on Dec 30, 2011
We’re here in this ruin with Karliah and Brynjolf to kill Mercer. Now, we’re all members of the Thieves Guild. In fact, we’re all members of the Nightingales, the secret cult within the Thieves Guild. You would think that if anyone is ready for some sneaking around, it would be these two. But you would be wrong. You would be so wrong. You should be embarassed at how wrong you’d be. Here is how a fight goes:
I, striking from the shadows, drop a foe with a single arrow. The other foes in the area notice this, and begin searching for me. If I were on my own, I would slink away and hit them again from another vantage point, until they were all dead. With the Nightingales in tow, things work a bit differently. As soon as foes begin looking for me, these two idiots start screaming combat taunts, running out into the open and starting a huge melee. This attracts every foe in the room. They block my shots until they run out of hitpoints and go down. (They take a knee. They’re actually immortal.) The foes then abandon them and make a beeline for me, thus forcing my squishy, stealth-focused character into this huge clusterfarg of a battle. Assuming I manage to survive, Karliah and Brynjolf then stand up and spout a couple of triumphant taunts.
This is a move right out of the Leroy Jenkins playbook. (More of a pamphlet, really. It only has one play.) It is completely mystifying to me that the designers would saddle you with these two morons for this extended dungeon crawl. They ruin the atmosphere, they ruin the gameplay, and they’re a constant reminder that the quest I’m on makes no damn sense.
Their one saving grace is that they are just as stupid and clumsy as Mercer, and you can lead them into traps to amuse yourself.
|Come on guys. Just a little closer. Remember: Pain is just comedy leaving the body.|
We reach the final chamber and the game has the nerve to grab my camera for a cutscene. It stands me up and forces me to listen to the other characters yatter on while I’m prevented from taking any action. Mercer uses his powers to make Brynjolf attack Karliah. So after babysitting these two idiots through the entire complex, they’re out of the fight. This is a shame, because this is the only fight where they might be useful.
Now, the game hasn’t really pulled the player out of stealth. Although, it’s perfectly understandable for the player to think this is the case, since your foe is looking at you and talking to you. By reflex I hit the crouch button as soon as the conversation ended, which caused me to stop sneaking, since the conversation hadn’t actually outed me. This camera-grab is sloppy and frustrating, but I don’t have time to dwell on all the reasons this is bad from a game design perspective. Let’s just move on.
The room we’re in is collapsing. Karliah mentioned something earlier about how Mercer’s power is causing this place to become unstable. It’s not clear if he’s doing this on purpose, or how it could possibly benefit him, or where this power is coming from. Is it some secret power held by the Skeleton Key? Is this an innate power that the key unlocked? Who cares! Camera shaking means tension and excitement!
Karliah and Brynjolf loop through some canned messages while they fight, and Mercer brings out his well-worn collection of combat taunts. It is, I have to say, very chatty in here. Anyway, Mercer bites it and I grab the skeleton key and the Eyes of the Falmer so we can leave. Mercer’s earthquakes cause a tunnel to collapse and the chamber to flood. This would be a cool sequence if this entire setup wasn’t so humiliatingly contrived and absurd.
We make our escape. Outside, Karliah tells me that it’s time to take the skeleton key back to Nocturnal. She can’t do it, because she’s afraid to face Nocturnal again after her failure. Thank goodness. Maybe Nocturnal will pay me for babysitting these two.
So I’m sent to a new ruin. Inside the door I meet the ghost of Gallus.
|Greetings, mortal. Did you bring a deck of cards? Maybe a book or something? I seem to have a lot of time on my hands in here.|
Yeah. In case you thought that whole, “Serve her in death” business was just hyperbole. We’re apparently doomed to spend eternity locked in the dusty old tomb. Sadly, the other Nightingale ghosts have all gone insane and will attack me on sight. So, I might end up spending eternity locked in a tomb and insane. This deal with Noctural is the most expensive nothing I’ve ever bought.
I get to the end of the dungeon, stick the Skeleton Key back in its proper Skeleton Lock, and Nocturnal shows up to blather at me. She’s so smug she should challenge Reaver to an eye-rolling contest.
I look to one side and I see…
Gah! Karliah? You specifically said you couldn’t face Nocturnal, and now you magically appear at the end for no reason?!? Can this questline go for more than ten minutes without contradicting itself?
Karliah ends the questline by talking about how the guild is restored and there are pockets just brimming with coin out there. There are valuables, ripe for the taking! Let’s go be thieves!
