Thrown into the land of Tamriel, utterly ignorant of its peoples, politics, or cultures, everywhere I went I was met with suspicion or resentment. I wasn’t the only one of my kind, but apparently my particular race was in the minority here, or at least in the municipalities and wilds of Skyrim. With quite a few notable exceptions, most of the people I met would see my pointy ears and angular features and sneer.
I’m of course describing my early experiences playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a vast open-world role playing video game that’s been around since 2011 and has been available on a variety of platforms and consoles, including the most recent, the Nintendo Switch, which is where I discovered it. You can choose from a wide range of races and species for your character, including varieties of humans and elves, as well as as orcs and anthropomorphic animalistic species, and I chose to be a Bosmer, better known as a Wood Elf. I had been looking for a game to fill the void left when I had finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and playing as a sort of Link-like quasi-Hylian appealed to me.
I knew almost nothing about the game before I first fired it up. I had never played an Elder Scrolls game before, and knew nothing about them other than that they were fantasy role playing games. Skyrim throws the new player right into the thick of conflict (literally as a prisoner bound for execution) and little in the way of tutorial or introduction, so one is forced to fumble about from the very first moments, wrangling with an overwhelming array of buttons and menus that make little sense at the beginning. It didn’t help that I am woefully helpless in games played from the first-person perspective, and you can imagine my relief when I discovered (by mashing buttons) that I could toggle to third-person and more or less stay that way.
Beyond my hapless and frustrating orientation to the basic controls of the game, I was also overwhelmed by the deluge of stories being hurled at me from every character. Every warlord, guard, prisoner, and townsperson was eager to unload their most deep-seated grievances and ennobling dreams, and I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about.
There’s an Empire, sure, got that. And there are local monarchs, and they don’t all get along with each other, and some don’t like the Empire, and some do. Fine, fine. Factional disputes, nothing surprising there. But what the hell, exactly, am I supposed to do? I became so overwhelmed, so quickly, that I summarily dropped the game for months before deciding to give it another shot.
I’ve come around, and while I’m sure I’m not yet near the game’s end (if there even is such a thing), I’ve advanced to incredible political heights, gained world-shattering powers in magic and combat, and become extraordinarily wealthy. I even have a lovely house and adopted two kids (Sophie, a real sweetheart, and Lucia the badass).
But no matter how powerful I become, the attitudes of Skyrim’s people remain constant. There are the more cosmopolitan humans, including various aristocrats, artists, and many craftspeople and merchants, who largely don’t even mention my character’s race. (There is a measure of condescension at times, as when characters ask, “What do you want, little elf?” My character, unlike me in real life, is of above-average height.) But particularly in the political regions (what Skyrim refers to as “holds”) where there is antipathy toward the Empire, my elvishness engenders a good deal of hostility and mistrust.
And I really, really didn’t like that. Fairly early on in the game (or, at least as I experienced it), the player is faced with a decision: Will they stand with the ruling Empire or side with a faction of rebels, the “Stormcloaks.” Their leader, the Jarl of Windhelm, Ulfric, has recently killed Skyrim’s Empire-aligned High King, and aims to make Skyrim an independent state.
Which sounds noble enough, until you come to understand that the Stormcloaks consider Skyrim to be a land specifically for their particular race of humans, known as Nords. So-called Imperials are not wanted, and wanted even less are elves.
What’s that all about? I certainly didn’t know. But it’s not as though the game doesn’t give the player ample and frequent opportunities to find out. Apart from the many lengthy monologues from non-player characters, the game generously scatters books throughout the world that the player can read, a great many of which recount the history of Skyrim, its continent of Tamriel, and all its peoples. So if there’s something about Skyrim culture one doesn’t understand, it’s probably because one hasn’t done the research.
Regardless of the cultural context, this anti-elf bigotry did not sit well with me, and I decided that if the game wants me to pick a side, I’m naturally going to choose the side that welcomes my kind and doesn’t consider us invaders. Racist Stormcloaks, who might as well be wearing leather helmets emblazoned with Make Skyrim Great Again, could bite my Bosmer butt. I signed up with the Imperials, and through my bravery and astounding feats in the face of death, I rose to the rank of Legate.
Not too long after what looked like the final defeat of the Stormcloaks, thanks in large part to my sword-slashing and thunderbolt-zapping in the streets of Windhelm, I was trotting along some path outside the city and came upon a group of folks with a prisoner in tow.
Inquiring as to what was going on, I learned that it was a group of High Elves (a different race of elves than my own, but elvish all the same) getting ready to prosecute and execute a Nord human for the crime of worshiping the wrong god. The races and species of Tamriel (and its planet of Nirn) worship a wide variety of gods and demigods, and many Nords also worship as a god a human warrior from ages past named Talos. This mortal human does not qualify for divinity in the eyes of the Empire, who have made Talos-worship a crime.
