Skyrim can feel like a lonely and loveless place sometimes. Despite the abundance of NPCs and followers, it's easy to feel unappreciated and unloved; a solitary wanderer in a hostile and expansive land full of surly individuals. Sure, you can become the head of a guild or a master assassin, but your new friends have to like you - not because of who you are , but because you're their boss. Not to mention that you can kill dragons and eat their souls.
And yet, lovelorn players soon discovered that Skyrim harboured an interesting little secret. Deep in the heart of thief-ridded Riften lurks a priest of Mara, the Goddess of love, from whom you can buy an unassuming little amulet that slightly buffs your Restoration skill. Nothing seems to change once you don this humble trinket... but after a while, everything starts to get a little... weird.
And more than a little sexy.
Yes, the Amulet Of Mara is a fun optional extra in an enormous game, but it's also so much more. It's a powerful narrative device and a shining beacon for the relationship choice in videogames - and it's high time we told you exactly why we love it.
First things first, we need to deal with the most fatuous and silly reason we love the Amulet Of Mara: Skyrim suddenly discovers its sexy side. The amulet marks you out as available for marriage, and thus, NPCs you've encountered many times before suddenly open up to reveal their true feelings. Your stalwart follower suddenly starts making crude advances every time you try to give them an order. Your guild-mates vie for attention, coming onto you with gleeful lecherous abandon. Shopkeepers make a play once you've invested in their store, and quest-givers suddenly want to become more than just quest-givers, if you get my meaning. And once married, even the most stern and austere warriors become loving, tender homebodies - hell, even Aella The Huntress turns out to be a loved-up softie at heart.
Oh, and the fact that your spouse becomes an amazingly convenient shopkeeper is a massive plus.
It's a thoroughly unexpected, frequently hilarious and entirely new dimension to the Elder Scrolls formula, and one that will make you want to wear the amulet for the whole damn game just to see who else will turn out to be potential suitors. After all, NPCs want to marry you regardless of your race, faction affiliation, appearance and gender... wait. Hold on. What?
Regardless Of Gender?
It's time to get serious. The internet exploded when BioWare revealed that Mass Effect 3 would feature homosexual romance options. Despicable bigoted idiots voiced their worthless opinions to anyone stupid enough to listen, while EA cheekily used the reveal to net some much-needed good publicity. The world debated and argued while the media circled like vultures... but Skyrim had already facilitated same-sex relationships, even same-sex marriage, on a far grander scale. And nobody batted an eyelid.
That's the point. Though games like Dragon Age and Fable have already explored these themes to some extent, Skyrim made freedom of romantic choice a completely natural part of life, without making it a big deal. Because, of course, it isn't a big deal. To the Nords of Skyrim, fancying someone of your own gender is as natural as eating, drinking, questing and fancying someone of the opposite sex - and why shouldn't it be? In Skyrim, sexuality is as immaterial as your appearance or the clothes on your back, with only accomplishments, good deeds and reputation acting as important turn-ons. There was no song and dance about same-sex relationships and marriage, no controversy, instead it was just another dialogue option that's no different to any other. Players could choose to marry anyone, of any gender, race or creed, and your choice - any choice - was totally fine. Critically, the choice was yours - to be made at your discretion.
As always, the best way to deal with a big issue is to not make it an issue at all.
For me, this makes Skyrim (and the Amulet Of Mara) a more important benchmark for player choice and the romantic freedom in our medium than Mass Effect 3, and a demonstration of how to deal with a hot-button topic. What's not to love?
Another Thread On The Narrative Loom
The Amulet Of Mara has one more string to its bow. Skyrim's true brilliance lies in its radiant storytelling and the fact that empirically soulless NPCs can become true friends through shared experience, and this under-appreciated trinket provides a way of strengthening your bond with otherwise bland characters, making the experience richer and more profound.
As an example, I bested Uthgerd The Unbroken in a fist fight during my first playthrough, and the hardened warrior-maiden agreed to become my adventuring companion. We shared many scrapes and close shaves, so after discovering the Amulet Of Mara, my choice of spouse was obvious. We were wed in the Riften chapel, and she returned to Breezeholme my wife.
Once we'd settled into a routine, I decided to take her back on the road for a particularly dangerous quest... at which point, a Dragon Priest gave us a desperate fight for survival. With frost crystals and fireball burns littering the remains of the epic battle, I grabbed the spoils, moved out and triggered the autosave.
But something was wrong. Uthgerd wasn't behind me, and returning to the scene of the fight, I discovered her lifeless model sprawled in the corner of the map. Before this point, I didn't even know that followers could actually die, and the realisation hit me like a ton of bricks. From that point onwards, I was forced to adventure with new companions, but it was never quite the same. Discovering that I must have killed her myself with a poorly placed fireball (having read up on follower behaviour) compounded my misery yet further.
For many of you, Uthgerd is just an NPC sitting in the corner of a Whiterun tavern with a few lines of dialogue. Indeed, many will have never even spared a moment to initiate conversation. That's the beauty of Skyrim: no two players will ever have the same experience, and can read emotions into NPCs in radically different ways. And thanks to the Amulet Of Mara, you can form a stronger bond that can't be truly appreciated until it's gone.
Ahem. So that's why we love it. Put it on. Go on. You might just like it...