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).

PLEASE NOTE: HERE BE SPOILERS!

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

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. 

19 comments:

  1. There's something I don't understand about this account. Why were you so relaxed about Sven's original plan to deceive the woman he claimed he loved? She's a nice girl, it seems a lousy trick to deceive her into the arms of a known liar and forger.

    For me, the only way to handle this quest was to go straight to Camilla and tell her the truth about Sven and his letter. Then Faendal's fake letter never comes up, and you can enjoy the reward he gives you with a clear conscience.

    But since you're so concerned with the morality of the game, why didn't it occur to you to level with Camilla straight away? Okay, you liked Sven, but surely that just means he's a plausible rogue - it doesn't make him a decent man, still less a good potential husband.

    As for murdering Faendal in cold blood - that is so completely beyond the pale that I can't even begin to understand it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. This is exactly the kind of conversation this blog is meant to engender.

      Given the tenor of your comments, I'd like to point out that my goal is to examine the game through a moral lens. I therefore composed a moral profile for my character and have attempted to remain true to it. As a result, this blog is more descriptive than prescriptive; I report on and analyze my character's actions from a moral perspective, but I make no claim that my/his actions are always the most righteous. Having said that, allow me to address your points individually.

      "Why were you so relaxed about Sven's original plan to deceive the woman he claimed he loved?" As I said, I was looking at this quest as little more than a sitcom-level love triangle. After the events at Helgen, this deception seemed trivial. I would agree that I should not have been so cavalier about Sven's trickery; if he was willing to deceive Camilla in this instance, what else would he be willing to lie to her about?

      "But since you're so concerned with the morality of the game, why didn't it occur to you to level with Camilla straight away?" Again, my blog is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Just as I am morally fallible in the real world, so I am in the game. Going to Camilla straight away did not occur to me because I was too invested in making friends with Sven. I am examining my choices, not defending them.

      "As for murdering Faendal in cold blood - that is so completely beyond the pale that I can't even begin to understand it." I don't know what else I can say except to repeat my statement of regret. My only defense is that Faendal put a hit on me for an act of petty theft. Two wrongs don't make a right, of course, but I was not willing to "turn the other cheek" in this instance. Had he attacked me directly, I would have ended up killing him; should the fact that he attacked me by proxy change the outcome? My only quarrel with your point here is that I would like to shift the conversation away from killing Faendal and toward the act of theft that precipitated his death. I should not have stolen from him. Period. Had I not broken into his home and stolen his property, he would not have placed a hit on me, and I would not have killed him.

      Ultimately, your assessment is correct; had I informed Camilla of Sven's deception immediately, none of this would have happened. Honesty would indeed have been the best policy.

      I now have a question for you. According to the wikis, it is possible to pickpocket both fake letters from both men and expose both deceptions to Camilla. I have not tried this approach, so I can't verify it, but assuming it is possible, would it be morally justified? Is an act of pickpocketing balanced out by the fact that exposing both men's deceptions would allow Camilla the opportunity to reject both liars?

      Delete
    2. Interesting, I didn't know about that option. Morally, I'd have a problem with the pickpocketing - I have no reason to believe they're carrying anything that would justify such an invasion of their personal space...

      Unless - I wonder if that solution would extend to: showing Sven's letter to Faendal, getting his forgery, then pickpocketing Sven's letter back from Faendal, in order to show both to Camilla? That I could justify easily, if it would work. But I've never played a pickpocket-type character - I'd have to start yet another new game to see if that works.

      About the 'hit' - I once picked up something, by mistake, in the Winking Skeever in Solitude. I dropped it again immediately, and nobody saw me do it, so I thought there was no harm done - but a day or so later I was set upon by three thugs hired by Minette Vinius. Just to refresh your memory: she's the innkeeper's daughter, about 10-11 years old by the look of her. Skyrim's 'three thugs' rule of justice seems so insanely disproportionate that I have come to write it off as a hugely unrealistic quirk of the game, and not try to take further retribution.

      Delete
    3. I understand what you mean about dismissing the hired thugs as a quirk. For me, the greatest ludonarrative dissonance in the game so far arises during the Thieves' Guild questline. It's difficult for me to get morally invested when the objects I'm stealing only blink into existence the moment I take the job. If you're interested in the full story, you can read it in the post on "Under New Management": http://skyrimandmorality.blogspot.com/2013/04/thieves-guild-under-new-management.html

      Delete
  2. When I approached this quest, I did so in a different fashion. I too talked to Sven first, but decided not to go along with his plan. After he gave me the fake letter, I decided to reveal his attempts at deception, since like you I was playing a moral character, and I could not abide by that.

