Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Literature of "Skyrim"

This is the sixth in a series of guest posts by Hali Sofala and Eric Jones on the connections between gaming (video and otherwise) and the literary.

I watched as Kazandria, my Kajiit warrior, labored up the winding path to Whiterun’s Cloud District in the aftermath of the war. She had lived in the central city of Whiterun, a mecca of trade and industry in the medievalist supernatural world of Tamriel, for nearly three months since Skyrim made its debut in November of 2011. She had “made friends” with her female blacksmith neighbor who had become Kazandria’s primary resource for weapons and armor trade. Now Kazandria was responsible for setting the woman’s house on fire along with almost everyone else’s in her cherished town. I laughed uncomfortably to my fiancée and co-author, Eric, knowing how silly it was to feel so terrible.

A few nights before Kazandria signed on with the rebellious faction of Nords in Skyrim known as The Stormcloaks, Eric and I went out for a pleasant dinner where we discussed why I had decided that Kazandria would join the rebellion rather than fight for the Imperials, a decision Eric’s dark elf character, Elitere, had come to with only a moment’s deliberation. My projected identity, Kazandria, was as principled and unwavering in her devotion as I would like to be, but finding the righteous path in Skyrim is tricky because the game, unlike most games, does not set its own definitions for what is right and wrong.

Based on our cultural mindset with reference to movies like Star Wars or Braveheart and our atavistic fears of extreme power, when we are given two factions of vastly unequal sizes (the Empire and the Rebellion), the one of lesser size is generally seen as the “good” side. Skyrim alludes to this in its establishing framed narrative, but as the player begins to dig into the meat of the game, it becomes obvious that lines are not so clearly drawn. The meager but hardy Stormcloaks are made up chiefly of close-minded agrarian Nords who insist that the region of Skyrim belongs to them alone, and whose leader has supposedly murdered Skyrim’s high king. The Stormcloaks have sparked a civil war in response to the outlawed worship of their god, Talos, a man said to have arisen Christ-like into divinity after his death. While the Imperials are indeed guilty of restricting religious freedom in Skyrim, they are also victims, since they were forced into imposing the law after losing the Great War to a race of Thalmor high elves. The ethical complexities of the world of Skyrim intentionally reflect those of real world political entanglements.

Choosing whether or not to join with the Stormcloaks or the Imperials holds little sway on the outcome of the narrative frame. Both, in terms of gameplay mechanics, are essentially the same, as reflected humorously by the lyrics of the Bard’s song “Age of Aggression” which are only changed slightly to reflect the loyalty of the particular region where the player is. But in terms of ludonarrative and projected identity, the choice is massive. This is because Skyrim presents us with an open moral model, where the player is left to determine the morality of her own actions rather than be penalized by the game. The Rational Player perspective may object to the relative unchanged narrative between choosing the side of the Stormcloaks or Imperials, but this is because to radically change the narrative based on this selection would cause the player to select a choice based on relative merit rather than ethical reasoning.

Miguel Sicart, author of The Ethics of Computer Games, explains the problems with this in games like Knights of the Old Republic, “moral choice no longer implies a reflection upon their actions, but rather a strategy, another token in the world of the game.” This is because the player wants to achieve the best possible outcome; so in a game like Mass Effect, which tightly winds its story with the ludonarrative of the gameplay, players are only given specific moral choices that allow for limited reflection. Sicart argues that these games are ineffective as modes of ethical game design “because the developers overemphasized the closedness of the game experience, not allowing the player to reflect on and experience the game as a moral agent.” However, the existence of a strong narrative frame necessitates this “closedness” because players can only effect the story in prescribed ways. In order for moral catharsis to take place, the game must punish the player for certain decisions and reward others through the telling of the story.

This does not mean that these games can’t provide moral experiences, but that these moral experiences are largely narrative experiences in the vein of movies or television shows. The Mass Effect series, rather than being completely open, employs what I call an “apparent moral divergence tree” in order to achieve the effect of moral literature, meaning that those moral decisions faced by the player are immediately recognizable by the player and constitute a corresponding shift of the game’s framed narrative. Games like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic succeed as moral literature precisely because they tell moral stories. Open ethically designed games like Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim only succeed as moral literature if the player is willing to reflect or see the actions of their projected identity as morally relevant.