So we’re now working for Karliah, who was framed twenty-five years ago for murdering the guild master. Mercer is the real murderer, and now he’s running the guild. The old guild master was Gallus, and we now have a translation of his journal. So far we’ve learned that:
- Mercer Frey stole from the guild vault.
- Then he stole something from the “Twilight Sepulchre”.
- Then he killed Gallus, blamed the murder on Karliah, and ascended to guild master.
- Then he ran the guild for 25 years while Karliah did a whole lot of nothing. (Well, she found Gallus’ journal. I would think that finding the personal journal of your best friend, partner in crime, guild leader, and lover ought to take less than two and a half decades, but what do I know? Maybe it was, like, way, way down in the couch cushions.)
Then Karliah and I head back to confront the guild. (Er. Confront them with what?) The guild members are angry when we arrive. The thing with Gallus happened twenty-five years ago when most of these people would have been kids, but they seem to know who Karliah is on sight. They want to know why I’ve brought this murderer into the guild. Then Karliah shows them the translated copy of Gallus’ journal. Brynjolf reads it, and immediately concludes that Karliah is telling the truth.
I’ve written before about “story collapse”. That’s the process where some plot hole or nonsensical event irritates you and causes you to analyze the story more closely, which reveals more problems, which leads to more scrutiny, until the whole thing falls apart. This business with presenting a translated diary as evidence is where it happened for me. Up until this point, I’d been just mildly irritated with the quest chain. At first I just thought the tale was a bit dull and convoluted, but once this scene happened I began looking more closely and uncovered all of these other problems.
Why would any of these people accept this diary as proof? It was written out by that scholar guy. They can’t read the original, and even if they could they have no reason to believe it’s legitimately from Gallus. How do they know we didn’t just write whatever we wanted in a book? But no, the will and loyalty of the entire guild turns on this single bit of “evidence”, and they immediately embrace the woman who was trying to “ruin” the guild yesterday.
The dialog gets really sloppy here, with Brynjolf reading from the book and saying that, “Mercer has been stealing from the guild for years,” when the book is obviously limited to events of 25 years ago. For further proof, they decide to look in the guild vault. Someone points out that the vault door is un-pickable and requires two different keys to open. One guy uses his key, then Brynjolf uses the second, and they look inside:
It’s gone! The vault is cleaned out!
There are so many problems with this that the complete deconstruction would be an article in and of itself. But to cover the major points:
If he’s been stealing from the fault for “years” then how did nobody notice? I assume people have been putting treasure INTO the vault? Didn’t they ever notice that the loot was vanishing? And what’s all this for? Why would the guild pile up riches in some common pot? Is this some kind of hippie communist Thieves Guild, where everyone shares? Why don’t they just split the loot between themselves? I doubt they have to worry about paying property taxes on their sewer-base. More importantly, the entire quest line began with repeated references to how the guild had fallen on hard times. If they were so broke, then why did they have a vault full of gold? Or if times were so tough, why are they so distraught to find the vault empty? How do they know that Mercer is the one who cleaned it out and that he was acting alone? You can explain some of these questions, but only at the expense of others. This entire sequence is deeply flawed, and we’re only just getting started.
All of this is supposed to be a huge reveal, but it falls completely flat. We don’t have any stake in this. Nobody really talked about the vault and it was never established that people cared or even thought about this vault. We never saw inside of it until now, so it’s not a terrible shock for the player to lose something they didn’t have two minutes ago. Instead of being a turning point in the story, it’s this awful traffic jam of fridge logic.
The thieves ask how Mercer got into the vault, since it needs two keys. You would think that thieves would be able to wrap their heads around a conundrum like this. You know: Maybe he made a copy of one of the keys? It’s mechanical, not magical, so making a copy shouldn’t be that hard, especially if you have 25 years to work on it and you know where the originals are kept.
This sequence hinges on this two-key business, but the game never even explains how it works. Brynjolf has a key. Devlin has a key. Does Mercer have a key? Are the two keys the same? Are they interchangeable? How many keys are there? Does anyone else know about Mercer’s super-lockpick ability? On and on. I’m not saying these questions are plot holes. I’m just saying the game didn’t give us enough information to understand this crime or make sense of anyone’s reactions to it.
This is exactly the sort of thing you get with story collapse. If the rest of this story had been tight, focused, well-paced, and logical, most players would skate right past this sort of business and expect things to make sense later. But once the storyteller has blown their trust and failed in obvious ways, I start analyzing and second-guessing them. I’m willing to bet the original author didn’t have any answers to any of the questions I posed in the previous paragraph.
We’ll find out later how he opened the doors, but it’s beside the point. The hard part of cleaning out this vault has nothing to do with opening the stupid door. The vault doors are well-lit, and the outer room is always full of people. Even if the doors weren’t locked, how did Mercer get these noisy, heavy things open without anyone noticing? And then how did he lug seven treasure chests worth of loot under a light, across the room, and up a ladder without anyone noticing? Even if he had perfect invisibility, people should still have noticed these very prominent doors being open.
I’m sorry guys, but if he made off with that much bling all at once without you noticing, then you deserved it. In fact, your anger strikes me as being really, really hypocritical. We’re all thieves here. We know how this works. You guys just suck.
Brynjolf then sends me to a house that Mercer owns in town. Mercer never stays there, Brynjolf tells me, but I’m supposed to look for clues there anyway. I break into Mercer’s place and check it out. In the basement I find Mercer’s plans, which I bring back to Brynjolf. He explains that the plans show that Mercer is going after the Eyes of the Falmer. This is a major pair of watermellon-sized gems. This job was a pet project of Gallus before he died. Brynjolf says Mercer is going after them as a final insult to the guild.
Dude, it’s been twenty-five years since Gallus died, and you never made any move for these jewels. I think it was really sporting of him to wait this long. You had plenty of time to go and get them if you wanted them. If you couldn’t be bothered then you get no sympathy from me.
Brynjolf says that if Mercer gets his hands on those gems, he’ll be gone, and set up for life. So we have to stop him.
Isn’t he set up for life anyway, now that he has seven chests worth of loot in his pockets? If he’s going after the Eyes of the Falmer, then wouldn’t he have taken his plans with him? Maybe he got those gems months ago? Or years ago? Rather than chase him into the tomb and hope he’s there, why don’t we camp the exit and wait for him to come out? Why not figure out how he plans to leave Skyrim?
Before we go after the bad guy, Karliah says we have to follow her. Mercer is a Nightengale(!) so we can’t hope to defeat him without preparation.
Game designer: Once again you have shot yourselves in the foot. You could sell the idea of Mercer being a badass if you hadn’t already forced us to team up with him and shown us what a complete clown he is. You undercut your villain before you even established him as a villain!
Even though we’re supposedly in a hurry to follow Mercer, let’s follow Karliah and see what her plan is.
Bad and Wrong Music Lessons
A music lesson for people who know nothing about music, from someone who barely knows anything about music.
Best. Plot Twist. Ever.
Few people remember BioWare's Jade Empire, but it had a unique setting and a really well-executed plot twist.
A game I love. It has a solid main story and a couple of really obnoxious, cringy, incoherent side-plots in it. What happened here?
Good to be the King?
Which would you rather be: A king in the middle ages, or a lower-income laborer in the 21st century?
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.