The Last Rose of Winter
'Tis the last rose of winter,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone.
— Talsgar the Wanderer (h/t Thomas Moore)
If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that Skyrim is a single-player game.
Skyrim pours tall drafts of "YOU are the most important person in the world," which Bethesda brews by the industrial vatload. It's got a punchy, solipsistic tang, but there's a nagging aftertaste: loneliness. It sneaks up on me the longer I play. At first I am giddy with the excitement of having Disneyland all to myself, but after a while I want someone to share it with. This hits me hardest during the frequent loading screens. As I watch ominous mist undulating over darkest darkness, existential pangs gnaw at the corners of my heart.
Solitude is such a prominent motif in Skyrim, they named a town after it.
Like the winemaker who throws a cigar in the barrel to counteract the hints of dead rat, Bethesda introduced followers to Skyrim to take the edge off the loneliness. Hard-nosed utilitarian players look upon these digital buddies simply as pack mules and meat shields, but for me they were also an emotional balm. Now that my latest DLC-inspired sojourn to the wintry wilderness is done, I think it befitting to remember these companions.
Sven, the two of us need look no more.
They say you always remember your first, but Sven didn't make much of an impression. I met him in Riverwood, the first village I came to after fleeing the introductory sequence. In true RPG NPC fashion, he was really into telling me his most intimate romantic troubles within 10 seconds of me walking into town; and in true early-level RPG hero fashion, I was really into running whatever petty errand was asked of me. I helped him win the favour of his beloved, Camilla, by delivering a forged letter to her. It worked. Camilla read the letter and told me to tell Sven she loved him. Sven was so overjoyed at the confirmation of Camilla's affections that he promptly left town with me, a female Breton, for an undetermined period of time. Nothing suspicious about that.
I didn't have any great gear to give Sven, so he just ran around in his raggedy clothes and charged everything with a dagger. He didn't last long — he was squished by a giant during my "What happens if I shoot this mammoth?" experiment. I was thinking about telling Camilla, but then I got a letter saying he'd left me 100 gold pieces in his will. I didn't want to get embroiled in any unseemly probate disputes, so I never went back to Riverwood.
Sven taught me about the fragility of life in the wilds of Skyrim, and that I should think about the consequences of my actions — not just for myself, but for those that I care about ... or at least might have cared about had I known them for more than half an hour.
Memorable quote: I don't know. He was a bard, but I never heard him sing *sniff*.
Lydia, oh Lydia. Say, have you met Lydia?
This snarky housecarl is the poster girl for followers in Skyrim.
She didn't last very long with me. We'd cleared a cave together and emerged dripping with loot (all steel and hide at this early stage), and I was getting a little sick of her sarcastic comments every time I wanted to shuffle inventory items. I mean, I know I was being fussy, but anyone who's been camping knows it's as much about storage as it is about equipment. I was just thinking, "spare me this attitude" when a nearby dragon answered my prayer. It descended for a fight and had a particular beef with Lydia, focussing all its breath and chomps on her while I hung back at a 90 degree angle and peppered it with sparks. Eventually Lydia took a knee and the dragon turned on me. I ran away, popping off my most expensive firebolt spell when I could and cowering behind cover when the dragon took to the air. The last 20% of its health took twice as long to whittle down as the previous 80%, but many potions later, I brought it down. I rushed over to Lydia to offload my dragonscales onto her, only to find she was croaked. I didn't reload, because hey, that was a whole 10 minutes ago, and I had a dragon soul now.
Lydia reminded me that, despite what oozes out of Bethesda's vats, maybe it isn't always all about me. Sometimes radiant AI has its own agenda. Still, I'm pretty sure it's mostly all about me. I got the dragon soul, after all.
Famous last words: "You will die this day, dragon!"
YOU try finding a song lyric with Jenassa in it.
