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!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Dark Brotherhood, Part 5 (The Silence Has Been Broken) (Katnys)

By the time Katnys returned to the Sanctuary, Astrid had decided on a course of action.  While she still didn't trust Cicero, she could not deny that the Night Mother had indeed spoken to Katnys, and it would therefore be foolish to ignore the message. With Astrid's blessing, Katnys was now to travel to Volunruud in order to meet with Motierre and see why the Night Mother might be interested in him.

Before she could go, however, she needed to report her contract completions to Nazir. The news of Lurbuk's death brought the usual sarcasm with the gold, but when Katnys confirmed that she had killed Hern as well, Nazir dropped his sardonic veneer to offer his sincere respect for facing down a vampire.  He then suggested that she check for signs of vampirism herself, making reference to the Brotherhood's own resident vampire, Babette.

That's when it dawned on her: the ambush at Half-Moon Mill, the strange draining attack, that nagging thirst on the way home...Katnys had contracted Sanguinare Vampiris! She knew enough to understand that if she didn't act quickly, she would become a full-blown vampire before the week was out.  Katnys found the Cure Disease potion she had picked up somewhere along the way, opened the vial...and stopped.

Vampirism was bad, of course.  Katnys had encountered vampires before; she witnessed a vampire attack in Whiterun, and even though she didn't help the town guards and citizens put the monsters down, that one Dawnguard soldier took her aside and invited her to join his band of vampire hunters. At the time, she was too focused on avenging her sister and the whole "Dragonborn" business to get involved.  Now that she was infected, she was involved whether she liked it or not.

As she held the Cure Disease potion to her lips, she thought about those vampires; they were powerful, they could enthrall people, drain health from afar, even become invisible. But most of all, they didn't grow old and die.  Nazir mentioned Babette; look at what she had accomplished through this "disease."  What if Katnys needed more power, more time to exact her vengeance on the Empire? Wouldn't becoming a vampire actually help?  What did she have to lose?  She would talk it over with Jenassa on the way to Volunruud; Katnys had grown to really love and trust Jenassa during their travels together and her opinion meant more than anyone else's.

Once outside the Sanctuary, Katnys told her companion everything.  Jenassa, for her part, had little to say, but the little she did say decided the issue for Katnys: "We're one of the same kind, you and I. I'm glad to have met you. I am a lethal instrument, yours to command. Blade and shadow, silence and death - these are my arts. I'll make great art for you.  I am the shadow at your back.  Let's get going."  Jenassa would be beside her, no matter what.

Glowing from Jenassa's expression of acceptance and loyalty, Katnys led the way to Volunruud.  Once inside the tomb, she found a tattered journal next to what was, presumably, the author's skeleton.  Katnys opened the journal, fearing that she had failed to reach Motierre in time, only to discover that the journal belonged to some foolish explorer named Heddic; she pocketed the journal (there would be time to follow up on that later) and followed a noise to her left that sounded increasingly like muffled conversation.  In front of a large closed door lay the bodies of several vanquished draugr.  If Motierre was behind that door, he was someone to be reckoned with.

As it turned out, Motierre was indeed in the chamber beyond, but it was most likely his hulking bodyguard, Rexus, who had dispatched the draugr.  Katnys startled and raised her bow upon first laying eyes on Rexus in his Imperial armor -- was this some sort of Imperial trap?  Motierre, however, rushed forward to put her at ease.  He was obviously still shaken from performing the Black Sacrament, and was eager to get down to business.  Katnys, however, was not prepared for the target he was to offer: the Emperor!

It was all Katnys could do to keep the cold, silent demeanor she had begun to adopt as an assassin.  In an instant, in that stinking Nord crypt, listening to veiled insults of a Breton fop and his Imperial pet -- everything suddenly made sense.  How did Motierre put it?  The stars had aligned.  The dragon attack at Helgen, the Aretino boy, the Brotherhood contracts that tugged at her conscience, the Night Mother's revelation: it had all led to this.  With this contract, Katnys would finally avenge her sister.  The Emperor himself would pay for Prym's blood!

Quickly remembering herself, Katnys took some items from Rexus (she hadn't really been paying attention -- Motierre said something about an amulet, a letter, and killing some other people) and made straight for the Sanctuary.  Astrid was, of course, taken aback by the news, but then gave Katnys a quick history lesson and embraced the challenge Motierre had put before the Brotherhood:

She said the magic word.
The next step for Katnys was to get the amulet appraised.  For that, she'd have to make her way to Riften and connect with another shadowy group: the Thieves Guild.  Finding the Guild wasn't too hard -- it was a bit of an open secret -- but before she and Jenassa could enter the Ragged Flagon and speak with the fence, Delvin Mallory, they did have to kill a few thugs in the Ratway.  While the skirmishes in the Ratway were of little consequence in and of themselves, Katnys noticed that a few things had changed for her.  First, she could smell blood much more strongly, and it was now an appetizing aroma.  Second, she realized that, if she concentrated, she could see in the dark much better than before.  She even dared to try to make a thrall, and succeeded...even if it only lasted a few minutes.  But, there were more important matter to attend to.

