Skyrim and the Morality of Empire

I had been forewarned: once you find yourself immersed in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, your life as you know it grinds to a halt. I came to this game over six years late following its initial release date of 11/11/11, when it came out for the Nintendo Switch at the end of 2017. The concept artist behind much of the game’s design, Adam Adamowicz, is one of my all time favourite visual artists. It’s one of the most lauded adventure video games of all time and is utterly engaging: but its mechanics are also curiously thought provoking, and I have since spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about the ways in which the game encourages one to play at making history.


My commander, General Tullius on top (with some unrelated Game of Thrones sketches below- I never seem to be able to resist doing those)


As an Indian student of literature who has lived and studied in Britain, the realities of a colonial past are still all too real to me. I may have been born decades after Indian independence but my country’s identity crisis is still painfully apparent at every turn. India grants refuge to Tibetans fleeing the tyranny of China but is itself tyrannically possessive of Kashmir. Its chief religion deems the cow sacred and bans the eating of beef in some states, yet the country is one of the world’s biggest exporters of leather. Hinduism claims to venerate women as goddesses but New Delhi has earned the nickname of the rape capital. The civilization that gave the world the Kama Sutra still arrests couples who dare to be intimate in the privacy of hotel rooms on the grounds of ‘indecent behaviour.’ Despite the enormous cultural emphasis on vegetarianism, the fine for animal cruelty is still only a paltry hundred rupees. Unless it’s animal rape, which falls under Section 377: the same clause that outlaws homosexuality. In short, the world’s largest democracy is also one of the world’s most conflicted- and the cracks of this internal self- conflict run deep, far deeper than the surface symbols of a unified identity that it so vigorously upholds to hide them. If the recent surge in religious fanaticism following the election of the conservative party has shown us anything, it’s that we’re a nation hungering for a lost identity, something to rally to and call our own in the wake of colonial effacement.

The Elder Scrolls V is set against the backdrop of a civil war. The Empire encompasses multiple races; Imperials, Orcs, Bretons, Redguards, Wood Elves, High Elves, Dark Elves, Argonians, Khajits, and Nords. The Nords are the natives of Skyrim, the northern country in which the game takes place. The Stormcloaks are a rebel faction that want independence for Skyrim, and seek to oust all the foreign races that have since made their home there. The Empire is… well, I don’t think anyone can honestly claim that any Empire has been benign to those it subjugates. When you first begin the game, you are about to be executed by an Imperial commander just because you’re found among a group of Stormcloak rebels. Your name’s not on the list of wanted criminals but the Legate in charge shrugs and commands you be brought up to the executioner’s block anyway. You’re about to have your head lopped off when you hear an unearthly shriek from the sky, and something colossal throws everyone into shadow. The appearance of one of Skyrim’s infamous dragons saves you, and in an unlikely alliance, you join an Imperial soldier in attempting to escape to safety. After that, the soldier thanks you for saving his life and asks you to consider joining the Imperial legion. But you have a choice. You can join up with the Empire or seek out the leader of the Stormcloak rebellion, Ulfric Stormcloak, and pledge your alliance to him instead. You can also choose to stay neutral, but why would you, when you can instead actively play a part in bringing the civil war to an end one way or another.


Random sketch of a random warrior in armour- Skyrim really stokes my appetite for armour design.


This is where the morality bit comes into play. Skyrim is a game of choices, of getting to know the kind of person you might have been in another time, another place. This is a cold and brutally difficult world. You’ve got to be cold and brutally tough to survive it. Compassion comes in the way of economy; do you kill the innocent goat that strays across your path for some leather to wear or meat to eat? Do you search the bodies of your fallen comrades for much needed coin and arrows? Do you empty your moneybag at inns for some food and rest or do you sneak past the kindly innkeeper and steal from her stores? I chose economy over compassion nearly every time. It’s for the greater good, I told myself; the better off I was personally, the better I’d be able to serve the Empire… yes, I chose to serve the Empire. I could have chosen to serve the Stormcloaks, but the sting of racism underlying their claim to Skyrim was altogether too strong for me to ignore. Windhelm, a city under Stormcloak control, has a district known as the Gray Quarter, where the Dark Elves are ghettoized. Drunken ruffians at pubs and on the streets hurl racist insults at anyone who isn’t a Nord. Grey skinned Dark Elves, black Orcs and lizard- faced Argonians get the worst of it. Argonians are not allowed within the city walls, and are forced to work on the icy docks outside, without the warmth and security of the city.

But Skyrim never lets you forget that every choice is a complex one. The bandits and thugs that have taken over the forts and holds and keeps across the land are more often than not members of oppressed races, mirroring the very real relationship between racial oppression and crime. The Empire has banned the Nordic worship of Talos, infringing on personal free will under the banner of secularism, an act that echoes the banning of burkhas in France. The reverse, however, is also true; far too often the nation state infringes on individual free will under the banner of nationalism. And yet, Ulfric Stormcloak- the Jarl of Windhelm and the leader of the rebellion- is the one who plunged Skyrim into civil war by assassinating the High King. I chose to serve the Empire because while the idea of a revolution to claim a stolen homeland is a romantic cause, in balance it is a bloody, misguided dream. The Nords, like modern day Indians, are searching for a sense of identity in all the wrong places. A person’s choice of food, religion (or lack of it), career or partner are hardly the things that decide their Indianness. And yet it is difficult to resist using those cultural markers in the struggle to determine who we are. Western countries don’t face the same problem. Apart from religious skirmishes- the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation and sacking of the monasteries, etc, most Christian westerners have never had their way of life come under attack on the same scale as the natives of their colonies. Without a wounded culture to defend or revive, the concept of identity has naturally evolved into an individual matter rather than stay hung up on an imaginary, nationwide emblem.

I get it. I get it. We were invaded, ruled, crushed, our culture was shredded and our way of life turned upside down. But it’s time we realized that even before the Empire happened to us, no two people really lead the same way of life. It is deeply romantic, and very inspiring to imagine that we once lived in peaceful harmony with each other before a foreign Other came in and did horrible things to us. Granted, the British did do horrible things to us: nothing will ever excuse their crimes against us, and they still aren’t lifting a finger to compensate for those atrocities. British kids at schools are still taught about how they were the heroes of the world wars, the good guys. Apologists for the Empire go on about how the British ended the barbaric practice of sati in India as they ended the practice of female circumcision in Africa. Even a recent film about WWII- Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk– completely overlooked the significant role played by Indian troops in winning the war. But things were not perfect even before the British came, and if we are searching for ideals in a lost past that we cannot objectively remember, then we are already doomed. Identity is not where we come from but where we choose to go, and everything that happens to us along the way.

It was hard- when I got to the point in the game where we had to sack the city of Windhelm as a part of the conquest to bring it under Imperial control, I perhaps came closer to experiencing the horrors of war than ever before. The greater good, I told myself again, as the city went up in flames and civilians screamed and barricaded themselves in stone houses. Stormcloak soldiers kept coming in, and me and my troops kept fighting, on battlements, in alleyways, in courtyards and public squares. Some of the people whose lives I was trying to improve were caught in the crossfire and died in the frenzy of the violence. The greater good, I repeated, as I unsheathed my blade at the very end to execute Jarl Ulfric, and secure Skyrim.


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