Tomb-Raider: The Virtue of Desecration in Skyrim 9

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!

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.

  1. Superior. []
  2. A par­tic­u­lar favorite of mine was Morrowind’s fat lute. []
  3. Okay, so maybe my char­ac­ter isn’t exact­ly a saint. But you can bet she feels bad about tomb-robbing. []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.

9 thoughts on “Tomb-Raider: The Virtue of Desecration in Skyrim

  • Justin Robinson

    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 38 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.

  • Jesse Miksic (@miksimum)

    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.

  • Chelsea L. Shephard
    Hannah DuVoix Post author

    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.

  • Justin Robinson

    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.

  • Chelsea L. Shephard
    Hannah DuVoix Post author

    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.

  • Oscar Strik (@qwallath)

    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.

  • Chelsea L. Shephard
    Hannah DuVoix Post author

    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.

  • Markus Schäfer

    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).

  • Person of Con

    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.

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