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, December 14, 2013

In My Time of Need (Katnys)

Regular readers will remember that In My Time of Need was the quest that initially prompted me to begin this blog.  The question at its center -- whom should you believe? -- is what transformed an entertaining video game into a moral sandbox for me.  As I pointed out earlier, I created Katnys as a moral agent who would choose differently from her predecessor, and this is one of the quests that I had in mind when I started thinking about alternate moral choices.  In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit to "stacking the deck" for this quest in order to ensure that choosing Kematu over Saadia made sense for this new PC.  The Alik'r feature prominently in Katnys's backstory in part because I wanted to give this moral agent who values relationships over principles a reason to not only side with Kematu, but also to care about the dilemma at hand.

When Katnys returned to Whiterun after the revelations at Kynesgrove and High Hrothgar, she sought out the Alik'r warriors whom she had seen arguing with the town guard.  Earlier, she had avoided them because she was too focused on the task at hand, but now she felt the need to reconnect with something familiar.  Although she did not know these particular Alik'r, she had heard the warriors with whom she and Prym lived talk of Kematu with pronounced respect.  She was therefore more than happy to help them track down their target.

Once she found Saadia, Katnys listened to her side of the story, which actually cemented her original decision.  Saadia, who has no idea who Katnys is in relation to the Alik'r, refers to them as cowardly assassins, which is a gross mischaracterization -- something only one who had spent time with them would know.  There were some other points to consider:

  • Even beyond the "assassins" reference, Saadia's side of the story didn't ring true to Katnys's ears.  She knew first hand that Hammerfell resisted the Dominion on its own well after the Empire abandoned the province and acquiesced to the Thalmor.  Although there was no way she could know the details of the Second Treaty of Stros M'Kai, it was clear that the Dominion had sought terms while the Redguards were ready to fight to the bitter end.  It was therefore highly unlikely that a Redguard noblewoman would be pursued by her kinsmen for speaking out against the Dominion.
  • Furthermore, the treaty stipulated the removal of all of the Dominion's forces from Hammerfell.  Who, therefore, would care if a Redguard noblewoman was speaking out against them?  It's not as though the Thalmor were roaming free as they were in Skyrim.
  • The Alik'r wanted Katnys to help them capture Saadia, whereas Saadia wanted Katnys to kill Kematu.  The former is the request of men doing their job, whereas the latter is the request of someone who is comfortable betraying her own countrymen -- which is exactly what Saadia was accused of.
  • Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Katnys knew the Alik'r (if not these Alik'r), but she had no idea who Saadia was.  There was little chance she was going to trust a stranger over people she knew.
Still, Katnys wanted a little more insight into the situation; after all, when the Aldmeri Dominion is involved, there is always the possibility of deception and political intrigue.  She therefore followed up with the Alik'r prisoner in Dragonsreach, whose story confirmed her earlier suspicions.  Far from being a "hired gun," this warrior was a man of honor and loyalty, which seriously undermined the validity of Saadia's claims.  Katnys and Jenassa set out for Swindler's Den.

That Kematu had used bandits as cover neither surprised nor offended Katnys.  He had a job to do for his people, and the bandits provided necessary protection and camouflage.   As they meant nothing to him or to Hammerfell, they were expendable.  Furthermore, Kematu had no way of knowing who Katnys was and what her intentions were.  Had he really wished to kill her, he would not have stayed the hands of his men.  After her parley with Kematu, Katnys promised to deliver the traitor outside the Whiterun stables.  Kematu, true to his word, captured Saadia without violence; Katnys, for her part, was glad to have helped pay the Alik'r back, at least in some small way.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Way of the Voice/A Blade in the Dark (Katnys)

After the rush of consuming the dragon’s soul and letting out her first shout, Katnys needed some answers, but she was eager to get to Windhelm to continue her personal war against the Empire.  This “dragonborn” stuff seemed like a lot of Nord nonsense that would only distract her from her mission, but she couldn’t deny what was happening to her.  

In the midst of this internal debate, a new thought dawned on Katnys: if she was going to take on the Empire, she would need all of the power she could muster.  She had a dedicated, like-minded follower in Jenassa, and was earning friends wherever she went, but what if all of that wasn’t enough?  Her skills, her allies, and her rage were strong, but could they alone make the Empire pay for its treachery?  Perhaps this “dovahkiin” business could provide the means for the destruction of the Empire.