    Instead of going to Camilla though, I approached Faendal with the letter instead, since I figured he was the one who was going to be screwed over by it. When he produced a fake letter of his own, I this time agreed to deliver it, taking his side in the quest and earning him as my follower instead.

    Although it was essentially the same deception, I viewed it when Faendal did it as payback for Sven's attempts, so slightly more justifiable. I know that Faendal does the same thing as Sven if you approach him first, but since I didn't, I saw him as the wronged party and decided to deliver the fake letter for him. That Camilla was still being deceived didn't much enter the equation for me, since the deception mostly affected Sven.

    In retrospect, I feel that taking the letter straight to Camilla and outing Sven's attempts at deception without bringing Faendal into the equation would have been a better course of action, even if it would have achieved the same results. It would have been more honourable, anyway.

    Very much liking this blog so far, by the way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your compliment and your encouragement!

      In case you haven't seen it, please read Tari's comment below. Her take on it really differs from mine, yours, and vet's.

      Delete
  3. I am enjoying this blog too. Very refreshing in the midst of the sea of gamers who don't seem to be aware of the value or enjoyment of considering anything past what gets you the most loot.
    I, probably because I am a female gamer, had a very different reaction to the situation of Sven's attempted deceit. Camilla's future happiness might well be at stake. Not a frivolous consideration at all!
    I also had observed something else.
    Sven's ego was huge and he seemed mostly concerned with "winning" this contest. After watching them both for a while I noted that Faendal spent a lot of time expressing serious emotional investment in her. (Wishing she knew how he felt.. etc.)
    If you watch Faendal he takes time out of every day to visit her. Sven does nothing like that. Faendal also is a hard worker, rising every morning very early to work hard all day chopping wood. Sven sleeps in till noon and it is supposed to also be working in the lumberyard besides his show business job but you never actually see him do that and instead, it is commented on that he drinks a lot on the job by Gerdur's husband Hod.
    For Camilla's sake I took Sven's letter straight to her and told her the deal. If you do that it is true that you end up much more honorably and it is a better course of action overall.
    UNLESS you consider the situation PAST that point! :-)
    Faendal, being a Wood Elf ALREADY misses his Valenwood. He comes from a MUCH different culture and despite his current infatuation with a human seems not really destined for a future of happiness even if she were to choose him over Sven. Upon watching Camilla I noticed that she spends a lot of time badgering her brother to make exciting changes to his general store or take trips ect.. She seems quite bored and is obviously enjoying the attention she is getting from the exotic Wood Elf, Faendal. I think it is pretty unlikely she is actually going to favor him as much as he wants in the long run though.
    The current social state of the Bosmer doesn't really bode well for the Camilla/Faendal future either. The people of Riverwood seem to be very progressive about a lot of things in comparison to others but even they are not likely to approve of it.
    Still, my choice seems the best one. Even if I have my doubts about how things will work out for them Camilla still deserves all the facts about a decision that may impact the rest of her life and Faendal deserves the right to make his own mistakes.
    I certainly left all concerned in better shape when I left Riverwood than you did! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, Tari -- you really made me think twice about this quest! I'm particularly impressed with the way you observed the characters before making your decision. I think I made mine too rashly -- an unfortunate characteristic of the early parts of this playthough. I was attempting to "get in" with the first resident of Riverwood I encountered, and perhaps "bro'ed" it up a bit oo much with Sven.

      Thanks for your comment, and sorry for the delay in my response.

      Delete
    2. Tari, I enjoyed your detailed thinking here.

      I immediately disliked and distrusted Sven (whom I met first). He came off as arrogant and narcissistic and there was no way I'd help him deceive a woman. Even had I liked him, I would have been repelled by the self-important possessiveness he felt for Camilla. I did not find him charming, even though his character obviously thought himself so.

      I initially had the opposite impression of Faendal. I saw him as earnest and a hard worker, and I saw his air-of-superiority as the coping mechanism of a not-fully-accepted outsider. However, I was put off by the fact that he was also perfectly happy to deceive the woman he professed to love, and concluded they were both jerks. Rather then play games or take sides, I simply wanted her to know the truth and do what she wanted with the information.

      I saved and reloaded several times during the process because I kept getting boxed in while trying to find a way to 'out' both of them. I never figured it out and ended up telling her about Sven's forgery, since he seemed the worst choice. I was unhappy with this result, though, because I was forced to choose for her rather than simply giving her the facts.

