Caleb Powell waited as long as he could before he bought "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim."
He knew what would happen to him once the video game was in the console. People were rumored to disappear for weeks in the game's world where they could do anything, be anyone and go anywhere.
The first night he was so excited he ignored what the game told him to do -- fight dragons and stop the end of the world -- and instead ran off and became a werewolf. He played so long, he fell asleep on the controller.
The next day he logged eight hours straight, and every day since he has played as much as he can with a full-time job, four hours a night, six to eight a day on weekends.
"It's fantastic, and it's quite addicting," said the 27-year-old from East Ridge. He planned to play six hours later in the day.
For true gamers, the ones who count down to buzzed-about releases and rip into them with the ferocity of a lion on a carcass, Powell's initial enthusiasm is run of the mill. But with "Skyrim," that first-taste obsession could spill into weeks and months of play. The game maker says it contains 300 hours of play and more.
"It's the best game I have ever played, period," said Michael Dixon, from Chattanooga, who's been playing it for nearly two months, some nights until dawn, when his wife and baby are asleep. "It consumes my soul. ... It's the most living, breathing, vibrant atmosphere I've seen."
The spouses and significant others of the players are being called Skyrim widows and widowers. On a national Facebook group for those left behind, people complain about chores going undone, missing their favorite shows for weeks because the television is taken and neglected pets.
Unlike many other games, where there is a finite mission, exploring Skyrim can feel limitless. Whole books, written by the game developers about the lure and history of the fictional world Tamriel, can be read and collected inside the game.
And the characters inside are charged with unpredictable artificial intelligence. No two people will experience the same Skyrim.
"I've talked about starting a blog called 'My Life in Skyrim,'" said Danny Butler, a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga who has been playing Skyrim for nearly two months.
Skryim, developed by Bethesda Game Studio, has been flying off the shelves at local video game stores since its release Nov. 11.
Powell didn't get it for Christmas, but his cousin, father and best friend did.
The developers shipped 10 million units of Skyrim, rated M for mature, by mid-December for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, marking sales of $620 million since its release, according to ZeniMax, the parent company.
Stores like Packard's Games and Movies in Chattanooga sold out of their initial stock, 20 or so copies, in the first two days, and at $58.99 it's still one of the most popular role-playing games on the market.
Last month, gamer network Raptr named Skyrim the most-played game of 2011, over the popular shooter game "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3," based on stats including average individual playtime and average session length.
"Some of our regular customers clocked over 100 hours playing it in the first week," said Mark Black, district manager for Packard's. "I have guys who are still playing it and talking about the dragon they just fought."
There are nine major city-states in Skyrim, with many more towns inside to explore.
Players can do just about anything, from picking mushrooms to buying a house to reading books to chasing butterflies to creating their own armor. For example, Powell trained his character in magic and now likes to cast spells that enrage people to start bar fights.
"I also like to go into people's houses and steal their clothes," he said about his escapades inside the game. "I think it's hilarious."
Or players can play the main story line of the game and defeat the enormous dragon, Alduin, the firstborn of Tamriel's primary deity Akatosh.
Characters and the story are molded by the players' choices in the game. Hundreds of characters with real voices interact with the player just like in real life.
"You can lose yourself easy if you aren't paying attention," said Dixon. "It's a blessing and a curse."
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...