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

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder