Thursday, May 14, 2020

World-Building in Skyrim: The Best Plotline

When my son was born, I got a PS4.  I didn't need it or anything.  It turned out to be a big brain move, because we got slammed with a pandemic a month later.  After being in quarantine for months, I have managed to complete 21 side quests, 204 miscellaneous objectives, and earn about 2 million gold.  I've had over 1800 critical hits and over 1400 sneak attacks.

I have not actually gone up to High Hrothgar despite being summoned there by the Greybeards two years ago, but that's fine.  It's the main quest but, y'know, like, it's a long way up the mountain and I've got other shit to do, like find all 24 stones to rebuild the Crown of Barenziah for the Riften Thieves' Guild.  No, it's not especially critical, especially since the crown was dismantled centuries ago and no one knows where any of the stones are, but that's not important, okay?  I want to clear my quest log and I don't have time for fulfilling any prophecies at the moment.

Me: *plays video games to avoid my responsibilities*
My character: *does side quests to avoid her responsibilities*

Skyrim's popularity is due in no small part to its ridiculous dedication to detail.  Not just the visuals, but the story-boarding and the world-building.

Today I'd like to talk about what I believe is the most compelling plot-line in Skyrim, and why.  It's the Forsworn Conspiracy, and it's honestly amazing.

"We are the people who must pillage our own land. Burn our own ground. We are the scrounge of the Nords. The axe that falls in darkness. The scream before the gods claim your soul. We are the true sons and daughters of the Reach."

To begin, I'd like to give a broad overview of the plot of Skyrim, as I would to my mother.  Basically, Skyrim is the sixth installment of a series of games called "The Elder Scrolls."  It's set in a fantasy world called Tamriel (Tamriel is a continent on the planet Nirn), which is further divided into nine provinces.  The northern-most province of Tamriel is Skyrim.

The central plot of the game is not especially important here.  Basically, dragons (which no one has seen in a long time) have returned to Skyrim, and you are one of the only people capable of fighting them.  Whatever.  Like I said, I'm not inclined to do the main quest.  I'm sure the dragon thing will sort itself out eventually.

Instead, I'd like to focus on the history of Markarth, a city in the very far west of Skyrim.

It's in The Reach, between High Rock and Hammerfell.

But before we do that, we need to talk about the "civil war" quest-line, one of the central plots of the game, second only to the whole dragon thing.

Remember how "Tamriel" is made up of nine provinces?  Several of those provinces are ruled by an Emperor, and the Emperor appoints High Kings to each of the provinces.  For quite some time, Skyrim has been ruled by an Imperial High King.  Imperials are one of ten playable races, and they are the snobs of Skyrim.  (According to the Elder Scrolls Wiki: "Natives of the cosmopolitan province of Cyrodiil, the Imperials are some of the most well-educated, wealthy and well-spoken of the races in Tamriel.")

The province of Skyrim, however, is home to a race of people called the Nords.  They are basically Norse, and they have a rich culture and history that they feel is getting squashed under the thumb of literal imperialism.  Pun clearly intended.

During the game, you can choose to either team up with Ulfric Stormcloak, the Nord rebel leader who believes that "Skyrim belongs to the Nords," and sits in the ancient capital city of Windhelm, or the Imperial Legion, which resides in the port city of Solitude, which has a more eclectic culture due to its trade with other provinces and is the least Nord-like city.

Where, you ask, does Markarth factor into all this?

Well, the game story takes place during the Fourth Era of Tamriel history.  But Markarth has been around since the Merethic era, when it was actually a Dwarven city called Nchuand-Zel.  Abandoned near the end of the First Era, it was later re-populated.  

Skyrim is divided into nine "holds" (think of them as states), and each hold has a capital city and a Jarl (think of the Jarl as a governor).  Markarth is the capital city of the western-most hold of Skyrim, known as the Reach. But the Reach wasn't always part of Skyrim.  In fact, High King Olaf conquered the Reach sometime around 420-425 of the First Era.

