Please read this first.

Welcome! This blog is devoted to considerations of morality in the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Bethesda. Rather than a fansite, review, or walkthrough, it is a serious attempt to examine the game through a moral lens. Please note that the purpose of this blog is to discuss morality within the context of the game, not to determine whether playing the game is immoral in and of itself; the latter type of "discussion" tends toward tedium and inhibits, rather than promotes, a meaningful conversation.

If you have not visited this blog before, it might be helpful to read the posts labeled "Orientation," most of which are the first few entries in the blog archive (see right). These posts include a short introduction to this project, a content-specific author bio, and a few other pieces that explain key concepts relevant to this study. These posts are of particular use to those readers less familiar with Skyrim (or video games in general).


If you have visited this blog before, thanks and welcome back!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dovahkiin Leadership Models: The Unifier

After I had been playing Skyrim for about six months, I began to notice a pattern in the major questlines.  I began the Civil War line as a recruit, but finished as a Legate in the Imperial Legion. I began the Companions line as a "whelp," but finished as the Harbinger. I began the College of Winterhold line as a student, but finished as the Arch-Mage.  By completing each questline, I became the leader of the relevant faction. Even though my suspension of disbelief is sufficient to allow for dragons and magic, I was having a hard time understanding how I, a stranger in Skyrim just a few short months ago, could be rising to leadership roles within all of the major factions in the province. Each of the people I had replaced had spent years climbing to his position, and each of them held only one position, but I had garnered three in less than an in-game year. Furthermore, I could not help but notice that leading one group did not preclude membership in others. I therefore began to look for meaning in this strange situation.

When I looked at the Tamriel presented in Skyrim, I found a possible answer.  In the aftermath of the Great War, the Emperor's hold on Tamriel was slipping. Having abandoned Hammerfell and narrowly surviving an uprising in Skyrim (thanks, in no small part, to Yours Truly), the Septim dynasty was reeling.  The current Emperor seemed to have little of the qualities that defined the progenitor of the Third Empire, Tiber Septim.  When I reflected that Tiber Septim had himself mastered the Thu'um as I had, I realized that there was a distinct possibility that the Dovahkiin was destined to be the next Emperor.

Further support for this hypothesis comes from the aforementioned amassing of diverse leadership roles. The current Emperor had seen his Empire not only assaulted from the outside by the Aldmeri Dominion, but torn apart from the inside by conflicts between among factions and races.  It would make sense for the successor to be a unifier -- one who ended the Civil War, one who leads both warrior and wizard, one who is both a true Nord and a friend to other races.

This realization led me to one of my most difficult decisions in this game: whether to join the Thieves' Guild.  My original intent had been to avoid the Guild entirely; I was trying to play a morally conscious character, and associating with known criminals seemed to run counter to that playstyle. But then I found myself in a quandary. In order to find Esbern (the next step in the main quest), I had to talk to Brynjolf, a member of the Guild. Furthermore, in order to complete No Stone Unturned, I had to speak to Vex, who, according to Thieves’ Guild lookout Maul, would not talk be willing to speak to me unless I were a member of the Guild.  I procrastinated on this decision for a long time, but when I realized the need for a unifying leader in Skyrim (and eventually all of Tamriel), I concluded that I would indeed join the Guild, regardless of my misgivings.

Another factor leading me to Guild membership was the structure of the game itself.  In accordance with its fantasy RPG heritage, The Elder Scrolls develops characters within a triangulation of archetypes: Warrior, Mage, and Rogue.  This triad hearkens back to the pencil-and-dice Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, in which the three main character classes depend primarily on the distribution of six attributes: Fighter (Strength and Constitution), Magic-User (Intelligence and Wisdom), and Thief (Dexterity and Charisma); other classes arise from combinations of these archetypes.  Since AD&D, fantasy games have been dominated to one degree or another by the holy trinity of combat, magic, and stealth, and Skyrim is no exception; even the main skill trees are structured in this three-faceted arrangement.

