Oblivion has a strange place in the pantheon of Elder Scrolls games. Neither as critically appreciated as Morrowind, not as widely loved as Skyrim, Oblivion—in a strange middle ground between critical darling and mass hit—has been sidelined. However, there are some gems in the game, and one quest in particular struck me as painfully relevant when I played it recently.
Like the other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion turns the player into a regional fixer. You wander around from town to town, each with their own problems, concerns, and culture. By listening to people and being nosy, you can stumble across problems and attempt to fix them. Sometimes that's as simple as delivering a package or clearing a cave of bandits.
Other times, it's more complicated, and the "Corruption and Conscience" quest in the city of Cheydinhal is somewhere in the sweet spot.
The basic plot of the quest goes something like this: A new captain of the guard named Leland was appointed to the city. His first policy of note was implementing heavy fines for any kind of infraction. The orc warrior who got me started in the quest explained the whole situation to me in very impassioned terms, telling me that he had been fined five gold for some small crime. Five gold, he growled, was as much as he made in an entire year.
A woman named Llevana was mounting a defense against this new captain, and when I spoke with her she explained that there was something even more nefarious happening.
Captain Leland isn't just fining people. He's fining them serially, and without any recourse. If those people refuse to pay up, then they forfeit their property. Aldos Othran is one of those people: His wife died in a bandit raid, and he's been drunk for a month, and he has accrued enough fines during that time period for the captain to seize his home and property.
Oblivion is giving us a clear setup here. There's a person in power, and they're bad, and we have to figure out how get some justice into the world. It's real Sheriff of Nottingham stuff, and it works, but the turn in the quest comes when the player actually tries to change things.
The captain's second in command, Darellian, is supposedly a fair-minded law officer who is as angry about Captain Leland's policies as any of the citizens. He explains that he needs a witness, someone who will speak out against the captain: Aldos Othran.
When the player contacts Othran, though, it is not a simple matter of getting the judicial system to redress grievances in Cheydinhal. In contrast to Darellian's plan, Othran does not make his way directly into the courts, thereby driving a change in the world. Instead, he goes to his former home. There is a soldier standing guard outside the house telling all passersby that these are seized assets that are now forfeit to the city guard. Othran opens the conversation: "This is my house! Get out of the way!" The guard tells him to leave. Othran demands that the guard move lest he be put on the ground with a split lip. The guard comes back with the calling-card of the quest: Threatening a guard is a fine of 50 gold pieces, so Othran better pay up.
There's no way to be in the right of the law here. The fines can't be paid, so the house is taken, and the seized house leads to more fines. It's a spiral upward. Othran's back is eternally against the wall. He draws a dagger, determined to get back into his home, and the guard draws a longsword. Othran is lying dead on the ground shortly after.
It is not merely bad apples or instances of specific bad policies that need to be rejected.
If this were the totality of the quest, that would be fine. It would be poignant and nihilistic. It would be making a statement about how violence works, and who gets access to it, and what we consider violence (the dagger) versus what we consider nonviolent (the seizure of the property). It would, maybe, trouble us that the distinction seems to clear when the effects tend toward the same point.
But "Corruption and Conscience" goes one step further. It asks the player to take most drastic measures in the light of the killing of Othran. Darellian asks that you break into the captain's quarters to find out where all the money from the fines is going, hoping that illicit funneling of funds might remove Leland from his station. Llevana goes another route, demanding that you lure Leland into a trap so that she might kill him. The player then has to make a choice.
This choice is unique in the Elder Scrolls games not because it is between nonviolence and violence, but because it plainly shows two different ways of seeing the world that these characters live in.
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At its root, Llevana's plan agrees with Captain Leland's regime of fine-and-seize. As we saw with Othran and the guard, there is a clear progression from wealth to property to life in the way that the captain runs things. The city guard can seize them all, at will, and someone who refuses to recognize that fact will forfeit each in turn. Llevana, without the ability to seize wealth or property, simply skips to the last step of Leland's own logical progression; she takes a life so that she might establish order and balance in the relationships between citizens and guards.
Darellian, on the other hand, would simply have you ransack Leland's room for a letter. The text explains, in black and sepia paper tone, that Captain Leland has been funneling the money into a "summer keep" project for his wealthy family who lives outside the province. After you give the evidence over, Darellian happily explains that Leland is going to spend years in the dungeons. Darellian gets a promotion. All is right with the world.
The critical difference between these two solutions, and the brilliance of the quest's design, is that there isn't much of a difference. The system of fines is eliminated in both instances. The ability for the city of Cheydinhal to execute citizens isn't challenged. The prison system, the governance system that allowed for Captain Leland to be hired in the first place, and everything else remains unchanged.
By seeing Captain Leland as a bad apple exclusively, rather than as a symptom of a lethal expropriation machine targeting ordinary people, Oblivion is able to illustrate the fundamental clunkiness of the "good vs bad" (or nonviolence vs violent solution) structure of most quest lines. Ultimately, while "Corruption and Conscience" has options for each approach, it also points to who those smaller tactical choices have very little response to the grand strategies of violence the permeate all aspects of the social field.
The strength here, I think, is that this quest in Oblivion does more to mirror real-world practices of governance, debt, and violence than the other games in the series (and most games on the whole). In the United States, it is a widespread practice for private companies to leverage the legal system as a way of expropriating value from vulnerable communities. There are also more direct processes, such as asset forfeiture, where policing agencies literally take and divvy up wealth and property involved in crimes as they see fit. "Corruption and Conscience" is closer to something ripped from the headlines than ripped out of Tolkien.
This one quest, buried in the middle of a massive open world game, gives an interesting perspective on how these things are handled. It is not merely bad apples or instances of specific bad policies that need to be rejected when it comes to the structure of how the fines-to-forfeiture system works. Solutions that focus on figures like Captain Leland ultimately don't do enough. Instead, this quest tells us, we would do better to focus on the intersection of who is made to forfeit, who is taking what they're forfeiting, and how that intersects with governance across the board.
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