Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 4

After talking about plot and tone, we’re ready to tackle the ending of the thieves guild quests. In brief, the ending is that you get inducted into the secret-society-within-a-secret-society called the Nightingales, go after the treacherous former guild master who stole the “skeleton key” that the Nightingales are sworn to protect, kill him, recover the key, and return it to the patron god of the Nightingales, Nocturnal (which requires sneaking through another long, trap-filled dungeon). Having done all that, you return to the thieves guild and—assuming you’ve completed the more thievery-focused quests the way I’m convinced was intended—are immediately made guild master.FN 1

The controversial part of all this is the “become a Nightingale” part. When you get inducted, you strike a deal with Nocturnal, and this deal is subject to significant interpretation depending on the player’s perspective and the choices their character has made. Basically, this deal can range from totally awful, you’d-have-to-be-an-idiot-to-accept-it all the way to wonderful bargain; depending on your perspective, it can be a deal where you literally sell your soul for nothing, or one where you get fantastic advantages at no cost at all. Or, if you’re very boring, it can be something where you give up nothing and get basically nothing.  Let’s dive in. Continue reading “Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 4”

Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 3

Last time, we talked about the plot holes in the thieves guild questline, and how they all can be traced back to the regrettable decision, late in production, to avoid having NPCs tell the player to come back in a few days. This time, we’re turning to the thematic issues.

Maybe that should be thematic issue, singular. It’s really just one problem, but it’s a whopper: the thieves guild quests don’t involve much thieving.

As Shamus puts it describing the final quest (the one returning the skeleton key):

I get it. This last quest is supposed to be ironic, because we’re returning something instead of stealing it. Except, it fails at this because none of my other quests ever had anything to do with stealing valuable items. I extorted money with vandalism and threats of violence as part of my initiation. I stole a document (and committed arson) at Goldenglow Estates. I perpetrated fraud and food poisoning at Honningbrew Meadery. I attempted the murder of Karliah. I made a copy of some intellectual property by making the rubbing of the translation guide. You might think that the Eyes of the Falmer count, but that wasn’t a heist. Those were in a ruin. If that’s theft, then Indiana Jones is the biggest cat burglar in history. Theft was never, ever a theme of these quests, so one more quest of non-theft isn’t ironic at all. It’s just more non-Thief crap for me to do. You had idiot berzerker companions with you for the two set-piece dungeons, so the missions barely involved sneaking.

And this is entirely true—for the quests Skyrim presents as the main thieves guild quests. But the twelve quests in the main chain are just a fraction of the total theives guild content. Continue reading “Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 3”

Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 2

Last time, we talked about how Skyrim was probably originally written with quests that used the same system as Morrowind: people would, when the plot called for it, tell you to come back in a day (or whenever) and would refuse to continue to plotline until you’d the required amount of time had passed.

I really liked this system in Morrowind. It gave the players the choice: if they were roleplaying diligently, they could go off and find something else to occupy themselves until the next day. Or, if they were into the questline and wanted to continue, they could end the conversation, press the wait button the right number of times, and jump right to the next chunk of content. Sure, this wasn’t as “realistic”—within the rules of the game, you were technically standing stock still for 24 hours, just waiting for whatever to happen. But it seemed to work fine, taking the place of a chapter break in a novel, or a DM narration in a tabletop game, where the narration just skips ahead. (“The next night, you return to the Sunken Flagon, and the guild has finished examining the journal.”)

If this system worked so well, why abandon it? I’m convinced that someone decided that players are too impatient, that everyone was just pressing the wait button anyway, and that they should just rewrite the game so that people didn’t have to wait so much. I think this was a poor decision, but it seems in keeping with some of the gameplay choices they made to be a bit friendly to players looking for a faster-pace adventure.

But more importantly, it gives me an easy way to sweep a lot of these problems under a mental rug.FN 1 The Elder Scrolls series—and all video games, really—are always going to have a certain amount of abstraction in them. There’s always going to be a “thriving metropolis” that has a population of a few dozen, a farm that is allegedly supporting a whole town but that isn’t big enough to do so, or a merchant who is selling a totally disproportionate ratio of swords to household goods.