"But wait," you ask, if you are not already bored with this weird little history lesson.  "Who did King Olaf conquer it from, if it was already abandoned by the Dwarves?"

Astute reader!  The Reach never belonged to the Nords.  It was populated by an eleventh race in Tamriel: the Reachmen.

The Reach is so far west that the humans there have a mixed ancestry with Skyrim (Nord ancestry) and High Rock (Breton ancestry).  Racially, they are probably closer to the Bretons than the Nords (though both the Reachmen and the Bretons will dispute this).

So King Olaf conquered Markarth and made it into another Nord city in the Nord province of Skyrim.  You can, I hope, appreciate the irony that the Nords are furious over Imperial rule despite having a history of imperialism themselves.

The city of Markarth remained a Nord city (with the Reachmen eking out a barren existence in the rocky highlands) until 4E 174, during which time there was a huge uprising (known colloquially as the "Forsworn Uprising") and they took control of the Reach.  They maintained it for exactly two years.

 A view of The Reach.

 Concept art of a Forsworn Briarheart.

 A view of how the Forsworn live in the highlands and mountains surrounding Markarth.

Then Ulfric Stormcloak (yes, that Ulfric Stormcloak, of the Nord separatist movement) marched in and helped the Jarl re-conquer Markarth.  There's some complicated religious bargaining that went on here that I won't get into, but the short version of the story is this: the Jarl of Markarth told Ulfric he could worship whoever he liked, which was in direct defiance of the terms of an agreement between the Empire and a neighboring Dominion.  The Dominion found out and demanded that Ulfric be arrested.  The Jarl turned on Ulfric and had him imprisoned.  This arrest was later called "The Markarth Incident" and it is considered one of the direct causes of the civil war.

Now that you've got a broad overview of the recent history of Markarth, let's jump into my favorite side quest: The Forsworn Conspiracy.

If you have read this far, you are a nerd who will smile at this joke.

The Reachmen branded themselves as the "Forsworn" after Ulfric threw them out of the city.  According to in-game books (Skyrim has 307 history and lore books that do nothing aside from world-building), Ulfric's conquering of the city was ruthless, and any Forsworn not captured and thrown into Cidhna Silver Mine was slaughtered, including civilians.

The quest opens when you enter the city.  Let's call your character "Dop," which is the name of my character.  (She was supposed to be called "Dope Kick Flipsies," but I accidentally pressed the "Done" button too early.) 

Dop walks into the city, and the first thing she sees is a tavern to the left, a used wares store to the right, and a couple of small market stalls.  If Dop is not paying attention, then she will fail to prevent what happens next: a man stabs one of the marketplace vendors while screaming that the Reach belongs to the Forsworn.

Dramatic re-enactment.

Fortunately, Dop has lightning-quick reflexes, and prevents the assassination.  The assassin is taken down by the town guards, leaving everyone in the marketplace Shook.  Before you even have a chance to recover from your rustled jimmies, a man named Eltrys slips a note into your pocket, saying, "Excuse me, I think you dropped this."

The note directs Dop to meet him at the Shrine of Talos without any further explanation, and when Dop tries to ask Eltrys about it, he wanders off hurriedly, whistling in a very obviously suspicious way.

Later, Dop meets Eltrys.  Eltrys is particularly Shook™ by the attack in the marketplace, because his father was killed by the Forsworn, and he believes there's a conspiracy afoot, led by the Forsworn.  He asks Dop to go gather evidence and blow this thing wide open.  A good place to start is Margret, the woman who was nearly assassinated.  Why her?  Another good person to investigate would be the assassin himself, naturally.

Dop heads off to find Margret's room at the local inn, and obtains her journal, which is sketchy as fuck and mentions that she is working for the Imperial General Tullius, who wants her to obtain the deed to Cidhna Mine. 

