One of my biggest highlights from PAX East a couple of weeks ago was attending Shirley Curry, aka: Skyrim Grandma's panel about her roleplaying adventures in Bethesda's enormous RPG. Despite suffering a stroke just a couple of months beforehand, the 85-year-old YouTuber was on fine form during her PAX East panel, speaking to a packed out theatre of fans and viewers who have spent the better part of six years following her various playthroughs through Skyrim as a multitude of different characters. She talked briefly about her writing and character creation process for her Let's Play-style videos, before spending a whopping 45 minutes answering questions from the audience. These covered everything from her favourite things in Skyrim to her favourite, real-life candy, and also included a surprising number of horror game recommendations. In her own words, she loves stuff that's "weird and creepy", and has recently been looking for something new to play. "I’d really like to play a dark, scary game," she said, and the audience were only too happy to oblige.
It was a truly wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and as soon as it was over, both Liam and I knew it was too good not to share. Here's a written transcript of the entire audience Q&A in full, plus a summary of her opening speech, for your reading pleasure.
If you've been keeping up to date with what we got up to at PAX, you may remember we spoke about a bit about Curry's panel in our Saturday round-up video (which you can also view above). The audience questions have been lightly edited for clarity, but were otherwise asked in the same order you'll find below. Before that, though, here's what Curry had to say about the creation of her Skyrim roleplaying videos.
Curry is no stranger to attending PAX panels, but admitted she was "shaking like a leaf" after seeing such a large turnout in the Boston convention centre's Bumblebee Theatre. "This will be my fourth or fifth to do this, but it feels like the first time," she said.
"When I had the stroke, it actually stopped me dead in front of my PC screen, and I didn’t know anything about [the game anymore]," she continued. "In a week or two, my body started remembering things, and I can pretty much remember everything now. It’s just I might have lapses whenever I’m talking, so if I come up against a blank wall, please forgive me!"
When starting a new playthrough of Skyrim, she starts by figuring out what the story's going to be - "I usually do that first when I’m laying in bed at night," she said - and then goes about creating a character to fit that story.
"I don’t know if they’re going to be a good character or a mean character, or a fighter or a creeping around person. Those are fun to play. I also don’t know if, as I’m playing the story, they’re going to stay where they are, or whether I can let something into the story that’s going to help them grow and advance and become a good person, or a worse person. I don’t know why, because I think I’m a good person, but I always like making [my characters] bad. So I keep working on them. I try and be good, but I’d rather be bad!"
Then it's time to start playing the game. "Up until then I’ve just been sitting on my red chair or laying on the bed, where I daydream mostly. So after I turn on the computer, I go to the character creation screen. I go through all the races, because I still don’t know who my character’s going to be, so I try each race, and I go through all the pictures in that race, and I’m always thinking about that story in my head, trying to click with that particular character. Sometimes I might go through every character that’s there before something can actually lend itself to a story. I don’t usually create the story after the character. I always create the story first, and I choose a character that fits that story."
Of course, Skyrim isn't the only game Curry's ended up playing over the years. She also mentioned her adventures in Conan Exiles and ARK: Survival Evolved, but she never persisted with them because "I’m less interested" in those, she said. "I’m mainly into horror games. That’s what I’m really looking for right now. Really good dark, creepy stories. Sometimes, though, you can see this really cool game, and I think, ‘Oh that looks mysterious,’ and then you look and somebody playing it, and there’s these little teeny tiny characters. That’s not cool! I want a big game! I like to see what I’m killing!"
The audience laughed and erupted into applause at this point, and you'll find several callbacks to her distaste for "itty bitty" characters further on in the audience Q&A. To close, Curry spoke about her recent foray into trying to write a book about her Skyrim adventures, which she's been chronicling aloud over in her A Work In Progress series. "It's a lot of work, but it's holding me responsible and keeps me going," she said. "We're almost at the end of it, and we're trying to get it published." If she's successful, the book will be offered first to her fans on YouTube and social media, as she's fully aware the wider reading public "won't know what it's about" if she started trying to put it in book stores.
"I've found that writing a book, you can add so much more stuff than you can playing a game. Things just come into my head and I keep writing. But when I'm playing a game, those things don't come into my head. So writing lets me go off and it lets me write something weird and creepy. That's all I have!"
