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!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

No One Escapes Cidhna Mine

This quest, which is the follow-up to The Forsworn Conspiracy, presents a number of moral dilemmas and questions that extend well beyond the confines of the game.  Along with In My Time of Need, it stands as one of the best opportunities for robust consideration of moral agency in Skyrim, and gaming in general.

After my arrest in the Shrine of Talos, I found myself in a cell deep within Cidhna Mine:
This is one of the few quests that, once started, must be completed.
The Orc jailer informed me that I would have to mine in order to earn my freedom, so I got to work.  Having learned that the best way to deal with an unfamiliar situation was to talk to people, I began speaking to the various inmate miners in my area.  As it turned out, I happened to be in very close proximity to Madanach, the "King of Rags" and leader of the Forsworn.  I jumped through the prerequisite hoops, and was eventually granted an audience with Madanach in his private cell.

Neither my readings nor my various encounters with the Forsworn had prepared me for what happened next.  Madanach, far from being a madman or savage, articulately recounted his history of the Forsworn. Taken together, the history books and Madanach's lectures paint a tragic picture of a complex people:

Madanach the noble savage.
Long ago, there was a group of indigenous people who inhabited the land between High Rock (Bretons) and Skyrim (Nords).  While Breton by ethnicity, these people called themselves "The Reachmen" to distinguish their culture from that of their neighbors on either side.  What divided them from their Breton kin was their worship of the "Old Gods" -- an animistic religion that predates Divine worship.  Being a small ethnic group, the Reachmen often found themselves used as pawns in the struggles between High Rock and Skyrim for control of the silver mines in their mountainous homeland. At the time of the Great War, the Empire considered The Reach to be one of Skyrim's holds -- a fact that the Reachmen begrudgingly accepted. When the Empire "abandoned" The Reach in order to focus on fighting the Aldmeri Dominion, the Reachmen saw their opportunity to take back their land.  They ruled Markarth relatively peacefully for two years under the leadership of their king, Madanach.   

The Empire, now under the peace provided by the terms of the White-Gold Concordat, decided to take The Reach back from the Reachmen.  The deposed Jarl offered Ulfric Stormcloak and his men an exchange: retake The Reach for Skyrim, and Talos worship would be be permitted in Markarth again, in spite of the Concordat. Ulfric's brutal tactics, including torture and the killing of non-combatants, drove the Reachmen from the city; thus the Forsworn were born.
  ["The Markarth Incident", as the uprising and its end at Ulfric's hand have come to be known, was also the ember that sparked the Stormcloak Rebellion. Once the Thalmor discovered Talos worship in Markarth, they cracked down on anyone who violated the terms of the Concordat.  The Jarl was forced to arrest Ulfric ("The Bear of Markarth") and his men -- an act the Stormcloaks saw as the worst kind of betrayal.]

Madanach himself was captured and sentenced to die, but Thonar Silver-Blood, seeing a unique opportunity, intervened.  In exchange for allowing him to live out his life as a prisoner in Cidhna Mine, Madanach agreed to use the Forsworn as Thonar's personal strike force.  Thonar allowed Madanach to communicate with Forsworn operatives in order to eliminate Thonar's enemies and business rivals.  The King in Rags agreed to the deal; Thonar could protect himself from Nord rivals and Imperial curiosity, and the Forsworn could still  launch "terrorist" attacks against a select group of their Nord and Imperial oppressors.  Furthermore, Madanach would be alive to plan his eventual betrayal of the Silver-Bloods.  Such was the arrangement I had disrupted by helping Eltrys uncover the truth.

As part of my education, Madanach instructed me to find and speak to another Forsworn prisoner, Braig.  Briag's story was very hard to listen to:
You don't want to hear the rest of this story.
I was now faced with a twofold dilemma, the first part of which concerned my association with the Forsworn.  Now that I had heard more of the story, I could not dismiss these men and women as just another group of bandits or necromancers.  Even if their tactics could not be excused, their case still had merit.  If I could make a case for them with the Emperor, I would -- but that was not where we were.  Still, I wasn't ready to throw my lot in with a group of terrorists.  Moreover, I suspected that, as a Nord, the Forsworn weren't going to do me any favors once we completed our escape; this was a temporary alliance for a common goal, and nothing more.  It also occurred to me that Madanach's revenge was not going to end with Thonar; he would most likely continue his campaign of terror against the people of Skyrim, and I would most likely have to kill him at some point in the future, my sympathies be damned.

