This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: religion and/or theology in games. We have a great bunch of articles lined up, from the very personal to the deeply theoretical, from both regular OntoGeek contributors and several guest writers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on specific articles and the month as a whole – comment freely and e‑mail us at email@example.com!
Integral to religion, especially as the West understands it, are the Rules that subscribers to the religion voluntarily (in most cases today) impose upon themselves. From a cultural standpoint, it’s handy to know what Thou Shalt Not. A common trope of religion is the notion of sanctification of nouns; there are, especially in the Judeo-Christian family of religions, a great many ways and reasons to make holy or otherwise set apart persons, places, and/or things. Generally speaking, when these things are trifled with or disturbed, they are said to have been profaned by the meddler.
Over spring break I picked up Skyrim again – I seem to have an on again/off again relationship with the game – and found myself sinking hours into it. I have loved the Elder Scrolls games since the mid-90s, with my early exposure to Daggerfall, which deepened when I met Morrowind in 2002, but I’m only now coming to terms with a love for Skyrim, though I could do with more big cities. I do rather like the game, apart from the surreal effect that the leveling system seems to have (like fur-swaddled bandits sporting high-powered Daedric weapons), but it’s nothing spectacular. It’s not exactly Literature, but it’s pretty good.
My biggest problem with Skyrim, though, is a thematic one. The game, more than any other game I’ve played, and I have played a game where the object was literally to murder many deities, makes me uncomfortable from a religious standpoint. Skyrim doesn’t make the player commit deicide or lead a Crusade, or anything so cosmically harmful. What it does instead is encourage the player to trample through burial grounds and disturb the remains of those who lie within. A lot.
Of all the five hundred locations where a wandering Dragonborn might venture through Skyrim and its expansions, forty-seven of them are tombs (Source). Its1 predecessor, Morrowind, with all of its expansions, featured one hundred ten in total. Though the games structure the player’s interaction with the tombs differently – Morrowind, though containing more than twice the number of tombs as Skyrim, did not make quite so much a habit of forcing the player to plunder them and indeed seemed to treat the areas with more reverence – it is plain that the developers of Skyrim want to make sure the player spends a lot of time raiding tombs.
It is a pretty universal trope among video games that the Protagonist ought to make violent, plunder-tastic ventures into crypts from time to time. Why, though? Why is it so ubiquitous in games to desecrate the resting-places of so many (often nameless) fallen, to tramp about blithely ignorant of their struggles in life and only too happy to disturb their eternal slumber to pilfer their few coins, or the dagger holding a minor enchantment that may have been their one valuable possession but to the player is so much vendor trash?
Moreover, these tombs which we raid often feature some sort of spirit guardian that will attack you as you galumph through their sacred spaces. In Skyrim, the spirit guardian du jour is the Draugr, undead Nord warriors buried in the tombs to protect them from knaves like you. These, logically, would have been installed when the tomb was consecrated through whatever rites the ancient Nords used. By entering this sacred space, regardless of your reason, you, PC, have disturbed sanctified ground. And by powering through the tomb guardians like they were just another enemy you have to farm for XP and gold (for the Draugr always carry gold), you have ascribed to your character a degree of amorality which ought to make you squirm.
Another thing to consider is that you never meet regular people in your adventures through tombs. The NPCs you encounter in tombs are either bandits or vampires, with the odd thrall of a Daedra (essentially major-league demons) or slave. Tombs are not places where Skyrim’s wholesome denizens hang out and swap yarns over a pint of ale. The only ones who hang out in tombs are bad guys.
So what does that make you?
Let’s be honest for a moment. If you go into a tomb and start taking things left by the loved ones of the deceased, that behavior is morally questionable, to say the least. I’m not about to make a Grand Theft Auto argument and say that some of you will start disturbing burial grounds in search of treasure if you play enough Skyrim, but it irks me that the player is encouraged to take part in an activity, habitually, that is, in fact, bad, and that is presented with no consequences.
