This is a post about Skyrim and Self Deception
Ulfric Stormcloak, a true Nord and the Jarl of Windhelm, stormed the city of Solitude. I helped him do it. I charged in at his side, as we burned and murdered a path to the Imperial fort inside the city. Our thu’um combined to shake General Tullius to his knees in surrender. I took Ulfric’s sword; I beheaded a kneeling general and leader of the empire in Skyrim.
I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
My second character in Skyrim is named Ruhon (rOO-awn), a Nord. He’s hardy, wields the battleaxe Wuuthrad, leads the Companions, sports a mohawk, and can become a werewolf at will.
Like your character in Skyrim, like every character in Skyrim, he is Dovahkiin — dragonborn. He ventured to Sovngarde to vanquish the oldest dragon, the world eater Alduin. But like your character, that’s not what makes him unique.
The protagonist in Skyrim is one of your choosing — gender, race, size, shape, skill, and name are all yours to determine. How they behave, where they go and when is at your whim. Your character doesn’t speak audibly; he or she isn’t colored through any actor’s inflection. You have to fill in those blanks. The motive of the protagonist becomes hollow and gray, or full and vibrant based on your ability to make pretend. Skyrim is, thankfully, a role-playing game that asks you to actually role-play.
Ruhon, is a quiet warrior. Light blue soulful eyes pierce you when he looks at you, subtly evocative of a more thoughtful man than the war paint and mohawk would suggest. He’s had little interest in politics, but he doesn’t remain neutral. He values combat, but doesn’t revel in it. He respects the foes he downs, if they are worthy.
He was drawn to the Companions for their respect of combat, and the warrior’s place in society. He eventually came to lead the Companions, and took on lycanthropy as a gift, not a curse. But his restless nights and the warnings of his predecessor, Kodlak Whitemane, always troubled him.
When the quest to defeat Alduin brought the Stormcloaks and the Empire to a negotiating table, Ruhon didn’t take sides, not really. Although pulled towards a desire to see Skyrim ultimately free, he tilted the negotiations with a personal aim in mind, letting control of Dawnstar, and not Riften, be relinquished to the Empire. Ruhon was married in Riften, to his wife Aela the Huntress, also of the Companions. Even if Dawnstar was the more valuable piece to the Stormcloaks strategically, Ruhon’s affinity for the city meant he could never watch it fall into Imperial hands.
It wasn’t until after the threat of Alduin was dealt with, that Ruhon knew it was time to rid Skyrim of Imperial control.
High King of Skyrim
I’ve written about my experiences in Dishonored, and doubting whether what the city of Dunwall really needed was another monarch. As Ruhon led the Stormcloaks to victory after victory, gaining further favor with Ulfric the would-be king, the doubt started to creep in.
Can Skyrim ever truly be free? Does rule of a king, even a Nord, make it more free than under an Empire? But in the fantasy setting of Tamriel, anything resembling a truly free people is a narrow possibility. The threat of the Aldmeri Dominion, a powerful foreign empire with an eye for expanding to Skyrim, means the people have a strong appetite for either a king or an empire.
And besides, Ruhon is a Nord. A part of him stirs with a need to make Skyrim free of this empire, by the edge of Skyforge steel. They are the usurpers, not Ulfric. Ulfric is going by the old way, the Nord way. And if the empire isn’t strong enough to stop him from taking what belongs to the Nords, then he deserves to be High King of Skyrim.
Yes, that’s what makes sense, in the mind of Ruhon anyway. So I pulled my role-playing cap on a little tighter, and geared up for the final assault on Solitude. By the time we had finished raiding the city, half of it lay in flames, but we were victorious. Ulfric declined to be named king outright, but it was a shallow gesture, as he admitted to those of his closest to him that his selection as High King was undeniable at the Moot.
Watching Ulfric take Skyrim back from the empire, being at his side while it happened, I knew Ruhon was pleased with this result. And in some way, so was I.
I had deceived myself, and I was quite happy with the result. I had a better role-playing, and entertainment experience, because I immersed myself in this character’s mindset. In less participatory fiction, we call it suspending disbelief.
