Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Pilgrimage of Kate & Maurice, Pt. 2: The Heart of a Lion and The Brawn of an Atrophied Llama

     I'm Kate, a wood elf assassin with no gold who can only use bows. My companion Maurice is a Breton pilgrim on the verge of death. Together we're traveling halfway across Skyrim's massive world, on foot, to Eldergleam Sanctuary. There's just one catch: if Maurice dies along the way, we have to reload and try again from the beginning.

     We were close. We were so close. I guess I have to hand it to the guy - not many people would try to interfere in a fight between two giants and a dragon while wearing no armor. I sigh, but can't be too angry about it. If I was gonna die, I'd want it to be in a blaze of dragon-charred glory too. I reload, and we're back at Hamvir's Rest.

     I lost count of how many attempts we've made long ago. In theory it shouldn't be that hard; we just walk there, right? In practice, though, there are a few major roadblocks.

     The first is what route to take. There are four possible paths, with two branches for each half of the journey. For the first half, we can either take the long way around, following the relative safety of the road back to Whiterun, or we can strike a beeline through the wilderness. The latter poses the more obvious danger; even if we make it past the bandit-mudcrab killzone in front of the Silent Moons Camp, we still have to thread between bandit and giant camps and make it to the river without Maurice attacking anyone (and by extension being attacked back). The latter, on the other hand, is plagued by random encounters that are different each time.

     I decide the long route is the better option; even with the encounters it's usually still safer, and if something does go wrong we won't be set very far back. As I start to think about this, I wonder if it's callous to call my companion's untimely death a "setback"? Am I losing sight of my humanity (I guess elfity in Kate's case) in my drive to get us to our goal? Am I unwittingly acting out some sort of Citizen Kane-esque analogue, becoming my own antithesis as I lead this man to countless deaths in an attempt to save his life? Should I really be worrying about this with a fictional character represented in-game by a flawed set of AI behaviors anyway? Pushing back these confused feelings as best I can, I decide to worry about it later and point us down the road.

     Almost immediately, we encounter a perfect example of the problem with random encounters. Sometimes they're as harmless as a group of passing Thalmor Justicars, and sometimes they're. . .well, sometimes they're a little worse.

See that figure directly in our path, far, far away? That's a giant.

     Giants are bad news. They're so powerful that there's a possibility they'll break physics and send you flying into the stratosphere with a single swing of their clubs. More problematic than their damage output, though, is their health. If Maurice sees it and tries to attack, there's no way I can fell the monster before it slaughters him. We have to go around. Giving the colossal caveman a wide berth, we eschew the bridge he's blocking and inch our way across further upstream at a place miraculously free of mudcrabs. After considerable searching we find the road again and resume our journey. A bit of a rocky start, but we should be fine now. The only danger on the path to Whiterun is the occasionally spawning wolf pack and if they were there, we never saw them. Along the way I try to make Maurice pick up a shield laying by the road, an effort he of course ignores.

     This stretch of the journey is easy. The brief stretch of civilization around Whiterun is safer than any other part of our pilgrimage, and if a creature strays in from the wilderness there are patrolling guards to help fight them. We're finally back to where we by all rights should have started. Our trek across is blissfully uneventful and all too brief as we almost immediately arrive at the bridge leading back into the wilderness. We're about to enter the first leg of our trip with true danger. The route from here to the halfway point is littered with one of our worst enemies: wolves. Normally, wolves pose a negligible threat and do so little damage it sometimes takes them a couple bites to down even Maurice (who is by far the weakest creature in the game right now). The problem is that they hunt in packs, and if they get the drop on us there's no way for me to kill them all before they slaughter my companion.

     After less than a minute of travel, I see something several feet up the road that looks like fur and freeze. There they are, three of them, right on schedule. Looks like a normal and a couple of ice wolves, a slightly tougher variety. Maurice doesn't stop and bumps into me, but remains undetected. More importantly, he hasn't noticed the wolves either, so I don't need to worry yet about him charging at them in one of his fits of bloodlust. I position myself so I'm directly in front of my companion to restrict his movement, nock my first arrow, take aim at the nearest wolf, and let it fly.

     It instantly dies, and by the time its body hits the ground I've already got my second arrow nocked. The next wolf, who hasn't noticed the death of his pack member yet, is dispatched with similar ease. Here's where it gets tricky. Maurice has finally realized I'm shooting at actual targets and there's still a wolf remaining for him to commit suicide with. I can already hear him struggling to get around me. I prepare my third arrow as fast as I can, and almost prematurely take the shot. The wolf goes down just as Maurice makes it past me and his axe comes into view a few inches from my face. Seeing the enemies dead, he backs off. I glance at him and he shoots me a hurt look, as though he's offended by the very idea that he would commit an act of violence.

     Around the wolves' bodies we find a dead elf with a note on him talking about bringing pit wolves to an arena somewhere. Different quest, different place, don't care. I've got a tree to find and my abrasive companion, though possessed of a fearless heart (and sadly not a constitution to match), isn't getting any farther away from death. We walk a little farther and there's another wolf, who goes down without a hitch, but as I'm taking the shot I notice something behind it.

     Oh lord, is that a Sabre Cat?

     Angry Nordic Tigers. Just imagine that for a second. I shouldn't have to say these guys are serious trouble. They do massive amount of damage, and move and attack incredibly fast. Unlike wolves, I can't take them down in one shot, and they're way too good at detecting sneaking characters. They're probably even worse than giants since they can cover ground so much faster. We have to go around. I crawl up the hillside to our right, checking every couple of seconds that Maurice is still in tow. We get to the halfway point and the tiger turns and faces us. My first instinct is to stop dead in my tracks - you're easier to detect while moving - but I know the longer we stay here, the more likely Maurice and the tiger will see one another. After an eternity of unacceptable danger, we finally make it back to the road with the tiger behind us. It's still looking up the hill, so we take the opportunity to book it out of there. Random encounters path isn't usually this bad, I swear.


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