I’m back in Skyrim. This time, I’m a proud Nord who, due to a misunderstanding with the Imperial border patrol, winds up in a cart with notorious rebel leader Ulfric Stormcloak, on our way to be executed at Helgen. A conversation between Raloff and a nervous horse thief serves as an intro to the civil war storyline.
Ralof makes a good case for his cause. He is noble and courageous in the face of death, and comradely to my character, a stranger. The Imperials, in comparison, seem heartless and officious. Even the sympathetic soldier who takes your name can only limply apologize when the captain orders your execution. Before the block, the Imperial Military Governor, Tullius, admonishes Ulfric for dishonorably murdering the rightful High King of Skyrim and plunging the province into war.
So the scene is set for the inescapable conflict between Empire and Stormcloaks that simmers over the course of the game with no resolution except if the Dragonborn takes up the sword (or axe, or mace, or spell) for one side or the other. Although the game’s introduction has you narrowly escape execution by the hands of the Imperial Legion, right from the beginning there’s an ambivalence to the two sides. Even the execution of the first rebel in Helgen is controversial, with shouts of ‘You Imperial Bastards!’, ‘Justice’ and ‘Death to the Stormcloaks’, called out from the offstage villagers.
When the PC is saved due to a serendipitous dragon attack, he’s bound to make a friend in either Hadvar (the sympathetic Imperial legionary who didn’t want to execute you), or Ralof (who gave such a good accounting of himself in the cart ride into Helgen).
In my first ever playthrough, dazed by the sudden attack and just getting to grips with the interface of the new game, I noticed Hadvar first of all, and ran to the man who was offering to help me. It was only later that I recognized him as the soldier who read out the list of the condemned, after he had saved my life and helped me to safety. Along the way, we were attacked by Stormcloak rebels who didn’t seem more interested in checking my allegiances than the Imperial captain was. Before we parted ways, he set me up with a place to stay in Riverwood, and recommended that I meet him in Solitude to sign up with the Imperial Legion.
Despite the Legion damn near taking my head just an hour before, Hadvar’s friendliness proved influential. Many in-game months later, my Orc warrior Dragonborn had risen through the ranks of the Legion and put an end to Ulfric Stormcloak’s rebellion, using advanced powers of the Voice that the pretender could only dream of.
Red VS Blue
This time I had made my Nord character with the intention of joining the Stormcloak rebellion, and followed Ralof to make our way to safety. It plays out pretty much exactly the same, except our attackers are Imperials instead, and it ends with an offer of hospitality at a different house in the same village. I get on with the game and start adventuring, secure in the fact that there’s no hurry to join the army and advance the Civil War, but as I become acquainted again with the world and people of Skyrim, I realize there’s another reason I want to put it off. One is that it felt strange to go against my original character’s decision to side with the Legion, but the other was far weirder.
Things Get Too Real
Skyrim came out in 2011, but revisiting its Civil War storyline in 2016 started to depress me a little, because it reminded me of real world political problems we’re facing today.
First of all, as a British citizen, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the Civil War storyline and the ‘Brexit’ debate. The Empire brought trade and security to Skyrim, as well as guaranteeing the rights of its minorities. But it was bureaucratic and unaccountable and pressured into repressive measures to appease the world’s reigning superpower, the Aldmeri Dominion. The Stormcloaks want to claim sovereign independence for Skyrim and resist the repression of their faith, but their fervor often resembles a kind of blood-and-soil nationalism, with plenty of racist violence and oppression against non-Nords. It’s hard to say for sure whether the Aldmeri Dominion will be better resisted in the long-run by a united front within the Empire or by Skyrim going at it alone.
Just like the EU Referendum did in real life, support for the Empire or the Stormcloaks bitterly divides friends and families and erupts into small scale violence. As the Dragonborn travels the breath of the country, he gets to hear a lot of arguments for one side or the other, many of them perfectly reasonable from that NPCs point of view. Doing the same now, I also can’t help but draw more parallels with the real world. Of course the upper classes and merchants in Solitude resemble the London cosmopolitan elite, and are more in favor of the Empire. In run-down Windhelm, the seat of Stormcloak power, the Nords obsess over an ancient glory and treat immigrants and refugees from Morrowind like dirt, suspecting some of them of being enemy spies (read: terrorists).
The factions in Skyrim are even reminiscent of the US political parties, with the colors reversed. Ulfric Stormcloak, a charismatic populist who wants to make Skyrim great again, is heavily implied to in it for personal glory, and he’s willing to stoke resentment against minorities to motivate his followers.
Tullius, on the other hand, is an effective commander and administrator, but he’s made some grim ethical compromises to keep Imperial authority abroad, and he lacks charisma or the ability to connect with ordinary people. Either of them remind you of anyone?
Two Party System
In Skyrim, the civil war is deadlocked, until the Dragonborn chooses a side. It’s a typical video game power fantasy, where the intervention of the player character decides the fate of the world. But the player doesn’t have that much choice, as the Dragonborn. There’s no compromise, no third way. You’ve got to pick a side, and take the good with the bad. There’s no Green Party here. Not even the Forsworn.
Another depressing reminder of when, in reality, you’re forced to vote on a bunch of complicated issues by making a binary choice, and ultimately, giving a mandate to at least some things that you wouldn’t personally support.
The sad thing is that there is no right answer that works for everybody. Even when you do pick a side and follow through, some honorable Jarls who did right by their people will be deposed, and some corrupt ones installed or maintained. Some NPCs will hail you as a savior and others will spit on you as the worst kind of traitor. It’s hard to feel completely good about what you did. There were good people on both sides, and you had to kill at least some of them. People might be safer, overall, once the conflict has been won for one side or the other. But are they happier? Depends on who you ask.
Skyrim may end up ‘united’, on the map, but its people remain divided, and its problems seem far from over. But hey, you’re just a former prisoner who shouts at things and kills them, right? They can’t expect you to do everything for them.
Ignoring the Dragon in the room
One of the most frustrating things about engaging in the Civil War storyline is how short-sighted both sides are when it comes to dealing with Skyrim’s dragon problem. Both of them would rather ignore it and focus on fighting each other. Since I was already creeped out with the parallels between Skyrim and real-life politics, I couldn’t help but think of the dragons as symbolic of the prospect of climate change and ecological disaster that our own politicians won’t tackle because they’re too focused on short-term gains and partisan point-scoring. It is actually possible to negotiate a temporary peace settlement in order for Whiterun to deal with the dragon threat, but it’s clear that both sides will break into hostilities very soon after.
2016 has been such an intense year politically that it feels eerily creepy that Skyrim seemed to so accurately predict some key issues back in 2011. I want to do a playthrough with my Nord joining the Stormcloak rebellion and taking his country back, but I just can’t look at Ulfric Stormcloak right now without thinking of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, or Donald Trump. And the thought of backing any of them, even in a role-playing game, is a little too much right now. I get the feeling I should put down this Skyrim playthrough for a few months until the real world calms down.
Thanks to all the anons at Skyrimconfessions for letting me know I’m not the only one who over analyses fictional video game politics, though.
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co (and boy, it could do with some follow-up today). The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a few articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.