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Skyrim: Of Guilds, Cat Burglars, and Rebels

There was a video posted last week (it’s embedded above) talking about a problem with Skyrim. The creator, Mumbles, focused on the Thieves Guild in Riften. In case you do not recall, the Thieves Guild quest line starts when the player visits Riften. They will be approached by a man named Brynjolf, who claims all of the player’s wealth was gained through illegitimate means—stealing, extortion, robbing the dead, things like that.

I’m not going to summarize the problem Mumbles addresses. The video is not even five minutes long. Just watch it; she makes her point pretty succinctly.

Anyway, it’s no secret that I did not like the Thieves Guild quest line. It had its moments and started with a cool premise, but I didn’t like it overall. Compare my articles on the Thieves Guild with my articles on the Dark Brotherhood, and you can see that I was far more enthusiastic about the Dark Brotherhood. It is simply the better faction. The writing was better, the quests were better, the design was better. All well and good, but this doesn’t really touch on why the Dark Brotherhood is better. It wasn’t until I watched Mumbles’ video that I realized what makes the Dark Brotherhood stand out.

What makes the Dark Brotherhood better is that there is inherently more choice available. In the Thieves Guild, you’re never tasked with having to stage a heist or break into a secure location to steal some object of value. In fact, you never steal anything. You never have to sneak, never have to pick any pockets, and never have to pick a lock. The few times you do need to do some lockpicking, the skill check is so low that any character can succeed; if you’re playing a mage or a warrior, you are always on equal footing with a pure-bred thief character.

There was Hard Answers, the amazing quest where you had to sneak through the Dwemer museum, but even that was a very linear dungeon with a very clear structure to it. There wasn’t even an illusion of choice, but instead it was just a fun stealth-oriented playground; don’t confuse that with stealth-mandated, because you didn’t need to sneak through the museum at all. That summarizes the bulk of Skyrim’s Thieves Guild, actually: You spent most of your time going through linear dungeons doing everything besides stealing goods. Honestly, if you wanted to role play a thief, then you would have been better off just stealing goods on your own time and selling them to merchants with your high-level Speech skill.1

The Dark Brotherhood wasn’t anything like that. You were given a set of contracts to fulfill; targets that needed to be assassinated. Sometimes these targets would be surrounded by guards, so you would need to figure out the best way to approach the target and kill them without attracting undue attention… or you could just kill them in broad daylight and fight the guards off yourself. The point is, you had one objective: Kill them. Doesn’t matter how they die, where they die, or when they die. Even if another NPC kills them for you still succeed.

So there are a few things you can do in the Brotherhood to differentiate your characters. But that’s not all! Unlike the Thieves Guild, you can destroy the Dark Brotherhood. Granted, if you’re playing a golden paragon2 of truth and justice, you have to get your hands a little dirty for this; you can’t report Aventus Aretino to a guard. While you can choose not to kill Grelod, ignoring the Brotherhood isn’t the same thing as destroying it. It’s a bit of a sore spot for the golden paragons, but perhaps investigating the crone will convince them her death is just and fair. She is rumored to be a hagraven, so maybe there could be a “miscommunication” that ends with “Grelod being brutally eviscerated.”

The real problem with Skyrim is that, aside from the Dark Brotherhood, there is a complete lack of interesting choice. With a single character, you can join the Companions,3 the Thieves Guild, the Dark Brotherhood, the College of Winterhold, and the Bard’s College. You can do everything, and when you can do everything, nothing you do matters; every quest, every guild just becomes an item on your checklist. Contrast that with one of Bethesda’s earlier Elder Scrolls titles, Morrowind, and you begin to see some of the missed opportunities in Skyrim.

Things Were Better 200 Years Ago

In Morrowind, there were several factions. There was House Redoran, House Hlaalu, and House Telvanni. (There were more of these Great Houses, but these were the only ones the player could join.) You could only join one Great House, and in doing so you would change the way members of the other Great Houses regarded you; notably, they’d attack you on sight. You could improve your standing with the other Great Houses—in the sense that you could eventually enter their cities safely once again—but never join them. These choices were mutually exclusive. Furthermore, each Great House corresponded roughly with a different archetype: Redoran represented the Warrior archetype; Hlaalu represented the Thief archetype; Telvanni represented the Wizard archetype. Ideally, you would choose whichever House suited your play style. It allowed you to play according to the role you wanted.

