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!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Diplomatic Immunity

After Unbound, the next several quests in the main questline (Before the Storm, Bleak Falls Barrow, Dragon Rising, The Way of the Voice, The Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, and A Blade in the Dark) may be challenging, but are, for the most part, morally simple.  Diplomatic Immunity, however, presents a few situations that demand real moral agency from the player.

By the time this quest was opened, I had visited the Greybeards and learned how to use the Thu'um (Dreagon Shout), I had demonstrated to Delphine (the barmaid at the Sleeping Giant Inn in Riverwood who, as it turned out, was a member of the Blades, the now-defunct band of elite warriors that had been decimated by the Aldmeri Dominion) that I was indeed Dragonborn, and I had begun to unravel the mystery surrounding the return of the dragons. To that end, Delphine suggested that I should infiltrate the Thalmor Embassy near Solitude in order to find some secret documents that might shed some light on the crisis.

The plan was for me to use a forged invitation to attend one of the Thalmor Ambassador's parties, then slip away to find the documents in question.  I met with Malborn, Delphine's Bosmer "inside man," who promised to smuggle my gear inside (I would be searched before entering the party) and to allow me to sneak out of the party and into the Embassy offices.  All went according to plan; I met Ambassador Elenwen, conversed with a few guests...
Confirmation that the Thalmor are trying to influence Skyrim's internal politics.

Confirmation that the Thalmor are just biding their time.
 ...then noticed Malborn serving drinks at the bar.  He said that as soon as everyone was distracted, he would let me in through the kitchen.  I convinced one of the guests, a pleasant drunkard named Razelan, to create a diversion, and Malborn guided me behind the bar and to my stashed equipment as promised.  It was at this point that things became interesting from a moral perspective.

Once inside the Embassy's offices, I wanted to rely on stealth to avoid contact with the Thalmor guards.  While I had no moral compunctions about killing them (especially after the things I learned while engaging in "small talk" with the party guests), I thought it best to avoid causing an incident.  Unfortunately, I didn't get far before I found myself in pitched battle with several Thalmor soldiers.  Nevertheless, I made my way to Elenwen's private residence, found some of the documents, then proceeded downstairs into an interrogation chamber to find the remaining document.  Once in the interrogation chamber, I killed the Thalmor Interrogator and his guard, then freed the prisoner they were torturing.  When I found the remaining dossier, two more guards entered, Malborn in tow; apparently, his cover had been blown and he was under arrest.

Malborn risked his life for this mission; while I was aware that not all Bosmer supported the Aldmeri Dominion, I had no idea that some were actually willing to undermine it.  Even if Malborn was no longer essential to the mission, I owed it to him to take out the guards and lead him to safety.  Afterwards, Malborn, the prisoner (Etienne Rarnis, a thief with possible connections to the Blades), and I escaped through an underground passage, where I once again had to save Malborn, this time from a troll lying in wait.

The moral dimension of this quest is twofold.  First, I have drawn some very clear lines about who deserves death and who deserves redemption.  I already hated the smug fascist racism of the Thalmor, but the dossiers I recovered proved that my suspicions were right: although the Thalmor were as perplexed by the dragons as we were, they considered Ulfric Stormcloak an "asset" to be exploited for their own ends, encouraging the Nords to spill their own blood in preparation for a renewed offensive against a weakened Empire.  Secondly, while I could have left Malborn and Etienne behind, and it probably would have been easier for me to do so, I felt obligated to save both of them.  Malborn in particular weighed heavily on me because as a Bosmer (and therefore a claimant to the Aldmeri Dominion) he was throwing everything away in order to save the Empire.  Furthermore, the memory of my fatal conflict with Faendal made me especially sensitive to my treatment of his brethren.

Later, after completing a few more quests, I decided to return to the Embassy to loot the bodies of the  Thalmor I was too encumbered to loot the first time.  I had to kill a few more Thalmor outside the Embassy (the checkpoint I passed through as a "party guest"), but once I got inside, I found the place deserted.  I snooped around and found Elenwen all by herself; I suppose she never bothered to replace the soldiers I killed.  I considered klling her right then and there, but thought she might be important later.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

In My Time of Need

In My Time of Need was the quest that originally inspired me to write this blog.  Because of the intricate set-up, high moral stakes, and lack of conclusive information, it presents a very difficult moral dilemma that not only defies easy answers, but also approximates moral dilemmas in the real world (albeit on a grander scale).

For me, the quest began in Whiterun when two Redguards, identifying themselves as Alik'r mercenaries from Hammerfell, requested my help in locating a Redguard woman who was thought to be hiding out somewhere in Whiterun.  The Alik'r themselves could not investigate inside Whiterun for two reasons: first, as per the White-Gold Concordat, Hammerfell is no longer part of the Empire; second, and more directly relevant, one of their number was thrown in jail for trying to sneak into the city.  I agreed to help them find the woman, then went about my business.

While in the Bannered Mare on unrelated business, I noticed Saadia, the Redguard cook.  When I asked her about the Alik'r, she asked to speak to me in private, at which point she pulled a dagger on me.  After calming her down, I listened to her story; she claimed to be Iman, a noblewoman of House Suda and a target of a Thalmor assassination attempt:
Part of Saadia's story.

I didn't know much about politics in Hammerfell, but I did know that the Thalmor were not above fostering in-fighting within another nation, so I was inclined to believe her.  She advised me to speak to the jailed Alik'r to find his leader's whereabouts, which I did.  After I paid his fine (apparently he had been abandoned by his leader, Kematu, for being clumsy enough to get caught), he agreed to help me out.  He told me to look in Swindler's Den, but...
Are the Alik'r noble warriors or ruthless thugs?
Lydia and I made our way to Swindler's Den, and when we arrived, we found a common bandit guarding the entrance.  Once inside, we were met by many more bandits, some of whom proved to be rather difficult to kill.  We also discovered a few bear traps guarding a key passage; so far, Kematu and his merry band were living up to their reputation.

As we were about to pass through the underside of a small waterfall, we heard a conversation in the larger chamber ahead.  I decided that, given the difficulty of our previous encounters in the caves, a sneak attack was in order.  Once we launched the first volley, the Alik'r were all over us, and we couldn't advance past the waterfall, so the battle was fairly chaotic.  Finally, though, I had Kematu on the ropes; when I delivered the final blow, he gasped, "Don't let yourself be fooled by a pretty face again. You're better than that."  I completed the quest by reporting to Saadia that Kematu was dead; she thanked me and rewarded me as promised, and that was the end of this side quest. Some questions, however, remained.

I had been feeling pretty good about my choice to help Saadia until Kematu uttered his last words.  Why would a mercenary or assassin bother saying something like that with his dying breath? Had I, in fact, been manipulated by a damsel in distress? Or was Kematu himself an unwitting pawn of the Thalmor? Now that the quest was complete and my choices set in stone, I could do some research.  After reading a few dozen articles and posts, most of which reflected pre-moral thinking (I betrayed both sides to get both rewards; I sided with Saadia because I wanted to get those Alik'r scimitars; I sided with the Alik'r because I didn't want to bother fighting them; and so on), I found some information that profoundly complicated my views on this mission.

It turns out that the conversation I overheard while hiding behind the waterfall was directed at me; Kematu was directing his Alik'r to hold, and the warrior he was addressing was Yours Truly:
I thought he was talking to one of his own men.
Had I listened to him, Kematu would have told me that "Saadia" was actually a traitor; she apparently sold out her city to the Thalmor during the war, and the royal houses hired Kematu and his men to bring her back  to Hammerfell alive to face her fate.  He then would have asked me to lure her outside the city; had I done so, he would have used a Paralysis spell on her in order to take her back without further incident.  It is therefore possible that I killed several honorable men in order to help a treasonous woman escape justice.

