Skyrim, like many games, has always been something of an escape for me. Here’s a world I can do just about anything I want and be fairly unstoppable. I can befriend my companions, get married, adopt a kid, and go out adventuring, living the life of a hero, despite having taken several figurative arrows to the knee in real life. Or, if I feel so inclined on any given day, I can be as immoral and horrible as I wish. Skyrim is a great getaway from a world that often feels restrictive as someone with a chronic illness and social anxiety. I had the opportunity to watch a friend dive into Skyrim for the first time and came away from observing her experience with a brand new appreciation for the game and what games give all of us.
Melek is from Syria. She’s not lived in the US for very long but in the short time she’s been here, she’s grown fond of games, although usually not violent ones. She has watched me play Skyrim like it’s her favorite television show, so I invited her to give it a go.
(Playing Skyrim Special Edition on Xbox One I had the Frostfall, Campfire, and Wet and Cold Mods installed, to make it more of a survival game, and the Live Another Life alternate start mod.)
She wanted to make a character as similar to herself as possible, so I suggested she create a Dark Elf, given that many of them are refugees in Skyrim, but she was drawn to the magical affinity of the Bretons. As a Yazidi woman with a strong interest in the mysticism of her faith, that seemed like an even better choice for her character.
Thanks to the Live Another Life mod, we chose a start that would be somewhat similar to what she endured in Syria, and Melek entered the game as an outlaw in the wild. As soon as she gained control of her character, she noted the other outlaws in her camp saying “good morning” to her and commented on how even within hated groups, such as the Yazidi, and in Skyrim, the outlaws, you humanize each other. “You exchange pleasantries no matter how difficult things are for you because it might be the best part of your day that day,” she told me. Melek felt better about heading out into the world after that friendly greeting. Before she set out though, she looted everything she could from camp. Forks, tankards, a few errant herbs lying around, anything she could find that wouldn’t require her to steal. “You never know what someone else will buy from you,” she said. Armed with a decent set of fur armor, a scant amount of ingredients in her pack, and 88 Septims to her name. Melek left her outlaw friends behind and set off for civilization.
Shortly after leaving camp, her stomach began to rumble and the message that she was severely hungry came on the screen. She had to find food or her performance would begin to suffer. Spotting a Horker (Skyrim’s mythical version of a walrus) nearby she equipped her flame spell and sword and went hunting. If you’re familiar with Skyrim, you know that being level one, unfamiliar with the game, and armed with an iron sword, the hunt didn’t go well. She died three times before deciding that she wouldn’t be able to kill the Horker so she would have to try for food elsewhere. Starving, getting colder by the minute, and now severely thirsty as well, she headed towards the nearest town — Solitude.
Then came the pack of wolves. She could have survived one wolf or two even, but three, paired with her hunger, dehydration and her health and stamina being drained because she was freezing, she didn’t survive the wolf encounter. So much for hunting.
Melek begins again, still starving, dehydrated, and freezing, and again, encounters a wolf. But this time she wins the fight. She harvests everything she can from the wolf and gets back to it after a quick meal of raw wolf meat, her only option, which has the effect of slowing her stamina regeneration by thirty percent. Along the way, Melek tells me about her husband and son, both of whom have passed away, and how they used to try to hunt but being city slum dwellers, they were both terrible at it. She tells me with a hint of shame in her eyes, how she and her daughter, also gone now, would then go into the houses of families lucky enough to have fled to Turkey or anywhere else safer, and take any food they may have had left, which was never much.
Along the road to Solitude, she finds a house, so she goes in to see if there’s someone inside that will buy her forks and tankards, or anything she can steal if the house is empty. Inside she finds a dead body and tells me, “You think you won’t ever get used to that, seeing dead people, but eventually your only thoughts are that it’s not your family, and you’re thankful for that.” She takes what she can from the cabin, which is nothing more than a garlic braid, raw rabbit leg, and a few more plates, and heads back out.
After just a few minutes out in the elements, Melek’s character begins to freeze to death. She tries to make a fire but loses consciousness before she can gather the required wood. After a brief black screen, she wakes, slowly getting back to her feet, to find she was rescued and brought to a tavern with a roaring fire pit in the middle and a friendly barkeep giving her a warm welcome. Once she’s warmed her hands at the fire, she tries to sell her kitchenware to the kind man. He’s not buying.