Once inside the Ragged Flagon, Mallory confirmed that the amulet belonged to a member of the Emperor's Elder Council, and gave Katnys the letter of credit Astrid had mentioned. Upon her return, Katnys delivered the letter, and in exchange, Astrid revealed that to her that Katnys would carry out the first assassination herself: Vittoria Vici, manager of the East Empire Company's holdings in Solitude, was to be killed at her own wedding.  Slaughtering an Empire lackey in front of a crowd of Imperial dandies-- what a lovely opening act!


  1. ...(left eye twitches) Okay, first of all, you've done a fantastic job of narrating from this moral perspective. It's about as far from Lothar as it could be.

    Now, onto my growing opinion of Katnys: ...Is this girl a sociopath, or something? Because her lack of empathy is regards to anyone not in her inner circle is truly frightening. I mean, she didn't lift a finger to help the citizens against a Vampire attack in Whiterun?? Does..does she even know what it means to have basic standards of human empathy?? I've read fanfics that tend to gloss over the reasons WHY the dark brotherhood isn't a nice organization and tend to treat them as Anti-hero's/anti-villains at worst (My Own Path, by GangyGirl, comes to mind, as does Diana Dragonborn, by Hecate, though my judgement of their fics (Which, if I'm being honest, are probably actually good fics) is clouded by their treatment of some characters that really rubs me the wrong way))), but this?! Those are starting to seem TAME compared to this! And my anger at Katnys is starting to turn to fear about how far off the deep end she might go!
    I might not get along with those two authors I just mentioned a lot of the time, but I'm seriously tempted to mention this blog to them.

    1. I'd say "sociopath" is pretty apt. I mean, I'd hardly expect an assassin of the Dark Brotherhood to be a well-adjusted individual.

    2. While it wasn't my intention to create a sociopath, I do recognize that Katnys is at least "driving through the neighborhood." I said at the outset that I had no interest in writing an evil character per se, but rather a character who would see the "evil" choice as the right one.

      The "inner circle" comment, especially with regard to the vampire attack, is well taken, and actually points to one of the real-world inspirations for this character. When you adjust for the combat-based, life-or-death nature of the game, you have to admit that you probably know people just like Katnys. These are the people who protect family members from being arrested even when those family members have committed serious crimes. These are the people who steal or embezzle or cheat on their taxes in order to give their own kids the "good life." These are the people who say we should just turn the entire Middle East into a parking lot. I'm sure they all consider themselves to be good, moral people, and they probably don't appear to be sociopaths to the people in their "inner circles," but they are the ones who will look the other way when something bad happens to someone who is "outside." And, if we're being honest with ourselves, sometimes we ourselves are the "sociopaths," despite our better inclinations.

      Lothar isn't exactly a clean Marine, but his moral profile privileges big ideas over individual considerations. Preserving the Empire is good because it's the best bulwark against the Thalmor, even if the Empire has made some bad decisions lately. Taking over the Thieves Guild, while technically a criminal act, allows him control over an organization that would be very useful in the coming war with the Dominion. He jumps in to defend Whiterun against a vampire attack because "defending innocents against monsters" is an important idea.

      Katnys, on the other hand, primarily values individual considerations -- avenging her sister, helping her family -- without much regard for larger ideas. What if she had jumped in to fight the vampires on behalf of the people of Whiterun and gotten herself killed? Who would avenge her sister? Those vampires were someone else's problem, and for her to risk her one remaining duty for people she had no connection with would be both foolish and wrong -- from that moral profile, of course.

    3. Well, you've certainly done a fantastic idea of creating this character, that's for sure, and I certainly applaud you for it.

      Though that comment about "her one remaining duty"-I've got to ask: and then what? What happens after she "Avenges her Sister"? Will she commit suicide as there is no longer a purpose for her? Will she think of something on the spot? Will she "walk the earth", desperately searching for a purpose in life?

      I'm honestly a bit curious to see if she'll ever realize her actions have consequences- her assassination of Maro's son's gonna come to bit her in the ***, after all. I'm even curious to see if she'll be in shock at seeing that Titus Mede II faces his death in one of the most dignified way ever seen in a video game (I think).

    4. Yeah, it's hard to write a Dark Brotherhood character who is not repulsive in some way, unless you keep their murders offstage. Katnyss is actually not that bad of an attempt. I was surprised when she had some doubts over Lubruk the Orc bard. I can certainly imagine a murderer who would be too entertained by the comism of the situation to worry about ethics.

    5. Wolfsilver -- you've foreshadowed one of the more interesting turns Katnys's story takes later in the game. I'm hoping to write that part soon.

      Nicholas -- Katnys's problem with the Lurbuk kill boils down to its frivolity. Ironically, Katnys treats life seriously, and the taking of it even moreso. In her thinking, the Black Sacrament is serious business, so there must be a good reason for each target, even if she herself is not privy to the reason. The idea that someone might perform the ritual in order to kill a bard for being bad at his job is very troubling to her.

  2. You're trying really hard to keep Katnyss within what you consider a human moral framework. In one sense that's admirable, but in another - I can't help but wonder if you're going too far. I'm far from an expert, but something about her internal rationalisations doesn't ring quite true to me.

