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, December 27, 2012

Dovahkiin Leadership Models: The Unifier

After I had been playing Skyrim for about six months, I began to notice a pattern in the major questlines.  I began the Civil War line as a recruit, but finished as a Legate in the Imperial Legion. I began the Companions line as a "whelp," but finished as the Harbinger. I began the College of Winterhold line as a student, but finished as the Arch-Mage.  By completing each questline, I became the leader of the relevant faction. Even though my suspension of disbelief is sufficient to allow for dragons and magic, I was having a hard time understanding how I, a stranger in Skyrim just a few short months ago, could be rising to leadership roles within all of the major factions in the province. Each of the people I had replaced had spent years climbing to his position, and each of them held only one position, but I had garnered three in less than an in-game year. Furthermore, I could not help but notice that leading one group did not preclude membership in others. I therefore began to look for meaning in this strange situation.

When I looked at the Tamriel presented in Skyrim, I found a possible answer.  In the aftermath of the Great War, the Emperor's hold on Tamriel was slipping. Having abandoned Hammerfell and narrowly surviving an uprising in Skyrim (thanks, in no small part, to Yours Truly), the Septim dynasty was reeling.  The current Emperor seemed to have little of the qualities that defined the progenitor of the Third Empire, Tiber Septim.  When I reflected that Tiber Septim had himself mastered the Thu'um as I had, I realized that there was a distinct possibility that the Dovahkiin was destined to be the next Emperor.

Further support for this hypothesis comes from the aforementioned amassing of diverse leadership roles. The current Emperor had seen his Empire not only assaulted from the outside by the Aldmeri Dominion, but torn apart from the inside by conflicts between among factions and races.  It would make sense for the successor to be a unifier -- one who ended the Civil War, one who leads both warrior and wizard, one who is both a true Nord and a friend to other races.

This realization led me to one of my most difficult decisions in this game: whether to join the Thieves' Guild.  My original intent had been to avoid the Guild entirely; I was trying to play a morally conscious character, and associating with known criminals seemed to run counter to that playstyle. But then I found myself in a quandary. In order to find Esbern (the next step in the main quest), I had to talk to Brynjolf, a member of the Guild. Furthermore, in order to complete No Stone Unturned, I had to speak to Vex, who, according to Thieves’ Guild lookout Maul, would not talk be willing to speak to me unless I were a member of the Guild.  I procrastinated on this decision for a long time, but when I realized the need for a unifying leader in Skyrim (and eventually all of Tamriel), I concluded that I would indeed join the Guild, regardless of my misgivings.

Another factor leading me to Guild membership was the structure of the game itself.  In accordance with its fantasy RPG heritage, The Elder Scrolls develops characters within a triangulation of archetypes: Warrior, Mage, and Rogue.  This triad hearkens back to the pencil-and-dice Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, in which the three main character classes depend primarily on the distribution of six attributes: Fighter (Strength and Constitution), Magic-User (Intelligence and Wisdom), and Thief (Dexterity and Charisma); other classes arise from combinations of these archetypes.  Since AD&D, fantasy games have been dominated to one degree or another by the holy trinity of combat, magic, and stealth, and Skyrim is no exception; even the main skill trees are structured in this three-faceted arrangement.

The three fantasy archetypes have been apotheosized in thecelestial background graphic for the eighteen skill trees available in the game. 
In other words, the game seems to invite the development of a leader who embodies the best of all three archetypes, and the in-game world seems to require a leader who can bring disparate factions together.  Becoming the Master of the Thieves Guild would therefore be (for me, at least) less of an exercise in criminal ambition and more of an attempt to bring together the most powerful forces in Skyrim in preparation for the inevitable fight against the Aldmeri Dominion.


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  2. The only problem with your analogy is that the Thieves guild steals from everyone EXCEPT the rich, so they would steal anything from valuable jewlery to valuable government documents, becoming a hinderance to the empire, not an asset. Think carefully and you'll discover that the thieves guild will lead to a more corrupt empire that turns a blind eye to injustice. What would you think of the empire if you asked General tullius "Sir, what are you gonna do about the thieves guild" and he said "Well, nothing. They control skyrim"?

    1. Note: They ally themselves with rich people like Mavan, the shatter shields, and they steal from poor lowly people like the dunmer in the grey quarter. This is not an asset to the empire. If I recall correctly, Mavan is allied with the Thalmor.

    2. I see your point, but consider that, when you take on the Bedlam jobs, you can choose from whom you steal. I liked to take those jobs, then steal from the richest family in the hold.

      Again, I think the role of the Thieves' Guild really depends on who's running it.

  3. I chose to have my character view it through the lens of a necessary (if somewhat small, given the direction of the guild's questline) evil. The need to prepare for the conflict ahead, with the Aldmeri Dominion, Alduin, the Civil War... Everything.

    As for the unfortunate allies of the thieves guild, I believe those were brought about by the group desperately casting it's lot with those it would normally avoid, to prevent the collapse of a group that has, at best, enjoyed quasi-legal status. I'd personally like to take the romantic view of the Dragonborn leading the thieves guild in a stealthily fought campaign of aggression behind Thalmor lines after taking the title of guildmaster.

    Plus, I totally went and made up for the jobs I considered to be the most reprehensible - namely the lowly, thuggish shaking down citizens for protection money. I felt thoroughly humiliated trudging through that quest, and purposely went back to make amends afterwards, especially with the Argonian couple running the inn. Thanks to the hilarious nature of how Skyrim handles relationships, they have a 50/50 chance of hating me for shaking them down for 50 gold (or whatever) and loving me for providing the necessary materials to craft an extraordinarily expensive proposal ring.

    "You have some nerve coming back after what you've done!"
    "You'll always be welcome here!"

    I... I'm so confused.