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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!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Paarthurnax: Further Considerations

The conflict at the core of the Dovahkiin's rise to power is analogous to that faced by Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.   Raskolnikov considers himself to be an extraordinary man -- the creator of a "New Word" -- and therefore above the laws of ordinary men.  He finds himself torn between two models of this "extraordinary man": the Nietschzean Übermensch, who subjugates those beneath him by virtue of his greater power, and the Hegelian superman, who transcends the law in order to perform great and noble deeds.  Raskolnikov considers his murder of the evil pawnbroker as evidence of his superior nature; he breaks the law in order to rid the world of a great evil.  Once he does so, however, he finds himself becoming more Nietschzean, seeking power over others for its own sake.

While Raskolnikov only thinks of himself as extraordinary, the Dovahkiin is emperically superior to those around him, capable of supernatural feats beyond those of the most powerful NPCs and creatures in the game.  During the course of the game, the Dovahkiin can defeat Alduin the World-Eater, challenge the Daedra, decide the outcome of the Civil War, and simultaneously become the leader of the Companions, the Thieves' Guild, the Dark Brotherhood, and the College of Winterhold.  Furthermore, the Dovahkiin literally possesses a "new word" -- or, more accurately, several ancient words -- that denotes a unique role in Tamriel's history. The question is not whether the Dovahkiin is extraordinary; the question is whether he or she will take the Nietschzean or the Hegelian route.  Obviously, the player as moral agent ultimately decides which kind of superman the Dovahkiin will become, but the game provides several prominent models of the Nietschzean Übermensch against which the player can be defined.

The central Nietschzean character in the game is, as I mentioned in the previous post, Alduin.  The World-Eater seeks power over mortals and dragons alike, not for the benefit of his kind or the glory of some divine being, but for his own sake.  He conquers because it is his nature to do so.  He does not bother to justify his actions to anyone, because to do so would suggest that someone else has authority over him.  He enslaves or destroys the weak and commands the strong.  He is the lust for power personified.

Paarthurnax provides a useful Hegelian counterpoint to Alduin.  Here we have a being who, like his erstwhile ally, instinctively seeks to conquer, yet consciously chooses otherwise.  In helping the Tongues and the Greybeards, he betrays his own kind and violates his own innate nature to serve a noble cause: the Way of the Voice.  He creates a new law to supplant the Nietschzean rule of Alduin.

Paarthurnax, however, is not alone.  Brynjolf, Kodlak, Argenir, and even Ulfric Stormcloak demonstrate the power of "honorable transgression."  Each of these characters violates some law or taboo or tradition in order to serve, at least in their estimation, a greater good.  While one could argue against the particular motivation in each case (Jarl Ulfric's cause being the most obvious example), these characters are all motivated by something greater than and outside of their own individual selves.

What is noteworthy here is that each of the more Hegelian characters is presented as decidedly more heroic (or at least respectable) than their Nietschzean counterparts.  Paarthurnax's dialogue is eloquent and thought-provoking, while Alduin's is full of self-aggrandizement and menace.  Consider the conflict between Mercer and Brynjolf; the former amasses power and wealth for himself alone, while Brynjolf and Karliah seek to revitalize the Guild and to serve Nocturnal.  Dawnguard presents another example in the persons of Isran and Lord Harkon.  Despite the freedom of choice available to the PC, the game presents the Nietschzean Will to Power as something the Dovahkiin must overcome at every turn.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this bias occurs in the Dragonborn DLC.  During the Main Quest, the Greybeards warn the Dovahkiin not to abuse his power, but in Dragonborn, we are presented with an antagonist who did precisely that.  What separates Miraak from the other two "final bosses" is that he is a dark reflection of the PC: a Dovahkiin who uses his power for himself rather than for some higher purpose.  In other words, Miraak plays Svidrigaïlov to the PC's Raskolnikov.

While one may choose to play a Nietschzean Dovahkiin, the game clearly favors the Hegelian model.  The vast majority of the minor and side quests ask the player to do something for someone else's benefit.  The Nietschzean role-player has to work around that through cynicism: I am doing this favor for the sole purpose of getting a reward.  Of course, a player can wreak mayhem in the streets, but really, almost every scripted quest invites the player to help someone else.  Even the Dark Brotherhood quests are presented in the context of helping the "family."  Furthermore, each main quest (Skyrim, Dawnguard, Dragonborn) pits the PC against a Nietschzean adversary in order to save the world.  At no point can the player choose to join a Nietschzean NPC in his quest to destroy or enslave Tamriel.  Yes, one can join the Volkihar, but Lord Harkon is still the enemy because his insane plan puts all vampires at risk.  One could argue that joining a Nietschzean faction would be nearly impossible to script because a faction centered around an Übermensch would be a cult, an cults negate the agency of the member, which would run counter to the necessary agency of the PC in an RPG.  This objection merely pushes the question down the road: are all RPGs anti-Nietschzean?

In short, Paarthurnax underscores the Hegelian tilt of Skyrim.  How else to understand a game in which one of most beloved characters is essentially a Hegelian version of the Nietschzean villian?


