Tomb‐Raider: The Virtue of Desecration in Skyrim 9



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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 editor@ontologicalgeek.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.

  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.