I almost didn't see her there, sitting behind the door at the Drunken Huntsman. Startled, I struck up a conversation. Turns out she's a sellsword. Turns out I happened to have a spare 500 gold to hire her: 100 that I inherited from Sven and the rest looted from the dragon that killed Lydia.
Jenassa complemented my Destruction skills well. I'd taken to employing spells of the burning kind in combat, and her Dunmer fire resistance shielded her from the worst of my poor aim. She tended to use bows too, which kept her out of the blast radius of my fireballs. Jenassa gave me the space I needed to grow into myself.
We explored many forts, ruins and random landmarks together. I was keen on grinding up my skills and seeing everything, avoiding fast travel as I popped into every location I came across on the way to a quest marker. It was a happy time. Whenever I spoke to Jenassa about inventory shuffling, she just said a perfunctory, yet friendly "Yes Sera?" which was a welcome change from Lydia's grumbling. She encouraged me to sneak more, reminding me to walk in shadows. I also appreciated her mentioning when she sensed an evil power in dungeons, because I wasn't picking up on that after flaming a group of ancient undead warriors that just popped out of their coffins.
I don't know how Jenassa died. I looked behind me after I came out of a cave that housed a Draugr Deathlord and she just wasn't there anymore. She had been carrying all my dragonbones too. But I really couldn't be arsed going back into that cave to find her. It was a big cave, and those loading screens are intense.
Jenassa taught me the value of developing secondary skills to become a more rounded character, as well as the idea that we can never look back — only forward — so we should simply be grateful for the time we get with each other.
Memorable quote: "I am the shadow at your back."
It was a snowy night when we met in Windhelm, but his kind eyes warmed my heart.
With Stenvar, I decided that I had to give my followers a helping hand if they were to live longer. By this point, my character had pretty good Smithing and Enchanting, so after handing Stenvar his 500 gold retainer, I forged him some gear: flawless dwarven armor with stamina buffs and the Mage-Killer, an ebony battle axe that I honed to Legendary quality and imbued with shock damage.
I was about level 18, and critters had made a noticeable leap in toughness, maybe because I'd ground out a few cheap levels with crafting skill increases. In particular, mages were giving me grief, what with their shielding wards blocking all my spells, and zappy, magicka-draining counterattacks. Enter Stenvar! He would just run at them head-on, wear a zap or icicle on the way in, and then smash them. Job done. Often I would forget to do my own fighting as I stopped to marvel at his handiwork.
Stenvar was tough, but he had a wry wit underlined with casual greed. He would speak wistfully to me of his dreams of owning his own fortress, or of trading in the mercenary's axe for the miner's pick. I never got tired of his jocular retort when we traded loot: "Feel free to give me all the gold you want!" Oh, Stenvar! It’s funny, because gold is weightless! Have a dragonbone instead.
Stenvar was the first follower for whom I reloaded if he croaked. It was a big step for me, like when you give someone the keys to your apartment. He was worth it. Sadly, I don't know how he died either. I fast-travelled somewhere, and he wasn't there with me. I reloaded a few saves but couldn't find him. He'd just disappeared, consumed by the infernal loading screen. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To lose one follower may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two starts to look like carelessness. Maybe I should stop playing Skyrim until 4am.
Stenvar made me realise that you get out of friendship what you put in: Give a friend a good set of armour and they'll stick around longer and kill mages for you. He also taught me that sometimes friends just vanish inexplicably off the face of the earth without anyone knowing what happened to them, and it's best not to ask questions.
Memorable quote: "They say ruins like these are filled with treasure; of course, they're filled with traps too."
Oh, Brelyna ... we'll always have our College days.
My problems with mages had me thinking I should toughen up my magic abilities. Maybe it was time to go to Mage School and finally get my Mage Degree. So I enrolled at the College of Winterhold and started the Mage's Guild questline.