The three fantasy archetypes have been apotheosized in thecelestial background graphic for the eighteen skill trees available in the game. 
In other words, the game seems to invite the development of a leader who embodies the best of all three archetypes, and the in-game world seems to require a leader who can bring disparate factions together.  Becoming the Master of the Thieves Guild would therefore be (for me, at least) less of an exercise in criminal ambition and more of an attempt to bring together the most powerful forces in Skyrim in preparation for the inevitable fight against the Aldmeri Dominion.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pieces of the Past

After completing Waking Nightmare, I returned to my original objective in Dawnstar: visiting the Mythic Dawn museum.  When I finally met the curator, Silus Vesuius, I learned that the Mythic Dawn had been the cult of Mehrunes Dagon, Daedric Prince of Destruction, Change, Revolution, Energy, and Ambition; in other words, the group most directly responsible for the Oblivion Crisis that formed the basis of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  The fact that Silus was so proud to be part of the bloodline that almost ended the world as we know it, along with my previous Daedric experiences, made me very wary of Silus from the beginning.  When he asked if I would be willing to help him find the scattered pieces of Mehrune's Razor -- for his museum display only, he assured me -- I agreed, but fully expected to end up killing him at the end of the quest; I assumed that once Silus got the fragments of that powerful weapon in his hands, he would find a way to restore it and use it to restore the legendary doomsday cult -- something I could not allow.

I kid you not -- the original caption for this UESPWiki image is: "This can't possibly end well..."
The first stage of the quest focused on finding the three pieces of the Razor, scattered all over Skyrim.  Two of the pieces involved standard raids on orc bandits and hagraven cults, but the third piece was held by Jorgen, a law-abiding citizen of Morthal.  I approached Jorgen and asked him to give me the hilt of the Razor; when he refused, I tried to Persuade him, but he resisited, citing a very reasonable argument that no good could come from collecting the pieces.  I was now left with a serious dilemma.  Silus seemed rather driven, so if I could not collect the final fragment peacefully, he might try to collect it through violence.  Furthermore, as much as I agreed with Jorgen's reasoning, I knew that I, as Dovahkiin, was in a better position to prevent disaster than he was.  I therefore decided that theft was my best option from a moral perspective.  Jorgen didn't need or even want the artifact; he was holding it for the greater good.  Because I could not convince him to give me the hilt, I was placed in the paradoxical position of stealing from Jorgen in order to fulfill his noble intent.

That done, I returned to Silus with the pieces.  He then informed me that we would need to go to the Shrine of Mehrunes Dagon to repair the Razor.  When I voiced my discomfort with that plan, he left to do the deed on his own.  Having failed to dissuade Silus, I knew that I would have to supervise him, because I fully expected him to repair the Razor and use it to, if not try to summon the Daedric Prince once again, at least wreak havoc on the townspeople.  When we finally got to the shrine, I was surprised to find that Silus could not repair the Razor, despite his supplications to Mehrunes Dagon.  He asked if I would try, and keeping in mind the necessity of controlling this potential disaster, I agreed.  Despite my established distaste for dealing with Daedra, Mehrunes Dagon seemed willing to speak to me rather than the Mythic Dawn devotee.  The Daedric Prince told me that he would be willing to repair the Razor only if I agreed to kill Silus.  I had thus been presented with the second major moral dilemma in this quest.

So far, Silus had only shown the potential to do evil; his obsession with the Mythic Dawn aside, he had not actually done anything wrong.  Because he had not attacked, provoked, or even given me a good reason to do so, killing him would be an act of murder.  On the other hand, I had little doubt that, had our positions been reversed, he would not have hesitated to kill me in order to obtain the artifact. Another factor in the dilemma was the artifact itself.  Like Dawnbreaker, Mehrune's Razor is a powerful weapon that could have helped me in my quest to rid Skyrim of its monsters.  It might be worth the life of a man who was probably up to no good anyway.