In my almost ninety-five hours (at time of writing) exploring Skyrim’s beautiful land and her many tombs, I’ve only encountered two people who will even acknowledge that tomb-raiding is bad. One was a mercenary leader who told me to go and kill bandits who were scummy enough to take treasure out of a tomb, whose comment seemed more a wink to the fourth wall than actual castigation. The other was a young man who asked me to help him clear out evil spirits in his family plot. As I took gold willy-nilly from the burial urns of his ancestors, he at first expressed displeasure, but resigned himself to my pilfering’s inevitability and decided it was okay so long as he helped me clear the tomb of the evil spirits (and its valuables).
Skyrim, and many games like it, throws us into tombs and tells us to raid them. And unlike NPCs who do such things, no condemnation is leveled against us when we do the exact same things they do. Why are we so okay with undertaking this troubling activity and having it treated as routine? Given that we now live in a post-Spec Ops: The Line world, where the player’s actions may be called into question and the act of playing is a form of complicity, are we as players really content to accept that “PC makes right”?
It seems that we are more than willing to accept what is presented us with no questioning it. Plumbers who stomp on turtles and eat mushrooms non-recreationally? Sure! Whatever! Give me a dopamine hit! This certainly is in keeping with the structure of Skyrim (and games in general); the tombs in Skyrim are designed like, well, levels in a video game.
The layouts for most of the caves, tombs, fortresses, or other adventurable areas in the game are more or less the same: several rooms connected to each other in a more or less straight line, filled with enemies and traps (and, of course, treasure for you to pillage). There may even be puzzles for you to solve, which changes the pace of the game nicely. These rooms eventually lead you to the final room, where you are met with not only a new ability of some kind (more often than not), but also a leveled Boss Monster and some leveled loot.2. By applying this same structure to tombs, which in the game world are places which should be treated with respect and reverence, the game de-values the sanctified space. That it does so with such focus and dedication makes my skin crawl just a little.
Perhaps it is because of the escapist nature of the medium, encouraging us as it does to be the worst asses we can be. I imagine that you, reader, have shot many more people in games than you have in real life. Put simply and obviously, games give us the opportunity to do things we don’t get to do in real life. Why else are games like Saints Row: The Third so popular? Games let us break rules without breaking rules; we don’t even need the Ring of Gyges to do whatever strikes our fancy, even if our fancy should include, say, plundering tombs for gold like a common criminal.
I mentioned previously Spec Ops: The Line in the context of complicity. I haven’t played it yet, but I feel as though it is a necessary step in the process of the maturation of gaming as an art form that we as player/audience be confronted with the Truth of our antics, that they cause harm and not merely a dopamine surge. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m upset with Bethesda exclusively; they are hardly the only developer complicit in this irresponsible theming. Skyrim just happened to be the first game where I realized what I was actually doing in these tombs. Now that I have realized it, I’m beginning to take genuine issue with games’ lack of respect for sanctified spaces, and that it has become such an accepted trope of gaming, to be problematic.
I’m not even asking that the option to desecrate tombs be removed from games. Bethesda has proven itself more than capable of making Player actions actually mean something. If I murder the Emperor, guards will talk about it next time I walk into town. If I successfully spread the power of the Thieves Guild, you can bet I’ll hear about it.3 Why shouldn’t it be that I hear about somebody breaking into a tomb and cleaning it out, killing all the spectral guardians within?
Bethesda has shown an interest in making the player’s choices paramount in the direction of the story. Why can’t their bad actions, their moral lapses, also factor in? Guards chide you for being a member of the Thieves Guild or sneaking around locked doors. Why can’t we hear about a rash of horrible pillaging of tombs? Skyrim’s very dead are no longer sanctified! Their ancient bones have been picked clean of what valuables they took with them, and their brave, ageless warriors now lie dead.
You’d think somebody would be more upset.
I agree with the overall sense of the piece — it’s another fabulous example of something being excused “because it’s a game”.
The only defense I’d provide Bethesda is thus: according to lore, the Draugr are evil. While I cannot prove it in every single case, there are a few key obvious points to make:
1. “The Taste of Death” is the only quest I’m aware of where you commit crimes in a Hall of the Dead, where (most) living people keep the dead people they remember. All of the acts required to complete the quest are inherently evil, and recognized as such.
