Sex Negativity & Skyrim

The following is a guest post from Bobby Arthur:

Bobby Arthur is a freelance writer and marketing communications professional living in Toronto. He can be reached at bobby@thejuiceagency.ca and his XBLA Gamertag is WhiskerRub.

Odds are there is someone in your life who is spending their evenings slaying Dragons and amassing treasure in the most played game of 2011, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim is an open world role playing game (RPG) created by Bethesda Softworks and is set in a fictional, mostly medieval, swords and sorcery land called, Tamriel. It is a game where I expected to be killing and looting, but never expected to be slut-shaming.

In the game players are able to create an avatar for themselves, choosing a race, a gender, a name, many physical characteristics and a style of play. Will you be a warrior, a thief, a wizard or some hybrid? The nuance in the game comes from having the player face moral dilemmas along the way. Through these myriad choices the player’s avatar takes on its spiritual form. Will you be a righteous defender of justice? Will you be a mercenary for hire? Will you be a healer or will you practice blood magic? Will you steal all of the gold or just most of the gold? During my playthrough I have robbed just about everyone blind and I have murdered in cold blood. By my current statistics, the game tells me that I have killed 1081 people and about 1300 other various zombies, animals, robots and demons (most of whom I have stabbed in the back). I have stolen 2498 items, including 1659 straight from my victim’s pockets. So why did I take such umbrage at being asked to slut-shame a woman in her own home?

In a town called Riften we can rummage around a place called Haelga’s Bunkhouse. Haelga runs a dormitory for the blue-collar workers of Riften along with her Niece, Svana. Speaking with Svana will open up a miscellaneous quest that knocked me out of the fantasy world of Tamriel. It brought me back into a world where at least one in four western women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and where women’s clothing choices are brought forth as justification by authority figures for random sexual attacks; where girls in schools everywhere are ostracized for their choice to become sexual beings or even just the rumor that they have. I don’t like this world. This world makes women ashamed of their bodies and afraid to express themselves sexually and freely. I hated that my fantasy gaming was colliding with such ugly reality.

Svana was orphaned and her Aunt Haelga took her in. Svana is an adult and cleans to pay her room and board. Seems like a fair deal to me, but Svana has other ideas about that.

“Work? I suppose you can call it that. I call it slavery. I work my fingers to the bone keeping this disgusting place clean.

Ever since my parents died and Haelga took me in it’s been a nightmare. How was I to know she was such a wretched woman?”

And what is it that makes Haelga so “Wretched”?

“It’s not just the work. It’s everything about her. She’s disgusting. I think she takes her worship of Dibella a bit too seriously. Do you know she slept with three different men in the last month alone? What kind of woman would do such a thing? Just for once I’d like to see her squirm…to rub her nose in it.”

Yes, rub her nose in it. Like you might a dog that has ruined your rug. This is an unattached woman having consensual and spiritual sex in her own home. For reference, Dibella is the in-game deity of love, and sex to her followers is a religious observance. So, what are my dialogue choices for responding to this diatribe?

“There must be a way.”

One choice. In a game full of choices, I can either go along with this or walk away. At no point am I given the option to talk her out of this – to say “hey, maybe you’re being a little hard on the woman that took you in after your parents were murdered.” Or, “it’s none of your business what she does in her bedroom.” Or, “do you think she’d be open to a fourth lover this month?” No, the only option is an enthusiastic “Ya, let’s teach that whore a lesson.” And from a gameplay standpoint, such a response is not in character with the hero I’ve created, but no alternative choice was given.

Svana continues.

“Actually, there is. But I don’t think I could get away with doing it. She’d kill me if she found out. You see, after she makes love she gives her partner a token of her affection called a Mark of Dibella. If you confront her with three of the Marks, she’d be so embarrassed… well, I don’t know what she’d do.”

At this stage I can tell Svana, “Sure. I’ll help you” or “Maybe another time.” Such a polarity of choices. So, off I am sent to retrieve these baubles of shame from the three men. On my way though, I can enjoy some of the contextual flavor that the game designers provided for this quest. I can visit Haelga’s bedroom where a pot of honey and potions of stamina rest on shelves. Her nightstand includes two erotic novels. Her bed has working shackles and underneath we find an animal tusk and leather strips i.e. a dildo and whip. The message here presumably is that Haelga enjoys a kinky sexual lifestyle and is therefore even more worthy of degradation than your average sexually active woman. Under the other side of the bed are some gold coins. A suggestion that Haelga is compensated for her abilities? Additionally we can read a love letter addressed to Haelga from one of her paramours.

“Sweet Haelga,

Last night was the most wonderful night of my life. The things you showed me…the things we did… I could never have dreamt that it was possible. Who even knew that someone could manipulate their body in that manner while wearing Daedric Armor boots? You are a true master of the Dibellan arts, my love… a credit to your religion. Perhaps we’ll meet again soon but next time allow me to bring the trout.

Your secret lover.”

Poor joke aside, everybody seems happy. Time to destroy that, I guess. Makes sense. The three men offer little resistance. One gives me some righteous indignation, one feigns ignorance and one pleads for discretion. You see, he’s married. I wonder, why am I not rubbing HIS face in it? With little effort on my part these three gentlemen sell Haelga out and give me the Marks. After confronting Haelga with the evidence of her rampant sluttiness we are given this response.

