My sleep pattern of late, of the last month or a bit longer, has been disrupted and wildly inconsistent.
Generally, on a work night, I can manage to drag myself to bed around eight and a half to eight hours before the alarm is set to go off. As I crawl into bed, I will congratulate myself for leaving myself enough time for a good night’s rest, plenty of time.
The next hour or two, however, is spent trying to get to sleep. I toss and turn, fretting about money, about the stresses of my commute and the fact of being a contractor, but especially worrying about the politics of our time. This is usually when I realize my sleep has been horrible at least since around Election Day.
When my mind spins off into those bouts of anxiety, I will try again to drag it back to a blank state so I can drift off to sleep. After many tries, usually several hours after getting under the covers, eventually, sleep comes.
Then I dream.
I don’t have recurring dreams; it’s never the same scenario that plays out, but the dreams are haunted, and anxious, and upsetting. They’re dreams of disconnection, dreams of fear, dreams of loss; and they force me back to consiousness, repeatedly.
Once awake, I’ll check the time, or not, and roll over and try to go back to sleep.
At some point, typically with only a couple of hours until the alarm is set to sound, I will usually fall into a deeper, more restful sleep.
And then I dream. But this time, it’s nicer.
They’re not recurring dreams, but these dreams, the dreams I have when I’m at what feels like the deepest level of sleep, the level I only reach after what feels like hours of effort, share a theme. They’re dreams of connection. Dreams of peace. Dreams of warmth.
Then the alarm goes off, and I am dragged away from that gentle place to the real world, the world with a long commute to a job in a giant corporation where I have no guarantee of a future to earn only a little more than I need to pay my bills.
And it’s all I can do to not just roll over and try to go back to that warm, welcoming place I was just dreaming of.
These days, every once in a while, but more and more often, I do just that. Type an email to ask for a sick day, a mental health day, and then pull the covers up and try to go back to the safe, connected, loved place I was dreaming of.
Sometimes I reach it again. Mostly I don’t, though either way, I end up spending 12, 13, or more hours in bed those days.
Which is a problem, of course, of course. I can see that. I will work on that.
I have to work on that, because this isn’t working.
Some of the funniest moments I’ve had in Skyrim were almost assuredly completely unplanned by the people who designed it.
Skyrim, like the previous titles in the series, or the other major gameworld from Bethesda, the Fallout series, uses scripts to tell all the various characters in the game where to be at certain times of the day, and how to react to events around them, and to moderate how each person feels about the player and the player’s actions.
Radiant Quests, Repeating Forever
Many of the basic quests available to the player are also randomly generated. There’s a list of quest-givers, a list of random loot or rewards, and a long list of possible locations for these quests. This is the Radiant system, and it adds a certain amount of unpredictability to every playthrough.
The game is big, with far too many moving parts, with everything governed by an interlocking set of scripts and triggers, all built on top of an engine that has been expanded and patched over the years. Toss all that together with an unpredictable human player who has been given the freedom to go anywhere, talk to (or kill) almost anyone in the game. You end up with a system that mostly works, but can break pretty easily.
Some of those breaks are predictable and repeatable and become exploits that a gamer can use (or not, if they would rather). And some of those breaks are chaotic, unpredictable, and hilarious. These bugs create some of my favorite moments in the game.
The Unbound Dremora
On one of my most recent playthroughs, I’ve been playing a pure mage, eschewing swords and armor for spells and potions. My character had been only using the various schools of magick to attack, defend, or otherwise complete quests. And eventually she had maxed out her skill in conjuration, the ability to summon things and creatures from other planes of existence.
Having reached this level, there was only one thing left to do: approach the instructor for conjuration at the College of Winterhold basically to complete my degree. The instructor gave me a ritual to perform: summon a dremora (a creature of the plane of Oblivion with great power), defeat it in combat three times, and order it to bring back some powerful artifact. All this, I did, and ran off to give the artifact to the instructor, Phinis Gestor.
Some time later, maybe a week or more in real time, my character was returning to the College to sell off a bunch of loot I’d found, and heard a noise behind me as I entered the dorms. I turned around, and came face to face with the red devil face of the unbound dremora I’d summoned earlier.
The dremora was not hostile. In fact, it seemed listless, quiet, almost depressed. Instead of bellowing threats, it said nothing at all. As I watched, it wandered across the atrium and up the stairs to the second floor. I ran after it, curious, but only watched as it went out the door to the roof. I couldn’t stop laughing. Apparently I’d forgotten to dismiss it after I was done.
That dremora is still there, on the roof, staring out to the horizon, stuck here, unable to leave or return to its home dimension. I’ve even tried attacking it to see if killing it will dispell it. Nope. It’s glitched out. It’s immune to attack, and it will not fight back. The College has gained another student, or a mascot.
Unpredictability Is Fun
A downside to the Radiant system is that after a while, these Radiant quests become boring and repetitive, despite the randomness, because they all boil down to “go fetch this thing for me”. It’s clearly not special to that NPC because they keep losing some random weapon or piece of armor in some other random tomb, cave, or dungeon, and only the player can go there and find it for them again.
I assumed that the unbound dremora should disappear, or at least become an enemy you can fight (and loot), after completing the quest. Its persistence is a bug, one that should have been fixed by a patch (and is fixed by the Unofficial Skyrim Patch, a crowd-sourced update provided by fans of the game). But it’s much funnier to have it hang around, observe, and act depressed at its fate.
In almost 1,200 hours in Skyrim, I have never played a Khajiit, Argonian, Orc, or any kind of Elf.
I don’t know what it means. I’ve just never had the urge to play a non-human. I have played an Imperial, a Nord, at least twice as a Redguard, and several Bretons.
From a lore standpoint – oh, maybe I should explain that further, what it means to say something like “from a lore standpoint”?
The Elder Scrolls universe started out as a Dungeons and Dragons type of universe, with elves and orcs and humans and magic, but as it’s developed over the years, it has built on its basic Tolkein-esque High Fantasy foundations and has acquired an extensive and deep history.
Who Lives in Skyrim?
The basic humans have become several different races with their own cultures and special abilities. Nords, warriors from the cold wastes of Skyrim. Bretons, who are courtly and full of intrigue and may have a bit of Mer in their background. Redguards, desert nomads with a penchant for piracy and smuggling. And Imperials from the great human Empire at the starry heart of the continent of Tamriel.
The elves have differentiated into the Mer: Altmer, haughty, proud, and more than a little oppressive towards everyone else; the Dunmer, a reclusive culture that worship their ancestors and a triumvirate of demigods; the Bosmer, cannibalistic carnivores who live in mobile giant tree cities. And the Dwemer, who tinkered with magic and science and who conducted an experiment a thousand years ago that probably wiped the entire race out in a single swift mystical extinction event but left their ruins and artifacts laying around everywhere.
And then there are the “beast races”, the Orcs, the cat-like Khajiit, and the lizard folk Argonians, each with their own culture and history and spot on the map to call their own.
Environments Tell Stories
Shortly after becoming immersed in the game of Skyrim, I discovered that there was a lot of backstory I was missing, and, like any new fan, I would spend hours prowling the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Page and Elder Scrolls wikis, and read posts and threads on the Reddit group TESLore. Timelines, famous historical people and places, demigods and demons. It was endlessly fascinating to me, and the more I learned, the more I realized it was all reflected and expanded by material I found in the game.
So many books. In the game. If my character found a bookshelf, each book on the shelf could be opened and read. Some were in-universe fiction. Some were in-universe history. Plays, journals by explorers. Even erotica. It can all be found, read, collected. Some would start off quests of their own, tracking down a powerful weapon or rescuing trapped adventurers.