It was that "probably" that finally persuaded me to spare Silus and purposely fail the quest.  I simply could not justify killing a man who had done nothing wrong yet.  He might be a weak-willed fool, but he had not actually hurt anyone to date.  Furthermore, if I'm being honest, I relished the idea of telling Mehrunes Dagon to get stuffed, especially if it meant doing battle with him or his minions as a result.  When I declared my refusal to sacrifice Silus, I got my wish: Mehrunes Dagon summoned two Dremora to dispatch Silus and me -- naturally, they failed.

For his part, Silus was grateful for my decision and promised to keep the fragments of the Razor on display under lock and key in his museum.  So far, he has kept his word, but if he ever changes his mind, I might have to change mine.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Waking Nightmare

Upon traveling to Dawnstar to follow up on an invitation to see the Mythic Dawn museum, I was informed  that the town's residents had been suffering from abnormally intense nightmares and memory loss.  Erandur, a Priest of Mara, believed that the nightmares were the result of a disturbance at the abandoned Nightcaller Temple just outside of town.  Naturally, we set off to investigate, and Erandur filled me in on the history of the temple.

Nightcaller Temple, as it turned out, had once been a Shrine of Mara before the Cult of Vaermina, Daedric Prince of Nightmares, took it over.  Years ago, Orcish raiders invaded the temple, and the Daedric priests' last line of defense was the Miasma -- a gas-like energy field that put everyone in the temple into a deep sleep; the nightmares and insomnia plaguing the residents of Dawnstar appeared to be fallout from the Miasma.  Erandur and I fought our way through the awakening Orcs and priests (all hostile) to find the source of the Miasma: a staff called the Skull of Corruption, Vaermina's Daedric artifact.  The catch was that the Skull of Corruption was protected by an unbreakable force field.

The process of breaching the force field involved a kind of time travel; the details are morally irrelevant, but this stage of the quest did reveal that Erandur the Priest of Mara had once been known as Brother Casimir of the Vaermina Cult.  He confessed that he ran when the Orcs attacked, and in his shame, converted to Divine worship.  This is a critical point for my playstyle; Erandur's remorse and willingness to suffer for his misdeeds compelled me to save him later.  After I disabled the forcefield, returned to present time, and defeated Erandur's revived former comrades, Erandur began the ritual to destroy the Skull of Corruption.  As I watched the priest, the voice of Vaermina broke into my consciousness, saying, "He's deceiving you. When the ritual's complete, the Skull will be free and then Erandur will turn on you."
Have I mentioned how much I dislike being a Daedra's puppet?

Given Erandur's backstory, there was no way I was going to kill him without provocation, especially at the word of one of the more malevolent Daedra.  First, I believed he was trying to help the people of Dawnstar.  Second, he had done significant penance for the crimes in his previous life.  Third, even if he did turn on me, I was confident that I could defeat him.  Therefore, I decided to simply allow Erandur to finish the ritual, then congratulate him on a job well done and leave him to the task of re-dedicating this former Temple of Mara.  He offered his services as a follower, and some day, I might actually take him up on that.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The College of Winterhold

Like that of the Companions, the College of Winterhold questline is best examined as a single unit.  The primary difference between the two is that the College questline is far less morally complex than its more warrior-oriented counterpart.  Because this blog is not meant to be a detailed walkthrough, the lack of a sufficient summary may frustrate those not familiar with the plot; I would direct those readers who have not yet played this questline to the wikis for more a more detailed synopsis.

Of the four moral dilemmas I encountered in the questline, I believe three were unintentional and I decided the sole intentional one long before it officially started.  The intentional dilemma involved Ancano, the Thalmor agent at the College, which explains the ease with which I decided it.  As I had vowed to kill any Thalmor I encountered, the only question for me was that of opportunity.  If I killed him in public, I’d be arrested.  If I assassinated him in private, I might fail the quest and prevent the Archmage from ever getting the Eye of Magnus under control.  I therefore had to bide my time.  Fortunately, I was forced to kill him in the climactic conclusion, so not only did I get to kill a high-ranking Thalmor, but any moral question about killing him was rendered moot by Ancano’s own actions.  The other three dilemmas were more subtle.