“What? How?…Where did you get these? No. Don’t tell me. Look, we need to keep this quiet…between you and me, okay? No one else needs to know about it. If word got out that I was practicing my Dibellan arts in Riften, they’ll run me out of town. Here, take this and don’t mention a word of this to anyone, especially, Svana!”

Still protecting her ungrateful niece after all this time. Svana however, is positively tickled at her aunt’s shaming.

“Isn’t it wonderful? I bet she was squirming like a skeever when you pulled them out of your pocket. I think things are going to be a lot different around here from now on and I have you to thank for it.”

Well, that’s one less brazen hussy terrorizing the penises of poor Tamriel. Such a noble endeavor. I think my problem with this quest was the lack of any kind of moral spectrum. She was either a wanton whore and therefore in need of punishment or I could just choose to not do the quest. There was never a time when I could side with Haelga. Haelga’s lifestyle was never to be considered positive. Some people may say, why make such a big deal about this? It’s just a throwaway quest in a massive game where you are able to commit atrocities against your fellow man and woman. This is true, but it’s small things like this that are so pervasive and surprisingly influential.

We all know that killing is wrong. We all know that theft is wrong. We all know that raising the dead is wrong (and unlikely). There are way too many of us however that do not know that slut-shaming is wrong and continue to use it as emotional blackmail or worse, an excuse for violence. By denying the player the option to be sex-positive it perpetuates the problem. Bethesda really missed an opportunity to not necessarily take a stand, but to let the player at least make that choice. Because choice is what RPGs are supposed to be about.

 

This post originally appeared on http://notyourmothersplayground.com


APPENDIX: ​FULL DIALOGUE

Svana:​ Work? I suppose you can call it that. I call it slavery. I work my fingers to the bone keeping this disgusting place clean.

Ever since my parents died and Haelga took me in it’s been a nightmare. How was I to know she was such a wretched woman? So now I’m stuck living here while those pigs she calls customers grope me and say the most awful things.

You:​​ Why do you hate Haelga so much?

Svana: ​It’s not just the work. It’s everything about her. She’s disgusting. I think she takes her worship of Dibella a bit too seriously. Do you know she slept with three different men in the last month alone? What kind of woman would do such a thing? Just for once I’d like to see her squirm…to rub her nose in it.

You:​​ There must be a way.

Svana: ​Actually, there is. But I don’t think I could get away with doing it. She’d kill me if she found out. You see, after she makes love she gives her partner a token of her affection called a Mark of Dibella. If you confront her with three of the Marks, she’d be so embarrassed… well, I don’t know what she’d do.

You:​​ Sure. I’ll help you. OR Maybe another time.

Svana:​ Oh, this is going to be great! You need to get the Marks of Dibella from Bolli, Hofgrir and Indalyn. Not sure how you’re going to do that, but try your best. Then just confront Haelga with them and the rest works itself out. Try and get those Marks without violence please. I don’t want to be responsible for their deaths…or yours.

AFTER RETURNING WITH THE MARKS

Haelga:​ Can I help you?
You: ​​I believe these are yours.

Haelga:​ What? How?…Where did you get these? No. Don’t tell me. Look, we need to keep this quiet…between you and me, okay? No one else needs to know about it. If word got out that I was practicing my Dibellan arts in Riften, they’ll run me out of town. Here, take this and don’t mention a word of this to anyone, especially, Svana!

AFTER CONFRONTING HAELGA

You:​ I gave the Marks to Haelga

Svana:​ Oh I know. Isn’t it wonderful? I bet she was squirming like a skeever when you pulled them out of your pocket. I think things are going to be a lot different around here from now on and I have you to thank for it. Here, I want you to have this. It was my Father’s but I’m certain you’ll put it to good use.

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52 Responses to Sex Negativity & Skyrim

  1. SgtPiddles says:

    Good points all around. Though some might want to argue that we’re rarely given much agency in our quests anyway, this is Bethesda, who pride themselves on player choice. In other quests you can choose whether to give incriminating evidence to authorities or withhold it, to side with rebels or betray them, etc.

    I don’t expect some sort of magical, endless spectrum of opportunity, but you’re right – the scripting here does belie a certain judgmental authorial hand (as opposed to the delicious ambiguity of so much else in their games).

  2. Llamaentity says:

    That dialogue is troublesome, and the complete lack of choice in handling it any other way is even more upsetting. It really bothers me when an RPG supposedly letting me do quests how I want randomly has a quest with only one choice (notably when there’s some sort of moral concept present).

    I wish I could assume it was laziness on behalf of the writers, but I’m more inclined to consider it’s because the script was written and approved by people who don’t think there’s any other possible way to handle a situation like the one presented here. :c

  3. Ancalime says:

    Sex-positivity is one of the things that Assassin’s Creed unexpectedly started to do in the 2nd game, and definitely part of what made me increasingly enjoy the series. Ezio treating women with respect? A former nun who now practices her religion by running a brothel? And isn’t shamed in-game for it? Caterina Sforza* talking about how “one should always have the freedom to choose” while taking about sex? WHAT IS THIS MADNESS.

