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The Stormcloaks From Skyrim Have Always Been The Wrong Faction To Choose

Unpacking the gaming world's most controversial dilemma.

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished about a year ago 14 min read
Image; Screen Rant

The fantasy, open-world game Skyrim was first released over twenty years ago and remains a popular game. The mod community continues on stronger than ever, with fun mods still coming out regularly. If you want a fun hack and slash to get lost in with a sublime score, then the land of Skyrim may be for you.

The main plot is nothing special. You are a blank-slate character who is a Dragonborn, someone with the blood and soul of a dragon, who must stop an evil dragon named Alduin from resurrecting the ancient dragons of yore and conquering the world (did I mention dragons are in this game?). It's a simple plot, providing the perfect vehicle for traveling to fantastic locals and spelunking in sprawling dungeons. A tad basic but perfectly serviceable.

It's the main subplot that is far more controversial. In the Skyrim Civil War, you must choose between backing the imperialist Tamriel Empire that has occupied the land or the nationalist Stormcloaks (named after royalist Ulfric Stormcloak) who claim to be freeing their people from oppression. This decision has long been debated in nerd circles, and while both options kind of suck, it's the xenophobic Stormcloaks that I think deserve our scorn the most.

A Lukewarm Case For and Against the Empire

I understand why a lot of people don't like the Empire. You start the game with them trying to cut your head off. After creating your character, you find yourself on a wagon being slated for execution for no other reason than crossing the border at the wrong time.

Right away, the Empire is set up as overly bureaucratic and tyrannical. There are no exceptions with you, an innocent person, being sent to their death. When we visit the capital of the Empire in the city, Solitude, we likewise see a man named Roggvir being executed in a public square for treason. He let Ulfric Stormcloak escape from capture. Though it's important to note that Roggvir only did so, he claims, after Ulfric bested him in single combat, which according to Nord custom, meant that Ulfric was permitted to leave, providing yet another example of the Empire disregarding Nord traditions and beliefs.

Perhaps most importantly, the Empire has also banned the worship of Talos, a sacred religion in the region centered around Talos, the mythical first emperor of Tamriel. The Empire here is being, well, an imperialist empire trying to impose their culture onto their subjects, and that doesn't make them the good guys.

However, this framing of the Empire is not entirely correct. The only reason the Empire has banned the worship of Talos is that they signed an armistice with the Aldmeri Dominion — an elven supremacist empire, which forced them to do so as a concession for ending a costly war with them (see the White-Gold Concordat). Many Imperials still secretly worship Talos (who, again, is Tamriels first Emperor), and its mentioned that they were not enforcing the treaty provisions until after more brazen worship orchestrated by Ulfric came to light (see the Markarth Incident).

As a result of this discovery, the Empire was allegedly "forced" to let what were essentially Elvish Inquisitors known as Thalmor Jusricars into Skyrim with a license to purge Talos worshippers. We see this first hand in the game as the player can come across the site of a massacre of Talos worshippers southwest of the guardian stones.

These Justiciars are often openly hostile to the Dragonborn, so we can assume that they are similarly aggressive to others. Justicars are constantly escorting "Talos worshippers" around the map to be executed. If your interactions with them are any indication, not everyone slated for death is probably a Talos worshipper at all. It's doubtful that a supremacist empire would be accurate in its discrimination of a religious minority (see the post-9/11 discrimination of Sikhs as a real-life example).

A Nord genocide is underway. You may think the Empire allowing this "concession" is justified from a certain point of view, but it's still horrifying. The Empire effectively sacrificed this region's autonomy and people for loftier geopolitical goals. They feared total domination from the Aldmeri Dominion, and Skyrim was a pawn to keep them from that fate. It's quite frankly disgusting, and if the Skyrim people were more valuable to the Empire, there would have been more effort to keep these Justiciars out.

For all Ulfric's many, many faults, I understand why Nords want to kick the Empire out. The genocide of Talos worshippers and Nords is terrible, and it makes sense to me why a player wouldn't side with the Empire in their playthrough. I often don't either, preferring to absolve myself from the struggle (although I recognize that can be considered a form of cowardice).

Conversely, if you believe that a unified Empire is needed for an "inevitable" fight against the Aldmeri Dominion, I can also see why you would begrudgingly side with the Empire. I did on my first playthrough, though I was conflicted about it, and I have since changed my position.

It's heavily implied that the Aldmeri Dominion is propping up the Stormcloaks to weaken the Empire as a whole. They accomplished a similar feat with the province of Hammerfell, which the Empire was forced to release to keep the treaty in place. The Aldmeri Dominion is a supremacist polity, weaponizing the White-Gold Concordat to inflame existing tensions, and I empathize with siding with the Empire out of a greater existential fear. Though let's be honest, given the Empire's decrepit state, I don't know if I believe they are in a decision to defend any province against anyone for long.

