Escaping Into Skyrim

There's a way of getting a pirated copy of PGA Tour Golf to work on the Amiga 520 that involves inserting the disc, removing it, inserting it again, listening for a certain click and removing it before a black line appears across the middle of the screen. If you then insert the disc again, the game will run as if it were a legitimate copy. I found this out at an old desk with a tv older than me in the coldest room in our house. I found this out through hours of perseverance, shivering in a draught as I played TCP Sawgrass.

I found this out because I never had very many games growing up. This might be the reason that I play videogames almost obsessively, focussing on one title at a time. If a game grips me, I squeeze everything I can out of them. Aside from PGA Tour Golf, this has been the case with: FIFA World Cup 98; Metal Gear Solid; Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City; Dark Souls; and Skyrim.

I had never played an Elder Scrolls game before I got Skyrim for Christmas in 2011. In truth, I was not much interested in it and I had no idea that it would turn out to be an important game for me. The power fantasy that almost all the games I had played dealt in had worn me out. Whether it was pretending to be the perfect sportsman or a man changing the world with guns, I had got bored of the fantasy.

In fact, I had almost given up on videogames. I had played through Halo 3 and GTA IV without any particular enthusiasm and was more or less ready to leave that world behind. I owned a house with a chimney and cracked windows. I had submitted my PhD thesis and, on my birthday halfway through December, my wife had told me that we were expecting our first child. Her gift to me was a babygrow, red and blue, with two cartoon lions on it, one cub, one adult. It says "Just Like Daddy" on it. I mean to say: I was growing up. I wasn't going to be wasting time on games.

On New Year's Day, my wife was taken into hospital where she underwent the operation to remove the ectopic pregnancy that threatened her life and turned mine upside down. I wasn’t allowed into the ward to see her; they sent me home. They wouldn't let me sit by her bed. No one talked to me about how she was or why I wasn't going to be a dad any longer. They sent me home.

When they sent me home I played Skyrim. Maybe there are times in your life that what you need is a character creation screen, the illusion of progress and control of your destiny. And I got stuck in.

I don't know what to tell you about the days and nights that followed. The game I barely remember. I think I was an elf. Certainly I had a bow and could hide in the shadows silently. I remember learning shouts and smithing and I can recall the Falmer and Dwemer. I had a horse with glowing eyes that ran out from under me one day, never to be found again. When I got to Sovngarde, in the fog, a panic clawed at my chest. I thought of the unbaptised who don't get to heaven.

From real life, I remember when I took her back from the hospital I was scared that I'd never bring her back to life. She was empty and broken. I brought her tea and beans on toast and when she slept I played. Sometimes, when the loading screens went on too long, I’d start crying. She would call to me and I would pause the game and go and sit with her and tell her that the important thing was that she was well and safe and that she would get better. I had gathered up all the folic acid, the baby books and the red and blue babygrow that said "Just Like Daddy" on it and stuffed it in a plastic bag and hid it in a drawer. So she wouldn't have to see any of it. Sometimes a visitor would come round and I'd make them tea and we'd sit and they would leave their coats on. Everyone had such serious faces. In Skyrim, I had decided the Nords were racists and sided with the Imperials.

In a little while she was able to get up and walk. She came through to ask about the game. She liked the horse and was sad when I lost it. Sometimes we'd be very quiet and I'd pause the game. I'd finished the main quests and I was working through the Daedric ones. I'm sure she thought the game was silly and a little distasteful. I suppose it is. It is a game that rewards you for doing the same things over and over again, allowing you to get better at them, refining your skills by constant iteration. I was in a cold, mechanical world where I was getting better, getting powerful.

One day I decided I'd had enough of Skyrim. I deleted my saves and took the disc out of the console. Nothing replaced it for the rest of the winter. In the late spring, Dark Souls would arrive. She was better by then, and I was looking for work.

I gave Skyrim away to a friend, a father of four, who will never have time to play it. I still have the babygrow. I took it out of the plastic bag and put it at the back of the drawer where I keep my pants and socks. Sometimes when I've not kept up with the washing and the drawer is almost empty I put my hand on it in the dark.

I broke Skyrim by learning it inside out. There was no challenge once I had perfected my sneaking. I could be in the middle of a fight and just crouch for my opponent to lose where I was. I honed my critical hits, forged dragon and Daedric armour and weapons. I milked the game dry with the same mechanical precision I used to start up PGA Tour Golf. Obsessive because there was nothing else to play, nothing else to do.

So I played Skyrim. I drank it in. I should have been doing something else: nursing my wife; keeping active; screaming at the sky; something. I don't know what would have been better, because I remember so little of that time beyond the fog that was on either side of my eyeline. I think there was snow outside in the real world, but I don't remember. The snow in Skyrim seemed real enough. In the house, everything around me was cold.