“Woah.” My boyfriend was playing Skyrim and his character had just emerged from a cave. When the screen refreshed, the game glitched, showing two mammoths spawning from the sky and promptly falling to their deaths. I had seen the glitch before, which I found amusing and surreal, but hadn’t realize the mammoths had died from the impact. I was both shocked by the violent consequences of such a minor glitch yet impressed by the built-in logic the game makers included (which I assume to be that any living creature in Skyrim can die when falling from a certain altitude even if that fall was a mechanical failure). I wondered aloud what those poor creatures must have been thinking, having been born into thin air and then meeting their demise a second or two later. In response, my boyfriend reminded me of this scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
The sperm whale’s narrative didn’t make me feel any better, but at least it sort of answered my question.
When this glitch occurred, I was in the midst of a fascinating article from the Atlantic about ethics in storytelling, discussing the cost of a person’s privacy in the pursuit of art and aesthetic value. We live in an age where we consume “content,” an inefficient label for information that could be either authentic or subversive, innocuous or harmful, true or false, and any discernment between those binaries is purposefully unaccounted for. This blog post you’re reading is considered content and so is the ad that appears at the bottom of the page. You can tell which one originates from me due to the design of this website, but are you 100% sure?
The Atlantic article takes it one step further. Beyond truth versus lies, Jessica Goudeau asks what is the “truth” when you set out to tell a story that is true? What is the price paid to a person’s life when you’re trying to tell a gripping story? She analyzes the podcast S-Town and its shaky ethics of exposing the life and death of its main character for the purposes of art and aesthetic value. Is it worth it? She asks us to, “…evaluate the moral price of producing good art and what damage it might cause to those involved…”
If we could have transcribed the thoughts of those two ill-fated mammoths, I imagine they would have been as sweet and tragic as the sperm whale’s monologue. Part of the tragedy is knowing they had no idea their lives were immortalized in this way. We, the audience, are forever privy to their brief time alive, but they never even got the chance to learn what that means. Sure, they’re fictional characters, but I couldn’t help but feel a pang of heartbreak for them, particularly since I was reading about S-Town, a very real story featuring very real people.
The ethics around telling true stories, whether in podcasts or documentaries or even journalism, has been troubling me for some time and my lack of satisfying education around the standards and guidelines (if there are any) has pushed me towards analytical storytelling. Which is perfectly fine for me, but I would like to know more about ethical standards and guidelines in general, as they matter in analytical narratives as well. So help me out! Point me to resources, share with me your stories. What helps you make decisions about representation in your work? How do you balance what’s good for your art and what’s good for humanity?
 Elder Scrolls Wiki