And viewing the timing of these quests as the result of executive meddling let me put all this in that same category: just one more example of an abstraction that I have to imagine my way around. Just like I’m going to imagine that the towns have many more residentsFN 2 hiding just out of sight, I am going imagine that many of the quests in the game have a break in them for time to pass as needed. And this makes the thieves guild quests make vastly more sense.

Avoiding story collapse

Now, I’m not saying that the single fix of treating the quests as having breaks in them is enough to totally fix the thieves guild questline. There are still other problems,FN 3 and even if all the problems were solved, it still wouldn’t be a literary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination.

But I do think that fixing this timing issue avoids the “story collapse” problem Shamus wrote about. It keeps the story basically making sense, and puts the player in a mindset where they’re looking for reasons to see how the story works instead of looking for reasons that the story fails.

With that in mind, I’m going to go through several elements that Shamus says don’t work and explain how—from the perspective of someone who hasn’t gone through story collapse—those elements do work. This is going to sound like I’m saying Shamus is wrong about a lot of different things, but that’s not my point at all. It’s not wrong to be bothered by all these different elements—that’s what happens when you’ve experienced story collapse. My point isn’t about right versus wrong, but about how there’s a different point of view without story collapse where all these things do make sense—and that the questline itself gives you enough information to make it make sense, if that’s your goal.FN 4.

  • Shamus talks about how it doesn’t make any sense that the guild’s well-connected friend, Maven Blackbriar, is able to take over the competitor meadery after you contaminate their mead, just because the second-in-command is working for her. He says: 
    Then the captain of the guard tells Mallus [the second in command] to take over, and Mallus tells me he’s going to start converting the distillery to make mead for Maven. Wha?? Look, if the health inspector shuts down your McDonald’s, the police don’t come in and give the building to Burger King. Who owns this place? What’s happening here?
    But the game has already cleared this up. When you first get the quest, Maven Blackbriar tells you, “With [the owner] in prison, his meadery will be forced to close. Then I swoop in and take over the place. No more competition.” This isn’t perfectly explicit, but from the perspective of not having undergone story collapse, it’s easy to see her coming in to buy out the meadery from the family (or whoever is making the decisions about whether to sell). And with the meadery having its owner/manager in jail, and a reputation for serving contaminated mead, it’s likely she can get a bargain price.
  • Shamus also says that it doesn’t make sense that the owner gets taken away by a guard promising that he’ll “spend the rest of his life behind bars” even though “you can murder a civilian in broad daylight and allow the guard to take you to jail for a modest span of time. (Or just pay a 1,000 dollar fine.) But inadvertent food contamination with no victims is worthy of life in prison? It’s a worse offense than murder, even though it might have been an accident or sabotage?”But this is only a problem if you think that the recently poisoned guard is really able to carry out this threat. From the point of view of non-story collapse, I always figured that the owner spends just a few days/weeks in jail—just long enough to face the possibility of his meadery failing with no one to run it for him (and its new, awful reputation) and to decide that selling out to Maven is the path of least resistance.
  • Shamus critiques Karliah’s actions in the initial confrontation with Mercer by saying
    You had two targets: A stranger, and the super-powerful, completely evil guy who murdered your best friend and who you admit you can’t hope to defeat in battle. You chose to shoot the stranger, then run away and let the bad guy kill the stranger, then tried to recruit the stranger. What is wrong with you?
    But Karliah tells you that she didn’t have a choice about who to shoot: “My original intention was to use that arrow on Mercer, but I never had a clear shot. I made a split second decision to get you out of the way.”
  • Shamus also talks a lot about the nonsense of using the rosetta-stone-alike to decode the journal when another scholar has been studying that language for years without mastering it. I admit that the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining this. In particular, it keeps referring to the journal as “translated” into a different language, which makes it sound like the old guild master has somehow learned to speak this ancient language and had written his diary in it. Not only is that pretty implausible, but it also makes the fact that anyone is able to translate it back with just a rubbing from the stone completely ridiculous. But if you take a look at the journal, it’s actually nowhere near that complicated: it’s written in English that was transliterated into an ancient alphabet, not written in an ancient language. So “translating” it back doesn’t require the scholar to figure out how to speak an ancient language. He just needs to figure out how to use the stone, code-book style, to decode the cipher. Again, it’s easy to see this as a flaw if you’ve undergone story collapse, but there’s also a pretty straightforward explanation there if you’re looking for it.
  • Finally, Shamus has some other issues with the last couple of quest/the ending. I’m going to save what I have to say about this for now, because I think the ending is worth its own discussion.