The second part of my dilemma was the "price of admission";  in order to prove myself to Madanach, I had to kill Grisvar the Unlucky, a thief and skooma addict that Madanach had identified as a snitch.  While I had killed quite a few bandits and necromancers by this point, Grisvar seemed more like a cowardly low-life than a threat, so I didn't feel justified in killing him.  Once Madanach ordered me to assassinate him, I began to look for alternatives.

The entrance to the only escape route could not be picked; even if I still had my lockpicks (along with the other gear the guards took from me), the gate required a key, which Madanach alone held, or so I gathered from the note I successfully pickpocketed from him.  The key itself was nowhere to be found -- not in Madanach's personal inventory nor anywhere in his cell.  Therefore, even if I wanted to try the route alone, I couldn't.  I was, quite literally, stuck:
Sorry, Grisvar.
I followed Madanach's orders, joined the escape and together the Forsworn and I fought through giant spiders and long-forgotten Dwemer automatons to a secret exit into Markarth.  Before we emerged into the city, not only did I get all of my gear back from one of Madanach's followers, but I also received enchanted Forsworn armor from the man himself, in thanks for assisting the escape.  Once we got outside, Thonar and several of the Markarth city guard were on hand to greet us.  A fight quickly broke out, and before long, Thonar and his men were dead.  Fortunately, the battle took place in the wee hours of the morning, while most of the citizens were still in bed. 
From a moral perspective, I had a great deal of trouble with this quest.  While I sympathize with the Forsworn, I cannot abide their practices, neither military nor religious.  The best possible scenario would most likely be for the Empire to negotiate with the Forsworn to establish a secure homeland for them while fairly compensating the Nords who probably be displaced by such a move.  I don't normally think it wise or just to haggle with terrorists, but it seems clear in this case that the Empire in general, and the Jarl of Markarth in particular, created the Forsworn through their inexcusable treatment of the Reachmen.  I have also not forgotten that Madanach ordered me to kill a non-violent man in order to prove myself to him; I might agree with his condemnation of the power structure in The Reach, but I resent him using my relatively powerless situation in order to manipulate me as he had been by Thonar.

My ambiguity became most obvious during the battle between Madanach and Thonar.  Because I could not fully support either side, I did not participate in this battle at all, preferring to stay on the sidelines and make sure no innocent Markarth citizens got pulled into the fray.  Although I hated Thonar for his callous and deadly manipulation of the Forsworn, I could not tell if his guards were crooked men in the employ of a corrupt buisnessman (like those in the Shrine of Talos) or honest peacekeepers protecting what they thought was an important citizen, and so I did not want to engage them.  Furthermore, while I hated Thonar enough to kill him, I was not keen on helping the Forsworn spill more blood in Markarth.  While this particular Forsworn "cell" might continue to see me as friendly, I wanted nothing to do with terrorists after we broke out.

After completing  No One Escapes Cidhna Mine, I did some research on other approaches, and I discovered a few disconcerting facts about the way Bethesda set up this quest:
  1. Madanach's key does not spawn as an inventory item unless you kill him.  In other words, the only way for me avoid killing Grisvar would be to kill Madanach and take his key.  One problem with that scenario is that Madanach's crimes, as grievous as they are, seem to be a direct result of Ulfric's (and, by extension, the Empire's) injustice toward the Reachmen.  Like Ulfric, Madanach comes across as an honorable leader making unjust decisions on behalf of his people, rather than as a self-serving criminal.  I will kill him in the future if I have to, but I'd rather not.
  2. An additional concern is that, had I killed Madanach at any point before we exited the mine, Thonar would have rewarded me with an enchanted item of his own.  I would not have enjoyed receiving anything, be it equipment or thanks, from such a scumbag.  Although I did not wish to help the Forsworn in their fight, I was glad that they killed Thonar.

In this quest, Bethesda forces the moral agent to make some unpalatable decisions.  Even if the player sides with the Forsworn completely, they will never stop attacking the PC in random encounters, and they are not a joinable faction.  Even if the player sides with the Silver-Bloods completely, the PC still has to break out of their prison.  Moreover, there is no peaceable solution to this quest; the only way to avoid killing Madanach or Grisvar is to stay stuck in the mine, thus suspending the game indefinitely.  Therefore, the situation presented in this quest incorporates many of the features of a true Kohlbergian dilemma: it is dichotomous, and there is no creative way out; the player is forced to violate at least some moral precepts in order to complete the quest.