Bethesda, the company that writes and produces the games, is an expert in what they call environmental storytelling. In a dungeon you can find a journal that fills in what someone was looking for, and then a little further on, you find a body, killed by an unforeseen trap just inches from achieving their goal, and a story, with a beginning, middle, and end is told, economically. And this kind of thing happens over and over and over again. Without leading your character along specific path, you gain insight into the living world you’re adventuring in. It’s beautiful, and beautifully done.
Meaning From Small Scenes
One of the first examples of this that I found in the game, on my first character, was near the starting tutorial area. My character, out exploring, found a path that lead up from the road into the woods. The path led to a small underhang on a cliff face, with a statue of Talos, the founder of the human Empire who was worshipped as a god, and a shrine. And laying around the shrine were bodies labelled “worshiper”, dead, in pools of their own blood, wearing simple clothing, unarmored, weaponless.
Alongside those bodies is an Aldmeri agent, in his distinctive dark purple and gold robes, also dead. On his body can be found a note titled Thalmor orders, which explains that the Thalmor are rooting out, arresting and executing any Talos worshippers they can find. The note is signed by Elenwen, an ambassador who shows up later as a real NPC during the middle stages of the main quest.
One dead Thalmor, four dead human worshippers, and a motivation gleaned from a small notes.
A player seeing this scene can make a choice. They can just loot everything and move on; those robes alone are worth a couple of hundred gold pieces. They can feel empathy for the worshippers. They can side with the Thalmor and feel disgust for the humans who think a mere man can rise to godhood, clearly a heretical thought. All of those choices are open, none of them have any direct benefit or effect in pure game mechanics. To a role-player, though, the scene gives a chance to insert their character into an ongoing narrative, and expands on the feeling that the land of Skyrim is a living one with lots going on.
What did I do the first time I saw this scene? I can’t remember but I probably looted everything and moved on, tucking the note away to save it for my collection. But it moved me, and I felt a tiny bit of sympathy for the dead worshippers, and it motivated me to look more closely at this whole Talos crackdown. I was still new to this world and history. I didn’t know enough.
My reaction the next time I saw it, however, was through the eyes of a different character, a Nord who was returning to their homeland to fight the fascist Aldmeri Dominion and their Thalmor agents. I had a visceral reaction to it, and it shaped my new character’s story, motivating her to join the Stormcloaks under Jarl Ulfric in Windhelm, taking a side in the civil war tearing Skyrim apart.
Skyrim, more than any other game I’ve played, encourages that kind of role-playing. That’s the standard that leads people to put hundreds and hundreds of hours into playing.
Traditionally we celebrate Thanksgiving by going to their beach house in Lincoln City and spend the whole four-day weekend, and that year, Bill and Max had brought their XBox down because they were both addicted to Skyrim, which had been released just a couple of weeks earlier. I watched them play, and I played a little bit myself, and it was impressive as Hell.
At one point Max decided he wanted to fight two dragons at the same time, as a way to up the challenge. So he fast-travelled to somewhere near Darkwater Crossing, hoping to trigger a random dragon on top of the one that lived in the hot springs of Eastmarch.
He got his wish, and the dragon fighting music started up, and the fight began.
And somehow, somehow, another dragon showed up. Two dragons are a challenge. Three dragons was epic. I cheered Max on as he died several times before eventually bringing defeat and stealing the souls of those three dragons.
My Turn to Play Skyrim
When I got home from the trip, I went out and bought a used Playstation 3 and a copy of Skyrim to play on my giant plasma TV, and promptly fell headlong into the game for that entire winter. And then some.
I would play all night and drag myself to work on a complete lack of sleep and try not to regale my co-workers with Skyrim stories. Meeting the talking dog. Going on a cross-province adventure retracing my steps after blacking out from a drinking contest with the demigod of debauchery. Meeting the mind behind the mysterious and reclusive hermits that train you to shout as a weapon. The spooky night I finally explored a Dwemer ruin and saw the pathetic creatures that had been their slaves, the Falmer.