    * my faaaaaaaaaaaavoriiiiiiiiiiiiite

  4. Mire says:

    There are also quests to that task you with:

    - murdering a bride during her wedding

    - helping a guy revive a demon worshiping cult

    - hunting down a female fugitive and tricking her into leaving the safety of the town where she lives and runs a business so that she can be magically paralyzed and taken into custody by a group of men who will be transporting her 1000 miles or so

    - eavesdropping on a character by hiding in a coffin with an corpse to which he apparently makes love on a regular basis

    The fact that there’s one person in the world who wants to make someone else feel bad about their sexuality, or that the fictional society would frown upon female promiscuity, doesn’t really seem like something worth getting terribly upset about. Personally I found Lydia’s existence much more worrisome. If you tell her to go home, she just sits in your bedroom all day, in her armor and heavy makeup, waiting for you to come home. What kind of message is THAT sending to the kids, I ask you?!

    • If the hunting down a fugitive quest is the one I’m thinking of, you do have the option of selling out the questgivers and helping the woman stay safe (as I did). Svana’s slut-shaming wouldn’t be such a big deal if you had the option to sell her out to Haelga, or tell Svana it’s none of her business, etc. It could also have been a good twist if Haelga was all ‘lol, u jelly?’ when presented with the Marks and everyone thought badly of you and Svana. The fact that your character doesn’t even get an option to say ‘this is a bad idea’, besides just not doing the quest, makes it seem like the writers just couldn’t think of another way to handle the situation (as Llamaentity suggested).

    • Doug S. says:

      Personally I found Lydia’s existence much more worrisome. If you tell her to go home, she just sits in your bedroom all day, in her armor and heavy makeup, waiting for you to come home. What kind of message is THAT sending to the kids, I ask you?!

      Eh, that’s standard RPG practice. Nobody in an RPG world ever has any real existence that’s independent of the main character. “Sitting around waiting” is all any inactive party member ever gets to do in almost any game ever.

    • Mantheos says:

      She is sworn to carry your burdens, after all.

  5. In general, there’s very little choice to Skyrim’s quests, and a lot of stuff like this (though usually not so straightforwardly horrible). They’re basically all linear, heavily scripted affairs where your character’s actions and beliefs are often dictated for you regardless of your previous choices. It sucks and IMO is kind of dishonest given the rhetoric about Skyrim from Bethesda. But I think it’s par for the course after Oblivion and even Morrowind, which wrapped up your lack of agency in a genuinely interesting world and backstory.

    The only game in the Bethesda tradition that genuinely embraces agency, IMO, is New Vegas, which of course is also the only game that wasn’t developed by Bethesda.

    • Laurentius says:

      “In general, there’s very little choice to Skyrim’s quests, and a lot of stuff like this (though usually not so straightforwardly horrible). They’re basically all linear, heavily scripted affairs where your character’s actions and beliefs are often dictated for you regardless of your previous choices.”

      QFT, finishing quests feels so disappointing.

  6. jeffwik says:

    @Mire: Brides getting murdered during their weddings and demon-worshipping cult revival, at least, aren’t things that people in the real world have to deal with, be aware of, and live in a society that calls that acceptable, even righteous behavior, though. (I don’t personally eavesdrop on necrophiles but I don’t know what people do in the privacy of their own homes, and the other quest you mention allows the player to choose whether to side with the fugitive or the pursuers.)

    I’ve spent about 70 hours on Skyrim, figure I’ll hit 100 hours before I tire of it; it’s got a lot of stuff I like. This particular quest, though, jumped out at me as bizarrely misogynistic. It’s not like Dibella is some kind of rogue cult. She’s got a temple in Markarth.

  7. Rawles says:

    Ugh I picked up this quest with one of my characters in Riften and was so angry that I didn’t have any alternate options so I just ignored it thereafter.

    It was especially bad given that the character I picked it up with was one whose background, in my mind, involved having been a prostitute from time to time and who was perfectly okay with that.

  8. Richard says:

    Very interesting points. I’m wondering if it isn’t more of a case of personal lack of judgement/awareness on the writer’s part rather than a malicious attack on sex positivity though? Regardless, it seems quite odd in a world that is often presented as wild west-ish. There are certainly some mores, but I haven’t noticed a particularly strong anti-sex culture from the Nords and the other races inhabiting Skyrim.

  9. Kirk says:

    This quest stuck in my craw, as well.

    To contribute a thought: It doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that when a game as generally unsexy as Skyrim finally does bring up sex, it screws it up so badly.

  10. feministgamer says:

    I immediately felt bad upon hearing it, so I definitely agree. However, I talked myself out of this negative feeling by remember what someone else said, that I should be happy that women are both good guys and villains, and if it were a man saying it instead, it would’ve been 20x worse. The problem is, it was – the writer.

  11. Deviija says:

    I cannot remember if I brought this quest up on the BH’s ‘What are you playing?’ Wednesday articles before, but I know I have written about it elsewhere on forums and friend spaces. I immediately cringed when I stumbled onto this quest in Skyrim. I have since termed it the ‘slut-shaming’ quest. What bothers me even more is how the dynamic of the two ladies involved seems to be a terrible portrayal of ‘the virgin/good girl and the slut/bad girl’ trope and social construct. With how the quest-giver being so mortified and disgusted that the other lady had bedded THREE men in one month, and how that is soooo many.

    I eyerolled and grumbled a lot.

    So there you are, tasked with literally shaming/embarrassing/rubbing the sexually active lady’s face in her private matters… It bothered me greatly because there really was NO variety in how you deal with this quest. You either take it and do as dictated, or you don’t take it. End.