By now, the parallels between this quest and current issues in geopolitics should be readily apparent.  The Forsworn's physical appearance reflects some stereotypes of Native American garb, which only highlights the similarity of their plight ("foreigners in our own land") and religious practices ("the Old Ways") to those of their real-world counterparts:
The Forsworn of No One Escapes Cidhna Mine
Their tactics and rationale raise the question of the legitimacy of terrorism -- a very present debate in the Middle East, where some governments are considering bringing members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the negotiating table.  Another facet are the obviously Celtic names of the Forsworn characters, which evoke the Troubles of Ireland and tentative reconciliation between the IRA with England.  Because the Forsworn feel familiar but only exist as fictional constructs in a computer game, the player can engage with them and fully consider them without all of the baggage of the player's own real-world political views -- a remarkable achievement for a game.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Forsworn Conspiracy

This quest and its "sequel," No One Escapes Cidhna Mine, represent some of the most morally and politically complex gameplay in Skyrim. For the sake of clarity and efficiency, I am going to focus on the issues at play in these quests, rather than on a blow-by-blow plot summary. If you would like more information on the individual steps of the quest that I might gloss over, please consult the wikis in the right-hand column.

I had encountered some Forsworn before this quest began.  They behaved in an manner indistinguishable from bandits: immediately, unrelentingly, inexplicably hostile.  I therefore assumed that, while there might be more to their story (as the in-game book The "Madmen" of the Reach insists), it would add up to something no more complex than a network of Hagraven devotees. I could not have been more wrong.

After Weylin's obviously political assassination of Margret in the Markarth marketplace, and the subsequent failed cover-up, I spoke to one of the other bystanders, Eltrys, who suggested that we should meet later at the now-abandoned Shrine of Talos to discuss the day's events.  I complied, and he revealed that he knows that the Forsworn murdered his father, a mine owner, for reasons he could never figure out, and that these Forsworn attacks have been going on for years, but no one ever does anything about it. He asked me to investigate both Margret and Weylin in order to get to the truth.  As usual, I agreed.

As a result of my nosing around Markarth, I discovered that nothing was as it seemed.  Margret, as it turned out, was an Imperial agent sent to investigate the Silver-Bloods, the family that owns a profitable silver mine (and half of Markarth, according to some townspeople).  Weylin the miner was in fact a Forsworn sleeper, assigned to kill Margret by Nepos -- a Forsworn operative with ties to the Silver-Bloods.  When I confronted him, he admitted that he takes his orders from Madanach, the Forsworn leader imprisoned in Cidhna Mine, which is owned by the Silver-Blood family and acts as the main prison of The Reach.  I found the final missing piece when I spoke to Thonar Silver-Blood, though not the way I intended.

Thonar was not at all interested in speaking to me and kicked me out of the Treasury House moments after I met him.  As I was leaving, one of the Treasury House employees, yet another Forsworn attacked and killed Thonar's wife; in the ensuing skirmish, the attacker was killed along with several of Thonar's personal servants.  Shaken by his wife's sudden, violent death, Thonar confessed that he has been using Madanach and his men for his own personal gain.  Apparently, when the Silver-Bloods needed someone to disappear, Thonar employed Forsworn to carry out the deed in order to prevent suspicion from falling on his family.  Now, however, the arrangement seemed to be coming apart.

Having connected all of the dots, I returned to the Shrine of Talos to report my findings to Eltrys.  Unfortunately, I discovered Eltrys lying dead at the feet of three Markarth Guards, who promptly informed me that my sniffing around had won me a trip to Cidhna Mine on a murder charge.  Normally, I don't fight Guards, as they typically represent law and order in the game.  In this case, however, they were operating in direct contradiction to their duty as well as to any acceptable moral code: 
Clearly, we're past "No lollygaggin'" here.
Furthermore, I suspected that Eltrys might be carrying important information himself, so I attacked the guards, quickly looted Eltrys's body, then yielded to the reinforcements who rushed into the shrine in response to the attack.  Thus began No One Escapes Cidhna Mine.

On the surface, the moral concerns of this quest seem simple; I was trying to uncover the truth in a town run by a powerful and corrupt family, so all of my sneaking, stealing, and brawling served a just purpose.  Even killing the "dirty" Guards seems defensible as they had framed me for a murder they had committed themselves. The wild card was Madanach, the "King in Rags."  Getting to him and hearing his story seriously complicated this two-part quest.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Note About Soul Gems

Soul gems are the "batteries" that power enchanted objects in The Elder Scrolls universe.  In order to enchant or recharge an item, one must use a soul gem in much the same way as one might empty a gas can into one's car.  In fact, the PC can fill an empty soul gem by killing a creature or NPC while a Soul Trap is in effect (either through a spell or a weapon enchantment).  Given the prevalence of magic items in TES games, the filling and expending of soul gems in an integral part of gameplay in Skyrim.

