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, February 23, 2013

Thieves' Guild (Loud and Clear/Dampened Spirits)

Because the next two quests in the Thieves' Guild line dealt almost exclusively with shadier characters, it was paradoxically easier to justify my actions.

Loud and Clear

Loud and Clear boils to corporate espionage and sabotage, and the moral profile of my character doesn't really account for these kinds of dealings (see The Rules of Engagement).  Admittedly, destroying the property of a Thieves' Guild/Black-Briar business partner may not be paladin-like, but there are a few other factors to consider beyond the necessity of advancing in the quest line:
  • If done with sufficient stealth, the quest does not demand bloodshed.
  • All of the parties involved are willing participants in ethically questionable dealings rather than innocent victims.
  • Destruction of a business's property is reversible and open to compensation if need be.
One unexpected side benefit of my earlier procrastination was that my Sneak, Pickpocket, and Archery skills were now high enough that I could actually complete the quest without engaging in battle. I entered Aringoth's house undetected, pickpocketed the safe key, stole the bill of sale, and set fire to the prescribed three out of five apiaries (using my fire-enchanted bow from a safe distance) -- all without battling a single mercenary. 

Dampened Spirits

Dampened Spirits continues the plot of the previous quest; Maven Black-Briar, the Don Corleone-esque head of the Black-Briar Meadery, asks the PC to ruin her main competitor: Sabjorn, the owner of Honningbrew Meadery.  She has an inside man (Mallus) who suggests that I poison the batch of mead Sabjorn has reserved for a special tasting he has arranged with an Imperial dignitary.  The moral quandries here were as follows:
  • I didn't know if the poison was lethal.  Given Maven's ties to the Empire, I suspected that the poison was meant to nauseate rather than kill, but I couldn't be sure.
  • I was again helping to ruin another neutral NPC's business.  I should point out, however, that my interactions with Sabjorn prior to poisoning the mead indicate that he is both dishonest and mean, and therefore a more palatable target than the truly neutral Aringoth.
  • The Honningbrew Meadery lies just outside the walls of Whiterun.  As I had feared earlier, I was now engaged in criminal activity right outside the gates of my favorite city.
As in the previous quest, I decided to complete the objectives, despite my misgivings.  Fortunately, I was right about the poison; Commander Caius got sick, but recovered fast enough to arrest Sabjorn on the spot.  The business itself survived with Mallus in charge, but I still felt apprehensive about any further Thieves' Guild involvement in "my" city.

Did I forget to mention that I poisoned an Imperial Commander?

By now, my actions have clearly led me out of Lawful Good territory.  While my original definition of Lawful Good in the context of Skyrim may be arguable (e.g. killing and stealing from enemies is morally justified), I was now destroying the legally-owned property of essentially neutral characters in order gain a position in an important faction.  At this point, Lothar Ironfoot had taken a pronounced turn toward the Chaotic.

Thieves’ Guild (Taking Care of Business)

After my impressive display of thieving skills in the marketplace, Brynjolf invited me to the Ragged Flagon, the Guild’s hangout underneath the city.  There, he finally gave me all of the information I was looking for; he directed me to where Esbern was hiding and he introduced me to Vex, the Guild member who knew about the Stones of Berenziah.  Eager to advance my progress in the main quest, I spoke to Vex quickly, then set about finding Esbern deep in the Ratways under Riften.  I will detail that adventure in another post.  For now, it is enough to note the delay itself; as I pointed out earlier, my ambivalence led me to postpone the next quest in the Thieves’ Guild line until I finally concluded that leading this third crucial faction was necessary.
In order to become I full-fledged member of the Guild, I would have to complete several jobs, the first of which was to collect three debts from local business owners.  Brynjolf made it clear that he preferred non-violent methods (my first hint that there was more to the Guild than crime), but that I was free to do whatever was necessary.   

The biggest hurdle for me here was the nature of the debts.  If the Guild was shaking down local shopkeepers for protection money, then I really couldn’t justify collecting the “debts.”  If, on the other hand, these were voluntary loans (albeit to a loan shark), I could probably manage to collect the money in a morally palatable way.  Unfortunately, the game provides little clarification on this issue.  Like most of the citizens of Riften, all three business owners seem a little on the shady side.  On the other hand, their complaints about the Guild could be read as an indicator of extortion.  I decided to give Brynjolf the benefit of the doubt.

The first debt I collected came from Keevara, the Argonian innkeeper.  In my pre-Guild procrastination, I had helped her boyfriend, Talen-Jei, assemble an engagement ring, so I felt bad about having to lean on her.  Still, Keevara is not a very pleasant woman, and I had a sure-fire, non-violent method to get the money.  Talen-Jei had told me how worried she was about her family, who lived on a farm just beyond the Morrowind border.  As soon as I mentioned them to her, she handed over the money right away.  I suppose that what I did was technically a threat, but I never went beyond implying that I knew of her family’s whereabouts nor did I have any intention of doing anything to these people, so I think I remained in the grey on this one.  She fulfilled her obligation without anyone being harmed in any way.  I must admit, however, that Talen-Jei’s habit of alternately thanking me for helping me with the ring, then berating me for what I did to Keevara is rather distressing.

