In Praise of the Nonstandard Game Over

Content warning: This post contains multiple links to TV Tropes, (including that one!). TV Tropes is a known time-suck and rabid destroyer of productivity. Click at your own peril—you have been warned.

A ton of games use But Thou Must when I think they’d be much better served by a Nonstandard Game Over.

This post is going to 1) explain what in the world that means; 2) provide some examples of particularly awful But Thou Musts; and 3) provide my analysis of why Nonstandard Game Overs are a better—and underused—solution.

First: defining our terms. But Thou Must is when a game presents the player-character with a choice, but doesn’t give the player a real choice at all. The most egregious form of this is when your character is asked a question that seems like you could answer it either way but you (the player) are only given one answer. Example:

KING: Will you venture through the Swamp of Unpleasant Odors, fight the Ogre of Unreasonable Difficulty, and retrieve the Plot Coupon I desire?

PLAYER’S   RESPONSES (pick one):
1) Gladly!
2) If you ask it of me sire, then yes.
3) That sound awful, necessary; I agree.
4) So long as you pay up on the reward we discussed, I’ll do it.

Continue reading “In Praise of the Nonstandard Game Over”

Bonus Post: He’ll Give You The Shirt Off His Back

I wasn’t planning to write any more about Skyrim, but talking about Skyrim’s thieves guild questline reminded me of one of my more absurdist Skyrim experiences, and I feel the need to share. I don’t have anything analytical to say about this, so I’m not counting it as one of my normal weekly posts. At the same time, it’s a funny story. If you haven’t played Skyrim, I feel sorry for you I don’t know how much this will mean to you; feel free to skip this one if you want.

So, let’s set the stage, and then I’ll tell the grand story of how—against all odds—I infiltrated the Brinewater Grotto, in perhaps the most ridiculous way possible.

In one of my first playthroughs, I decided to play a sneaky character on hard, with the goal of avoiding as much combat as I could. I was good at sneaking, picking pockets, talking my way out of trouble, picking locks, and basically nothing that involved a stand-up fight. Continue reading “Bonus Post: He’ll Give You The Shirt Off His Back”

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. Continue reading “Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 5”

Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 4

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. Continue reading “Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 4”

Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 3

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. Continue reading “Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 3”

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? Continue reading “Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 2”

Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 1

Why are we talking about a game that came out over five years ago? Well, in part it’s still pretty popular: as of this writing, it’s one of the top-twenty most played games on Steam, and is regularly played by tens of thousands of people every day. And in part, it’s because I’ve wanted to say this for a few years now and, darnit, now that I have a blog I’m going to have my say. But mostly, it’s because, now that emotions have cooled a bit, I think an analysis of what worked and where some of the flaws—or perceived flaws—came from can teach us a bit about game design. And maybe even a bit about how we enjoy games.

The Thieves GuildFN 1 questline in Skyrim is a famous trainwreck. Shamus Young wrote a detailed five-part series of posts detailing how the questline fails to present a coherent plot, fails thematically, and fails to have a satisfying ending. I think all that is true . . . from a certain point of view.

And yet it’s still one of my all-time favorites. This post is an attempt to explain why.

My basic theory is that most of the biggest problems with the plotting of the questline come down to a single problem caused by executive meddling. If you’re able to set that aside, the whole questline makes a lot more sense. And, that same executive caused some of the thematic difficulties. That ending, in turn, depends entirely on out-of-game perspective. But I’m getting ahead of myself—let’s start with the plot. Continue reading “Defending the Indefensible: Skyrim’s Thieves Guild — Part 1”