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 they abandoned this system because 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: [su_quote]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?[/su_quote]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 [su_quote]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?[/su_quote] 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.



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