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!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Unbound (Katnyss)

Playing as Katnyss differed immediately from playing as Lothar.  While both of them faced execution at the hands of the Empire, Lothar was a loyal subject in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Although he had no wish to die like a criminal, it was relatively easy for him to forgive Imperial hypervigilance, especially in light of Hadvar’s assistance.  Katnyss, on the other hand, had lost everything because of the Empire: her homeland, her parents, and now her sister, whom she had managed to protect through all prior hardships.  As she laid her head down on the chopping block, she was ready to die, as there was nothing left for her on Nirn.  Alduin’s attack not only freed her from execution, but also liberated her to pursue a new goal: the total destruction of the Empire.  After all, she had nothing left to lose.

Naturally, I followed Ralof this time and relished the opportunity to kill Legionnaires as we escaped Helgen.  After Helgen, however, she had little interest in accompanying the fugitive Stormcloak to Riverwood, so she went her own way in search of shelter.  Before long, she found Pinewatch and broke in, hoping to find a place to stay for the night and perhaps some supplies; instead, she found a nest of bandits.  I was now faced with the first unpremeditated moral decision of this playthrough: kill the bandits or leave them be.

Whereas Lothar routinely kills bandits because bandits prey on the innocent, Katnyss has no sense of obligation to protect the citizenry of a foreign country.  She does, however, have an obligation to avenge her sister…one she cannot fulfill if she is dead.  She knew they were bandits, she knew that if she were caught, she would likely be killed, and, perhaps most controversially for this blog, she had no moral obligation to not kill them.  These bandits were not her people, nor did they provide any benefit for her people, so preemptively killing them was not wrong.  She managed to pick them off with the bow she grabbed during the Helgen fiasco, and proceeded to clear out the caverns, fueled in large part by her rage and grief over her sister’s death.

After ransacking the bandit lair, Katnyss headed for Riverwood the next morning; Skyrim was going to be a tough place for a lone Dunmer, so perhaps she needed to join up with Ralof after all.

Rules of Engagement for Katnyss

Since my goal this time was to play with moral agency from an alternate moral profile, I thought it best to lay out some ground rules at the start, just as I did with Lothar.  Instead of recreating the exhaustive list from the corresponding first playthough post, allow me to point out those areas in which Katnyss’s moral composition differs from Lothar’s.

As a Nord Legionnaire, Lothar usually thinks more about principles than about people, the big picture more than the immediate situation.  He sided with the Empire because he believed a united Empire was the best defense against the Dominion, even though the ban on Talos worship was an egregious offense.  He spared Paarthurnax because the dragon had done the right thing in helping Lothar to overcome Alduin, his brother and former leader.  He destroyed the Dark Brotherhood because they wanted him to kill potentially innocent people solely on their command.  He joined the Thieves’ Guild in order to create a more stable and unified Skyrim.  While not all of his actions are laudable, nor all of his rationalizations convincing, he tends to consider his actions in an abstract, impersonal manner (which action is more just?) rather than a concrete, personal one (which action is best for me and those for whom I care?)

Katnyss, on the other hand, considers the world in terms of relationship rather than principle.  The rightness or wrongness of an action depends mostly on how it affects those around her; abstractions are useless at best, dangerous at worst.  The primary moral obligation of a person is to those with whom she is connected: family, friends, allies.  People outside of these relationships are secondary or tertiary considerations, if at all.  An action is right if it benefits her “tribe,” wrong if it hurts them, and morally neutral if it doesn’t affect them.

Consider the example of Lothar’s relationship with Uthgerd the Unbroken.  During a quest, Lothar accidentally killed an innocent Stormcloak in the midst of a larger battle.  Because I received a bounty, I know Uthgerd ratted on me.  Using Lothar’s profile, however, I had to admit that I admired her adherence to the law, and dealt appropriately with the bounty.  Were Katnyss to find herself in a similar situation, she would see Uthgerd as a traitor who reneged on her obligation to support, protect, and care for her friend.  Uthgerd should have valued her loyalty to Katnyss above her belief in the rule of law.

This difference of worldview has profound implications for the game.  Her parents, loyal to the Nords who took them in, put themselves on the line for the sake of the Empire to which Skyrim belonged.  The Empire, however, abandoned them to the Thalmor.  The Empire failed her again when she lived in the Cyrodillian orphanage, allowing her to be neglected and abused by those who were supposed to be caring for her and her sister.  Then the Empire killed her sister.  The Empire, therefore, must be destroyed, along with the Thalmor they apparently serve.

