timber: (Teto)
[personal profile] timber
So I've been playing Skyrim almost nonstop since getting it for Christmas, with breaks to eat and sleep and haul myself back to school and go to class and play through Professor Layton and the Unwound Future and stop to marvel briefly at how much better the character models have gotten since Oblivion. So I've had Skyrim on the brain a lot, understandably.

And I've noticed something I really like about the plot- its ambiguity in telling a revolution story.

Please note that spoilers will follow.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has not one, but two civil war plots going on- the Stormcloak Rebellion against the Cyrodilic Empire, which is woven throughout the game's narrative and deeply intertwined in every aspect of the game, and the Forsworn Uprising, a smaller, localized conflict happening in the Reach, between the Nords and the native Bretons. Civil conflict, ancestral birthright, the idea of glory-or-death, and freedom are easily the most important themes in this game.

The idea of a revolution is often glorified in pop culture and media, which makes sense. We love to get behind an underdog. Star Wars, the Matrix, V for Vendetta, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Half Life 2, Avatar: The Last Airbender... We love La Résistance. We love the idea of a group of idealists striking back against an oppressive and all-consuming regime.

And Skyrim certainly starts that way, as you begin the game with your hands bound taking a cart ride on your way to your public execution at the hands of the Empire. In the other Bethesda games where you start out as a prisoner it isn't really explained how you ended up in shackles, though Skyrim actually makes an effort- you were crossing the border into Skyrim and walked right into an Empire ambush on the Stormcloaks. They assumed you were with the rebels, so they tied you up and tossed you in the cart to get a close shave from the headman. Hadvar, the legionnaire reading the kill list, protests the execution of somebody who was just some poor, unlucky bastard in the wrong place at the wrong time, but has no authority to do anything but reassure you that your remains will be sent to your home, so it's off to the chopping block you go.
So right off the bat we have a pretty big strike against the Empire.

Then Alduin attacks, and you can choose to escape the town of Helgen with either Hadvar or Ralof, a Stormcloak soldier and fellow prisoner who delivered some exposition on the cart ride into town. Who you decide to go with has no real impact on the story beyond them telling you how awesome it would be if you joined the Legion or the Stormcloaks (although Hadvar apologizes profusely for the, erm, "misunderstanding" should you decide to escape with him), and then you're unleashed upon the world of Skyrim to do, well, whatever the hell you want. After all, it is a sandbox game.

You can go through just about everything in the game without ever picking a side, as while the civil war is extremely important to the plot, completing it isn't mandatory to do anything (except be granted the title Thane of Eastmarch, which is only important if you want to marry Calder, who is appointed as your housecarl). Sadly though, unless you decide to never kill Alduin, there is no third option to end the war with a peace treaty (there is a peace treaty near the end of the main quest, but it only lasts until Alduin is killed, ending the dragon crisis). I would've loved to see an option to force Tullius and Ulfric to negotiate and see the war for what it really is, but more on that in a bit.

The basic arguments for each side are as thus:
-The Empire is the traditional bastion of political power on the continent of Tamriel, and has united the many provinces and races that call it home for centuries. Even before the era of the Empire, Cyrodil and Skyrim were strong political allies. However, following a nasty war against the Aldemeri Dominion, an organization of Altmer supremacists known as the Thalmor seeking to conquer Tamriel, the Empire signed a peace treaty that effectively made them a glorified puppet of the Thalmor, and banned the worship of Talos (or Tiber Septim, as he's called in Cyrodil), the first emperor of Tamriel who ascended to godhood after his death, and the most important Divine in the Nordic pantheon, because the Thalmor do not approve of the idea of an "inferior" man being worshiped as a god. The banning of Talos worship is the Stormcloaks' primary motivation for the war.
-The Stormcloaks, on the other hand, believe that the Empire is weak and a puppet of the Thalmor, and have thus forsaken their right to govern Skyrim. They've banned the worship of the Nords' most important Divine in order to appease an organization that makes no secret of the fact that they think men are inferior to mer. They believe Skyrim should have the right to govern itself, and its people should be able to worship whichever Divines they please. However, the Stormcloaks take on "Skyrim for the Nords!" as their warcry, and are extremely racist to the mer and beast races, the Dunmer, Argonians, and Khajiit in particular. They believe Skyrim is for the Nords and the Nords only.

However, the Empire also pretty clearly has no love for the Thalmor (Talos is a member of Cyrodil's pantheon as well, under the name Tiber Septim), they pretty much only signed the White-Gold Concordat, the peace treaty that ended the Great War (or as the Thalmor forbiddingly call it, the First War with the Empire) to avoid further bloodshed.

About half of the Jarls are sympathetic to the Empire and the other half lean towards the Stormcloaks, and as you progress through the civil war the ones that didn't support the side you picked get replaced with ones that did, and the balance of good versus bad Jarls is pretty even on both sides- for example, the Stormcloak-allied Jarl of Winterhold staunchly opposes the local mage's college, the only thing keeping the city relevant to anything, while the Empire-allied Jarl of Falkreath is a pretentious brat who is only using the title to inflate his ego. Riften and Markarth are messes regardless of who's in charge, though causing either city to change hands will replace the current Jarl with a member of the family that essentially controlled the city anyway, making their rule official instead of hush-hush.

