Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 5

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 fiatevery 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:

  1. “This is a high price, but if it means stopping Mercer Frey, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
  2. “Accept the blessing of Nocturnal, restore the Guild to its former glory, and become a legendary thief? I’m in!”
  3. “Serve Nocturnal after death? That’s quite the commitment and not something I can rush into. I’ll have to give this some thought.”
  4. “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.


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

  1. Skyrim kind of had a “none of the above” option in a different questline. Your initiation into the Dark Brotherhood has you kidnapped by its current leader, forced to choose which of three prisoners you will execute. (Or all three, if you really feel ambitious.) The player has a different choice at hand; kill your captor, free the prisoners, then wipe out the Dark Brotherhood.

    Are you missing out on some content there? Sure. But the developers saw this as a legitimate choice to allow the players. It’s clear that “skipping content” was not always the highest priority at stake.

    Even then, I think a great option would have been to allow the player to weasel out of the Nocturnal deal. For any of the other deities or priesthoods you interact with in the game, give the player an option to talk with them about it. “I promised my soul to Nocturnal and I need out. Help me.” Could have been really promising.

    1. I think comparing the way the game handles the Dark Brotherhood questline versus how it handles the Thieves Guild choice is really instructive. Imagine if they’d made the DB like the Thieves Guild: you would have been able to kill everyone at that first meeting, but the game would never react to you or acknowledge that you did anything. You’d just have a “join the Dark Brotherhood” quest stuck forever in your quest log.

      This would make the “choice” of joining the Dark Brotherhood not feel like a choice at all. Even if 90%+ of players decide to join the Dark Brotherhood when given the choice, knowing that they have a real option not to makes it feel like a real decision. And I bet the same would be true of the Thieves—if the game had given players a choice not to agree to Nocturnal’s offer, I bet few players would have turned her down. But just knowing that they *could* reject her offer would make the players who accept it feel like they were making a character choice rather than being railroaded into the only way to play the game.

      1. What surprises me is that there isn’t a similar option for the Thieves Guild as there is for the Dark Brotherhood.

        When you first enter Riften, you meet two different characters almost immediately: The guard at the gate who tries to hustle you for a bribe, and Mjoll, whose feelings on the guild are not ambiguous.

        Virtuous PCs generally take a shine to Mjoll. You can retrieve her lost sword for her, you can even marry her. (The perversity of marrying her, then taking her down to the Thieves Guild sanctum to watch her complete lack of response is really kind of sad.) So it really surprises me that you can’t go to her and say, “I know where they’re holed up. Let’s go finish off the Thieves Guild once and for all and Make Riften Great Again.”

        I can’t be the only person who sees the incongruity in not offering that option, right?

        1. I agree that would be very nice and, based on Mjoll’s dialogue, I suspect that was the plan at some point. I bet they cut that for time/resource reasons which is regrettable but I can understand—it would have involved adding a whole quest, and would have raised questions about what to do with Maven Blackbrier (she’s involved in other quests, so you can’t kill her here without causing problems, but it might feel odd to “wipe out” the Guild but not touch their supposed patron.)

          In any event, that’s why I tried to be very careful in suggesting changes that would have involved adding quests. *Of course* they could make the game better by adding content. My goal was to show that they could also make it a lot better even without adding content—or, at most, by adding a few lines of dialogue.

          1. Definitely seems like they intended to do more with Mjoll apart from making her a glorified follower.

            For one, she’s essential, even when not in your service. Then there’s the pamphlets in a safe in the Pawned Prawn’s basement – the “Society of Mercantile Freedom in Riften” calling for an uprising against the Black-Briars and the Thieves Guild.

            There’s also Saerlund, Jarl Law-Giver’s son and Imperial sympathizer who appears to serve no purpose. Maybe he was intended to replace his mother as the Imperial-aligned Jarl if the Black-Briars were to have been run out of town?

      2. Meeting the Thieves’ Guild for the first time really flummoxed me: Playing a character who had no intention of joining them I heard rumours that they were holed up in the Ratway. So I made my way in, apparently there’s a bunch of hostile lads on the way there, so I guess we’re in fight mode now. I arrived at the Ragged Flagon and could see another group across a pool of water. More hostiles? I pulled out my bow…

        This is also the moment I learned that members of the Thieves’ Guild are protected by plot armour, unlike their Dark Brotherhood cousins.

  2. “My guess is that this simple change would obliviate 90% of the complaints players have with the questline’s ending.”

    Even better would be a “Screw Nocturnal’s blessing, I can handle Mercer, I’m the Dragonborn,” and just bump up the difficulty of the fight with him. But your change’d definitely be an improvement.

    1. Haha, I’d love that option too.

      (A really trollish way to implement Mercer’s advantage would be for the effect of Nocturnal’s Blessing be removing his “essential” flag. Then the player really would have to accept the blessing to win.

