The Altered Scrolls, Part 16: Goals and Failures

By Rutskarn Posted Friday Jan 8, 2016

Filed under: Elder Scrolls 131 comments

Skyrim‘s ethos is a re-evaluation of Oblivion‘s goals, focuses, and idiosyncratic approach to player freedom. It comes down to what a player is supposed to be able to seamlessly do–and what they aren’t.

Oblivion was ruthless in comparison to its predecessor: it re-organized, simplified, nudged, and foolproofed in order to let any character do anything they wanted. The base game contained no contradictory factions, no NPCs that could be killed inadvertently to terminate a questline, level scaling to make almost all content instantly available, and no stat requirements for advancement. Bethesda allowed one build to seek out a variety of experiences, from the Hitman-lite stylings of the Dark Brotherhood to the heist-styled Thieves’ Guild to the clamor and glamour of the Arena. Although its strict level scaling locked underpowered characters out of just about everything–a critical flaw, to be sure–the developers were largely successful.

Skyrim‘s approach is superficially similar. Like in Oblivion, most of the content can be immediately accessed by a dedicated character. Like in Oblivion, the game offers a variety of factions and quest types to every character without forcing players to choose. But there’s a critical difference, and one that’s arguably generated most of the game’s popularity and controversy: where Oblivion permits one character to access most of the game’s content, Skyrim permits one playstyle to access most of the game’s content.

Bethesda character models range in appearance from shopping-mall caricatures to rotted pumpkins. Skyrim represents human models at their best. I've got some strong negative comments about the art design I'll get around to later, but the people, nature, and buildings all look pretty neat.
Bethesda character models range in appearance from shopping-mall caricatures to rotted pumpkins. Skyrim represents human models at their best. I've got some strong negative comments about the art design I'll get around to later, but the people, nature, and buildings all look pretty neat.

It’s a slight generalization, but a valid one: a startling amount of quests in the game, regardless of faction or storyline, call upon a player to arrive at a dungeon and fight one’s way to a scripted moment or quest item at the end. Exceptions, like the Thalmor embassy assault and much of the Dark Brotherhood’s missions, are notable; most of the game comes around to errands that don’t resonate with the themes of the originating faction.

The grand finale of the Thieves’ Guild questline in Oblivion is a legendary heist. The grand finale of the Skyrim Thieves’ Guild is a dungeon crawl ending in a boss battle.

The special plot-provided dungeons of Oblivion are expeditions to a hostile dimension with architecture and layouts unlike anything in the mortal plane that require adapting to new sources of magicka, health, resources, and even physical progress through the level–like the world is forced to adapt to the invasion of the alien, ruthless, unbound-by-logic-of-mortal-warfare Daedra. The plot-related dungeons of Skyrim introduce a new puzzle mechanic for getting through gates and are otherwise very similar to the rest of the dungeons in the game.

The Bard’s College is dedicated to culture, storytelling, and the immortalization of history. NPC bards in the gameworld sing songs and tell tales. When you join them, the first thing they ask you to do is crawl through a dungeon and retrieve an artifact.

Skyrim knew what kind of game it was making: it was making a game for player characters to follow questlines that lead them across wilderness and into dungeons full of monsters, loot, and a few plot-critical items. No one can say Oblivion completely avoided this kind of fixation–there’s a few distinct types of dungeon setups in the game and they’re not shy about recycling them–but there is definitely more memorable content that takes place within civilian or exterior areas then there is in Skyrim. It’s thematically appropriate (Oblivion‘s Cyrodiil is cosmopolitan, Skyrim is rugged and frontierlike even though it’s supposedly ancient) but this exists to serve the gameplay choices, not the other way around.

This fixation is complete. When the game isn’t based around dungeons, it struggles with basic problems of quest logic and applied context. For an example, take the city of Windhelm’s serial killer mystery, Blood on the Ice:

The streets are stalked by a mysterious butcher. Bodies of people you know are piling up and the guards are helpless, hopeless, to stop the violence. As the city’s only hope, you must follow a trail of insidious clues, accusations, bodies, and and red herrings to find and confront the culprit.

And I really do mean you must. Even if–like me–you accidentally discovered the killer’s diary and evidence of the murders before the questline actually began.

It was an awkward moment, to be sure: I was robbing a house and found in a barely-locked chest enough evidence to arrest the culprit a hundred times over. Awkward–but not a problem. The problem was that there was no way to use it–to confront the guards with it, to confront the killer with it, even to take justice into my own hands. I had to helplessly watch as NPCs died around me, unable to solve a mystery that wasn’t a mystery at all.