The element that make this quest so challenging to parse from a moral perspective is the lack of information.  Even if I had talked to Kematu, I would still have had the same problem; how could I tell if Kematu was telling the truth?  I had to make a decision without all of the necessary information, and even in retrospect, I still don't have all of the facts that I need to say conclusively whether my actions were morally justified.

For this part of the analysis, it is useful to look at the factors in favor of each side of the dilemma:

Factors in favor of Kematu and the Alik'r:
  • At every stage, these men acted with honor when dealing with me.  They are not immediately hostile, and they do not try to force me to help them.
  • Kematu's story is clear and detailed, while Saadia's is not.
  • Kematu keeps his word about taking Saadia alive.
  • Given that Hammerfell is not friendly with the Thalmor, Saadia's story of being persecuted for speaking out against them seems unlikely.
  • After completing the quest, Saadia seemed a bit, for lack of a better word, cold-hearted.
  • Long after completing this quest, I had a random encounter with two Alik'r questioning a Redguard woman.  They treated her sternly, but once one of them realized that she was not the one they were looking for (i.e. Saadia), they let her go without further incident.  Their behavior suggests men who are sticking to rules and protocols, rather than a band of assassins.
Factors in favor of Saadia:
  • After the Empire abandoned Hammerfell, the Redguards continued to fight the Aldmeri Dominion to a standstill.  They eventually signed the Second Treaty of Stros M'Kai, the conditions of which seem to be unknown outside of Hammerfell.  Given the way the Thalmor have used the White-Gold Concordat to sow discord in Skyrim, it is not unreasonable to assume that they are doing the same in Hammerfell, which has an even more fractured political system.  Therefore, Saadia may be in the same position as a Talos worshipper in Skyrim.
  • While it is true that the Alik'r are not welcome in Whiterun, the fact that they chose to camp in an active bandit hideout runs counter to Kematu's claims of honorable behavior.  He seemed perfectly content to let the bandits kills us, choosing only to speak to me after I had run his gauntlet.
  • Saadia chose to hide out in relatively neutral Whiterun, as opposed to a more Imperial Hold like The Reach, Falkreath, or Haafingar.  These three Holds are closer to Hammerfell geographically, and some of the towns actually have Thalmor representatives.  If Kematu's story were accurate, it would make more sense for Saadia to seek assistance from the Thalmor than to run to a more neutral Hold like Whiterun.
  • If Saadia had indeed sold out the city of Taneth to the Thalmor, it would be reasonable to expect that she would have been rewarded for her betrayal, yet this noblewoman is living as a cook in a mid-range inn.  While it is possible that the Thalmor let her twist in the wind, it would also have made sense for them to reward her and use her as a poster child for allying with the Aldmeri Dominion.
  • Given the craftiness of the Thalmor, it is entirely possible that Kematu's intentions were perfectly honorable, and yet disastrous for Saadia.  Kematu may have led Saadia back to face a fair trial, only to have her summarily executed at the border by Thalmor Justicars or a rival royal house.
Other contributing factors:
  • While I completely misunderstood Kematu's dialogue, and probably should have asked questions  before trying a sneak attack, I had come to expect a vicious attack around every corner of Swindler's Den -- a situation Kematu had set up himself.
  • The captured Alik'r paints a portrait of Kematu and his men as a band of killers, which confirmed Saadia's assessment of them.
  • The two original Alik'r who initiated the quest are still hanging out at Whiterun's front gate.  This is most likely a glitch, but the fact that they are still there and still polite paints a picture of the Alik'r as honorable men.  I feel a pang of guilt every time I pass them and they ask, "Need something?"
While these factors are all valid considerations, I also have to take into account my personal, less-than-rational leanings:
  • A group of well-armed, well-trained, government-hired mercenaries are sent to track down one woman -- a woman who, despite threatening me with a dagger, poses no significant physical danger.  She claims to be running because she spoke up against a powerful group that I already dislike.  Even if I had listened to Kematu, I would probably still have sided with the "dissident" rather than trying to capture the "traitor."
  • If I'm being completely honest, I tend to fall for the "damsel in distress" routine all too often, both in gaming and in the real world.  In this particular case, I think I considered allowing a "defenseless" woman to be victimized less tolerable than killing a group of warriors who might turn out to be honorable after all.
Ultimately, it seems that there is no way to know which of the two main paths of this quest is the more justifiable one.  Because of this uncertainty, In My Time of Need mimics several real-world scenarios in which useful intelligence is lacking.  For example, what are we to do with an asylum-seeker who claims to be a political refugee, but whose government claims is a dangerous criminal, when we can't get sufficient information from the government in question?  While others might find this kind of quest frustratingly abstruse, I appreciate its lack of clarity as an in-game picture of problems that are all-too-real outside the game.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hired Muscle/The Blessings of Nature

Because Lothar is first and foremost a warrior, I began the Companions questline fairly early in the game, but because it is a rather morally complex story, I did not finish it until recently.  The first of these, after Take Up Arms (which is short and straightforward), is Hired Muscle, in which Farkas instructs the PC to intimidate a random NPC who has committed some kind of minor infraction.  The quest is rigged, however, so that intimidation is impossible, and brawling is the only available method for completing the quest.  This situation may seem difficult for a "good" PC like mine, but it helps to remember two important facts:
  1. In a warrior culture like Skyrim's, brawling is only slightly more serious than harsh language.
  2. All adults in Skyrim, including senior citizens, are passable fighters.  See 1. above.
Furthermore, immediately after I beat up Danica Pure-Spring, Priestess of Kynareth (who got in a few good shots of her own, I might add), she dusted herself off, agreed to stop whatever it was she was doing wrong (never did find out what that was all about), and offered me a quest.  Apparently, the Gildergreen, which is the large tree in the center of Whiterun, was dying.  It could be revived with the sap of the ancient Eldergleam tree, which could only be obtained by cutting the latter with a mystical dagger known as Nettlebane.  Consequently, the quest had two stages: get Nettlebane and use it to collect Eldergleam sap.

The first stage was rather cut-and-dry.  Nettlebane was in the clutches of a Hagraven coven.  Because Hagravens and their followers are almost always hostile, there is rarely a question of killing them.  Furthermore, they seem to delight in dismembering and sacrificing other creatures, including humans, game animals, and Spriggans (a kind of woodland guardian spirit):
A Hagraven

Once my housecarl Lydia and I recovered Nettlebane, we returned to Danica, who then instructed us to go to the Eldergleam Sanctuary.  Along for this part of the journey was Maurice Jondrelle, a pilgrim.  I did not entirely trust this NPC, but I also suspected that he might play a role later in the quest.

I was wrong on both counts.  On the way to the sanctuary, our merry little band encountered several random hostiles such as wolves and frostbite spiders; in each encounter, Maurice displayed a disturbing habit of rushing into battle armed with only his clothes and a woodcutter's axe.  Unlike other followers, he wouldn't take other equipment nor would he wait where he was told.  When the dragon attacked in the middle of our fight with a pack of wolves, I did my best to watch out for Maurice, but even with Lydia dispatching several of the wolves herself, I couldn't prevent poor, brave, stupid Maurice from rushing the dragon with his garden implement.
R.I.P., Maurice.

This was the first time I lost an ally in battle, and even though Maurice was useless, I still felt as though I had failed.  I had a moral obligation to protect the pilgrim in spite of his own foolishness, but I had simply been overwhelmed. Perhaps if I had focused more attention on shielding Maurice and less on defeating the foe, he might have survived.

Once we arrived at the sanctuary, I was presented with another dilemma.  In order to obtain the sap from the trunk of the Eldergleam, I needed to cut some of its roots out of my path.  The Eldergleam, as I quickly learned, was protected by Spriggans, with whom I was sympathetic after seeing how the Hagravens treat them.  However, because what I was doing was, in fact, an act of violence against the Eldergleam, they attacked me.  To further complicate matters, the Gildergreen is a sappling that was taken from the older tree many years ago.  Therefore, in order to preserve the descendent of the Eldergleam, I had to fight my way through the tree's noble protectors.  I reluctantly chose to proceed, my reason being that the Spriggans were acting on instinct and could not be reasoned with.  Had I been able to Persuade them that I was actually doing a good thing, I would have.  Instead, I had to destroy them in order to complete the quest.
Spriggans defending their turf.

After I returned to Danica and watched her heal the Gildergleam, I reflected on the quest -- and did a little research on the wikis.  Maurice, as it turns out, would have solved my dilemma, had he lived.  If he makes it to the sanctuary, he tells you to put Nettlebane away and beseeches the Eldergleam to present a new sapling, thereby avoiding the offense to the Spriggans.  If I had been more careful to protect Maurice from himself, the Eldergleam Spriggans would still be alive.  I also wonder if I could have avoided conflict by using Battle Cry (or another Fear type of enchantment), Invisibility, or even a well-timed FUS-RO-DAH to get away from the Spriggans without destroying them.

Both alternatives described above would have required me to rise above the hack-and-slash rut that many of the warrior-oriented quests engender.  When battle skills are your main asset, you begin to see every challenge as a battle.  Would I have made the same decisions if were playing a PC more in the Thief or Mage playstyle, in which stealth and ingenuity, rather than raw combat, are the valued attributes?  In other words, would I have been more likely to make a better moral decision if I had proceeded more thoughtfully?

Laid to Rest

After A Lovely Letter and the ensuing Faendal fiasco, I completed a number of quests that, while important, offered few moral conflicts apart from the standard issues – accepting versus refusing a quest to help someone, or fighting a monster versus allowing others to do the work.  I traveled to Whiterun, meet Jarl Balgruuf, fought my first dragon, and learned that I was the Dragonborn.  I cleared out a few bandit camps and even ran a few errands for the good people of Whiterun; one of my favorites involved my housecarl Lydia and I hunting mammoths in order to get some tusks for the merchant Ysolda.  I even managed to become a Thane of Whiterun and purchase a house – worthwhile endeavors all, but very few moral dilemmas.

I then travelled to the miasmic town of Morthal in Hjaalmarch Hold on my way to complete the quest The Horn of Jurgen Windcaller for the Greybeards.  As I nosed around the town, I met several townspeople who eagerly shared the gossip about Hroggar shacking up with Alva after the mysterious house fire that killed Hroggar's wife and their daughter, Helgi.  When I approached Jarl Idgrod Ravencrone about the matter (as the townsfolk suggested), she confessed that she suspected Alva of wrongdoing, but could do nothing without solid evidence, so she tasked me with investigating the burned-out house.  Shortly after I got there, Helgi's ghost appeared and asked me to come back to play hide and seek with her after dark, my reward being the identity of the arsonist.
This moment both broke my heart and signed the arsonist's death warrant.
I complied, explored the hillside behind the house, and ended up surprising and killing a vampire at Helgi's exhumed shallow grave.  The vampire, Helgi informed me, was Laelette, a former townsperson.  Apparently, Laelette set the fire intending to kill Helgi and her mother, but at the last minute, decided to try to turn Helgi instead, as a kind of surrogate daughter; she failed, but kept trying anyway -- hence the open grave.  Laelette's husband, Thonnir, showed up almost immediately, but instead of attacking me for killing his wife, he tearfully filled me in on another part of the story; when Alva came to town, she struck up an overbearing relationship with Laelette, who grew more distant from her husband, eventually disappearing to "join the resistance" one night, when she said she was going to meet up with Alva. 

As it turned out, I had already met Alva outside the inn earlier in the evening, as I was waiting to "play hide and seek" with Helgi.  She had initially struck me as a heartless golddigger who felt little more than disdain for the people of this small town; needless to say, I didn't like her.
Alva becomes the prime suspect.
After I heard Thonnir's story, I walked back to town, snuck up on Alva (who was still wandering around in the moonlight) and pickpocketed her house key.  Fortunately, Hroggar was asleep; if Alva was indeed a vampire, Hroggar was most likely enthralled, and I didn't want to have to fight him.  Once in her house, I found her cellar, which featured an unoccupied coffin containing Alva's journal:
Looks like Alva was as much a pawn as Laelette.

I now had the evidence the Jarl needed.  As I was ransacking the rest of the basement lair, Alva returned.  Killing her was a foregone conclusion; she caught me in her lair stealing her journal, so she was hostile, but I would have killed her anyway for what she had done.  The rest of the quest proceeded as one would expect.  I delivered the journal to the Jarl, who then asked me to track down and kill Movarth.  The townspeople wanted to help, but I assured them that my partner Uthgerd and I could handle it ourselves.  In a short raid, we killed Movarth and his little vampire clan.

At first blush, the moral element to this quest seems obvious.  Anyone who murders a child needs to die as soon as possible; someone who would turn that child into a vampire is even more deserving of death, although the fact that all of the vampires in this quest were immediately hostile makes that latter point moot.  Another potential conflict could have been the Jarl's insistence on hard evidence -- a policy I certainly agreed with.  Had the evidence not satisfied her, however, I still would have killed those responsible.

The troubling figure for me in this quest was Hroggar.  While he played a significant role in the death of his family, he was clearly under the influence of something far more powerful than simple lust.  I suppose I would have killed him if he had got in the way of dispatching Alva, but I was happy that I could avoid that circumstance.  He wasn't happy with me after I killed his "girlfriend," but I'm not sure if a full realization of his role in this tragic episode would be the best thing for him to carry in his head.  It's probably best that I didn't have the option of telling him.

This quest also represents my first encounters with vampires.  This point is significant because vampires, unlike other undead, are NPCs; vampirism is treated as a disease, so characters, including the PC, can contract it.  Because vampires are NPCs, they may or may not be hostile at any given time.  Alva, for example, only attacked when I discovered her secret.  The question, therefore, is: what should I do with non-hostile vampires?  They have to feed on NPCs regularly in order to survive, but the feeding process does not kill nor does it transmit the disease.  Some vampires are actively hostile and live in hideouts strewn with dead bodies and other carrion, while some appear to be functional citizens who simply mutter "Get out of my way, meat" when you approach them.

I have decided to adopt a non-aggression policy with vampires; I do not attack them unless they are hostile (unlike the Thalmor), but I also do not step in to save them from peril (unlike other NPCs).  I don't like vampires, and I have yet to encounter a vampire that wasn't "up to something," but I also can't justify wiping them out at every turn.  Perhaps my stance will change with the Dawnguard add-on.

ADDENDUM: Other players have reported that if Alva is not killed before the raid on Movarth, she will show up in Movarth's lair and might actually join the PC in fighting the other vampires.  Another scenario has Alva's body being found with Movarth, presumably killed by him and his clan.  These "alternate endings" for Alva's story might initially seem to have an impact on the moral validity of killing her -- perhaps she is as unwitting a dupe as Hroggar was -- but on closer consideration, my original assessment stands:
  1. If Alva was indeed enthralled, she would not have turned on Movarth.
  2. Alva's dialogue indicates clear, cold calculation, as opposed to Hroggar's, which is bewildered and dazed.
  3. Alternate motives for Alva to turn on Movarth include, but are not limited to, a desire to take over Morthal for herself instead of turning it over to Movarth.
  4. If Alva survives the entire quest, she reportedly goes back to her original pattern of sleeping in the coffin and roaming at night; were she truly remorseful, I would expect her to cure her vampirism (which is relatively easy to do).
Therefore, Alva still deserves to die for suborning the murders of Hroggar's wife and child.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Lovely Letter

After surviving Helgen, I took Hadvar's suggestion and made my way to Riverwood.  Upon entering the town, I met Sven, who told me all about his rivalry with Faendal for Camilla Valerius's affections.  I don't know whether it was because Sven was a fellow Nord, a very charming bard, or just the first friendly face I'd seen since Hadvar and I split up, but I liked him right away, and wanted to help.  I agreed to take his fake letter from Faendal to Camilla; it might be an act of deception, but all's fair, etc.  Very soon after meeting Sven, I ran into Faendal.  During my conversation with him, I was given the option of telling him about Sven's fake letter.  I didn't like the idea of lying to his face, so I chose to rat out Sven.

Obviously, there are several inconsistencies in my approach here.  I was comfortable enough with delivering the fake letter to Camilla, but not with hiding it from Faendal.  I agreed to help Sven, but then betrayed him fairly quickly.  Honestly, having just escaped an unjust execution, a surprise dragon attack, a bandit raid, and a pack of wolves, I wasn't really invested in what seemed like a high school love triangle.  Given the seemingly low stakes, I decided to be helpful and honest, even if these ideas contradicted each other at the next turn.

After informing Faendal of Sven's plan, Faendal asked me to deliver his own fake letter from Sven, hoping to turn the tables on his Nord rival.  My next task was to deliver the new fake letter to Camilla, but when I opened dialogue with her, my two options were to give her the letter, which was marked as "Lie," or tell her that the letter was a fake, written by Faendal to trick her.  I chose the latter, which turned Camilla against Faendal and toward Sven -- so, I ended up helping him after all.  [Interestingly, I was not given the option to expose both of them, although some players report that such a result is possible when you reject both men's requests then report to Camilla.]  When I reported back to Sven, he gave me some money and offered his services as a follower.  My further interactions with Faendal were less pleasant ("You want to talk to me?  After everything you've done?"), although I could still pay him for archery training.

As I reflected on this side quest, I realized a few unpleasant things.  Despite the fact that my actions were guided by a combination of apathy and a desire to be consistent in my responses, I was glad that I had sided with Sven.  He was a fellow Nord who lived with his mom while getting his bard career up and running.  Faendal was a wood elf with, to my ears, a minor superiority complex.  He called Riverwood "agreeable enough...for a Nord village," and was, in fact, fairly dismissive of all things Nord:

I didn't like Faendal, but I'm not sure how much of my dislike was due to his haughtiness and how much was owed to my own prejudice.  Not all Bosmer support the Thalmor, but Valenwood is a key part of the Aldmeri Dominion, so I was a bit suspicious of him to begin with.  Still, it was a low-impact side quest, so I didn't give it much thought afterward.

A few quests later, I began to feel the literal cost of living in Skyrim more acutely.  Aside from employing Sven as a pack mule to carry out the loot from the dungeons I had cleared (I let him keep some for himself as payment), I looked for alternate ways to earn money and find valuable items.  After hearing Faendal sneer at me for the umpteenth time, I decided pickpocket his house key and go to his home while he was out. As an accomplished hunter, he had amassed some valuable booty.  I managed to rationalize my theft of a few choice items by reminding myself what a jerk Faendal was to me and my Riverwood friend; he needed to be taken down a peg.

Not too long after I burglarized Faendal's house (without being caught, I should add), three thugs ambushed me as I left the Sleeping Giant Inn.  After defeating them, I discovered a contract one of them carried which read: "Here is the agreed upon amount. I expect you to faithfully carry out my request to teach a lesson to the thief Lothar Ironfoot. You need not kill him, but I have no qualms about it if you deem it necessary.
-- Faendal."  The Wood Elf had put a hit on me for some petty theft and, I suspected, ruining his chances with Camilla.  He chose not to confront me face-to-face nor to call the authorities, but rather to hire goons to take me out.  I could not let this stand.

I approached Faendal, but he said nothing about the contract, preferring his usual, brusque comment about "what you've done."  I paid him to train me in Archery, then plotted my next move.  I couldn't fight him in broad daylight, because I'd end up with a bounty and perhaps have to go to jail, so I waited for nightfall.  Around 2 A.M., while the Divines-fearing people of Riverwood slept, I snuck into Faendal's house, killed him in his sleep, and stole back some of my money. My second murder was even less defensible than the first.

It's not so much that I regret killing Faendal; he had tried to have me killed, and could well have done so again. It's not even the manner of his death that bothers me; there was no way I was going to jail for killing the elf who put a hit on me. What still sticks in my craw are the events leading up to killing him. Stealing Faendal's stuff was childish and petty -- not an act worthy of my background nor my aspirations. Had I just put up with Faendal's petulance, he would still be alive. A side quest involving a run-of-the-mill love triangle ended with a Bosmer's death, all because I was hard up for cash and couldn't let go of a slight. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Unbound is the first quest available in Skyrim, and as it is a tutorial as well, comes the closest to being mandatory.  It begins after the player creates and names the PC, as is mostly cinematic at first.  The PC watches a couple of executions helplessly before being called to the chopping block.  As the Imperial Executioner readies his halberd, a dragon attacks out of nowhere, and all hell breaks loose.  At this point, the player can now control the PC's actions.  Much of this quest involves survival and learning basic gameplay control, so there is little to engage one's moral agency, but the PC does have to make a choice early on that has some impact on the rest of the game.

As I ran from the dragon's attack on Helgen, I was assisted by two NPCs: Ralof, one of the Stormcloaks who was to be executed along with me, and Hadvar, the Nord Imperial who asked me my name earlier.  Ralof helped me escape the courtyard immediately after the dragon attacked, and after we got separated, Hadvar ran into me and told me to follow him to (relative) safety.  Hadvar and I then ran into Ralof and a couple of Stormcloaks, at which point the two adversarial NPCs argued briefly about which one of them I should follow to safety.
Hadvar has his priorities straight; Ralof does not.
This moment provides the first real choice (apart from character creation) in the game.  Both NPCs helped me, so I owe both of them my life, and at this point, it is unclear which side of the civil war is in the right.  The Empire uses draconian measures to keep the peace -- executing a horse thief and a trespasser along with actual rebel soldiers, but Ulfric Stormcloak outright murdered the High King and has thrown Skyrim into chaos.  For me, the choice came down to first impressions of each side's representative.  While Ralof did help me, he seemed to frame everything in terms of the rebellion; for example, he looked at the dragon attack primarily as our chance to escape Imperial execution.  Additionally, when Hadvar and I met up with him, his dialogue indicates that, even in this situation, he prioritized his cause over the situation at hand.  Hadvar, on the other hand, seemed to place the safety of others over everything, including his sworn duty to the Empire.  When I lost Ralof, I encountered Hadvar protecting a child from the dragon's rampage.  He then looked at me, a prisoner of the Empire and slated for execution, and told me to follow him to safety.  Furthermore, I recalled that his interactions with me before the execution were sympathetic, as though he were genuinely sorry for the predicament I was in (I later learned that his dialogue, while tailored for each race the player might choose, is always sympathetic; therefore, Hadvar is also racially tolerant, unlike most Stormcloaks).  Hadvar struck me as the more noble character, so I followed him.

Hadvar led me into Helgen Keep and allowed me to raid the armory for Imperial weapons, armor, and supplies -- again, placing my safety above the current political conflict.  When we encountered a group of Stormcloaks hiding in the keep, he offered them mercy in light of the immediate crisis, which they violently refused, so we fought with them and killed them.  As we continued along the escape route, he continued to "show me the ropes," and when we finally made it out of Helgen, he offered to put me up at his Uncle Alvor's house in Riverwood.  After this first adventure, I was definitely predisposed to favoring them Empire, if this is the kind of man they produce.

The reality, of course, is that most of these events would have unfolded in Ralof's company as well, since Unbound is a tutorial quest; Ralof would have helped me just as much, the Imperial soldiers would probably not have offered mercy (so that I could practice my combat skills), and I would have stayed with Ralof's relatives in Riverwood.  The difference is that these actions mean more coming from Hadvar; he could have faced serious consequences for helping me escape (although, to be fair, Hadvar's commanding officer, General Tulius, yelled, "Run, you idiot!" to me during my escape), whereas Ralof was already a dead man with nothing to lose by helping me.

