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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!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

First Playthrough: Reflections

So far, Lothar Ironfoot has completed the main questlines of Skyrim, Dawnguard, and Dragonborn, as well as the Civil War and all of the faction questlines (he chose to Destroy the Dark Brotherhood).  He has also finished an impressive number of titled side quests, including most of the Daedric quests, and countless untitled minor quests.  Frankly, there are very few new quests left for Lothar to do, and while I’m sure I’ve overlooked some minor moral dilemmas here and there, I think I have seen most of the game’s opportunities for moral agency.

This is not to say that I am done with the game, the blog, or even Lothar for that matter, but I think that now is a good time to reflect on what my experiences with Lothar taught me and to prepare to write about my second playthough – one from a very different moral stance.  What follows, in no particular order, are what I consider to be the big takeaways from my first playthrough.

Lothar as Player Avatar

I set out, as role players often do, to play Lothar as a version of myself – what I think I would be like if I were Dovahkiin.  My own moral and ethical profile is the easiest for me to access, and given that I did not know the outcomes of each quest ahead of time, playing from such a close perspective granted an immediacy to the experience that allowed me to think more genuinely about each dilemma.  There are limits to this approach, of course; I am Catholic and an English teacher in a middle-class suburb in 2013, not a legendary warrior in a fantasy Iron Age universe ruled by multiple Divines and Daedra, so my concept of right and wrong doesn’t translate neatly.  Life or death decisions are, thankfully, not part of my everyday experience.  

I point out this difficultly of translation because I want to be clear that Lothar is simultaneously representative and aspirational for me; in some ways, he acts in way I hope I would act in a similar position, but in others, he represents moral and ethical compromises that I must admit I would probably make were I in Tamriel.  I can’t justify all of my/Lothar’s actions, but I can certainly own all of them.

Law and Order

That I sided with the Empire in the Civil War is not at all surprising; in real life, I would rather be part of a flawed organization and attempt to correct its errors than reject it entirely.  As an America, rebellion is in my national DNA, but if I’m being completely honest, I’d rather fix the system than fight it most of the time.  Of course, that’s not always possible in real life, but given the binary choice in the Civil War questline, choosing the Empire was more “like me.” 

What surprised me, though, was how quickly I found ways to justify my actions within the Thieves’ Guild.  Joining (and then leading) a criminal organization is not my style at all, but I managed to make sense of it by looking at the bigger picture. If the Empire was going to take on the Dominion again, then having the Dovahkiin at the head of all of the major factions makes the most sense, even if one of the factions is a gang of burglars, pickpockets, and cutpurses.  Still, in doing so, I became comfortable with breaking the law and stealing from (and sometimes framing) a wide assortment of people.  I tried to mitigate the problem by choosing my targets carefully when I could, but I cannot escape the reality that I was willing to do very shady things in pursuit of a stable Skyrim.

The Role of the Daedric Princes and the Lure of Power

One of the common refrains in this blog has been how much a resented the manipulation inherent in most of the Daedric quests.  Time and time again, I have been impressed by commenters who thought up creative ways to thwart the Daedra; I, on the other hand, usually went along with the quest, did what I was asked to do (even if I chose the “mouthier” dialogue options), and claimed the artifact.  While I stand by my justifications in most of those cases, I still have to confess that I found ways to rationalize actions I would never had done were it not for the promise of greater power.

This situation is particularly thorny for me when I consider that most of the Daedric Princes are a translation of Christian demonology into the universe of the Elder Scrolls.  The Divines are transcendent and aloof, apart for Talos, the man who became a god.  The Daedric Princes, however, appear to mortals on a regular basis, often to manipulate them for their own purposes.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that most of the Daedric Princes represent a traditional Judeo-Christian type of Satan figure.  Clavicus Vile is the deal-maker, as in Faust’s Mephistopheles; Molag Bal is not only named after Moloch and Baal, but is represented as the satyr-rapist; Mephala is the dark whisperer, the serpent sowing dissention in Eden; Peryite and Namira are the Hebraic unclean ones; Boethiah is the betrayer; Mehrunes Dagon, named after a Babylonian god, is the divine usurper, like Milton's Lucifer; Hermaeus Mora is the Lovecraftian hoarder of forbidden knowledge, and his books look a lot like the Necronomicon; Sanguine is the devil by way of Bacchus.  The implications of fulfilling their quests takes on a more sinister tint when viewed through such a lens.   