And plenty of dragons. Always an awesome battle to fight dragons. I never had the bad luck Max did; one at a time was always plenty for me. But the game didn’t run so well on Playstation. There were memory leaks and for such a huge, open world, it pushed the hardware much further than it had any right to.
I had about 250+ hours on my first character, a Redguard with no backstory (because I didn’t really know that was a thing to do yet), when I got my first, and last, dragon spawn inside a city. Poor Riften. I assumed so many people were going to die that day, decimating that town. What I couldn’t foresee was that it was my hardware that wouldn’t survive. The game slowed to a crawl, becoming a slideshow, and finally the whole thing just shut down completely. My used PS3 would never start up again. Skyrim killed it dead.
So Good I Bought It Twice
But I still had more Skyrim to play. It wasn’t too long after that I purchased a Windows 7 license and installed it on a BootCamp partition on my MacBook Pro, just to see if I could get Skyrim to run. I bought the game a second time, this time from Steam. It ran on medium display settings, even though the fans on my laptop would run up to jet-airliner-taking-off sound levels. I found someone who could break the Sony DRM on my PS3 save files and kept playing my original character, finishing every quest, visiting every named location, and becoming leader of every single guild. He became a dragon-riding all-conquering badass.
So I started new characters, to do it all over again. I installed mods to make it run better, fix problems, and add new items, clothing, characters, and locations to the game. And when Skyrim Special Edition came out last month, I started a brand-new character, this time with a backstory and a goal, and I’ve added another 100+ hours to my total play time, which is now approaching 1,200.
I’ve defeated Alduin, the world-eater, several times. I’ve played the DLCs through at least twice each, discovering the island of Solstheim and the beautiful Forgotten Vale, and I’ve built my own home from quarried stone and lumber I’ve chopped myself. All in simulation.
A Short Skyrim Series
There’s always something to do in Skyrim, some place to explore, some story to tease out of the left-behind books or notes or snippets of conversation, or some new thing to craft from found materials. I can spend time just gathering butterfly wings and blue mountain flowers for a potion, or go hunting dragons, or anything in between.
Over the next several posts, just for fun, I’m going to write about some of the funny, sad, and touching moments I’ve had playing this silly game. I can’t believe how much I’ve gotten out of wandering around the snowy frozen norther province of Tamriel, home of Men, Mer, Khajiit, Argonians, and other even stranger beasties.
Like many of you, I’ve found it really tough to be thankful for 2016. Almost from the first day, this year has thrown so much bad news at us. It’d almost seem weird if we don’t all have some level of depression.
But today, at least in the US, we’ve set aside a day to give thanks. Even in the darkest times, there is still some light. Here’s a short and woefully incomplete list of things for which I am thankful. Some may be silly, some may be profound.
I’ve discovered I really like Kettle Pepperoncini potato chips. Just discovered that this week, actually. They’re yummy.
Of course, of course, I’m thankful for my friends. I don’t get to see any of them nearly often enough, but thanks to the miracle of always-on internet they’re never far away. My closest friends are close because they know me well, after having spent years, even decades, with me. And from them knowing me, I’ve learned more about myself.
I’m thankful for video games. Much more involving than movies or books, games have given me moments of beauty, moments of sadness, and moments of triumph. Oh, that I could write as well as some of the stories that I’ve lived through and agonized over decisions for.
In particular, I’m thankful for Skyrim above all others. I’ve spent over 1,100 hours playing around in it, and the design of its open world has created some encounters that I’m sure were never dreamed of by its designers. I should write about those someday.
I’m thankful for my dad, and my sister, and the family that surrounds both of them. They’ve all known me my entire life, have seen me through wins and losses, and never fail to help me when they can. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them.
I’m thankful for computers, without which I may have had to get a real job. I like using them, I often like tinkering with them to see what else I can make them do, and I especially like showing other people how to use them or fix them. I love knowing things (I am a white male in late capitalist America, after all) but what good is knowing things if I can’t share that knowledge?