      That’s probably crossing the line into outright griefing of the player, though. People are annoyed enough by unkillable NPCs without having one be immortal in the middle of a quest built around killing him.)

    2. Tougher Mercer would be an improvement but also kind of hard to implement: my Mercer fight consisted of a single FusRoDah and him dying from fall damage.

      (My favorite part of the Thieves Guild quest is when the Dragonborn asks Karliah if the three of them are a match for Mercer Frey. How can the Dragonborn, wearing armor made from the bones of a conquered dragon, with the bones of dozens more in his pockets, right next to his Elder Scroll, possibly hope to defeat a middle-aged man with a fancy lockpick?)

      I think something like needing Nocturnal to find the unfindable Mercer by telling you where the Skeleton Key is would also alleviate some of the problem.

      1. I like that idea! And they could even implement it without having to add or cut content if they just switched up the order: if you got Nocturnal’s blessing and had her tell you where Mercer is before you broke into his house, you could have her tell you that he was heading for the Eyes of the Falmer. And then Brynjolf or somebody could say that there are too many traps there and you’ll never make it through without the plans for the heist. That could trigger the quest to break into Mercer’s house—with the added benefit that it would make more sense because now you’re breaking in with the goal of finding specific plans rather than on the off chance that someone fleeing the country with seven chests of gold left an obvious clue leading to their whereabouts in their house.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly on self-pacing the quests. I’ve always noticed that if I mainline any one quest line, I start to feel burned out. By contrast, if I let my journal fill and then deal with quests by region rather than faction, everything feels much more well-paced. At least until they foist an NPC on you and make you prioritize their quest line just to get rid of them.

    1. Agreed. Which is why it’s so odd to me that so many of the quests are written to (narratively) impart a sense of urgency. A lot of the time, they don’t even give you the option of not getting the next quest—the conversation where you turn in one quest is the same conversation where you pick up the next one. And the next one is frequently something that’s described as urgent/important (even though mechanically you can leave everyone sitting there for eternity without anyone caring).

      Like with the thieves guild questline: I don’t think there’s a single point between the time you go after Karliah to the end where (narratively) it makes sense to pause the action. That’s part of why they could have benefited so much from the “come back in three days” bits that I’m convinced they cut.

  4. The biggest problem that the Thieves Guild quest line is the total lack of agency the character gets.  While the other faction quests (and the Main Quest) have this problem, it is particularly glaring in the Thieves Guild quests.  It starts with the very first interaction with Mercer.  Every conversation forces the character to back down if he wants to continue the quest.  When they wrote this quest they wanted to write a story instead of creating an interesting quest series.  IMHO, any quest line that can only be resolved one way does not belong in a computer game but in a novel. The Companion quest fails for this reason as well because you are essentially forced into becoming a werewolf to continue.

    I don’t think that going back to the Morrorwind method of adding a few days or running filler quests will solve the problems of this quest at all.  It suffers from a poor premise to begin with and it never gets better.

    The reason it is particularly jarring over the other faction quests is that you expect some basic intrigue to the main quest line.  For example, in the quest Loud and Clear, you should have the option to bribe/intimidate/persuade Aringoth — after all you did make it to his room through all of his guards.

    The Nightingales guarding the key also just feels forced and doesn’t really fit into previous games take on the Skeleton Key.  To me it violates the basic premise of most daedric artifacts which is to give the user incredible power, but to corrupt them to becoming pawns of the daedric lord.  While the premise of this quest line accomplishes giving Mercer power and corrupting him, it does the opposite of leashing him to Nocturne.

    Also they should have create counter quest to both the Thieves guild and Dark Brotherhood that had similar number of stages.  The counter DB quest line resolves way to easily.

    It is like the designers tried to emulate the successful quest structure that Obsidian did for Fallout New Vegas but didn’t understand the need for at least the illusion of agency.  Fallout 4 shows they went even further in the wrong direction

    I would love for someone to fix this quest in a similar fashion the way the mod Enhanced Skyrim Factions – The Companions Guild did for The Companions.  Even just a few lines of explanatory dialogue helped round out that quest quite a bit.  It added some necessary texture to make the quests a bit more nuanced.


    To me a better take on the Dampened Spirits quest was to assume that Mallus had already poisoned the  Honningbrew special reserved.  Your part was to exterminate the rodents and become the patsy if things went wrong.  Just adding a couple of lines to the conversation with Mallus after the tasting could have indicated that.

    Player: “I don’ understand, how could the brew in the cask already be poisoned as I just put the poison in the still”

    Mallus: “Oh, I poisoned the brew last week, but we needed someone to clear out Hamelyn since his part in this scheme has finished and he wouldn’t move on.”


    To me instead of trying to pad the quests with filler quests or waiting for days, just adding more interesting dialogue and choices to dialogue could fill out the quests better.  Also giving the player more agency would help.


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