The quest called Hitting the Books required me to retrieve several important tomes stolen by a former member of the College.  It quickly became apparent that he had been captured by rogue mages in Fellglow Keep. As I made my through the keep, I found that these mages had not only captured several vampires, but were apparently torturing, dissecting, and experimenting on them -- even caging them and using them for target practice. I am no fan of vampires (see Laid to Rest), but these mages were completely out of line -- not even vampires deserved to be treated like that. When I released one of the vampires, she ran into the next room, attacked the mages there, and was quickly defeated. In one of my more morally questionable decisions, I released the remaining vampires one at a time; they each met the same fate, at which point I was able to easily kill the wounded mages.  By releasing them one at a time, I had given each of them a slim chance at freedom, but to be honest, I did not relish the thought of vengeful vampires running loose throughout Skyrim.  I also decided to kill the "target practice" vampire out of mercy because there was no way to open her cage; leaving her there seemed crueler.

Of course, the one I encountered said, "What do you want, meat," which made my decision a little easier.

At the conclusion of Hitting the Books – a quest in which I had to fight my way through several murderous enemy mages – I encountered the enigmatic Caller, who was in possession of the book I needed.  I successfully Persuaded her to let me take the book and was about to be on my way when a thought occurred: this woman, whose minions not only desecrated a Divine shrine and killed one of the members of the College (Orthorn) while attempting to destroy me, but also were doing vivisections on vampires, was clearly up to no good.  Despite the fact that she was letting me walk away, I felt I had a certain responsibility to eliminate her before she could finish whatever nefarious project she was working on.  Because she was a powerful mage, it was not an easy battle, but I am comfortable with my decision.

Later, during Revealing the Unseen, after I figured out how to control the Dwemer mechanism and displayed the map of Skyrim on the wall, Paratus indicated that he would report my findings to the Synod Council and shut the College down before we could find the Staff of Magnus.  I am ashamed to say that I briefly considered killing him.  I was afraid that his next move would be disastrous, not only to the quest, but also to Tamriel in general, as we were clearly dealing with an extraordinarily powerful artifact.  I could not, however, justify murder, even if it meant disaster for the College.  Fortunately, Paratus's report (if he ever made it) had no effect on the quest; it remains to be seen if there will be any post-quest ramifications.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ill Met By Moonlight

Ill Met By Moonlight is a Daedric quest involving Hircine, the Daedric Prince of the Hunt.  It began in Falkreath, where I met Mathies and Idara, farmers who were grieving the brutal murder of their young daughter.  They tearfully reported that an itinerant laborer on their farm had torn their little girl to pieces, like a wild animal.  That laborer, Sinding, was now in the city jail awaiting trial for his crime.

When I visited Sinding, he admitted both to being a werewolf and to killing the girl, but claimed that her death wasn’t really his fault.  Apparently, in an effort to control his transformations, he stole the Ring of Hircine.  The Daedric Prince, supremely displeased with Sinding’s temerity, cursed the ring so that he was now transforming at random.  It was during one of these random transformations that he killed the little girl.  Before he was arrested, he came to the conclusion that he needed to win back Hircine’s favor by hunting and killing a rare beast – the White Stag.  Obviously, being in jail made his plan untenable, so he asked me to help him by taking the ring and hunting the White Stag for him.

The first moral dilemma was, of course, whether to help Sinding.  Regardless of whether I believed his story or his remorse, he killed a child, so I was not inclined to help.  However, so long as Sinding possessed this ring, he was a threat to everyone, including his jailers, if for no other reason than Hircine would probably not stop until he was satisfied.  Furthermore, Sinding was already incarcerated and would most likely be executed, so there was no need for me to break the law by taking justice into my own hands.