With these thoughts in mind, Katnys and Jenassa reported back to Balgruuf, followed his directions to Ivarstead, and then climbed the 7000 steps to High Hrothgar.  While the Greybeards and their monastery were impressive enough, Katnys could never quite take their pious detachment seriously, and just wanted to get on with it.  After all, here was this group of men who possessed immense power, but remained secluded and aloof from the world around them.  Their homeland was under attack by both the Legion and the dragons, but they just wanted to meditate on their mountaintop.  Katnys resolved to jump through their hoops, learn what she needed to learn, and move on.

It therefore came as a profound disappointment when she found Delphine’s note instead of the Horn.  Once again, she would be forced to delay her trip to Windhelm and go down yet another rabbit hole.  As it turned out, however, she didn’t mind this detour quite so much.  Like Katnys, Delphine was a woman of guile and action, so following her to Kynesgrove seemed less pointless than delving into the Greybeards’ dusty dungeons.  Sure, Delphine tended to go on about the Dragonborn and all that, but if what she was saying about the Blades was true, then Katnys needed to be a part of that for two reasons: 1.) a cadre of dragonslayers would be a valuable tool, and 2.) if the Blades had, indeed, protected the Emperor before the Great War, Katnys needed to keep them from returning to that role.

All plotting aside, the encounter with Sahloknir and Alduin at Kynesgrove unsettled Katnys.  Once the shock of seeing Alduin again wore off, she had to wrap her mind around a few disconcerting facts:

  • Alduin was raising dragons from the dead with his Thu’um, while Katnys could barely push people around with hers.  Had she bitten off more than she could chew?
  • If Delphine was to be believed, the Thalmor were behind all of this, and now Katnys would have to infiltrate the Thalmor Embassy.  Ambushing a small group of Justiciars is one thing, but this might be more than she could handle.
  • A few days ago, Katnys was a lone Dunmer just trying to spill some Imperial blood in memory of her sister. She now found herself in the middle of a civil war, a political conspiracy, and some kind of crazy prophesy – none of which she had in mind when she and Prym left Hammerfell.

Hammerfell.  It was that last thought that drove her back to Whiterun.  After returning the Horn to the Greybeards and enduring their pompous (though admittedly impressive) Dovahkiin ceremony, Katnys decided to return to Whiterun to talk to the Redguards she had seen hanging around the front gate.  Before, she had been in too much of a hurry to speak with them, but now that she needed some time to think, a conversation with some Alik’r warriors might help her regain her footing.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Necessity of Narrative for Understanding the Relation-Based Moral Agent

As I finished the previous two posts, I noticed that there is a distinct difference between the way I wrote about Lothar and the way I am writing about Katnyss.  Because Lothar is more of a direct extension of myself into Skyrim, I needed to delineate the rationale behind my decisions, but did not usually feel the need to explain the assumptions and definitions behind my rationale.  For example, in my post on Lothar's Unbound, I explained that I went with Hadvar because he seemed to value human decency over political ideology, but did not explain why I value the former over the latter.  Of course I know the assertion that compassion should be preferred to political orthodoxy is not self-evident, but that preference is so central to my own real-life moral profile that I didn't think to explain it.

Katnyss, however, represents such a departure from my own worldview that I feel as though I have to support every move with an explanatory narrative.  Lothar goes to Bleak Falls Barrow because one is supposed to help people in need -- no further explanation required.  Katnyss, who does not operate on principle, needs a more finely-tuned rationale -- helping Lucan might in turn help her avenge her sister.  Without larger principles to rely on, I feel as though I have to provide Katnyss's personal insight, along with any emotional coloring that might help make sense of her actions.

One side effect is that some of these posts are going to be longer that their mates in the first playthrough.  While I certainly indulged in some storytelling my first time through the game, it was usually as a way to document my first reactions to a given moral dilemma.  On the second playthrough, however, I already know how most of the quests turn out.  Furthermore, I am consciously trying to find a way to do the quests differently than I naturally did the first time.  Therefore, I feel as though I need to explain the reasons behind Katnyss's actions in greater detail than I did Lothar's.

The danger, of course, is that some of the posts will sound more like fan fiction than moral reflection.  I'm willing to take that risk in order to explore a moral system that differs significantly from my own.  I would argue, in fact, that exploring conflicting ethoses is one of the strengths of modern storytelling, and deserves the amount of time that it sometimes requires.

Take, for example, the most recent episodes of AMC's The Walking Dead.  Early in the series, we require very little explanation for Rick's moral profile: he is a sheriff with a wife and son, so we are not surprised when he does the right thing.  Even when he puts himself at great risk for his fellow survivors, we might marvel at the strength of his character, but we don't need an explanation of why he is so devoted to the principles of justice and service to others.  The Governor, on the other hand, requires a multi-episode apologetic for his ethos precisely because he judges everything through personal relationships rather than abstract principles.  In order to understand why he does what he does, we have to know much more about him than we need to know about Rick.