What I don't understand, upon playing through this campaign, is how after rejecting the Thalmor for their obvious supremacist leanings, you can have any genuine empathy for the xenophobic ethnostate that the Stormcloaks want to build.

The Case Against The Stormcloaks

I have already briefly mentioned what the Stormcloaks think they are fighting for. As one propaganda book the player can find reads: "Nords Arise! Throw off the shackles of Imperial oppression. Do not bow to the yoke of a false emperor. Be true to your blood, to your homeland."

Yet Nord nationalism is not as straightforward. It requires that the player actively accept the oppression of other groups. For example, the so-called Markarth Incident that propelled the game's events into action, where the city of Markarth started to accept the worship of Talos more explicitly, only occurred after Ulfric repelled the native Reachmen from the city. It was effectively a one-to-one trade where Ulfric purged the ethnic Breton minority from power on behalf of Jarl Hrolfdir, the former Nord ruler of the Reach, under the promise that the Jarl would back his political goals (i.e., openly worshipping Talos).

However, Reachmen were also people who believed they had a claim to the land and, like many other non-Nords in Skyrim, were treated quite unfairly by the Nord elite. Although considered barbaric by many races, their rule was by most accounts not that violent or unjust in the two years they ruled post-uprising. And if the testimony of victims of the Markarth Incident is to be believed, Ulfric slaughtered them indiscriminately anyway. As the in-game book The Bear of Markarth claims:

“What happened during that battle was war, but what happened after the battle was over is nothing short of war crimes. Every official who worked for the Forsworn [i.e., Reachmen] was put to the sword, even after they had surrendered. Native women were tortured to give up the names of Forsworn fighters who had fled the city or were in the hills of the Reach. Anyone who lived in the city, Forsworn and Nord alike, were executed if they had not fought with Ulfric and his men when they breached the gates. “You are with us, or you are against Skyrim” was the message on Ulfric’s lips as he ordered the deaths of shopkeepers, farmers, the elderly, and any child old enough to lift a sword that had failed in the call to fight with him.”

Even if 50% of this account is an exaggeration, it's clear that some level of "war crimes" did happen during this incident. Truthfully, it's hard to sympathize with Ulfric and his call to end oppression when he can so easily replicate that dynamic with anyone who isn't a Nord.

More to the point, this hostility toward non-Nords comes from more people than just Ulfric. It's a systemic problem. We know from our interaction with the Stormcloaks that they are not only very xenophobic but are already administering an apartheid state in the areas they control. When you visit the capital of the Stormcloak rebellion, Windhelm, you explore a city bitterly divided along racial lines. The elvish Dunmer live in slums known as the Gray Quarter, working the service jobs that no Nord wants to do, and dialogue options indicate that they have been like this for generations, long before Ulfric came to power.

The reptilian Argonians are likewise segregated outside the city alongside the docks, and it's clear which side in the Civil War would treat this marginalized group better. If you manage to kill Ulfric, the Argonian Scouts-Many-Marshes responds happily to the question, "Are you glad to see Ulfric Stormcloak gone?:"

“You have no idea. Did you know it was his decree that forbade the Argonians from living inside the city walls? I hope in his next life, he’s reborn as an Argonian forced to live in a slum because of some bigoted Nord dictator. I’m joking, of course, but I’m a lot happier seeing the Empire running things in Windhelm.”

It's impossible to know the exact number of citizens that would be affected by this apartheid if the Stormcloaks achieved total victory. It's not like Skyrim conducted a regular census, and even if it did, it would hardly be accurate. Still, I compiled a rough breakdown using data from the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages of the NPCs you encounter throughout the game (see my data here). A little over 31% of the population are non-Human. Almost 60% of the population is not a part of the Nord ethnicity. These are imperfect figures but the closest we will probably get, and it's staggering, telling us that Nords are possibly an ethnic minority in their alleged homeland.

data from Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages (see my spreadsheet here)

People often talk about freedom and autonomy when bringing up the Stormcloaks as the right choice to back in the Civil War. However, if these numbers are correct, choosing this faction means condemning the majority of the region to brutal apartheid.

And even if these numbers are wrong, what percentage of the population are you supposed to be comfortable with living under apartheid? 20 percent? 14? When does the calculus switch over to this type of brutality being okay? I ask you: do the Dark Elves and Argonians not matter too? The genocide the Nords are enduring is horrible, but so is the genocide of the Reachmen in Markarth and the apartheid enabled by the Nords.