When you end the civil war, either Tullius or Ulfric (depending on which side you chose) will comment that another war with the Thalmor is inevitable, and they're going to start preparing for it.
So, the decision of which side to pick ultimately comes down to your idealistic leanings:
"Better to die on your feet than live on your knees," or "better to live on your knees for now so that you can fight another day?"

So we've got a revolution story that's very gray-and-grey. Both sides make strong arguments, and both sides have fairly large strikes against them.

But it goes deeper.

In the Elder Scrolls games, you get very little backstory and world-building through playing the game itself- most of it is found in books scattered throughout the world, which serve as exposition dumps into everything from myths and legends to regional culture to historical records. If you're willing to read a couple, there's some interesting stuff about how Ulfric Stormcloak was a soldier fighting for the Empire during the Great War, but was captured by the Thalmor and held as a prisoner of war. The Thalmor used "reeducation" techniques on their POWs, and Ulfric was no exception- it's implied that they planted the notion of rebellion in him during his internment, which directly led to his role in Markarth Incident, an uprising in the Reach where the native Bretons, who called themselves the Forsworn, drove out the Nords. Ulfric led a battalion of men to retake the Reach for Skyrim, and in return the hold's Jarl, Igmund, promised to allow them to freely worship Talos while in the hold's capital city of Markarth. Ulfric committed many war crimes against the Forsworn, and in the Thalmor's investigation of the event, they found out about the Talos worship agreement, so in order to keep the already tenuous peace, Jarl Igmund had to kick Ulfric and his men out of the hold.
The Markarth Incident is the tipping point that led to the civil war as it stands now, as well as the Forsworn Uprising in Markarth, but more on that in a bit.

So in actuality, while the civil war has become an idealistic conflict, at its heart it's really an elaborate plot by the Thalmor to weaken both the Empire and its most stable and powerful province, making both easier to invade and conquer. The Thalmor are discreetly doing whatever possible to ensure that the civil war drags on as long as possible. They don't particularly want either side to win, they just want to drain Skyrim's and the Empire's resources dry. A victory for the Empire means the Thalmor influence continues in Skyrim unhindered, and the Empire is recovering from a civil war. A victory for the Stormcloaks means the Empire loses its most stable province. No matter who wins, the Thalmor win.

The only winning move is not to play.

On the other end, there's the Forsworn Uprising, a regional conflict plaguing the Reach, has been technically going on for centuries, when the Nords first settled in the hold. Shortly after the Great War, a militant group of the native Bretons who called themselves the Forsworn took advantage of the political instability following the war and kicked the Nords out, declaring the Reach an independent kingdom governed by them. It stayed that way for two years until the Markarth Incident, when Ulfric Stormcloak kicked them back out and Nordic rule was reinstated.

The Forsworn are still active, and you can do a quest chain for them where you see their side of the story- they, like the Stormcloaks, just want their ancestral homeland back. Natives living in Markarth live in their own small underground slum and are essentially slave labor for the Silver-Blood family, which controls Cidhna Mine, the silver mine that almost single-handedly fuels Markarth's economy, as well as serving as a maximum security prison. While the Silver-Blood family doesn't have quite the level of control over Markarth that the Black-Briar family has over Riften, they do control the city's economy and the city guards are loyal to them.

The Forsworn are an excellent example of how blurred and indistinct the line between "freedom fighter" and "terrorist" truly is. Through the quests The Forsworn Conspiracy and No One Escapes Cidhna Mine, you learn exactly what the situation is and what's been going on in Markarth between the Forsworn and the Silver-Bloods, but it's a bit confusing (I had to play through the quests a couple times to figure out just what was going on)- basically, the Silver-Bloods are holding the leader of the Forsworn, a man named Madanach, "the king in rags," captive in Cidhna Mine and are using him essentially as a substitute Dark Brotherhood, using Forsworn attacks to off the family's enemies, while Jarl Igmund insists that "there are no Forsworn in the city." Madanach is going along with this for now, because it weakens Markarth, but when the time is right (i. e. when you get tossed into the mine for sticking your nose where it doesn't belong), they break out and massacre every Markarth citizen who resists them, including all the guards. You can also end the quest by killing Madanach before you and the Forsworn break into the city, in which case the leader of the Silver-Bloods thanks and pardons you, and the guards survive.

But why would you ever want to side with an oppressive and corrupt slaver, and a ruler who insists that nothing is wrong when people are being murdered in the streets? Well, the Forsworn don't exactly have a clean record themselves. They're even more racist than the Stormcloaks, to the point of pursuing full-on genocide. They attack innocent people in broad daylight and kidnap children. They revere hagravens, and commit blood rituals and sacrifices to either the Breton pantheon or daedra, it's never made entirely clear. If you complete No One Escapes Cidhna Mine in their favor, Madanach himself proclaims that you've basically outlived your usefulness to him now and his allegiance with you is over. This is a group of rebels that the Stormcloaks considered barbaric terrorists. All in all, not exactly a nice bunch.

So do you side with the deeply corrupt slaver who controls the city from the shadows, or the genocidal terrorists?

Do you side with the puppet Empire, or the racial supremacist rebels?

As Madanach says, "there are no innocents, only the guilty and the dead."

The only winning move is not to play.

Viva La Revolución.
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June 2012

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