    What’s more is that there is a lack of dialogue options to respond to this situation, especially if your PC is a woman. I’d have liked, as a lady PC, to have shut the quest-giver down verbally by mentioning my PC’s own sexual freedom and agency. But… it’s a Bethesda game, and speech-checks, dialogue options, companions, and NPC interactions are not their strong points. At all. There are never enough options given to define the character you are playing. One of the big wesknesses of Skyrim (and any Bethesda game, really).

    I tried to reassure myself that it was just this one NPC that acted this way and held these views. That it was an individual rather than any indication of how the society at large viewed sexuality/sexual freedoms (for women). As an RPG game, characters of all good and bad types should have a right to exist — so long as there are various ways offered to our PC’s on how to deal with said people. Sexism, homophobia, racism, sex negativity, etc. etc. I rather not have to deal with in my games so that I may better enjoy my recreational time… but if they ARE in a game, then I better darn well have a satisfyingly adequate variety of ways to deal with any quests or social interaction the PC may have with them.

    • Korva says:

      Well … it can’t be just the one NPC, or else it wouldn’t be an issue and her quest wouldn’t work. The only way the shaming can work if society approves of it and hates a woman for owning and, most of all, enjoying her own body. The poor lady’s quoted dialog says people would run her out of town if they knew. Pretty sick.

      And boy they really pulled all stereotypes to make her look “bad”. Ugh.

      Haven’t played the game myself, mind, but the question that springs to mind: would anyone blink an eye of it was a male NPC? Apparently cheating on your wife and then shaming the other woman is just fine.

      • It’s also odd given the world setting. You have the Amulets of Mara, which you can wear to show your availability for marriage – life in Skyrim is too short to waste on long courtships. That sounds like a setting pretty geared to free love.

        • Deviija says:

          Yes, that is something talked a bit about in my recent post on the last podcast. Even though it is great that we have a bit more free agency to choose who our PC loves, it still ultimately falls show in representation and believability since… there are NO same-sex couples in the world. I have not bumped into ANY, not even with the minor NPCs and townspeople. So, there’s a big disconnect, it seems, from how the society might work versus how game *developers* have *made* the game to work for the sake of the player.

      • Oh, and another reason why it’s odd – my character is a khajit. If khajits behave much like real cats (I’m not very up on Elder Scrolls lore), 3 partners in a month probably seems quite conservative to my character!

      • Zaewen says:

        When I played through the quest, the dialogue made me think that it was something specific to Riften that made practicing the Diabellan arts so taboo. There are other places in the world that have whole temples dedicated to Diabella, and tons of people have statues of Diabella in their bedrooms (trust me, I’ve stolen them all :D) So I don’t think its a world wide thing, but a Riften-is-way-uptight thing.

        Don’t get me wrong, its a craptastic quest. Having absolutely no options on how to proceed in the quest and with the shady dialogue that at best gives a half hearted reason for even doing the slut-shaming in the first place is just pathetic compared to the rest of the game, let alone when you look at the moral compass that guided the writing.

      • Deviija says:

        That’s very true. It has to be a societal thing, whether locally-based or in a more grand regional sense, or else it wouldn’t be something worth being embarrassed over to begin with. If you live in a society where sex isn’t frowned upon for either gender, then someone trying to rub your face in your past liasions wouldn’t phase you at all. There’d be nothing worth being ‘embarrassed’ over, or shamed by. So yeah, for all those implications on the grander scale… that’s why the quest bothers me. Try as I might to look at it as an individual NPC, it is telling of the society itself and the norms established within it. :\ Even if is only religious or local (Riften-only) norms, it is still blah.

        And you would be correct, Korva. Surprise, surprise. :P One of the men that this lady slept with is a happily married man (or so it comes across as, and how he defends himself by begging you not to tell his wife and kind of passes it off like the lady made him do it, if I recall correctly :P). So yeah, no one really bats an eye that a man sleeps with a woman out of wedlock, save for the fear that the wife will find out and that the town will know he slept with this lady in particular. It is the connection with the woman and connection to her sexually that is the stigma, not him doing something ‘wrong’ or him being held to the same sex and sexual agency standard as the woman.

        Plus, I’ve come across quite many (heterosexual) married couples that suffer from henpecked husband syndrome and overbearing wife tropes. I’d really have to listen to the dialogue in the game again to know for certain, but there does seem to be a more (medieval fantasty typical?) allowance of men having many lady lovers regardless of marriage. Lord knows I have spoken with enough male NPCs that talk on and on about their prowess with women, their playboy days, or cheer about the rewards of wenches/women to sleep with. (Like I have never once heard a woman say something like, ‘Mead, fighting, and many fit men to bed? Rejoice!’ Whereas I have heard men talk up the joys of life with booze, fighting all the time, and bedding buxom women or whatever.)

        • Mike W says:

          I felt pretty weirded out by that quest, too; I only found it on my second playthrough (where I’m trying to do as many quests as possible and avoid fast travel to encourage me to find more things) and it was definitely a surprise. The rare times that sex or sexuality are mentioned in Skyrim, it seems to be sex positive. When it fails, it’s usually by omission–the lack of homosexual NPCs is a glaring issue, (at least they place no such restrictions on the player), and ditto with, as you said, the lack of the kind of female bravado you’d expect there to be in an egalitarian Viking society (three words perhaps rarely strung together).

