Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Moral Ambiguity and Choices in Skyrim: All Setup, No Payoff

While black and white morality systems have been a staple of RPGs for years now - though less because of the inherent systems and more because of poor implementation by developers - it seems that over the last year or two it's become increasingly popular for RPGs to present morally ambiguous situations for the player, in the hopes of providing more compelling and intellectually stimulating decisions.  CD Projekt RED's The Witcher was perhaps the first game in this line, and shortly after, other RPG developers hopped on board, with Dragon Age, Fallout 3 and even Mass Effect 2 attempting to provide more difficult scenarios for the player that went beyond the question of "I want to be a bad guy/good guy."

With Skyrim, Bethesda have weaved a large and complex world, with rich lore that fits distinctly but unobtrusively into the existing Elder Scrolls fiction.  As part of realizing this world, they have, more than their previous games, attempted to do away with the binary good and evil dichotomy, by instead presenting a number of factions for the player to interact with, both with their given political agendas and their own more human elements.  However, while the setup plants the seeds for a game with interesting dilemmas with possible far-reaching consequences, due to either design limitations or oversights, instead Skyrim stumbles at providing interesting decision-making, even as it tries to provide a more realistic and morally ambiguous world.

Everyone's a Jerk but Me

The political landscape of Skyrim is defined largely by two factions, the Imperials (or more particularly, their military branch) and the Stormcloaks, a rebel army attempting to regain Skyrim's autonomy from the Empire due to perceived wrongdoings.  On the surface, it's easy to see what Bethesda was going for here.  While the Imperials are generally well-meaning and ensure equality for all under their laws, their philosophy also sees the individual concerns of smaller communities fall by the wayside in the name of the Empire, while the Stormcloaks, though fighting for a justifiable cause, do so often with cold-blooded murder, led by a man who seems more intent on proving his own superiority over others than truly saving his homeland.

In the mix of this are the Thalmor, a group of High Elves who control the Empire following the Empire's defeat in a prior war.  This on its own presents a far more interesting situation than just the two groups, because the Empire is largely being manipulated by the Thalmor, and many of the things the Stormcloaks fight the Empire over, such as the now-illegal worship of the god Talos, are in turn dictated by the Thalmor instead of the Empire, not out of malevolence, but because the Empire will be wiped out if they don't adhere to the terms of their treaties.  In many ways, the Empire is set up to take the brunt of aggression from the Nords of Skyrim, and they can do little about it without risking their own annihilation.  It's a definite "between a rock and a hard place" scenario.

Is there a "make my own faction that isn't full of idiots" option?
 The seeds here are sewn for interesting conflict and decision-making.  Choosing to support one of the factions is a big part of the game, and determines the player's role in the game world.  While both factions have good causes (the Thalmor are the only ones who are justifiably "bad guys"), their respective problems make the decision to join up a more difficult one.  Much like in Fallout: New Vegas, the goal is fixated on one outcome between the two groups - providing Skyrim with peace, safety and prosperity - but they have significantly different means of handling that.

Unfortunately, in attempting to build a morally ambiguous world, Bethesda actually go overboard and by and large overshadow most of the redeeming qualities the different factions have.  While the Stormcloaks are positioned as perhaps the "best" option due to their nature as freedom fighters, and the portrayal of their people as simple, hardy and well-meaning folk, it's clear that many are actually blatant racists and don't just want the Empire out of Skyrim, they want everyone who isn't a Nord to leave as well.  With the Empire, it becomes clear that while they might mean well, being such obvious puppets for a larger group makes it hard to support them as well.  Though many of their failings come more from what they don't do than what they do do, it's clear they have a lot of problems that simply defeating the Stormcloaks won't solve.

The human element isn't much better.  Without going into significant plot details, some background revealed about the Stormcloak leader, Ulfric, casts serious doubt upon his competence as a leader and his loyalties.  General Tullius on the Imperial side, on the other hand, is at least more immediately likeable, but doesn't really form any connection with the player; if I had one word to define his character, it would be "stern."  When you end up questioning the faction leaders themselves, and don't have much faith in their ideals or capabilities either, what else do you have?

In the end, I find myself not really caring for any of the factions available, and I've found many others who feel the same way.  While I made my choice, it felt like I was choosing the least incompetent party, not the one which best represented Skyrim and my character's beliefs.  Though it's great to have choices and better still for them to be interesting, the way the Imperials and Stormcloaks are set up, it's clear Bethesda went too far in giving the groups negative traits to counteract the positives, without actually spending time to build up those positives in the first place.  Good moral ambiguity in alliances makes for interesting choices, but in Skyrim, you're asked to choose between factions based not on which is better, but which one is least likely to screw things up.

You Want to do What?!

