I'm not what most people would call a gamer. I've played console games only here and there, and I've never installed a game on my computer. Truth be told, the one game I play on a regular basis involves smashing candy on my iPhone. There's really only been a single exception in my adult life. In 2012, every day, for months, I played Skyrim.
That game, until earlier this month the latest in the series of impossibly dorky Elder Scrolls role-playing games, turned me into a gamer. I played it passionately. I played it obsessively. Why? Despite its daunting scale and complexity, it wasn't classically "hard". I was a gaming novice, and I appreciated the fact that it took practice, rather than skill, to get “better.” It didn’t really matter that I had never played Fallout or Portal or the other Elder Scrolls games; simply by putting in my time, I could be a level-60 grandmage/superthief/badass assassin/dragon-slayer just like everyone else. In Tamriel, the world in which Skyrim takes place, I was my own master.
So it was with a great deal of anxiety that I approached Elder Scrolls Online, the new game by the Skyrim people that is the first version of these games that you can play online with other users.
Frankly, I was very nervous about the idea of playing Skyrim with others. That game was a private experience for me, something that was a huge part of my life, but that I never talked about with my friends. Very few people I knew were playing the game, and it was something that felt like mine — losing myself for hours in the game was a vacation from my real life, and it was incredibly peaceful. Having other people in the game complicates that — dare I say it? — spiritual connection I had to Skyrim. As we all know from IRL experience, humans are annoying and selfish, they like to harass you and say dumb things, and they’re always get in the way of inner peace.
I was also genuinely anxious about being compared to other players in real time. What if the only reason I got “good” at Skyrim was because I played it forever?
What if I was actually terrible?
In the interest of charting my progress, virtual and emotional, I decided to keep a diary of my time with the game. Here's what happened.
Day Zero, 9:42 p.m.:
In the 20 hours it takes for the game to download (a process that involved the frantic deletion of my Chrome cache and a mysterious 453% install), I decide to do some preparatory reading. Apparently the game features guilds, which are groups of friends (or strangers, sometimes? Often?) who play together online. I do not belong to a guild (I don’t think?), but Elder Scrolls Online is designed so that the main story can be played totally solo if one so chooses. Apparently this is hotly debated, because while traditional MMO fans think this defeats the purpose of making it an online game, Elder Scrolls fans are stoked that the game is retaining the series’ trademark solo adventuring.
While it’s a relief to know I can play by myself, I’m nervous about what playing in a world populated by “real people” will be like. I don’t know anyone else playing the game, so this feels a bit like the first day at a new school.
Which, frankly sounds like hell. I better get a good night’s sleep.
Day One, 12:35 p.m.:
I AM MAKING MY CHARACTER. This feels like a really big deal. I decide I want to be a Khajit (see above) because they look like cats and I really like cats. My job title at BuzzFeed is “Beastmaster.” Anyways, I name my cat Liliger — that’s a cross between a Lion and a Liger, which is like cat on cat on cat — and I make her pretty thick, with big awesome boobs and a big awesome butt.
I hope she kind of looks like Cat Beyoncé.
Liliger is already gorgeous before I even start focusing on her face. Faces are super customizable — there are sliders for categories like “forehead slant” and “chin height.” You can also choose among several voices, but it’s hard to compare them because some of them go “ugh” and some of them go “raaaaaaaaaah.” I choose Voice F, which goes “ooo ooo.” When I finish creating Liliger, I feel a little like God. This part of the game is so fun that I kind of want to just go create a bunch more characters in the image of various people I know and boys I’ve had crushes on.
Day One, 1:06 p.m.:
I wake up in a dungeon, in a cell, and there’s a guy talking to me. He claims that he’s a “prophet” but I am skeptical, because he looks like a dude who would harass me on the subway. He is “the past and the future both,” he tells me. I think he might be high? The prophet guy is telling me that we aren’t in Tamriel and we have to do some stuff to get to Tamriel, which is annoying because I’ve spent the last few months of my life waiting to return to Tamriel. But I remember something similar from Skyrim — these games often start with some tiny mini-quest to get you used to the controls. I guess that would be helpful for me, since I’m running into a lot of walls.
Day One, 1:13 p.m.:
My first kill is a skeleton. I killed him easily, because I am a badass. Lots of dudes are running past me and my dead skeleton, and I think they are other human players because they have names like “Vagitarian” and “Sexorcist.”