The second debt was easier on my conscience.  Bersi Honey-Hand, the owner of the Pawned Prawn, caved as soon as I destroyed his prized Dwemer urn.  I have a much higher tolerance for destruction of property than I do for other kinds of violence; things are merely things and can be replaced, and if this thing was so important, I would think that Bersi would have stopped me well before I destroyed it.  I threatened to break it, then I hit it several times, thus giving him every opportunity to pay up before I shattered it.  

The final debt was easier still.  Haelga, owner of Haelga’s Bunkhouse, is pretty clearly a madam and/or a prostitute, and, as I found out by talking to some of the girls in her employ (including her niece!), not a very nice one at that.  Threatening to drop her statue of Dibella down a well was all it took to get her to cough up the money.  Given Haelga's profession and disposition, I had no qualms about collecting from her.

In case you missed the "pretty clearly a madam and/or a prostitute" part.
Without a doubt, my behavior in this quest was the most "grey" it has been so far in this playthrough.  While I had certainly done some questionable and even some bad things, this quest presented a very murky picture for me.  Unlike previous quests in which I had to decide whether or whom to kill, this quest asked whether I would commit nonviolent acts of a potentially criminal nature against people with whom I had no real quarrel.  Were it not for my desire to join the Thieves' Guild, I doubt that I would have engaged in these actions.  While I could dismiss Riften as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy" (with apologies to Star Wars fans everywhere), I feared that I might have to commit more serious crimes in places that I actually loved, such as Whiterun.

Not surprisingly, the next few quests pushed my boundaries a little further.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Thieves' Guild (A Chance Arrangement)

For the moral agent, the Thieves’ Guild questline provides a veritable minefield of ethical problems.  I almost did not join the Guild for precisely that reason, but as I revealed in a previous post, I thought that joining was necessary for completing the main quest and that the Dragonborn should tie together as many factions as possible; while I was mistaken about the first point, I still stand firmly by the second.

Joining the Thieves’ Guild involved going to Riften – a town so rife with corruption that the first guard I met tried (unsuccessfully) to shake me down before I even passed the gates.  Once inside, I met a proud warrior name Mjoll the Lioness who lamented the dissolute influence of the Guild on the town, and vowed to bring the thieves to justice.  Eventually, I asked the right person the right question, and learned where I could find Brynjolf -- a friendly, high-ranking thief who could lead me to Esbern (the former Blade who would help me defeat Alduin) and who could provide the information I needed in order to solve the mystery of the Stones of Barenziah I kept finding all across Skyrim.   Brynjolf’s help, however, came at a price: I needed to help him frame a Dunmer merchant named Brand-Shei who had been making trouble for the Guild – the same Dunmer merchant whom I had helped with a personal matter just the other day.

The task was designed to not only eliminate a potential threat, but also to test my Sneak, Lockpicking, and Pickpocket skills.  While Brynjolf distracted the shoppers in the marketplace, I was to break into a jeweler’s strong box, steal a necklace, then plant the necklace on Brand-Shei – all in broad daylight.  When I completed the task, the town guard arrested Brand-Shei and Brynjolf gave me the information I needed, and then invited me to join the Guild.

The moral ramifications here are obvious.  I committed a crime and sent an innocent man – one whom I had befriended earlier – to jail. What follows is a list of rationalizations:
  1. I (mistakenly) believed that I needed to join the Guild in order to complete the main quest.
  2. I (mistakenly) believed that I needed to complete the crime successfully in order to join the Guild.
  3. I figured that Brand-Shei would eventually be found innocent or simply allowed to serve a short sentence and be released.  I was wrong, but this appears to be a bug; he is scripted to leave the jail after 10 days, but he has not left to date (several in-game weeks later).
  4. I figured that, if the above turned about to be incorrect, I could break him out of jail.  Wrong again; even when I open the door, he won’t leave.
Sorry, dude.
All four rationalizations are troubling. The first is a purely utilitarian argument: sacrificing one man’s freedom for the greater good.  The second points to a desire to please that trumps conscience: assuming that Brynjolf would reject me if I didn’t succeed.  The third softens the first: Brand-Shei would only suffer a minor inconvenience relative to the greater good.  The fourth suggests that I would be willing to break another law in order to “undo” a previous crime.  The most galling aspect of the whole affair is that all four rationalizations were based on faulty information.  I other words, if I had paid attention better, I could have avoided the Guild entirely, and if I had chosen to fail Brynjolf’s task (as I had already done in several Daedric quests), I could have joined the Guild without framing poor old Brand-Shei.

Not surprisingly, the next few quests further complicated matters.