    When I played through the Dark Brotherhood questline, I aimed for the mindset of a professional. Targets were not "people" to be agonised over, they were - well, targets, and my job was simply to dispatch them as cleanly as possible.

    If ever I got bothered about cold-blooded murder, I'd look at the Stormcloaks to remind myself what happens when people aren't cold-blooded enough. If Ulfric had killed Torygg unknown and stealthily, there'd be no war, and countless innocent people would still be alive. In the end, people who fight with honour and nobility for a cause - do far more damage than those who sneak through the night and put a dagger in some unknown miner's guts.

    So that character never bothered with the war. Not his business.

    1. Playing Katnys as a moral agent is admittedly much harder than playing Lothar, so I'd be interested in hearing more about what "doesn't ring quite true." Lothar thinks in big-picture terms, which is my own tendency as well, so it's easy for me to explain his actions. Katnys employs a moral reasoning that is more alien to me, but one I've nevertheless seen in the real world, so I'm working hard to make it coherent.

      In your Dark Brotherhood experience, you still employed a "big-picture" moral lens -- utilitarianism, to be exact. Expertly killing one person as a way to prevent the death of hundreds is a classic utilitarian example (see the Trolley Problem). If assassination were presented to Lothar in the terms you describe, he might have considered joining.

      For Katnys, however, "big-picture" reasoning makes no sense. She killed Grelod because Grelod was awful to orphans like her. She joined the Brotherhood in order to replace her family. She kills for them because that's what her new family has asked her to do. And because she did what was asked of her, she has the chance to kill the man responsible for all of her suffering.

      It's not a rationale that I inherently "get," but I'm hoping to explain it in a believable way.

    2. I think what most gives me pause in this instalment is her decision not to cure vampirism.

      If she rationalised that as "it will make me a darker instrument of vengeance", I wouldn't question it. Or even "it was fated, I should accept it as a natural turning point in my life". But instead, she thinks: "What if I need more power, more time to exact my vengeance on the Empire? Wouldn't becoming a vampire actually help? What did I have to lose?"

      The answer to the first of those questions is: "so there's an end point you're working towards? You plan to retire from the vengeance business one day, and settle down to get on with some other life goal? If not, then how can you possibly 'need' more time? And if so, then don't you think being a vampire might affect that 'other life goal'?"

      The answer to the second is "How, exactly? What do you think you can do to further your goals as a vampire, that you can't do in your current form?"

      And the answer to the third is "Have you been paying attention? How many vampires have you met, and what was their average life expectancy after you met them? With the exception of Babette, have you personally ever seen a vampire live more than about 2 minutes? You're closing off entire avenues and possibilities of life to yourself. To put it more practically, what if someone in the Emperor's bodyguard or other entourage has the basic intelligence to use 'Detect Life' or 'Detect Death' on people coming into his presence? - then thanks to your momentary insecurity, you'd be cheated of your vengeance."

      Previously, you rationalised the first batch of petty murders as, essentially, putting people out of their misery. I think that rationale is so thin that you'd need to be a card-carrying psychopath to buy it, and if she was that, surely she wouldn't have been so torn up about it in the first place? I don't know, I'm no psychologist, but as I say, it doesn't quite ring true to me.

      Whew, that went on. Anyway: to repeat myself from earlier visits, thank you for the work you put into this blog, and for the thoughtful discussions you enter into with random people like me. I do appreciate the effort.

    3. Thanks again for your compliments, and for your patience with the delays in my posts and responses.

      Allow me to address your three counter-questions in order...

      On the possibility of a "post-revenge" life: Katnys, at this stage of the story, is not thinking past her immediate goal. There is no "retirement" from her vengeance on her radar. If that seems foolish to you, you're spot-on. Of course it is short-sighted; that is the nature of vengeance. It is precisely this kind of "moral myopia" I was interested in exploring.

      On the added benefits of vampirism: This is a bit harder to explain without undue ludic interference. Compare what a character living in Tamriel might know about vampires to what the player knows. We, the players, know that there's a difference between the relatively weak vampires in the original game and the more robust Volkihar variety. We also know that the vampirism the affects the PC in the original game is not as advantageous as the version added by the Dawnguard DLC. However, a character in Tamriel would likely experience this distinction in much the same way that we experience any poorly-understood phenomenon in the real world: snippets of conflicting information and the occasional first-hand experience. Vampires live forever! Vampires can become invisible at will! Vampires can make others do their bidding! Vampire can see in the dark! Even if she had not seen these specific phenomena first-hand, she would likely have heard the stories.

      On paying attention: This is easily your strongest point. I have no answer except denial. Think about the compulsive gamblers, drug addicts, and abused spouses who say "this time, it will be different" or "yeah, but I'm not like those other people." Sure, every other vampire she's encountered ended up dead, but none of them were her. Again, you are definitely right, but someone like Katnys is just not going to be able to hear it.

      As for the rationale behind the murders of Narfi and Papius, I think you're being a bit unfair; both of their lives were pretty miserable, so killing them felt more palatable than killing Lurbuk.