          Thinking about it some more, I think the Riften-only story is correct. I think the producers wanted to do everything possible to make the people of Riften into ridiculous hypocrites. One piece of evidence that hasn’t been mentioned is a further detail about Bolli, the married man who cheats on his wife with Haelga. If you confront Bolli in the street, he talks about how lucky he is to have a woman as beautiful as his wife, even if she doesn’t support his (meager?) philanthropy. However, if you break into his house, you’ll see he has a letter to or from an investigator he’s hired to stalk his wife; there is (in the mind of the writer, don’t remember which character) evidence that his wife is also cheating on him, but he wants to wait until it’s more conclusive to act on it (also, he oddly keeps this letter out in the open on the table next to the bed, but that’s probably just so it’s easy to steal). As far as I know, this letter is not referenced in any quest in the game, and you can’t confront Bolli or his wife with it–it exists only to reveal his hypocrisy.

          That’s only one part of the Riften hypocrisy, both sexual and not. This is the city with the Temple of Mara, where you can get married, where the rhetoric is about how important married life is. Yet there’s at least two prominent citizens cheating on their spouses (which might not seem much, but in a population of two dozen…). The Thieves Guild is closely associated with the city’s most prominent private citizen, whose word is essentially law. The legitimate authorities are mostly powerful and defer to her while still claiming there’s no corruption. The Guild itself has its hands in all commerce (especially after you do the appropriate quests).

          All this amounts to Riften–which, given its industries, natural resources, location on a large body of water used for shipping, and proximity to two other provinces, really should be a prosperous boom town–being a depressing dead end for almost every NPC whose surname isn’t Black-briar.

          Not that that excuses anything, I still think that it was a very tonedeaf quest poorly serving a too subtle point (which I only thought of after reading your and Zaewen’s posts).

  12. rho says:

    I’m reminded of another quest, near the beginning of the game, where you encounter two men who are trying to woo the same woman. Both of them want you to help them by lying to the woman to make the other man look bad. What I wanted to do was to go and tell the woman the full story about how both the men were jerks and how she’d be better off without either of them. What I was actually allowed to do was choose to go along with either one man or the other. The woman wasn’t really a character I could interact with. She was just the prize in this feud between two men.

  13. Ohma says:

    Sadly, even taking out the eyeroll-tastic “oh the noes I’m a giant sadnerd who is threatened by female sexuality!” context, this quest is still a giant (possibly some hyperbole there) writing failure. It generally doesn’t make for compelling or even vaguely interesting storytelling when a dilemma could be solved simply by people talking to each other like they weren’t ten year olds. (seriously, this seems like it could have been resolved with Svana asking Haelga to keep it down after 8 or something equally simple)

    • “It generally doesn’t make for compelling or even vaguely interesting storytelling when a dilemma could be solved simply by people talking to each other like they weren’t ten year olds.”

      Yes, this! I thought this when I encountered the mini quest chain in Riverwood with the fake letter. Such childish scheming!

      • Mim says:

        Another sexist quest for that matter. You could either give the first fake letter, give the second fake letter or tell Camilla that the second letter was a fake. There was never any option of saying “Congratulations, you’ve gotten yourself in the middle of a tug of war between the two most childish men in town”. No account taken to what she wanted or what was best or her, it really irked me.

    • Mire says:

      Other mediums frequently create unnecessary drama through similar mechanisms. Nobody had a cell phone in Buffy. People were pathologically incapable of communicating well on Lost. Characters almost always do the stupidest thing possible in a given situation in every horror movie ever. It’s lame, but it’s a fairly common trope in western storytelling at the moment. Read some Neal Stephenson or George R. R. Martin to get away from it a bit – they both do a good job of crafting realistic characters and deriving the dramatic tension from clashing interests, events in the world, etc.

      • It’s not really drama here. If it’s trying to be, it’s very poorly-written. It isn’t exciting or tense; it’s just wearisome and disappointing behaviour from adults who should know better.

        • Mire says:

          Well, I’d say that goes more to the overall immersive quality of the game. The world sucks you in, but the characters almost certainly do not, IMO. But my point was, I think you could make the same criticism – “this could all be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction if you idiots would just sit down for five minutes and talk about it like adults” – about most stories in games, movies, and TV these days.

          • rho says:

            You can say it about a lot of other media, true, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong here. Personally, I will roll my eyes and be less likely to enjoy any book, movie, or TV show that also has the same problem. Just because lazy storytelling is common shouldn’t mean that we accept it. And besides “But so-and-so was doing it too” never worked as an excuse for me when I was 7, so I don’t see why we should let makers of games, movies, etc. get away with it either.

          • I agree. Drama is about people doing stupid things, but drama works (when it does work) because it spends a lot of time showing/telling us why these people are doing stupid things instead of the obvious. What’s wrong with them that drives them to do this?

            But the way Skyrim’s world works ensures that this almost never happens. You wander into town, someone has a problem and asks you to solve it their way, you do it. You don’t get to know the characters, and even those you spend a lot of time don’t have a lot of attention devoted to good writing (Ulfric, as far as I’ve seen, is basically a petulant child hiding behind a pretense of nationalism).

            Of course, this still leaves the question of why there isn’t a “*Slap* Are you really that stupid/childish?” option in nearly every quest dialogue, but I think that goes to the sensibilities of Bethesda. This is a game, after all, where nearly every problem not only can but must be solved with violence. If it can’t be solved with violence, for the most part it can’t be solved at all–it’s just a feature of the world. That’s a pretty childish idea of how a world works. You’re not allowed to talk your way out of things.. why would anyone else be?

            • Mire says:

              I will sign any petition that includes a request for all RPGs (MMO included) to include a “*Slap* Are you really that stupid?” button on all dialogues.

            • Deviija says:

              I have been petitioning BioWare for YEARS on their (new and old) forums for the addition of a *SLAP*/*PUNCH* option for EVERY dialogue interaction with NPCs. So I’d gladly be aboard this boat.

              More seriously, if a game gives us a speech/persuasion/intimidation skill, yet never allows us to utilize it believably and where it would matter in many of these childish and ridiculous social quests, then why have the social skills in your game at all? :P

  14. Rakaziel says:

    Yes, it is three different kinds of shitty. The question is what we can do about it.
    Either rise enough complaints that a few more options get patched in (which would be optimal) or make a mod to fix it and create more options.

  15. Mire says:

    Agreed about the lack of positive choices being somewhat annoying, but I think it’s just a matter of scale. There are thousands of quests in the game, mostly involving stabbing something or someone in the face. They can’t all be gems, and they can’t all take every viewpoint in the world into account. Sometimes a quest is just a quest.

    • A quest doesn’t come out of thin air – it has to be written by someone and approved by someone else. The lack of choice makes it really feel like the work of someone with a moral agenda to push, which destroys the immersion. Technical limitations mean that, as you say, they can’t take every viewpoint in the world into account. I think the issue here is that NO viewpoints are taken into account. The quest puts the words ‘There must be a way’ into your character’s mouth, even if that’s something s/he wouldn’t say. Either your character is a slut-shaming douche, or you just don’t do the quest. It’s dishonest to market the game as a create-your-own-character game if it’s going to make all my moral choices for me.

      Killing quests are to be expected in a fantasy setting (it’s satisfying to our lizard parts of the brain see a baddie get taken down), but the slut-shaming isn’t really. There’s no primal ‘Oh, snap, a baddie! They must DIE’ response to work with.

      • Mire says:

        Exactly – they don’t come out of thin air. Writing and approving them (and implementing them, testing them, debugging them) takes time, and they had to ship the game eventually if they want to stay in business. Someone had to sit there and place those leather straps by hand. It looks much more like someone had a funny idea for a quest and it was implemented in a half assed way. This is a minor quest with no bearing on the main plot. They’re not forcing you to perform a distasteful action in order to progress in the game. I just can’t see a hidden “moral agenda” here no matter how hard I look. Laziness or innocent lack of perspective at worst.

  16. Quinnae says:

    Thank you for writing about this.

    When I encountered this quest my stomach turned and I completed it only to see what happened. Personally, I rather liked Haelga. She’s a cool character who, if you check out her room, certainly has distinction.

    I too, like another commenter here, immediately dubbed it “the slut shaming quest.”

    I hated it, honestly; the only winning move is not to play.

    The points made about Skyrim’s “choices” more generally are also of note. I feel bad giving the game such a glowing review and although I stand by much of what I wrote, it was written before I had gotten more than 30 hours in and before encountering this quest (I saved Riften almost for last on my first playthrough).

    The joy of TES games comes less from character development and more from the choice you get as an explorer/adventurer- having much more say in terms of what you do and where you go in contradistinction to on-the-rails RPGs. But choice in terms of character cultivation or morality? Not a lot. Skyrim, indeed, has been the “best” in this regard considering that some quests provide you with multiple ways to complete them, but there is no unique voice in the dialogue options.

    Most of the dialogue choices you get are in that bland “halfhearted player’s voice” as I like to call it, which isn’t really much of an in-character voice. It’s still way ahead of past Bethesda games and definitely bears the imprint of Bioware’s long line of RPGs.

    But at the same time, as I said, the freedom you have in the game is more in terms of space than in terms of philosophy and the mechanics of quest completion. There is also a choice you have during the main quest line which I shan’t spoil here but really bothered me. Not on a political level, thank goddess, but irksome all the same for the sense of being railroaded.

  17. idvo says:

    Trigger warning for talk of sexual assault.

    That quest is mess. I think it’s more complicated, though. After making the “wretched woman” comment, Svana says, “So now I’m stuck living here while those pigs she calls customers grope me and say the most awful things.” This adds another layer of complexity. It makes sense to me that Svana would want to take it out on Haelga, who gets to enjoy her sexuality, and while that’s not a healthy attitude, it’s one that I can believe she’d have in this situation.

    This also adds another layer of badness to it, though, because this makes it seem as though Haelga is aware of the sexual assault Svana faces, and just doesn’t care about it. Then you have that trope of how sexually active people are just selfish and don’t care about other people’s feelings, which is a terrible trope that needs to go away.

    If that’s the case, then who do you side with? The sexually assaulted woman who wants to slut shame her aunt, or a woman who very much enjoys her sexuality but doesn’t care about people sexually assaulting her niece?

    I just wish I could talk with Svana more about the patrons’ deplorable actions towards her, and then perhaps tell Haelga about it. Maybe she’d side with Svana, completely shocked and disgusted that this happened to her niece and at her inn, and then banish every single person who assaulted her. Though there’s also the risk that the writers could’ve made her be like, “whatever,” and fit even more into the above trope.

    Topics like sex, sexuality, and sexual assault are just too complex for most mainstream developers to handle right now. They need better and more diverse writers so they can avoid falling face first into a vat of harmful tropes and cliches.

    • idvo says:

      Just wanted to add that I think the quest is focusing on the wrong person and/or people. Haelga isn’t doing anything wrong (assuming she just doesn’t know about her customers assaulting Svana). The customers are the ones who are making Svana feel unsafe, they are the horrible ones here, and I think that issue would have been a much better one to address. Shaming Haelga might make Svana feel better in the short-term, but there’s no way to stop the customers from treating her badly. That’s what I really want to do. You can’t talk to Haelga about it (one would hope that everyone, especially someone who worships Dibella, would be outraged to hear about that), you can’t confront the customers, and you can’t talk to Svana about it.

      This quest is so aggravating.

  18. 0thello says:

    Well out of all the TES games I’ve played this has got to be the most ‘streamlined’ one of them all The opening is ON RAILS! There’s a profound lack of choice in certain areas and far too much freedom in some others, the lack of a prominent class system still is getting on my nerves. Being referred to as “Elf” is silly, I am an Altmer, why in the flying hell are other Altmer claiming to be a superior species to one of their own!? Shave a few pennies off your marketting budget eh Bethesda? This quest however I was ambivalent about, mostly because my character would do things like this. This is just yet another indiciation that TES is slowly being streamlined. It’s not total suckage yet but give it 2 or 3 more. Sent Sadias’ ass off with the Alik’r. I may play as an evil Vampire but I don’t turn down money.

  19. glamgeekgirl says:

    I missed that quest but there were many others that I didn’t want to do, but couldn’t refuse or break off in any way. I have a hard time being amoral in games so I don’t ever do Dark Brotherhood quests in TES games. I didn’t realize that the only way to avoid any affiliation with the brotherhood was to kill Astrid right away. The DB initation quest stayed in my log for the rest of my 153 hours of playing, and I could not even track her down to kill her, she was unkillable. Same with the big decision of which faction to side with towards the end (trying to keep spoilers low here). I would have loved to be able to tell all those quest givers “You are despicable, ignorant, foolish… or whatever they were.” Or break off the Thieves Guild quests that didn’t seem any less objectionable than the DB, but I couldn’t tell them off for being murderers in cold blood, not merely thieves.

    Of course, it would be too easy if that would make everyone agree with me, but I do speak out IRL when I think something is unjust, no matter what they will think about me.

    This lack of choice, or at least of a way to voice your disagreement in Skyrim is annoying, and was eventually the reason that I stopped playing (oh, and a quest-breaking bug that can’t be fixed even with the console in the Companions’ questline).

  20. Raja says:

    It is a shame that Skyrim doesn’t allow players more choices during quests but given how many of them there are in the game they don’t have time to customize every single one otherwise it would take 10 years to make given how massive the TES games are. That’s more up Bioware’s alley

  21. Mim says:

    I’m happy to see a bit of criticism raised against Skyrim, because although I love the game so far, it seems to be one of those that are hyped to the points where flaws are overlooked. I chose to take the high road on this quest, but it’s not exactly an isolated event, as there’s a scantily clad woman in Winterfel with called Bad- Nasty- or something of that sort. Even the respectable women don’t get a pass, because as far as I’ve read of the marriages, your spouse becomes a housewife (well, they do get to set up a store to keep busy), cooking meals for the player, and on th wiki you’re warned that at least the women with moer character will get a different personality switch. It’s basically as heteronormative as a marriage can get, with the twist that gay couples can do it too.

    Minority games had a couple of good articles of the race aspect too. The most shocking flaw on that side I have to say is the central conflict, which is set up like a Star Wars allegory with the evil empire and the resistance – except that the resistance are pretty much nazis. They’re a military order trying to overthrow the current government so that they can reserve “Skyrim for the Nords” and discriminate against mages and other races, but it’s so easy to overlook, the underdog narrative is probably powerful enough that most players don’t notice it, and on top of that the choice between the empire and the Stormcloaks is treated as a choice of two valid alternatives.

    • circadianwolf says:

      I think you’re over-simplifying the civil war situation.

      First, I think the game tries pretty hard to make it clear the Stormcloaks are racist. It’s not hidden or down-played. (That would require the game to be subtle.)

      Second, the Stormcloaks aren’t a Nazi situation at all. (The Thalmor, however, *are*, to a ridiculous degree–the history of the Thalmor and their war with the Empire is the history of the Nazis if there were no Soviets to stop them.) Rather, it’s a colonialist situation: the Stormcloaks see the Imperials as colonialists who centuries ago invaded and have since occupied land that rightfully belongs to the Nords. And they’re correct as far as it goes–no one disputes that the Imperials are occupiers.

      “Skyrim for the Nords” is racist, yes, but it’s racist in a way that is very, very common to real-world colonialist struggles–we want our land back for us, not for immigrant settlers loyal to the colonizers. That’s a perspective that was seen over and over again, understandably so I think, in colonialist conflicts throughout history. Anti-imperialism is very frequently connected to provincialism.

      The Imperials, meanwhile, are presented as standard colonialists, too: largely bureaucratic and ignorant of why the Stormcloaks are fighting. “We gave you all this, developed the country, protected you from the Thalmor, why do you want out?” Again, it’s very post-WWII: the colonies “suddenly” rebelling, from the perspective of the Imperials, after they were “saved” from a greater threat. (Hammerfell rebelled and left the Empire too, which, with the impact of the war, hilariously leaves the “Empire” as just Cyrodiil, Skyrim, and possibly the post-apocalyptic Morrowind. If the Stormcloak rebellion succeeds, there is essentially no Empire left.)