I’m thankful for the weird people in my city, the ones who protest abuse and corruption, the ones who write and dance and sing and paint because they couldn’t not do it, the ones who think opening a business catering specifically to cats or selling that one delicious thing they know how to make is the best idea. The folks who glue thousands of things to an old car and drive around just because. I love you all, and this city, and the world, would be a poorer place without you.
I’m thankful that despite everything, including (let’s be real) my own laziness and poor decision-making, I still have a roof over my head in a part of town I love. Next year I may have to leave this cheap run-down apartment in Sellwood, but for now, for today and the near future, I am here. It’s my base of operations from which I plan and dream and observe this crazy world. I’ve lived here longer than any other place in my life, and it, more than any other place, is home.
I could go on, but that’s a good start for now. I need to get showered and dressed and drive across the river to see people I love, eat too much food, and avoid talking about politics, in the grand tradition of our country.
Happy Thanksgiving to anyone and everyone reading this. May you always have a roof over your head, good food to eat, and friends and family that love you, until the end of days.
1. The brief moments of being warm in bed, having woken up before the alarm goes off, wondering why I even bother setting an alarm if my brain is just going to wake me up anyway, but knowing if I didn’t, I would sleep in too late and miss work, because brains are mysterious and mischievous.
2. Taking a hot shower.
3. Smelling the coffee being brewed.
4. Drinking coffee, especially that first sip. This is listed separately because it might not happen until #5 or later.
5. The calm 5-10 minutes before leaving for work, sitting in my dark office bathed in the glow of my computer screen.
6. The actual drive to work, listening to music or podcasts, enjoying the lack of traffic at 5:00 AM.
7. Hearing people’s accents from around the country, but especially Tennessee.
8. Bacon from the cafeteria on my first break.
9. Being able to explain something to someone in a way that helps them understand said thing in a way they didn’t previously, and particularly their delight in response.
10. The chicken strips from the cafeteria on my second break, which is basically my lunch time, since my second break (in an 8 hour shift) is at 11:30 AM, which are delicious and cheap, especially with ranch dressing or barbecue sauce.
11. Not the drive home itself, since there is more traffic and requires more attention, but the fact that I am driving home, instead of taking the bus or riding my bike, primarily because of how much less time it takes.
12. Getting home while there is still plenty of daylight outside if I feel like going out there and doing things.
Dungeons & Dragons Starter Kit: Two rulebooks, 19 adventure modules, and some extra bits and pieces, all from the early days of the game. Tons of ideas, monsters, traps, and locations to spark your own creativity. Auction ends around 4 PM PDT Wednesday 15 June 2016.
Four rare, signed, Tim Powers books:
Expiration Date: hardcover, first edition, inscribed by the author. Auction ends 7:35 PM PDT Tuesday 14 June 2016.
Earthquake Weather: hardcover, first edition, inscribed by the author. Auction ends 7:35 PM PDT Tuesday 14 June 2016.
Declare: hardcover, first edition, inscribed by the author. Auction ends 7:34 PM PDT Tuesday 14 June 2016.
Three Days to Never: hardcover, first edition, inscribed by the author. Auction ends 7:33 PM PDT Tuesday 14 June 2016.
There are two grocery stores in my neighborhood, in walking distance of my apartment. I don’t own a car. One store is closer but generally more expensive; the farther one, while still expensive, is a longer walk.
I almost always buy bacon. I just do. It’s part of my favorite breakfast. I’ve been buying the same kind of bacon for a long time. Both of the stores carry it, and their prices (and sale prices) are generally in sync. If it’s on sale at the close store, it’s probably also on sale at the farther store, and at a lower price.
Last weekend, being out of bacon, I went to the close store to get some things, and saw that bacon was on sale. I didn’t buy any, because I wanted to get it at the best price. Today I had some time to shop, so I headed out for the farther store. A nice walk in the warm summer sun.
The bacon was also on sale… at a higher price than the closer store, by about 50¢.
That bacon was my main reason for going out of my way. Do I pick up the other things on my list and the bacon and call it good?