Without exaggeration or hyperbole: this is a problem that should not have existed in any RPG that isn’t a surreal comedy. It’s straightforward to write around no matter what the quest designer’s intention is. The evidence I found could have been meaningless without context discovered in pursuing the quest, an elegant solution. (“So the killer uses Altmer poison? Wait…I know where I found a book on Altmer poison!”) The evidence could have ended the quest before it started, an empowering solution. (“So I can just randomly find the killer by exploring the world? Wow, this game rewards poking around, doesn’t it?”) The evidence could have been absent until the player was ready for it, a crude solution (“I thought I checked this chest? …whatever. Quest’s over.”) Any of these would have demonstrated a confident–frankly, a basic–understanding of how to handle possible player actions.

This is writing gameplay flowcharts first, worrying about players applying context second. Blood on the Ice is one of the most ambitious and visible sidequests in any of the game’s cities and it’s badly mismanaged–and it’s not even the most damning disconnect in the game. That exists in one of the game’s two main questlines and comes up the moment they transition from fighting monsters and plumbing tombs into something subtler.

The map is much more useful than Oblivion's, but I'm not happy about how it takes a moment to load and I do wish it showed what you'd explored a little better.
The map is much more useful than Oblivion's, but I'm not happy about how it takes a moment to load and I do wish it showed what you'd explored a little better.

Players who choose to fight for the Empire are charged with defeating Ulfric Stormcloak, a rebel who leads half the game’s cities.

(It’s worth pointing out that an earlier Bethesda might have taken the obvious step of turning some of these cities hostile to Imperial agents, at least until the populace was in some way conquered or turned by the tides of the war; a small example of how the game doesn’t let the implications of its context interfere with freedom and gameplay.)

Ulfric’s grudge against the Empire is fueling a terrible civil war that’s split the realm and weakens both factions against the real threat, a rising Thalmor tyranny. The stakes of quickly and decisively ending the war could not be higher. What will end the war? Ask your chief ally, a true Nord of Skyrim and influential political figure who understands the conflict better than anyone, and he has only one answer: “Ulfric Stormcloak’s head on a pike.”

Here’s the problem: Ulfric Stormcloak’s head is by no means inaccessible. He’s standing in his throne room a short, safe cart ride away. You can easily walk up to him and clock him with your weapon of choice, and it will do nothing but stun him. Why? Because he’s needed for a questline and therefore invulnerable. Specifically, the questline that culminates in killing him.

You can’t kill Ulfric Stormcloak because he’s essential to the quest where you kill Ulfric Stormcloak.

No other game in the series was this careless. Morrowind put its final opponent in a lair you need plot-relevant items to access. Oblivion simply hid him until the appropriate moment. But Skyrim not only leaves him in the gameworld, the Imperial questline requires you to deliver him a message.

From the NPC who advocated killing Ulfric.

Challenging him to a duel.

The obvious excuse is that Ulfric needs to be there so you can join his faction instead, but that’s only one of the many points of failure in this train of logic. Killing Ulfric is confirmed to be the way to end the war and you can walk up to him and you can’t kill him. Removing even one variable would make this much easier to swallow.

  • You can kill Ulfric–but it won’t matter, because it’s capturing the capital that will turn the tide. The logic here is internally consistent, lets the player do the obvious thing, and means you still have to do those quests the devs broke their backs to program.
  • Ulfric’s unkillable, but there’s no reason to try, because it’s capturing the capital that matters. At least here the frustration comes from denying the player’s id, not the player’s basic problem solving.
  • Ulfric is in hiding so, for example, some random Imperial doesn’t ride up and kill him and end the war. Whether the player is Imperial or rebel, all contact with the Stormcloaks is made through Ulfric’s brother/sister/vizier/lover/court mage/impersonator. This satisfies logic and introduces a potentially interesting new character without frustrating the player–either that they couldn’t kill Ulfric or that killing him didn’t solve much.
  • Killing Ulfric is possible and ends the war early. Or makes it worse. Or does anything.
  • The contradiction is in some way acknowledged or discussed and additional information reconciles it. This is the most likely solution and easily the most annoying, since it’s a patch job over a structural issue–something like stretching an SUV chassis over a go-kart. It’s barely better than nothing and makes discussing the problem annoying, because those well-disposed and emotionally receptive to the rest of the story may be inclined to dismiss criticisms of this small part of it by citing the relevant dialogue as a “gotcha” without acknowledging how unsatisfying it is.

None of these solutions are perfect for everyone, but even the most cursory hand-waves resolve the basic problem. This is not just a question of personal preference, as most debates about Skyrim‘s place in the franchise become; this is not a matter of what kind of game I think Skyrim should have been. This was not something controversial done well, this was something basic done poorly. It’s a shame.