Again, my point with all this is not that it’s wrong to view these as flaws. It’s that viewing these as flaws is a consequence that flows from the story collapse. If you, the player, adopt a mindset that fixes the issues with timing, and thereby avoid story collapse, you stand a good chance of avoiding all these secondary issues too. And if you knock out all these issues, the questline’s plot actually makes decent sense.

Of course, even with the plot making sense, there are still the thematic/tone issues Shamus pointed out.

Next time, we’ll address those issues—and see how they stem from the same cause as the plot holes we just talked about.



Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 1

Why are we talking about a game that came out over five years ago? Well, in part it’s still pretty popular: as of this writing, it’s one of the top-twenty most played games on Steam, and is regularly played by tens of thousands of people every day. And in part, it’s because I’ve wanted to say this for a few years now and, darnit, now that I have a blog I’m going to have my say. But mostly, it’s because, now that emotions have cooled a bit, I think an analysis of what worked and where some of the flaws—or perceived flaws—came from can teach us a bit about game design. And maybe even a bit about how we enjoy games.

The Thieves GuildFN 1 questline in Skyrim is a famous trainwreck. Shamus Young wrote a detailed five-part series of posts detailing how the questline fails to present a coherent plot, fails thematically, and fails to have a satisfying ending. I think all that is true . . . from a certain point of view.

And yet it’s still one of my all-time favorites. This post is an attempt to explain why.

My basic theory is that most of the biggest problems with the plotting of the questline come down to a single problem caused by executive meddling. If you’re able to set that aside, the whole questline makes a lot more sense. And, that same executive caused some of the thematic difficulties. That ending, in turn, depends entirely on out-of-game perspective. But I’m getting ahead of myself—let’s start with the plot.

Plot Problems

A very quick review of the basics of the thieves guild plot, for those who don’t want to read Shamus’ more detailed breakdown.

  1. A scruffy man approaches you with the opportunity to join the thieves guild if you do some shady work. The thieves guild is very down on its luck, and has apparently resorted to recruiting random strangers.  After a bit of minor mischief and some shaking down of local merchants, they let you in the guild.
  2. Your first real task is to help out a local noble (and important protector of the guild) whose money and influence comes from the meadery she owns. Lately, her honey supplier has stopped selling her the honey she needs to make her mead, and so you break in to his bee farm, burn down some (but not all) of his hives, and clean out his safe as a lesson in why breaking an agreement with a friend of the thieves guild was a bad idea.
  3. Next, you’re sent off to a neighboring city to deal with the competitor meadery that was trying to buy the honey away from you. You do this by contaminating the mead right before an important taste test, and making it look like the owner can’t run a sanitary meadery. This is where the plot first starts to unravel a bit, because you poison the mead that is still fermenting in a large cask, and then go immediately to the taste test, which uses mead from a small keg in a neighboring room.

