With the shops drained of gold, it was time to find more adventure, so I leapt onto Daft Wooley and galloped in a random direction. Wheeee! Open-world adventure!
The winery - a cluster of barn-shaped buildings behind a low stone wall - floated up on my right, and since I'd never gone barging inside before, I decided to do it now. Skyrim follows a long tradition of adventure games where if you are not allowed to barge in to a place, that place has no reason to exist. The reverse also holds: If a place exists, it is so you can barge into it. Therefore you can measure the quality of a role-playing game by a ratio called the Barge Factor. A game with a high Barge Factor will let you plunge through any number of randomly chosen doors, without ever actually blocking your path. Instead, you will encounter increasingly dangerous things until one of them kills you. It's a design philosophy that simultaneously invites and punishes exploration.
Inside the winery I found a bunch of rude people on opposite sides of a countertop, serving and drinking wine. Standard stuff, so I kept on barging, into the storage room. There I found a locked door that required a key. My barging was stopped cold! Infuriating! And yet, the door must have a reason to exist. Probably some quest I hadn't started yet - the thieves or assassins guild maybe. That could wait for later. As soon as I've saved the world and become the ultimate hero of the land, I'll turn evil and start terrorizing it. Moo haa haaa!
I made a note to ransack and destroy the winery later on during my reign of terror. Locked doors are an affront to decency.
Back on my horse, I paused for a while, going over my stats. My skill points for heavy armor and two-handed weapons had been maxed out. There was no point to using my hammer, The Smooshinator, if I couldn't get any better at the skill and gain levels, and I really liked using that hammer... So I decided to move those skill points over to lesser things, like item enchantment and potion mixing, so I could re-earn the points by bashing skulls in. Boop beep!
Time to test this out. I rode north, to an encampment of giants, so I could kill one of them and claim a bounty. I had to park Daft Wooley quite a ways off to keep him from bickering with the mammoths that the giants were keeping as pets. Then: Whack! Thump! Heeyaaarrgh! The giant went down but it was a surprisingly close battle. Those skill points had really made a difference. On the other hand, I re-earned a few of them just in that one fight.
My mission was clear: Get into more fights. Yeah, that's a change-up, right?
I wandered off the trail and into Silverdrift Lair. Dead bandits and empty wine bottles were strewn around the place. The bandits had been ambushed and slaughtered by the undead, who apparently have nothing better to do after committing murder than stand around over their victims, drooling and clutching their weapons, until a new invader arrives. I wound my way through the tunnels, fighting harder than usual because my armor and weapon skills were weak. My assistant was a great help, swapping between various weapons as if to add maximum chaos to each encounter.
One in particular was memorable. I ran into a huge room to find a dragon priest - a spectral zombie creature with a skull for a head and rusty armor, and its legs ripped off. It was floating around the room, muttering and doing whatever it is the undead do with all their spare time (sudoku perhaps) and when it spotted me it shouted an explosive burst of air, making a sound like a cannon and blasting my body up towards the ceiling as though I'd been drop-kicked. Ooof! I hit the wall over the doorway and landed on my head, but in a few seconds I was up, staggering a bit, and I drew my hammer and charged straight for the priest. I'm all finesse.
As I raised the hammer, a bolt of lightning shot in from the side and lit the dragon priest on fire. My assistant was using the lightning staff. Good for her! I swung down and gave the priest a good whack on the head, but he didn't seem to notice, and clawed back at me so severely that I lost half my hitpoints. I backed up and fumbled for a healing spell, and as the priest moved forward to finish emptying his can of whoop-ass, a big armored demon came barreling in and collided with him. Summoned by my assistant, who had immediately switched weapons. As they bounced off each other the demon's stupidly long sword came down and chopped the priest in the shoulder. "THERE CAN BE NO OTHER END!" he bellowed in his death-metal voice. It was a mere distraction to the priest, but it was enough to get me back and healed up, and from a safe distance I hurled explosive fireballs at the pair. My assistant added more lightning bolts, and used a staff of 'conjure familiar' to summon Comedy Wolf, who dashed up and attempted to bite the priest on a leg, then after a moment of confusion, leapt for an arm instead.
Eventually the priest hit the floor, and dissolved into a pile of ash with a chunk of armor on top, but the battle wasn't over yet because my fireballs had turned the demon against me. "FEEL THE PAIN!" he wailed, waving his huge sword overhead in a way that was supposed to look threatening, but was spoiled by how he had to prance underneath it to avoid falling over. My assistant just stood back and watched, since it was her own summoned creature. I could understand, in a way. Attacking it would be like attacking your pet. If your pet got into a fight with your boss, would you help either side win? In this case, the question was moot, since I just ran around in circles until the demon's magical timer expired and it unsummoned itself.