The Great Houses weren’t the only place where mutually exclusive choices came into play. There were guilds the player could join, just as there are guilds in Skyrim. There was the Morag Tong, which was thematically similar to the Dark Brotherhood except the Morag Tong was an official, government-sanctioned organization; every contract killing was legal. If you joined the Morag Tong, you’d enter yourself into a gang war with the Cammona Tong, which took contracts illegally. Additionally, you would also be given quests to go kill hidden sects of the Dark Brotherhood. (The Cammona Tong was not a faction the player could join. The Dark Brotherhood was only joinable starting with the Morrowind expansion pack, Tribunal.)

There was also the Thieves Guild, which actually required that the player steal some goods and sell them to a Thieves Guild fence before they could be given membership. There was the Fighters Guild, which is similar to the Companions in Skyrim, aside from the lycanthropy. If you joined the Thieves Guild, you’d have several quests to go disrupt the Fighters Guild; you’d also be entered into a gang war with the Cammona Tong. (They’re the organized crime syndicate that hates everybody.) If you joined the Fighters Guild, you’d occasionally be sent on quests to go destroy the Thieves Guild. Needless to say, you couldn’t join the Thieves Guild and the Fighters Guild on the same character, because they were bitter enemies at war with one another.

Skyrim has been referred to as a game that isn’t afraid to withhold content from the player. That is true to an extent, in that if you cannot find a dungeon or refuse to join a guild, that the game does not lead you to those dungeons or forces you to join the guilds. However, that the player can do everything on a single player goes completely against that notion. If Skyrim were truly a game that was unafraid of withholding content from the player, then you would have more mutually exclusive choices. Going back to Mumbles’ own example: Do you join the Thieves Guild or do you destroy it? The closest thing you have to an interesting choice—or rather, a choice—involves the Civil War. You can join the Stormcloaks or the Imperials, or choose to not take a side at all.

Civil War

From the opening of the game, we’re told that Skyrim is on the brink of civil war. Yet, the conflict that takes center stage is the return of Alduin and the dragons. The civil war is supposed to be an important part of the world, but it’s just another bland quest line. I chose Imperials because I found the Stormcloaks repulsive, so I’ll just run down how that played out.

First, you join the Imperials. You talk to General Tulius in Solitude, and his first task is to have you clear bandits out of Fort Hraggstad. Then, you’re sent off to go retrieve the Jagged Crown, which is apparently important, from Korvanjund Temple. With the crown secured, General Tulius asks us to persuade Jarl Balgruuf to side with the Empire. The Jarl does so, and he asks us to deliver his axe to Ulfric Stormcloak in Windhelm. Ulfric refuses the message, and the battle for Whiterun commences. After winning control of Whiterun, we’re sent to go secure a fort in each hold. There are also three flavor quests to do: one involves blackmailing the Jarl’s steward in Riften, and then ambushing a supply wagon; the second involves rescuing Imperial soldiers; the third one requires a scheme to forge Stormcloak documents and posing as a courier. After every hold has been captured under the Imperial banner, the Battle for Windhelm commences. We work through the city and confront Ulfric Stormcloak, slaying him and putting an end to the war.

The way the quest line goes for the Stormcloaks? Instead of attacking Fort Hraagstad, you kill an Ice Wraith. You’ll still be retrieving the crown from Korvanjund. Whiterun will still be attacked and battle damaged, although Jarl Balgruuf will be replaced. Instead of blackmailing the Jarl’s steward in Riften for having ties to the Thieves Guild, you blackmail the Jarl’s steward in Markarth for being a Talos worshipper. There will still be a rescue quest and a forgery quest.

“Man, I bet the other guys’ couriers don’t have to run messages around on foot.”

Really, the only significant changes are which banner you serve under, who your leader is, and whether you’ll be fighting in Solitude or Windhelm to end the war. There are no ideological changes throughout the region; people will still hate the Stormcloaks or the Imperials. There will be Stormcloak guards in formerly Imperial cities, and vice versa, but otherwise there isn’t any significant change. In fact, the only interesting choice you can make on a second playthrough is to stay out of the conflict, progress through the main quest, and negotiate a cease fire with help from the Greybeards.