The potential moral issue arises from the lack of clarity regarding the in-game definition of "soul."  While the game tends toward a Western paradigm regarding the soul -- that is, the soul as the immaterial essence of an individual's identity, connected to yet distinct from both body and mind because it exists after both are gone -- the composition of the purplish energy that emanates from a slain, Soul-Trapped enemy is a bit of a mystery.

Some TES sources claim that the personal, conscious soul is trapped in the gem as potential energy, only to be released when the charge is depleted.  If so, then the trapping of a soul within the gem would seem a bit like torture, and would be very hard fate for me to justify, even for an enemy.  After all, when I am killing opponents, it is usually only because my opponents are trying to kill me or someone else, not because I wish them to suffer some kind of existential torment.

Others claim that the "souls" are not souls in the Western sense, but rather a kind of "life force" that powers the body.  This non-personal model regards the soul as similar to other substances associated with life, such as blood or hair or breath.  As such, the soul can be harvested under the same kinds of guidelines that one might use when taking anything else from a dead body, without worrying that the consciousness of the person is somehow enslaved by the process.

Although I routinely collect and use enemies souls, I am still not entirely certain which view is more accurate.  Obviously, I am prejudiced toward the latter view because I would hate to think that I am entrapping the immortal essence of sentient beings for my own personal use.  Even so, I would argue that the second model makes more sense:

  1. Man, Mer, and Beast races of humanoids have souls, but so do Mudcrabs and Charuses (albeit "smaller" souls that require smaller gems).  I therefore doubt that the word "soul" here is equivalent to "transcendent personhood."
  2. In the quest entitled The Black Star, a mage perverts a soul gem so that he could enter it while still alive.  When I went inside this gem myself to expel him, I was also conscious.  Because this act was so extraordinary, I would assume that normally, souls are not conscious entities with the gem.
  3. But for the exception above, soul gems are never associated with particular people, nor is anyone's personality brought back by enchanting an item with a soul gem.
I am therefore going to continue to play under the assumption that soul gems contain an impersonal life force rather than a personality.  If I have no moral trouble looting from a dead opponent, I should have no problem harvesting its "soul."

Friday, August 10, 2012

The House of Horrors

After the Boethiah's Calling debacle, I let Uthgerd go home and traveled back to Markarth to clean up a few miscellaneous quests. Shortly after I entered the city, a Vigilant of Stendarr (a kind of militant priest who hates the Daedra and their adherents -- so, my kind of guy) named Tyranus approached me and asked for some backup in his investigation of an abandoned house.  I agreed, and in we went; it became readily apparent that there was indeed something "off" about the house:
Don't go into the light, Carol Anne!
When we reached the basement, all hell broke loose: ghostly voices, flying objects, and an aggressively funereal miasma.  Tyranus suggested that we make a break for it, and I concurred, but when we reached the front door (now unpickably locked), a ghoulish voice commanded me to kill "him," which I took to mean my companion, the Vigiliant of Stendarr.  Again, I'm not in the habit of killing NPCs with whom I have no quarrell, so I continued to look for an exit.  Tyranus, however, proved to be more amenable to the voice:
Here we go again.
Once more, I found myself in the position of having to kill someone I really would rather not.  After reluctantly defeating Vigilant Tyranus, I followed the voice down to the basement in order to confront whatever eldritch abomination was at work in this house.

What I found was a sinister-looking shrine that featured a rusty mace. When I approached the shrine, spiked iron bars sprang up around me, and I found myself a captive audience for the Daedric Prince of Domination and Enslavement, Molag Bal. The entity offered to release me if I promised to find and kill a particular priest of Boethiah named Logrolf the Willful; this priest, apparently, had desecrated Molag Bal's shrine (the one I was currently trapped in), and the Daedra wanted revenge.  The wrinkle was that Logrolf was currently imprisoned by the Forsworn, and therefore out of the Daedra's reach. My job was to "rescue" Logrolf and return him to the Shrine so that I could kill him for Molag Bal's satisfaction.