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131 thoughts on “The Altered Scrolls, Part 16: Goals and Failures

  1. Viktor says:

    That 3rd paragraph sums up all the problems I have with Skyrim that I couldn’t even articulate. This entire essay is really perfect. Guilds should be focused around what they do and should naturally be borderline inaccessable to people who aren’t focused on that. It’s not even hard to do well, but Skyrim very much didn’t even try. And I get that that wasn’t their goal, but why have a Mage’s Guild if you’re not even going to pretend it was designed for magic-users?

    1. Nimas says:

      God I miss Morrowind’s “You must have stat X this high to advance.”

      Yes, it would be annoying and would prevent some people from seeing the content easily, but the fact that to be a high level mage/thief/fighter in any guild meant that you were a high leveled mage/thief/fighter.

      1. Geebs says:

        I miss Morrowind’s “mages don’t use stairs”.

        1. PossiblyInsane says:

          Except when they want to grind acrobatics.

          1. Geebs says:

            I think I did that through magically-assisted base-jumping. It’s possible that I was having too much fun to notice whether I was actually levelling up.

      2. Couscous says:

        Stat restrictions aren’t even needed. Just make the missions designed so people who aren’t good at those things won’t have an easy time at it. Thief missions that require the player not to kill anyone for practical reasons make perfect sense and can be combined with more stealth based gameplay. Have it so that a player could get through the magic quest line with enough fancy expensive scrolls that can allow them to get past parts that require magic an actual magic player could be expected to know. The fighters guild equivalent in Skyrim is obviously going to favor combat skills.

        1. Viktor says:

          Exactly. Fighters Guild sends you to kill tough things, win duels, make it through dungeons, and similar tasks. Stuff that heavy armor and a big chunk of sharp metal are best at. Mages guild sends you to puzzle dungeons that certain spells make easier, has you demonstrate spells for classes, and deals with oppts too numerous for the average fighter. Thieves work off similar principles to Morrowind’s Thieves Guild, where the stuff they want tends to be guarded, so if you want to make a profit, you’d better do it without getting caught or killing anyone. Maybe toss in the Oblivion Dark Brotherhood special bonuses, because that worked really well IMO. You don’t have to include special restrictions, just make it harder for a Fighter to do Mage stuff without learning spells, and players will naturally figure that out.

          1. Decius says:

            Have a thieves guild or Dark Brotherhood questline that you permanently fail if you kill someone by accident during the job.

            Have lots of things that can be failed without requiring a reload, and if you aren’t good enough at thief stuff you can expect to have a bad time.

        2. swenson says:

          I really, really missed that Skyrim didn’t even try to punish you for killing people while on Thieves’ Guild jobs like Oblivion did.

          I know that technically, it does support the idea that while the Thieves Guild of Oblivion had a code of honor and pride in who they were, the Skyrim Thieves Guild has devolved into a pack of thugs. But it should’ve been presented that way a little more. Let’s say, for example, the player is told that they can kill people on jobs, but one of the more old-fashioned thieves (literally doesn’t matter who, pick anyone) is like “ah back in the old days we were more than just common thugs, we got jobs done without killing anybody”. And then if the player does the given job without killing anyone, they get some kind of bonus.

          I mean, even if Nocturnal was like “AND YOU KEEP KILLING PEOPLE, WHAT IS UP WITH THAT, YOUR INCOMPETENCE DISPLEASES ME” or something. Point out the divergence from the three rules and make it a plot point.

          Anyway, I consider it a point of pride that I accomplished every single Thieves Guild mission in Skyrim without killing or even being seen by anybody, aside from monsters/people there was no way to avoid killing. No, the game didn’t reward me for it, but it made me happy.

      3. Limeaide says:

        Even if they did that, it wouldn’t solve the problem where I ended up bashing the anomalies with a mace because they took less damage from spells

        You’d think they’d make the mage’s guild questline at the very least not actively antagonistic towards a magic-heavy build, and avoid such things as enemies with magic resistance and a dungeon that drains all your mana every room

        1. Kalil says:

          It’s hard to choose a ‘worst major questline’ for Skyrim. The Thieves Guild was sickeningly awful (see: Shamus’ writeup). The Civil War was ‘flat’, and full of unrealized potential. Dawnguard… Ugh. Dawnguard. But that Mages Guild questline is definitely a serious contender. Between the transparently evil, plot-invincible villain loitering around, alone and unprotected, in the center of the University, major NPCs dying while you’re AFK purely so that you can be ‘next in line’ to be archmage, the complete lack of, y’know, actual magic in completing the quests, middling to pathetic rewards, annoyingly long quest dungeons (several of my playthroughs, I never did manage to summon up the willpower to go get the Staff of Mzulft), a dingus hidden down in the underground area like half the other major quests in the game (Dawnguard, Main Quest, Hermeus Mora), and the plethora of magic-resistant enemies, and that stupid mana-draining final dungeon… It was pretty awful.

