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!

Friday, December 7, 2012

The College of Winterhold

Like that of the Companions, the College of Winterhold questline is best examined as a single unit.  The primary difference between the two is that the College questline is far less morally complex than its more warrior-oriented counterpart.  Because this blog is not meant to be a detailed walkthrough, the lack of a sufficient summary may frustrate those not familiar with the plot; I would direct those readers who have not yet played this questline to the wikis for more a more detailed synopsis.

Of the four moral dilemmas I encountered in the questline, I believe three were unintentional and I decided the sole intentional one long before it officially started.  The intentional dilemma involved Ancano, the Thalmor agent at the College, which explains the ease with which I decided it.  As I had vowed to kill any Thalmor I encountered, the only question for me was that of opportunity.  If I killed him in public, I’d be arrested.  If I assassinated him in private, I might fail the quest and prevent the Archmage from ever getting the Eye of Magnus under control.  I therefore had to bide my time.  Fortunately, I was forced to kill him in the climactic conclusion, so not only did I get to kill a high-ranking Thalmor, but any moral question about killing him was rendered moot by Ancano’s own actions.  The other three dilemmas were more subtle.

The quest called Hitting the Books required me to retrieve several important tomes stolen by a former member of the College.  It quickly became apparent that he had been captured by rogue mages in Fellglow Keep. As I made my through the keep, I found that these mages had not only captured several vampires, but were apparently torturing, dissecting, and experimenting on them -- even caging them and using them for target practice. I am no fan of vampires (see Laid to Rest), but these mages were completely out of line -- not even vampires deserved to be treated like that. When I released one of the vampires, she ran into the next room, attacked the mages there, and was quickly defeated. In one of my more morally questionable decisions, I released the remaining vampires one at a time; they each met the same fate, at which point I was able to easily kill the wounded mages.  By releasing them one at a time, I had given each of them a slim chance at freedom, but to be honest, I did not relish the thought of vengeful vampires running loose throughout Skyrim.  I also decided to kill the "target practice" vampire out of mercy because there was no way to open her cage; leaving her there seemed crueler.

Of course, the one I encountered said, "What do you want, meat," which made my decision a little easier.

At the conclusion of Hitting the Books – a quest in which I had to fight my way through several murderous enemy mages – I encountered the enigmatic Caller, who was in possession of the book I needed.  I successfully Persuaded her to let me take the book and was about to be on my way when a thought occurred: this woman, whose minions not only desecrated a Divine shrine and killed one of the members of the College (Orthorn) while attempting to destroy me, but also were doing vivisections on vampires, was clearly up to no good.  Despite the fact that she was letting me walk away, I felt I had a certain responsibility to eliminate her before she could finish whatever nefarious project she was working on.  Because she was a powerful mage, it was not an easy battle, but I am comfortable with my decision.

Later, during Revealing the Unseen, after I figured out how to control the Dwemer mechanism and displayed the map of Skyrim on the wall, Paratus indicated that he would report my findings to the Synod Council and shut the College down before we could find the Staff of Magnus.  I am ashamed to say that I briefly considered killing him.  I was afraid that his next move would be disastrous, not only to the quest, but also to Tamriel in general, as we were clearly dealing with an extraordinarily powerful artifact.  I could not, however, justify murder, even if it meant disaster for the College.  Fortunately, Paratus's report (if he ever made it) had no effect on the quest; it remains to be seen if there will be any post-quest ramifications.


  1. Regarding the Synod mage: you must have noticed by now that Skyrim doesn't really truck with 'delayed consequences'. If someone is going to get in your way, they will pretty much always have the courtesy to stand up and do it, then and there and personally, so you can kill them and move on. The threat that "I'm gonna tell on you, then you'll get it!" is - about as serious as it sounds.

    1. Yeah, I know, but still....

      Had we programming enough and time (apologies to Andrew Marvell), perhaps Bethesda could write some delayed consequences into the next title. I like to play as though these kind of consequences are at least possible, since real life tends to work that way.

  2. I was a little surprised that you allowed for the destruction of the vampires. I'm curious if you would have still killed them had any survived the gauntlet you compelled them to run, even though they would not have been hostile towards you.

    My character released them all at once and they easily defeated their tormentors before leaving in peace. The remaining captive seemed in good spirits enough to be surly with me so I let her live too. Trapped in a cage can't be fun, but it doesn't mean they're suicidal. Maybe the other vampires will come back with some tools to get her out- who knows? I don't even hunt game because it feels unsporting and mean-spirited to kill a fox or a deer for meat for a character that never hungers or skins for a character that never is cold.

    As for vampires, mostly all of the ones you'll meet in Skyrim are hostile (I haven't played the expansions yet). But I do recall some vampires behaving nobly from earlier games in the series and, even in Skyrim, I'd met several who were the unfortunate puppets of a more powerful vampire and not responsible for their crimes. The player can catch vampirism and, though there is a cure for it, imagine if the player was unaware of this, would it be fair for everyone to wish them dead for something that wasn't their fault?

    If you gave them a slim chance of survival, you may have felt that they could deserve to live. In that case, you probably should have aided them. We don't know where a vampire gets their fix from. For all we know, they could be wiping out bandit camps and necromancers. Maybe that's why they were at Fellglow to begin with- an assault? a botched rescue? We'll never know, but I don't like to assume the worst just be tidy about killing everyone in a dungeon.

    1. really give me a lot to think about here.

      Some of your points run afoul of my particular role-playing style. For example, without prior experience -- which neither I nor my character had -- I could not have known that these particular vampires would not be hostile towards me. Similarly, I have no experience with the other games, nor would my Nord character be likely to known such information. A related point: I rarely hunt either, but not because my character never hungers or gets cold; in order to maintain some suspension of disbelief, I largely ignore the hunger/cold/sleep issues.

      Your more cutting points are in the last paragraph. You're right that I have no idea why the vampires were imprisoned there, and now that I think about more, I wonder if it would have been better for me to simply execute them wholesale. If I really thought they were dangerous, then perhaps releasing them one by one was simply a way for me to avoid feeling that I was executing them -- even though that is precisely what I was doing.

    2. Vampires are a deliberate distortion of natural balance by molag baal. Even if the vampires do not intend to hunt humans, lore suggests that a vampire will go mad if he does not consume blood and then hunt for blood. The exception here being serana and her mother valericia

      Had the vampiric race been a natural predator of humans like sabre cats some leniency could have been still applied to them. Even vampires like serana who have the potential to outlive the player character can be a potential danger, however like parthunax if they demonstrate the potential to keep their blood lust in check, they can be spared as freedom is the right of all sentient beings.

      However this ability seems to be present only among pure blood vampires and the half breeds here probably do not possess that ability and their dialogue choices suggest they dont have any inclination to stop hunting humans. If anything the experiments will only make them vengefull

      However vampires not only hunt humans but also convert them into vampires thus upsetting arkays balance even further.

      Thus all things considered its perfectly moral to execute the vampires

  3. A vampire does not ever have to feed lethally if it doesn't want to. Most of the ones we meet are immediately hostile and will happily murder any innocent they come across, but there is no evidence that the vampires met in this quest are any more evil than the average traveler on the street.

    Also, while vampirism does have a cure, it requires the condemnation of a person's soul to some eternal horribleness. Which could be argued is more or less moral than a lifetime of drinking blood, depending on the means of obtaining that blood.