The dungeon barrows, conversely, house the ancient dead. Historically, I know that moving old dusty bones is generally distasteful, but lots of people have done it — either to make room or profit. And outside of the general distaste factor, these crimes go unpunished if no one alive cares to avenge the profaned.
2. In a loading screen, the dragon priests are reported as folks who worshipped the wrong things (i.e., dragons), and earned undeath as a result. They are using draugr to periodically rise and tend to the eternal maintenance of the priests and their burial chambers.
In other quests — I forget the quest names, but one is in a northeastern glacier, and the other is ‘way out east in the Rift — draugr and ghosts are specifically raised to serve necromancers. In these cases, whacking an ancient corpse is doing it a favor.
3. Why should we be reaching into a cremation urn for 3–8 gold pieces (which, arguably, would have the wrong ruler printed on it anywho)? You got me there. That’s the part of it that’s gamey and offensive to me. I’m not sure how I would change the mechanics, though, to ensure the player had his reward/loot centers stimulated in a more acceptable fashion.
To continue Justin’s line of thought, it does bring up an interesting issue: if you take the mechanic of dungeon-raiding as a premise of the game, and your own (potential) hero-status as another premise, it sort of creates a philosophical backwash into the game’s narrative assumptions. Based on these conclusions, we can infer that in this world, the Draugr are not the spirits of good people who are defending their immortal homes… they’re evil or angry spirits, inhabiting the bodies of the ancient dead. They’re attacking you and trying to kill you, which suggests (in a perverse, begging-the-question kind of way) that they’re evil, and you’re doing the world, and perhaps the tomb itself, a favor by vanquishing them.
In fact, as long as the dead stay still, it’s entirely possible to walk past them without taking the coin from their pockets. You can be respectful… but at the beginning of the game, when wealth is scarce, you’re naturally driven to take all you can get.
I see where you’re coming from, in that they could probably institute some kind of long-term consequences if you’re constantly stealing from tombs. Maybe every bit you steal from a tomb makes the Draugr more powerful in later dungeons (because they’re hostile toward recidivist grave-robbers). Maybe you gradually fall out of favor with one or more Daedra, making some quests more difficult. Your concerns are valuable, and taking them into account could lead to some additional richness in the game-world.
You raise a good point, Justin. There are some times (such as the cleansing of the Shrine of Meridia) when the slaying of the undead is a good thing. I was not aware that the draugr were evil, per se (any more than any creature which could cause the PC harm is “evil”). In Morrowind, for instance, the ancestor guardians are just that, which makes their wholesale slaughter monstrous. Admittedly, my canon knowledge is over two hundred years out of date by this point, so I am perhaps not quite as hep to the lore of Skyrim as I could be. But it doesn’t alter the fact that only the bad people hang out in these old tombs, which puts you in sordid company if nothing else.
That’s indeed the conclusion the game assumes, Jesse. The game assumes your status as “Hero”, and it more or less takes Fable’s definition of the word, which more or less means “Person Who Shapes Destiny Through Force of Arms or Abilities”, with no morality implied. That’s a definition which is pretty cool, and fun to play around with, but could land the player in some murky moral waters. I really like your suggestions! It’s not as though the game is incapable of keeping track of what you do. There certainly are many possibilities to tweak this slip.
Here’s where the wickets get sticky: the business side. I can see plenty of people at Bethesda getting really excited about the idea of more complex morality systems. But in a market where everyone wants MOAR GRAPHICS, and with Bethesda having already established themselves as the front line of pretty RPGs? And perhaps more importantly: with the budget money running out, but no one wanting to be the first to say “this pursuit of visual and audio realism is making games too expensive to be profitable”?
I can see an Elder Scrolls with Okami’s graphic design including far more complex role-playing systems. But I can see an Elder Scrolls VI that caves to traditional hard-core gamer pressures far more easily.