      • Mim says:

        There is a differnce between real world colonialists and shyrim as far as I’ve gathered, and that is that the people of Skyrim seem to have an autonomy and a status that wasn’t present in the old colonies. They’re not exploited for cheap labour, they’re not exactly impoverished, they’re just not sovereign.

        And it’s the real world similarites what bug me the most about that faction. I suppose Bethesda is an American company and that they’re probably don’t cater to Europe first hand, but this is a viking setting where the locals are going through just about every phase of European right wing extremism, from the ghettos, to casting the Roma allegories out of their societies, to spouting conspiracy theories about intellectuals and immigrants, to “preserve the Skyrim for the Nords”, or bevara Sverige svenskt as they’re been saying in a real life viking country for some twenty years now. Maybe it’s supposed to be a colonial allegory, but it’s obvious that they’ve picked the wrong setting and that the politics have been taken from a modern europe where the Stormcloak and their faults are a familiar part of politics rather than overt moral ambiguity. It’s normalizing racist politics, not making a point about it.

        • Quinnae says:

          I agree with you to a good extent. In my article, however, I pointed out some of this and the political debate about the matter catalogued in the game’s copious books. You’re absolutely right that this should remind us all of the European white right, especially in Scandinavia. Part of me wonders if that wasn’t Bethesda’s inspiration, after all.

          But I would hesitate to go so far as saying the game normalises it *versus* making a point about it. They may normalise the existence of racism, in much the same way other games normalise patriarchy, but I would say points are being made about it. That racist thug in Windhelm, for example, is scarcely portrayed sympathetically. Books and sympathetic characters condemn the racism of Nords, the latent xenophobia of the land is a theme, and not necessarily an unproblematised one.

          Any attentive player will see that this is actually at the heart of the civil war’s political conflict and it lends a bit of needed complexity to political issues like this. The Empire is hardly a virtuous bastion of love and freedom, but they are much more tolerant than the Stormcloaks are, and would not- say- evict foreigners from the province. That alone was what sold my characters on the Empire, even my Nord. You also learn early on (Spoilers! Zomgz!) that Ulfric Stormcloak is an unwitting pawn in the Thalmor’s game. It takes all the shine off the Stormcloaks pretty quickly.

          You’re absolutely right about this not being a post-colonial-style rebellion. Nords qua Nords cannot be said to be in any great sense “oppressed” by the Empire. Indeed, they’ve had a privileged place within it, often supplying nobles, Emperors, and generals to the Imperial hierarchy.

          But here’s what is interesting: the towering irony of the Stormcloak rebellion in the midst of Nords brutally putting down what *is* anti-colonial resistance, in the form of the Forsworn. I think this ends up flattering the Nords even less: when you learn the whole story of the Forsworn and what the Nords did to them, I think it becomes truly impossible to sympathise with any sort of Nord Nationalism. You come to realise that between the Dunmer and Forsworn natives, *Nords* are the real imperialists.

          You could argue that the game doesn’t always point to this with big flashy red arrows because it’s not as dialogue rich as other titles, and this is true. But I’d say it’s still pretty hard to miss. The Forsworn questline is a centrepiece of Markarth, for instance. I do think some oblique points are being made here.

          Thank you both for your thought provoking comments! I always wish I had more time to explore these issues in articles.

          • circadianwolf says:

            I largely agree with both your comments. I think the way the civil war & racism is presented is really haphazard and poorly done. Both of you interestingly note that the Nords don’t seem to actually be oppressed by the Imperials in any real way (and yes, I realize that the Imperials themselves are recent descendents of Nords and that the founder of the Empire was a Nord), but honestly I think that’s just Bethesda’s clumsiness (which, of course, the OP is all about).

            To me, it seems like they definitely intended it to be a colonialist allegory, they just screwed it up–obviously that’s an intent argument, which is bad, but to make any sense of Skyrim’s world, which is largely symbolic (the Dunmer slum with like two residents is hilarious to me) and reductive and features lots of getting told things (either in books or by characters) that never actually appear in the game, we have to make those kind of assumptions, unfortunately.

            The point about the Forsworn is really good but also seems a pretty common feature of colonialist struggles, though. There’s almost always a long history of colonialism and colonizers getting colonized by bigger empires.

            You can definitely see it as a European nationalist thing instead.. which, of course, is even more depressing because then there’s really nothing worthwhile about either side.

  22. Mire says:

    Curious to know what people on this thread think of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s handling of these sorts of things. If you play a Sith Warrior to about level 10, you’re given a twi’lek slave girl with a shock collar (that you can use via dialogue options at various times) as a “companion”. You can buy all sorts of skimpy outfits for her, can make her watch you sleep with other characters, etc. It’s… yeah. Of course, you’re also given the option *not* to shock her, and you can take the collar off soon after leaving the starting area, and dress her in armor or formal clothes or a number of other options. So in that sense, I suppose it’s an example of a developer getting it right.

  23. Beserker says:

    Thank heaven it’s not just me. I walked away from that quest as soon as I found it and also referred to it as ‘the slut shaming quest’. Has anyone thought of letting Bethesda know that’s how the quest came across? It also seemed so coarse in the context of Riften in particular, which is riven with moral ambiguity.

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