      I wish I had thought of pickpocketing as a tool here. I actually don't like pickpocketing and have never used it to steal. I've only occasionally used it to peek at what character is carrying, without actually taking.

      I've always been happiest playing as a fairly good character. While I'm perfectly content to kill bandits and hostiles, I treat the NPCs much as I would real people in the real world. It's not fun to me to be cruel or exploit them, and I feel regret when the game forces me to do something I don't agree with. I have a huge amount of respect for the sheer amount of work that it took to develop this game. The more seriously I take the situations and characters, the more I appreciate the work it took to create them all.

      Delete
  4. I wasn't upset in turning her against the elf. I'm working on a moral character and when I did research, faendal never seems to love her. In fact, even though he visits herand if you set him up with her, if say...you killed her later in the game, a messenger will deliver a letter thanking you for murdering her, and that she wouldn't be missed. From faendal. when I saw that, I couldn't let the poor girl be with a man who never truly cared for her. Just wanted her.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did not know that was a possible outcome. I do remember getting that kind of letter from Sven after killing Faendal, but what you describe is even more unsettling.

      Delete
  5. Just happened to stumble across this blog as I was debating whether or not to do the Pieces of the Past quest, as I play a very benevolent character as well (although he will murder in cold blood any Thalmor he can manage without getting caught. I also came up with a background for my character... his family was murdered and his farm in Cyrodiil burned down by Thalmor when he was only five, when his grandfather was caught worshipping Talos during the early years after the Great War. As such, his morals tend to go completely out the window whenever he encounters one.)

    I talked to Sven first and immediately turned his letter in too. While I'm not terribly pleased with the fact that Faendal would have stooped to the same lows as him, they both referred to the other as "Elf" or "That Nord," implying that they were both somewhat prejudiced, or that they were just emotionally charged regarding this matter. As far as the "For a Nord village" comment, my character saw a foreigner who may miss his home rather than a snooty Bosmer. Clearly he didn't hold with the Thalmor as much as the rest of Valenwood did or he wouldn't be swooning for a human girl, and treating her so kindly.

    So like most other people commenting here, apparently, I chose to screw over Sven as well. Looking forward to reading the rest of these posts, and the continuation of your blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like your take on Faendal, and now that I re-read the post, I guess I was willing to screw Sven over too...at first. I think I eventually helped Sven out of some kind of misplaced racial loyalty, but I don't think helping Faendal is any more defensible. The more comments I read, the more I wish I had just told Camilla the truth about both of them.

      Delete
  6. I just discovered this blog the other day and am really enjoying reading through your posts so far. Thank you so much for your efforts. I figured you might appreciate learning how I handled this scenario since it varies so drastically from the other accounts presented here.

    Wishing to explore Skyrim in a manner less conventional, I avoided Riverwood entirely at the start of the game and trekked all the way up to Dawnstar before settling in to meeting folks and taking on quests. After engaging in many adventures and finally starting the main quest, I was granted the house in Whiterun and decided that I wished to be married, so I could always return to a welcome home.

    I consulted a Wiki list to apprise me of the available candidates and eventually decided on Camilla. She had always addressed me warmly whenever I breezed through Riverwood to sell a few items to her brother and completing the golden claw quest had sealed me in her good graces. But I noticed something troubling when further examining her profile for any complications to marriage- not one, but two suitors. And to compound the problem I read that, if you are to marry her, no matter where you move to, there's a high likelihood that one or both of those fellows will show up- at YOUR house!! Bird dogging YOUR wife!! THIS is unacceptable...

    But what could I do? I read that if you kill one or both of them, she may refuse to marry you, or their corpse might turn up at the wedding ceremony, or they may magically resurrect and STILL show up at your house. There went my notion of quietly murdering one of them while leading the other into a deadly trap as a "follower" after having completed their petty quest. So what could I do?

    I'll tell you what I did. Listen, I'm busy waging war against a soul-devouring dragon that can travel through time, saving all Tamriel- I deserve to be able to get married in peace. If those two clowns are destined to be determined to make a pest of themselves, then they have to go. I went to Riverwood, found my two targets, prayed to the gods and... BANG!! They each suffered a console command-related heart attack. Darndest thing...

    I then went to the store, strolled up to Camilla with my "come hither" amulet and the two of us were happily married ever since. It was a good match. I took her to all to major cities in Skyrim so she could have the variety in life that she was seeking. And you know what? She never mentioned either of those fellows to me, so she couldn't have that too hung up on them in the first place.