So without further ado, here's the audience Q&A panel in full:
"Grandma Shirley Role-Plays Skyrim" Audience Q&A:
Q: How did this whole thing start?
I started playing Skyrim in 2015, but before that, I had a channel, but I really didn't do much on it, but for some reason I had 200-300 subscribers. I don't know why. And finally they started asking me why don't you play a game? But I was too scared to because I was a chicken. But I then made a YouTube channel, played the game, and went to bed that night thinking, 'Eh, nobody's going to watch that.' But then it just blew up the next day and when I got up, it scared me so bad it made me cry! I didn't know what to do with it. So I just kept on gaming. That's how they got me gaming, and I didn't really even know that much about gaming before that.
Q: Thank you for all the wonderful stories you've put out for us, but I was curious whether you've ever gotten into Dungeons & Dragons at all, because you're so good at storytelling and it seems like it might be something you'd enjoy.
Dungeons & Dragons. My son played that. It was cool to watch him play that, but I don't know whether I'd ever be able to play that type of game. For one thing, they're not big people on a screen. They're little itty bitty people [crowd erupts into laughter].
Q: There's a big game here called Baldur's Gate 3 that's based on Dungeons & Dragons and you can create your own character.
I told my son about that and I'm really going to look into that when I get back home and go to Steam and see if I have it. It seems like I might have bought the game, but I can't remember. I really do want to try it out.
You can try it here, they have it!
But I'm scared! People watching… But I will check it out.
Q: What's your favourite glitch in Skyrim?
I don't know! Really, I don't know!
Q: As far as horror games go, I don't know if you've played it, but Alien Isolation is really good!
I haven't played that. Write that down on a piece of paper and give it to me afterwards.
Q: If Todd Howard was here right now, what would you want to say to him?
How about "Hi?" No, I'd ask him to give me a cool game, and I'd ask him to hurry up and finish The Elder Scrolls 6. I want to play it before I die.
Q: What is the thing you'd like most to have in the next Elder Scrolls game? Besides you?
More creepy stuff! I'm just not good at finding scary games.
Q: I forgot my question, but I do have a game suggestion, but it's only on PlayStation. It's called Bloodborne. So if you want something creepy, I think that would fit very well. It might be difficult to set up, but I thought you should be aware of it, and I'll try and find some paper to write it down on.
I have seen Bloodborne, and I don't know… Besides, I'd have to play it on PlayStation and I don't have one of those. I can't [mimics playing on a controller], I find it hard playing on one of those things. There's not enough buttons!
Q: You've told a lot of really good stories and made a lot of great characters in Skyrim. Do you have a favourite character, or favourite moment in Skyrim that you can tell us about?
I think that my favourite character, the one that was most enjoyable for me to play, she was a vampire - and I forgot her name! She's the only one I've ever played, so she's in my game list on my channel. Gosh, I can't remember her name! But you can look for the vampire. That was a lot of fun, I enjoyed that.
Q: How often do you find elements of your own life creeping into the characters that you create? Or is that something you've never noticed before?
That's an interesting question. I don't know if I've ever paid much attention to that, to tell you truth.
Q: What is your favourite faction in Skyrim?
I think it would have to be the Dark Brotherhood. That's the only way I can get anything creepy in my games. I also like playing bad characters.
Q: Will you be planning to play Starfield?
No. I don't know if I'll play Starfield or not. I'll have to wait until it comes out and see what it's like.
Q: Have you ever played visual novels before? A lot of visual novels are good at being psychological thrillers, and a lot of them have divergent story lines.
No I haven't. Will you be around afterwards? I'd like to talk to you!
Q: What's your favourite hard candy, either to give out to people or to enjoy yourself?
My favourite candy is chocolate and my doctor says it has to be dark chocolate.
Q: How many times have you been stuck making up a new character, and what are your ways to remedy that?
Often. When I get stumped on making the character, I usually have to just stop trying to make it and go back to thinking about how I wanted the story to be told, and because, I usually have to make my characters based on my story, so I usually come up with the story first and then I start making my characters.
I'd also like to recommend a game that's sort of an isometric-style game like the original Sims. It's called Project Zomboid, it's a zombie survival game.
It's like Sims?
Sort of like The Sims 1, it has an isometric style. It's very open-ended with the character creation.