    2. MadTinkerer says:

      I love the end of the Mage’s Guild quest. Who could possibly be the most qualified to take over the position of Archmage? Could it be the student who most recently applied? The same student who hasn’t had time to study because he’s been stuck running through dungeons since he joined the college? The person who, by definition, is the least qualified out of everyone else?

      A person who the psychic mages are interested in for some reason, except psychic magic can’t be learned by player characters and the psychic mages never let anyone else know why they think the player character is special.

      A person who may indeed be special by virtue of their connection to a set of artifacts that the antagonist has more experience with.

      A person who is told they have a special destiny to stop the antagonist, which would be great if you were allowed to try to stop him when he’s right there. Or warn anyone else about it. Or even just warn the antagonist to not mess with the artifact, because, even if he doesn’t listen to you, at least it would be lampshaded. Basically, your destiny is to be helpless to do anything to help anyone until all the senior staff are killed off so you can take over as The (Honorary) Most Qualified Mage.

      I sure remember how Dumbledore was killed off in book 1 and then they made Harry the Principal. That was a good story.

      And worst of all: the Archmage robes are hooded! The bonuses you get from it are negated by the fact that it takes up two magic item slots! It’s inherently worse than crafting your own robes!

      1. Lachlan the Mad says:

        I am determined to do a run of the College of Winterhold with a character who never casts a single spell. The only times you *must* cast a spell to proceed are (1) to obtain entry into the College (2) to escape from the trap with the necklace in your first dungeon and (3) during the lesson on how to cast wards. (1) can be bypassed if you seek entry during a certain point in the main quest, when they ask you to use a Dragon Shout instead. (2) can also be solved with a Shout. (3) is the only trouble, but one of the Daedric artefacts is a shield which casts a ward when you use it — if that counts for the quest, I’m golden.

        1. Viktor says:

          You can also make it into the College by entering through the sewer system’s back door. IDK if that starts the college questline, but if so you can skip the whole main quest suckiness.

        2. ivan says:

          1 can also be solved via a speech check. Also 2 can be solved by using a targeted standing stone power also, so if you don’t even want to dabble with shouts as being pseudo-magic you don’t have to. And 3 can be easily solved by murdering any of the other students. Pay a measly 250 gold once everyone’s calmed down, and the lesson is skipped (probably because the student characters all have dialogue in the conversation leading up to where the ward bit happens, but whatever it works).

          To me the real issue is the quest staff you have to use to finish the final encounter :( No real way around that one, far as I can tell.

      2. Izicata says:

        You can wear a circlet with the Archmage’s Robes, just not a hat.

  2. Ilseroth says:

    It took me a while to get to the civil war because I could honestly not be assed. The game starts with the imperials trying to off me, and the Stormcloaks are a racist bunch and as a Khajiit I kinda just decided to not bother.

    But when they told me to challenge Ulfric to a duel… as a proxy… and he just says “all right” and that’s it? And I can’t do anything? Not going to lie, just for giggles I opened the console and knocked out the command that made him not-invulnerable as I killed him. Turns out practically everyone nearby was invulnerable as well.

    Like, I get the idea of essential characters but it is unbelievably lazy. If I destroy your story, I don’t expect it to work around it. It’s destroyed. Fail the quest. Even if it’s a major one. It’s an open world game, there is other stuff for me to do.

    1. Hermocrates says:

      Essential characters was probably the first thing that truly irked me about Oblivion when it came out (not like the compass or fast travel system, which I can understand from a general playability perspective), but the amount to which Skyrim abuses it is ridiculous, and is almost enough to turn me off the game enitrely. It’s just so lazy…

      1. Ravens Cry says:

        What I really hate, hate, hate is when the game not only has invulnerable characters, but takes advantage of this fact by rubbing it in your face. The (wow!) almost 7 year old old autopsy of Fable 2 has many ‘good’ examples in it. “Oh, let’s make this character completely insufferable, yet give the player no agency to act on this is.” The kids in Little Lamplight in Fallout 3 are another example. Kids can be little [human bio-refuse units], but they there act like they know they’re invulnerable, and act as such with all the perversity of a crowd of Calvins without his kind and empathetic side.

        1. Ravens Cry says:

          Heck, even the door at Little Lamplight is an example! They could have made it look strong, practically invulnerable, but, no, they made it look like a flimsy looking door a raised voice could sunder, but, of course, you can’t.

