Please read this first.

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

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


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

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The World of Skyrim: History and Politics

Because they create and populate entire fictional worlds, science fiction and fantasy games often give rise to complex back stories that, while they do not directly impact gameplay, provide a sense of context and continuity for dedicated players.  In fact, these players often act as "historians" themselves, working hand-in-hand with the game designers to weave a coherent story for the games proper.  The Elder Scrolls series is no exception; the first title in the franchise, Arena, takes place in the year 399 of the Third Era, which means that at least 4000 years of history have unfolded before the game even starts (for an outline of this history, click here).

Since this study focuses on one aspect of one title in the series, a detailed account of Tamriel's history would be both tedious and unnecessary.  Those who would like more information are encouraged to explore the lore contained on the wikis listed in the right-hand column of this blog. A brief overview of the political landscape of Skyrim will suffice for an examination of moral agency.

Tamriel is composed of nine provinces that correspond neatly to nine of the playable races in the game:

High Rock
Summerset Isle
Black Marsh
[Orcs (Orsimer) hail from a small area in High Rock called Orsinium that has never been able to establish itself as a true province.]

Throughout the history of Tamriel, the provinces have formed and dissolved several alliances and empires, the most important of which in TES V: Skyrim is the Tamrielic Empire, founded approximately 600 years before the events of the game.  The Empire was established by the apotheosized Nord hero Talos (birth name: Hjalti Early-Beard; Imperial name: Tiber Septim) when he unified the nine provinces under his rule.  The Septim Dynasty lasts for about 400 years, coming to an end during the events of the previous game, TES IV: Oblivion.  The Mede Dynasty succeeds the Septim line, but suffers a number of problems relevant to TES V: Skyrim.

The first challenge to the survival of the Empire is a powerful group of Altmer racial purists known as the Thalmor.  Believing the Mer to be superior to the races of Man, the Thalmor use political strategy and military subterfuge to wrest control of Summerset Isle, Valenwood, and Elsweyr from the Empire.  This elven alliance, called the Aldmeri Dominion, fully secedes from the the Empire and begins to war against it (about thirty years prior to the start of Skyrim).  The conflict is costly to both sides, and after retaking Imperial City in Cyrodiil, Titus Mede II negotiates a treaty with the Aldmeri.  The terms of the treaty severely weaken the Empire in several ways, but most importantly for the game in question, it outlaws the worship of Talos, the Nord hero, as one of the Nine Divines, and allows Thalmor agents to hunt down and punish "heretics" inside the provinces, including Skyrim.

This Imperial concession causes a rift in Skyrim between those who wish to support the Empire and those who wish to fight for the traditional Nord way of life.  The political structure of the Nord province lends itself to the foment of dissent.  Although subject to the Empire, Skyrim is directly ruled by a High King, and each of its nine holds is ruled by a Jarl -- a type of simplified feudal system.  When Skyrim opens, the player discovers that High King Toryyg has been killed by the Jarl of Windhelm, Ulfric Stormcloak, over the Talos/Thalmor issue.  A civil war brews on the horizon, pitting the Imperial Legion (many of whom are Nords themselves) and the jarls who are loyal to the Empire against the Stormcloaks and the jarls who want to defend their Nord way of life from persecution by a sworn enemy.

This internal conflict, exacerbated by the return of the dragons, forms one of the most important questlines in the game.  The PC is invited from the start of the game to choose a side in the conflict, and while one may ultimately choose neither, one cannot avoid the conflict entirely.  Because it pits the rule of law and multinational cooperation against freedom of religion and national identity, it invites a high degree of moral  engagement, particularly in the consideration of justice in Skyrim.

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