The second problem with Skyrim's moral decision-making has less to do with what it does and more to with what it doesn't do.  While it's important to provide the player with factions and characters that he or she can care about and become emotionally invested in, without constantly questioning their every move and motive, good moral ambiguity doesn't stop there.  A big part of that puzzle is giving the player logical and interesting choices to make that fit seamlessly into the situations the game presents, with the best decisions always being the most intuitive and clear-cut ones, rather than the most obscure.

Skyrim gets very close to this, but eventually trips over its own girth.  In the city of Markarth, a massive place built on the back of a Dwarven ruin cut into the mountainside, there are two factions, though more loosely defined than the Imperials and Stormcloaks.  The Forsworn are cultists (or at least religious extremists) who were pushed out of Markarth years ago by the Nords and placed under iron-fisted rule.  Understandably, they now hate Nords and the corruption they represent.  The Forsworn, despite being officially removed from the city, have many sleeper agents and other people on the inside working to gradually take the city back.  After investigating for some time, the player is eventually framed and arrested, only to break out of prison and either kill the Forsworn leader, or help the Forsworn escape and/or help as they butcher the entire city.

Markarth is one of the game's most interesting locations, but doesn't have the quest design to to back up the art design.
On the surface, this looks like your classic situation, and admittedly, the deaths of all those people is a pretty significant outcome which has long-term repercussions.  However, that's precisely what's wrong here.  There are only two outcomes: kill everyone with the Forsworn and let a group of violent, dangerous cultists take over, or kill the cultists.  It's pretty clear that these decisions are unreasonable and don't allow for much leeway.  Pacifism isn't an option - it's impossible to persuade the Forsworn leader to give up his crusade, and it's impossible to oust the corruption of the Nords without siding with the cultists.  In giving a radical binary decision to the player, Bethesda only draw even more attention to the fact that the options given are inadequate and, to be frank, highly unrealistic.

What's more, the player is rendered less an actor in the game world by such decisions, and more an observer.  Much of the fun in RPGs is getting a sense of influence over the game world and storyline, and yet in Skyrim, too many quests, including the Forsworn conspiracy quest, are happy to let the player stand on by without providing any real function save for actually speaking the dialogue that sets the quest in motion.  It's important not to build a game world that feels like it's just waiting for a hero to come along, but sometimes the lack of agency goes beyond the realm of plausibility and becomes irritating.

It's always easy to justify this sort of thing by saying that it'd be a lot of extra work to come up with so many different solutions and outcomes, but when your only options are "kill everyone" I really have to wonder what Bethesda's designers were thinking.  Such decisions aren't morally ambiguous or difficult; they're just stupid, and their violence and bluntness is so jarring precisely because so many other options are denied.  I'd be happy with those outcomes as options, but instead, senseless slaughter is mandatory, and ultimately the decision comes down to whether you want to kill cultists or civilians, not any sort of interesting battle of issues and ideals which can be reconciled without excessive bloodshed.

Status Quo is God

Skyrim loves to stick to the status quo.  Though the world it provides is massive and interesting, with tons of small details to soak in, it isn't actually much of a fan of giving the player any real influence over the course of events.  Despite the huge number of factions to join, quests to undertake and so on, there are almost never any long-term consequences for the decisions made.  The racist Nords in Windhelm will always be racist, and you can't call them out on it or make them see the light, even if you yourself aren't playing a Nord.  The feud between the two families in Whiterun can't be adequately resolved, despite it being such a strong theme of the location.  This pattern keeps up for almost the entire game: interesting locations and situations are painstakingly set up by the designers, but they never actually go anywhere or provide the player with any sort of pay-off.

Nowhere is this more obviously exemplified than in the College of Winterhold.  The College, located near the city of Winterhold, is rather notorious.  Nords hate magic, and due to a disaster many suspect the College of causing, Winterhold was almost entirely destroyed.  The people of Winterhold almost entirely hate the College as well as mages.  The player is able to eventually arise to the position of Archmage of the College, and with it come a whole new set of benefits, like some neat equipment and a lavish part of the College to use as a home base.  However, beyond this, very little about the gameplay or game world changes.  As Archmage, you are never called upon to oversee issues at the College.  You are never able to teach students, and indeed, it's possible to become Archmage with significantly less spell-casting ability than the other members there.  You never have to deal with anything remotely resembling what an Archmage might actually do.

Wait... so, uh, I can't send one of my underlings to do it?
Instead, you get to a handful of new quests to undertake, including, astonishingly, menial fetch quests and the ever-popular "go here and kill a few enemies" task.  As Archmage, I expect to see to administrative duties or academic ones which benefit the College and wider community, and yet everyone in the College still speaks as if my character is still a wet-behind-the-ears whelp.  What's more, given the strained nature of the relationship between the College and Winterhold, it'd make perfect sense to be able to sit down and have a nice, long talk with Winterhold's leader, and try to repair relations between the two, perhaps helping to donate gold in rebuilding the city, or using magic for good purposes.  Yet none of that is allowed either.  In fact, despite being Archmage, the people of Winterhold are entirely at ease with my presence.