But for one factor, this would have been an easy quest for me to fail, as it runs in the same vein as the Namira and Boethiah quests.  The complication for me was that the "victim" in this case was a priest of the same cult that just a.) tried to kill me and b.) asked me to deceive and murder an innocent person for their ritual.  Normally, I don't kill non-hostiles, but I was beginning to feel as though most Daedric cultists were fair game; even if they don't attack me personally, the zeal they exhibit for their abhorrent practices means that they are a legitimate threat to the general public.  Furthermore, this was an internecine feud between two despicable entities, so I really couldn't care less what they did to each other:
Logrolf is not helping his case here.
That, however, is not the whole story.  After my experiences with Sheogorath and Sanguine, I was not eager to become a Daedra's puppet again, even if I was choosing to do so consciously this time.  Moreover, the only real difference between this quest and the previous two was the identity of the victim; did the fact that I might have executed Logrolf anyway justify sacrificing him at the behest of a malicious Daedric Prince?  Another factor to consider was the reward, as yet unknown at this point in the quest; how big of a factor in my decision was the anticipated artifact?  After all, I could have either walked away from the quest after falsely promising Molag Bal to retrieve the priest, or purposely failed it by killing Logrolf at a location other than the shrine, but I would get nothing for my troubles in both cases.  Also, I could not ignore the etymology of this particular Daedra: "Molag Bal" sounds a whole lot like a combination of Moloch and Baal.  Would cooperating with Molag Bal violate my moral profile?

Ultimately, I decided to kill Logrolf at the shrine as per Molag Bal's instructions:
  • I was inclined to kill Logrolf anyway because he was a priest of Boethiah, and therefore not averse to killing me (or anyone else, for that matter).  I would not have gone out of my way to do so were it not for this quest, but I would not have lost sleep over killing him in other circumstances.
  • Despite my obedience in this matter, I feel no particular allegiance to Molag Bal, and I would have no problem betraying him or his followers in the future.  These are bad people doing bad things, so I am willing to play them against each other for my good and the good of Skyrim.
That second point is the stickiest for me.  One of the traits of the Daedra that make most of them seem so diabolical is their penchant for manipulating mortals for their own gain.  Wasn't I doing the same here?  Along the same lines, one reason that I despise the Thalmor is their fondness for creating strife between two groups they dislike (i.e. the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks).  In killing a Priest of Boethiah under the orders of Molag Bal, was I now committing the very act for which I was punishing the Thalmor?

Misgivings aside, the Mace of Molag Bal is now one of my favorite weapons.  I wish I could say that the prize didn't matter, but in this case, it really did.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Boethiah's Calling

Not long after The Taste of Death, I was randomly attacked by a Boethiah cultist while in the midst of another quest.  On his body, I found a copy of Boethiah's Proving, a Daedric fable that expounds the qualities that Boethiah (Daedric Prince of deceit, conspiracy, secret plots of murder, assassination, treason, and unlawful overthrow of authority) prizes most in a worshipper:
Camus meets Conan the Barbarian
The book instructed me to find the Shrine of Boethiah; I complied because I wanted to know more about this cult whose devotee just tried to kill me. 

Not knowing what to expect, I asked Uthgerd to come with me.  To be perfectly frank, I was concerned not only about the physical dangers but also, after my experiences with the cult of Namira, about my own actions.  Uthgerd, while certainly not squeamish about bloodshed, has a very strong moral sense.  For example, during a random encounter, we assisted a Stormcloak in his fight with a group of Thalmor.  I accidentally hit the Stormcloak during the battle, so after we defeated the Thamlor Justiciars, he turned on me.  In defending myself, I killed him.  Uthgerd said nothing at the time, but apparently reported me to the Guards, because I ended up with a bounty from that encounter.  I appreciate both her willingness to follow me into deadly battle and her refusal to let me get away with anything.  Therefore, I wanted her with me on this one.

When we arrived at the Shrine, we met the Priestess, who explained the tenets of Boethiah worship while two other cultists fought to the death in the ring.  In their own, strange way, these were friendly people -- cult members kept asking in a firm but polite manner if I wanted to challenge them.  The Priestess then brought me to the Pillar of Sacrifice and instructed me to lead a follower to the site and kill him or her; apparently, this would get Boethiah's attention:
As it was with the cult of Namira, so it was with the cult of Boethiah.  If they were just killing each other for sport, I could have walked away, but the random attack and the Priestess's words left no doubt about the cult's proclivities concerning innocent people.  And, again, there was no way for me to have them arrested.  The only viable option left was for me to draw my weapon and purposely fail the quest by wiping out the cult as I had done before.

This time, it wasn't that simple.  After Uthgerd (who did nothing to stop me this time -- I read this as approval) and I defeated everyone at the Shrine, Boethiah him/herself spoke through one of the dead bodies and reiterated the need for me sacrifice a follower.  Apparently, my slaughter of the cultists pleased the Daedric Prince (I really should have seen this coming), and I was now poised to take the next step.