What makes the Governor such a compelling character is that even his most horrifying actions, especially in Season 4 (that is, post-Woodbury), are born of a sense of personal loyalty and responsibility to those who depend on him.  For the Governor, there is no greater good that the survival of his group.  When Pete refuses to raid the small camp of survivors, he places justice and mercy for strangers above the interests of his own group, thereby making him unfit to lead in the Governor’s eyes.  When Hershel pleads with him to consider the lives of the people in the prison, the Governor responds that they are not his people.  His ethics are based entirely on who “belongs” to him:

Hershel Greene: You say you want to take this prison as peacefully as possible. That means you'd be willing to hurt people to get it. My daughters would be there. That's who you'd be hurting. If you understand what it's like to have a daughter, then how could you threaten to kill someone else's?
The Governor: Because they aren't mine.
By allowing the audience to see the Governor’s post-Woodbury journey, the show runners give us the additional information we need in order to fully understand his worldview.  Without these episodes, we are in danger of seeing him as a mere megalomaniac who uses the end of the world as a chance to become the tyrant he could never be before.  With these episodes, we can see the Governor as a man who knows that he must be prepared to do brutal things in this brutal world in order to protect the people who depend on him.  By taking the time to make us understand the Governor, perhaps even agree with him a little, the show creates a far more robust conflict when he makes his move on Rick’s prison.

Similarly, I feel the need to tell Katnyss’s story with greater detail than Lothar’s.  While Katnyss is not meant to be a Governor-esque villain, she is definitely a very different kind of protagonist from Lothar, and therefore requires more in-depth explanation.  Like the Governor, she believes her actions are right, but because her value system runs contrary to the abstract principle-oriented ethos that we generally espouse in Western society, we need to hear more of her story in order to understand her moral agency.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Main Quest (Katnyss): Before the Storm to Dragon Rising

Having survived the chaos of Helgen and Pinewatch, Katnyss took stock of her situation.  She was alone in an unfamiliar place and on the run from the Legion.  While she had certainly been in some tough situations before, this time was different.  Until now, Katnyss had focused her efforts on providing for her little sister and keeping her safe.  With Prym gone, all Katnyss had left was a rage that was as aimless as it was intense.  Of course she wanted revenge on the Empire, but she had barely managed to handle a gang of thugs.  Although Katnyss was not exactly a "people person," she had learned the value of allies from her time with the Alik'r. She needed to make some friends, and fast.

Upon reaching Riverwood, Katnyss made her way over to Gerdur and Hod’s house.  There, she caught up with Ralof and finally got some clarity on the Imperial ambush that killed her sister and led her to the executioner’s block.  During her conversations with Ralof and Gerdur, Katnyss began to feel a new sense of purpose – more accurately, her vengeance began to find a shape.  While she could care less about Talos and the cultural identity of the Nords, she certainly identified with the Stormcloaks’ sense of betrayal.  Joining the Rebellion would give her the opportunity to avenge, at least in some way, her sister’s murder at the hands of the Legion.  She decided to set out for Windhelm as soon as she feasibly could.

Katnyss’s experience at Pinewatch had taught her that Skyrim was going to be a dangerous place to travel alone, so she decided to spend a day or two in Riverwood in order to get some supplies and make some friends.  She took an immediate liking to Faendal, owing to his status as an archery trainer and fellow “fish out of water” in the Nord homeland.  She agreed to help him out-maneuver Sven in A Lovely Letter; Katnyss had no qualms about deceiving a Nord “bro,” nor did she really care that they were fooling Camilla – if Faendal wanted this Imperial girl for himself, so be it.

Now that she had a friend and follower in Faendal, Katnyss set about seeing how she could be useful to the people of Riverwood.  One of the many important lessons she had learned during her time in Hammerfell was that proving one’s usefulness could be the difference between life and death.  The Alik’r warriors were not about to play nursemaid to two Dunmer girls, but Katnyss demonstrated a willingness to do whatever they asked in exchange for their protection and provision.  As a result, she had not only saved herself and Prym from the abuse they suffered at the orphanage, but had also learned a little bit about alchemy, destruction magic, and combat - -especially archery.

Gerdur had already provided one important task: go to Whiterun to inform the Jarl of the dragon menace.  Katnyss would certainly do that as she travelled to Windhelm.  She was also smart enough to learn some basic smithing from Alvor, which gave her a little extra money to work with as well.  Furthermore, she agreed to assist Lucan by retrieving his golden claw from the bandits.  She had already managed to take out an entire gang by herself; with Faendal’s help, she could surely handle this job and thereby gain the favor of the owner of the general store. 