The Hadvar/Ralof choice, however, was not the most morally interesting conflict.  During our escape from Helgen Keep, we ran through a torture chamber, occupied by the Imperial Torturer and his assistant.  The presence of these elements on the side I had chosen really disturbed me; to his credit, Hadvar seemed to dislike the torturer as well.  Still, Hadvar tried to get both the torturer and his assistant to follow us to safety, but the old man refused to believe that a dragon had attacked, prefering to remain with his "work."  After Hadvar and the assistant left the room, I was alone with the torturer.  I don't think the game designers intended this moment to be the first real moral conflict in the game because there are no quest markers or in-game messages about it, but I could not bear to let the torturer live, even if killing him would constitute murder.
Letting this guy live would have been a mistake.
I was barely halfway through the first quest, and I had become an NPC's judge, jury, and executioner -- just minutes after I had escaped my own execution.  Moreover, I was calculating enough to make sure that Hadvar and the assistant got far enough ahead of me that they wouldn't know what I had done.  I think I was less afraid of the actual consequences and more worried that Hadvar would be disappointed in me.  To make matters worse, I have to admit to being relieved when the assistant died in the next skirmish with the Stormcloaks; he was certainly less vile than the old man, but he had presumably participated in the same kinds of activities, so I was not sad to see him go down.

In completing the first quest, I had already displayed some fascinating and conflicting behavior.  I decided whom to follow based on issues of honor and mercy, but soon found myself assassinating an Imperial officer I had deemed too twisted to live.  After leaving Helgen and making my way to Riverwood, my moral profile would become even more complicated.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Story So Far

My interest in TES V: Skyrim began when I caught the live-action trailer:

It had a been a while since a video game commanded my attention (Minecraft), but Skyrim promised the kind of in-game storytelling that I love, in a fantasy setting reminiscent of the AD&D campaigns of my youth.  My long-suffering and ever-generous wife bought me the Xbox version for Christmas, and I have been playing consistently since then.

In a previous post, I established the importance of plot and backstory in my approach to gaming.  The conventions of fiction are important enough to me that I will "fill in the blanks" if a game does not provide a rich enough storyline.  When playing Street Fighter II, for example, I amused myself by inventing a plot arc for each character that not only explained his or her ending but also how each battle leads up to that ending: Blanka's search for his mother takes him from Brazil to the Soviet Union, where he is captured and must fight his way out of the gulag in order to find the next clue, and so on.  From the trailer alone, I could tell that Skyrim offered the fictional elements that make playing a game worthwhile for me.

As in TES titles, the PC starts out as a prisoner, which places the character in the position of an anonymous outsider.  As Skyrim begins, you wake up on a cart, being transported to your execution.  Through conversation with the other “passengers,” you learn that with civil war looming, the Empire is taking no chances with strangers crossing the border into Skyrim.  In fact, the gagged figure to your left is none other than Ulfric Stormcloak himself, who killed High King Torygg then escaped from Solitude, the seat of power in Skyrim’s Haafingar Hold.  Also in the cart is another Stormcloak rebel and a common thief; the fact that all of you face the death penalty throws into high relief the draconian nature of Imperial justice, and sets up the first major choice point in the game.  As you are led off the cart, Nord Legionnaire Hadvar asks you for your name; it is at this point that you create your character.  Given that fact that you will soon discover that your PC is none other than the long-anticipated Dragonborn (“Dovahkiin” in dragon tongue) – a mortal with the soul of a dragon – it is noteworthy that this messianic figure could be a mortal of any race or gender; it also means that the game leaves the Dragonborn's backstory as open as it does the race, gender, and name.

Given my penchant for storytelling in games, it should come as no surprise that character creation took me quite a while.  As I often do, I created an avatar that depicts an idealized version of myself, this time inserted into the TES context. I made him a Nord because I wanted my PC to face internal conflict with regard to the civil war.  I named him Lothar Ironfoot, which reflects a hodgepodge of influences.  "Lothar" is a Germanic name meaning "famous warrior," but it is also an homage to one of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches, Lothar of the Hill People.  "Ironfoot" is a surname that uses the Nord kenning-like patronym tradition (Battle-Born, Snow-Shod, Stonearm, etc.) to suggest a wanderer, which fits the PC's opening "crime."  Lothar's backstory is that his parents were both Nords in the Imperial Legion who died in the Battle of the Red Ring when he was a young boy (which makes him about 30 when the game starts).  After the death of his parents, he was raised by an old Imperial blacksmith, a friend of his parents (I retconned this part after meeting Alvor and deciding to level up in Smithing first).  When his surrogate father passed away, Lothar, now a teenager with no family and no further ties to Cyrodiil, began to make his way in the world as an wanderer, doing odd jobs here and there.  Eventually, he decided to "return" to his parents' homeland, which leads to the conditions and the start of the game.

I was a good way into to Skyrim before I decided to conduct a coherent study of moral agency in the game, so most of the posts will discuss quests I have already completed.  At this writing, Lothar has reached level 44, and my style of play has favored the Warrior skill type, with my work in the Mage skill set focusing on Destruction and Enchanting, and my work in the Thief set empasizing Sneak and Alchemy.  I am a little more than halfway done with the main questline, but I recently completed the Companions questline, and have begun the Imperial Legion, Bards College, College of Winterhold, and Thieves Guild questlines, going back to each occasionally.

Although this study is not meant to be a "novelization" of my gameplay (a surprisingly popular form of fan fiction), there are some narrative elements extant in my treatment of moral agency in the game.  I have organized the relevant quests in a rough chronological order, so a kind of plot might well develop, but this effect is mostly unintentional.  Therefore, I will begin my account with the quest entitled Unbound.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Rules of Engagement

In order to maximize my engagement with the story and optimize my role as a moral agent, I have developed a handful of rules to guide this playthrough.  They are divided into two groups, gameplay and moral, and are more descriptive than prescriptive; I follow them most of the time, and indicate in my posts instances in which I deviate from them significantly.

