Like most games, Skyrim is filled with choices. Do you follow Hadvar or Ralof when escaping Helgen during the quest Unbound? Do you follow Delphine’s instructions to kill Paarthurnax in order to join the Blades? Do you tell the Alik’r warriors where Saadia is, or go after Kematu in order to get to the bottom of the story in the quest In My Time of Need? There are, however, few opportunities to choose between two sides of a conflict or cause.
As I understand it, there are three such choices in the game: at the beginning of the Dark Brotherhood questline, during the Dawnguard questline, and before the Civil War questline. Granted, one choice that you can make about these factions is to ignore them all completely; you don’t have to visit Aventus Aretino in Windhelm; you don’t have to buy the Dawnguard DLC, or go to Fort Dawnguard at all even if you have the DLC; and you can go the entire game without joining either side of Skyrim’s civil war. Yet each of these factions have two sides that you can choose between if you choose to engage with them, and it would seem that none is more contentious in the community than the Civil War questline.
Do you fight for the Imperials, or the Stormcloaks?
There are many reasons to fight for either side. Some of them are more superficial than others; some involve going into the lore and deciding which side the player thinks is ‘right’. Others, like the author of the following Skyrim Confession, has a very subjective reason for choosing to fight for the Stormcloaks.
When I started my first playthrough of the game, I was convinced that I was going to fight for the Stormcloaks, for one reason and one reason only: viva la revolution! I ended up not doing the Civil War questline at all in that playthrough, but over the course of that playthrough I changed my mind, and in my second playthrough I fought for the Imperials.
I do, admittedly, have subjective reasons to fight for the Imperials. What first turned my opinion against the Stormcloaks was the first time I met Elisif, who captured my heart immediately. Her grief ran so true, and made me began to question Ulfric and his motivations. My desire to fight for the Stormcloaks dropped even further when I found out that, if Ulfric wins the civil war, Jarl Balgruuf is no longer the Jarl of Whiterun. I truly believe that Balgruuf is one of the best Jarls in the game, because he really seems to give a shit about his people. It’s a refreshing change from the trope in the fantasy genre of having tyrannical leaders who only care about their own power.
So with the superficial reasons out of the way, I will venture into the lore-based reasons. As the Senile Scribbles put it, the only true ideological differences which will make a difference to the day-to-day lives of the citizens of Skyrim between the two sides of the Civil War are that Stormcloaks are for religious freedom but not racial equality, the Imperials are for racial equality but not religious freedom, and both support same-sex marriage.(1)
I would argue, however, that the reality is more complicated. If you fight for the Imperials, you are not fighting against religious freedom; on the other hand, if you fight for the Stormcloaks, you are fighting against racial equality.
The Stormcloaks claim that the White-Gold Concordat has effectively made Skyrim’s most popular religion, Talos worship, illegal. I do not dispute that. Yet what the White-Gold Concordat dictated and the reality of its enforcement are different things.
If you follow Hadvar during Unbound, you have the opportunity to speak to his family in Riverwood, and Alvor has this nugget to tell you: “We didn’t pay much attention to it [the clause of the White-Gold Concordat which outlawed Talos worship] when I was a boy – everyone still had their little shrine to Talos. But then Ulfric and his ‘Sons of Skyrim’ started agitating about it“.(2)
You can see this in the world of Skyrim itself. Once you fight for the Imperials, the Talos priest in Whiterun, Heimskr, disappears (and in a mod he ends up in the Dragonsreach dungeon), but this is a superficial change. You can still find Amulets of Talos in the world, and the several Shrines of Talos that dot Skyrim’s landscape are not torn down.
Talos worship lives on, even after Ulfric dies.
On the other hand, when the Stormcloaks win, there is even more hostility against non-Nords in Skyrim.(3) What’s more, is Ulfric seems to be that which is far more common for a fantasy ruler to be: a tyrant.
As we have already seen, Ulfric has no need to fight for the right to worship Talos. What Ulfric wants, really, is to be High King.
Of course, another contentious issue is whether Ulfric was fair in his killing of High King Torygg. I personally agree with Roggvir on this one; Ulfric engaged Torygg in a duel which he won fairly, even if his method was gruesome and unnecessarily violent.
Even taking that into account, however, we see that Ulfric had one motive and one motive only: he wanted to become High King. His reason for the uprising was to take power for himself, not to reinstate Talos worship (which hadn’t even disappeared anyway). While a Stormcloak victory gains Skyrim its independence from the Empire, this is barely mentioned,(4) and therefore it has no real consequences on the running of the country.
What Ulfric is really doing, then, is telling Nords that they are being persecuted when they aren’t, and drawing them in to fight and die for the sake of raising his own station.
Yes, there are subjective reasons for my fighting for the Imperials, but the way I see it, they have done nothing wrong – unlike Ulfric. I have nothing against Stormcloak soldiers other than their racism, because they have been played like pawns in Ulfric’s bigger game. Yet, on the whole, the Imperials seem to me to be the better side to choose.
(1) https://youtu.be/mv3ScKLD1Vc?t=3m11s (Accessed 20/05/17).
(2) Quote is an edited transcript from http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Alvor (Accessed 20/05/17).
(3) One example of this can be seen in the treatment of Imperial Adrianne Avenicci after a Stormcloak victory during the Battle of Whiterun: “If the Stormcloaks win the Battle for Whiterun, Adrianne … notes that if it weren’t for her Nord husband, the Stormcloaks would have stopped purchasing from her altogether, due to her Imperial background.” Quote is taken from the trivia section of the page http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Adrianne_Avenicci (Accessed 20/05/17).
(4) http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Stormcloaks (Accessed 20/05/17).