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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Skyrim’s Most Difficult Choice

I have been having a difficult time with an element of Skyrim. It is not the random dragon battles. It is not the quests of morally dubious intent. It is not collecting things for my home. It is not even a particularly important part of the game itself, as it falls under the Miscellaneous section of the side quests. The issue I have been teetering on the edge of for 50 levels has been what political affiliation I want my character to take part in.

I became the master of the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood. I stole, blackmailed, and murdered, but everyone seemed to deserved it, or at least I was told this by my peers. I do not have a problem going to a random cave to slaughter a group of people or Falmer, because I am always attacked first. Their actions against me justify the use of violence against them. I have let evil gods loose on the lands, stolen cultural treasures for personal profit, and recovered a lost flute. These are things of great significance that should have forced me to pause and consider my actions, but the narrative set up of Skyrim always justifies your quests as a part of the overall experience. This makes the gamer act rather than think, and the more we get to know what we are doing, the more interesting it seems. If there is a “purpose” that a quest encapsulates, then it is ethically okay to do, no matter the action.

One aspect of this game is lacking this experience. While I have accomplished much throughout my play through (I am not yet done), I am ultimately hesitant over which side of the political argument I want to join. There are the Stormcloaks and the Legion. The Stormcloaks are an independent group of people opposing the Empire due in part largely because of a ban against worshiping the Man/God Thalos (hero to the Nord people). While there are eight other deities of worship available, these are meaningless to the Nord, who simply want the freedom to worship their one. Thalos, however, is a slap in the face to many of the other cultures. Not only does He represent murder and war to many of the elves in the game, but perhaps the most objectionable quality of Thalos is the fact that he asserts that a man (read: human/male/white) is equal to or superior to the spiritual gods that are the basis for almost every other history and culture in the land. This quarrel is presented under the guise of religious freedom, something that is very important to the makings of America (a primary audience for the game), thus this is an important narrative drive for the player, regardless of its banal inclusion.

The Stormcloaks also oppose the seemingly corrupt Empire. While they do not suggest a democracy as an alternative, they certainly are suggesting that the Empire is too big and too invested in the lives of the people and forgo the consideration that there is a delicate social fabric that Empire holds together. While the game suggests that the Empire is infected with outside influence, an influence you are often fighting personally throughout the game’s narrative (therefore the influence is bad, not the Empire itself…), it does little to demonstrate the political and cultural reasonings for seemingly odd alliances and compromises. The game even sets up the main character as an enemy of the Empire, as you are due to be executed for unknown crimes as the game opens (even though you may have deserved it).

The Stormcloaks are not all positive, though. Their champion is a murderer, someone who somehow learned how to dragon-shout a King to death (even though the Graybeards have stated that no one has gone to train with them in some time (I’m not all the way through the game, so I am not sure what the story may be here…)). The cause is violent and has seemingly little regard for anything other than their own goals. Many even accuse the Stormcloaks of racism, including fellow Nords.

If one takes time to pause and consider, the Stormcloaks are the Tea Party of Skyrim. They want their freedoms (as they have defined them), regardless of cultural and political developments. They want smaller and less powerful government – one that stays out of the personal lives of the people (even if it is still a monarchy). Perhaps something that has had the biggest impact on me is the disregard of other cultures, to the point of hatred. While public officials may not openly state their mistrust of a president’s birth certificate, many of the supporters do. Many of the positions the party stands for are based on a hegemonic normalcy that positively supports the long-standing privilege of white, male Americans. Many of the goals of the Stormcloaks only support the ideologies of the Nords, and only “True Nords” at that (just in case you wanted your masculinity and culture questioned if you chose that particular race of people).

You do not have to pick a side in the game, but there are achievements on the line. This is a narrative cue that the gamer should do this, as it is a part of the overall experience of the game and the character’s life. Herein lies much of my struggle for what to do. The political scuffle is so non-important to my day-to-day activities that it holds little to no bearing on my in-game life. There are dragons that need to be killed, after all. One side thinks they are right and the other thinks that they as well, and there is little interaction between either group and my player besides petty rumors that are randomly shouted at me as I walk by, or passive aggressive comments by regional leaders. The entire aspect of the game is optional, and is not at all pressing to me as a player if it is not pressing to my character as a social entity.

The question bothers me so much because of how the game narratively structures the opposing sides. As a democrat, the Empire is the side I feel most politically aligned to, however they are treated as corrupt, lazy, ineffective, imposing, and destructive of tradition. Most importantly, perhaps, against their case is the fact that they lack a strong, charismatic figurehead. This is what makes the Stormcloaks most appealing, I would argue.

The game sets up a strong dichotomy between the main character and Ulfric Stormcloak (the leader of the “rebellion”). On one hand, the main character is a surrogate for the gamer, and thus a surrogate for the gamer’s morality. This makes much of the game’s quests easy to do – the game tells me that necromancers or Forlorn are bad because they attack me, therefore my murder of them is good. The character’s morality is never in question or even really challenged by the game – you just do things, and because the character is the gamer, the character is the figure of good. On the other hand, Ulfric is the rouge hero of many people. While his actions are morally bad, he is doing them for morally good reasons. Therefore, we are presented with two heroes to the people of Skyrim – an official hero and an outlaw hero.

This basic structure is something that Robert B. Ray classified as the “Thematic Paradigm” in his book A Certain Tendency of Hollywood Cinema (1985). He states:

The movies traded on one opposition in particular, American culture’s traditional dichotomy of individual and community that had generated the most significant pair of competing myths: the outlaw hero and the official hero. Embodied in the adventurer, explorer, gunfighter, wanderer, and loner, the outlaw hero stood for that part in American imagination valuing self-determination and freedom from entanglements. By contrast, the official hero, normally portrayed as a teacher, lawyer, politician, farmer, or family man, represents the American belief in collective action, and the objective legal process that supersedes private notions of right and wrong. (58-59)

While Skyrim does not tidily fit this description, the characters are close enough. It is not that these two characters exist in game that makes the political choice so difficult, but rather that American media has traditionally paired these two heroes together as a way of accomplishing the impossible. We have been trained through popular media to accept these pairs of unlike heroes as the ultimate form of purpose. Mulder and Scully, Luke and Han, Riggs and Murtaugh, Turner and Hooch. The game is suggesting through its narrative and character structures that the Stormcloaks are the right choice for the gamer. Or, as Ray states, “in other words, when faced with a difficult choice, American stories resolved it either simplistically (by refusing to acknowledge that a choice was necessary), sentimentally (by blurring the lines between the two sides), or by laughing the whole thing off” (65). You either do not pick a side, because there is really no compelling reason to do so, justify your acceptance of a violent racist because of his thematic and heroic characterization in opposition/support to your own (in opposition to a rather non-compelling alternative), or break the insistence of the game’s narrative and choose the Empire.

For the record, I support the Legion.



Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985. Print.