No. No, I do not.
I only picked up the items that are cheaper. Looks like I’ll be making another trip back to the first store.
Hope that that sale price is still good and wasn’t a weekend special. Sigh.
Because I’m stressed and probably should be working, I find my thoughts turning to a favorite mental landscape: my beloved Portland, OR, transformed into the Willamette Wasteland via the lens of the Fallout universe. A river of radiated sludge bisecting the shattered downtown towers on the west side from the sprawling shantytowns on the east side, under green clouds of acid rain, a gloomy, muggy nightmare.
I’d love to run an RPG set in the Fallout universe, and of course I would set it in my hometown. And because of all the election follies of America’s real-world silly season 2016, I’ve got an idea for a central storyline.
Some of the scattered tribes of Old Portland have been struggling to find some way to choose a leader. The selection process has lasted for years, perhaps decades, and has devolved into fighting, raids, and guerrilla warfare. Some of the more power tribes include:
The Hill People: Residing in restored mansions in the West Hills live a handful of relatively wealthy and diverse families who have accumulated their stashes of food, weapons, and bottlecaps by strongarming other smaller raider groups into paying taxes or face extinction. In return, the raider tribes get access to Welfare Centers: meal halls and communal housing, open to any and all as long as they pay their taxes.
The Berners: An idealistic group of primarily young and old men living in several camps on the east side of the river. The Berners take umbrage at the two tiered class system created by the Hill People. They find themselves outnumbered and outgunned but remain highly confident that they can locate the secret location of the Hill People Repository, break in, and redistribute the cache among all the people of the Willamette Wasteland.
The Orangeheads: These folk protect themselves from dangerous acid rains and radstorms with a thick orange paste under their tattered Old World suits and dresses. Their goals are chaotic and random, but mostly they want to destroy all other tribes, or at least intimidate them all into fleeing the valley. They once attempted to get a group of roving Deathclaws to build a wall around the downtown area, which did not go well for them and greatly reduced their numbers.
That’s just off the top of my head. It’s all so silly. Would anyone buy in to such an off-kilter environment?
Although I’ve been working two jobs since late last year, plus writing when I have time or energy, unfortunately, it’s not enough. I’m in that gray area now where I make too much money for public assistance but not enough money to cover the bills. I’ve fallen behind on my rent and am in increasing danger of losing the home I’ve lived in for over 17 years, the longest I’ve spent in one spot in my whole life.
I’m ashamed I’ve been unable to fix this on my own, and my close friends and family have already been more than generous to me, and I am thankful for them. It’s not enough, unfortunately, and I have to turn to you, kind friends, for help.
There are, however, many ways you can help. Nothing is too little. Here’s a list.
Buy my writing! As Gloria Steinem once said, writing is the thing that, when I’m doing it, I don’t think I should be doing anything else. I have this blog to show my range, but if you don’t want to browse through 12 years and 2400+ posts, you can find selected clippings here. I charge reasonable rates and quick turnaround, and am particularly good at explaining technical subjects for a general audience with empathy and patience.
Help me find a better day job! I have 20+ years of tech support experience, having been on the phone and the front lines of the information economy. Again, I bring humility and compassion, and am fluent in talking straight to someone and helping them find a solution. Email me for a copy of my resume, or find me on LinkedIn, or pass along my info to any Portland-area companies that need a support specialist.
I can also fix or improve you computer! If you have trouble with your PC, Mac, smart phone or tablet, or know someone who needs help, let me know, or let them know about me.
Donate! If you are feeling generous, I will happily and gratefully accept any donation you can spare. There’s a PayPal button below this post, or email me if you prefer a different donation method.
Share this post! In fact, share any post I make. Get the word out! Post it on your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram. Tell your friends about the services I offer. Let your co-workers, neighbors, bartenders and baristas know about me.
Thank you for reading this. Thank you for any assistance you can spare, even if it’s copying and pasting a link to this page. I often write and post in solitude, but I know you’re all out there.