    I am borrowing these screenshots from Shamus’ posts, since I’m replying to him. If he thinks this isn’t fair use, I’ll be happy to take them down.
  4. After you deal with these two threats, you find some clues that indicate the same person was behind both the bee farm and the competitor meadery. So, you head off to a new city to track down a middleman and try to figure out who this mysterious background person was. After some sneaking around, the middleman reveals that the person behind it all was a woman named Karliah, and that she said she was going “back to where the end began.”
  5. The guild master, Mercer Frey, tells you that Karliah used to be a high-ranking member of the guild, but that she killed the previous guild master and ran off. He also guesses that her reference to “where the end began” is a reference to the ruin in which she killed the guild master. So, the two of you head out to that ruin. In the ruin, you find Karliah. She shoots you with an arrow that paralyzes you, and she and Mercer talk. Their conversation reveals that (shocking twist!)FN 2 Mercer was the one who killed the old guild master and framed Karliah—and now he’s planning to kill her to make sure the secret is safe. Karliah turns invisible and is able to escape. Mercer realizes that you’re still alive and heard all that, and stabs you and leaves you for dead—fade to black.
  6. You awaken to Karliah telling you that she had wanted to shoot Mercer instead of you but never had a clear shot. She tells you that the paralysis effect saved your life by slowing your heart rate enough for Mercer’s stabbing not to be fatal. She also says that the reason she went back to that ruin was to collect the old guild master’s journal. She has it, but it’s written in some sort of cypher, transliterated into the alphabet of a lost language. So, you’re off to find a scholar that may be able to help decode the journal.
  7. You find the scholar, and he tells you that he can’t decode the journal, but that he could if he had access to a rosetta-stone-like object that another scholar has uncovered.
    Predictably, this other scholar won’t let you look at his precious historical artifact, so you have to sneak through a guarded museum and secretly make a rubbing. You take it back to the first scholar, who is somehow able to instantly decode the journal, which reveals details of how Mercer Frey was stealing from the guild.
  8. You take this decoded journal back to the guild with Karliah. When you show up, everyone thinks Karliah is a murderer who has been working against the guild, and are understandably suspicious. Yet somehow, as soon as you show them the translated journal, they are all instantly converted and agree that Mercer Frey has betrayed them. They open up the guild vault to reveal that it’s empty—Mercer has made off with all the loot.
  9. You, Karliah, and another member of the guild decide to track Mercer down. You break into Mercer’s house, and find plans for a final heist. The three of you decide that he’s planning to pull that heist and then flee the province and that your only chance of catching him is to head him off there.
  10. But first, Karliah decides you need an extra edge in going after Mercer. She inducts you into a secret society within the theives guild called the Nightingales (you’ve been hearing rumors about the Nightingales off and on for a while at this point, so they’re not that secret of a society). You learn that Mercer’s biggest treachery was stealing an artifact of the god of thieves. You talk to this god, and learn that the reason the thieves guild has been so unsucessful is that they lost the blessing of this god. If you’re able to get the artifact back, the god will be able to restore the blessing, and the thieves will once again have supernatural luck on their side. You agree to get the artifact back, and pledge your soul to serving the thieves’ god.
  11. Finally, you track Mercer down, and stop him just as he was about to complete his heist (stealing some jewels from a lost temple). You kill him, and recover the artifact he had (an unbreakable lockpick called the skeleton key).
  12. To return this artifact to the god, you need to sneak through her hidden temple. While there, you meet the spirit of the slain former guild master (so the whole “serving the god in death” bit seems to be pretty literal). Eventually, you’re able to return the skeleton key, the god’s link to the moral world is restored, and the thieves guild is restored to the blessed status it enjoyed before Mercer’s betrayal. For all your efforts, you are made the new guild master.FN 3

So, this plot clearly has problems—some major and some minor. I want to focus on three problems that are some of the biggest, and all seem to be related. I’m thinking about steps three, seven, and eight from above—the time when you contaminate a vat of mead and that contamination instantly spreads to a sealed keg in another room; the time when you provide a transliteration key to a scholar, and he instantly decodes a coded journal, even though he has to work in multiple difficult languages; and the time that you show up to a hostile guild with what you claim is a decoded journal and they instantly find your proof overwhelming and agree that a trusted guild master has been betraying them for years.

These aren’t the only problems with the questline, but they’re some of the biggest. Shamus writes about the last of these three problems (showing up to the hostile guild with just the decoded journal):

[The people in the theives guild] want to know why I’ve brought this murderer into the guild. Then Karliah shows them the translated copy of Gallus’ journal. Brynjolf reads it, and immediately concludes that Karliah is telling the truth.

I’ve written before about “story collapse”. That’s the process where some plot hole or nonsensical event irritates you and causes you to analyze the story more closely, which reveals more problems, which leads to more scrutiny, until the whole thing falls apart. This business with presenting a translated diary as evidence is where it happened for me. Up until this point, I’d been just mildly irritated with the quest chain. At first I just thought the tale was a bit dull and convoluted, but once this scene happened I began looking more closely and uncovered all of these other problems.

Why would any of these people accept this diary as proof? It was written out by that scholar guy. They can’t read the original, and even if they could they have no reason to believe it’s legitimately from Gallus. How do they know we didn’t just write whatever we wanted in a book? But no, the will and loyalty of the entire guild turns on this single bit of “evidence”, and they immediately embrace the woman who was trying to “ruin” the guild yesterday.