In a videogame, especially a role-playing game, it’s less about what you believe is possible, and more about asking “what would I do?” and then “what would this character do?” In role-playing games and other genres, we often suspend the rules we operate by in real life to adopt a more malleable morality conducive to the environment in the game, or how we think our character would react. This has value from a narrative standpoint, and as I’ve experienced over my life playing games, it’s remarkably compelling to try on different characters through role-playing.
I don’t agree with monarchies or empires, but I was satisfied with my portrayal of Ruhon, a proud Nord who was proud to see a fellow Nord on the throne. I’ve done this kind of metamorphosis countless times in games, and enjoyed it. It’s useful, and fun.
It wasn’t until a couple of nights after my latest run through Skyrim that I had a subtle realization.
The Commode Story
The realization I had didn’t have to do specifically with Skyrim, but it did concerned self deception, and how effective it can be, especially over time. I considered how repetition of something, even something you don’t genuinely believe, can start to ingrain itself in you. I try not to judge this as strictly positive or negative, but I’d be lying if I said the realization didn’t concern me.
This wasn’t anything I wasn’t aware of before. Certainly I know that repetition can instill certain ideas or paradigms in us, but I think like most people I regard that process as being dangerous. This time I considered how useful it can be.
While considering that, a certain story came to mind — it’s called The Commode Story. I’d like you to watch it. (Warning: video contains language NSFW)
For those that don’t recognize it, that’s a well known scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Currently the top comment on YouTube is someone remarking, “This is Tarantino teaching how to act.” I concur, but it’s more than that. It’s a lesson on self deception, and how it can be useful.
There’s a key piece of dialogue:
“You gotta remember that this story is about you, and how you perceived the events that went down. And the only way to do that, my brother… is to keep saying it, and saying it, and saying it, and saying it, and saying it.”
While I had my doubts, even in the final moments of the assault on Solitude, I had been repeating the story of Ruhon for well over 40 hours. I knew all his details. In this realm, the Skyrim that is Ruhon’s version of Skyrim, I knew all the details of “bathroom” so to speak. So when it came time to take Ulfric’s sword and take off Tullius’s head, I knew how Ruhon would perceive these events and proceeded accordingly.
A word of caution
I know why I initially had concern, when I realized just how powerful self deception can be. Because the first thought that came to mind wasn’t how great it is for role-playing games, actors, readers, and movie watchers. The first thought that came to my mind was one likely similar to the thought that comes to yours — people use this kind of thinking to convince themselves of all sorts of nonsense.
Political ideologues insulate themselves in impenetrable fortresses of one-sided ideas, and selectively block out or distort any event that doesn’t fit their model. Pick-up artists convince themselves every woman they meet is attracted to them no matter what, and actively preach that guys believe this and continue to act on it, even if a woman directly says otherwise. People in nations at war convince themselves to support their country even if they have doubts. People with moral reservations convince themselves “it’s not that bad” in a situation where the financial gain is too great to pass up.
Video games are where we practice a dangerous, but useful skill in a mostly benign way. In video games, and in other forms of narrative, we can safely pretend to be someone else, believe things other than what we do in real life, and even have lots of fun doing it. The lines are clearly drawn around the play space, and we can step in and out and will.
That isn’t what concerns me. What concerns me is how good we are at it. We, gamers, are perhaps the most skilled self deceivers on the planet. That in and of itself is not good or bad. We can only ascertain it’s value or danger as individuals, because it will vary from person to person. We have to measure the result by how we use this skill.
When we step out into the world, we are no more or less likely to self deceive as a non-gamer, but I believe we are infinitely better at it when we do. I don’t think that means we should practice self deception in gaming any less, because again, the skill itself isn’t the problem. We should be more cautious of how often we partake in any one kind of narrative, with deep immersion in gaming, but not eschew immersion altogether.
More than anything, we have to remember the responsibility we should carry with this power. In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Orange (played by Tim Roth), is an undercover cop. He tells The Commode Story to gain trust of criminals he’s trying to infiltrate. By the end of the movie, he takes bullets to maintain his cover, and ultimately because he tells the truth about his identity.
He doesn’t lose himself, not all the way. He deceived others because it was his job, he deceived himself because he had to, but all the while he remembered who he was and what his mission was. It wasn’t an easy thing to get into character, but in the end, for Mr. Orange, the hardest thing was breaking character. And maybe… maybe he did let himself get into too deep.