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.

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5 thoughts on “Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 1”

  1. “‘Mercer has been stealing from the guild for years,’ when the book is obviously limited to events of 25 years ago.” ”

    I do not understand why a journal that spans 25 years is not enough to show mercer has been stealing for year?

    1. The idea is that the journal was *finished* 25 years ago. That is, the old guild master wrote the whole thing before he died 25 years ago. Yet the current guild members treat the journal as though it proved that Mercer was stealing from the Guild within the past year. There’s no way the diary could have evidence about the past year, though, so that seems like a plot hole.

      And my point is that I agree—but that it would be fixed if the Guild told you to come back in a day, after they’ve investigated the issue. Then they could say that the diary proved that Mercer was stealing 25 years ago, and their investigation proved that he’s still stealing. That would not only give them some reason to trust the diary, it would make it look like they did their own investigation and have some agency in how their guild is run … instead of looking like puppets who stand around waiting for the player to show up. (Which, to be fair, they are. But that’s no excuse for *looking* like it.)

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