Anyone who follows my blog knows that I have a keen interest in worldbuilding. So when I decided to dust off Skyrim and have another go at it, I couldn’t help but re-examine the world that Bethesda has created. Before I start though, one caveat: open world games have an entirely different standard than written fiction. For a novel, anything that isn’t relevant to the story can (and in most cases, should) be omitted. An open world game can’t predict what a player may or may not do, so anything available in the game world must fit together as a singular effort of worldbuilding. Often times, this results in a greater breadth of world, but often spotty depth.
Also, since Skyrim is over 4 years old now, I’m not going to be shy about spoilers. If I need to shout it, I will. SPOILERS AHOY!
With that out of the way, let’s look at one of the key elements of Skyrim’s worldbuilding…
Ugh, what a dry topic, right? Well, if Skyrim dealt with politics at a procedural level, sure. No one wants to wade through treaty texts or keep track of trade favors between dukes and lords. Most players don’t care about grain taxes, budget meetings, or road maintenance. What players care about is how the world’s politics affects their character’s life. In a nice twist, Bethesda has left some leeway into just how much involvement the player has.
First off, the political situation in Skyrim is secondary to the main plot (at least partly). You can happily go about your world-saving, dragon-slaying, loot-collecting way and ignore all the political factions. However, Skyrim has three major political forces that you can involve yourself with (two of them directly)
Us Vs. Them
Skyrim’s native race are the Nords, hardy, unsophisticated folks who tend to prefer to look after their own affairs. Unfortunately for many of them, Skyrim is the northernmost province of the Empire, and they would rather rule themselves. But instead of a simple secession as a province, Skyrim’s rulers are divided on the issue. The province is divided up into 9 holds, each with a Jarl as ruler. The Jarls are split on the issue of rebellion. Some are Imperial loyalists, others favor independence.
This all came to a head when Ulfric Stormcloak challenged High King Torygg to a duel for the throne (as chief among the Jarls) and killed him. But instead of taking the throne per ancient Nord custom, the empire branded him a murderer.
The Stormcloak Rebellion
“Skyrim for the Nords.”
Ulfic established the rebellion from his stronghold in Windhelm. His followers believe that he is the true king of Skyrim, and that his victory will result in freedom from the Empire and self-determination for the Nords. As a player, you can join the rebellion as a member of any playable race, though in roleplaying terms, it’s a stretch for a non-Nord to be interested in this cause. The Nords don’t have a strong history (or present, for that matter) of treating other races well. Both xenophobia and racism are rampant throughout the Stormcloaks, though individual members may be sympathetic to outsiders.
One of the key issues for the Stormcloaks is the worship of Talos. Under the Empire’s most recent cease fire treaty with the Aldmeri Dominion, worship of the human-turned-god has been outlawed. As the birthplace of Talos (known as Tiber Septim as a mortal) Skyrim isn’t ready to cast off their patron deity so easily, and those who fight for that right to worship do so under the Stormcloak banner.
The Imperial Legion
The military arm of the Mede Empire, they are fighting one war while hoping to stave off another. So long as the Empire abides by their treaty with the Aldmeri Dominion (known as the White-Gold Concordat), they must enforce the terms they agreed to, including the suppression of Talos worship. However, even many in the Imperial Legion actively worship the forbidden god. They are simply more pragmatic about it than the Stormcloaks.
But while the Legion fights to rein in their wayward province, the threat of renewed attacks by the Thalmor (the agents of the Aldmeri Dominion) looms over them.
Though not a playable faction, you get plenty of exposure to the Thalmor while playing Skyrim. They are the agitators of the war, and stand to benefit from a prolonged war of attrition that weakens both sides. The Aldmeri Dominion are proponents of elven supremacy. Wiping humans from the world is just a step on the road to destroying the world and recreating a better version.
From the player’s perspective
In any open-world RPG, there will be depth for you to plumb if you choose to take time off from bashing monsters into gooey treasure chests. In Skyrim, you have your primary mission (which is easy to forget about while you run errands for half the residents of the continent). But in addition to saving the world, you can help determine what sort of life there will be for the people afterward. Sure, you’ve helped root out a few troublesome bandits, and delivered that mammoth tusk you promised. You’ve even invested in some local businesses, and bought a little real estate of your own. But Skyrim lets you choose between order and security, traditional values and freedom of religion, or the status quo, which is a slow-burning war that saps both sides while an outside enemy waits to pounce.
Personally, once I finish a game like Skyrim, I welcome an invading army.