Living by the Sword? 2

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Ethical Credibility and Radiant Storytelling in Skyrim.


My char­ac­ter, an axe-wielding Redguard who has pledged his per­haps ques­tion­able loy­al­ty to the cause of the Stormcloak rebel­lion, is in a bit of a mud­dle. Until now, he has been an earnest and help­ful fel­low, ever will­ing to come to the aid of the needy (there are a lot of them, let’s be hon­est), ever dis­dain­ful of wil­ful deceit or need­less vio­lence. He is, in short, a “good guy.”

But, he thinks (or, real­ly, think), he did like that hood­ed figure’s offer. I mean, it was very tempt­ing. And now I have blood on my hands. Sticky, guilt-laden blood. So how did I get in this mess, and why is it real­ly trou­bling me — the “real” me?

For me, any role-playing game, or RPG, is built around char­ac­ter – around cre­at­ing a name, a face, an iden­ti­ty. But I like to play things to the extremes of trope – either the noble but stu­pid wall of mus­cle, or the sneaky, poison-knife-in-the-back thief, ready and up for any­thing. But what fas­ci­nates me, and this has been a ten­den­cy that has been fed by increas­ing­ly open world games, by radi­ant sto­ry­telling (more on that in a moment), is that I find it absolute­ly impos­si­ble to let those lines cross. As a thief, I will hap­pi­ly do what is need­ed to be the thief – mur­der, steal, pledge my alle­giance to obvi­ous and mali­cious evil. As a hero I will defend the weak, and know when to stow my weapon. But when I act out of line with either of those tropes, when the hero is unheroic, the thief gen­er­ous, I am – like my mud­dled Redguard – at a bit of a loss. Actually, I’m dis­tressed, even annoyed. But why? This isn’t real.

Skyrim’s “radi­ant” quest sys­tem is a new fea­ture of the series that, as the devel­op­ers explain, ensures that the game is played dif­fer­ent­ly every time – as you progress through the world, people’s atti­tudes change to you. Kill a drag­on, and they com­ment on it, in awe. Join the thieves guild and guards sneer and fold their arms – “sneak thief”, they say. Upset some­body, and they’ll hire and send thugs after you, or even assas­sins. Further still, the radi­ant quests mean that there is no real “end” to the game at all. Jarls – local rulers – will spawn an end­less num­ber of boun­ty quests which, while clus­ter­ing around set goals (“kill ban­dit leader X”, “slay the drag­on at Y”), add a fur­ther ele­ment of coher­ence and re-play value to the game, and thus to the world.

For me, this means that I become a mem­ber, a par­tic­i­pant, of the world. I pur­chase a house and tend my chick­ens – I invest in a local store and watch it pros­per and grow. Hell, it’s nice to hear peo­ple pat you on the back, hear them thank you for what you’ve done, or even scold you for your mistakes.

But for my Redguard, all that had now changed. Exploring the town of Markarth, I stum­bled across a man whom I knew to be dressed as a Paladin of Stendarr. Their order was found­ed after the events of Oblivion, to root out and destroy “Daedric” (i.e., dev­il­ish, hell spawn) influ­ence in the land. Squaring his shoul­ders, he invites me to enter an “aban­doned house” in order to inves­ti­gate a dis­tur­bance. Good guy that I am, I agree, and so enter.

But it was a trap. Unwittingly, we have walked into the Daedra’s foul maw. Sealing the doors – I try, and there is no escape – he orders us to attack one anoth­er, that the sur­vivor should be his cham­pi­on (or “pet”). I turn, sigh, and glance at my pal­adin friend. For a moment I think he’s think­ing the same thing that I am. I check the door again. Locked. The light­ing has altered, deep shad­ows stretch­ing across the ceil­ing, items fly­ing around the room, a deep rock­ing, sick­ly music stirs. I draw my weapon — and I kill. I press and press the attack but­ton until the paladin’s body crum­ples on the floor, his weapon skit­ter­ing away across the tiles.

The Daedra is pleased. And I am most cer­tain­ly not. For a moment, longer than I’d like to admit, I actu­al­ly feel a lit­tle sick, a lit­tle guilty.

So I reload my pre­vi­ous save. I had already entered the house, but I can still leave – we have yet to encounter the Daedric influ­ence in the base­ment. I’m safe. So I walk away, per­haps leav­ing the pal­adin scratch­ing his chin, and walk away. But I know that he is now safe, and his blood is not on my hands. But he thinks I’m a cow­ard. I became a vic­tim of my own cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance – the impos­si­bil­i­ty of main­tain­ing two con­tra­dic­to­ry states, an ethics and an action that ran against them, at the same time.

And so, in that iter­a­tion of my char­ac­ter, that quest remains as it is — open, never to be com­plet­ed, its objec­tive (“explore the aban­doned house”) remain­ing for­ev­er incom­plete. And for each other quest that I com­plete I look through my quest log and pause at that objec­tive. I know that the loot is good, and that you have to com­plete all twen­ty Daedric quests to get the Achievement, but I glance away. I remem­ber the day that I was tempt­ed, and shiver.

But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t com­plet­ed the quest.

Weeks later, as my thief char­ac­ter, I stum­bled across the same pal­adin in the same town – of course, he didn’t recog­nise me. I knew what to expect and, with nary a doubt or objec­tion, I did the thing – I entered the house and killed him. I later com­plet­ed the Daedra’s com­mands, and thus won his – per­haps tem­po­rary – admi­ra­tion, and his reward. All in a day’s work.

The open world, with its expanse of action, its field of oppor­tu­ni­ty, rep­re­sents a gen­uine nar­ra­tive uni­verse to the play­er. A uni­verse that is not sim­ply ask­ing us to “do this quest”, or “achieve so many points”, but to take an eth­i­cal, sen­ti­men­tal stake in a game. To iden­ti­fy so strong­ly with the world, and the “build” (no, life) of our char­ac­ter, that we live their moral­i­ty in the game – a hero would not kill that pal­adin. But a thief would.

  • This is pret­ty close­ly relat­ed to one of my big­ger com­plaints with Skyrim: there’s no way to mark a quest as “I don’t want to do this quest”. I never want­ed to join the Thieves Guild as a mage either, pre­fer­ring the more aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suits. Yet there it sat in my log, ask­ing me to com­plete it. 

    The log becomes some­thing of a check­list for play­ing the game, if you aren’t care­ful. Instead of “do this quest, explore this area” it becomes “go here, ful­fill this request”. While I appre­ci­ate the quest log keep­ing track of things as well as it does, it would have helped my immer­sion quite a bit to be able to mark “no” beside a quest.

    • Thanks for read­ing, Loiathal. It’s inter­est­ing that you men­tion the “check­list” of the log, because I think that it’s some­thing that, in a lot of narrative/character based games, is a prob­lem. While the world wants you to be a “real” per­son and to devel­op in dif­fer­ent and real­is­tic ways, the check­list can bring you back to the fact that, actu­al­ly, your ulti­mate choic­es are lim­it­ed and your char­ac­ter build is not real­ly so dif­fer­ent from any other build. It’s one of the rea­sons that made me think about the ethics that I men­tion in my article.

      For me, it doesn’t ruin the expe­ri­ence, though — I can put it out of mind. But I would like to see new approach­es to the log sys­tem, because hon­est­ly it is a bit of an arte­fact. Environments become rich­er and fuller, but we’re still stuck with a shop­ping list.