    The only thing I regret is also compelling her brother to have a heart attack so I could make sure she was getting all the money from the shop. That was probably a little excessive...

    (by the way this was the only time I used the console to kill- except for smart alek guards as a form of comedic counterpoint to an insulting remark,)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the compliments!

      Your take on this quest is certainly entertaining, but not one that I would feel comfortable emulating in any of my current playthroughs. By playing with an integrated awareness of the wikis and the console commands, your Dovahkiin becomes a Neo-like figure, wending his way masterfully through a world he can manipulate at will. That approach would be hard for me to roleplay because I would have trouble differentiating my desires as a player from the in-game motivations of the character.

      But now, the real question: why Camillla? I understand that she is pleasant and appreciative to you, but so are many other NPCs. What is it about Camilla specifically that inspired you to move heaven and earth to be with her?

      Delete
  7. First off, thank you so much for replying to my comments. I knew you wouldn't have time to reply to them for a while since I posted them right around exam/graduation time (I happen to be the son of a retired HS English teacher; also only a handful a years younger than yourself and a Catholic too).

    To your immediate question, though. I selected Camilla primarily through the process of elimination and mostly based on looks (I'm almost embarrassed to admit that). There are 27 women eligible for marriage in Skyrim (not counting DLC). My biggest hurdle with most of the potential mates was the local fondness for facial tattoos. Tattoos... right on the face... What are perhaps the most beautiful features a person can possess, marred by cheap-looking decals... I'm being melodramatic, but you get the idea. And I also didn't want to marry a follower, for mostly the same reasons that mention in another post. That only leaves a small handful of candidates.

    I think you made a pretty great choice with Ysolda, and she was very high on my list of candidates. My only issue with her was that I hadn't done the Daedric quest associated with her yet and didn't want to get involved with any drama with my wife over me not paying her for a wedding ring that I bought for a Haergraven- no thanks!

    Also... I happen to think Camilla was exceptionally appealing (for an NPC, of course). I thought she was attractive and had spunk. So, I just figured to bend the game a little on this first play-through and marry less problematic spouses on subsequent adventures. And Camilla really proved her stuff when we were living in Windhelm and a maniac serial killer invaded our very home! I raced inside as fast as I could manage, but before I could take action, I heard my wife scream out a battle cry as she came charging down the stairs with a knife in her hands. She paid him back for every one of the lady victims he'd butchered as he cowered in the corner of our kitchen. I was so proud...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comments, and for understanding the delays in my responses. I also teach in the summer, so I can't always maintain this blog the way I would like.

      Are you saying that the Butcher of Windhelm actually went after your spouse? Is that something that happens if you bring your wife to Windhelm while Blood on the Ice is active?

      Delete
  8. Sorry if I've posted this twice.
    I found this quest to be extremely immoral. There should be a way to tell Camilla of both tricksters without the convoluted pickpocketing. It's as if the makers just didn't care about her opinion.
    What I find more worrying though is how many people have painstakingly commented here without empathising with her at all. One person says they told Sven as they figured it affected him the most seemingly forgetting about the innocent woman they could be siding with.
    Sven, Faendal and apparently too many commentators seem to have forgotten she's a person and not a prize.
    I thought that would be the main topic here but it seems people are more interested in choosing who they like the most to "win" when surely only Camila should be in the position to decide.
    Of course I say many people not all and I am glad Todd seems to have realised this by the end also.
    Still I am enjoying reading others takes on morality.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hey, TheNightStalker here from the Paarthurnax post. I'm not sure why it's not letting me log back into blogger again. Nor why it logged me into that account, actually...

    Anyway, I actually found this awesome blog while looking for a mod that would allow to me to expose both of them.

    I can't say either of them come off as looking to well. Both we're trying to trick her into loving them more, so neither has the moral high ground in my opinion. Plus, my character Aure was still avoiding sides at that point, even though she ended up starting both quests (desperate need for cold hard gold).

    I read the stories of Sir Gawain when I was boy, so I'm more inclined to focus on the woman's choice more than I would have otherwise. I tried to figure out who she would be happier with.

    I can't say I believe the woman who was ready to charge into a draugr-infested barrow by herself would be overly happy with a snotty miller *or* an arogant bard who lives with her mother.

    In the end, I kept both letters and waited to see if she choose one of them for herself (this was back in the days when I still played Sims and that sort of thing occasionally happened). Of course she didn't, and I ended up screwing both of them over when I had Aure marry Camilla herself.

    ReplyDelete