The next step for me, however, was to get out of there.  I have neither the desire nor the justification to kill a trusting follower.  While it is true that acquiring more powerful artifacts might help me save Skyrim from disaster, I cannot justify that kind of utilitarian thinking in these Daedric quests.  The legacy of Boethiah's Calling for me so far is an open quest in my journal that I will not resolve.  My only option is to find a follower whom I would likely kill anyway, but I don't know if that kind of NPC exists.  Even if it did, would I be willing to purposely lead that person to his or her death under false pretenses?

As it turned out, the next quest answered that question for me a lot more quickly than I anticipated.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Taste of Death

The third Daedric quest I performed, entitled The Taste of Death, proved to be the most disturbing quest I have undertaken so far.  Part of my discomfort comes from the focus of the quest itself -- cannibalism -- but also from a new kind of behavior that I have begun to exhibit when dealing with Daedric cultists.

The quest began when I agreed to clear out Markarth's Hall of the Dead at the request of Brother Verulus, a Priest of Arkay; apparently, some of the bodies had been partially eaten, which offends both the Divine and the loved ones of the deceased.  I suspected draugr when I entered, so I was surprised when this happened:
Eola went on to explain that her little group of cannabalistic Namira (Daedric Prince of rot and decay) worshippers had been forced to relocate form their usual feasting spot in Reachcliff Cave when the dead started biting back (draugr, most likely).  She agreed to leave the Markarth Hall of the Dead alone if I helped her retake Reachcliff.  I thought briefly about killing her, then a few possibilities occurred to me: 1.) I like ridding the world of draugr, and 2.) if there were more people like Eola, I wanted to know about it.

Clearing out the cave was challenging, but not unduly so.  The interesting part happened after I defeated the boss draugr.  Eola thanked me, then told me that, for my initiation into the coven, I would be required to bring a fresh kill back to the cave -- Brother Verulus, specifically.  There were, of course, two obvious problems with that idea: 1.) I did not plan to become a cannibal anytime soon, and even if I did, 2.) I was not going to murder someone in order to do it.  As strange as this may sound, it was not the prospect of eating human flesh that troubled me most; after all, what is Christian Communion other than an image of cannibalism?  It was the second part -- murder -- that tore it for me.  There was no way that I was going to trick a decent man, a man who had been nothing but good to me, a man who had trusted me with the cleansing of his Hall of the Dead, into being the main dish at a cannabal pot-luck.

Nevertheless, I decided to go along with Eola's plan; I wasn't going to let anything happen to Brother Verulus, but I wanted to see who else was in this coven.  As it turned out, this Cult of Namira comprised a veritable cross-section of Markarth society, including a shopkeeper, Lisbet, for whom I was in the middle of a minor miscellaneous quest: 
Lisbet's not getting her stupid statue back.
Verulus obediently came along with me, and when we entered the "dining hall," Eola used her magic-enhanced powers of persuasion to lead him to the sacrificial altar.  When the befuddled Verulus lay down, Eola offered me the chance to make the kill. 

Throughout most of this quest, I had been considering what I should do with these cannibals.  If they were simply eating the bodies of the dead, I'm not sure what I would have done; necrophagy alone is offensive, but does it warrant extermination?  In this case, however, there was no doubt that these cultists were willing to kill innocent people in order to satisfy their twisted hunger.  Therefore, at the moment I was to sacrifice Brother Verulus, I turned my weapons on the "diners" and killed every single one of them -- including Lisbet (I'm now stuck with the statuette I had agreed to retrieve for her).

Morally speaking, this was a thorny scenario. Because there was no "go to the authorities" option for this quest, my choices were to participate in the ritual, ignore the ritual and walk away, or kill everyone at the feast.  Clearly, I wasn't going to participate, but walking away would be almost as bad; how could I turn a blind eye to this outrage?  Killing the cultists was the option most in line with my moral outlook.  The nagging misgiving I have about my actions, however, arises from the manner in which dealt with the cannibals.  First, I purposely deceived Eola and her friends in order to kill them.  Second, I used Brother Verulus in order to gain the trust of the cult; although he lives through the experience, he is a changed man afterwards.  The question that follows: even in a game like this one, in which fights to the death are common, how dark will I get in order to maintain my sense of moral justice?

