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. In addition to these “story” quests, the thieves guild gives you the opportunity to do a lot of side missions, where they send you off to steal a random item, or break into a random house.FN 1 After you do five of these quests in the same city, you’re told that the guild has drawn the attention of local notables in that city and you’re given a story quest.
This story quest also involves sneaking/thieving, and is some effort to impress a local bigwig. Once you’ve completed the story quest for a particular city, you’ve earned the thieves guild a measure of influence in that city: you then gain access to a fence in that city, have some “thieve’s caches” in the city with some extra goodies, and have enough influence with the corrupt guards there to be able to bribe your way out of getting arrested. Completing these quests also draws more followers to the guild headquarters, and helps the guild recover from the hard times it’s been suffering.
Since there are four different cities with these quests, that means that completing them requires the player to perform at least twenty of these procedurally generated thieving quests. Then they need to perform the story missions for each city, for a total of twenty-four missions. That’s the minimum. But since which city you get sent to is random, it’s likely that most players will perform more than twenty of the procedurally generated quests.FN 2 Plus, there are three or soFN 3 optional thieving-related quests that a player can do through the guild for various rewards mixed in as well. So, I bet the average player who goes through this content is doing 30+ thieving-related quests during their thieves guild playtime—far more than the twelve “main” quests.
And (except for the few optional quests) all of these quests are required to be named guildmaster.
So, from a toneal perspective, it should be the case that the thieves guild quests feel like they’re mostly about thieving, and the main story quests about “ironically” returning something are a welcome (and earned) break. Yet I think Shamus isn’t alone in feeling like the thieves guild is all about non-stealing. Why is that?
I think it comes back to the same place: the same regrettable design decision that led to the elimination of Morrowind-style “come back tomorrow” dialogue and made such a mess of the plot. In previous Elder Scrolls games, the player would advance to various points in the story quests and then be told to go off and adventure or something before they were allowed to progress. In Oblivion, the thieves guild embraced this mechanic—almost every quest required that you hit a certain threshold in value of goods fenced before you were allowed to proceed with the story quests.
I’m confident the original plan was for Skyrim to do the same thing. I bet they wrote it so that you’d be told to go do some thievery at several points in the story questline, and they wouldn’t let you proceed until you had done so. In fact, dialogue left in the game makes it very clear that this was the plan. Once you finish the main story quests, people start saying things like “I’m confident that with you in charge, we’ll soon have more gold than we could possibly spend.” But you’re not in charge—they don’t make you guild master until you do all the non-story thieving quests. Despite this, they don’t make anyone else guild master either. It’s painfully obvious that all this was written on the assumption that the player was going to be required to do all the thieving quests before finishing the story ones, and thus would become guild master as soon as they returned the skeleton key.
If they had stuck with this original plan, it would have solved a bunch of issues in one swoop. Most obviously, it would make the thieves guild quests the thieves guild quests; it would solve the thematic disjunction.
It would also help with some of the remaining plot oddities (these aren’t really logical holes of the sort dealt with above, but more theme/tone issues that made the story “feel off”).
As it stands, you progress from first being admitted to the guild directly to being asked to fix the guild’s most pressing problem (trouble for Maven’s meadery). That’s not wrong exactly; they do emphasize that the guild is going through hard times, and it could just be that you’re the only competent person in the whole place. But with how big a deal they make out of you having to earn the right to join the guild, it would sure make a lot more sense if getting admitted only let you do the thieving quests. After you do some of those quests, they could come to you—by then a valued member guild—with the guild’s more challenging problems.
And, it would resolve another one of Shamus’ bigger-picture complaints. Shamus talks about how the reveal that Mercer cleaned out the thieves guild’s vault fails to emotionally connect with the player:
More importantly, the entire quest line began with repeated references to how the guild had fallen on hard times. If they were so broke, then why did they have a vault full of gold? Or if times were so tough, why are they so distraught to find the vault empty? . . .
All of this is supposed to be a huge reveal, but it falls completely flat. We don’t have any stake in this. Nobody really talked about the vault and it was never established that people cared or even thought about this vault. We never saw inside of it until now, so it’s not a terrible shock for the player to lose something they didn’t have two minutes ago.
But imagine if they’d stuck to the plan of making the player build up the power of the guild before they could progress in the story missions. Then, the guild would have been on hard times when you joined but—thanks almost entirely to your efforts—it’s built back up to a point where things are finally starting to look up. There could even have been references to how the guild vault was getting full again, after a long dry spell.
Then, Mercer’s betrayal wouldn’t be “losing something you didn’t have two minutes ago,” it would be stealing all the wealth you’d worked so hard—over the course of 30+ quests—to build up. He wouldn’t (just) be stealing from the guild, he’d be stealing from you.
So, why’d they yank away the perfect solution to so many problems? Again, we can only speculate, but my guess is it’s the same the-players-are-too-impatient executive medler from before. Somebody, late in development, seems to have decided that the player—the player playing the thieves guild questline mind you—wouldn’t have the patience for all this tedious sneaking about and would rather get on with their fancy voice-acted quests. They stripped away the requirement to progress through the thieving quests before progressing with the story, and nevermind how much hash this made of their themes and tone.
Luckily, as a player, fixing this issue is even easier than fixing the plot holes by pretending that people told you to come back the next day.
The questline lets you progress with the story quests without thieving on your own, but it doesn’t make you. If you take the time to pause and do some independent thievery before advancing on, you have the satisfaction of building up the guild and setting up Mercer’s betrayal beautifully. And you avoid the ignominious incongruity of getting back from returning a legendary artifact of the gods only to be told to go steal a candlestick before you can be made guild master.
So, in sum: if you play through the thieves guild questline the way I did—mentally correcting for the bizarre design decision/executive meddling of not trusting the patience of the player—then you not only solve the biggest plot holes, you also solve the theme and tone issues as well. That leaves you with an interesting, mechanically satisfying, and tonally appropriate questline—right up until the ending. Next time, we’ll talk about that ending and see how it fits into all this.