I think one of the most interesting parts of the Civil War quest line, at least on the Imperial side of things, is the blackmail quest in Riften: the Jarl’s steward has ties with the Thieves Guild. As a potential member of the Thieves Guild, this quest doesn’t make very much sense. You’re asked to break into a fellow member’s private quarters—a big no-no for the guild—and steal some incriminating documents. You then blackmail the steward. This could have been a great place to have some inter-faction conflict: as a fellow member of the guild (or guildmaster!), you simply talk to the steward instead of blackmailing them. Or, you could blackmail the steward and lose your guild membership. Or, if you failed to do anything, you could just simply wipe out the Thieves Guild and clear the Jarl of Blackbriar’s mob influence with Mjoll the Lioness, if you haven’t done so already—you did watch Mumbles’ video at the top of this post, right? There are several ways this quest could go, several ways it could play out. It’s a missed opportunity.4

It’s a Rat’s Race

I think part of the problem is caused by the game—and The Elder Scrolls brand— being too big to be ambitious, and Bethesda is trying to please everyone by not taking any major risks. If you don’t look too deeply into the issue, the Stormcloaks are all about seceding Skyrim from Imperial rule, because the Empire is weak. The Imperials want to unify the Empire to present a strong face against the Thalmor. But if you dig deeper into the issue, the Stormcloaks are very racist.5 They don’t care for the Dunmer who have taken refuge in Windhelm. They’ve basically enslaved the Argonians, like the Dunmer did on Vvardenfell. The Stormcloaks essentially believe that Skyrim belongs to the Nords, and only the Bretons, Redguards, and Cyrodiils are tolerated.

This becomes more apparent if you choose to play a Khajiit. Khajiit are not allowed in the cities of Skyrim. The only Khajiit in Skyrim are in the travelling trade caravans, and the one chef working in the kitchen of the Thalmor embassy. The reason for this is that Khajiit are typically seen as unscrupulous scoundrels who will steal everything that isn’t bolted down, as well as having an addiction to skooma; aside from the skooma, I played my Khajiit perfectly to that stereotype. Neither the Thieves Guild nor the Dark Brotherhood includes any other Khajiit in their number despite this. (Also, none of the khajiit in-game can be married, so my character couldn’t even marry someone of the same species.)

The reason this is a problem is because it means the race of your character doesn’t matter. Personally, I found it very difficult to care about anything happening in Skyrim. Aside from blatant verbal racism, nobody treated my character any differently. The fiercely xenophobic Stormcloaks welcomed my character when I decided the Imperials kind of suck. The Thalmor, who the Khajiit are supposed to be allied with in lore, would turn on my character without hesitation. I was never asked to find an alternative means to entering any given city; I could always just walk in through the front gates.

How is a role player supposed to care about how poorly the Khajiit (or Argonians, or Dunmer) are treated when they don’t experience any of that hardship firsthand? Players are granted many privileges simply because they are the player. Choosing “the wrong race” is obviously something Bethesda wanted to avoid, but it would have opened up so many new opportunities. My character, a khajiit, could have been allowed into Whiterun because he was one of the only survivors of Alduin’s attack on Helgen. Imagine how that conversation would go! (If you cannot imagine, I have provided a pre-imagined conversation for you.)

Player character (PC): “I need to see the Jarl.”
Guard: “Why? Your kind are not allowed in Whiterun.”
PC: “I was at Helgen, I saw a dragon, and I need to see the Jarl right now.”
Guard: “Okay, cat, you can go to Dragonsreach, but the guards will be watching you. Don’t do anything stupid.”

And then while you’re inside Whiterun, everyone would be looking at you, stepping away to keep their distance—and their coin purses. Guards would follow you, keeping an eye on you as if you were a trespasser in his shop. Some of the local tough guys might even walk up to your character and push him around to give you trouble… and everyone standing around you could point and laugh.

