When you first start your experience in Skyrim you are a prisoner on your way to be executed. You are a prisoner of the Empire, who captured you along with a number of the rebel Stormcloaks. One Imperial realizes that you aren’t supposed to be there, but his superior insists that you be sent to the headsman anyway.
Of course the dragon Alduin attacks and you are freed, able to escape with either the Imperial who knew of your innocence or with one of your fellow Stormcloak prisoners. Almost immediately you are forced to choose a side in the civil war. (Temporarily at least.)
The game seems to want you to side with the Stormcloaks. The Imperials did just try to execute you for no good reason after all. But whose side should you be on?
It has been 200 years since the events of Oblivion and the Cyrodiil Imperium has fallen on hard times. Most recently a war has been fought with the Aldmeri Dominion (formed from the former provinces of Summerset Isle and Valenwood) which ended with the Imperium retaking their own capitol after a bloody war. The cease-fire that ended that war was known as the White-Gold Concordiant.
As a result of the Concordiant, the Empire was forced to give up the province of Hammerfell and to ban the worship of the god Talos; the deified Tiber Septim, the unifier of Tamriel and the first emperor of the Cyrodiil Empire.
Tiber Septim was also a Nord, so the banning of his worship is seen as a personal affront to the people of Skyrim. Hence the civil war you find yourself caught up in.
The Nords want to be free to worship who they wish but the Empire is forced to forbid Talos worship least the Aldmeri take it as an excuse to restart a war. The Aldmeri have sent their agents, the Thalmor, into Skyrim to hunt down and capture Talos worshipers and the Empire is forced to let this happen.
If the Empire allows the worship of Talos they risk a new war with the Dominion. By banning it they have started a civil war in Skyrim.
What should they do? More directly, what should the player do?
Like most quests in most games, the civil war does not proceed without the player’s involvement. Whoever you side with will win the civil war. (Even if you choose not to support a side, you will still be forced to mediate a peace treaty between the two sides in which you divide Skyrim between them.)
Neither side has a lot going for them. The case against the Empire is obvious. They did sign the Concordiant to end the war, but even after it was left to fend for itself the Redguard of Hammerfell were able to defeat the Dominion there. Could the entire Imperial Legion not have done the same? Did the Empire throw Hammerfell and Talos to the wolves in order to save itself? One could argue that.
On the other hand, the Stormcloaks aren’t exactly clean either. There is an interesting bit of lore you can discover if you happen to get thrown into Cibala Mine in Markarth. There you learn about the Foresworn, the former inhabitants of Skyrim before the Nords settled there. During the war with the Dominion they retook the Reach, the hold on the western end of Skyrim. After the war was over their rebellion was brutally put down. Anyone who had even been tangentially associated with the rebellion was sent to the headsman or thrown into prison for life. Their religion was banned.
Who did this? Ulfric Stormcloak, the leader of the Stormcloak rebellion.
Actually, the Stormcloaks don’t seem to think much of anyone who isn’t a Nord. Go to Winterhold and see how they treat the Dunmer there.
You can also find out that Ulfric was a prisoner of the Aldmeri during the Dominion war. He was tortured and they convinced him that the information they gained from him was benefitial to them. After the war they used this to blackmail them into helping them for a while, though even they admit he is no longer working for them.
The thing is, by focusing on each other both parties are ignoring the real threat; the Aldmeri Dominion. It is to the Dominion’s advantage to have the Empire divided and weak. All evidence shows that the Dominion thinks in the very long term and it will be easier to defeat a divided Empire than a unified one. Perhaps that was all they wanted when they forced the Empire to give up Hammerfell. They may not have wanted the province and allowed the Redguard to retake it; they just wanted it separated from the Empire. The same thing may be going on here in Skyrim.
It’s hard to tell. When you talk to most people about the war you tend to just hear rhetoric. The Imperials talk about the need to follow the greater whole. The Stormcloaks talk about preserving their way of life. Talking points.
I found two people in all of Skyrim who influenced my choice. The first is Jarl Baalgruf of Whiterun. Probably the first Jarl you meet. He is trying to keep his city neutral though he is being pressured by the Imperials to support them.
When you first meet him and tell him of the dragon attack at Helgen, he immediately orders troops to be sent to defend Riverside. His adviser expresses caution, saying that moving troops may send the “wrong signal” to either the Empire or the Stormcloaks. Baalgruf says he doesn’t care; he has to protect his people.
Now go to Winterhold to see Ulfric Stormcloak. When you first walk in, he and his adviser are discussing killing Jarl Baalgruf to send a message to the other Jarls.
If you get involved with the civil war, Baalgruf will wind up on the Imperial side.
But the most influential voice is Sybille Stentor, the court wizard in Solitude. Normally she is haughty and arrogant, acting as if she barely has time for you. But ask her about Ulfric and Torygg and she becomes very informative.
She says that Ulfric was speaking almost openly about rebellion and that Torygg respected him more than he realized. Had Ulfric asked him, he may have even joined the rebellion willingly. The fact that Ulfric never asked and simply killed him outright shows that the “rebellion” may really be nothing more than an excuse for a power grab by Ulfric.
More interesting is what she says when you ask why, given that, she still supports the Empire. She is very matter-of-fact. Many Nords serve in the Imperial legion. Skyrim depends on food and other supplies from the rest of the Empire. They cannot stand against the Aldmeri Dominion on their own.
But most telling is what she says last. “Because while we may not be able to worship Talos the god, he was once Tiber Septim the man. And this is his Empire.”
By fighting the Empire that has banned his worship, the Stormcloaks are tearing apart the very thing that their god created. Think about it.
The true enemy is the Aldmeri Dominion. The Empire needs to be united to stand against them. But the Dragonborn line descended from Tiber Septim is gone. There is no Dragonborn to unify the Empire again and…
Hey… Wait a minute…