I have never played any of The Sims games, and I don't know if I will. But I might try one some day!
Q: I was wondering when you mentioned that characters sometimes talk to you, if you ever wondered how you'd respond if you yourself could talk to them?
Sure! I do respond, because usually they just won't leave me alone. But it's interesting to pay attention to what they say, because sometimes they'll go and change the story and usually it's for the better.
My game recommendation is the somewhat lesser known PC game called The Cat Lady. It's very dark, and a little sad at times, but very sweet.
I think I'll like that! I'll check it out soon.
Q: Have you ever thought about playing or making Skyrim mods?
I have downloaded quite a few mods to make stories in games, but I don't know how to make mods. I'm not really that technologically advanced. But I've always thought of things I'd love to be able to do if I could make mods, make games! I have ideas in my head that I can't do anything with. But, yeah, I like different mods and it makes different stories and it makes the game different, and I use those.
Q: Have you ever thought about playing Fallout for some of your stories?
I have played some Fallout. It's too dead.
Q: You mentioned the Dark Brotherhood, which is also my favourite faction in the Elder Scrolls games. I don't know if you've considered playing the previous game, Oblivion? It does look worse than Skyrim, but it's still very much alive, and there are Dark Brotherhood quests that are some of my favourite stories ever told in a video game.
I have never gotten myself around to playing old Elder Scrolls games. I started with Skyrim, and so every time I watch someone playing Oblivion and, what's the other one? Morrowind. They just don't look the same. And I guess starting with Skyrim, I'm stuck!
Q: A recommendation and a question. I've been playing Skyrim since it came out and I sort of fell off of it for a while, but I got a virtual reality headset recently that completely changed the game. I don't know if you've ever tried [Skyrim VR], but it's an amazing experience. And if you like horror games, they're probably really good in virtual reality, I'd assume.
That would be pretty creepy! I've only tried virtual reality once, and that was when I was at Bethesda, and they put one of the things on me and showed me how to use it. And it's kinda hard. And I could only sit there and do that for a while. I don't know if I could play a whole game like that. I wish that I could, because it would make it so much more immersive, I think, and I would want to, if I could make it through without dying or something. I'd hate to die in virtual reality.
My question is, out of all the Daedric princes and princesses in Skyrim, all the gods, which one would you be?
I'd want to be a bad one. Give me a name of one.
Ooh, I mean, there's the god of the Dark Brotherhood who's all shadowy, Sithis.
Yes, anyone that's bad.
Q: Is there anything about the mechanics of Skyrim and the things that you can do in the world, that drew you to that game specifically to tell your stories through?
Yes. Because it's a big game, and the people are big in it. Not itty bitty people. That's what drew me to it. It's just so big, the land's so big, and the stories were so big.
Q: What are your favourite stories, from books or TV shows? What are some of the stories you love?
I read so many books, and you would think I didn't have time because I game all the time, but I love all kinds of books. I love mysteries, especially black ops. Anything that's dangerous.
Q: My mum has never played video games before but she's just started expressing an interest in it, so I was wondering whether you had any tips for someone who's just starting out in video games and doesn't know how to use a controller or anything.
My son. He sat with me when I was first learning how to play games, and he would show me. He would sit there, and show me how to do things. She should have someone helping her and teaching her, and being patient.
Q: What is your favourite genre of horror?
Well, I don't know about my favourite genre, but it has to be… really horrifying. I like horror where maybe this guy's creeping around through a cloudy town and running away from someone or something. I don't like… when they go through a house and all of a sudden it's, like, boo! That's not horror, that's just like jump scares, I don't like that.
Q: Of all the sidequests in Skyrim, which one's your favourite?
Oh that's a good one, because there are so many sideqests! I'm sorry, I can't come up with one off the top of my head. I'm sorry!
Q: Do you have a favourite set of armour in Skyrim?
Actually, the armour that I think looks really good is the Dark Brotherhood.
Q: Just for the fun of it, in your opinion, what's the most boring concept for a story set in Skyrim?
Well, something that some people ask me to do is just to take a character around and pick potions and pick ingredients and make potions. But I couldn't just do that.
Q: What is your favourite location in Skyrim?
Oooh, oh gosh. That's a hard one! I love everywhere! Probably the woods in Falkreath or it's gonna be the shore of Morthal and the ocean.
And that's time!