Nord nationalism is not like Irish Nationalism or Pan-African Nationalism. It is not that of an oppressed group defiantly existing against a hegemony like the British Empire after decades of unjust rule. It is not a celebration of resilience but rather a glorification of an oppressive group temporarily inconvenienced. Nords have most of the power in the region that is Skyrim. Win or lose, this constituency will have Jarls on either side of the political divide to help them. But who helps the Dark Elves in Windhelm or the Reachmen in Markarth?

It's funny to me that people are so willing to discuss freedom when referring to the often white-coded Nords but so often ignore the brutal oppression that such a regime will create for literally everyone else. It's a very privileged debate being had in the name of Freedom. If Bethesda had better writing, I would almost say it was a purposeful commentary or something.

It's also worth noting that Ulfric's ability to grant this freedom and liberate the Nords from the Thalmor is also complicated. If your player manages to infiltrate the Thalmor embassy in Skyrim, you will come across a dossier that describes how they were in contact with Ulfric before the Civil War commenced, reading: "After the war [between the Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion], contact was established, and he has proven his worth as an asset. The so-called Markarth Incident was particularly valuable from the point of view of our strategic goals in Skyrim, although it resulted in Ulfric becoming generally uncooperative to direct contact."

We can debate the extent that Ulfric is a Thalmor asset (they may just view him as a useful idiot), but it's apparent that they support the disruptive nature of his regime. The dossier even notes assets being sent to Helgen to free Ulfric from capture at the start of the game (they were not successful).

Although direct intervention is sparse because their preferred outcome is for the Civil War to go on indefinitely, it's not clear that a Stormcloak victory would free Skyrim from Thalmor involvement. Once the Skyrim Civil War ends and the Empire's forces withdraw, do we honestly expect the Thalmor to leave as well? They already have garrisons in the region. Are they going to retreat now that both the Stormcloaks and the Empire have spent their forces on a costly Civil War?

We can see this play out on a mechanical level in the game. If the player backs the Stormcloaks, the Justicars stop escorting Talos worshippers around the map, but the Thalmor do not leave. Hostile units still occupy their embassy, and their prison at Northwatch Keep has become a new military base. They definitely plan to stay a while.

And so, with the Stormcloaks, you have a side that promises freedom to only a narrow few (i.e., Nords) — freedom that it does not appear to be able to deliver on — while at the same time actively promising to make everyone else's life more difficult.

Why would you support this? How is this a hard decision for anyone but a bigoted Nord?


The dilemma between the Empire and the Stormcloaks is often framed as a lose-lose situation. Either way, you are backing an Empire willing to sacrifice a portion of its population for political expediency. However, I think the reason behind that sacrifice matters immensely.

The Empire is undoubtedly imperialist, and they quite frankly suck (I am not a massive fan of empires in general, real or imagined), but they are not allowing the persecution of Talos worshippers out of some systemically motivated bias. Many imperials still worship Talos in secret. Their hands have been tied by external circumstances (i.e., the White-Gold Concordat), and the moment those circumstances change, even just a little bit, then that persecution will end. We know this because the treaty was not enforced initially and would have remained unenforced had the Markarth Incident never come to light.

The Stormcloaks, on the other hand, perpetuate their apartheid under a racialized caste system and have done so for generations. This isn't an external factor tieing their hands. Their leadership is actively choosing this path, and if real history is any indication (and the history of Skyrim, for that matter), the horror of it will go on for generation after generation, filled with bloody pogroms, apartheid, and even outright genocide. Short of revolution or a long protracted campaign for Civil Rights that last lifetimes, this horrible state of affairs will not change under Stormcloak leadership.

The Stormcloaks have always been worse, and the reason this question hits such a nerve is because it ties into unresolved tensions in the real world. In the United States, for example, the Confederacy, the renegade faction of the US Civil War, also tried to perpetuate a racialized caste system under the logic of nationalism and freedom. To this day, there will still be those that claim it was a war fighting to preserve individual liberty, sovereignty, and freedom when that war was directly about preserving that caste system.

The Civil War was about slavery, not freedom, but that's not how proponents depict it. Everyone defends their perspective under abstract principles such as justice and freedom, but whose freedom and whose justice? Certainly not the freedom of the enslaved people in the Confederacy. Just as the freedom men like Ulfric were fighting for was never about non-Nords, so too was the freedom pro-Confederates talk about never about nonwhites.

Talk is cheap. It's not enough to claim principles. That's the easy part — who you intend to apply those principles to matters more.

Even today, the question between the Empire and Stormcloaks still matters because the questions in fiction are never just about the worlds they create. They are always about our world, in the here and now. Where you decide to give your empathy is a reflection of real-world priorities, and the world is watching.

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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