The Need for Closure

One aspect of my first playthrough for which I was not prepared was my discomfort with unfinished quests.  I really appreciated the quests that allowed me to fail if I did not wish to complete them.  Having an open quest provided far too much temptation for me to violate Lothar's moral profile.  Let me offer three examples:

  • Pieces of the Past: I liked this quest because my refusal to kill Silus put the Razor out of my reach forever.  I was able to congratulation myself on taking the high road.
  • Boethiah's Calling: I had no way to fail this quest, so I kept thinking about followers whom I could justifiably betray and kill.  Had I not encountered Ralis, I would have left it unfinished, but being presented with a possessed sociopath proved to be too great a lure for me.
  • Lights Out!: Never finished it, never will.  There's just no way for me to justify it with Lothar's profile.  I even tried to kill Jaree-Ra to no avail, as he is labeled "essential."  I feel a little twinge of irritation every time I see the title in my quest journal.
Being able to fail a quest creates a kind of moral guardrail for the character, which makes doing the right thing easier.  But there's the rub: keeping quests unfinished raises the stakes for decision-making and keeps the door open for alternate types of moral agency.

Which leads me to my second playthrough...


  1. Did you touch on Discerning the Transmundane, the Oghma Infinitum quest?

    1. No, I didn't. While it certainly fits into the "being manipulated by a Daedric Prince" category, its requirements, while somewhat morbid, do not really present a dilemma. I don't see how taking blood samples is any different from looting.

    2. It's not because of blood samples, but because of what happens to Septimus Signus. Plus I've done it after completing Dragonborn (I'm on legendary edition), so I know what Hermaeus Mora does to followers he considers rebellious or obsolete. While he does nothing to you in-game even if you badmouth him, a roleplayer can be vary of serving him for this reason.

    3. On one of my characters, Myrla, I dealt with that quest by killing Septimus Signus. He was a thrall of Hermaeus Mora and he had done bad things to win his favor: murders, plagues, et cetera. The dude was also clearly out of his mind - as far as I was concerned it was a mercy killing and also a way to stick it to Hermaeus. And the Oghma Infinium, I would consider it a bad book; it is made of elf flesh and knowledge from this Daedric prince I believe to be poison. Perhaps it is better for this book to be hidden away forever. My character didn't trust what was inside and thought it to be better left a mystery.

      Also, I read this on the wiki:
      "The name Septimus Signus is derived from Latin. In Latin, the neuter form "septimum signum" means "the seventh sign." His name may be inspired by the seventh seal, the words of sign and seal being similar in the language. In the Abrahamic apocalypse story, the opening of the seals (detailed in the Book of Revelations) leads up to more cataclysmic events and judgements."

  2. First off, I have found your blog rather enthralling, though I have yet to read all of it. Actually, I'll be forthright and state that I've actually cited some of your musings as example reactions for an undergrad paper I am writing about the portrayal of rebellion in Skyrim.

    I noted you mentioned that "as an American, rebellion is in my national DNA." Indeed, a prime thrust of my paper is drawing parallels between Skyrim's civil war, its overt and more covert representations of rebellion and rebellious figures, and the socio-political history of the American Revolution and its representation in American cultural mythology, and how the game juxtaposes these allusions and themes onto the political landscape of Skyrim to create a morally and ethically engaging game (especially for the dominant American, and lesser "Americanised" [think Canada] audience).

    Did thoughts of parallels between the American Revolution and Skyrim's civil war ever cross your mind while playing?

    1. Craig, I'm thrilled that you're using my posts in your paper. All I ask (aside from proper citation -- sorry, can't stop being an English teacher) is that you send me a copy when you're done. I'd love to read it!

      Naturally, as a typically US-centric American, I automatically associate the phrase "Civil War" with the War Between the States. Beyond that, however, there is a major hurdle in my reading of Skyrim's Civil War as an allegory of the US Civil War: the role of slavery. While the rhetoric of the Stormcloaks echoes that of the American South -- Sons of Skyrim, preserving the Nord way of life -- the schismatic issues could not be more different, especially to a Yankee like me. The Stormcloaks are fighting for the right to worship Talos, whereas the Southern states were fighting for the right to own other human beings. Sure, I can see both sides of the Skyrim Civil War because both sides are right. I would be very hard pressed to say the same in the case of the American Civil War. Furthermore, while the Empire does adopt the same stance as the Union States (unification at all costs), there is no corollary that I can see to the Aldmeri Dominion in the "War of Northern Aggression."

      Still, that rhetoric is hard to ignore. Perhaps the most fruitful way to think of the connection is that when we sympathize with the Stormcloaks, we get a glimpse of how the Confederates saw themselves.

    2. Replying 9 months later, and not an American, but: I think CraigTheScotsman was referring not to the American civil war between the Union states and the Confederates over (among other things? Again not an American) slavery, but rather to the war of secession between the British empire and the American colonies during the late 1700s.