  1. You touch on a great - weakness, I think I'd describe it as - in the genre of 'computerised RPGs', as opposed to the pen-and-paper model. In the latter, it is certainly possible (and common!) to pursue a self-aggrandising path, and the game can still be enjoyable, because the other human players can respond appropriately. It's hard to program that sort of response into a CRPG.

    Possibly one of the best attempts at a counter-example is "Jade Empire". There, again, you play a character who - because of his birth - is objectively stronger/more powerful than nearly all of those around him. The game is very linear in terms of what you have to do, but it allows you to be quite thoughtful in *why* or *how* you do it.

    In a few places, for instance, you have the choice of killing or sparing defeated enemies. You can choose what sorts of companions to travel with (and the companions themselves are beautifully scripted - the dialogue is thoughtful, witty and well acted). In particular, there's one companion who looks up to you as a mentor, and you can choose what lessons to teach her - guiding her towards one of the two moral paths, which they call "open hand" or "closed fist". (No prizes for guessing which corresponds with "good".)

    Seriously, good game. I recommend it.

    1. Sounds great! Thanks for the recommendation.

      I agree that pen-and-paper RPGs provide a much richer moral experience. The trade-off, given the state of computer gaming at the time of this writing, is that gamers sacrifice breadth and depth of interaction for the opportunity to understand other players' experiences more intimately. For example, if I wanted to talk with you about something that happened during an AD&D session, I'd have to explain quite a bit about the DM and the other players, as well as the module we were running. With a CRPG, I can ask "what did you do about Paarthurnax" and you know immediately how to answer, and I will be able to understand your experience far more directly.

      Maybe the games our grandchildren will play will begin to approach the best of the tabletop games.

  2. Excellent post! I found it very helpful in writing my novelization, "The Song of Deirdre: A Memoir of Skyrim." In considering how to treat the Dovahkiin, who is born "with the soul of a dragon, I chose to give her a bit of a split personality: her Breton soul contends with her dragon soul for supremacy throughout. You might find it interesting:

    I did some testing with different player builds and found that with high enough stealth and illusion, it's possible to play the main quest line without killing any people. I think it may even be possible to do it without killing undead, though I'm not sure that's a moral concern. You can't do it without killing dragons, of course.

    I agree that the Blades' attitude toward the Dragonborn is perplexing, and their obsession with Paarthurnax is quite irrational.

  3. Interesting take on the morality of heroes in Skyrim. I actually made a character with a pretty interesting moral code, while also being a metaphor for the Nietzschean conflict of the Dragonborn.

    He's an Altmer named Alendil, born to a Thalmor loyalist family in the Summerset Isles (homeland of the Altmer), but due to being very sickly in early life, he was regarded as a hidden shame and a failure. Finally, after a particularly long battle with disease that left him a temporary deathlike sleep, he awoke, with a strange affinity to magic, something his family, though of Altmer blood, did not possess. He began practicing, mastering it, but unlike most immoral wizards, recognized that magic was strength, but not his to take, but instead to borrow, having tasted and grown accustomed to his true weakness in it's bitterness.

    Finally, the Thalmor decided to purge him and his family for their "impurities", much to the family's shock and horror. They immediately blamed Alendil, and decided to kill him in revenge. But he had had enough. He killed everyone, family and execution squad, in a gout of witchfire. Knowing that he would be hunted down, he fled on the first ship out to Anvil, in Cyrodiil. He made his way to Bruma, and eventually the border to Skyrim, where he was captured. You know the rest of the story.

    Alendil symbolizes the conflict of the Dragonborn. He possesses a dragon's soul, which gives him both the drive and power to dominate his enemies, which manifests as his desire to gain more power, in the form of magic.

    His mortal body however, was once sickly, and thus, strongly reminds him of his own mortality. He was only able to change this by learning magic, obtaining a power that did not really belong to him.

    It is for this reason he realizes that he cannot abuse the powers afforded to him because though he is powerful, he possesses a dragon soul given to him by a deity, and magic, while powerful, is harmless without the magicka to power it. Without these, he is nothing.

    The combination of these factors define his morals: he would use his great powers to destroy the strong and others who abuse their own powers, knowing full well he is no different from them. This comes to a head with Hermaeus Mora, who pits him against a version of him that is not only darker, but also something he deeply fears.

    Miraak is Alendil if he lets go of his morals, but because of his desire to dominate things, coupled with Hermaeus Mora, whose sphere of influence is both forbidden knowledge (heavily associated with magic) and fate/destiny (which means Mora probably knows that Alendil will join him), Miraak is both a fear and an inevitability.

  4. My opinion on what character archetype game supports is different: the game tends to always offer you the choice between being the hunter of predators or be a predator pretending to be a protector.

    We could look at Talos here: you can either aim to be like the worshiped version of Talos, valiant and merciful, or you can be like the real human Talos: a murderer and megalomaniac, but able to hide his true nature even as he murdered millions for no other reason than to turn himself into a god. Heck, you can even assassinate your own Emperor like Talos did and you gain an evil Red Dragon as your right hand, just like Talos did and you can side with the collapsing Empire against the Nords, just like Talos did.

    The game doesn't allow you to be openly evil, that is true. But it does allow you to define if you are honestly heroic, or just a another Megalomaniacal Dragonborn (after all, almost all known Dragonborns in history have great publicity, but were villains under the hood).