Obviously, Skyrim is a massive game, and it's hard to provide meaningful choice and consequence for every single quest line.  I don't expect the game to devote the same resources to the main plot as it does to the side-stories taking place in the game world.  At the same time, though, this isn't an exception - throughout the entire game you will be given interesting scenarios positively begging for your intervention, with obvious end points for their resolutions, yet it is a rare day when anything you do is reflected in the game world in even a subtle way.

Even so, this lack of impact to decisions, or lack of decisions to make at all, dulls and even destroys much of the emotional impact of these scenarios, and reduce the player's agency in the game world.  It's often said that people need to see things in order to believe they're happening, whether that's the loading screen in a videogame ensuring the player that the game hasn't gone dead, or the progress bar during a program installation, and Skyrim suffers immensely from this, giving the player "implied consequence" rather than anything in the game world or gameplay itself.  It is a sad irony to think that a significantly more limited game like Divinity II can give players more interesting choice and consequence.


Building interesting scenarios for players to enjoy is always a challenge, regardless of the game or the genre.  RPGs typically have it even harder, as the amount of work required in building multiple outcomes to situations puts even more strain on a development team, and the higher standards for world design and writing inevitably invite more scrutiny.  Even so, while Skyrim provides one of the best fantasy worlds I've witnessed in years, and corrects many flaws in prior Bethesda games, the sheer size of Skyrim and Bethesda's attempt at a darker and more "realistic" story and world ultimately exhaust the game before it can ever really get started at exploring the people, places, and scenarios it provides.

There are morally ambiguous situations in Skyrim, and I'll be the first to state that many of them are interesting and compelling, but rarely are players ever given the tools to explore or solve them in convincing and satisfactory ways.  It's a common and integral point in fiction to never introduce concepts and problems that the setting itself can't sustain, but Skyrim does the opposite: it provides an extremely rich setting and then fails to do anything particularly interesting with it.  For all the improved atmosphere, art direction, and some of the most interesting backstory and lore I've witnessed this year, it is a bitter irony that Skyrim undermines so many of its own strengths.


  1. Skyrim has little to no depth, I dont care about the chracters or the guilds.

    What happens when I become a werewolf? People coment on hair growing out my a Argonian...Really Bethesda?

    I could forgive that, but I become the Arch mage of such and such, yet I can also becoem the leader of a brawny group of Warriors as a spell slinging mage.

    There are direct conversations about the Thieves guild and Dark brotherhood keeping guild maters "In house".

    I can also somehow lead a crusade against evil on the DB but not the Thieves Guild? Give me more choices god damn it!

    1. Soulstealers,

      You hate that you could become the leader of the Companions as a mage and yet you did it. If you find that element unrealistic, you could roleplay (LRN2RPG) and decide whether your character would do something like that.

      As for one crusade over another, some people want everything. A quest to eradicate the Thieves' Guild might be there if Bethesda had more time, it might not -- after all, the Thieves Guild has plenty of plot elements that tie into the larger story (and it seems the new DLC, Dawnguard). The Dark Brotherhood doesn't have that, so it seems the logical candidate for something to wipe out as a "good" character.

  2. Eric,

    Good read. I'd rebut by saying that they worked on the game for about 5 years and they simply did what they had time to do -- no more, no less.

    An obvious culprit in that time crush is dragons. The dragons are really much more than they are in other games where they simply appear in highly choreographed boss fights. The resources sunk into crafting the kind of dragons that should be in a Bethesda RPG probably can't be overstated:

    Dragons that spawn at random and have free roam over the land, dragons that speak their own fully-realised language, dragons that have quality dialogue with the player, dragons that have great voice acting, dragons that cast their own unique spells by roaring them, all while behaving more intelligently than any other enemy in the game (though not always, a dragon once stopped fighting with me to go roast a rabbit).

    Clearly, in hindsight, this took a lot more effort than creating the handful of Oblivion gate levels that were repeated ad nauseum in TES:IV. But I don't think Bethesda realised that going in. On the surface, using single enemies as a plot replacement for entire levels seems much simpler. Until you remember how Bethesda does things -- I've read interviews with design staff that talked about all the features that horses originally had in the game, that they removed to keep horses from being too crucial and too spotlighted. When Bethesda makes something the focus of the game, they go all out on it. Keeping that in mind, could it ever have happened any differently?

    Well, yes. As Todd Howard said, the two most requested things were dragons and multiplayer. But who were these things requested by? It's strange to think about, but if Johnny Headshot hadn't begged for dragons, maybe Skyrim would lack them. And if Bethesda didn't have to put massive resources into fleshing out the dragons and getting them just right, it's hard to imagine that the final product wouldn't have come out differently.