Getting the golden claw back proved to be more eventful than Katnyss had anticipated.  Aside from encountering her first draugr, she had no idea what to make of the word wall and her obvious connection to it.  How could she know a word in a language she’d never seen before?  Why didn’t anything happen to Faendal, who was standing right next her, looking at the very same thing she was looking at?  Prior to her adventure in Bleak Falls Barrow, Katnyss saw the dragon attack at Helgen as a happy (though dangerous) accident, of which she was going to take full advantage.  But it now began to dawn on her that there might be some kind of link between the events at Helgen and the word wall.

It was with these thoughts in her head that she returned to Riverwood, collected her reward from Lucan, and decided to spend the night at the Sleeping Giant Inn before heading to Whiterun in the morning.  While relaxing at the bar, the keep let slip some gossip about an orphan in Windhelm who was trying to employ the Dark Brotherhood, and another piece fell into place for Katnyss.  Her parents had told her stories about the Morag Tong and the Brotherhood to keep her in line while they lived in Hammerfell, and hearing the name again – in connection with an orphan like herself – inspired the next step in her plan.  She would report to Whiterun as promised, then make a bee line to Windhelm to join up with the rebellion and to see if she could learn more about the Dark Brotherhood.  The Stormcloaks and the Brotherhood were going to help her avenge her sister one way or another.

Katnyss and Faendal set out for Whiterun the next morning.  Along the way, just before the bridge outside the city, they encountered a small band of Thalmor Justiciars transporting a prisoner.  While she certainly hated the Thalmor for killing her parents, she had little trouble holding her tongue while the leader of the group condescendingly described his duties to her.  As awful as the Thalmor were, they hadn’t betrayed or abandoned their people the way the Empire had.  With the Thalmor, you knew what you were getting.  This particular group, however, had no idea what they getting in return.  Katnyss managed to slip the prisoner a weapon, then all hell broke loose.  When the dust cleared, the Justiciars were dead, the prisoner had bolted, and Katnyss was now in possession of the perfect disguise to fool any Legionnaires whom they might encounter.

Upon entering the city, Katnyss decided to stop off at The Drunken Huntsman to buy arrows and maybe sell off some Thalmor loot.  After transacting her business, she turned around to see something she had not expected in this Nord stronghold: a fellow Dunmer relaxing in the alcove.  Katnyss approached her, introduced herself, and within a few minutes became smitten by Jenassa’s dark, almost nihilistic banter, which made a refreshing contrast to the hale and hearty conversational habits of the Nords.  Talking with Jenassa felt good in way that Katnyss had not felt before – almost like being with her sister again, but different in some way she couldn’t put her finger on just yet.

Excusing herself for a moment, Katnyss turned to Faendal and realized that she would have to let him go home.  Faendal was a good guy – he had taught her a lot about archery and had even gone along with her foolhardy attack on the Justiciars – but things were about to get a lot darker, and Katnyss needed someone by her side who would be at home in the shadows.  Promising that she would return to Riverwood someday, she bid Faendal farewell and hired Jenassa on the spot.

The irony, of course, is that once Katnyss and Jenassa paid Jarl Balgruuf a visit, they met yet another Dunmer – Irileth, the Jarl’s housecarl.  The fact that this accomplished Dark Elf warrior had placed herself in Balgruuf’s service out of a sense of loyalty spoke volumes about this Jarl, and immediately placed him in Katnyss’s good graces.  He continued to impress her by being more concerned about the safety of his own people than about the politics swirling around him, but the fact that he seemed to favor the Empire a bit troubled her greatly.  Putting aside the latter misgiving, she agreed to join Irileth in defending the Western Watchtower; she had fulfilled her promise to Gerdur and was eager to get to Windhelm, but deserting these people just as a dragon was attacking their city seemed wrong.  And, if Katnyss was being completely honest with herself, she was curious about the dragon after her experience at Bleak Falls Barrow.

The battle with Mirmulnir thrilled Katnyss.  Fighting alongside her kinswomen inspired her to take risks she would never have before.  Knowing that her strength was in her bow, she ran to the top of tower to get more clear shots at the dragon.  While this position exposed her to attack far more than she liked, the danger was a fair exchange for the clearer vantage point.  When the combined efforts of the Whiterun guards and the trio of dark elves brought the dragon down, Katnyss raced down to get a close-up look at her first dragon.  Needless to say, she was prepared for neither the dragon's soul entering her body nor the thunderous call of the Greybeards.

Strange things were afoot, and Katnyss needed answers. Windhelm would have to wait a little longer.