Once Upon A Time In Skyrim

by jbauck, last updated 26 Jul 2012 01:52

How Skyrim Accidentally Accomplished What Spec Ops: The Line Tried So Hard To Do

This article is full of spoilers for Skyrim and Spec Ops: The Line

The People are ready to proceed, Your Honor

Edward Coke stated that “an act does not make a person guilty unless their mind is also guilty,” only he said it in latin because he was an English barrister and judge in the late-16th, early 17th centuries. This is important, because this statement is the basis upon which legal culpability in criminal cases is understood today in former British colonies like the United States and in current members of the Commonwealth of Nations. In order to be legally guilty, Edward Coke said, the accused must commit a crime – the actus rea - and they must have intended to commit the crime – the mens rea.

This distinction between the actual act and the intent to commit the act is also useful in examining psychological guilt. In order for a person to experience ‘guilt’, only one of the two is necessary. Someone who causes an accident that harms others with no intention of hurting anyone will frequently experience guilt and remorse despite the lack of intent, and someone who wants to commit a crime - or hurt someone, or cheat on a test or lie to their mother or generally behave in a way that is commonly accepted as bad - can feel a pre-emptive sense of guilt despite the lack of action. That pre-emptive guilt is one of the mechanisms that prevent people from following through on their darker, less attractive impulses.

The psychological warfare of Spec Ops: The Line : Writers vs. Players vs. Characters

As argued far more effectively than I could match here, Spec Ops: The Line seeks to explore the horrors of war, its psychological costs, and the very nature of the genre it belongs to: the third-person shooter.

SO:TL attempts to make the player feel guilty, and question why they are continuing to play. This attempt to elicit guilt is based around a scene in which Walker, the main character, uses white phosphorous to take out bunches of enemies, only to find to his horror that he also burned a bunch of innocent civilians to death.

The actus rea here for Walker is the use of a white phosphorus weapon that results in the death of … people-shaped pixels. While the player does have to push a button to commit this act on Walker’s behalf, the game itself strips away all other options. “Push the button, or stop playing,” it says. While Walker utilized a white phosphorus weapon, the act that the player commits is simply to continue playing the game. From the player’s perspective, then, the actus rea is to play a game in which no real live people are actually hurt.

The actus rea alone, in this instance, is inadequate to generate a sense of guilt, because the player's real-world actions have no real-world consequences. While Walker should and does feel guilty about killing innocent civilians, why should the player feel guilty about playing a game? It is far too easy to dissociate from the main character, and the game, when the game does something clunky and heavy-handed like forcing the main character to commit an atrocity to continue. While this act is supposed to make a player think about playing games, it instead reminds the player that it's only a game with its forced lack of options.

If anyone involved in SO:TL had both actus rea and mens rea in the deaths of all those people-shaped pixels and the use of a terrifying, horrible rain of fiery death, it was the writers of the game, not Walker, and certainly not the player.

The important point, though, is that there is no mens rea here: neither Walker nor the player intend to burn innocent civilians to death.

In a video game, it is far too easy to remember that no one gets hurt when the player and the main character pull a trigger. It’s far too easy to dismiss any guilt that may result from an actus rea in-game alone, especially when that act lacks any element of player agency and mens rea.

It is mens rea, then – guilt springing from an intent or desire to do something bad – that remains the effective path to making a player feel guilty. In short, to make a player feel guilty, give them plenty of opportunities to do something to feel guilty about, but don’t make them do something to feel guilty about. It won't work unless the player has made the decision to do something bad.

Once Upon a Time in Skyrim

Skyrim is a great big, beautifully rendered sandbox game, with huge swathes of land to explore, random side-quests to pick up, large questlines on either side of a civil war depending on the player’s faction preference, and several large side-quest questlines with various other factions.

And, oh yeah, there’s some plot in there somewhere about a world-eating dragon called Alduin, and the PC is the Dovahkiin who can stop the world-ending badness.

This game gives the player plenty to do that they could feel guilty about later. The thieves’ guild is thuggish and brutish and nasty in sharp contrast to the Robin-Hood-esque roguish and daring thievery of Skyrim’s predecessor. The assassins of the Dark Brotherhood are exactly that: a Dark Brotherhood of Assassins. And … then there are the Daedric Princes. Nothing good ever comes from accepting a quest from a Daedric Prince.