The second dilemma involved the ring itself.  As a werewolf myself, if I took the ring, I would also take on the curse of random transformation.  In my consideration of the Companions questline, I discussed the moral implications of lycanthropy in some detail.  Ultimately, I concluded that being a werewolf in Skyrim is morally neutral because the PC can not only choose when to transform but is also in complete control of his actions when transformed.  If choice is removed but control is retained, as seemed to be the case with the cursed ring, then the issue becomes only slightly more complex.  If I were to transform in the marketplace, for example, I would immediately draw the hostility of every witness, and would therefore have to choose among fighting innocent people, running away as fast as possible, or dying.  Given my previous experiences with Beast Form, decided that it was a calculated risk worth taking.

Once I agreed to take the ring, Sinding did something that, had I anticipated it, would have led me to kill him in his cell, regardless of the legal penalty.  As soon as the ring was in my possession, he transformed voluntarily and escaped out of the hole in the high ceiling of his cell.  The lesson here is that even the most carefully thought-out moral plans can have unintended consequences.

As much as I wanted to hunt Sinding down, I now had to deal with the curse, so I decided that the best course of action would be to hunt the White Stag and get Hircine’s attention as soon as possible.  Fortunately, I completed this stage of the quest quickly, only transforming right after I killed the White Stag out in the wilderness.  Hircine did in fact appear and informed me that Sinding was hiding out in Bloated Man’s Grotto and that he had already sent other hunters after him.  Knowing that the hunters would probably be no match for a desperate werewolf, I headed straight for the Grotto.

When I arrived, I found that my suspicions were correct; Sinding had already killed several of the hunters.  I felt bad about my role in their deaths, but as they were evidently Hircine’s cultists, and therefore a brutal lot to begin with, I did not lose much sleep over it.  I tracked down Sinding, at which point he asked that I let him go.  His plan was to live in the wilderness, far away from innocent people who could be hurt by his Beast Form.  All I would need to do was to kill the remaining hunters.

This third moral crossroads was, despite its climactic nature, the easiest one to navigate.  Sinding had to die; even if I had confidence in his plan (which I didn't), he needed to pay for his crime. As I pointed out earlier, Bethesda is clearly capable of writing an “addiction mechanism” (progressive ability and attribute penalties for non-compliance) for their games, as evidenced by their handling of vampirism. Had they chosen to do so, they could have created a similar system for lycanthropy.  The fact that they didn’t leads me to the conclusion that Sinding’s desperation is purely psychological.  Even Aela, who presents as a bit too enthusiastic about her Beast Form, is always in control, even as a wolf.  Therefore, Sinding’s uncontrollable blood lust is a psychological condition at best, and a manipulative mask for his sociopathology at worst.  To drive this point home even further, I myself transformed before I killed him, thus infusing Sinding’s execution with a touch of poetic justice.

After I killed Sinding, Hircine appeared once again to reward me for a successful hunt; the Daedric Prince gave me enchanted armor made from Sinding’s own skin, which was gruesome and not all that powerful.  The real prize for me was the chance to put down a vicious child-killer.

In my usual post-quest research, I learned that I could have double-crossed Sinding and received two different Daedric artifacts – the aforementioned armor (the Savior’s Skin) as well as the Ring of Hircine, which allows the wearer to transform as often as he wishes.  To gain both prizes, I would have had to agree to help Sinding, kill the remaining hunters, collect the ring from Hircine, then return to kill Sinding and collect the armor.  While I would have had minor qualms about deceiving Sinding (he deserved to face his execution head-on), I would have had a very hard time justifying the killing of the hunters.  As Hircine’s cultists, and therefore big game hunters, they accepted the possibilty of death at the claws of their prey, not murder at the hands of their comrade.  The ring is certainly the better prize, but it was not worth the lives of the hunters.