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!

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.


  1. Yeah, I've pretty much got the same opinion as you on this. THough, the outcome kinda sting a little bit, mostly because of the guilt. Here we are, freeing a political prisoner who, along with his brother, are going to go off and join the storm cloaks...and yet, the player characters, if they join the legion, kinda slaps that in their face by kinda telling them that the civil war is essentially over and the stormcloaks have lost. It'd probably be really difficult for them to accept that someone who saved a a grey-mane actualy sides against them in the civil war. Heck, we don't even know if they survive the war; they BOTH could have died during the civil war, kinda rendering the rescue a bit pointless. Story-wise, I'd expect the gray-manes to feel utterly betrayed, especially Fralia (It's kinda balance out by the fact that I'd feel even worse if I betrayed Balgruuf.) To be honest, I kinda felt the taunting that the elder battle-born did at the beginning was leaning towards crossing the moral event horizon, going beyond mere bullying

    1. Good points, all. Honestly, I really dislike the Battle-Born clan (especially the patriarch); they use their Imperial connections to lord it over their neighbors. This made my decision to side with the Empire that much more difficult, as it put me odds with NPCs I liked and allied me with ones I didn't. In a way, that arrangement helped me to focus on the moral justifications for my action, since I knew I wasn't just siding with people I liked personally.

  2. Good points made here. This topic is even more interesting for me since I roleplay a Bosmer : it's really difficult to take sides in this conflict, so I would rather not.

    About the Thalmor : yes, they do behave like filthy imperialists, imposing on people's beliefs and liberties. But the hatred between Elves and Humans largely stems from the Snow Elves genocide commited by the Nords ; this genocide itself coming from an attack of the Snow Elves against a Nord city, etc. The roots of the conflict are so deep that I decided that no side was right.

    Granted, the latent xenophoby of the Nords, especially against the Elves, do not plead for them in Skyrim.

    So, in this quest, since torturing political prisoners is wrong, I decided to free Thorald without spilling elven blood, which is a rather meak decision since it does not solve anything. It is also surprinsingly easy to accomplish with a couple invisibility potions and a high "stealth" skill (weirdly, the elves do not consider Thorald as hostile so he just runs free), with the exception of the Interrogator. I'm unsure if it's OK to kill him - after all he's doing his job, not sure if he chose it - or if I should train my "pickpocket" skill enough to plant a paralysis potion on him, to buy enough time to free Thorald. That's actually the only quest I tried and finally decided to save for later.

    Oh, and I don't know either what to do with the other Nord prisoners in the cells, since once freed the rushed to fight the elven guards, who dispatch them easily, unless disabled. But once more, I don't want the Elven soldiers to die either... Maybe "fear" potions would clear the way for a massive evasion ? Extremely tricky at best...


  3. Again, Ran, I'm impressed with your approach. Your attention to history and your meticulous avoidance of violence is obviously the product of a great deal of thought.

    Where I have to take issue with you is in sparing the Interrogator. Yes, you free Thorald bloodlessly, but what about the next Nord he "questions"? Is keeping your hands clean worth allowing the continued torture of political prisoners?

  4. All tactical questions aside, I have to say I would consider religious liberty far more important than racism. Also, just because Skyrim cuts political ties with the Empire, it does not therefore follow that the Stormcloak regime would not ally with the Empire during the next inevitable war with the Dominion. If there is anything a Stormcloak hates more than the Empire, its the Thalmor.

    1. Good point. Perhaps, if the Stormcloaks accomplish independence, Skyrim and the remnants of the Empire could get over their animosity and join forces against the Dominion in much the same way that the U.S. and England managed to "bury the hatchet" after the Revolution and the War of 1812.

    2. Hmmm, I don't know if religious liberty is far more important than racism (in Skyrim at least). The outlawing of Talos worship is wrong and unjustified, but it can be done in secret. I believe that racism, having the needs of elves and other races ignored (or worse), has a more damaging effect and one that is more present.

  5. I role play as an undercover Thalmor agent who is tasked with sowing chaos in Skyrim. So this is an interesting read for me. I just wanted to point out that the Battle-borns are not really bad.
    If we persuade Idolaf battle-born he tells us he and Thorald were childhood friends , he looked into Thorald's dissappearance and that he had to stop because of the imperial missive.
    The battle-borns got money through hard work they have a farm. And if there is anything that Nazeem taught me its that having a farm gets you into the cloud district in Skyrim.
    The Grey manes behave just as stuck up with that old woman calling the battle-borns dung sniffing stuck ups which I assume is because of the farm. (She is obviously jealous of the farm).
    And the lack of honor for serving the empire (the empire built by Tiber Septim) is stupid and they are essentially calling half of the nords in Skyrim cowards because they support the empire.