Many problems, one source

My belief is that all three of these problems come from the same act of executive meddling. In all three instances, the issue isn’t so much what happened but that it happened so quickly. It’s not a problem that the contaminated mead spread from the vat to the keg, just that it happened instantly. It’s not a problem that a scholar can decode a journal written in a different alphabet when armed with a rosetta-stone stand-in, just that he does it instantly. It’s not a problem that, when provided with a coded journal and the key to decode it the guild is able to figure out that the journal is authentic and that Mercer has been stealing from them, just that they make this determination instantly, without any time to investigate the various claims. The problem with everything is speed.

And, frustratingly, this is a problem the game writers obviously knew how to solve. This sort of issue came up all the time in a previous entry in the series. In Morrowind, people were constantly telling you “Ok, I need to look at this, come back tomorrow/in three days/whenever.” That simple change would have made all three of these quests make so much more sense. You could have come back three days latter for a the mead tasting, and the spread of the contamination would have been no mystery. You could have given the scholar a day to study the rosetta-stone-alike and come up with the key to decoding the journal. And you could have given the guild enough time to look at the original journal, compare it to handwriting samples, check the cypher, look for inconsistencies, and check it against externally verifiable evidence. It would all make so much more sense.

In fact, it would make so much more sense that I’m convinced it was originally written that way, just like the quests were in Morrowind. Shamus points to a line of dialogue that doesn’t make any sense with the timing of the quest as it appears in game: When you confront the guild with the journal, they start “reading from the book and saying that, ‘Mercer has been stealing from the guild for years,’ when the book is obviously limited to events of 25 years ago.” But think how this line would work if the guild had told you they were going to hold Karliah in custody while they investigate her claims and that you should come back in three days. Then, talking about Mercer stealing for years, it wouldn’t be a sloppy mistake that can’t possibly be based on a document that doesn’t cover those years. Instead, it would be a sign that they’d done an independent investigation based on the leads that journal pointed them to and that this investigation had revealed independent confirmation of Mercer’s ongoing treachery.

If I’m right, and the quests were written in a way that made sense, why would they change them to a way that doesn’t? And why would they do it so late in the process that they couldn’t rewrite the quests to account for that change? I can only speculate, but I have some ideas.

And in my next post, I’ll tell you what they are.


On Ignoring Good Ideas (in science!) — Part 5

So, if you’ve been reading my series of posts so far, I hope that I’ve convinced you that science does sometimes ignore good ideas. This post is going to answer a simple question: so what? If this problem is true, what should we do about it?

My answer: we should ignore science’s positive pronouncements—only pay attention to what science says is wrong, not what it says is right.

But before explaining why I think that, I’ve realized a big problem. The ignoring-good-ideas-when-they-are-not-made-loudly issue needs a better name, and not only because I’m tired of typing all that out. More importantly, when we give a concept a short, manageable name, we “crystalize the pattern.” An idea becomes a lot easier to talk about when it has a usable name (that doesn’t have eight hyphens). So, I’m officially calling this problem science has of ignoring good ideas that aren’t made loudly the “haystack problem.” Science may be right about what ideas are awful when it holds them up for scrutiny, but it sucks at finding the needle-in-a-haystack good ideas in the first place.

So, why should weFN 1 react to science’s haystack problem by only paying attention to the scientific establishment when it says something is wrong?

Continue reading “On Ignoring Good Ideas (in science!) — Part 5”

On Ignoring Good Ideas (in science!) — Part 4

So far, this series has presented three examples of science ignoring good ideas: Gregor Mendel’s theory of heredity, Ralph Baldwin’s theory of asteroid impacts, and oil companies’ use of magnetometers to prove continental drift. I’m devoting this post to arguing that these three examples aren’t isolated occurrences, but are typical of a much larger pattern.

Stepping back from these three examples, can we see any commonalities? In all three cases, the problem was not that science shouted down an alternative theory, but rather than science shrugged, and failed either to notice or failed to follow up on a promising, even revolutionary theory or set of evidence. This suggests a very specific sort of science failure, one where science fails not because it rejects good ideas but because it fails to notice good ones.