Gameplay Rules
  1. Limited use of the save-reload: The ability to endlessly reload takes away the sense of consequence and permanence required in order to act fully as a moral agent.  Although I am an obsessive saver, I try not to reload except under the following conditions:
    1. PC death: Obviously, if the PC dies permanently, the game is over, which defeats the purpose of this whole project.  Moreover, the game reloads automatically from the last save point anyway.
    2. Quest failure: If I fail a major quest objective through ineptitude (rather than by choice), I will reload.  I am interested in decision-making, and quest failure tends to cut off the sequence of decisions.
    3. Negative outcomes due to experimentation: At one point, while I was overburdened with loot, I dawdled at a Word Wall while trying to figure out how to get down the steps and back to my horse.  When I finally stopped fooling around, dropped the extra loot, and found my horse, I discovered that a pair of sabre cats had already killed him.  Because the horse's death was a direct result of a gameplay failure (wasting time trying to overcome the encumbrance system) and not a result of a PC decision or failure, I felt justified in reloading, heading down the hill at my normal rate, and arriving in time to save my horse.  Later in the game, the same horse died during a Forsworn ambush; there were no extraordinary gameplay issues and I fought in my normal manner, so I did not reload, and had to obtain a new horse.
  2. Limited use of the wikis: Wikis, while helpful, tend to act as spoilers.  In order to make real decisions, I'd rather not know what the "right" answer is (if one even exists) until after the fact.  Furthermore, as a stranger in Skyrim, my PC probably would not have access to encyclopedic sources, so it seems more immersive for me to limit my access as well.  After I complete a quest, however, I do explore the relevant articles to find out what I may have missed.
Moral Rules:
  1. Killing: In a combat-based game, violence is the norm, so most of the in-game ethical dilemmas will involve decisions about whom to kill:
    1. Hostiles: In most battles, Skyrim does not offer a "subdue" option, so I feel justified in killing any creature or NPC that attacks me without provocation.  This has led me into some troubling situations, such as killing members of the Forsworn or the Afflicted, even though I'd really rather not.
    2. Unsuspecting "bad guys": Bandits prey on the innocent and necromancers are always involved in some kind of abomination -- not to mention the fact that both groups always attack me on sight.  Therefore, sneak attacks on these types of groups are usually justified.
    3. Wild game animals: While I don't typically go out of my way to hunt, non-hostile wild animals drop valuable resources (hides, meat, petty souls), so as long as an animal isn't owned by an NPC, I feel justified in "harvesting" deer, goats, foxes, rabbits, and fish.
    4. Thalmor agents: Although I haven't finished the main questline yet, I'm reasonably certain that the Thalmor are the root cause of Skyrim's problems, including the dragon attacks and the civil war.  Even if Thalmor agents don't attack me first, I still feel that their machinations are destructive enough to justify my killing them.  Also, if I'm being honest with myself, their outright sneering racism and gleeful repression of Talos worshippers makes killing them more of a pleasure than a chore.  Perhaps I should feel more conflicted on this one, but I don't.
    5. Vampires: Most undead (draugr, skeletons, and zombies) fall into the "hostiles" category, but vampires are a bit different.  First, even though they are considered "undead" for purposes of undead-related spells and weapons, they are actually NPCs suffering from a disease rather than mindless automata.  Secondly, the ones I have encountered so far are all classically villianous and usually carrying out some kind of larger plot (see the post on Laid to Rest).  Therefore, my general policy is to kill them when possible, but there are some limits (see the post on Hitting the Books).  Obviously, the Dawnguard questline, once I start it, will affect my views on this category.
    6. "Special Cases": There are a few situations, such as the random encounter the Old Orc, in which killing is uniquely appropriate.  The Old Orc wishes to die honorably, so he asks if I will help him by fighting him to the death.  I have no quarrel with him, but because he clearly wishes to die with honor, killing him in battle is justified (and perhaps even virtuous, from the orc's standpoint).
  2. Stealing vs. Taking: The game draws a clear distinction between stealing and taking by indicating items that can be legally taken with a white "Take" caption and those that cannot with a red "Steal" caption.  Stolen items can only be sold to the fences who work with the Thieves Guild, and a bounty is incurred if anyone witnesses the theft.  The game mechanics, however, do not cover the full range of possibilities:
    1. Stealing from enemies: Stealing from an NPC I feel justified in killing seems to be likewise justified.
    2. Stealing from neutral NPCs: I try to avoid this unless it is necessary, such as completing a quest that helps to prevent a greater evil.  To be honest, the NPC's disposition toward me matters more than I can morally justify; if NPCs are rude or dismissive, I feel less guilty about stealing from them.
    3. Stealing from friends or allies: There must be a very compelling reason for me to do this.  As far as I can recall, I have not stolen from a friendly NPC.
    4. Taking from enemies: Obviously, if I am comfortable stealing from a live enemy, looting from a dead one is justified as well.
    5. Taking from neutrals, friends, and allies: This category varies greatly from instance to instance.  In some cases, friendly NPCs directly offer some of their belongings, so there is no moral conflict apart from a minor misgiving that I might be taking advantage of a friend's generosity.  In other cases, even though an item is marked "Take," it seems more like stealing. 
    6. Taking from barrows, burial chambers, etc.: Dungeons full of draugr often contain valuable loot, but the lore suggests that these items were left in honor of the dead buried there.  I routinely take these items.  Even though I am trying to play a religiously orthodox PC, I find it hard to justify leaving useful items in a tomb.  Furthermore, these places have already been desecrated, as evidenced by the presence of the draugr themselves.
    7. Taking from shrines and temples: My behavior in these places depends almost entirely on the focus of worship.  Although religious tolerance is a virtue, most of the Daedra are nefarious entities, and their followers likewise, so I have little problem ransacking their unholy places.  Sites devoted to the Divines, however, I generally respect.
  3. Other NPC interactions: Although most game time is spent exploring and fighting, dialogue with NPCs is a major component of Skyrim, so a few guidelines are in order:
    1. Response options: When given a choice among responses, I usually choose the most polite and respectful option.  It seems to make little difference to gameplay, and it is in keeping with the kind of PC I am trying to run.
    2. Miscellaneous quests: When an NPC asks me to complete a miscellaneous quest, I usually accept, unless the quest goes directly against my own sense of right and wrong.  Again, I want to run a beneficent PC, so helping the citizens of Skyrim whenever possible makes sense.  This habit sometimes leads me to have too many open quests -- a problem I usually have in the real world as well.
    3. Persuade/Intimidate/Brawl/Bribe/Lie: In some interactions I am required to convince NPC to do things they'd rather not do.  I usually try to Persuade, but if that fails, I might chose to Intimidate or Brawl (if available); violence or the open threat of violence seems slightly more honorable than the more underhanded Bribe or Lie option.  It may seem strange to prefer the violent options over bribery, but since virtue in this setting comes from valor and honor, beating up an NPC feels less "evil" than paying him to do something he shouldn't do.  Still, I would not be eager to defend this point in a debate.
    4. Hold Guards: I try to avoid incurring bounties, but when I am stopped by Hold Guards, I will typically try to talk my way out of getting arrested (using my status as Thane, if applicable).  Failing that, I will pay the bounty.  With one quest-related exception, I have not yet been arrested; if I were to be arrested, I would not resist.  Since I am playing a mostly Lawful Good kind of PC, fighting with the guards is hard to justify.
As I mentioned the the beginning of this post, these rules are not the Ten Commandments; I have broken most of these at some point. In fact, I would argue that the instances in which I have deviated from these guidelines have provided some of the most morally compelling moments of my gameplay.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Note on Person and Persona

The conventions of writing about video games are still being codified, so some explanation of my use of the point of view in this study is in order.

When discussing the game in general, external terms, I tend to use the third person to refer to the player, as in “the player is required to choose a race for his character” or “the player may want to save her perk choice until later.”  I usually switch genders in order to avoid both the sexism of using one gender over the other and the inelegance of “his/her.”  I also use third person to refer to my PC from an external player perspective: “I chose a stockier body type for him because I thought it fit my warrior-oriented gameplay.”

When describing general in-game events that are not part of my own gameplay, I most often use the second person, as in “in order to join the Legion, you have to prove yourself on a solo quest.”  The inclusiveness and informality of the second person works well in these cases.

When narrating my own playthrough, I use first person almost exclusively, as in “I attacked the troll with a war axe.”  I find that trying to maintain the third person, which would otherwise be appropriate for this kind of storytelling, both tedious and contrary to my project of discussing moral agency.  “I chose to join the Legion” is more active and concise than “I chose to have Lothar join the Legion.”

As with all of my guidelines, stylistic or otherwise, I am sure I have deviated from these several times already.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Skyrim as a Moral Setting

Despite the very real differences between religious faiths, most moral systems in the everyday world are very different from in-game morality, largely because of the kinds of challenges presented to the players.  Mercy and compassion are core values of most modern religions, but they have no place in chess, in which deception and ruthlessness are celebrated.  This does not mean that chess is immoral; it means that the moral code of chess is appropriate for the game, but not necessarily for daily life.  Likewise, the moral environment of an RPG is best evaluated within the context of the fictional world it creates

Fantasy RPGs tend to take place in Iron/Middle Age settings, in which violence is a daily occurrence.  Skyrim, because it cribs so extensively from Beowulf and the Poetic Edda, occurs in an Anglo-Saxon/Viking moral setting; valor in battle and personal loyalty are more important than mercy, and cowardice is considered worse than assault in most cases. Some NPCs, like Uthgerd the Unbroken, cannot be recruited as followers or approached as potential spouses until the PC brawls with them. fistfights aside, all other battles are to the death. If an opponent's health drops low enough during a (non-brawl) fight, he might cry "Mercy," but as soon as the PC stops attacking, the opponent will resume fighting once his health regenerates.  Conversely, the PC can yield during a battle, but only Hold guards will accept the gesture; all other enemies will continue attacking.  Most quests cannot be completed without killing at least a few enemies.  While Skyrim allows room for finishing some quests successfully without actual combat (through sneaking, speech, or fear spells), a truly pacifist PC would be excluded from most quests, and main questline in particular.