I should also point out that this was the first quest I purposely failed.  Had I killed Verulus and fed on him, I would have gained another Daedric artifact.  Not only did I lose out on a powerful item, I am also now unable to unlock the "Oblivion Walker" achievement.  Sometimes, playing with attention to moral agency has a gameplay price. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Missing in Action

Although Missing in Action is technically a side quest, it has ramifications for the Civil War questline.  The quest focuses the player's attention on the feud between the Battle-Born and Gray-Mane families of Whiterun.  As with the Hadvar-Ralof conflict in Riverwood, the tension between the two clans is a microcosm of the civil strife between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks.

For me, the quest started when I overheard an argument between Fralia Gray-Mane and some of the Battle-Born clan in the Whiterun marketplace.  Fralia's son, Thorald, was captured by the Imperial Legion because of his association with the Stormcloaks.  The Battle-Borns, staunch supporters of the Empire, cruelly claimed that Thorald died as a traitor in Imperial custody, but Fralia insisted that he was still alive, and she asked me to investigate the matter for her.  She claimed that the Battle-Borns knew more than they were letting on, so I visited their house, exchanged pleasantries with the family (I had helped little Lars with a bullying problem earlier), then Lockpicked my way into a bedroom, where I found an Imperial missive:
The Thalmor are involved?  Shocking.
When I returned to the Gray-Manes with my findings, Thorald's brother Avulstein wanted to get a rescue squad together, but I suggested that it would be better for me to go alone.  At the gate to Northwatch Keep, I tried to convince the guards that I was there on official business:
It did not work.
Having tried the peaceful option and failed, I then began a steath assault on the Keep.  I defeated wave after wave of Thalmor soldiers until I found the Thalmor Interrogator, killed him, then spoke with Thorald as I released him:

So, it had even less to do with the Imperial Legion than I originally thought.

After arming Thorald, I led him out of the Keep.  When we were safely outside, he asked me to deliver a message to his mother, then left to find the nearest Stormcloak camp.  I did as he asked, and his mother gave me her bittersweet thanks.

Ironically, it was this quest, undertaken on behalf of a Stormcloak family, that solidified my decision to join the Imperial Legion.  Stormcloak or not, Thorald did not deserve torture, and certainly not at the hands of the Thalmor.  I felt genuine sympathy for the Gray-Manes, as well as legitimate dissatisfaction with the Empire's willingness to roll over (however begrudgingly) for the Thalmor.  Ideologically, I agree with the Stormcloaks, but their naivete and single-mindedness actually work to the Aldmeri Dominion's advantage; the White-Gold Concordat is an odious treaty, but by agreeing to it, the Empire bought time to rebuild and prepare for the nigh-inevitable next war.  In starting a civil war over the ban on Talos worship, the Stormcloaks have unintentionally strengthened the Thalmor's position.  Prior to the Concordat, there were no calls to for Skyrim to secede from the Empire, mainly because the Empire allowed each province to govern itself as it saw fit, as long as it continued to provide economic and military support to the Empire.  The Concordat splintered Skyrim, which was probably the Thalmor's intent, but it was the only move the Empire had left.

Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak seems like a good man with a bad idea.  Instead of trying to reclaim the Province for the "true sons of Skyrim," he ought to be investing his admirable faith in his men into creating a formidable commando unit in order to take down the Thalmor when the Empire is strong enough to wage another war.  Missing in Action not only demonstrated the magnitude of Thalmor treachery, but also taught me that taking out a Thalmor stronghold isn't all that difficult.  Jarl Ulfric's inability to see the bigger picture forces me to side with the Imperial Legion, even if that means I will eventually have to spill Stormcloak blood -- something I would really rather not do.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Night to Remember

The conflict in most Daedric quests is that you find yourself doing the bidding of a powerful, supernatural entity, and your success is often rewarded with a powerful artifact.  Playing with a concern for moral agency can make these kinds of quests complex: am I a puppet of a Daedric Prince, or do my aims just happen to coincide with the desires of this being?  Furthermore, as most of the Daedra encountered in TES V: Skyrim are malicious (or at least not beneficent), the morality of one's actions can become quickly tangled.

I completed two Daedric quests before starting A Night to Remember, both of which were morally uncomplicated.  The first, The Break of Dawn, required me to clear out the draugr and necromancers from Meridia's Temple.  Because I fight those two hostile groups very frequently, I had no problem doing so at the behest of a Daedric Prince.  Besides, Meridia is one of the few "good" Daedra, so there was no real conflict for me.  The second, The Mind of Madness, required me to track down Sheogorath inside the mind of an insane, deceased Emperor and convince him to vacate. While Sheogorath, as the Daedric Prince of Madness, is unpredictable at best, the whole surreal quest occurs inside an NPC's mind, so none of the actions are "real" (i.e., taking place in Skyrim).