Continue reading “On Ignoring Good Ideas (in science!) — Part 4”

On Ignoring Good Ideas (in Science!) — Part 3

In this series, we’ve been talking about how the scientific establishment frequently ignores good ideas, even if it doesn’t actively shout them down very often. In the first post, I gave the example of Gregor Mendel, who was ignored from 1866 through 1900 (and only fortuitously rediscovered). The second post focused on a more recent example: the theory that Earth has been subjected to cataclysmic asteroid impacts throughout its history. This theory was ignored from 1942 through 1980. 1980 marked the beginning of the shouting-down phase, where the scientific establishment stopped ignoring the theory and started arguing with it, the process that ended in short-ish order with the theory’s acceptance (as it usually does for correct theories).

Our next example is continental drift (aka plate tectonics): the now-accepted theory that the earth’s crust is divided into different plates that drift very slowly on top of the earth’s lithosphere.

People usually tell the story of the fight over continental drift as a rare example of the scientific establishment disagreeing with a good idea for longer than the 10-or-so years that seem to be typical for paradigm shifts. And you can definitely read it that way. You can cite German climatologist and rugged arctic explorer Alfred Wegener, as one of those rare iconoclasts who got it right in the face of a hostile establishment.

Alfred Wegener, left, on his final expedition to Greenland in 1930.

Continue reading “On Ignoring Good Ideas (in Science!) — Part 3”

On Ignoring Good Ideas (in Science!) — Part 2

Last time, we talked about how science’s biggest failures come not from shouting down heretical-but-correct ideas but from ignoring good ideas. I gave the example of Gregor Mendel, who was ignored for decades even though he’d made discoveries that, once recognized, revolutionized biology. We ended by noting that Mendel lived in the 1800s, and I promised to give a more recent example to show that science has not fully fixed its problem with ignoring good ideas.

So now it’s time for an example with a bit more punch: the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs. In 1942, the astrophysicist Ralph Baldwin, professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan, first propounded the idea that earth was subject to perpetual, frequent, and cataclysmic asteroid bombardment.

Oops, wrong Baldwin

Continue reading “On Ignoring Good Ideas (in Science!) — Part 2”

On Ignoring Good Ideas (in Science!) — Part 1

The first post on a new blog! Starting fresh on a clean slate—but also starting without any readers. So, what better subject to start with than the thought that most ideas are never read and, of the few that are read, most are ignored?

Scott Alexander recently had a post that listed ten examples of scientists who were roundly mocked before later being vindicated. Scott went through each example and showed that most of them weren’t true—either the scientists weren’t really mocked at all, or they were briefly but were vindicated very quickly. He also looked at several areas where he once thought that the scientific consensus was badly wrong but now thinks that it is right, either because he had misunderstood what the consensus position was, or because the consensus position changed rapidly to embrace the good ideas of a new paradigm. From all this, he concludes that “scientific consensus is almost always an accurate reflection of the best knowledge we have at the time.” (Of course, his argument is more nuanced than this; read the whole thing for his thoughts).

I disagree with Scott about the accuracy of science. I think that science can go badly wrong in (at least) two ways, and Scott looked at only one of the failure modes. Scott asked whether science is frequently confronted with a loud, prominent critic and rejects that critic publically for years—only for that critic to later turn out to have been right all along. He determined that this is rare, and I agree. But the question he didn’t ask was whether science, when confronted with a quiet criticism that doesn’t demand a response, is also likely to change to the correct view.

What I want to argue is that the biggest way for science to go wrong is for it to quietly ignore good ideas, many times for decades. These good ideas might literally receive no response, or they might get people to say, “Huh, that’s interesting, someone should really look into that.” But what they don’t get is the attention and energy that would cause them to be revolutionary in the way they should be.

So, science ignores good ideas. I’m going to argue for this claim by telling a couple of stories about when it happened, and then arguing why stories don’t tell the whole picture. I’m going to present some statistics to show that the issue I’m worried about isn’t a minor exception, but rather is a major, systematic problem. And then I’m going to talk a bit about how all this changes how I think about the scientific establishment. Continue reading “On Ignoring Good Ideas (in Science!) — Part 1”