My first playthrough of Skyrim, I simply didn’t do anything I’d need to feel bad about later. Thieves? Assassins? Nah … I’d rather not. Instead, I kept my focus on the main plot, defeating Alduin in an epic and heroic manner.

But there was so much in Skyrim I hadn’t done when I delivered the fatal blow to Alduin, I was eager to get out and explore the world. The character who completed the game, though, was not suitable for this task. By the time I defeated Alduin, my skills and equipment were at the point where I was pretty much immune to damage, and I wanted to make a new character – one who wasn’t necessarily interested in all of this dragon stuff, and who would, instead, pick up a bow, do some hunting, and go explore.

I still wasn’t interested in being a thug or a murderer.

Skyrim opens with the main character narrowly avoiding being beheaded because the proceedings are interrupted by a dragon attack. Afterward, I followed Ralof to the small village of Riverwood. I spent some time there, talking to people and hunting animals and scrounging up alchemy reagents.

I did some smithing for Alvor, and took some archery lessons from Faendal, and sold my goods to Lucan Valerius. I was asked by both Faendal and Sven to get involved in Riverwood’s little drama – the love triangle between Faendal, Sven, and the girl they both had their eye on, Lucan’s sister, Camilla.

One thing I had found time for in my first playthrough was the Skyrim romances. As it turns out, romance in Skyrim is dreadfully dull. Just meet someone while wearing an Amulet of Mara, propose, get hitched, and the new spouse will hang out at the family home, cook, and fail to ever say anything interesting.

Once I had Faendal trying to convince me to sabotage Sven’s chances with Camilla, and Sven trying to convince me to sabotage Faendal’s, I started wondering … was romance in Skyrim really boring, or did I just pick a boring spouse?

What would happen, I wondered, if I swooped in and married Camilla myself? Harsh words? Fisticuffs? Something interesting?

I had no idea.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Whiterun

Both Sven and Faendal attended the wedding. The developers, apparently, also found the romances boring, and neither Sven nor Faendal said a word about my particular method of resolving this messy love triangle.

Back in Riverwood, they similarly made no comment.

I completed enough of the main plot to be granted a house in Whiterun, and a Housecarl, Lydia, who would be a follower/party member or hang out at my house and protect it. I moved to Whiterun with Camilla. My new house secured, I went back to ignoring the main plot, wandering around, hunting, killing bandits, and digging up side-quests around the Whiterun/Riverwood area.

And then one day, as I was traveling to Riverwood, I saw Faendal on the road heading towards Whiterun. That was odd enough for me to notice. In my first playthrough, I had similarly spent some time in the Whiterun/Riverwood area and had never seen Faendal leave Riverwood.

With good reason, as it turns out. Faendal’s scripting sends him off to visit Camilla periodically. Faendal’s scripting doesn’t seem to realize that Camilla is married now. Faendal’s scripting has him taking a long, long walk to Whiterun to spend time with a married woman.

I realized this when I went to my home in Whiterun one day, and found Faendal there. In my house. Eating my food. Pining for my wife1.

I laughed. I shook my head. I figured, well, the writers/developers really missed the boat on making the PC marrying the object of a love-triangle interesting. Faendal and Sven don’t give any indication that they’re aware that Camilla is married, so there are no arguments, no fistfights … no drama. What a wasted opportunity, I thought.

Sitting in my house. Eating my food. Pining for my wife.

At first it was funny.

I went about my business. It was a bug, afterall. And a pretty silly one. He actually talked to me about his feelings. For my wife. And I snickered.

But then he was there again. And again. And again.

I imagined if the writers/developers had the time and paid better attention to detail, we could have a fistfight, then go get a beer. I chuckled.

But then he was there again. And again. And again.

And again and again and again.

I imagined berating Lydia, my Housecarl, for not throwing him out.

It was … irksome. Bugs are annoying, and while this one certainly wasn’t game-breaking, it was getting on my nerves. He was just always there.

Sitting in my house.