Pffft. Why start now? Hey genius, how about we start with tracking down the seven treasure chests of loot that Mercer swiped? No? You forgot about those didn’t you? Oh well. Have fun picking pockets. Loser.
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.
Mercer stole the Skeleton key, which allowed him to rob the guild. Then he hung around and ran the guild diligently for twenty-five years. (Maybe he was stealing, but it was never enough for anyone to notice. Nobody ever complained about his leadership.) Then once they were (allegedly) broke, he cleaned them out and left. Isn’t the point of theft to get something for nothing? Why didn’t he rob the guild twenty-five years ago when they were supposedly flush with cash? Working for a quarter century seems like a pretty labor-intensive means of theft.
Gallus knew Mercer was stealing from the vault, but he never took action. He was the guild leader, yet he made no effort to expose Mercer. He knew Mercer had stolen the Skeleton Key, but he never told Karliah. We don’t know the details of what happened when Mercer killed Gallus, but if Gallus had just said something then Mercer’s entire plan would have failed.
Karliah was blamed for the murder and then did nothing for twenty-five years. She never tried to clear her name. Never checked on the temple she swore to protect. Never tried to recruit new Nightingales to replenish their ranks. When she did take action by going into the mead business, it was convoluted, expensive, doomed to failure, and ran counter to the goals of clearing her name. When she at last had the chance to capture her nemesis, she shot a stranger instead.
Brynjolf (and the rest of the guild) accepted the translation as irrefutable evidence that the guildmaster was the Bad Guy. Then they somehow failed to notice someone carrying off seven chests of loot that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.
Nocturnal is a deity (or some sort of supernatural being) and doesn’t need to make sense that other characters do, but for the sake of completeness: She created an artifact and then formed a secret society to prevent anyone from using it. When she was betrayed, she didn’t bother telling her remaining follower. She never revoked the powers she gave Mercer after he took the key. Instead, she put a curse on a group of people who had never heard of the artifact, had nothing to do with its theft, didn’t benefit of its use, and who had no way of making it right.
The Player is railroaded into accepting this idiotic sequence of actions, is prevented from asking reasonable questions, and is forced to ask stupid ones. (Particularly at the beginning.)
You know what? I would tolerate all of this willfully stupid and lazy writing if the quests themselves worked thematically. In Oblivion, the Thieves Guild quest ended with a major heist of an item of supreme value from a well-guarded location. (
You actually steal one of the Elder Scrolls, for which this franchise is named.) The Dark Brotherhood quests in Skyrim are a fun chain of assassinations, beginning with bottom-feeders and ending with a daring, audacious kill that will go down in Tamriel history. Along the way there are twists, turns, and betrayals. Sure, there are a few plot holes, but at least you’re playing the part of an assassin. The Thieves Guild quests are this muddled chain of gibberish actions that don’t follow any sort of logic and don’t have anything to do with sneaking and stealing.
The Thieves Guild quests were packed with cruft. The game had to explain property dealings, the structure of organized crime in Riften, mead brewing, the purpose of the Nightingales, the nature of Nocturnal, and the business with the Falmer language. The game would force-feed you a bunch of exposition, which usually was only important for one quest. (And was often illogical or self-contradictory.) Then instead of building on that established base, the game would bring out a new slate of plot elements that needed to be explained. This can work when the writer has a passion for world-building, foreshadowing, and a knack for misdirection and plot twists, but that is not the case here. This writer had no head for this sort of thing, and I don’t understand why they went to all this trouble.
None of this was necessary. We didn’t need the Thieves Guild quests to try and tell a convoluted tale. Once again, I’m not insisting that all games be Portal or Planescape Torment. (Although, a few MORE games like that would be nice. But I digress.) I don’t demand that every game have solid gold writing, or be long, complex tales with a huge cast of characters, deep imagery, profound ideas, and multiple twists. All I ask is that there’s enough story to give your actions context, and that the story (long or short) make sense. The Thieves Guild quests could easily have been a series of thefts, building up to a single audacious heist. Maybe throw in a betrayal at the end if you want to be really fancy.
Some parts of the missions were fun, but those moments happened when the story left me alone for a while. If all you want is a little shoot & loot, you’re better off just wandering around the wilderness, diving into random dungeons. If this quest had been a stand-alone game, I would have given it a Goldun Riter Awward in a heartbeat.
Bethesda, you can do better. The first half hour of this game proves it.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.