This Mortal Coyle
A screencap from Skyrim shows Serana and the player character having a nighttime walk along a snowy path.

Skyrim and Existential Angst Redux

A brick.

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #161. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


Fictional companions and goth concerns.


When I first conceived of this column, I wanted to write about Serana from Skyrim and how upset I am that I can’t marry her. Then I got distracted by existential angst and wasn’t conceiving of much at all.

As someone who plays a lot of games, it can be frustrating not to unlock achievements in my daily life. People joke about millennials wanting trophies for everything, but how is that an insult? Of course I want trophies. Trophies rule, and I should be rewarded for completing harrowing missions like “sending an email” or “leaving my house.”

It’s easy for people to tell you that life isn’t like a videogame. But what if life is like a videogame?

As far as I know, my Skyrim avatar has no existential angst. She isn’t worried about her purpose. She’s busy completing quests, making potions and agonizing over whom to marry (longtime readers may remember that I married Farkas in an earlier playthrough, but that was because the Dawnguard expansion – in which Serana was introduced – didn’t exist yet. And why can’t I marry Serana? I would like to take this up with Todd Howard personally).

I assume that my avatar is having fun (despite not being Serana’s wife) because I am having fun and/or dissociating while puppeteering her around the province. But what if my avatar isn’t having fun? What if, while I am insisting that she piss off jarls and kill beasties, she is having loads of internal angst?

(I guess Bioshock is relevant here in its meta-commentary about an avatar having no choice, but I’m not talking about Bioshock today. Would you kindly let me write about Skyrim forever?)

This leads me to the real expanding-brain-meme question, the real GIF of Keanu Reeves saying “whoa”: what if I am an avatar of some higher self who is moving my little meat skeleton around this plane of existence?

Sorry, I don’t mean to be “like that” in my column about videogames. You’re probably thinking that I’ve been alone playing Skyrim too much. That’s correct, but let’s go with it.

What if my higher consciousness is navigating me around this “IRL” game and eating cosmic nachos on the cozy couch of a higher realm, not worried about anything? What if she finds it hilarious that I worry about my writing career or my friendships or my relationships? 

Serana and the player character of Skyrim stand near each other in a cozy, fire-lit room.

If my body is being puppeted around by a super chill consciousness on some other plane, does that mean I should, simply, stop experiencing angst and gamify my life with the aim of unlocking more IRL achievements? Would that even be possible?

IRL achievements are so subjective. I know what some of the achievements are supposed to be: as in Skyrim, they often involve money, accumulation of objects, or leveling up relationships with other characters (“people”). (Other Skyrim achievements involve war and bloodshed, in which I have zero interest IRL. Change the gun laws.) 

Sometimes I achieve things IRL. I can’t think of anything cool right now, but I did wash my hair yesterday.

Then again, if I were playing Skyrim for achievements, I wouldn’t be collecting every book in the province and organizing my library. If I were playing IRL for achievements, I wouldn’t have been sitting in this café for hours, debating whether to have a second iced coffee.

In Skyrim, I’m gathering every side quest I can find and barely playing the main questline. That sounds like how I play IRL, except that I have no idea what the main questline is IRL. But do I care? Maybe the nice thing about life on this plane of existence is that there is no main questline. Or there is and I totally missed it because I was too busy gaming.

I understand that “gamification” doesn’t apply to an actual game. But Skyrim feels like my life right now, and IRL is the game. In that worldview, Skyrim subverts gamification by allowing me to ignore the main quests, to wander indefinitely. The game mechanics don’t pressure me to move forward, so I don’t feel guilty about aimlessness. If I could convince myself not to feel guilty IRL for wanting to wander a while, for wanting to rest, that would be the real achievement. I don’t know the remedy for existential angst, but it would be nice to have some relief from my angst around lack of concrete achievements.

So if my avatar is experiencing existential angst, I would like to apologize to her for not noticing sooner, and I would like to tell her that it’s fine. She should feel free to complete every sidequest in the game without worrying about the main quest or whether she has a higher purpose. She should feel free to relax and organize her library.

Meanwhile, I am going to enjoy a little sidequest as a treat. I am going to have a second iced coffee.


Deirdre Coyle is a goth living in the woods. Find her at or on Twitter @deirdrekoala.


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