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Skyrim dev explains that "an arrow to the knee" was never supposed to be a meme

Skyrim
(Image credit: Bethesda)

A Skyrim developer has explained to GamesRadar how the game’s notorious, perpetual meme-spawning “I took an arrow to the knee” line came to be. 

Bethesda’s enduring action-RPG celebrates its 10th birthday today with the launch of Skyrim: Anniversary Edition, with players set to receive a set of controversial horse armor for free. As part of the game’s main quest, players will invariably visit a place named Whiterun early doors, where they’ll likely strike up a conversation with one of the city guards. If the RNG is right – which it almost always is – he’ll say: “I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow in the knee.”

After chatting with us about how its dragons are part-pizza making, part-screaming kids, Skyrim’s audio director Mark Lampert has lifted the lid on how the now famous line-turned-meme came to be.  

“I think we always have at least a small handful of unintentional memes, owing to the fact that our games are just so big,” says Lampert. “There's so much complexity, and all the individual rules that the AI follows, or the landscape, the sun, the movement of the stars, the weather changes – everything is following a very simple set of rules. And then when you put those all together in one world, weird interactions happen, simple intentions by the designers in this case, to reward the player have these unpredictable effects.”

Skyrim

(Image credit: Bethesda)

Lampert explains that Whiterun’s close proximity to the game’s starting point means most players visit there early, however the majority of players will also have taken in a dungeon run or two beforehand.

He adds: “If the player has gone into a specific dungeon, they’ve cleared it out, they’ve raided the boss chest at the end of it – we're flipping a bit in the background somewhere that says, ‘player is an adventurer’, almost like an achievement, except you don't see it. With this, the guards now have something to respond to.” 

“It’s no different than if you collect a full head-to-toe set of, say, Dwarven Armour and you come back to the same city, the guards will comment on that too, but that doesn't happen until you’ve been playing for a long time. Just about everybody does a little dungeon run before they get to Whiterun, it’s simply the geography of where these things are on the map. So everyone has this adventure flag live on their character, and they pass by this guard who says that famous line.”

With that, Lampert explains that from a design perspective, the devs would have expected players to hear this line once in a while, if at all, but that a perfect storm of the guard’s striking accent, his wistful demeanour, and the fact that so many Let’s Players showcased the line in their playthrough’s opening 20 minutes at launch, saw it become super famous overnight. 

“Instead of it being random, everybody hears it. All the time,” Lampert continues. “It's a standout line. What you can’t predict is fans of the game sending in pictures of a fresh tattoo on the knee of a cartoon arrow. Or people doing a remix of it. There are, like, 98 percent of other guard lines that if you play enough and progress your skills, you’ll hear those too. But this one hits you first.”


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Joe Donnelly

Joe is a Features Writer at GamesRadar+. With over five years of experience working in specialist print and online journalism, Joe has written for a number of gaming, sport and entertainment publications including PC Gamer, Edge, Play and FourFourTwo. He is well-versed in all things Grand Theft Auto and spends much of his spare time swapping real-world Glasgow for GTA Online’s Los Santos. Joe is also a mental health advocate and has written a book about video games, mental health and their complex intersections. He is a regular expert contributor on both subjects for BBC radio. Many moons ago, he was a fully-qualified plumber which basically makes him Super Mario.