A dragon from Skyrim. (Image: Bethesda)
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Sidekicks in video games can be frustrating narrative devices, but not in Skyrim

While there are many unique companions and sidekicks in video games, Skyrim's Lydia is good because she is so unremarkable.

Dagger in hand the Dragonborn stalks through the shadows, eyes on Necromancer. The Necromancer, for his part, is working away at something on an enchanting table, like they do. The assorted skeleton warriors in the room are comfortably oblivious to the danger, creaking quietly in the torchlight, weapons slung. By the normal run of things the skeletons would provide a screen, protecting the vulnerable mage while he summons more monsters and chucks fireballs around like a dragon with hiccups. In the enclosed space of the cave chaos would ensue, blood would be spilled. Not today though, this is going to be easy, at least easier than Skyrim usually is.

Suddenly an armoured figure barrels into the room - she’s running hunched over in what technically counts as sneaking according to the system of the game, though the result is as close to stealth as driving a car off a cliff is to parallel parking. Sword in hand, shield ready, clad in clanking steel armour, knocking pots and crockery off a table as she passes, apparently oblivious to the skeletons that have all immediately clocked her arrival, as she was oblivious to her previous instruction to wait. Her entrance could not be more awkward if she had toilet paper clinging to an armoured boot. She scuttles across the room, planting herself dutifully in file behind the Dragonborn, a trail of destruction in her wake, as the skeletons draw their swords and the Necromancer turns from his table, his hands bathed in magical flames.

Lydia has arrived.

Video games feature many companions. From the faithful hounds of Fable, Dragon Age: Origins and Call of Duty: Ghosts to the unobtrusive daughter figures of The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite to the hollow shells of absent co-op players in Gears of War and Resident Evil 5 to name but a few. But there is only one Lydia.

So what makes Lydia special? What could possibly make this outwardly generic warrior woman such an important part of the Skyrim world and so much more interesting than all the Elizabeths, Ellies and Rileys that have appeared this year?

The first thing that Bethesda got right in creating Lydia as opposed to many more recent companions is her character. It might seem odd to talk about her character as being particularly great given that she is not vital to the plot of Skyrim, has no quests or story elements attached to her and expresses few particular opinions throughout the game. However it is this mundane quality that makes her such agreeable company. Lydia is not the chosen one; she is not going to save the world due to some accident of birth or cosmic hiccup. She is a huskarl, a servant and soldier. She carries the loot that you can’t be bothered to carry, she can handle your household admin and, when needed to, she fights - that’s it. The fact that she is happy to cart all your excess gear around is important, because a good companion should always be useful, like the dog in Fable that would dig up items.

More games could benefit from this modest approach to characterisation. Skyrim, like all the Elder Scrolls games, is a story of a freed prisoner. Whatever destiny you choose to pursue, and it is absolutely a choice, you start at the very bottom of the social heap. Lydia being assigned to your service is a sign of your character gaining in social standing, but the fact that she is such an uncomplicated and brute force character also fits well with the idea that you are, usually at this point, just a grubby scrapper yourself. She is the Chewbacca to your Han Solo, the Watson to your Holmes and the Donk to your Nugget. The game recognises that the whole point of the sidekick is to augment the hero and not be more interesting than they are. Following around a character who is more interesting than you are just isn’t natural in a game. This design flaw is felt most painfully in Bioshock: Infinite, where the design of the game is so obviously in love with the character of Elizabeth that the role of the hero seems to be merely watching to see what amazing thing she’s going to do when you hit the next scripted event.

The second thing that the game got right with Lydia is her presentation and her skill set. She is not some sylphlike sorceress or an elegant rogue with a different knife for every occasion. She wears all the armour she can get her hands on and she fights by running up to the nearest opponent and systematically hacking them to pieces. Her directness is not really a product of characterisation so much as it is just the way characters with hand to hand weapons fight in Skyrim but that fact that she does this so well and so gamely gives her a singular charm.

Charming or not her limited set of skills can make her something of a liability: she has no aptitude for sneaking, and she cannot use magic at all. These flaws can be turned into assets with some inventiveness. For example, it is possible to use her to provoke guards into an attack while you remain hidden to ambush them, but this is not always possible, and also misfiring with a sneak attack is one of the best ways to kill her. Her flaws do not stop her being likeable, though - in fact they complete her. Lydia is clumsy, she is violent and she sometimes has to be told to sit and wait like an enthusiastic labrador if you want to attempt any action involving finesse. She is not the type of sidekick who will obediently weigh down a pressure plate for you or pick a lock.

Sometimes she’ll get antsy, or the AI will cough up a behavioural hairball and violence may ensue as a result, but that’s okay. Worst case scenario Lydia is easy to dismiss if not needed and easy to retrieve when she is. There is none of the awkward relationship balancing that was needed in the Dragon Age games where, like a football manager with a dressing room full of prima donnas, you would have to ensure everybody got a run out every so often lest they ask for a transfer.

Should Lydia die the world doesn’t end, though it might feel a lot emptier. The game is generally designed in such a robust way that there is no real lasting damage that Lydia can do if she screws up either, she might get you killed is all, but that’s what the saved games are for. In some games the death of a companion character, particularly if they are key to the plot, will be a mission failure. Lydia to her credit is entirely expendable.

The last thing that Skyrim did right by Lydia is giving her a degree of autonomy that you simply will not find in a heavily scripted game. The AI that powers Lydia is not necessarily a genius, indeed often it will do stupid things, but if anything it is the times when the AI is less than optimal that Lydia’s behaviour is the most endearing. Whether she is attempting to sneak, only to wake up an entire castle, or charging across an open field for a chance to shank a dragon, there is a sense of autonomy to her, a sense that decisions are being made, a feeling that she is actually alive in a way that you simply cannot get from scripted interactions, no matter how much the character has to say for themselves.

Lydia is bound to you, but she is also very much a creature of the game world, an entity within it and bound by its rules, and in this way she connectsthe player with the world. By having a part of the world that is on your side you feel a greater attachment to that world, it feels fairer, more welcoming and friendly, it feels like something you are immersed in rather than competing against or trying to beat.

Skyrim is a game not noted for its plot, or for its main characters, or its combat, or its systems, indeed it is so vastly superior to the sum of its parts it can be difficult to explain its success. But Lydia stands out as one of the parts that Bethesda got right. The long suffering shieldmaiden following millions of Dragonborn on millions of adventures, sworn to carry their burdens and oddly surprised by the caves they find, will be a hard sidekick to top.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State