Crime and Punishment (in Skyrim)

[Yes, Yes, I know. I’ve been writing about Skyrim nonstop of late. That’s probably going to continue for a bit more.]

In the construction of a society, one of the first elements set down is how criminals are handled. From law regulation to actual incarceration, the way a group of people manage their codes and conduct speak a great deal about how they see themselves. If they remove body parts for crimes, for example, they see the body as less important than the mind. If they separate people in isolation, they prize community over individuality. Extrapolating outward from looking at the position of civil outsiders as a lens for societal analysis is often very useful in understanding the mindset of a culture and the people who maintain those beliefs: it can often point to places where the breakdown between what is believed and what actually happens occur.

Crime in Skyrim has three main components*:

  1. Each Hold (i.e. city-state) has their own ‘list’ of criminals and this information is not shared.
  2. Every type of crime carries with it a fixed, but not escalating, fiscal penalty for the action.
  3. Detection of crimes is determined from line-of-sight with certain citizens and guards.

(*There is an additional component to crime in Skyrim: the entire region shares the same set of laws. Stealing and murder, as two examples, are universal. This could be potentially troubling, given the religious diversity of the region, but I’m not going to cover that in this post.)

The most obvious crime in Skyrim is stealing. It is labeled as part of the user interface and highlights the first of several tenants of the overall cultural structure in the region: personal property. Characters “have” items and attempting to take them, without their express permission, results in an infringement of the law against such behavior. Despite that many items are open and visually accessible to the player as part of a greater scenery and diegetic expression of the world, they cannot be removed unless the player wants to break the law. In fact, is is only these items which register under this heading. The materials bought and sold from merchants exist in a digital void until the player actually places them in the world. Theft comes first from a place of actually seeing the placement of an item and then moves to its removal.

Stealing in the presence of a guard or particular citizens results in a confrontation with the local law force. The player is immediately put into a choice or paying a fine, trying to run away, or fighting the guard. If the player chooses to fight, attacks against other citizens, including the guard who prompted the choice, raises the bounty on the player and may even lead to the city turning against the player and all citizens within the area attacking the player in turn. However, paying the fine during the first choice can often prevent any escalation of exchanges and will settle the matter. Coin and criminal forgiveness often go hand in hand.

The other primary crime in Skyrim is murder. Yet, it is a strange and very technical definition of the killing of another person. Principally, it is the slaughter of a “citizen” who both has a unique names and is known to others. Those targets who are part of The Dark Brotherhood sets of quests are often excused from this criteria, and certain people who are essential to quest exposition cannot be killed at times too. However, taking out any person within the confines of a city, town, or other collection of people is considered a crime and the cost for such an attack is often very steep, including both the financial penalty and the possibility of a chase by the guards in that area. It is often the worst crime that can be committed in a Hold.

For as much as these two crimes, stealing and murder, are penalized, it is often in the form of paying a fine and having the crimes erased from memory. It is a resetting of the guards driven by the use of funds. However, there does exist another form of punishment and it is this that point to the third tenant of the mono-culture of Skyrim: isolation is bad. Instead of paying a fine for some crimes like breaking into a building or house (which I put under theft), the player can be placed within jail. From this place, the player can then choose to break out, wait, or sleep. Either of the time related choices simply speeds up the imprisonment and breaking out merely increases the bounty — while placing the player in the jail with the other prisoners. All though point to the importance of being among people and how, if the player is alone, that is not the optimal configuration in the culture.

If there is said to be three central parts of how the overall culture of Skyrim works from looking at how crime and punishment it is these three: possession, protection, and population. If the player is caught stealing, any stolen items will be removed from their inventory. It is not enough to actually have an item, the player has to escape detection and attention when committing a crime. Equally, they have to respect the people of a city or town. If the player attacks them, they react to maintain the lives of an area. The guards are very active in trying to keep everyone who they protect alive. Thirdly, the ideal arrangement is to be with people and part of some group. Numerous organizations exist in the world that allow the player to become part of their hierarchy. Many companions can be hired to adventure with the player and, as part of several quests, someone will travel with the player; being alone, even as just the player, is something that is culturally anomalous. The punishment of being in jail is the final proof that isolation is the worst kind of situation a character in the world can imagine outside of death. Being with people and part of some population, no matter how small, is worth more than any amount of money.