Living by the Sword? 2

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.

2 thoughts on “Living by the Sword?

  • loiathal

    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.

    • Owen

      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.

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