There is more to this moral profile than revenge, however.  Valuing relationships over principles has led Katnyss to form very strong attachments to certain factions and followers.  It also provides a lens through which she judges the NPCs she encounters, even if they have no significant attachment to her.  I’ll elaborate on these aspects as they come up.  All of the other rules for Katnyss’s decision-making follow from this prioritizing of personal connection.  When she steals and from whom, how she decides which quests to take, and how she understands her role as Dovahkiin will originate from this moral profile.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Second Playthrough: The Backstory of Katnyss Evyrdene

After about a year of playing Skyrim as Lothar, I started to think about playing a character who would make different decisions than I had made the first time through.  I really have to credit my son with sparking my interest in an alternate moral system; his eloquent and passionate defense of his decision to join the Stormcloaks got me to wondering if I could create a moral agent who would choose differently from Lothar in most of the major dichotomies offered by the game.

This was no easy task.  Lothar’s decisions reflected, for better or worse, my own moral profile, but I had no interest in creating an amoral, sociopathic, or evil character for the second playthrough; my project, after all, was to examine moral agency within the game, so I needed a character who would not simply do the opposite of what Lothar did, but rather one who would see the opposite decision as morally superior. 

Since Lothar was a lot like me (northern European/Nord male in a predominantly northern European/Nord society), I thought it best to use a markedly different character build in order to run a markedly different moral profile.  I found inspiration in Katniss Everdeen, heroine of The Hunger Games – a character who, at least at the beginning of the story, cares only for her family and friends and little for the larger moral or political issues around her.  For Katniss, family is the greatest good, and anything that does not serve to protect and provide for the family is to be ignored if possible or destroyed if necessary.  In order to maintain the connection to my fictional model, I created a Dunmer female specializing in Archery and Fire magic (not going to lie – I’m patting myself on the back for drawing a link between Catching Fire and Ancestor’s Wrath) named Katnyss Evyrdene.

As I did with Lothar, I wrote a backstory for Katnyss that would help explain her moral profile.  The difference was that this time, I was reverse-engineering a profile that would lead to contrary choices in the most contentious quests.  In other words, I needed to write a backstory that was not only consistent with the lore, but would also lead Katnyss to see enlisting with the Stormcloaks, siding with the Alik’r, joining the Dark Brotherhood, and so on as the morally correct decisions.  What follows is the actual chart I created before starting the second playthrough:

Year (4E)
Red Mountain exodus
Solstheim granted to the Dunmer: Grandparents, former officials of House Sadras (minor house, mainly ashlander stock), become ebony miners
Refugees’ Rest: Grandparents move to Windhelm to become merchants
Parents born, live to adulthood  in Windhelm’s Grey Quarter; grandparents die natural deaths
Parents become Imperial scouts/spies because of loyalty to hospitable Nords and the High King, who is loyal to the Empire; sent to Hammerfell as “merchants” to monitor increased Thalmor activity
Katnyss/Prym born while parents are active in Hammerfell
Great War begins
Empire cedes Hammerfell, abandons the Evyrdenes, who stay on to assist the Redguards anyway
Parents killed by Thalmor before Treaty of Stros M’Kai
Katnyss and Prym taken in by friendly Alik’r Redguards, who decide that an Imperial orphanage might be better able to care for them than a group of nomadic warriors; sisters placed in Benrius Orphanage in Anvil (formerly Benrius Manor, a home of the Hero of Kvach)
Sisters subjected to repeated abuse at the Orphanage; Katnyss sneaks herself and Prym onto a boat in order to return to the Alik’r warriors, who are hard but honorable.  The Alik’r reluctantly accept them under very harsh conditions for Katnyss.
Katnyss decides to take Prym to Solstheim in order to better their fortunes and perhaps even return to Morrowind; caught by Imperials while crossing the border; Prym killed by Imperial soldier in the battle between Stormcloaks and the Imperial Legion

By taking advantage of Dunmer longevity, I was able to write a backstory for Katnyss that would create a hatred for the Empire as deep as her longing for family.  I also wanted her to be partial to the Redguards in general and the Alik’r in particular, and I wanted her to have respect for the Nords and their way of life, but not a sense of belonging with them.  Furthermore, I wanted her to have a claim to Solstheim, a fierce protectiveness toward orphans, and a disgust for those who prey on women.  Lastly, I wanted her to be able to do hard, even brutal things in order to do what needs to be done.  To be honest, I’m proud of the character I created and excited to watch her grapple with the game’s thornier dilemmas.

Her backstory set, I let Katnyss Evyrdene loose on Skyrim.