And these elves, ostensibly “my people” from “my side,” were going to murder a guy over it. I intervened, the High Elf inquisitors tried to kill me, and I wiped them out. They did manage to kill the Nord prisoner during the fracas.
So here I was, a high-ranking officer of the Empire and an elf, having just killed a contingent of Imperial elves who were committing fascistic crimes against humanity (or Nirn-ity).
Had I picked the wrong side?
At the beginning of the game, I knew nothing. Trying to make sense of the world I’d been violently thrown into (I say “violently” because my execution was stayed due to a dragon attack on the town which allowed me to escape), I reached certain conclusions about the moral landscape based on my anecdotal encounters with the denizens of Skyrim. Those who were most hostile and prejudicial toward me because of my race were the same folks who were decrying the Empire and making common cause with Ulfric and the Stormcloaks. It seemed pretty clear to me that they were, as the saying goes, on the wrong side of history. The Empire, from my limited understanding, represented the Nirnian version of enlightenment.
So what about those elves on the road? Why was the Empire violently weeding out heretics and making examples of them? That’s what the unenlightened rubes would do, right? Except nobody in Skyrim, save for overt villains and demons and the like, ever sought to erase me for what I was. They were rude, discriminatory, and belittling, but my freedom was never threatened. My life was never threatened. My labors were always compensated and my money was always good.
It occurred to me that I couldn’t remember why I was being carted off to execution at the beginning of the game. I remember at the time that the dialogue was such a torrent of unfamiliar names and factions that it more or less just washed over me as I worried about how to move around, attack, and navigate the menus.
Looking it up again for the first time in months, I was reminded that my character was bound for execution for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, rounded up during an Imperial raid on Stormcloaks. Because I had been in the vicinity, I was presumed to be part of the resistance, and therefore presumed guilty. On the cart to Helgen, where I was to meet my end (save for the dragon attack), I rode alongside Ulfric, the very man who I would fight to defeat and dethrone in the assault on Windhelm. My executioner was to be an Imperial by the name of General Tullius, the same man who would later give me my own Imperial rank. I fought literally at his side in Windhelm and helped him dispose of Ulfric.
I remembered nothing of the game’s beginnings when I was climbing the Empire’s ranks and winning its favor. (I was also busy becoming a powerful sorcerer and earning the title of Arch-Mage at the College of Winterhold, so I had a lot on my mind.) If I had remembered that I had ridden to my almost-doom with Ulfric, or that Tullius had summarily ordered my death based on false pretenses, I almost certainly would have made different choices. I’m not sure which ones.
But even forgetting all of that, I never really knew what “the Empire” was to begin with. All I knew was that it was not based in Skyrim, and, thanks to interstitial tips and backstory provided during loading screens, I knew that there had been a peace achieved between the Empire and something called the Aldmeri Dominion. A quick bit of googling told me that the Aldmeri Dominion is essentially an elf-supremacist superpower that won the right to stamp out Talos worship within the Empire as part of its peace treaty. Thus, the elven inquisitors I met on the road.
Digging further into various websites and wikis unearths a trove of material providing more history and context to the state of affairs for Skyrim into which I was dropped. It’s dizzying.
I didn’t expect The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to be simplistic, and I knew I would need to make ethically and morally difficult choices. For example, I have, so far, totally eschewed the questline surrounding the “Dark Brotherhood,” a band of elite assassins, and I have merely dabbled with the Thieves Guild questline, mostly for the sake of building up in-game skills. On the whole, I have tried to make choices that are consistent with both my own values and what I perceive my character’s would be in this time and place. It’s fuzzy, but it’s how I’ve decided to play. (I may decide on a second playthrough to go a totally different route, and play as, say, a treacherous, murderous lizard-person.) And I’m not nearly done. My quest menu screen is still overflowing.
What I didn’t anticipate when beginning this experience was the incredibly rich worldbuilding that has gone into the Elder Scrolls franchise, and how it deeply informs the story within the game. It was easy to hate those provincial Nords who turned their stubby noses up at me for being an elf. I had no idea what might have made them hate elves in the first place. Knowing more about the history of Tamriel, about the conflicts between elves and humans, hasn’t excused their bigotry, but nor does it excuse the totalitarian crackdown by the Empire, nor the zealous intolerance of the Admeri elves.
They all have their reasons. They all have their motivations. They all believe they are doing what they must.
So what about this Bosmer living in a human realm that I play, this Arch-Mage and Imperial legate, this ex-convict who narrowly escaped a beheading, this conqueror and liberator, this slayer of dragons and deathlords, this father of two orphaned girls? What must he do, now that he knows a little more?
What must anyone do, once they know a little more?