« Lore Lapses, Part X: King HaraldThe Great Siege of Narra »

An Analysis of the Skyrim Civil War, Pt. 2: The Wild Card

An Analysis of the Skyrim Civil War, Pt. 2: The Wild Card

  01:13:00 pm, by   , 1503 words  
Viewed 9586 times since 02/25/15
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls, Analysis

Author's note: After some feedback, I have decided to make this a three-part analysis instead of a two-part analysis, as was originally planned. This will allow me to address all points I wish to make in an organized fashion without getting too long-winded in any individual post.


The debate between Skyrim players about which side is right and why has been going on since the game's release. Which side is right? The Empire, whose goal of uniting the human races against a greater threat leads them to overzealous oppression? Or the Stormcloaks, a rebel army devoted to a power-hungry racist who cloaks his true motives in the guise of desiring liberty? If you read my last post, you know that I don't believe either of them to be worthy of allegiance. Yet in all of these debates, the one thing that vexes me most is that it's always centered on the Stormcloaks or the Empire, and no mention is made of the most important party in the war, the party without whom the war cannot be won; the party whose exclusion from this debate is all the more surprising considering that it is the one with which players are not only exposed to the most, but are in direct command of.

I am referring of course to the player character in Skyrim: the Dovahkiin, the One True Dragonborn, Herald of the Tyranny of the Sun, et cetera, et cetera. A figure whose involvement in the war is incidental, but no less important for it, a veritable one-man army without whom the war cannot be resolved.

 

It can be difficult to account for freedom in gameplay choices from a lore perspective, which is why we won't know who really won the civil war until the next game is released. However, there is one constant in the equation, regardless of which side players choose to take in the war: The Dragonborn's allegiance determines the victor. From a lore perspective, we might think of the events in a given playthrough of the game (and in fact, have historically been encouraged to do so by Bethesda) as an Elder Scroll prophecy; one person may see a vision of the Dragonborn leading the Stormcloak invasion of Whiterun and conquering the city, while another may see him repelling the Stormcloaks from the front lines and successfully driving back the siege. A third may see the Dragonborn refusing to take sides and instead focusing on destroying Alduin, in which case the civil war will continue. The text of the Elder Scroll giving these prophecies won't become fixed until the prophecy is enacted (i.e., the next game is released), but in all versions of this prophecy, the Dragonborn's actions decide the outcome. In other words, the Dragonborn holds all the power, not Tullius or Ulfric.

 

So which side should the Dragonborn bring victory? Clearly, the arguments applied last time are also relevant here. The Dragonborn's first involvement with the Empire in Skyrim is being sentenced to death without trial, just because he was caught committing a crime while Ulfric Stormcloak happened to be committing another crime in the same general area. Not a great first impression on the Empire's part (and also why so many players get turned off from siding with them right away). Of course, we are quickly introduced to the character of Hadvar, who embodies the more sympathetic aspects of the Empire, and shows us that not all Imperial Soldiers are bloodthirsty oppressors. While all of the other prisoners are slated for execution, Hadvar immediately notices that the Dragonborn isn't, and seems unsure as to how he should proceed. It's not just that he's confused over protocol; the mere act of asking his superior officer what to do shows that he doesn't want to immediately execute a person without reason. When he's told he has to do it anyway, he doesn't say “Sure thing!” with a sadistic glee; he solemnly apologizes that he can't do anything more for the Dragonborn, and gives the only measure of comfort he can by offering to return the latter's remains to his home country. When all of the prisoners escape, he doesn't try to stop the Stormcloaks or kill them himself; he tries to get the women and children to safety, and personally helps the player escape the city, showing a clear understanding that his primary purpose as a soldier is to protect the people, not slay his enemies. This point is driven home during the ensuing confrontation between the Imperial torturer and escaping Stormcloaks, where Hadvar disgustedly mutters These bastards call themselves Imperial Legionnaires...

 

If Tullius embodies the worst of the Empire, then Hadvar embodies the best. But just because there are those within the Empire who are well-meaning and friendly doesn't mean they are any more deserving of victory in the Civil War. It's one thing for the Dragonborn to forgive them for trying to execute him or to befriend members of their ranks, but to support them militarily is to support the policies which alienated the other human provinces in the first place: blindly assuming that being part of the Empire is in the people's best interests and refusing to hear any objections, all the while allowing the Thalmor to trample on people and roam the country as they please. The Dragonborn's primary role as protector of the world need not only be from Alduin and the dragons, his prophesied foes; it can (and should) be from all threats to peace. In that regard, supporting the Empire is little better than supporting the Stormcloaks.

 

Of course, that doesn't mean the Stormcloaks are automatically the Dragonborn's friends. While many aspects of his character aren't recorded in the canon (such as his past or race), there are few reasons he would have for supporting Ulfric. Let's say, hypothetically, that the Dragonborn is one of the elven or beast races. Right off the bat, he's considered inferior in Ulfric's eyes. His attempts to join the Stormcloaks would be met with immediate suspicion. Even if he were to join the Stormcloaks and gain their respect, Ulfric and his men would only show it by saying that even though he's a foreigner, he has the heart of a Nord. So he may be a dirty elf/lizard/cat/orc, but it's okay, he's one of the good ones. Why would you support someone who clearly views your people as inferior, and encourages actively oppressing them?

But even disregarding the Dragonborn's race, why should he want to support Ulfric? The only thing we know for sure about his past is that he was captured trying to cross the border into Skyrim, meaning he wasn't a native of the country. In other words, the Dragonborn is unlikely to have any personal investment in seeing an independent Skyrim. Why should he feel motivated to join a group fighting for a nation's independence if he isn't of that nation? Even if he is a Nord, and would therefore have good reason to care about the state of his ancestral homeland, why would he fight for the Stormcloaks? He wouldn't be fighting for Skyrim's independence so much as he would be fighting for Ulfric to be High King, and in doing so, he'd be making mankind more vulnerable against the Thalmor by driving a wedge between Skyrim and their Cyrodilic allies. If he really wants to fight for Skyrim's well-being, he should support a side that emphasizes the well-being of the common people while allowing for good diplomatic relations between all of the human provinces (which, again, neither the Stormcloaks nor the Empire do).

 

It could be argued that while both sides are wrong, supporting the Empire may be slightly preferable, since they are at least dedicated to a long-term goal of keeping all the human races united against the Thalmor, unlike Ulfric, whose concerns about the Thalmor are secondary to that of his own rank. But even if that's true, choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil, and when there are other options available, that isn't a good choice to make. So what else is there? Negotiating a temporary peace treaty which will effectively end after Alduin is slain? Staying out of the war and allowing the Thalmor to destroy both belligerents once they've exhausted each other? Clearly, maintaining complete isolation from worldly affairs, as do the Greybeards, is the worst choice of all, when the Dragonborn has the power to make a difference. The question, then, is how the Dragonborn might make a difference in such a way that will not bring disaster to the people on a continental scale. Bethesda presents such an option in the game, but it is presented so subtly that it often isn't even recognized as an option at all. It is an option that is hinted at many times, but always in pieces, never as a cohesive whole. Much like in real life, the correct answer to this difficult decision can only be reached through extensive consideration. So what is it?

To be concluded

 

 Permalink

No feedback yet


Form is loading...