Killing Narfi: Skyrim and the problem of evil

As Mormons, we have a pervasive, if not terribly well-attributed, belief that, in the next life, if we turned out to be good enough, we’ll get to make our own planets. Folks, why wait? There are a wealth of world-building strategy and role-playing games available right now. One has me in its web right now and it is causing me to consider the creation of a moral universe.

I don’t play many video games, as they become a massive time suck for me. However, when we moved to Germany, I bought my son an Xbox 360 as a kind of bribe for allowing himself to be dragged to another country. It has actually proven a sound investment in some ways; he taught himself to play guitar with it (thank you, Rocksmith). However, inevitably, the question of Skyrim came up. My son is a great fan of the Lord of the Rings and fantasy generally. Skyrim is, by many accounts, the best fantasy game available on the Xbox. It is also a “Mature” game. Not much sexually, but blood spurts a fair deal. So, we had to decide whether to get it for him.

My wife and I waffled on the subject for a few months and then, in a rare alignment of waffles, wound up getting it for him for Christmas (twice!) All of a sudden, my son had a whole realm of dragons, elves, bandits, and beheadings to explore. At first, I thought it was okay, because the violence, as I said, is neither particularly realistic nor particularly gory. But I soon learned my error.

The makers of Skyrim have tilted the powers of the game in the direction of evil. By which I mean, Skyrim actively encourages you to have a strong disregard for other people’s lives and suffering. There are reasons for this in the mythology of the series, but basically you get cooler stuff and powers if you just embrace the evil. I’d sit down and watch my son play as he would gleefully assassinate random characters and brag about how much power he had. The reason it’s mature isn’t the violence; it is the temptation to mayhem without consequences.

What’s worse is that I started playing it myself. I started honestly as an attempt to show him that the game can be played successfully without succumbing to the various temptations arrayed before you. Sure, on occasion, I’d choose conversation options that would result in a fight because I wanted to kill someone. Of course, all bandits were sure to die, whether or not they were crawling away screaming “Yield!”. But I avoided killing (non-bandits) in unprovoked, cold-blooded attacks and I didn’t even join the Thieves Guild (another morass of moral relativism). That went fine for a while, but one day my son accidentally erased our characters. Suddenly, all the work I’d put into my oh-so-pure character was gone.

At this point, the dark side called and I answered. I decided to make the evilest character I could and get all the bad temptation out of me in one go. I choose a lizard-man, literally cold-blooded, and quickly built him into a powerful assassin and thief. And, for the most part, I had a lot more fun.

However, there are limits. One of the first missions you get as a budding assassin is to kill an insane, homeless beggar named Narfi.

Narfi is a true loon, shouting stuff about his dead (it turns out) sister and whatever else wanders into his head. I’ve no idea why anyone would want him dead. In my previous nicer character, I helped Narfi get some closure by finding his dead sister’s necklace for him.

I decided that my stone-cold assassin would also find the sister’s necklace and return it to Narfi, to give him some peace before killing him. I retrieved it, but I wasn’t able to give him the necklace. The conversational options had all changed to things I would say to him before I killed him. I couldn’t bring him comfort anymore because, earlier, I’d entertained the possibility of killing him. I tried to get one of the villagers to help me, but nothing would work. Strangely, there isn’t much information about both helping and killing Narfi online.

At this point, my frustration was mounting. Narfi, who I’d been mentally treating like an annoying one-note person, now became a series of lights on a screen. What did it matter if I killed him? No one would care (that is, no real person (actually, I doubt the fake NPCs in the game ever express loss at his murder)). It came down to what I wanted to be and how I wanted to get there. Nothing would stop my hand if I wanted to kill him. There would be no punishment (it is no crime to kill a computer pretend person).

So, I did. I became a pretend murderer. I continue to be to this day. It’s a fun game and an enormous timesuck, but I play it whenever I figure I can.

Here’s the quandary: Skyrim presents a world where things go much smoother if you do what you want, whenever you want, without regard for the (pretend) people around you. Killing and stealing are actively encouraged if you want to get ahead quicker in the game. You can rationalize just about every transgression or crime you commit, finding a way to justify it morally. The only moral force (for good) in the game is what you choose yourself.

So, what is a better way to play the game? My first attempt, where I kept myself from the temptation to murder and plunder? Or the second way, where I gave in to temptation and got a lot more powerful? I ask because upon finding myself the ultimate moral arbiter in my little Skyrim universe, I’m still not sure what to do or how what I’ve done reflects on me. And if I’m not ready now, how am I going to do it in some hypothetical future?


  1. Yeah, that’s one thing that bothered me about Skyrim, though you put it better than I could. To he fair, they did put in a half-hearted attempt at adding consequences via bounties: if a guard sees you commit a crime, they’ll try to arrest you until you’ve paid the price. Unfortunately, the price is either a bribe to them or some time in jail, which is over almost instantly to the player.
    One game I thought did better at encouraging at least a bare minimum of moral behavior was Dishonored, though they called it “order” vs. “chaos”. The fewer people you kill, the happier the ending is. There is some adult content – one level takes place in a brothel, and while there’s no nudity or graphic sexuality, as you read people’s minds, they have some pretty depressing thoughts.