However, even though mortal combat is commonplace in Skyrim, the game still forbids certain kinds of violence.  Children, for example, cannot be harmed by the PC; if the player attacks a child, other NPCs will immediately turn on the PC, but a health meter will not appear above the child; in other words, attacking a child leads to instant punishment, despite the fact the child literally cannot be harmed.  The game has a different, but just as effective, way to discourage violence against women.  All adult NPCs are capable of attack, most are armed at all times, and there is no difference between men and women in battle statistics.  Therefore, if a male PC attacks a non-combatant female NPC, he may be in for a real fight.

Because TES V: Skyrim is a combat-based RPG set in a fantasy version of a Viking-like warrior culture, violence is the rule, rather than the exception, and any moral code the player wishes to follow must take the setting into consideration.  More often than not, the moral dilemmas will revolve around fighting.  Do I kill the bandit leader just because the Jarl said he would pay me to do it?  Do I side with the Empire or the Stormcloaks in the Civil War?  Should I sneak past the Thalmor guards or just kill them?  Is it acceptable to kill an NPC to gain another NPC's trust?  I need to get this NPC to stop harrassing another NPC -- should I persuade, bribe, threaten, or just beat him up?  In order to navigate this setting as a moral agent, the player must tailor her PC's moral system to the violence that forms the basis of many of the in-game challenges.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Metrics of Morality

Morality has been an integral part of gaming since the early days of tabletop RPGs.  Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, for example, used a moral alignment grid to systematize the rather nebulous concept of moral inclination:

The two axes represent competing obligations; the good-evil axis tends to measure a character's concern for others, whereas the law-chaos axis measures the same character's concern for order.  King Arthur might be considered Lawful Good, but Robin Hood would probably be seen as Chaotic Good.  Conversely, a serial killer might best be described as Chaotic Evil, while a mafia hit man would be in the Lawful Evil area of the chart.  Other axes have been created to represent other areas of moral concern, but the system depicted in the chart above is by far the most pervasive.

Moral alignment in tabletop gaming can be fairly arbitrary because it depends entirely on the interpretation of the GM. In classic AD&D rules, for instance, the character class of Paladin requires that a PC maintain a Lawful Good alignment; if player begins conducting the PC in a way that runs counter to that alignment, the GM has the option (and, some might argue, the responsibility) to rescind the PC's Paladin status, along with its attendant powers, and force the player to run the PC as a common fighter. What constitutes sufficient deviation from the PC's alignment, however, is completely up to the GM.

In computer RPGs, the GM is digital, which poses some interesting issues for games that incorporate moral alignment. Ambiguous and complex ethical decisions must ultimately be reduced to data that the game can process. Once a game establishes moral agency (see the previous post on this subject), there are two possible options for dealing with the consequences of a PC's actions.

The first option is to include some type of scale or continuum by which the game can track a PC's morality. Sometimes, this scale is purely internal; the game engine decides what is good or evil and rewards or punishes the PC accordingly -- new powers or closed-off missions.  Other scales are external; the consequences of the PC's actions are meted out by NPCs who increasingly react to the PC as either a hero or a villain.  A handful of games combine these two types of metrics.  Please read Laura Parker's excellent Gamespot article, entitled "Black or White: Making Moral Choices in Video Games," for a more detailed account of morality systems in gaming.

The other method of creating morally rich gaming environments is simpler, but far more abstract.  Some games create morally complex scenarios, but do not include any discernible consequence system beyond an NPC reaction protocol.  If, for example, a PC steals from a store, he might affect the store owner's willingness to help him in the future, or perhaps get arrested by the police, but because morality is not one of the PC's measured attributes (like skill levels or hit points), future gameplay remains relatively unaffected -- especially if there are no witnesses.

The core difference between these two approaches can be best understood through psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg's seminal work on the stages of moral development.  In his 1958 dissertation, Kohlberg built on Jean Piaget's and John Dewey's work with children in order to systematically describe the process of an increasingly competent intellect "learning" morality: 
A summary of Kohlberg's stages

Although Kohlberg's work is more complex and controversial than the scope of this study allows (see this excerpt from Theories of Development for a more in-depth treatment of Kohlberg's theories and the criticisms thereof), it forms a convenient framework for understanding the role of moral metrics in computer RPGs.

Consider Kohlberg's iconic dilemma:
Heinz Steals the Drug
In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that? (Kohlberg, 1963, p. 19)
Whether one answers the question "yes" or "no" is irrelevant; what matters is the reason for the decision.  A Stage 1 thinker, who tends to think only of immediate benefit or punishment, might say "yes" because Heinz will be sad if his wife dies, or "no" because Heinz will go to jail if he gets caught.  Conversely, a Stage 4 thinker, who sees issues of justice in terms of social norms, might "yes" because the druggist is unfairly gouging Heinz when he obviously can't afford it, or "no" because breaking the law is never right, even in these circumstances.

Dichotomous morality engines, such as those found in Knights of the Old Republic (Light Side/Dark Side) or InFamous (Karma), label the PC "good" or "evil" and hand out the appropriate consequences, thereby encouraging the player to remain at the premoral stages (1 and 2).  The player tends to make decisions based on creating optimal gameplay conditions for himself -- gaining greater powers, avoiding penalties, unlocking achievements, and the like.  This is not to say that moral agency is impossible in these games; rather, the game mechanics create a Skinnerian system of positive and negative behavior modification that neither invites nor prevents moral agency.  NPC disposition systems offer greater freedom, but they only function properly when NPCs are aware of the PC's actions, and even then they really invite only a Stage 3 kind of thinking.

Imagine the Heinz dilemma as a decision point in a computer RPG.  If the game employs a simple, internal "red/blue" dichotomy, then one choice will be considered good and the other evil.  Perhaps breaking the law is coded as an evil action, so Heinz's "Karma Meter" will slide toward the red if he chooses to save his wife.  Instead of considering how stealing the medicine impacts his PC's potentially complex ethical code, the player may well be placed in the ironic position of doing something he considers wrong in order to maintain his PC's "good" status.

Games that limit their moral metrics to NPC disposition and delayed consequence (such as The Witcher and Skyrim) allow players greater agency.  If we relocate Heinz from Europe to Skyrim, we create an in-game dilemma that invites higher-stage thinking.  Let's say that Heinz is a PC with a high enough Sneak skill that he can expect to steal the drug without being detected by either the druggist or the guards; without a dichotomous meter or NPC reactions to consider, the player is more free to base his decision on Stage 3 thinking or above.  Forcing the player to choose between loyalty to one's spouse over allegiance to the law without inordinate concern for the impact on gameplay encourages greater moral agency in the player.

As Parker suggests, future games may have morality engines sophisticated enough to engender moral agency on Stages 5 or 6 of Kohlberg's scale.  Until then, it seems that less is more in this area.  Games that create morally complex scenarios but refrain from evaluating the player's decisions allow the development of rich and multifaceted PCs who cannot be easily reduced to "good guy/bad guy" status -- in other words, PCs more like us.

For further reading, check out these articles:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The World of Skyrim: Religion

Religion in The Elder Scrolls is perhaps an even more complicated subject than politics, and it has a more direct impact on gameplay than history.  The gods and goddesses of the game have particular import in this study, as they form the moral framework of this fictional world.  As in the previous orientation posts, I will not attempt an exhaustive explanation of the supernatural elements of TES V: Skyrim.  Those readers who would like more detailed information are directed to the wikis in the right-hand column.

