” Lydia played with her hair as she asked.

George stared at the butch, masculine figure in front of him and suppressed a shudder, “To be honest Lydia I can’t say I did, what with the dragons and the war and everything.  Sometimes I think I’m happier just crafting a new piece of armour from some rare, dungeon plundered metal.  Plus I never did work out how you marry people in your custom.”

“Oh, I can show you!” Lydia burst with unusually girly excitement.

“NO!  I mean…no…. thank you Lydia.  I’ll, um, work it out if I ever need to.”

There was an awkward pause.

“Look, Lydia, can you just come in this room or go back into that room for just a moment, I can’t get past.”

“Huh?”

“Ok, let me try it this way.  Lydia [I NEED YOU TO DO SOMETHING FOR ME]“

“Oh sure, what is it?” Lydia was suddenly receptive.

“[WAIT THERE]” George ordered, pointing at the floor on the other side of the hall he was trying to enter.

“Sure, why didn’t you just say?” Lydia obediently did her Thane‘s bidding and walked to the other side of the room.

Finally,” George muttered under his breath and made to go through the doorway.

“RAWULLLLLLLLLFFFF!”

“AH!” George leapt back instinctively, “Melko!  Not you too!” he looked down at the shaggy dog whose tail he’d just trodden on.  She sat fully in the doorway staring up with puppy-ish eyes, panting.

George sighed, “At least I can just jump over you,” and with that he leapt over the dog with agile elegance finally arriving in the hallway to his hard-earned home.  Grabbing up his latest crafted armour he packed a sword, bow and arrows.  “You can never be too careful out there,” he said to Lydia.  He paused when he saw her just standing there where he’d ordered.  “I’ll, um….  I’ll see you soon….  By the way….. Thanks for everything Lydia, you’ve been a great…..” He searched deep within his brain for a compliment, “you’ve been great at carrying stuff when I was overloaded.”

“Oh, thanks,” Lydia blushed.

“You too Melko.  You look after each other.” And with that he set off out into Skyrim with his travel guide under his arm.

Home is where the dangerously open fire is

With George gone the two NPCs stayed motionless in the house, staring at one another.  Melko, ever needy, was just happy for Lydia’s company.  Lydia felt lost.  She looked at the warm fire and exceptional furnishings George’s ‘work’ in Riften had been able to afford for the house.  She looked at the kitchen and thought about grilling some salmon.  “Ah, I know,” she thought, “I’d better wash my armour actually.  When did I last do that?”

Suddenly the door burst open.  The daylight that flooded in partially blinded Lydia as she tried to make out the figure at the door.  It was….could it be?  George came marching out of the bloom and plonked his helmet down on the nearest chair.  “Hi Lyds.”

“You….you, came back!” Lydia was overwhelmed.

“Huh?  Of course I did!” George looked at her, puzzled, “I was only popping to the post office!  What?  You didn’t think I was leaving did you?  I don’t want to go home, I’m having the time of my life!  Hell, Skyrim is one of the best places I’ve ever been!”

“But…”

“So, who wants to go on an adventure?  Let’s have a look here,” George thumbed through a thick, tattered journal, “Ah, here’s a good one: Find a way to free Thorald from Northwatch Keep.”

“Who’s Thorald?”

“I forget, but that’s never important. It’s a quest.  Coming?”

THE END

10/10

Mammoth vs. Dragon.  It is hard choosing which to eat first

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