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

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era