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

LINDA BROWNLEE / CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
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“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers": Zadie Smith on fighting back

The author of Swing Time on Michael Jackson, female friendships and how writers can bring down Donald Trump.

In a packed college lecture hall at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 November, Zadie Smith joined me on stage to talk about her fifth novel. Swing Time is the story of an unnamed narrator and her childhood friend – “two brown girls” – which begins at a church hall dance class and never quite lets them go, throughout their divergent lives. Despite being a little jet-lagged from her flight from New York – where she lives with her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, and their two children – Smith spoke with the cool, lucid intelligence familiar from her essays and criticism as well as her fiction. “You’re so quiet compared to American audiences,” she said to the crowd. “American audiences say thing like, ‘Uh huh! Yeah!’ just randomly in the middle of things.” Met with reverential silence, she was free to navigate fluidly between racial identity, female friendship, Barack Obama’s legacy and her love of Mad Men.

New Statesman Swing Time is about many things, but it is dance that gives the story its rhythm and arc. What’s your own relationship with dance?

Zadie Smith For me, it’s a joy. I’m a 41-year-old woman; I don’t dance that much any more. My children don’t enjoy me dancing in any context, but I love to watch it, and I found out writing this book that I love to think about it.

 

NS As a child, the narrator is absorbed by classic musicals and through them she discovers a handful of black dancers – the Nicholas Brothers, the young Jeni LeGon – who take on huge significance for her. Did these figures have that kind of impact on you?

ZS No, Jeni LeGon is someone I only found out about writing this book, so I had to construct what it would have been like to know about her aged five or eight; it’s like a fake memoir. But I loved that kind of early dance, and I recognise the instinct a lot of black and Asian children of my generation might have: the sense of counting the brown faces wherever we saw them, in a slightly desperate way. I definitely did that, in my everyday life, switching on the BBC and hoping to see Daley Thompson, or whoever – this kind of search for a reflection.

 

NS There were major black stars in the 1980s: the narrator’s friend Tracey idolises Michael Jackson and Prince.

ZS Michael Jackson’s a really interesting example, because he’s such a traumatising figure for a whole generation of kids! You were offered him as this wonder – this incredible black dancer – who then you had to watch throughout your childhood become un-black. You had to have this magical thinking and believe that he had a mysterious skin disease that does not manifest in that way in any other human on Earth, and that all this surgery also had nothing to do with it. It required a great deal of denial, and I think it did something very odd to a generation of children. He certainly loomed large in my mind as a figure of such penetrating self-hatred and self-disgust. Perhaps I have a suspicion of role models exactly for that reason, that you’re offered something – a model of behaviour or thought – but it can only ever be narrow. And then, when it goes traumatically wrong, as it did in poor Michael’s case, you’re left slightly rudderless.

 

NS You wrote that the Nicholas Brothers remind you of a line that a mother tells her daughter, that she needs to be twice as good as the other kids. This sentiment crops up in NW and in Swing Time, too.

ZS When I meet black British kids of my generation, that’s what all their mothers said to them. But with the Nicholas Brothers, I was also thinking about talent, because the novel is about different relations of power: in friendships, in families, between countries.

One of the things power is based on is the feeling that someone has a natural right to a certain amount of things. If you’re born into a situation, what accrues to you because of that? If you’re born into an unfortunate situation, what do you deserve in replacement for that? Politics lies along those lines. But talent is interesting because people on both sides of the political divide tend to think of it as a natural bounty not to be interfered with. The Nicholas Brothers are so extraordinarily talented that it’s a kind of offence to our most democratic thoughts. Why do these boys dance like that? How is it possible to have those kinds of gifts in the world, and what should you get because of them?

 

NS Did the Nicholas Brothers get the recognition that their talent deserved?

ZS Well, it was complicated, because they would do these extraordinary routines, but the studio always ensured they weren’t integral to the plot, so that when the films went south of the Mason-Dixon line, you could just cut the offending scene. So that was their experience – a very painful one, I think. But they were extraordinary professionals and Astaire spoke so well of them.

When I was a kid, what preoccupied me even more than the movies themselves was the idea of what was going on behind the scenes, between these black actors and the directors, the producers, the other actors. Because even though someone like Fred Astaire was a supporter of these artists, he didn’t actually actively help them on set. There’s a moment in Easter Parade when a maid comes in with a pug in her arms, and that maid is Jeni LeGon. Astaire knew who she was and how talented a dancer she was and yet he allowed her to appear for 35 seconds in a movie, passing him a dog.