Although I’ve known her the entire time she’s lived in the US, Melek doesn’t talk often about her life in Syria. I know what she survived and I know that she’s the only member of her family that did survive, but that’s about it. Trying to survive Skyrim has sparked something in her that gets her talking about being back home. When the barkeep won’t buy her kitchenware, she tells me about the winter, the second one after the start of the civil war, that her husband, a barber, cut off her and her daughter’s hair to sell to a man he’d heard was buying hair for wigs. She said it was one of the most humiliating times of her life because a woman isn’t supposed to cut her hair, but they were desperate. To make it that much worse, the hair buyer wouldn’t take theirs because it was too light in color. But desperation also makes you resourceful, and she says, “We may have been bareheaded for a while, but my kids had warm feet that winter because I lined their shoes with the hair.” I was both struck by the genius of that and ashamed that I never knew that was something anyone had to resort to.
Back in Skyrim, and just in time, as she’s freezing again, Melek reaches the outskirts of Solitude. Finally, somewhere she might be able to sell her kitchenware, buy a good meal and find some odd jobs. But as she approaches the city gates, she finds it won’t be so easy.
Whatever she’s done as an outlaw has put a bounty on her head in Solitude. Knowing that she’s not familiar with the game mechanics, I offer the advice that she’s best off running from the guards because they’ll only follow her so far and in jail, any progress she’s made with skills will disappear. “Run to where?” She asks me, “Back to the cold? If I go to jail, I might lose some progress but it’ll be warm and I’ll be able to sleep and might get a meal.” So she takes the chance and submits to the guard. That approach isn’t something I’d ever have considered in my own game. Had it been me, I’d have run and not come back to the area until I could either pay the bounty or persuade the guard to let me go. But I can’t argue with Melek’s logic in choosing the safer of the two choices. She told me when she started the game that she was only going to fight if someone attacked her first.
It turned out that she was right. In jail, she warmed up, had a meal (albeit a small one) and got to sleep. And when she left jail she did so with a clean slate and could now roam about Solitude freely and find work to make a law-abiding living (also a novel concept for me in Skyrim). It’s then that I recall how she was able to escape Syria and likely why she is still alive today. She was arrested for the crime of being Yazidi. While awaiting her execution or forced religious conversion, the prison was bombed and Melek was taken across the border to a refugee hospital in Turkey.
Of course, she opted for jail in Skyrim. For her, jail was the path to freedom.
Once freed from the Solitude jail, she stumbles across the execution of the man that opened the gate for the Stormcloaks that lead to the High King’s death. Melek asks me for the story of the civil war and when I tell her that the Empire has banned the practice of worshiping Talos, the faith of the Nords, she immediately finds what side of the war she’s on. The Stormcloaks. I try to convince her of my firm belief that the Stormcloaks are terrible racists but she won’t have it. She asks me if I know what it’s like to have my religion made illegal, or to fear for my life because of my faith (I’m familiar with the latter as an American Muslim convert, but on a very different level than she is) and tells me that first the people need to be allowed to have their faith, then you address the racism. And again, I can’t argue that logic given her intimate experience with this matter.
Finally, she’s able to find some work, buy a meal and a bed for the night. Out of sheer curiosity, I asked her, since she had sided with the Stormcloaks, why was she willing to do work to help the Empire, namely the widow of the High King, to which she replied, “Money is money. I can’t choose any side if I’m always starving and freezing. This is like my hair. Maybe I don’t want to do it and I don’t agree with it, but I’m desperate and it’s cold.”
Melek has lived in the US for a little over a year now and I can safely say I’ve learned more about her through playing Skyrim than I have through any other conversation. She lost her entire family in what I can only describe as hell, and while a video game could never truly do justice to any war in its depiction of it, seeing Melek’s Dragonborn progress into a powerful mage intent not on revenge, but on being able to live the life she wants for herself, with a house and a husband and a child, has changed the way I see Skyrim and it’s changed the way I see her. This game got the conversation started and now we spend time talking every day about her life back home and the life she hopes for here.