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, I 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.