 

NS In Swing Time, the narrator goes on to work for a pop star who is busily incorporating African imagery and clothing into her routines. What’s your take on this idea of cultural appropriation?

ZS Aimee, the pop star, says something that I don’t disagree with, which is that art involves an act of love, and of imitation. I would maybe use the word “voyeurism”. I think of myself explicitly as a voyeur, somebody who wants to be inside other people’s lives. To write On Beauty, I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a middle-aged, white male academic? Or in The Autograph Man, what’s it like to be a young, Chinese-Jewish guy who collects autographs? I guess sometimes the reader thinks it’s not appropriation when I’m writing about an older, black American woman – but I’m not an older, black American woman. It’s all voy­eurism on my part. But the way it’s argued a lot of the time, on both sides, is so vulgar.

Also, I feel that the identity facts of your life are so profoundly contingent – where your parents happened to be on the day you were born – that I can only take identity ­seriously as an act of commitment and love. I don’t think it runs through your blood. It is a compulsion. You have chosen to become, for example, British, even if you were born British and your great-grandfather was British. Being British is a kind of engagement; you have to commit to the idea of a culture.

 

NS In terms of identity, the narrator defines herself by the light other people cast on her. She’s almost a negative space.

ZS I felt that I wanted an “I” who was like a void, partly from my own sensibility – I recognise myself as a person of some passivity – but also in response to the performance of a certain kind of persona, particularly among young people. My students have a very firm sense of their “I”, or say they do, and they take that “I” on to the various social platforms and into their lives. It’s a type of presentation. But the kind of person that I was thinking about is asking, “What did I do here, there and then? What does it mean?” She’s working out, “Who am I?” but it comes from action, not from a series of staged performances. I knew it would be a slightly unnerving experience, because we’ve got so used to opening a book or reading a blog or watching Instagram and being presented with this full technicolour person with all these qualities. I felt that maybe in my novel, I could try something else.

 

NS When asked about the target audience for their book, writers usually say that they don’t write for an audience, or they write for themselves. But you have said that Swing Time was written explicitly for black girls.

ZS That’s how I felt when I was writing it. I did have somebody I was trying to speak to, and that might be no different to writing the kind of book – as writers often say – that you might have hoped to read when you were young. I was aware of an explicit imagined reader. I can’t deny that was in my mind. These are not normal times, and I think even writers as domestic or comic as I generally am find themselves in a more political place than they would in peaceful times. Being in America the past few years, I felt I had a lot of things that I had to get on paper, to get off my chest.

 

NS One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship between the two girls. Do you think there’s something particularly fraught and complex about female friendships?

ZS I feel that perhaps in the past – because so much was written by men, because the women were with the children – relations between women have been depicted with very simple concepts like envy, or the idea of the bitch fight. And now that women are writing so much more frequently and the men in their lives are helping with the children, I think you’re getting for the first time in a very long time a different depiction of intimate female relations.

One of the things that strike me is that the much-vaunted envy between women is also a kind of radical imagination, in that women are always in each other’s business; they can imagine each other’s lives with great intensity. When I was writing this book, I was with my daughter at a children’s party, parting from another girl who wanted to know every little thing about where we were going next. I compared that with my son, who, if he’s saying goodbye to a friend, is just like, “See ya!” and doesn’t even remember they exist until the next morning.

That ability of girls to project their imagination into somebody else’s life can have toxic elements, but also seems to me an extraordinary fictional instinct, and might explain the domination of women in the novel historically, when so many other art forms were practically blocked for them. The novel, to me, is a woman’s art. I don’t say men don’t have enormous achievements in it, of course, but it has a strong female element, exactly because of that projection, which can be called empathy, I suppose, but is also a deep curiosity and voyeurism.

 

NS We tend to associate male relationships with power struggles, but aren’t female friendships equally involved in exchanges of power and power games?

ZS Right. I think it can be sometimes invisible to men, because the form of the power game can be so inverted. There is a very funny Amy Schumer sketch of four women meeting in a park in New York and competitively downgrading themselves: “You look nice!” “No, I look like something pulled out of the trash.” On it goes until they explode. All women will recognise that, and it’s a compulsive English habit. I do it all the time. Someone says to me, “You look nice.” I say, “Oh, Topshop, 15 quid.” That habit maybe doesn’t look like power from the outside, but all women know exactly what they’re doing when they’re doing these things.

 

NS In your fiction, mother-daughter relationships seem equally fraught.