When you finally get to the Jarl, deal with the local dragon, and become his thane, it is only then that you are given free access within Whiterun. It is only then that the citizens of Whiterun stop harassing your character. The Jarl could also provide letters of commendation if you wanted to travel to another city. Alternatively, if I wanted to play my character as a cat burglar, then additional ways of getting into each city (illegally) could be available. Isn’t that far more interesting than having the exact same experience as a Nord, Dunmer, Argonian, High Elf, or Imperial?

Skyrim’s big problem is that there are a lot of really cool things and some interesting characters, but there aren’t really that many conflicts. Conflict creates interesting choices, and interesting choices lead to better replay value. I’d love to see factions go to war with each other, because that creates some cool story telling opportunities. I’d love to see more intersections between quests—like ‘Blood on the Ice’ and ‘Mourning Never Comes’—because that creates some cool stories. When quests and systems collide and unexpected results occur, that’s where the cool stories (and best screenshots/videos) come from. Mjoll the Lioness is a really cool character who wants to clean up Riften, but the only thing she’s good for is asking you to go fetch her sword from some Dwemer ruin, and then you can marry her afterward.6

  1. Which isn’t that honest, come to think of it.
  2. Or as Mumbles put it, the “Clark Kent of Skyrim.”
  3. The Fighters Guild knock-off, not the sexy kind from Firefly.
  4. In Morrowind there was a faction called the Imperial Cult that was big on the Talos worship; some of the quests involved being a missionary and trying to convert people from worshipping Vivec and the Tribunal. In Skyrim, the Imperial Cult could have made a return, and the Stormcloaks’ version of this quest could have unique interactions with the Cult.
  5. Admittedly, I didn’t dig very deep into the issue. I was turned off from paying attention to the Stormcloaks about 15 seconds after I entered Windhelm.
  6. You know, just like every other NPC you can marry.

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  1. The Thalmor are an interesting case. I liked the Imperials because they seemed more “worldly” than the Nords and the lack of racism was refreshing (because I married a lizard man). So anyway, if you join with the Imperials you learn right away that the Thalmor not only do what they please, but they hate you. No matter WHAT you do, they fucking hate you.

    When you see all the non-rpg elements in this game pile up, it’s a wonder why we played it for so many hours. How did I ever feel immersed in this world when I couldn’t do anything unique with my character?

    • The Thalmor suck, for what they are. They’re basically NPCs representing an evil player: They go anywhere, do anything, and if someone doesn’t like it, they DIE. Khajiit and wood elves (and maybe Argonians?) are all supposed to be allied with the Thalmor. Include the high elves, and that gives the player three (maybe four) opportunities to “join them.” Or even just find an officer and say, “hey, I’m one of you guys, I got captured at the border, gimme some gear.” There’s no explanation for why our character was captured at the start of the game, so this can give us something to work with. But then there’s the whole Alduin thing, y’know? We sneak into the embassy for the main quest and we see that the Thalmor have as little of a clue as to what is going on, but are equally worried as the Blades lady is. Screw joining the Blades, let’s take the main quest down the Thalmor road.

      It’s like Bethesda said, “the player can do this, this and this.” They never took the time to say, “the player can’t do this,” unless it was immediately followed by “until the plot requires it.” What’s the old Dungeons and Dragons credo? “Few rules, many exceptions?” Skyrim needs more exceptions.

  2. Fischer /

    Skyrim stinks. You don’t play Skyrim, the game plays YOU. It’s like riding on rails, no choices matter. Almost all the NPC’s treat you like crap, even while you are saving their rotten little towns from Dragons and Vampires. This was my first (and last) Bethesda game. Waste of money.

  3. Lobsel Vith /

    I think you make some fair points. I do want to note that you don’t get to join the Dark Brotherhood in the expansion Tribunal; you might be thinking of the Morrowind mod “To Serve Sithis”, that allows the Nerevarine to join the Dark Brotherhood.

    As for the Stormcloaks, they aren’t an inherently racist organization. Some Nords in general are racist, just like everyone else on Nirn; however, it’s made perfectly clear that non-Nords are welcome to join the organization, Ulfric doesn’t care about the race of your protagonist (while Gamlmar, on the other hand, brings it up), Ulfric is trying to establish an alliance with High Rock, and the proprietor in Falkreath notes that he’s tolerant of non-Nords because of his time in the Stormcloaks.

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