I find the woman the prophet told me to find, and she looks me up and down and says, “You’ve got more meat on your bones than most of these poor bastards.” The hell? Is she fat-shaming me? I do not like her. She joins me, though, and we run into a big open area with a ton of other players. There are flame atronachs, which I recognize from Skyrim as evil bastards, flying everywhere. I immediately die.
Ten minutes later, I am starting to feel good about this game for the first time. I have killed, like, six dudes. But I'm supposed to destroy these weird sentinel things and I can’t figure out how to get to them AT ALL. I got stuck trying to get to them and I was just weirdly floating next to this big wall, and uh, then I died. Growing pains.
Day One, 1:30 p.m.:
I want to pause here to say that I am completely confused about what all the other players are doing. Do they have different missions from mine? How come they haven’t just destroyed the sentinels and fixed everything? Surely they are better than me at this. I think they’re on the same mission as me, and it looks like they’re in the same space, but when they destroy the sentinel, nothing happens for me until I also separately destroy it. It’s sort of like we’re each in parallel and close to identical worlds changed only by our own actions, stacked on top of one another in transparent layers. Maybe that’s what real life is like too? Whoa.
I am drunk, by the way. Have I mentioned that?
Day One, 1:45 p.m.:
I pause to wonder if I’m going to be able to get married and buy a house in this game like I did in Skyrim. One of the best things about Skyrim was getting a chance to do super-grown-up things I haven’t yet done IRL, like meet a shopkeeper and ask him to marry me like three minutes later, or own houses in, like, four different cities just because I can.
Day One, 2:05 p.m.:
The tutorial is over and we are finally here in Tamriel! The first place I’m in is just a tiny room with ‘70s-style wood paneling. Neat. The prophet subway guy appears to me as a ghost. He tells me that he’s in an awesome place where it smells of gardens and I’m in hell, basically. Have I mentioned how much I fucking hate this guy?
It’s always an option in the Elder Scrolls Online to just say “good-bye” when you’re in the middle of talking to someone, which is incredibly delightful. I really wish I could pull that off IRL.
“So, my brother had this dream ab—”
Day One, 2:15 p.m.:
I am in this little town now and there are people everywhere. Other players doing stuff! OH SHIT THERE IS STUFF HAPPENING IN THE CHAT WINDOW. People are CHATTING! This is a CHAT ROOM! I did not know that this was how this worked.
People are “recruiting” for guilds, which I guess is sort of like rushing for fraternities? Anyways, the fact that I am participating in a game that has a chat room is making me feel incredibly nostalgic for ICQ and IRC and AOL and other three-letter acronyms. If the main multiplayer aspect of this game is just in-game chat, I am INTO IT.
I type “helloooooooo” into the chat window, just to feel alive.
I walk by this one super-hot character in his underwear just standing there, which is pretty awesome. I keep walking by him again on purpose and stopping and making eye contact and getting too close to him, but he seems to be in his own little universe.
This is also often how it goes in the real world with hot guys.
Day One, 3:00 p.m.:
From the chat: “Your queen asked me to fight for her after seeing my performance in her bedchamber.” ZING!!
In this town, lots of other new people are doing the same quests I am, and we keep running into each other doing it. It feels super embarrassing.
“Nothing to see here, just checking these barrels for poisoned meat! What are you up to?”
“Oh, the same thing? Huh, what a coincidence!”
* ambles off into a corner casually *
Day One, 3:51 p.m.:
The cool thing about dying in ESO is that it seems like you can just revive and pretty much nothing bad happens. I think? I’m not really sure what the disadvantages are. So far I am pretty into death!
After a few deaths, no big deal, I basically rescue the queen of the first town and fix everything and she is super into me now and wants me to do stuff with her. I ask her some questions about herself and I get the impression that no one ever really bothers to do that, you know? Of course I skip through her answers really quickly and listen to nothing she says — I'm just trying to see if she would give me any other quests — but she doesn’t need to know that. It's pretty cool, being a good person in a computer game.
Day One, 4:20 p.m.:
I resolve to start talking to some of the random other players I pass, for the sake of this being an experiment, but they keep ignoring me. So rude! One of the people I just tried to address is named Kitty Soft Paws so I’m pretty upset that he wouldn’t talk to me.
Maybe I’m not doing this part right?
