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.
The terms of the deal go like this: You agree to serve Nocturnal “in this life and the next.” Serving her in this life is not onerous at all—it just mean retrieving the skeleton key, which you were going to do anyway. In return, she grants you her blessing.
Now, if you’re a very boring player who isn’t invested in the story/your character at all, this is basically an empty exchange of promises on both sides. If you just care about gameplay mechanics, none of this matters. Nocturnal’s “blessing” has no gameplay effects, and you always get a “game over” screen when you die—so you never get a chance to see what serving her in the next life would entail. Give nothing, get nothing.
But if you do care about story consequences, you can view the stakes much differently. So, let’s look at both what you get and what you have to promise in return:
What you get: Nocturnal’s blessing. Karliah says that you’ll get “the edge you need to defeat Mercer Frey.” If you press her on this, she’ll elaborate “Like a novice picking an impossible lock or a blind man suddenly turning to face you as you reach for his pocket? It’s through these subtle means that Nocturnal influences us.” Basically, the idea is that Nocturnal will make you more “lucky” in a lot of the ways fantasy protagonists typically are. If you’re skeptical of this effect, you can call it basically worthless, and point to the fact that it’s not implemented through in-game mechanics. If you’re less skeptical, you can say that it’s totally implemented through a mechanic that is 100% within the player’s control: reloading a saved game. If you save your game before picking someone’s pocket, and then try, fail, reload, try again, fail, reload … until you finally succeed—well, from the perspective of someone watching your final successful attempt, it looks like you got amazingly lucky. Similarly, if you choose just the right path through a well-guarded estate, it looks like great luck—for someone who didn’t see the five times you picked the wrong path and had to reload to try again. If you have a whole string of these “lucky” successes, it sure looks like you’re benefiting from Nocturnal’s blessing.
Of course, Nocturnal’s blessing doesn’t create your ability to reload a previous save—but it justifies it. Reloading a saved until you get a “lucky” outcome can feel a lot like cheating; sneaking through in a castle using a route you only know because of foreknowledge from a previous attempt can be a frustrating exercise that pulls you out of the game world. There’s a reason that people call constantly saving and reloading “save scumming”—it is a way of overcoming an obstacle not through anything about your in-game character, but by pure player persistence. It’s typically not a rewarding way to win, because it’s not tied to anything about your character.
But Nocturnal’s blessing can change all that—at least for the right sort of player. If you’re the sort of player who thinks about how your character would look to the watching NPCs, then having an in-game “excuse” for phenomenal luck means that reloading until the dice favor you (or whatever) is no longer an exploit; it’s Nocturnal’s blessing operating exactly as it should. In effect, her blessing justifies the most egregious save-scumming—which is a very powerful tool in a game like Skyrim.
So, the value of this blessing can, depending on how you look at it, range from “totally worthless” to “game-breakingly powerful.”FN 2
What you give: promising to serve Nocturnal “in this life and the next.” As I mentioned above, the “this life” part of this doesn’t amount to much, so how you feel about this promise really turns on how you feel about the “next life” part. The game is both explicit and vague about what that part means. It is explicit your spirit will guard the resting place of the Skeleton Key for some period of time—you even meet and can talk to a past Nightingale who is serving in that capacity on your trip to return the Skeleton Key. What isn’t clear is how long that service lasts or what happens after it. The game tells you that “Upon our death, [Nightingales] are bound to the Twilight Sepulcher as guardian spirits until such time as Nocturnal feels our contract has been fulfilled. Our ultimate fate lies within the Evergloam, Nocturnal’s realm. There, our spirits become one with shadow itself and we become the cloak which envelops all of our fellow thieves in their endeavors. This is the true origin of the phrase ‘walk with the shadows’ uttered within the Thieves Guild.”
It’s not very clear how long you serve as a guardian before entering Evergloam—the spirit you talk to was a guardian for 25 years, but he implies that this length of time was unusual and that the theft of the key had stopped him from entering Evergloam; as soon as you return the key, he heads there straight away. It’s also not clear what “becoming one with shadow itself” means, though people depict it as a fairly positive outcome.
I guess one important question is: positive compared to what? Absent this deal, where would your soul have gone after you die? For a series that has a strong theme of religious conflict,FN 3 the Elder Scrolls games are frustratingly vague about the afterlives their characters face. And it’s not like they leave it intentionally ambiguous and open to spiritual debate, the way it is in real life: you visit one afterlife in the main quest of this game, and you frequently encounter ghosts, spirits, and other undead, both in Skyrim and in Morrowind. So, some sort of afterlife definitely exists, but no one talks about it much or provides much clarity about what it will be like or who gets to go there—pretty odd given the stakes.
Layered on top of that, the player’s own situation is (potentially) particularly complicated. The game includes fifteen different Daedric Quests, each of which theoretically commits your soul to the respective god’s afterlife—many of which seem much less pleasant than Nocturnal’s. You can also become a werewolf, which may commit you to a different afterlife, or a vampire, which makes you immortal and lets you avoid the whole idea of an afterlife.
To sum up what you promise: It’s a mess. Nocturnal’s afterlife might be a big step up from the afterlife you thought you had waiting for you. Or it could be a big step down. Or it could be totally unclear—or even irrelevant.
So, you’re being offered something that you might view as anything from totally worthless to amazing, and in return you have to promise something that might range from “literally selling your soul and giving up eternal paradise” to “getting a better afterlife than you were expecting” to “promising something you don’t expect to ever have to deliver.” No wonder players are divided on how they feel about this quest!
Another thing that, inevitably, must bleed into this is players’ out-of-game religious views. These out-of-game views really shouldn’t matter—Skyrim is set in a fantasy world that definitely has a different set of rules about death and afterlife than we operate under. But, on an emotional level, I bet the idea of “becoming one with the shadows” strikes a player differently if they are used to thinking of going to heaven after they die than if they are used to thinking about oblivionFN 4 after they die. And this is only exacerbated by the way the game doesn’t do a lot to talk about its afterlives in a coherent way.
Given the different ways you can view this offer, I’m not surprised we get very different player reactions. On the one hand, you can have someone who thinks they’re giving up a ton for nothing in return. That’s clearly how Shamus experienced the quest; he summed it up like this “So now we’re Nightingales, with all the rights and privileges that entails. (None.) Along with the costs. (My soul, apparently.)”
At the other extreme, here’s how I experienced it: I was extremely tempted by the offer of Nocturnal’s blessing. I’m always tempted to save-reload when something bad happens to my character, but it feels a bit like an exploit; having an in-game justification for why my character could get that lucky sounded great to me! I wasn’t absolutely thrilled about serving Nocturnal in death, but I was already a vampire at that point, and planned to live forever as the secret ruler of Skyrim. (When you can become the leader of all the most powerful guilds and factions in the provence, really, what other career path makes sense?)
So, taking Nocturnal up on her offer felt decidedly in character; I got a short-term benefit in exchange for a potential long-term cost that might never come due—very much the sort of trade a power hungry character like the one I was playing would go for. What’s more, Nocturnal didn’t seem to know that I was a vampire, so I had the feeling of being able to pull a fast one on the god of thieves. As she was gloating about how good a deal she was getting, I was sitting back thinking about how much of a sucker she was.
* * *
As with everything I said about plot holes, my point is not to argue that I somehow experienced this “correctly” or that others were “wrong” to find the ending incredibly frustrating. Instead, my goal is to present a different perspective on this questline, to see if that perspective resonates with anyone, and to try to explain how different players can experience the same content so differently. Next time, I’ll conclude with some big-picture game design thoughts and see what lessons we can learn from all this.