Back in Part 1 of this series, I promised that I’d talk about what the Skyrim Thieves Guild questline can teach us about game design and how to enjoy games. Since then, we’ve talked about the questline’s plot, tone, and ending—and I’ve explained how I look at each one in a way that makes me like the questline a lot more than many people do. Now let’s dive into the big-picture issue: I think we can learn two important lessons. First:
Triple A games are terrified of giving the players a break
Game developers keep writing games where everything is always turned up to eleven at all times: full intensity, full epicness, full throttle from opening cinematic through closing credits. This is a really bad idea. When everything is epic, nothing is. Call it “intensity fatigue” or “the importance of quiet moments“; whatever you call it, it’s clear that games are weaker and less impactful when they keep trying to make every moment one of the best in the game. This is not a unique insight; it’s storytelling 101. So why do developers keep messing this up?
Well, not because they don’t know it.
I think what’s going on is that developers know that not very many players finish their games. Depending on the game, as many as 80 or 90 percent of the players won’t reach the end. Think about the effect that must have on game developers and writers—especially for a AAA game developed by a large team. Would you want your questline to be the one where the most players quit? Of course not; even if they’re going to quit, you’d want them to quit on the content somebody else wrote.
So, if you’re trying to stop players from quitting at all costs, what do you do? One strategy is to make sure there’s never a good pause in the action. If there were a natural stopping point … well, players just might stop there and never come back.
I think this is exactly what happened with Skyrim. Some developer must have considered that telling players to “come back in three days” would result in them going off to do something else—and then never coming back. And I don’t mean to mock this concern. With how big a game Skyrim is, I’m sure that a Thieves Guild questline that told people to come back in three days really would have cause a lot of players to go do something else and never come back at all. And a developer could reasonably think that it doesn’t matter how good their content is if no one plays it; maybe it’s better to sacrifice the quality of the content if it at least keeps the momentum up and keeps people playing. I can understand this perspective.
That said, I think this perspective—however understandable—is deeply misguided. It is tremendously harmful to the content and stories that games tell when they try to keep the momentum up at all times; it results in a game or a questline that more people might play through without putting down, but also a game/questline that is much less likely to stick with anyone years (or even months) later. Imagine how much worse a novel would be if the author were constantly worrying about when people might put the book down and wrote each chapter with the goal of having that chapter not be the one that people quit on. I imagine the quality of the novel would suffer tremendously.
In fact, I don’t have to imagine. As a kid, I read the Hardy Boys series and, by editorial fiat, every single chapter ended with a cliffhanger. Just setting the scene and haven’t even introduced a mystery yet? Doesn’t matter—we still need a cliffhanger. There was literally not a good point to put the book down between the first page and the last.
And the quality sure suffered. I won’t go so far as to say that it ruined the books; there was still a lot of good fun to be had in those pages. But they would have been a lot better if they trusted themselves to be engaging on their own merits, without the need to “force” people to keep reading to resolve the latest cliffhanger.
And the same is true of games. If they’d had natural stopping points where characters told you to come back in three days and suggested that you go do some independent thievery—well, maybe more players would have left the questline unfinished. But the questline would also have avoided the logical and tonal issues that drove so many players up the wall; it would have been vastly better for the players that did finish it.
There’s a lesson for developers in all this: Don’t sacrifice quality to keep people playing. If someone likes your content, they’ll keep playing even if you give them breaks; if they don’t, then they’re not going to like it even if they end up finishing out of a sense of momentum.
There’s also a lesson for players: Most AAA games are not going to get pacing right, because they’re too afraid of who might quit in the slow sections. As players, though, we can often create our own pacing. Maybe that means ignoring the cacophony of people shouting at you to hurry up in Cysis 2 and taking the time to enjoy a quiet moment with the visuals.FN 1 Or maybe it means taking the initiative to pause the Thieves Guild questline for some independent thievery. Either way, the idea is the same: Acknowledge that, for whatever reason, developers are falling down on their job of managing pacing and that you’re going to have a better experience if you manage it consciously yourself.
Binary options can be rewarding, but it helps a lot if the game acknowledges your choice—even if that doesn’t add content
In talking about the ending of the Thieves Guild questline, one issue really sticks out: There’s a vast difference between the (huge) number of ways a player might be thinking about the choice of joining the Nightingales versus the (one-and-a-half) ways the player can react to that choice.