Each racial culture in Tamriel has its own creation myth and its own set of divine beings, but because these entities play a key role in the games themselves, each culture's mythos is really an ethnocentric interpretation of an objective supernatural phenomenon; because he created the Amulet of Kings (an in-game item that affects gameplay), we know that Akatosh the Dragon God of Time objectively exists in the game, even if the Khajiit call him Alkosh the First Cat or the High Elves call him Auri-El and believe he favors the races of Mer over those of Man. The ideas on which the religions concur can essentially be treated as cosmological fact.

What can be known is that the universe began as a stasis (Anu) into which came change (Padomay, or Sithis), thus creating the original spirits (et'Ada).  One of these formless beings created an identity for itself (Akatosh) thus creating time.  Other entities followed suit.  At some point, one of these et'Ada (usually known as Lorkhan the Trickster God) convinced a small group of others to help him create and populate a new plane of existence (Nirn).  These nine beings, known as the Aedra ("our ancestors" in Aldmeri), soon began to understand that Lorkhan was draining their divine essence in order to complete his project; those who abandoned the creation scheme earlier kept more of their power, while those remained later were left in a very weakened state (relative to their former existence, not to humans) -- the last of whom was Lorkhan himself, who is generally thought to have given his life for the creation of the planet itself.  The rest of the Aedra, now depleted of much of their power, are bound to their own planets in the fictional solar system.  The many et'Ada who did not join Lorkhan in his plan are known as the Daedra ("not our ancestors"), and retain the capacity to leave their own planes and interfere with the inhabitants of other realms (most notably Nirn).

Of particular interest to this study is the relationship of Tamrielic religion to real-world belief systems.  Because Tamriel is a fictional setting, it is necessary to be very fluid when drawing connections to actual religions.  Perhaps the best models for this genre are the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis that invent worlds in which neither the Abrahamic God nor His Son exist, yet nevertheless faithfully represent many of the core tenets of the Christian faith their authors professed.  Tamrielic religion, as imagined by a collective entity such as Bethesda and its fans, is likewise bound to incorporate a wide variety of belief systems, including atheism.

Given the key role of the Nords in the TES series, and Skyrim in particular, the prominence of Viking mythology is to be expected.  Sovngard (the land of the honored dead), for example, is essentially a stand-in for Valhalla.  The Aedra themselves are based on the Nine Noble Virtues distilled from the Poetic Edda and the Icelandic Sagas:

Viking Noble Virtue
 The Dragon God of Time and the chief god of the pantheon
 God of Life and Death
 Goddess of Beauty
 God of Wisdom and Logic
 Goddess of Air
 Mother Goddess and Goddess of Love
 God of Mercy
Talos/Tiber Septim
 God of War and Governance
 God of Work and Commerce

Despite the Viking influence, these Aedra (a.k.a. the Nine Divines) do not correspond neatly to the Norse gods.  While one might be tempted to draw a connection between Lorkhan and Loki, the similarity between the two disappears beyond the trickster role.  Unlike the Norse gods, the Aedra are not personally active in the world; rather, they function more like transcendent divinities (similar to the New Testament God), granting blessings through their shrines, but not manifesting themselves directly on Nirn. 

Worship of the Divines is the orthodoxy of the Empire, hence the use of the Cyrodilic nomenclature; Nords worship the same gods for the most part, but sometimes under different names.  Although there are separate sects for each deity, these groups do not see each other as contradictory, but rather as distinct in emphasis; in this aspect, they are like the priests of ancient Greece or perhaps even modern Catholic religious orders.  Other racial groups worship some combination of these gods and their own deities, some of whom are Daedric Princes.  The unisex term "Prince" distinguishes the more powerful Daedra from the less potent Daedric rank-and-file.

The Daedric Princes, as divine beings who are able to manifest themselves actively in the mortal world, read more like the gods of ancient pagan pantheons than the Aedra do.  They interfere directly with the affairs of mortals for their own purposes; the destruction they frequently cause is of little import to them.  Their spheres of influence tend toward the ignoble: Boethiah the Daedric Prince of Usurpers, Assassins, and Secret Plots; Molag Bal the Daedric Prince of Enslavement; and so on.  The less powerful Daedra usually appear in the games as Dremora, humanoids with a demonic appearance who can be summoned from their plane as bound servants or fought as enemies.  Taken together, these attributes lead to a picture of the Daedra as evil, but there are a handful of Daedric Princes who seem more benevolent (Meridia and Azura, for example).

The reality is that attempting to see these divine entities through the western or Judeo-Christian dichotomy of "good" and "evil" is problematic.  The Aedra act as makers and sustainers of the known world, and therefore represent creation and order.  Because the PC is part of that creation and order, it is natural to see these beings as the embodiment of "good."  Likewise, the Daedra view mortals as means to an end, or even as playthings, which is insulting and threatening to the player's view of himself, so the Daedra are "evil."  These ideas do not, however, necessarily correspond to conventional ideas about morality.

This issue would be purely academic were it not for the presence of Daedric quests in TES V: Skyrim.  To play as a moral agent, the player must examine the reasons for his actions, the likely foreseeable results of his actions, and the justice of his actions.  Quests undertaken at the behest of a Daedric Prince are likely to involve some inextricable combination of "good" and "evil," which can seriously complicate the attempt to adhere to a moral code.  These quests are examined in detail in later posts.

Another interesting religious issue that can create fruitful ambiguity for the player as a moral agent is the status of Talos/Tiber Septim.  As detailed in a previous post, Talos is the Nord hero who founded the Third Empire (the current Tamrielic Empire).  At the end of his earthly life, Tiber Septim was apotheosized (in a manner similar to that of Romulus in Roman mythology) and admitted to the Cyrodilic pantheon as the patron of Mankind -- a type of replacement for Lorkhan, who sacrificed his existence for the creation of Nirn.  The races of Men see themselves as created by Lorkhan alone, whereas the races of Mer think of themselves as descendents of the Aedra.  They therefore have a distaste for Lorkhan, who they believed tricked their ancestors out of their immortality, and for his successor Talos, who brought their nations into a Man-dominated Empire.  The Altmer in particular believe that worshiping the once-human Talos as a god is a kind of heresy.

About 25 years before TES V: Skyrim opens, the battered Empire ended The Great War by signing the White-Gold Concordat: the Aldmeri Dominion agreed to end hostilities in exchange for a ban on Talos worship in the Empire.  Furthermore, the Thalmor are permitted to roam freely throughout the Empire to uncover and prosecute any adherents of the outlawed religion.  Because Talos was a Nord before his ascent, Skyrim is especially grieved at this situation.  The nation is on the brink of civil war, with one side supporting the Empire (even if they disagree with the ban on Talos worship) and the other rallying around Ulfric Stormcloak, who wants to secede from the Empire in order to preserve the Nord way of life against the onerous terms of the Concordat.

An additional complication for the morally-oriented player is the obvious connection between Talos and Jesus Christ. Aside from Tiber Septim's dual nature (as a Dragonborn, he possesses the soul of a dragon in the body of a man -- not too far from the Theanthropos) and his ascent to godhood, the persecution of his faithful invites the player to read Talos as a Christ figure.  The Thalmor quickly begin to feel like Pharisees hunting down the heretical cult of the God-Man, and Heimskr's diatribes sound a lot like the fiery sermons of Christian street preachers.  Even the visual symbolism contains allusion:

Heimskr preaching in front of the cruciform Shrine of Talos.

At the start of the game, the PC enters into a setting rich in moral conflict, and in order to navigate it in a meaningful way, the player must have a handle on the religious realities of Tamriel.  While some parallels between the metaphysics of the real world and those of Skyrim exist and might provide some guidance in the thornier decisions, care must be taken not to confuse the moralities of the two realms.