I was on Christmas vacation for this past week, and spent a good part of it sick: with Skyrim Fever. While the game was released on November 11th, putting me six weeks behind most other rabid gamers, receiving it for Christmas was perfect timing. And I’ve realized that even if I had gotten it on the release day, it wouldn’t have made any difference. The game is so vast that there’s not much more of a dent I could have put into it than I did this week.
So far my Nord, Cailan, is a level 10 specializing in dual-haded weapons, but he’s also good with a lockpick and sneaking about. Nothing like a little cross-class work there. He’s also Dovahkiin, “Dragonborn”, and basically the equivalent of Skyrim’s “chosen one”. Many other Nords believe that the Dovahkiin will help quell the rebellion that has rocked their country and help restore peace to Skyrim. As a fan of fantasy, and a person who gets paid to analyze conventions and cliches of fantasy, none of this surprises me. But what is surprising me is how seriously I’m taking the moral ramifications of the game.
This isn’t a new concept for me, personally. Around this time last year I picked up BioWare’s Mass Effect. As Commander Shepard, you are tasked with saving the galaxy from a rogue operative named Saren. You are the first human SPECTRE ever, a high-level operative that represents the best humanity can offer to the alien races of the universe. Mass Effect employs a morality system that defines some choices as “Paragon”, or inherently good and noble; or “Renegade”, which is usually equated with bad. Throughout my game I began to realize that many of my choices were based on my own personal morals. In general, I like to make everyone happy. I try to be a people pleaser and do the right thing, and not cause much of a ruckus. So I found my Shepard doing that. When it came time to make the agonizing choice of which character to leave behind on the planet Virmire, I had to decide between my romance and someone else. Now, the other character, Ashley Williams, was a good character. But it was her or Kaiden Alenko, with whom I was in a romance, so I left Ashley. I felt awful, as if the choice my character had made in the game said something about my own personal morals. Besides, here’s Shepard, supposed to represent all that is good about humanity… and she’s leaving a comrade behind in favor of continuing the romance.
The “chosen one” is a convention of fantasy that’s older than the genre itself. Usually the chosen one is, like Commander Shepard, someone who represents all the hopes of the people. His or her coming heralds the coming of hope, and is the harbinger of change for the better. Perhaps that’s why, then, I aimed for Paragon status with my Shepard. But after Mass Effect came another BioWare title that has since consumed me: Dragon Age.
Once again, regardless of the origin you choose, you are left as one of the last two Grey Wardens: in effect, one of only two people who can end the Blight that is destroying your homeland of Ferelden. While the system of morality isn’t as clear-cut as Mass Effect, I found my character making choices that were for the general good, and tried to please the other party members. One time I had an NPC kill her demon-possessed son, only for Alistair, a main character, to yell at me once we got back to camp. You better believe I reloaded and replayed that scene so things would have a better outcome. Sometimes I made choices that I thought were in the best interest and for the common good of most people, only for the end result to come back and slap me across the face. For example, I crowned Pyral Harrowmont during my first play through the dwarven realm of Orzammar, only to find out in the epilogue that he shut off the city and made the dwarves isolationists. When I did it again and put Bhelen on the throne for the betterment of Orzammar, he immediately had Harrowmont executed.
I shouldn’t let it bother me so much. It’s just a game, right? I’ve talked with other gamers about their choices in Dragon Age, and many find it fun galavant around a fantasy world where they can act with abandon, unencumbered by the morals and consequences of our own world. But to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy doesn’t nullify reality; if anything, it raises it to a higher level. If there were no consequences, would we make the same kinds of choices to kill, or believe that the ends justified the means no matter what? Is it only consequence that defines our morals and forces us to make moral choices?
Or perhaps it is because in these fantasy situations, I am playing as the Chosen One. The hope of entire nations rests on my shoulders, and because in reality I like to please people and do right by them, when I enter into the fantasy world I feel the need for my characters to live up to those expectations.
Which leads me back to Skyrim. My character did a contract kill that resulted in a group of elite and mysterious assassins contacting him. One of my tasks was to kill one of three people. I wasn’t told which one. I had to guess, which effectively meant their lives were in my hands. I made my choice and did the kill. Afterward I had the conversation option to ask if I’d made the right choice, and found I didn’t want to know. Because if I’d made the wrong choice I’d have felt terrible. Yes, it’s just a game, and I know I didn’t kill a real person. But the world of Skyrim is so huge and involved, that somewhere, somehow down the line in my game I fear that kill coming back to me.
By making that kill, I was invited to join the Dark Brotherhood. I went to check it out and figured, why not. My first task was a set of three contract kills. I killed the first man without talking to him, even though he was a beggar squatting in a shack. I was chased down and arrested by the guards… and just paid my bounty to go on and do my next contract. But with that one, I made the mistake of talking to my mark. I said, “Someone wants you dead.” And she said, “Yeah, probably my husband. The feeling is mutual.” Somehow that made her more human, and it’s a good thing my xbox froze the game because I had a serious moral dilemma that I’ve been thinking about ever since.
In Skyrim, I am Dovahkiin: the Dragonborn, the Chosen One. My ability to absorb dragons’ souls and hence their power means that the people of Skyrim will look to me to tip the scales for either the Imperials or the Stormcloak rebels. And I feel I have a duty to them. I wonder what they’d think if they knew their Dovahkiin killed people for money, or picked locks and snuck into homes and stole coin purses. Would it matter, so long as the rebellion and/or war ended? Would it matter so long as the dragons were once again destroyed? Yes, I am the Dragonborn and I’ve come… and I’m kind of a jerk.
Perhaps it’s just personal biases about the Chosen One convention/cliche. Or maybe I think about these things too much. But either way, when it comes to moral dilemmas in RPGs, it’s clear that it’s more than just a game.