A bit about the Mine: it's owned by the Silver-Blood family, who own most of the city (including the inn, the treasury, and the mine itself) and are a powerhouse of wealthy fuckers who support Ulfric Stormcloak.  The Cidhna Silver Mine is used as a prison and is largely populated by the Forsworn who were captured by Ulfric when he recaptured the city.  The Silver-Bloods are Nords who support Ulfric, not only because he recaptured their city and their silver mining operation, but also because, y'know, Nords.

 A reminder at this point in the post that I recently procreated.

Margret recently got into a confrontation with Thonar Silver-Blood, the youngest brother of the family, demanding he turn over the mine to the Imperials, who will be able to guard it more safely than a "bunch of Stormcloak sympathizers."

Dop then goes to the assassin's old digs, where she finds a note signed by "N" directing him to go strike fear into the people of Markarth.

Upon leaving the assassin's room, Dop is confronted by a guard who attempts to intimidate her into quitting her "investigation."  She gets into a long, drawn-out fistfight with him.  After a thorough beating, she demands to know who sent him, and he reveals he was paid by Nepos the Nose, who is a wealthy "enforcer" of Thonar.  This must be "N!"

But first, let's check on Thonar, the Nord Silver-Blood.  He's hanging out in a back room of the treasury house.  Drop goes to ask him his side of the confrontation with Margret.  He tells her to go fuck herself; this is his city, he says, and Margret was a filthy Imperial agent who brought the assassination attempt upon herself.

Upon leaving to go fuck herself, another fight breaks out in front of Dop, and in the main room, Thonar's wife is murdered by two servants.  The two servants, it turns out, are undercover Forsworn agents.

 I laughed out loud at this and woke the baby.
Second reminder: I have procreated.

Horrified at the violence and the untimely, brutal death of his wife, Thonar is now more than happy to talk to Dop.

The Forsworn, he says, are his "puppets."  He has their king, Madanach, locked away in the his silver mine.  After the Forsworn Uprising, he stayed the king's execution and has been using the influence of the Forsworn king to control the city.  The feral Forsworn who surround the city have been taking orders from their king within the mine. and he's made a deal with them: so long as he keeps their imprisoned king alive, he and his family and their mining operation are safe.

The assassination of his wife was a terrible betrayal; after the uprising, he personally stayed Madanach's execution, and has been using the captured king to manipulate the Forsworn to work for him and suppress any competitors while controlling the city.  Thonar genuinely seems Shook™ that the king who has been imprisoned under him for years would be plotting a rebellion against him specifically, since up until now, Thonor has been a very good slave owner / forced labor camp benefactor.  Plus, Thonor is a Nord and Madanach is a Reachman, and they've been battling over the city since the First Era.  (Thonor may be rich, but he's also apparently a bit dim.)

This is all big news to Dop.  Thonar's control of the Reach seems to be ill-gotten, and it appears that Eltrys's father was likely assassinated by the Forsworn at Thonar's direction.  (Remember Eltrys?  The guy who sent Dop on this wild investigation quest in the first place?)

Dop rushes back to meet Eltrys to tell him about all this, but when Dop reaches their meeting-place, she finds Eltrys dead and three city guards waiting to arrest her for his murder.  The guards toss Dop into Cidhna Silver Mine, which is like the Alcatraz of Skyrim.

The next part of the quest is ironically titled "No One Escapes from Cidhna Mine," and you can complete it within like, thirty minutes.

In this delightful little quest, you trade "skooma" (heroin), obtain shivs, and ultimately break out of the prison using an escape route that Madanach has been Shawshank Redemptioning for years.

You have the option to kill Madanach, escape by yourself, and go back to Thonar to tell him you dealt with his little Forsworn problem (and avenged his wife).  If Dop does this, her name is cleared and you get a little ring from the Silver-Blood family in thanks.

But the much more interesting option is to talk to Madanach, who asks you to prove loyalty by shivving another inmate (the one who gave you the shiv on the condition that you don't shiv him with it), and then join he and the other Forsworn through the escape tunnel.  Emerging into the city, you and the rest of the Forsworn confront Thonar and his corrupt city guards, and a massive battle breaks out, leaving many of the city guards, and Thonar Silver-Blood, dead.