Eating my food.

Pining for my wife.

I imagined my character would be furious at the constant intrusion.

One evening, I found myself on the way to Riverwood because it was closer than Whiterun and I was carrying a whole lot of stuff I wanted to dump off, and I saw Faendal walking home.

Surely on his way back to Riverwood from my house in Whiterun.


I narrowed my eyes at him, glaring daggers into his pixel-back and followed him. It occurred to me that it would be really easy to just kill him on the road.

But, no – over a funny bug? That was silly.

But if I did that, I wouldn’t have to see him at my house anymore. I couldn’t confront him – the game didn’t let him acknowledge that I was married, let alone give me an opportunity to punch him in the face for showing up at my house to eat my food and pine for my wife every day or so. He was, in essence, a total douchebag who had no idea how inappropriate he was being.

And, well, I’m the PC, and as the player, he’s annoying the crap out of me. Why not? I kill people in video games all the damn time. I must have killed twenty or so to get all the damn loot I was carrying.

And I’m the damn Dovahkiin. I do not have to put up with this crap.

I followed Faendal, sneaking, mulling it all over.

I followed him into Riverwood. I followed him to his house. I lurked outside his door, waiting … waiting …

When it was late enough that I was sure he’d gone to bed, I snuck into his house and murdered him in his sleep.

Mea Culpa

And then I was horrified.

What the hell had I just done?

I had meant to play the story of the reluctant hero: the Dovahkiin who did not want the task, and wasn’t interested in fame, glory, or power, but had more modest goals, like getting married and earning an honest living.

Instead, I’d managed to turn Skyrim into Crime and Punishment.

I’d played “bad guys” in video games before. I usually don’t, but occasionally I do. I’d played assassins, thugs, gangsters, thieves … Sith Lords. Plenty of bad guys in my gaming repertoire.

And the number of pixel-persons I’ve killed over the decades? I couldn’t even hazard a guess.

But this one struck me. The game didn’t force me into killing Faendal. The game didn’t even ask me to, by giving me a quest. I, the player, found him annoying, he was making me angry, and I murdered him.

I snuck out of his house and stayed hidden all the way back to Whiterun, afraid of being found out by the guards. I cannot say why I didn’t simply restore an earlier save, because I don’t know. Right then, the only thing I was thinking was, I murdered him, and it would be bad if I got caught.

And I was feeling guilty. Terribly, horribly, awfully guilty, for killing a pixel-person like the countless hordes I had killed before.

Because I’d decided to do it.

The actus rea of killing a pixel-person didn’t bother me. Nothing I hadn’t done before. But forming the mens rea to kill a pixel-person, independent of any quest or bit of story or NPC that pointed me towards doing it? In the context of the game-world … over a harmless crush on my wife and the tendency to drop in uninvited for lunch now and then?

And that sense of guilt kept getting worse.

The thing with Skyrim is, it recognizes crimes, but if a crime is unwitnessed, the PC simply doesn’t get caught. There is no CSI: Skyrim to track down murderers. Without a witness, no one knows what the PC has done, so no one mentions it.

Camilla’s silence, in particular, was damning. Faendal had shown up for lunch every day or so, gets murdered in his sleep one night, and she doesn’t talk about it at all?

Yet another bug, but even so, that silence felt tense. That silence felt accusatory.

As accidental as this all was - the situation resulting from a bug rather than intent on the part of the developers - I’ve never had a game make me feel like a monster. Bad, yes. Monster, no.

It was the moment Spec Ops: The Line seems to have been trying so hard to create, where I started really thinking about what I was doing and why, and ultimately it was effective in making me feel like that because it was the pinnacle of player agency.

That awful moment happened because I made it happen, with my impatience and my annoyance, and, well, my sense of being vaguely offended on my character’s behalf by the specific behaviors that bug caused. That decision existed in a weird, uneasy fusion between myself and the character I was playing and the situation the character was experiencing. With the knowledge that none of this was real and nothing but a pixel-person would be hurt, yes …but I still made that decision. I made that decision with intent. I made that decision knowing it was wrong.

In the course of this game, I formed the mens rea to commit a murder.

And then I stopped playing.

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