We must all be eunuchs when we play videogames, inhabiting stories where sex is an invisible phenomenon, a religious spirit that everyone accepts is there in the chapel, stirring the air behind the confessional curtain. Yet it never becomes visible, we're given no instruments to act with when the impulse to experiment fuckfully appears. Every fantasy world reminds us of its anatomical blank spots when we try and pick up its skirts or steal a whiff of its textured skin. Paradoxically, many of these worlds are designed to entrance players into a near-endless fixation, seducing them into return visits to pick up the skirts again just to be sure there wasn't something we'd missed.
The sense that something's missing is an essential part of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a role-playing game in which players are thrown into a medieval fantasy world simultaneously on the verge of civil war and under attack by a league of dragons long thought to be extinct. This basic context is not immediately clear, but requires hours of play to come into focus. Players begin not as a hero born in a dire time, but as a nameless, raceless puppet with no knowledge of her surroundings, nor the people in them—the amnesiac's introduction that has become the genre's standard. You control a prisoner on her way to being executed for an unknown crime in a small village occupied by imperial forces. While waiting in shackles to be beheaded, a large dragon swoops in and kills most of the town, which gives cover for your escape, after which you are free to go anywhere and do anything.
"And then what?" the game asks again and again, relying on players to choose which branching path they want to follow, whose allegiance they want to swear to, and which desperate villager in need they want to help with busy work. The game is not primarily about civil wars or reincarnated dragons, but about the process that leads one to those facts. After 10 or 20 hours one begins to realize there is no grand unifying theory to the plot. The civil war might come, or it might not; the dragons can be vanquished, or they can be ignored while you hunt for bear pelts and glowing mushrooms in the wilderness. The story is a kind of catnip to stimulate the player's need to keep searching for a purpose, to expect there to be a summary logic to everything.
The longer one plays, the less urgent these stories become. Each mission giver waits to solicit help with their dire circumstances until you arrive in town and engage them in conversation. Nothing advances without your participation, and the more of these operations you take part in the less critical they begin to seem. Which is not to say that infiltrating a party of aristocratic elves to prove your worth to a society of ancient dragon warriors is without meaning, but rather that as dozens of these conspiratorial ambles pile on one another, they leave you with the impression that the fate of the world doesn't actually depend on your actions. This thought is beautifully amplified in the moments following the ending of the last story mission to vanquish the legendary dragon Alduin, when the game drops you back onto a snowy mountaintop where you can continue foraging for mushrooms, conspiring with the Thieves Guild, or return to Wizard school as if nothing had happened.
All paths lead back to that starting point. The game is endless, close to 200 hours could be spent fetching amulets, slaying dragons, and choosing sides, and when players have run out of prepared story content to parse through, they remain free to wander and hunt and gather and experiment on their own. The game registers time with a beautifully slow transition between day and night, and yet your character is essentially immortal. There are no signs of aging or decrepitude. You don't move slower in the cold morning, nor is it harder to climb the snowy path to the Throat of the World after 200 hours of simulated days and nights than it was when playing as a fresh-legged beginner.
You can die in Skyrim in the same way that you can die in all videogames, as a fleeting inconvenience for having lost a sword fight, a small technicality. Once dead you reset to the last save point, which returns you to your body and possessions unchanged. In the best cases the mortal human guiding the polygonal vessel will have learned some subtle lesson about swinging an axe a little more efficiently. If you're resigned to remaining dead, the game keeps a log of save files preserving your imperishable self in suspended animation, a reminder that death is not an imperative in the game world, but a choice of the person entering it, admitting they no longer care to return to it. The player will die long before her character does.
So why return again and again to the thawing fields and craggy mountains in search of another diverting plot thread? Why expect meaning from the fractured story nodes scattered across the four corners when everything that surrounds them inform against their irrelevance? The standard answer is personal progress. The essence of role-playing games is not to simply pretend you're someone else, but to delight in the joys of seeing your personal odometer turn over again and again. The game seduces players with an optimistic array of ascending numbers, which make the disorganized indifference of the world seem anomalous, an organizational oversight that can be corrected with a little effort.
It is an abstract mirror of sexual compulsion, pulling us toward an act with the momentary promise of order in disorder, a glimpse of the physical conditions in which it really might be desirable to think about never dying. The thought of immortality doesn't resonate in quite the same way at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, alone with a computer screen or some oiled contraption designed to manufacture things that can't fuck. In this other world, where death's inevitability is slightly relieving, the insinuation of sex is everywhere. The happy hour mirage of lucking into a new somebody’s underpants, the unbidden curiosity at what Jones in accounting would look like naked and sunburned on a beach, the daydream of being alone in the supply closet with Danielson, VP of Sales, his fragrantly stubbled chin and gym-sculpted chest close enough to touch—they form a psychic webbing against which the tedium of daily productivity becomes bearable. Who could stand to work a job without the promise of that near-immortal comfort peeking through the cloud cover? Who could chase down the checklist of errands, transformed from spreadsheet order to fairytale geography, moving to point X, hitting button A, then being sent to another point X as if the previous one had been a misunderstanding?