Day One, 4:45 p.m.:
I finally find some horses. I name mine Benedict Cumberbatch.
The quest I’m doing now involves traveling to an island filled with cute but deadly dinosaurs. I had to talk to someone named Sugar Claws to get there, which was obviously great because Sugar Claws is, like, the best name!
Being on the island is a constant series of distractions. Everywhere I go I meet another person who needs help, or there’s some cute little dinosaur to kill (I don’t want to kill them, but they keep attacking me). Right now I’m finding these poor shipwrecked dudes and giving them something called torchbug juice to make them feel better. I don’t even remember what I came to this island for in the first place. I just do whatever. I’m a free spirit, helping people everywhere I go!
Day One, 6:45 p.m.:
New quest: I collected some monster eggs and I have to find five different rats' nests and throw the eggs on them, which, long story short, causes monsters to dig up and eat all the baby rats while they run and scream for their tiny rat lives. I’d much rather kill people.
Doesn't this game know I'm vegan?
Day One, 8:06 p.m.:
FUCK YES, I mean, very good, I found a smithing station. My favorite thing to do in Skyrim was to make piles and piles of armor and weapons. What sucks is that I don't actually have any of the stuff I need to craft weapons or armor right now.
I’m actually pretty bummed about this, so I use all my gold to buy two shitty iron swords that I can deconstruct for their iron and use to make something new. I essentially downgraded the swords to crappy daggers for the privilege of smithing, but it was worth it. DIY! DIY!
Day One, 9:00 p.m.:
I feel like I have accomplished a lot today. I have rescued some fake-ass prophet, gotten to Tamriel, saved a queen from some assholes, been arrested unfairly, repaired a ship, fucked up some magic pirates, killed a bunch of dinosaurs, destroyed some rats' nests (sigh), made two daggers, helped some hot cat kid kill his dad, destroyed countless skeletons and rogues, joined a mage's guild, picked some plants, and now I'm in some fucking dank ass catacombs. And I don't even look phased — Liliger remains the Beyoncé of Tamriel.
I'm feeling really good but now I'm going through some major gender-related shit in the catacombs. Here I am at another crossroads, and here we have another lady telling me she wants to take a dude's place in an eternal prison because he's too valuable. This seems to be a theme, and it's not one I'm into. I want to sit this fool down with some ice cream and red wine and just tell her there's no way any guy is worth her eternal damnation.
I tell her I need to talk to her dude about it and at least this guy isn't a jerk — he agrees with me. As he points out, he's old and she's young. Plus his "greatest joy was watching Gathwen blossom." OK, gross, but as long as she doesn’t literally sacrifice her life for him I’m still OK with it. He should be the one in the hell tomb forever.
Day One, 9:25 p.m.:
I’m trying to help this family salvage some of their alchemical tools after a fire destroyed their plantation, but I'm not having much luck yet. I’m learning that the woman who asked me to try to salvage the tools is a skooma maker/drug dealer. Skooma is like the heroin of Tamriel. It's everywhere, and it's completely destructive and hurts families and changes people. “Don’t do smack, kids,” the game seems to whisper.
Eventually I find the skooma. It was buried in what the game described as a "packed mound." I bet $100 the game’s developers called it that on purpose for giggles.
Day One, 9:45 p.m.:
Another player said hi to me! The person’s name is Chynadra. I tried saying hi back. I am waiting for a response and feeling very excited and scared. It’s a girl character, which gives me the probably unrealistic hope that maybe the player behind the avatar is a lady as well.
She never responded. I am moving on, but I will always remember her, and our bond.
Day…Two? 12:07 a.m.:
A list of things I like doing in Elder Scrolls Online more than I like fighting:
• jumping off of stuff I probably shouldn’t jump off, but not dying.
• having my horse jump over random people.
• fishing, which you can do at certain bodies of water and involves just standing there with guts or insect parts on a lure and catching salmon.
• mining for iron.
• making weapons with that iron.
• getting weirdly in the physical space of other players' characters for no reason.
• lying around for minutes after death, waiting to be revived by a stranger and admiring my dead body.
• picking flowers.
• picking butterflies out of the air.
• chasing foxes and bunnies.
• reading the stupid stuff people put in the chat.
• swimming improbably long distances.
• reading the silly books I find on random bookshelves.
