Idle Animations is a recurring series in which I play games without playing them, exploring quiet, still moments, how games fill space and time, and what happens when you let a game play itself.
Here’s the thing about Skyrim: it’s fine. It’s not bad, I guess, but it’s also everything I hate about open world games. It’s bloated, aimless, near-nonsensical with clashing plots, repetitive voice acting, and quests that never feel meaningful. Despite my criticisms, it’s a game that lends itself to alternative playstyles. It encourages you to be creative, which is something that, in a world I found more interesting, would certainly entice me. Skyrim is a natural choice for Idle Animations, because so much of it is already empty space waiting to be filled.
As I stared into the beautiful, heavily modded world of Tamriel, a narrative began to build itself out of every moment my character spent gazing into snowy mountains, fields of wildflowers, or blazing tavern fires. And thus, I present to you the saga of Rutabega the Argonian.
My dearest Parsnip,
Do you remember this place?
Of course you do. You’re much better at things like that than I am, but what you don’t know is that this place, where we spent many hours listening to the gulls, the mountains at our back, is where I knew that I would marry you.
I know, I know, this is too sentimental coming from me. But there’s a practical element to it, as well; along the road out here, I met a traveler who was hungry and cold. We sat beside the sea, sharing bread and a roasted rabbit, listening to the waves, watching the gray clouds and fog roll by. I told him about you, and he told me about a woman he’d met back in Riften who had refused his gift. He gave me the Amulet of Mara you wear now, and I gave it to you that very night.
I never told you this because every memory we made there was a bit better. Remember when we saw that Arctic fox run out of the waves, as if it had come straight from the ocean? Or the time a boar snuffled in the woods and we had to–well, anyway, one moment between me and a stranger is nothing compared to the moments we spent there together.
I miss you, darling, and the cold of the ocean is nothing compared to how much it hurts.
Do me a favor–if you find the person who told us The Bannered Mare was the best inn in all of Skyrim, kick them for me.
It’s not bad, as inns go, but people keep marching up to me to tell me their thoughts on Argonians, as if something about me screams that I care. The blasted bard has played “Ragnar the Red” no less than three times in the six hours that I’ve been here, claiming it’s a “local favorite.” I doubt he knows anything else, if his arhythmic drumming is anything to go by.
Not to mention that everybody stares at me. I understand that Whiterun is perhaps not the most diverse city in Tamriel, but you’d think none of them had ever seen an Argonian before. And it’s not as if I’m the strangest person here; this man, Sinmir, has been eating bread since I got here six hours ago. A single piece of bread, Parsnip.
Maybe I shouldn’t fill a letter to you with complaints, but that’s what I’d be doing if you were here, love. We’d laugh about the way that Olfina, the barmaid, keeps sweeping just one spot on the floor as if the entire place isn’t covered in dust and cobwebs.
Still, my belly is full and my toes are warm, and I’ve seen two beggars come and go without being hassled. Perhaps it’s not so bad, at least if you’re not an Argonian.
I wish you many wonderful evenings in taverns better than this one, dearest.
I don’t know how I got here. Or, rather, I do know how I got here, but it’s a series of poor decisions and you’d likely scold me for them, if you were here.
But let me tell you, it’s beautiful. There are these gorgeous glowing mushrooms everywhere, some of them growing out of the floor, some out of the ceiling. They hang like giant jellyfish, their tentacles swaying in a subterranean breeze.
It’s not a nice place. The moment I arrived, what seemed like a dozen Falmer nearly had my head for it. I can see why they want to. Even if I’m more for sea and sky, there’s a creepy, wondrous sort of beauty down here, as well. It’s all darkness except for the glowing fungus and these luminescent bits of dust that float through the air. Maybe they’re spores?
I can hear the place crumbling slowly. I think it’s a Dwemer ruin, older than I can imagine. And I can hear chimes, like maybe there’s Nirnroot nearby and I just can’t find it. Or maybe it’s something else; you know I’m no good with plants. Trying to help you with alchemy was always a disaster.
Despite its beauty, I’ll not spend long down here. Blackreach, it’s called, and it’s full of creatures that want to kill me. I’d take Sinmir and his bread and staring over being stabbed by a Falmer.
Here’s a funny story: I was almost eaten by a snow leopard getting here.
I can hear you saying that it’s not funny, that I should be more careful, that you’re supposed to be the risk-taker, not me. But since you’re not here, I suppose it falls to me.
I’m fine. Don’t worry, it got in a couple of good swings but I was able to escape. And it was worth it, wasn’t it? I think I can see the entire galaxy spread over me like spilled paint. And the stars! There are so many of them, more than I’ve ever seen before. If you watch them long enough, they circle overhead, moving from one end of the sky to the other. I knew that they did that, but I’d never seen it.
But it’s not all peaceful here, and not just because of the snow leopard. Every now and then, an animal will scream–coyotes, maybe, or foxes. Of all the places I’ve been, this one feels the most wild. The wind is so constant that I thought it might be the sea, but no. The sun came up and it was just more mountains, more grass, more trees. When the sun rises over the mountains, it sets the whole valley ablaze, even after the clouds have rolled in.
We were so close, my love. We could have been here together. I could have held your hand and seen the galaxy reflected in your eyes.
One more stop.
Parsnip, Peony, Princess,
“Let’s visit The Lady Stone,” you said, before you left for war. “As soon as I get back, we’ll go to Lake Ilinata and receive its blessing. I hear it’s beautiful there at sunset.”
I’m here now, having survived an onslaught of skeletons and vampires. I used to watch you practice, did you know that? I loved the way your sword arced through the air, the way you’d slice through target dummies as though they were warm butter. I held your sword all through those caves and imagined your hand guided mine and I survived.
And you know what? It is beautiful here at sunset. The whole sky is dusty rose, and there’s a moose, of all things, swimming toward shore. As the sun sinks lower, the chirping birds change to crickets and Masser rises behind me, big and pink and beautiful. If it wasn’t so cloudy I could see the galaxy and stars again, but, as darkness falls, they only peek through the patchy fog.
Did you know fireflies live out on this island? As the light dims, they appear and dance about, chasing one another around the rocks and bushes like little stars.
I know this is where we were supposed to go first, but I couldn’t help but think that maybe you would meet me here, my lady, at the Lady Stone. If I spent enough time traveling to all the places we said we’d go together, maybe I would find you waiting at the end, blessed with good health and clutching a bouquet of mountain flowers.
“Rutabega,” you’d say to me, clicking your tongue. “Always late.”
Perhaps we will meet again in the next life.
Yours, eternally, until we meet again,
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.