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, March 30, 2013

Thieves' Guild (Scoundrel's Folly through Darkness Returns)

Scoundrel's Folly

As I pointed out in my Anniversary Update post, this quest presents some significant challenges to the moral agent.  I was able to avoid the initial problem of stealing from Jarl Elisif in order to gain Gulum-Ei's information by simply Intimidating the Argonian.  Following him into the warehouse, however, was much trickier, but I managed to complete it without killing anyone other than the bandits inside Gulum-Ei's hideout.  I spared Gulum-Ei because, despite the gauntlet I had to run to catch up to him, he did not attack me directly, nor did he even know I was tailing him. 

Speaking with Silence

Speaking with Silence is far more interesting plot-wise, but presents very few moral challenges.  Nevertheless, the revelations in this quest shed some light on the morality of the Guild as a whole.  Without detailing all of the intricate plot elements, I will simply say that The Thieves' Guild as it first presented in Skyrim is a hollow shell of its former self, mainly because of Mercer's betrayal.  Therefore, many of the less charitable first impressions may have been based on an incomplete picture of the Guild.

Hard Answers

The next quest, like Scoundrel's Folly before it, presents a single moral challenge: trespassing into a friendly facility without being caught by the legitimate guards of said facility.  I did not even have to steal anything this time; I made a charcoal rubbing of the artifact I needed and sneaked back out.

Nope.  Not even with a hundred Fortify Carry Weight potions.

The Pursuit

This quest presents a minor dilemma in the person of Vald, the hired thug at Mercer's house.  My options for getting past Vald consisted of the following:
  • Kill him
  • Persuade him
  • Pay his debt to Maven
Vald is initially non-hostile, so killing would have been wrong (he's obviously not very bright, so he probably has no idea that Mercer had betrayed the Guild).  I failed to Persuade him, so paying his debt was the only viable choice.  It turned out to be a minor chore (finding a special quill that Vald lost in transport), and Vald was grateful enough that he vacated his post.  The rest of this quest pitted me against bandits in Mercer's employ, so there were no further moral dilemmas.

Trinity Restored

This quest reveals the deeper essence of the Guild, which confirms my earlier suspicions about it being much more than a gang of criminals. Even though I was required to enter into a contract with the Daedric Prince Nocturnal, devotion to this entity consists of doing what I was doing anyway: thieving.  Other than that, there are no further opportunities for moral agency.


Aside from killing some bandits and a bunch of Falmer, we had to confront and kill Mercer Frey.  Very straightforward.

Darkness Returns

None of these tests of strength, wit, and stealth are morally complex.

These quests form the main part of the Thieves' Guild line, and are engaging from both a moral and an narrative perspective.  By completing them, I learned that the Guild exists to honor stealth and regulate crime, not merely to line the pockets of its members.  When it is running at full strength, it is an organization that stabilizes the community by setting standards of criminal behavior and driving out destabilizing elements.  As a moral agent, I was able to find justification for their existence, but that justification was about to be tested in the final part of the questline: Under New Management.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Update: Boethiah's Calling/Unearthed

I am interrupting my treatment of the Thieves’ Guild questline in order to provide an update on one of the Daedric quests that has been a real thorn in my side: Boethiah’s Calling.  In my first post on this quest, I declared that I would not complete the quest unless I found a follower who deserved to be sacrificed – a condition I did not expect the game to meet.  While some of the available followers inhabit a moral grey zone (e.g. Janessa), no one outside of the Dark Brotherhood really deserved to be deceived and murdered, and I could not justify joining the Brotherhood (and committing the prerequisite murders) just to sacrifice one of them.  Therefore, I resigned myself to leaving the quest incomplete (since there is no failure condition) for the remainder of the game.

The Dragonborn DLC, however, provided exactly the kind of follower I was looking for.  Most of the Dunmer NPCs  I met in Skyrim were either enemies or grim figures who, while perhaps on my side of the moral spectrum, were nevertheless prone to a kind of nihilistic cynicism.  My visits to Solstheim fleshed out my picture of the Dunmer, but still, I became accustomed to their overall lack of transcendent idealism.  Therefore, when I first met Ralis at the beginning of Unearthed, I felt comfortable funding his excavation project in spite of his obvious avarice and the distinct possibility that he was skimming off the top; after all, even if he was bilking me out of my gold, he was spending it in an economically depressed area and providing jobs for the locals with money that I would never miss: I was carrying about 120,000 gold at this point and had far more than that in loot at home. 

As the quest haltingly progressed through its stages, I became more concerned about Ralis’s seeming lack of regard for the safety of the miners, but I had little choice other than to provide more funds for the project.  By the final stage, I was in for 11,000 gold, but at least a half-dozen miners and guards had died at the hands of the draugr they awakened.  Of course, when I returned to the project site, saw the additional carnage, and read Ralis’s journals, I realized that Ralis had been slowly possessed by the Dragon Priest Ahzidal.  The truly unnerving part for me was that, unlike other similar possessions in the game, I had actually been speaking with Ralis as he slowly succumbed to Ahzidal’s influence; I had assumed he was just a sociopath.

After defeating the resurrected Ahzidal, I was able to speak with the now clear-headed Ralis about what happened.  Although his memory was clouded by the experience, he was aware that he had killed several of the miners himself as part of the resurrection ritual.  The fact that he was possessed would have exonerated him as far as I was concerned, but he completely failed to show any remorse; instead, he seemed far more interested in making sure that no one ever found out: 

If you choose the dialogue option "I can't let you go unpunished," Ralis flips out, claims that Ahzidal will "command us all" and attacks.  So, you can have a sociopath for a follower, or defend yourself from a raving lunatic.
 Tamriel is a hard place, and people sometimes commit great acts of evil.  Some characters, such as Erandur, are willing to do penance for their crimes, and should be permitted to do so in peace.  Others, such as Sinding and Ralis, lack the appropriate moral horror that should accompany their misdeeds, and therefore deserve punishment commensurate to their sins.  Therefore, the question was not whether I would kill Ralis, but whether I would execute him directly then and there, or gain his trust, then sacrifice him at the Saracellum of Boethiah.  I chose the latter:

  • As much as I dislike doing the will of a Daedra, killing someone I would have killed anyway hardly seems like an act of devotion.
  •  I also dislike deception, but given the fact that Ralis himself deceived the miners, and that, as a Dunmer, most likely worshiped Boethiah anyway, leading him to sacrifice feels like poetic justice.
  • Furthermore, my reward was to hunt down a gang of bandits and kill their leader in order to obtain the Daedric artifact (the Ebony Mail) he was wearing – something I would gladly have done anyway.
Certainly, my decision was a calculated and brutal one, but ultimately a just one as well.  Now that I possess the Ebony Mail (along with several other Daedric artifacts), I can be sure that it will not end up in the wrong hands.