ZS Even though I know a lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, what’s amusing, and kind of moving, too, is the amnesia. When they have children, women cannot imagine the idea that maybe this lovely two-year-old will one day do ­anything to avoid calling you between Sunday and Sunday – they can’t conceive of it, even as they’re doing it to their own mothers. I guess I never had that illusion about motherhood. I always thought, “This is going to be terrible,” so anything that’s good is a kind of bonus. I was very surprised when my kids started saying the normal things that kids say, that they love you.

Then there are the sweet delusions of what you want and what the child wants. I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said to me things like, “I’m going to go and get a massage, because if I’m happy, the child’s happy.” You want to believe that you want the same things at the same time, but exactly the opposite is true. The child wants everything, and it’s the mother’s decision how much she’s going to give. I find that battle kind of comic and sweet and interesting, and certainly having children has reanimated it in my fiction.

 

NS What was your involvement in the recent BBC television adaptation of NW?

ZS When they started, I was pregnant and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. So I just said, “Do whatever you like.” I saw it only two weeks ago on my laptop – very anxious, with my husband, Nick, late at night – and I was just so happy and amazed at that scriptwriter [Rachel Bennette] and all the things she cut so effectively. I’m not in the habit of being moved by my own material, but the power of it struck me, particularly the section with Felix. You see so many people stabbed, all the time, in movies and on TV, and you never really understand the weight of the life being lost – and the actor playing Felix managed to die.

I’m going to try to adapt Swing Time for TV, probably with Nick, because he’s much more of a plot guy. I’m excited. I love telly.
I don’t have original taste – I love all the usual suspects. I think Mad Men is stunning.
I felt like it was a dream life that I was in, and when it was gone I felt really depleted, like I couldn’t have that dream every night, with all those beautiful men and women in it.

 

NS You’ve long been associated with the idea of “multicultural London”, but what comes out strongly in your recent work is a sense of division. Do you feel more pessimistic about London as a mixed community?

ZS Particularly in America, I’ll be asked, “Are you a supporter of this thing multiculturalism, and now can you admit that it’s failed?” What’s being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn’t gone well, so we’re going to revoke that – it’s over now. I find it kind of unnerving, because millions of people around the world are still living with each other in mixed situations, and I also don’t accept the premise that a homogeneous society is by its nature more peaceful and more likely to succeed. The Romans, the Greeks, the Northern Irish, England for 400 years . . . There’s no reason to believe that. I never felt that a heterogeneous society was perfect. But I think there are promising things in my community, and I don’t accept the idea of an experiment shut down, finished: these are people’s lives.

But what certainly is the case, I feel, is that you cannot, on the left or on the right, assume that a historical situation will remain in perpetuity. If you value things in that ­society, you have to restate them, reimagine them, and the kind of housing crisis we have in London now makes various conditions I grew up in impossible. There will always be rich and poor but, as [Thomas] Piketty makes the case, the gap is so extraordinary now. To have allowed it to get to this almost feudal situation, I don’t see how it can’t create deep cracks within civilised life. The ­division in London is a financial one. It feels extreme and it has extreme consequences.

 

NS In 2008, you wrote an essay full of cautious hope that Obama’s mode of speaking might be the thing required to pull the country together. How do you feel looking back at that moment now?

ZS On the morning of this election, I heard a young black girl on the subway ­speaking very loudly about why she’d voted for Trump. One of her reasons – a kind of “Face­book fact” – was that Obama created fewer jobs than Bush, which I believe had been going round the right-wing sites. In some of the big car towns, Obama saved so many jobs – but it’s hard to sell the counterfactual idea that there would be 800,000 fewer jobs here had this not happened.

But I think another counterfactual will be in his favour soon, and that is all the ways in which Obama is calm. Recently in New York, we had a small terrorist attack in Chelsea. Try to imagine Donald’s response to that. And so I think that over the next four years, all the ways in which Obama has not done many things that would have led us into terrible situations will become very clear, very quickly. It’s a painful way to secure your legacy, but that’s the way I see it.

 

NS As a New Yorker, what has your experience been over the past few weeks?

ZS I left the morning after it happened, because I had to go to Europe. When we turned up at my son’s daycare, the teachers were crying. My friend told me that the pizza delivery guy came that evening and burst into tears at the door. It was traumatic.

My gut feeling is that the job of American journalists and writers is going to be to somehow defy the normalisation of what’s happening. I think there are positive signs. It blows my mind that a man who is meant to be preparing to be leader of the free world watched Saturday Night Live [in which Alec Baldwin played Trump] and tweeted three times about it. So, in one sense, it’s a great opportunity for all of us artists, comedians, writers, because he’s so easily wound up! It gives the press an opportunity to be a real fourth estate and do something significant. Which could perhaps lead to impeachment. It’s promising, from our point of view.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage