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Breaking the immersion--Skyrim's racism lacks authenticity

Richard Naik's picture

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshot

I really like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I want to state this now, since most of what I'm about to write will probably make it seem like I dislike it. However, just because I like something doesn't mean I can't criticize it as well. And believe me, there are things to criticize about Skyrim.

Most of the complaints I've heard from the various corners of the internet focus on the user interface, insufficient instructions, and good old Bethesda bugginess & instability. These are all legitimate complaints, and rest assured they'll be addressed in more detail in my review. However, there was one moment in the game that really bothered me, and it actually has to do with the (otherwise wonderful) game world itself.

The residents of Windhelm, one of the game's major cities, are supposedly extremely prejudiced against non-Nord races. Dark Elves are forced to live in a small slum in the city, and Argonians aren't even allowed to live in the city. Given that my character was an Argonian, I was looking forward to ruffling some feathers on behalf of my scaly brothers and sisters. However, when I entered the city, this oppression did not manifest itself in any way whatsoever.

Despite being told by anyone I asked that Windhelm wasn't kind to Argonians, nobody in the city seemed to care. The innkeeper rented a room to me with no problem. An NPC spouting racial slurs at a Dark Elf in the street as I entered the city didn't seem too concerned with me, and the town guards didn't hesitate to offer up the generic dialogue that guards in other cities had used. Hell, the innkeeper even complained about all the Dark Elves and Argonians right in front of an Argonian.

The last straw came when I entered the inn and, in addition to nobody seeming to care that one of "those people" had just walked in (and a pretty menacing one if I do say so myself), one of the inn patrons walked up and asked me (paraphrasing) "so are you one of those 'Skyrim for the Nords' types?"


Do I think Skyrim should be for the Nords!? What the hell do you think!? You make people like me sleep outside on the docks while you're all nice and warm, and you're seriously going to ask me if I think Skyrim should be for the Nords?!

NPCs acting like I was a Nord even though I clearly wasn't became a recurring theme in this city, and it really bothered me because I was supposedly part of an extremely marginalized group. It's similar to a problem that Dragon Age 2 had, in that while Mages were supposedly the subjects of brutal repression by the Templars, nobody seemed to give a second thought to my mage Hawke and his magey companions walking freely around the city with no Templar oversight whatsoever.

This experience really damaged the immersion factor for me. The game went to great lengths to tell me how oppressed Argonians were in Windhelm, but inside the city itself none of it was apparent outside of one scripted sequence. And to top it all off, an NPC actually spoke to me as if I was a Nord. I'm still playing and I'm still enjoying myself, but the lack of attention to detail here was extremely disheartening. Has anyone else experienced this? Or am I just missing something?

Category Tags
Platform(s): Wii   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): Bethesda  
Series: The Elder Scrolls  
Genre(s): Role-Playing   Open World  

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Similar impression

Richard, I felt the same exact way and, honestly, the entire section of the game rubbed me the wrong way. My first character is a Bosmer female, and strangely enough, it's like the game is scripted to not know exactly how to deal with wood elves. They're not hated, they're not special, they're not anything, really. This is really no different from the treatment of Bosmer and Bretons in previous entries; you tend to get more specific reactions if you're an Orsimer, Khajiit, Argonian, or Dunmer (the "oppressed" races). In fact, I relished the role of abolitionist and slave-liberator back in Morrowind, something I wish Skyrim afforded the player... but I digress.

In any case, I expected those Aryan xenophobe Nords to treat me *some* way because of my elf lineage, but the most they ever do (to any non-Nord race, I imagine) is call the player out on not being a Nord. (This, btw, is an area where Elder Scrolls could learn a lot from Dragon Age 1.)

Against my better judgment, I joined the Stormcloaks, but I was distraught by how few (read: "none") opportunities I got to speak out against the essential bigotry underlying Ulfric's cause. On the one hand, it paints a complicated picture about the struggle of any indigenous people to oust colonizers, and it's probably true that there's an element of xenophobic intolerance in every war for independence. On the other hand, it's lazy writing on Bethesda's part.

The only chance I got to say anything negative about the Stormcloak's cause, in fact, was at the very end of the series of quests, when I declined to have Ulfric mention me in his speech because I "wasn't sure the fight had been worth it." Then Ulfric spouted off some patronizing gem about how all heroes have doubts, and he went on his merry, bigoted way.

So what was my logical reaction to the Stormcloak subplot (which is altogether terrible, both in gameplay in story, if you ask me)? I went and created a Dunmer character with the express intent of joining the Imperial Legion and kicking Ulfric's shiny white ass. Haven't gotten around to seeing the reaction to my presence in Windhelm yet, though.

I certainly agree with this

I certainly agree with this post, however just as a funny side note, my "immersion factor" (if you will) was jarred in the opening sequence when the cart your riding stops in the town the guard says to you "end of the line". I may be wrong but doesnt that refer to train lines?

NPC reactions are generally underwritten

I had a lot of the same issues playing through as a Khajit. Ulfric's right hand man recognized I was a Khajit, as did the threats from enemies (are there no cats in Skyrim due to a genocide of sister's cats?*) but not much else. The Khajit traders didn't notice. One NPC patiently explained what Khajits were to me when I asked. Despite Khajits not being allowed into any of the cities they never had a problem with me (or the Khajit I had following me around sometimes).

It's part of a more general issue with the game that it doesn't consistently recognize what you've done and who you are. I didn't find it as bad as what I encountered in the parts of Dragon Age 2 I played as it didn't seem quite so core plot relevant, and more easily lampshaded**, but it's one of my two real issues with the game. I think it's more due to lack of man-hours; Bethesda has always needed more writers to handle the volume of text/speech in the game and hook all the dialogue to quest/race/etc flags; they just never have enough.

The random guard/bystander dialogue is probably the most prevalent example of this - I'm wandering around in Dragon armor and have completed the main quest and they give lines about recognizing me only from joining the companions a couple months of in-game time ago. Or giving the "Have you met my father? He's a steward up at Dragonsreach" after I (a) already did her quest which involves speaking to her father, and (b) have heard the line hundreds of times before because I keep using her forge.

* "You remind me of my sister's cat. I killed that too!" Half the enemies in the game, seriously ...
** You can just pretend you bribed guards and so on for most of it. Beyond that, Skyrim's racism seems more amenable to "Argonians suck! But that dude's okay, he kills lots of Dragons and shit" than the level of Temple oppression supposed to be present in Dragon Age 2. This is never written into the game and it's immersion breaking that it isn't, but I think it's plausible in a way that Dragon Age 2's plot wasn't (to me anyway).

I'm playing as a female High

I'm playing as a female High Elf (yes, I'm a stereotype) and I'm having the same problem. In Whiterun there's a preacher who occasionally rants against the elves and he talks with me like I was yet another nord in support of his cause. And that's not the only one that did that. In the College of Winterhelm (I'm a mage -yes, I'm a stereotype) one of the students is an elf that complains there's so few of them... but never even acknowledges that I'm one of them! In fact I'm yet to meet any NPC that makes any comment regarding my race.
I did't spend too much time in Winhelm yet, though I did pass through it during one of the College's quests. First I see when entering the city gates is two guys harassing some elf lady. After they went away (not even saying a thing to me) I decided to talk to her and, again, she didn't even appear to notice that I was an elf; in fact she actually asked me directly if I was prejudiced against their kind. WTF? I could understand that a Hight Elf could be prejudiced against a Dark Elf (I'm not very deep into the mythos), but didn't anyone saw the ridiculousness of that question? Oh, and the best part was the 2 (two) possible answers: "Yes, I am" and "No, I'm not". That's writing that's worth a Nobel Prize...

My conclusion is the same as yours, in Skyrim every NPC taks to the PC as he were a Nord. It gets in the way of immersion and is really a missed opportunity.
Also, this whole fake racism makes it so that I don't even care about the politics and mythos of the game. Why should I if it doesn't even slightly percolate in my experience?

After a few minutes of frustrating disappointment when I first made my hands into that horrible, horrible user interface and then some hours of infatuation after I got used to it, Skyrim numerous flaws are starting to get into the enjoyment. Repetitive and overly long dungeons, unconvincing voice acting, fake bigotry, lack of interesting dialogue, boring and uninteresting political conflicts, stupidly easy to kill dragons... I'm still enjoying it and I still thing it's a great game, but I just wish Bethesta made a smaller game but with fewer problems.

There's no Nobel prize for

There's no Nobel prize for writing...

For me Skyrim isn't a true

For me Skyrim isn't a true RPG. It is more of an First Person Action/RPG. It is mostly about the action and the loot, and character builds. The rest are filler, to give you the illusion that you are part of something greater than just hack and slash. Skyrim is a modern Diablo game, really...

There is no point in trying to make this filler interesting and showing such attention to detail. This would be far too costly for a single player game.

The only way for modern games to have great immersion, good story, and interesting characters, is to cut on the scope of the game. Seriously, what do you expect, spending billions of dollars so they can make the game immersive and gigantic at the same time?It is not realistic...

So if you want immersion, stop asking 300 hours of game play and stop criticising games for offering less hours. Support smaller scope games even if they are short.

Anonymous wrote: For me

Anonymous wrote:

For me Skyrim isn't a true RPG. It is more of an First Person Action/RPG. It is mostly about the action and the loot, and character builds. The rest are filler, to give you the illusion that you are part of something greater than just hack and slash. Skyrim is a modern Diablo game, really...

I've got no problem calling Skyrim a freakin' spectacular dungeon crawler/hack n' slash. Do we criticize Pokemon or Monster Hunter Tri for not having a better story?

Nobel prize for writing

Anonymous wrote:

There's no Nobel prize for writing...

What's the Nobel Prize in Literature for?

More importantly, where's

More importantly, where's the like button?

I didn't even want to play a Nord

I didn't even want to play a Nord at first because it just seemed boring -- after all, the default Nord looks exactly like Ralof, who you just shared a cart with. I like to be unique, thanks. Plus there are enough of the racist bastards walking around Skyrim. No need to add another.

I actually started out Skyrim playing several of the other races (because lizards and cat-people are just cool) and eventually grew tired of them for one reason or another. Then, I finally decided to try out a Nord, and was amazed how much farther into several of the storylines I got. That subtle extra immersiveness you get from being a Nord and having people treat you like a Nord ended up pulling me into the game and my Nord became and continues to be my main character.

It did surprise me that it affected my enjoyment of the game so much. I mean, the answer shouldn't be, "Well, just play as a Nord" -- especially when some of the other races have really fun in-born abilities -- but that's been the only way I can really get myself invested in the game. I'm sure some people don't even notice, but it is disappointing that Bethesda couldn't have worked at making the racial effect on gameplay a little more interesting.

TPR wrote: I certainly

TPR wrote:

I certainly agree with this post, however just as a funny side note, my "immersion factor" (if you will) was jarred in the opening sequence when the cart your riding stops in the town the guard says to you "end of the line". I may be wrong but doesnt that refer to train lines?

It's like the archer's being told to fire not loose in the two towets

I just started to play the

I just started to play the game, and noticed some of the Nords being ever so slightly RACIST against me. Some stole my sweet roll? Then one of the gards said "I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow to the knee...

Come on already.

While they pretty clearly

While they pretty clearly did not want to lock players out of cities or content due to character choice (you miss enough just through skill focus or rp choices), there ARE some moments where they throw a little bit of fantasy racism at you. My Argonian has been hostilely addressed as "boot" a few times and gotten comments like "I know your kind, always sneaking about" (this might be due to my thief skills being high though). And the Windhelm dock boss refers to his workers as boots when you do the quest to get them higher wages, so I'm pretty sure it's indeed meant to be an anti-reptile slur.

Skyrim doesn't see race

Best moment of a game character acknowledging my Bosmer thief as such just happened to me in Markarth. A member of the Silver-Blood clan in the hold goes over the great war with me, serveral times mentioning the Thalmor as "your kind, elf," his voice dripping with disdain. When I walked up to the Thalmor representative I expected the same game awareness. Go elf brothers! After he mentioned Altmer joining with Bosmer and general Mer superiority I expected some kind of a shout out but got nada. Real shame. What's the point to these race-based plot points if your race isn't a factor in them? I would have preferred a few less random fetch quests and more non human racial impact on how people react and what I can do.

Identity Issues in Skyrim

Having worked as a recording engineer on voiceover sessions for multimedia I understand how it would be incredibly tedious, moderately expensive and a big time commitment to record alternate dialogue for every possible race/gender combination. But playing as a dark elf and having to hear Nords talk about how much they hate dark elves and other dark elves ask me if I had a problem with their kind (or not call me an idiot for asking basic questions about Morrowind's history) really broke the spell.

I appreciate the variety being offered, but I'd rather have 3-5 fully thought-through options than 12 half-assed options.

Oh, and btw - http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/

Actually there is...

Actually there is...

The issue with such a huge

The issue with such a huge game is that most of it seems artificial, mechanical: the constantly reused assents and enemies, the geometrical cave design, the guards all saying the same phrases, and yes, immersion breakers like this (and the fact that the best way to beat a dragon is to carry 500 carrots and salmon steaks). These games are the reason why I'm not excited about huge world maps anymore. I'd rather have a complete small living breathing world like Deadly Premonition or Radiata Stories, with charm and immersion, than a huge world that feels straight out of a "map creator".

The Dovahkiin a Khajiit? Nah, just a furry nord...

It's the same story if you're a khajiit. I had the experience of encountering the khajiit caravans before ever entering a city, and so I was set up to think that "Khajiit are not welcome behind the walls of Nord cities, and are generally mistrusted by the nords". I was therefore incredibly nervous walking up to the gates of Whiterun to try and report the dragons returning. And yet, without any effort to persuade them on my part, they let me straight into the city. Once i was inside, nary a dirty look to be seen and everyone treated this khajiit downright friendly! I've never been so disappointed about not being discriminated against! It is very immersion breaking, and it makes me feel like my choice to play a khajiit was purely aesthetic.

Yeah. I had very high hopes

Yeah. I had very high hopes of being a bad High Elf. I was thinking I would play boss to all people in Skyrim and kick their asses if they've a problem with it. Moreover, being the dragonborn I would also maybe boast to Stormcloaks, ban Talos worship after becoming the new hero of the world. Expectations of being a godlike High Elf tyrant respected but hated in Skyrim. Turned out I was just a Nord in disguise of a High Elf. What a turn off.

And when a guardsman say "What is it, little elf?" while my character is looking down his nose since Altmers are the tallest race is... simply legendary.

did any of you take the time

did any of you take the time to think about what you're suggesting here? i'm shocked with the thought that anyone would want others to suppress your character, but there's also this other ridiculously true phenomenon this game is implying. that racism as it exists in our world is intellectually illogic because there is no other sentinent "race" only humans. i mean did anyone care to notice the dark nords??? that s the only genius about this issue, other than that, it's just the type of gaming obsession that could kill.

do you forget that nords

do you forget that nords have been battling elves for centuries? the dominion is oppressing them, denying worship and would kill u if u spoke out against them, if thts not a reason to hate them then idk what is


I agree. I know this sounds odd, but I started a Khajiit just to see if I'd get resistance when entering a town or city. I was looking forward to seeing how an outcast race can earn the trust and admiration or respect of the people over time. In my eyes, I think it would be more fun to get insults more often. Talked down to, and made to feel unwelcome. Then become their hero.

Then still get flak for being Khajiit from time to time. Worst I've ever had happen was someone I was already in combat with called me a kitty cat or something. And in the Dark Brotherhood quest line I walked into the lair and heard them joking about a Warewolf chasing a Khajiit. That's about it sadly.

Yes real life racism is wrong, but for immersion in a fantasy game like Skyrim, I was expecting it.


It actually refers to death, which was completely appropriate. Though now as I write this I wonder if you were being sarcastic.

Why is it so difficult to

Why is it so difficult to understand that Nords and Stormcloaks *are not* meant to depict Aryan ideals and Nazis? They just want autonomy, they aren't trying to conquer all of Tamriel and wipe out "inferior races". It seems that a lot of Americans can't understand that this is not the US, it is not a "cultural melting pot", and the Nords shouldn't have to have foreign cultures thrust on them if they don't want to.

The Stormcloaks are not

The Stormcloaks are not analogous to the Nazis, but they are hypocrites. The Nords came from Atmora and took Skyrim from the native Bretons (whose remnants became the Forsworn).

