Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is filled with stories. There are those that are plotted out, and those that just happen when game systems interact with each other—like my fight against two dragons, two giants and a few massive mammoths. Or my lovely wedding with a Nordic werewolf with a heart of gold and a two-handed sword. Enough people have told you about Skyrim, and if you’re not playing, I probably can’t convince you. However, the thing that made me want to quit the game, then applaud the game, then fix the game, then sink into a guilty spiral of recrimination and shame, and then applaud the game again was this: I was accountable for the atrocities I committed.
I started with the best of intentions. The big, bad Imperials were destroying the Nordic way of life, writing over their culture with their own, even refusing to allow them to acknowledge their god. Outrageous! I was not a Nord, but I had been set up for execution by the Imperials and witnessed the execution of more than a few of the rebel Stormcloaks. I don’t like execution. I decided to stick it to The Man, or stick it in, on or all around The Man. That dirty, filthy, horrible Man. Sorry.
I joined up with the Stormcloaks. My first mission for them was simple: deliver an axe. My second task: return said axe. By then, I was somehow suckered in and committed. I could have chosen to stop there, and I should have. As a gamer, I am programmed to complete all tasks and get the big final reward. I am conditioned to believe my side will be the right side, unless I am given the red dialogue choices that say things like, “Burn, burn, all of you, burn. Bring me a kitten to kick!” Since that didn’t happen, I believed myself righteous. And if it weren’t immediately obvious, it would become so at the end. Isn’t that how revolutions go? Plus, when I complete a game, it is COMPLETE, every sidequest finished. Every one.
My next task was to sack the city of Whiterun. The first city I encountered. I recognized the guards, and they praised me and commented on my weapon prowess whenever we passed. I helped the Jarl, Balgruuf the Greater, and met his wizard, Farengar Secret-Fire, who was a bit dorky, but sweet. I helped Danica Pure-Spring, a priestess of Kynareth, revitalize the tree at the center of the city, it’s heart and inspiration. I had a little crush on Ulberth War-Bear (married to the female blacksmith, stupid girl), and helped Ysolda become a real merchant. I met or knew every citizen in the city, and then it was on fire, and I was killing the guardsmen. I wanted to stop, but I was already in the middle of it. We managed to get the Jarl to concede rulership, but the city was scarred, and as I walked down the pitted streets, I felt guilty.
I could’ve stopped there. I didn’t. The soldiers I worked with were not monsters; they believed in their cause, but I was an outsider, a Breton, not a Nord. I won’t recount everything that happened, but racism appeared on my side. They wanted purity. If I had listened better, I might have heard this earlier. When I finally did, it was too late. I served a leader I didn’t trust or respect, and who didn’t give a sh*t about me. I was a tool. When he asked if I wanted the honor of executing the Imperial Legion’s leader, I refused, an ineffectual and pointless show of my disapproval. I also refused to be celebrated by him in front of the troops.
Let me point out again, Ulfric Stormcloak, the leader I put in power, is not a moustache-twirling monster. The game did not tell me I was a bad person—I felt that. The cities I sacked were not immediately rebuilt, and the people did not return to how they’d been before.
The game did set me up a bit, aiming me at the rebellion, introducing me to sympathetic characters who were part of it, or who had been hurt by the imperials, but it was always my choice to continue or to find out more. So, when people speak of the scope of Skyrim, the freedom of playing in your own style, the amazement of exploration, compelling quest after compelling quest, to me this is the game’s greatest achievement. One I’ve only seen once before, in Bioshock 2. Skyrim made me feel accountable for my actions, without hitting me over the head with only very right or very wrong choices.
I spent 56 hours on this character. I created him. I saw the world through his eyes. I wrote his story myself, and when the rebellion ended, and I saw what I’d done, thought on the misery I’d caused and the misery to come, I couldn’t play him anymore.
I had to start again.
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Frag Dean is a podcaster on Silly Frags, available on iTunes, Sticher and sillyfrags.com.