The closest you can get to sex in Skyrim is marriage. The process is a model for everything in the game, hinging on players going through a sequence of places in the right order to win an ultimately inconsequential distinction for themselves. First you need to discover an amulet—which can be had by talking to a priest in a certain town—which is a signal that your character is available for matrimony. If you speak to someone who is flagged in the game code as being open for marriage while wearing the amulet, you can ask them to marry you. They'll say yes, accompany you back to the priest, and go through the brief and not especially festive ceremony. Afterward you'll return to either the house of your new mate, or move them into yours, if you've spent the 5,000 gold to acquire a house. And then not have sex with them ever. Marriage, then, is an achievement to say you've done in the game, but once done it leaves you distressingly unchanged, alone again in a field with no one way forward.
Why can we never be done with an experience that is a fishbowl of indifferent variations whose outcomes are, after everything, coequal? It is possible, after all, to play Skyrim obsessively, consuming its thousands of pages of history, both epochal and personal, joining the passive pleasures of reading with the active pleasures of locating the readable snippets in the wilds. Its stories aren't told but instead lodged piecemeal in the player's memory, disappearing for a time, and then brought back to life when a new piece of fabric is discovered. The names of characters, places, and the importance of the pretend jewelry over which a fight broke out needs retrieval from the unordered mess of other names, places, and jewelry names to make sense.
When all the story pieces have been retrieved and assembled, there is some decent meaning in them. An ancient order of wizard monks, for instance, guard the fact that their secret leader is actually a dragon, and relation to the same menacing dragon who has been threatening to destroy the land. After depending on this secret counsel through some pivotal expository missions, the story offers an affecting dilemma when another faction asks you to kill him. The featherless old bird, it turns out, had been a kind of war criminal in earlier eras and to continue to accept his help in the current story requires some moral discomfort. And yet, to turn on someone who has been a steadfast partner in your story for the sake of avenging crimes from the past, against people to whom you have no connection, seems unjust.
Whatever emotional force this dilemma poses—and however different it feels as an actor in the story rather than passive consumer of it—the consequences are marginal, almost beside the point. If you kill Paarthurnax (verily, that is his name) he is simply removed from the world. If you let him live, your other parters will stop prompting you with new quests and Paarthurnax will remain. The anguish of this decision is entirely the player's and her character's, the consequence of a particular infatuation with the irreversible that can only come to creatures who know their lifespans are limited. The game has no urgency about this dilemma, and the dozens of similar moral paradoxes that await in other story threads. These pained circumstances don't hunt you down, but only wait inside text boxes that won't be triggered until you seek them out in their various towns, castles, and caves.
This passive fakery stretches one's suspension of disbelief. But Skyrim is not a game that depends on disbelief, it's a game about floundering at the indifferent alter of immortality. Ultimately, the only one whose experience is made dire by the press of time is the player. Everyone in the game world can wait, locked for eternity on a disc. The difference between having their own quest solved or unsolved is arbitrary, either condition leaves them circling their homes in the same pattern, neither saved nor ruined.
The difference for us, however, is defining. We cannot peaceably live in a world where there are things to be done and nobody willing to do any of it. This is the agitation in our underpants, the ghost that pulls our brains from sunburned daydreams to spreadsheets and back again, the anxious finger tapping on the desk while waiting for someone to pick up the phone. Sex is not the cause of all action but the one act where our want for a cause is clearest and most simply put. The pallid cubicle and the middle boss need daydreams of sex to make the ordering of numbers and accounts tolerable. Without them, work is simply a process of replicating the inanimate, things that need a metaphor to come to life. Money becomes a symbol for bread and shelter; quarterly reports a metaphor for capability and self-worth.
Sex is its own metaphor. It doesn’t need reference to anything else to make sense, it has no hideaway at marker X to visit, no missing other whose presence might be revealed after one more task, the completion of one more data field. Were we immortal, work would have no purpose, the movement of object A to place B. The rearrangement of things into newer and more complicated things would seem arbitrary, busyness manufactured for its own sake. Sex is the closest point to this impossible infinitude we can reach while still conscious, our bodies trying to empty themselves of the regulatory mechanisms and molecules that keeps them alive, from flashing neuron to galloping heart and dilating blood vessel. It is these feeling mechanisms that mark us for death, whose departure returns us to the indifference of entropic material, molecules without metaphors, little entities that do not care where they move or why.
Consider Skyrim’s sexlessness a tribute to the border separating the molecule from its master, the temporal and the infinite, an absurd seam in the metaphorical apocrypha of our daily lives, a commemoration of the things that can only happen when we become sentimentally conscious of ourselves, stewards of material that has been temporarily ordered into a form that can, by periodic emptying of its essences, become self-replicating. It’s absurd to discover Skyrim’s polygonal inhabitants have only blank spots hiding beneath their regalia. We do not. For that reason, they depend on us, and so Skyrim becomes a requiem for our genitalia, an encyclopedia of everything that wouldn’t be done without their clarifying neediness, a wet dream for eunuchs trapped in time.