So it went, through Silverdrift Lair and beyond.
I entered Bronze Water Cave out of curiosity and was tackled by a couple of angry bears. I didn't want to chop them up, but my assistant couldn't help herself.
I plundered Yorgrim Overlook and bashed the skeletons hiding around it. It was no more than an alcove in the rock, covered in snow, really.
I cleared out Fort Kastav, which turned out to be brimming with necromancers and elemental mages and was a tough job. I had to park Daft Wooley half a mile away behind a rock to keep him out of it.
I visited a mine called Whistling Mine - a depressing place, with nothing inside but a vein of iron ore and a few starving miners. That's another neat thing about this game ... some of the locations are about mood, instead of plot. The only point of Whistling Mine seemed to be, "Yep, sometimes life just sucks, out here in the frozen wastes."
I visited the college of Winterhold, and returned some books, then got zapped green by a students' practice spell gone wrong, then recovered a missing amulet, and picked up a quest to collect dwarven cogs for a teacher's experiment which was sure to go embarrassingly wrong and release some ancient evil and someone would lose an eye, yadda yadda.
I went into the college atrium and found a big glowing orb floating in it, over the central fountain. It was something I'd found in a dungeon some time ago, and the college faculty moved it here, apparently. A nearby instructor informed me it was called the Eye of Magnus, and that conversation led to another, and another, which led me into the caverns below the college. There I encountered the Augur of Dunlaim, a glowing cloud of blue mist, like a rave caught in a vortex. He told me to do a bunch of stuff and I nodded and said "yeah, yeah" and then ran outside, jumped on my horse, and rode over a cliff into the ocean. Because this is Skyrim, and you can do whatever you want.
Single-player open-world games are becoming a lost art, and that's a shame. The great thing about being the only real person in a world is that you're the only one who's "in on the joke". Things mean what you personally decide they mean. It also immerses you completely in a different culture, assuming the game has one. And I'm not talking about the jargon-laden multiplayer culture of online gaming either, which is defined more by mechanics and celebrity than anything else.
Also, why won't those damn kids stay off my lawn?!
Down by the coast I plundered a wrecked ship and found a crown, which I returned to the mayor of Winterhold. From there I zig-zagged west along the icy shoreline, peeking into dwarven ruins to collect any cogs or loot laying around. After a while I ran across the Frostflow Lighthouse, on a steep oceanside cliff. One of my dead horses was still outside the door, frozen in the snow where I'd left it months before. Daft Wooley was not alarmed. "I see you have previously ridden some chump-ass inferior horse," he seemed to say.
The interior of the lighthouse was a grisly murder scene. A mangled corpse lay face-down in the center of the room on the first floor, next to a deceased invader - some kind of goblin thing - among broken furniture and food and cookware and spattered blood. I found a few oh-so-convenient journals laying around, wherein the deceased tenants had written endless complaints about mysterious scratching noises coming from the walls and the basement. A stroll down the stairs to the basement revealed a huge hole in the wall, with cold wind blowing out, and a trail of blood and scratches leading in.
I'd been here before, and everything was the same as I'd left it. The first time, I'd gone jogging gamely through the hole in the wall, and somewhere in the depths of the icy tunnels below I'd found a severed head, and upon picking it up I was vexed to find that I could not drop it - it was a quest item and would not leave my inventory. "Habd's Remains", it proclaimed itself in the inventory box, and what gory remains they were: A head with the skin clawed away, no jawbone, and one blind eyeball remaining. Gross.
I carried that thing around for months, all across the map. A reeking albatross of an unfinished quest. But what the hell was the quest? What was I supposed to do with a semi-anonymous gory severed head? Standing around in the lighthouse now, I guessed that there was some room or document that I hadn't seen the first time. Ransacking the lower floors gave me some cooked fish, a few loose coins, and yet another journal complaining about the noises in the walls, this time from a little girl. At least I never found her corpse. Maybe she got away.
Finally I found it: A ladder on the upper story leading to the roof, and the gigantic lighthouse lamp. On a whim I climbed up to the lamp and lit it. Poof! Habd's stinking Remains vanished from my inventory, and instead I got some kind of blessing called "Sailors Repose" which amplifies all my healing spells. Well, that was pretty random. Rest in pieces, Mr Habd. At least now I don't have to smell like festering brains all the time. Oh wait! That's just my usual smell!
Heh heh heh.