• saying “good-bye” in the middle of a conversation with someone who thinks they’re important.
• sneaking around for no reason.
• changing clothes and then taking selfie screenshots.
• admiring how beautiful Audiron is.
• leveling up!
Day Two, 1:01 a.m.:
The chat is getting real:
“Hilary Duff: I never had a dad”
“Ancano Caemor: Oh :( neither did I”
Day Three, 10:20 p.m.:
Something exciting has happened! An old acquaintance from Texas DM’d me on Twitter and asked for my Elder Scrolls username. I think perhaps we will be able to QUEST TOGETHER, unlocking the true online potential of this game at last. I try to play it cool and I wait (coolly) for him to come online.
When he does, I can see that he’s near the wayshrine in Mistral. I go there, and sure enough I find another character with a little triangle over its head indicating that my friend is standing right in front of me. HE IS A GIRL CHARACTER. My hopes and dreams of all of the women I pass in the streets being real lady players are dashed upon the rocks of this wayshrine, but it is still pretty cool to “see” someone I know.
My friend teaches me that if I type things like "/jumpingjacks" or "/dancedrunk" into the chat window, my character does funny but useless physical things. I guess people use these functions to simulate sex and/or just behave like weirdos, both of which I approve of. My friend and I decide to go questing together and I share with him a quest that’s been troubling me: aiding a foxy queen. When we finally get down to it, killing together is delightful. It’s literally twice the fun of doing it on my own. I get to see his cool special abilities, and we coordinate effortlessly — when I’m not accidentally running into trees. When my friend eventually decides to log off, I’m left feeling kind of lonely.
Day Four, 7:24 p.m.:
I basically am treating ESO as meditation, logging on primarily to relax. I’m level nine now, and moving through quests often, but I can’t stress enough how often I stop in the woods and just stare at the cherry blossoms. I like that there was so much work put into making the “natural” world of the game so beautiful. I feel like ESO’s creators really share my values — nature, cooking, drinking beer, crafting, animals, and friendship.
Speaking of things that are like real life, I’ve also started a new habit of picking up strangers to help me with specific quests and then dumping them as soon as we’re done. It feels a little wrong, and maybe I’m a horrible person, but I think it’s mostly mutually beneficial. Either way, I just reached level 10 so I’m feeling pretty good about it.
Day Four, 8:05 p.m.:
Once you reach level 10 you can go to Cyrodiil, which is apparently an island where you can play PvP style—fighting other real people. I immediately abandon my quest and go there, where I receive training on how to use giant siege-style weapons and then get confused and bored trying to figure out where the fighting is happening and trying to follow the rapid-fire chat full of other players commanding people to do things. This world isn’t pretty, either — it’s muddy and rocky, rainy and barren.
I go back home without ever actually fighting another player.
Day Four, 9:13 p.m.:
I decide I want to try creating a new character, so I make a man modeled after my cat. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to perfect his face and I think seriously about whether he should have the giant chest and tummy plus tiny stick legs that my IRL cat (Irwin) has, or if that’s too embarrassing.
After doing a couple quests as Irwin, stopping to admire my spot-on re-creation of my cat as a man and feeling moderately attracted to him and then repulsed by myself, I am bored with basically repeating history. The quests I’m doing are slightly different than the ones my first character did, but they’re similar in a way that kind of takes away from the magic of the game and makes everything feel that much more scripted. I don’t like repeating myself.
Beyoncé cat is my true self in ESO, and I return to her after just an hour of playing as my actual cat. My girl has died at least 50 times in the last 24 hours, and I have no reason to think that’s going to change anytime soon. I die again and again on one quest, until it’s 2 in the morning, and then I find some random other players and join them to defeat the heinous bitch that keeps killing me. Miraculously, all of the other people running around actually make me kind of happy that we’re all getting to experience all of this stuff together. As long as I don’t have to actually interact with them most of the time, I’m going to keep playing this game for at least the next few months.
In some ways, Elder Scrolls Online is so much like Skyrim that it feels like déjà vu. Still, the online part is starting to grow on me. The other day when I was questing with my friend in Tamriel and we were running through the green hills of Auridon, his character stopped and stared at this parrot perched on a tree. Cherry blossoms and weird-shaped mountains in the distance, he whispered into my chat window: “This game is so pretty.” I was alone on my couch, but we were both looking at the same beautiful world.