Here is something that makes

Here is something that makes no sense. Bethesda said the reason there isn't alot of Argonians or Khajiit is because it's cold... as I know said, "WTF are Argonians doing in Windhelm?" which is said to be the coldest city of all? Another thing, Hadvar says "Are you relative to the Riften dock workers Argonian?" Riften has 2... TWO Argonians. The Skooma addict & the Mercenary, personally you should be able to marry the addict after you helped her. Anys yet the dock workers are in Windhelm. Wouldn't a swamp town like Riften be a better choice for the Argonians? It has the larger water body... it just seems Bethesda was too lazy to even listen to their "It's told cold facts"

Since when did multiple

Since when did multiple races speak English and be from vastly different places (And continents even) The guys back at Bethesda Softworks probably work hard, but as in all expansive RPG videogames, there are going to be slip-ups and mistakes. And there have been many things to try and fix these mistakes.

I for one would take this certain step a bit farther, and note that you are really not "allowed" to be a villain in the game. Unlike Miraak, the primary antagonist from the latest expansion pack The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn. You can't use your powers to commit hostile take over acts.

Neither can you even take a city down for that matter, as many NPC's are essential at least before a certain part of said quest is completed (Example: Almost all the Companions of Jorvaskr)

Overall, I think Bethesda could give some slack on essentials of NPC's, and make a character/player deal with their choices instead of protecting them from negative consequences like an Overprotective Parent/Guardian.

Nords and Bretons are

Nords and Bretons are descendant from an ancient race known as "Nedes" whom were the protogenic race of all Humans on Tamriel except for Red Guard who were Yukudans. Bretons were born from Aldmer who took Nedic concubines during their enslavement of humanity, the product turned Nede/Aldmer then repopulated with the local Nedes thus creating the Bretons.

Nords are direct descendants of Nedes, as are Imperials. The environment in which they live has shaped their outward appearances.

Parts of Skyrim were settled by Bretons, just the same as parts of High Rock were settled by Nords. And all of Tamriel was actually discovered by Elves who were kicked out by Humans (Entitlement issues, just like irl huh?)

I think it is apparent that

I think it is apparent that many who play Skyrim do not actually appreciate fully the complexities of making such a large yet interactive game. A few days ago I caught myself playing Skyrim and being a bit unamused by the sad fact that: My race means nothing in the game, except for if I am a Nord. I saved the world, only for there to be a possible future of Alduin's return only I won't be there to save it again. The civil war never came to a full-end even after all my hard work.

I began to mope and complain about this to myself, but then I realized. While playing another game entitled Xmen: Destiny. I beat that very short game in under 3 hours. The voice acting - Amateur, the gameplay - poor. The overall theme - rushed. And I realized something.

Skyrim is about 40 times larger than half the games I own right now, I am a fairly new Elder Scroll player, so Skyrim is my grand introduction (WHOOT LET'S GO ONLINE) and so I am a bit new to things considering other veterans.

But the fact that Skyrim was able to out do Marvel and it's supporters (Ultimately Disney) in game producing, while still being very large, very radiant and very interactive is amazing to put it plainly.

Each time I played, I tried to mimic what I did before to see if it was possible, only to find a slightly (but still very different) end to every mission (Did I mention I played the First mission like 24 times now) Lokkir even dies differently after being shot. Though his death makes the hand-bindings fail big time.

Skyrim is an awesome game, I believe Bethesda had allot to work on, but I also believe that players like me and many others have allot of demands and can often see the glass as "half empty" rather than "half full". You realize that we the "player" want high-definition gaming with in-depth gameplay. We want adventure and RPG, with every story being as though it was from the Best Selling book of all time. Being vastly different, yet never boring with no quarks or hiccups to be found anywhere.

The idea is nice, the probability is low. But I now believe that Skyrim easily ranks with some of the greatest videogames of all time, not to mention a more than decent successor of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind... The Dark elves would be proud, yes even proud of their Nordic enemies if they could only see what they've done now.

Blizzard beats Bethesda. Admit it.

Your right. By the way Blizzard does much better then Bethesda in that they are better game developers. Listen, they develop much more genres of gaming than Bethesda. While Bethesda sits down and scratches there balls only making Sandbox RPG's. Lol. I know they do more than that but Blizzard does much more.

Well... aside from the

Well... aside from the question, and even that can be handwaved by the fact that you are the freaking dragonborn. Your exploits are pretty well known very quickly.

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