  2. Crawkumen! Away!

  3. “As Mormons, we have a pervasive, if not terribly well-attributed, belief that, in the next life, if we turned out to be good enough, we’ll get to make our own planets. ”

    Yep, the belief is still pervasive even though the Church, officially through its press office, has denied it (or has it?):

    “Do Latter-day Saints believe that they will “get their own planet”?

    “No. This idea is not taught in Latter-day Saint scripture, nor is it a doctrine of the Church. This misunderstanding stems from speculative comments unreflective of scriptural doctrine. Mormons believe that we are all sons and daughters of God and that all of us have the potential to grow during and after this life to become like our Heavenly Father (see Romans 8:16-17). The Church does not and has never purported to fully understand the specifics of Christ’s statement that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2).”

    The answer does not quite say that those who believe we “get [our] own planet” are teaching false doctrine; it just says that it is not an official doctrine of the Church.

  4. I don’t know much about ethics in video gaming, but I do know this: Frostbite spiders freak me right the heck out.

  5. Such juicy theology here, JC.

    If we imagine that God is part of the universe, and if we conclude that the rules of this universe ultimately reward power and competition, then it may be true that God’s greatest achievement is not that he is all-powerful but that he is all-good, despite all of that.

    (Then again, God is probably apart from this miserable universe in some important way.)

  6. RickH, one of the best essays I’ve ever read was on morality as played out in It’s a Wonderful Life. The whole point of the thing is that goodness is never particularly rewarded (except, possibly, at the end). Read it yourself, it’s good.

    WVS, my supervillian’s name is “Sighs-with-Sorrow.” It makes more sense in the game.

    I’m a fan of theosis, so I don’t push back too hard against the belief, DavidH. It certainly explains my preference for Sim City and Civilization over first-person shooters.

    Casey, it’s the skeevers that get to me, man. The diseases, the diseases!

    RJH, if we believe God could cease to be God, or that Jesus was actually tempted in the desert or elsewhere, isn’t that a necessary conclusion?

  7. Haven’t played Skyrim yet, but I’ve played the Fallout games made by the same company (and from what I hear, are reasonably similar). Try as I may, I find it very difficult to do anything horrific in these kinds of games. I’m not sure why; I don’t think it’s necessarily that I am more ethical per se than others but that I have a very difficult time disconnecting my own identity with the person I play in a video game. I find the ability people have in disassociating their own morality while playing video games incredibly fascinating because I can’t do it myself. This may stem from my belief that we should respect machines even if we don’t think they’re self-aware (yet).

    Strangely enough, I am a pretty stanch social justice kind of a guy but have no qualms being a ruthless colonial industrialist in board games like Power Grid or Settlers of Catan or Puerto Rico.

  8. John,

    You need to stop worrying about these moral questions and simply hand your life over to the Dread Father Sithis. Embrace the Void!

  9. Both paths turn out to be difficult- as you play good, things are demonstrably more difficult in terms of game play. As the evil/moral relativistic, what you gain in ease of gameplay comes with loss in moral surety. Did you reaaaalllly do the right thing when you murdered the emperor forthe dark brotherhood? (Lol spoiler alert) what about the thieves guild- was karliah truly
    Innocent, or was it in here say?

    In skyrim, as in life, no one can avoid hardship- only evade it briefly. Be good, suffer now with your soul intact. Be evil, find a bit of sweet frosting on a crap cupcake… Er, sweet roll.

  10. I’na get my own universe, not just a planet. Am I misunderstanding something?

  11. Like Ted, I find it difficult to play evil characters. I couldn’t do it in Baldur’s Gate II (still the best computer RPG ever created), and I can’t do it now in Skyrim. I don’t get a sense of enjoyment out of it, even if I do kind of enjoy being cruel in Ticket to Ride or whatever game I’m playing with other actual people.

  12. Bro. Jones says:

    My wife (with whom I usually play games, when we get the time) prevents me from choosing evil most of the time. Well, “Evil” here is sometimes relative: many games have what some deride as “Pet the puppy/kick the puppy” moral choices. That is, there’s not always a clear link between the morality of your choice and its importance in the game world. Sometimes you just commit violence or sin because that’s the choice the game offers. I’m never terribly impressed by this, and I tend to choose the “good” path in situations like this.

    In games like Mass Effect, the moral choice is sometimes cast as compassion versus ruthless efficiency: you may have to choose between saving lives at the expense of a more difficult battle or compromised mission objectives, or conversely choose a more effective tactic that results in collateral damage. In some instances even my wife will back me up in the name of efficiency.

  13. I was an adventurer in Skyrim until I took an arrow in the knee.

  14. “Narfi is a true loon, shouting stuff about his dead (it turns out) sister and whatever else wanders into his head. I’ve no idea why anyone would want him dead…”

    This mission objective, among others, is actually something Bethesda did to The Dark Brotherhood between Oblivion and Skyrim, which was remove the sympathy anyone could have for the Brotherhood itself for the sake of making them darker. (The timeline gap between Oblivion, the fourth game, and Skyrim is 200 years, and so much changed between games that Skyrim no longer feels like a TES sequel.)

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