A Night to Remember, however, provided more opportunities for moral conflict.  The quest began when I accepted a drinking challenge from a stranger in Whiterun's The Bannered Mare.  The stranger, Sam Guevenne, bet me his staff that I couldn't drink him under the table.  While a drinking contest might not seem like a morally sound scenario, it is well to remember that Skyrim is a hard-drinking culture; "milk-drinker" is a standard insult.  I soon blacked out and woke up in the Temple of Dibella in Markarth -- a town I had not visited before, and did not remember visiting now.  Apparently, I had trashed the place in my drunken stupor, and the priestess was demanding that I help her clean up, which I did...after I failed to Persuade my way out of it.  She then mentioned the town of Rorikstead, where Sam and I had apparently caused even more trouble.  When I arrived, I was accosted by the farmer Ennis, who claimed that I had stolen his goat and sold it to Grok the Giant.  After failing again to Persuade a victim of the previous night's shenanigans, I peaceably lured Gleda the goat back to Ennis.  He then told me that I owed my friend Ysolda of Whiterun some money.  I traveled to Whiterun and spoke to Ysolda, who told me that she gave me a wedding ring on credit, but apparently my fiancee (whoever that was) and I had some sort of falling out, and she had gone back to where we met: Witchmist Grove.  I needed to pay for the ring or go get it back from my intended; this time, however, I managed to Persuade her to let me slide on my debt.  While laughing good-naturedly at my drunken stupidity, she informed me that I was supposed to get married at a place called Morvunskar.

Morvunskar, as it turned out, was an abandoned fort, full of hostile wizards.  I fought my way through them, thinking that Sam and/or my mystery bride might be hostages.  What I found, however, was a glowing portal to what looked like an evening garden party.  When I found the main banquet table, I encountered not my betrothed, but Sam -- who quickly revealed himself to be Sanguine, Daedric Prince of Debauchery.  The whole quest, it seemed, was an elaborate prank for his amusement.  For my troubles, he made good on his original wager; he gave me Sanguine's Rose, a powerful staff indeed, then transported me back to the Bannered Mare.

A Night to Remember is certainly one of the more light-hearted quests available in the game, but it still offered a few moral decision points.  As with all quests, Daedric or not, it is always possible to turn down, purposely fail, or refuse to complete a quest at any point.  Had I not felt like dealing with the aftermath of my carousing, I could have just walked away from the temple in Markarth and gone on to other things.  Additionally, with each interaction, my dialogue options included Persuade, Intimidate, Bribe (sometimes), or just do the thing I was asked to do.  As I explained in a previous post, I usually prefer Persuade to Intimidate, and Intimidate to Bribe.  For this quest, however, it felt wrong to go past Persuade; I obviously had given these three people a rough time the previous night, so if I couldn't talk myself off the hook, I didn't feel right threatening them or buying them off. 

The tasks themselves were a mixed bag.  Cleaning the temple was tedious, but easy.  Finding the goat, on the other hand, was much trickier, both strategically and morally.  According to Ennis, I sold Gleda to Grok, so fighting the giant seemed both wrong and foolish.  I opted instead for stealth, luring Gleda away while keeping my distance from Grok and his cyclopean club.  Because I used Persuade successfully on Ysolda (who was probably still grateful for the mammoth tusk I found for her earlier), I unwittingly skipped the very last task.

According to the walkthroughs, if I had failed to Persuade Ysolda, she would have required me to go to Witchmist Grove to reclaim the wedding ring.  After I finished the quest, I felt a bit guilty about talking Ysolda into cancelling my debt, and I was curious about the woman to whom I had proposed, so I traveled to the aforementioned Grove.  There I met my fiancee:
Apparently, I had been drunk enough to propose to a Hagraven.  When I asked for the ring back, she attacked me, so I was forced to kill her (not that I lost sleep over killing a Hagraven, given my previous experiences with them).  I tried to return the ring, but there was no dialogue option when I spoke to Ysolda.  I have therefore decided to hang on to the ring; after all, I have been considering Ysolda as a candidate for marriage.

The other problematic aspect of this quest is the fact that I had become the pawn of a more powerful being without my consent.  The two previous Daedric quests avoided this issue -- the first by allowing me to chose a quest already in alignment with my established habits, the second by being done at the behest of a worshipper, rather than the being itself.  A Night to Remember rewarded me for jumping through a Daedric Prince's hoops, and I did not like the feeling.