Here’s a quick list of (just a few) of the things a player might be thinking when offered the opportunity to join the Nightingales:
- Yay! Here’s my chance for power and profit!
- Sure, why not, I don’t care what happens after I die.
- This deal sounds worth it, even though I hate the idea of spending some period of time serving Nocturnal.
- I love the idea of serving Nocturnal and being tied to her realm; this is a great deal.
- I’ve previously promised my soul to a different god, and this sounds like a far better outcome.
- The consequences of this deal sound awful, but I plan never to die so I’ll take it.
- This deal is tempting, but it is against my religion to serve Nocturnal after death so I’m going to decline.
- I don’t mind the idea of serving Nocturnal, but you’re not offering anything to make this worth my while, so no.
- You’re not offering anything I care about, and the idea of serving Nocturnal is abhorrent, so this is an awful deal and you should go jump in a lake.
In contrast, here are the actions the player can take in response to the offer:
- Accept the offer.
- Cancel the conversation without accepting the offer, leaving the NPCs standing there frozen forever waiting for you to come back and accept the offer.
That’s … not a lot of ways for the player to act, given all the different ways they could approach the choice. Now, I understand that it’s an inherent limitation of the medium that a video game is never going to be able to react to the full range of player perspectives. And programing in different reactions can be exponentially complicated. That said, imagine if the game had offered the player the following four responses:
- “This is a high price, but if it means stopping Mercer Frey, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
- “Accept the blessing of Nocturnal, restore the Guild to its former glory, and become a legendary thief? I’m in!”
- “Serve Nocturnal after death? That’s quite the commitment and not something I can rush into. I’ll have to give this some thought.”
- “No way. My soul is bound for Sovngarde and I’m not doing anything to change that no matter what the reward would be.”
Options 1 and 2 would progress the quest; option 3 would keep get a reply like “Well, don’t think too long—we don’t know how much time we have to catch up to Mercer.” And option 4 would get a reply like “You understand that this means Mercer will escape and the Thieves Guild will never regain its former glory and will never make you its guildmaster?” If the player persisted, then the game would lock them out of the Nightingale hall, have a few lines of dialogue about how Brynjolf is the new guildmaster and the guild is in decline, and let the player keep doing side-theivery quests but never upgrade the guild or become guildmaster.
That would involve adding only a handful of dialogue lines and basically no programing logic at all. And it would dramatically change the tenor of the choice; instead of feeling like the writer didn’t have any clue what they were asking of the players, the quest would present players with a real choice. My guess is that this simple change would obliviate 90% of the complaints players have with the questline’s ending.
Again, there’s a lesson here both for developers and players. For developers: do this. Even if you can’t have a game that has branching consequences and calls back to the past decisions players have made, at least have the game recognize when the player is saying no. If you have a quest that is optional and players don’t have to complete, give the player an option to say no and have the other characters react to that rejection. It’s not much work, and it avoids the absurd situation where NPCs are waiting for weeks for their “urgent” request to be completed.
For players, know that games don’t always do this—and, when they don’t, remember that you can do it yourself. If you’re playing Skyrim as a devout Nord who’s anticipating an afterlife in Sovngarde, then treat the option to walk away from the quest as an option to reject the whole thing. Sure, it would feel better if the game acknowledged your reaction, but games are—at their most basic level—still an interactive aid to a story you tell yourself, and you can tell the story of the Nord who turned down Nocturnal even if the game doesn’t react.FN 2
* * *
So, looking back at Skyrim has led us to a couple of pieces of advice for developers—pieces of advice that they’re unlikely to take, of course.
More importantly, our look back at Skyrim has lead to a couple of lessons for ourselves as players too. If we remember that developers are afraid of giving us a pause in the action, we can take the time to insert our own pauses and improve the pacing of the games we play. And if we remember that developers don’t always acknowledge the choices we’d like to make, we can make those choices anyway—and build that choice into the interactive story we tell ourselves through the game. Through these two shifts in perspective, we can regain some of the agency we should have in such an interactive medium and can address some of the plot holes and tonal issues of AAA games. And maybe even enjoy the great games we play just a bit more.