Before the pine trees and the snow of Skyrim had even faded into view, I was uneasy. Where was the character creation screen? Had I missed it somehow? Would I not have the chance to decide my name, my background, my facial features? Suffocated by the bleak cutscene I'd been dropped into, I mashed my WASD keys uselessly.
There were no fanfare: the word "SKYRIM" quietly gave way to a scene in which I sat on a horse-drawn, downhill-bound cart. I felt nauseous. I wasn't sure if it was because of the awful angles of the cart as it jerked downwards over rock and fallen timber, or because of the company; three men sat on the cart with me, dirtied, mumbling pitifully for their shortening lives. One of them, Ralof, mused meaningfully that "a Nord's last thoughts should be of home", while another, a horse-thief, blathered to himself in an unintelligible panic.
I could only turn my head, crane my neck awkwardly at snow-dappled scenery that passed by too fast. I could not tune out the men's voices. I could not escape the cart.
I was one of a handful of prisoners bound for execution, and everything from the lack of a character creation screen to the claustrophobic nature of the cart was a clever manipulation of mechanics to make the player feel like a prisoner.
Of course I felt trapped; I was a prisoner. And why wasn't I able to craft my character? Because I was a prisoner. I had no rights, not even to that of how I looked. Nameless, unable to move or speak, without even a face to call my own, I felt trapped, powerless. Futureless.
And still the game continued to rub salt in the wound of my entitled gamer pride.
The cart came to a stop in an otherwise picturesque village (where children were ordered indoors for protection against the awful sight of me), and the prisoners were prodded to disembark and stand tall before the Imperial guards. I tried desperately to veer my mouse off-camera and into the glaring sky, thinking maybe the cold sun would bleach this horrible cutscene out of existence, but no. I could not look away from the guards' faces. One of them pointedly said that my name was not on his list, and his superior turned to snarl at me. "Who are you?"
And that's when I was finally given the chance to create my character, but not in the way I'd anticipated. The camera swung around in a full half-circle to focus pointedly on my face. I was dismayed to realise that I was now looking at myself through the judging eyes of an executioner. I spent nearly an hour here, building three separate characters, but each was almost too painful for me to look at. No matter which way I twisted her features, each representation of me was haunted, marred by the context of her short existence.
I started with an Imperial, a woman with darker features and a soft countenance to her movements – my movements. I imagined her as a simple merchant, so tempered by a life of peddling that it was no longer possible to scrub the dirt from her skin. I wanted somebody I could empathise with, but standing there, skinny arms bound in shackles, I was shaken. I could only see this woman for the pathetic little wretch she was. She didn't look like anyone who could stand a chance, and placed in the executioner's shoes, I was an icy sentinel, preparing for a bloodbath of the weak.
So I scrapped her, and started again with a Khajiit. Maybe a cunning, agile cat-person I would be able to save. I spent a long time on her face, pressing the human out of it, and almost came close to something that resembled a real feline. But as beautiful as its features were, her huge eyes were hopeless and sad, like a starved kitten pleading for a chance at life.
Almost as if she knew she was going to die.
Again, I couldn't do it. Starting over once more, I found myself sculpting a dark-haired Nord, scrutinising every facet of her angular face, twisting her neck so far I feared it might snap.
Every character I had made here knew that she was bound in rags and bound for death. But this Nord's eyes were steely, contemptuous in a way that only one facing injustice could empathise with. There was a determination in her that made her just slightly more bearable than the other two, and so I kept her. I named her Enora.
Of course, the game threatened to tear my long-anticipated identity from me immediately with the Enora's head literally on the chopping block, staring at the executioner's feet as she awaited decapitation.
I knew, obviously, that this was a game, and that some dark intervention would descend from the sky to give me one last fighting chance. As fire split the village I stumbled, as Enora, from building to crumbling building. The ridiculous thread of a chance spun before my eyes like ash. I wept for those who died on the execution podium. I wept for those I had mercifully executed myself, the sad merchant and the pleading cat-woman. I wept for Enora, who by all rights should have died on the podium too.
When I left Enora that night, she was limping in the town's caverns at half health, dressed in splintering wooden armour cobbled from enemies she had barely been able to slay. I went through a hell of a thing to get her where she was, and after all that, I couldn't leave her to languish, or die like the others did back at that horrific character creation screen. Skyrim was now ours to devour together. I was determined to see Enora's story out to the end, to nurture her and eventually see her triumph over those who would have her life.