Now here's the craziest part of this whole mess.  I'll admit that I skipped part of the story.  The part that literally made me gasp and go "what the fuck" the first time I played Skyrim.  The part that prompted me to write this insanely long and cringey fanboy post, the part that made me reload the game and call my husband over to watch, the part that just blew me away.

Before you get framed for Eltrys's murder, you can go investigate Nepos, the right-hand man of the wealthy Nord Thonar Silver-Blood.  Nepos is an old man who lives in a big, nice house.  He is visibly wealthy and has two very protective servants watching over him.

When you confront him, it is revealed that he's not a Nord, or a Breton.  He's a fucking Forsworn.

He says that he's been "playing the game" for 20 years, passing as a Nord, working for Thonar, and sending young men to be worked to death in the mines, all while taking messages from the Forsworn king and carrying out his orders.  To avoid suspicion, he throws Forsworn into the mines when they are captured, but he also relays messages between Madanach and the free Forsworn in the hills.  It was Nepos who organized the assassination of Thonar's wife.

Upon leaving Nepos, Dop is attacked by the two "servants," who were also not Nords at all.  They, too, were Forsworn agents.  According to Nepos, Markarth and the Reach belong to the Forsworn, not the Nords.  He escaped Ulfric's recapture of the city twenty years ago, has been living as a Nord under Thonar, and has sent countless numbers of prisoners to their death in a Nord mine, presumably to maintain his cover and wait for a second uprising, but also, let's face it, in a total betrayal of his people, as Nepos has been living comfortably in a big house in Markarth, cooperating with Thonar and carrying out Madanach's orders only so long as they don't jeopardize his own safety.

 Look at this Nord-passing piece of privileged shit.

I find Nepos to be, hands-down, one of the most evil characters in the game because he's such a two-timing, back-stabbing, prideless little weasel.  There are certainly those who would argue that he is not, but from my perspective, his double-agent status, his 20 years in hiding, his denial of his race, his survival and prosperity following the holocaust of his people (in living memory!), and the throne he's built upon the hundreds of  fellow Reachmen he's sent into the mine is abhorrent.

And the most interesting thing is, unless you know the backstory, the lore of the Reach and the Nords and the Imperials and Ulfric Stormcloak and the Silver-Blood family, this plotline borders on nonsensical.  You can read all of the dialogue and still not entirely understand the insane politics and multi-generational alliances at play here.  The quest is built on the assumption that you've read "The Bear of Markarth," an account of Ulfric Stormcloak's recapture, and "The Madmen of the Reach," an anthropological treaty on the Reachmen written by an Imperial.  Neither book gives you any skill points in the game.  They are purely there for immersion and you might not have even come across them by the time you make it to Markarth.

 This is one of the things that make the game so addictive.

Call me crazy, but I love it when games have their own mythologies like this.  During this quest, sometimes people will casually say things like, "If the Aldmeri Dominion hadn't banned Talos worship in the White-Gold Concordat, then the Markarth Incident wouldn't have ever happened.  Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the Great War was ended, but I'm not shedding any tears for Titus Mede II."  And it gives the world a richness that makes the game great but is rarely acknowledged.

People love Skyrim.  The sheer volume of its contents is incredible.  But the amount of content and playable quests would mean nothing without a fully realized world to back it up.  The backdrop of the world - the history and religion and culture and racial tension and city records and anthropological tales - all comes together in a symphony of detail, a convergence of attention, a lovingly crafted creation of an alternative reality that is easy to get lost in.  This is the highest possible achievement of game-play.  This is the apex of immersion.  It's quests like this that really and truly make it meaningful when you strip Dop down to her underwear, have her whip out an electric crossbow, and shoot an NPC farmer's only chicken, sending it ricocheting down a mountainside.

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