So, that last post was long and serious. I’m going to follow it up with a post about video games.
Skyrim is the only installment of the Elder Scrolls games that’s managed to grab my interest to the tune of $50, and I must say that I’m not regretting it too much. It tends to be buggy as hell, to the point of frustration at times, and you need to set the graphics pretty high to get all that much out of it (and even to finish a couple of quests, honestly) but it’s gorgeous, and the advancement mechanics are entertaining without feeling like a treadmill. However, what’s really intrigued me is some elements of the major conflicts.
The overarching conflict in Skyrim takes the form of a civil war between the Cyrodillic Empire and the Nationalist/Separatist Nords under the command of Ulfric Stormcloak. What’s particularly effective in the nature of this conflict is how it’s fashioned to obscure whether any one side is particularly “good” or “bad”. Instead, each faction seems to represent an overarching political force, and both its positive and negative aspects.
The Imperials are pretty easy to peg. Visually and thematically, they’re drawn heavily from the Roman empire. They’re clearly intended to embody Empire in its totality. It’s rather effective; the Imperials come across as alternately indifferent to local customs, and struggling to hold together the pieces of a civilization on the verge of decline. Moreover, they’re just coming off a devastating loss with another antagonist with some humiliating treaty terms, and there’s a few moments that strongly suggest that even among the Imperials, there are as many that sympathize with the Stormcloaks’ greviences as there are that are indifferent.
The Stormcloaks, then, are presented as embodying an equal and opposite political force to Empire: Nationalism. For their part, they form the rebellion in response to what they see as an attempt to assault their cultural heritage, in the form of a term of aforementioned treaty that prohibits the religion popular amongst the Nords, as well as other examples of cultural supression and humiliation. The Nords -even those siding with the Empire- complain that their input was neither sought nor considered in the treaty terms, and that they merely had terms dictated to them. The nationalistic push for self-determination is eminently comprehensible. Even their leader, Ulfric, displays certain magical powers that are unique to the great heroes and villains of Skyrim, and seem to wrap his claim to the throne in distinctively culturally-Nordic trappings.
On the other hand, the dark side of nationalism is present, as well. Many detractors depict the Stormcloaks as a cult of personality under a man less interested in principles than in power, and racism and xenophobia is prevalent throughout Stormcloak holdings, particularly their primary hold. Moreover, the Nords are rather unselfconscious about visiting some of the same oppression on the indigenous peoples of one region of Skyrim, highlighting a deep hypocrisy in their demands of self-determination.
Part of why this works so well is that it draws elements from a number of distinct historic conflicts, of which Rome and its provinces are a very small part. The humiliating defeat and treaty terms leaving a nation in decline are fairly evocative of post World War I Europe, while a distant, unreceptive empire making demands on a local colony, to meet the needs of a larger conflict, sparking a rebellion that pits countryman against countryman (as well as the oppression and cleansing of indigenous natives), draws some strong influence from the American Revolution.
Ultimately, this helps put the conflict in pretty sharp relief: either Ulfric is a Hitler figure, taking advantage of the national humiliation of the Empire/Weimar Republic at the hands of the Allies (who are Elves and also basically Nazis, in this story) to seize power for not-so-good, or else he’s a George Washington figure, throwing off the shackles of an ossified empire that can neither protect no respond to the demands of the Nordic people, so busy are they with their continental conflict with the French (who are still Nazi Elves). In the end, which faction you side with is often a challenging decision, for a series of mirror-image side-quests, and that it sparks so many forum arguments along the lines of how once side is obviously in the right and the other is obviously in the wrong and you must be dishonest or morally bankrupt to believe otherwise; is itself a testament to some incredible story-weaving on the part of Bethesda.
Except for the elves, though. Those guys are dicks. Everyone agrees.