I alluded to my love of Morrowind throughout the piece. Morrowind is very much an RP system (I have previously described it as an “adventure simulator”), while Skyrim is a game, with much moar graphics. We can but hope that they will remember those who love the Old Ways as they go into the new age.
Although indeed it’s probably a matter of budget constraint, you’re very correct in pointing out some of the oversights here, Hannah. There was a lot of room here for adding exciting bits of consequence and reactivity.
To make a bit of a historical parallel, there are at least two/three reasons why tomb raiding could have negative consequences in the game. First of all, there is the desecrating part. If the graves were put there by the people currently living in the land, or they have some sort of holy significance to the people (even if they’re ancient graves), they’re not going to take kindly to people disturbing the sites in the first place, purely for religious reasons.
Second, if the dead were buried with riches and possessions, we can assume that this was done because people believe the dead need their possessions in the afterlife. To take those possessions away is, again, a form of desecration, but it may also in some way anger the spirits of the dead if their possessions are taken away from them.
Third, at least in old Nordic culture which is sort of relevant given the Nord nature of Skyrim, graves were sometimes explicitly meant to keep the dead *in*. As in, rest in peace, and don’t you ever come back, particularly in the case of people who were obnoxious and violent in life. If you go around opening up those tombs, you better make sure you defeat all the spirits in there, because otherwise they’ll get out and harass the living. Obviously, no one is going to thank the one who unsealed the tomb in first place.
Wow! I didn’t know that last bit. Makes quite a bit of sense, given all the traps and effort put into keeping people from disturbing them. Thank you for the insight!
I think that is perhaps my second biggest gripe with the game (I still want cities the size of Vivec!); some of your actions Matter. As you progress through the faction questlines, you see the effects of all your work spread throughout the land, and it’s a rewarding feeling. It’s great! But other actions, which to some of Skyrim’s residents would perhaps hold more significance, nobody cares.
Hi, really nice article that resonates with the feelings I had while playing. It didn’t feel right to just loot graves left and right so I stopped doing it very soon into the game, even though many quests still sent me into grave sites.
The result was that I soon noticed that the Draugr didn’t so much defend the graves but simply attacked everything that moved, most often under the control of some clearly sinister agent like a necromancer. The undead do not care if you’re a common grave robber or the Dragonborn with a divine mandate to visit a shrine within the grave site to learn a new Shout.
I also noticed that a LOT of loot isn’t even part of the burial paraphernalia but is contained in much newer chests — evidence that it was brought there by other visitors during the hundreds/thousands of years after the grave was originally consecrated. Only very rarely did Í find a tomb that had not already been disturbed and used as a hideout by others before (actually this only happened if a tomb was locked due to quest status).
All of this made me feel quite different about the bural sites in Skyrim than in Morrowind, where I had actually refrained from even entering the burial sites without a very good reason, which was what the lore described as the proper way to behave).
For what it’s worth, when I thought about it a bit, two games came to mind as examples of handling rituals surrounding death in ways that are, if not positive, at least more thought-provoking than the “loot here” model. First, In Lost Odyssey, there’s a fairly extensive funeral sequence, where the player has to perform all the rituals necessary for the deceased’s loved ones to usher her properly into the afterlife, and say goodbye. Actually going through the motions (and doing so as her relatives) really grounds the significance of the death, which is impressive, as the character hadn’t been in the game very long,
The second is Planescape: Torment, especially the opening scenes. You start the game in the mortuary of a sect that call themselves The Dead (everyone else calls them Dustmen) who believe that we’re all already dead, and just keep passing on to different stages of the afterlife until we find oblivion, the true death. To that end, they take a proprietary interest in collecting bodies, and getting people to sign contracts to will their bodies to the Dustmen–at which point, the bodies are turned into zombies, and forced to serve the Dustmen. This is presented as a morally dubious thing (especially later in the game, where sentient undead creatures express their opinion on the Dustmen), and it’s left to the player how to react. Will you be polite to zombies? Will you slay them for experience? Will you take them to pieces and use them like the Dustmen do? The game leaves the options up to you–while providing plenty of alternatives either way.