Brelyna was the first person on campus who was really nice to me, and we became BFFs after I helped her with her homework. She had mentioned that she could summon a pretty mean flame atronach, so I thought she might be keen to join me out on the road, Thelma and Louise style. Apparently her summoning was a "once a day" power, because she hardly ever used it, except when there was a sole skeever nearby or a doorway to block. Her combat style consisted mostly of cowering and yelling at me to make the bad things go away. The only resemblance we had to Thelma and Louise was the cliffhanger ending I gave Brelyna when I accidentally shouted her off the Throat of the World.
Brelyna was a potent reminder of the "horses for courses" doctrine: Your best friend from school isn't necessarily someone you'd want by your side when the Forsworn come a-callin'.
Memorable quote: "I don't like where this is going." (I'm not touching it — you go right ahead).
Onmund the enigma
Worst follower ever! Worst mage ever!
Onmund was specced all wrong. Like a guy who works as a government lawyer by day but by night yearns to write about videogames and play bagpipes, he had a major identity crisis. He looked like a barbarian disguised unconvincingly as a mage, a jock dressed as a nerd so he could tear down their frat house from within. I don't think I ever saw him cast a spell. I couldn't get his gear right either. He never equipped any staves I gave him, he WOULD equip any weapon I gave him for storage, but he was crap with weapons. He refused to wear armour, but would dress up in all the jewellery I gave him. Weird.
I befriended him by finding a family heirloom for him, so I figured that maybe family was important to him and his dad was pressuring him to be at Mage School or something, but Onmund said his dad wanted him to be a farmer. Shoulda listened to your pa, buddy.
I was so sick of not getting Onmund's personality and his uselessness in combat, I decided to murder him. I took him to a remote location past Bard's Leap Summit to "accidentally" fireball him where no one else could see. Apparently someone back at Winterhold had their scrying pool trained on the area, because immediately upon torching Onmund I got suspended from Mage School.
Next time I was on campus, my professor told me I had to pay a 250 gold fine to get back in, plus a 15 gold fine for an overdue library book – "A Gentleman's Guide to Whiterun". Onmund wasn't half the man Stenvar was, and on that arithmetic alone, 250 gold was too high a price to pay to cover up his murder. I reloaded to a moment just before my crime. Once reloaded, out of a begrudging sense of guilt, I escorted Onmund back to Winterhold, whereupon I gave him a well-thumbed copy of "A Gentleman's Guide To Whiterun" and told him his services were no longer required.
Onmund taught me that murder is more complicated than it first seems. Also, recruiting mage followers is a mistake — whoever said opposites attract was obviously referring to the complementary skill sets of RPG classes.
Memorable quote: "Why are you cooking up a fireball? I don't see anyone else around ... No ... No! NO!!!"
Got any cheese?
I realised I had a type of follower I liked best: mercenary brutes. Vorstag was in the Stenvar mould. Tough, uncompromising and greedy for gold.
I didn't spend much time with Vorstag though. After dragging him away from Markarth, I told him to house-sit Breezehome while I did some Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood quests, as he didn't seem the sneaky type. When I got home a week or so later, he was gone! He must have got bored sitting around with nothing to drink and only my Eidar Cheese collection to eat, and scarpered.
Vorstag taught me that if you ignore someone long enough, eventually they'll leave your house. Results may vary, but in this case it was about 9 days.
Memorable quote: Err ... "Hello"?
After Vorstag's departure, I took stock. Each of my followers had marked important phases of my Skyrim career, drawing me into the game. They were valuable training wheels: assisting me with combat, giving me character development ideas, signposting content (such as traps) and providing an outlet for my crafting skills. Even Onmund was engaging in his own way, as I spent a good hour absorbed in my self-given sidequest to plot his murder.
After Vorstag, I was ready to stand on my own. Maybe it was because I had become tough enough to fry enemies by myself, because I had become rich enough not to need to carry everything I could find, or because I was sick of being stuck in a room while a dodgy AI stood fixedly in the doorway, staring at me. Whatever it was, I finally felt self-sufficient, ready to embrace the solitude. But I couldn't have got to that point without a little help from my friends.