      2. Rayen says:

        Im in the Middle of a playthrough of TES Morrowind and I have gotten the YOU FAIL message. It Reads, “With this characters death the strand of Fate is severed. Either Reload a previous save or continue in this doomed world.” EVERYBODY slaves to Gods are killable in Morrowind. It breaks the save to tell you that the main quest is now broken, and if you kill a bunch of people like if you’re working for the fighters guild, you can break other questlines. I like that. I like that alot. And in some cases if you need to kill someone and you already did for whatever reason the game acknowledges that they are in fact dead, and goes on without a problem. Why they didn’t carry this method forward truly baffles me.

        1. Decius says:

          In Tribunal, there’s one god you can’t kill. Soltha Sil. And you can’t kill him because Amelexia beat you to it.

          And the main boss of the main quest is invulnerable until you fix that.

          1. Will says:


            has 1000 HP which regenerate every frame, which is actually far from invulnerable (or invincible). It takes some exploiting, but it’s entirely possible and not even especially far-fetched to kill him “normally”.

            This breaks a bunch of quest scripting, of course, and can make it impossible to finish the game. (I don’t recall for the final boss; if you kill the final dungeon macguffin, which is similarly “invulnerable”, it definitely completely breaks the main quest.)

  3. Spammy says:

    I know that I’m immortal unless someone has a quest to kill me. I don’t see what your problem is.

  4. Da Mage says:

    I think Bethesda approach problems like this the wrong way. When player interaction can ruin a thing they’ve programmed, they look for ways to stop the player from meddling. Instead they should be looking at why the meddling is a problem and what part of their design is busted.

    As you said, if you adjust the story, the meddling doesn’t matter, but instead Bethesda just makes an NPC unkillable. I’m quite frankly surprised you were able to find the murder evidence before the quest started, and that it wasn’t in ‘needs a key’ house or not enabled in the gameworld yet. Cause that’s what Bethesda normally does to prevent to jumping into the middle of a quest location.

    1. manofsteles says:

      Ironically, Bethesda approached this problem in a brilliant way in Morrowind. When certain NPCs essential to the main quest died for any reason, the game simply alerted you to that fact and allowed the player to either reload or continue on anyway in a “doomed world.”

      Granted, not all essential NPCs would trigger this warning, and a lot of the time the player can simply kill Vivec to get around this; however, simply allowing the player to kill those NPCs and suffer the consequences truly gave weight to the player’s decisions. Especially since the “Back-Path” requires killing a very powerful (but not invincible) NPC and a permanent loss of at least 200 health.

      1. Hector says:

        In fact, the back-path is even easier since you don’t have to kill said NPC or lose 200 health, although it’s hard to know what you’re doing if so. You can win the game just by acquiring the two offensive items needed, and enough potions to mitigate the side effect for a few seconds. Hence the ridiculous, five-minute speedruns that don’t use bugs.

  5. Sartharina says:

    I think the big thing with Ulfric Stormcloak is that the game has a system limitation. They want him to be available and accessible to the player character for conversation, but they don’t want to go through the hassle of trying to make him believably unkillable at that point… because it’s not really possible to have a game be able to determine if a player’s motives are benign or malevolent to a person prior to the situation… and the game also runs into the Lord British Postulate anyway if they did give him reasonable protections (That would interfere with anyone who DOESN’T want to murder him interacting with him in a reasonable manner).

  6. Sleeping Dragon says:

    So in Spiderweb games killing (in some cases just attacking) an “essential” NPC typically leads to a non-standard game over. In most cases the screen tells you what specifically killed you, for example killing Avernum’s leader in broad daylight in the heart of his fortress basically gives you a screen describing how you fought wave after wave of the guard but were eventually overwhelmed, similarly powerful spellcasters often have some kind of “dying breath curse” or “magic gets unleashed upon death” thing. That said I can sort of see how this may not work for the empowerment fantasy that Bethesda games are.

    1. SyrusRayne says:

      On a tangent, Spiderweb games are a major reason I got into gaming – and certainly a major reason I got into the kind of gaming that lead me to sites like this. I remember playing a demo-disc (remember those?) of Exile 3: Ruined World. Shareware, of course, but Spiderweb’s older games had decent content for shareware.

      I hold a fondness for their games. To this day the aesthetic – massive sweeping cave systems, strange and towering fungi, distant dripping water – is among my favourites. What I wouldn’t pay to play an RPG with the fidelity of – say – Morrowind, in the Avernum universe. But maybe that’s just nostalgia.

  7. Sleeping Dragon says:

    I wouldn’t be a nitpicky nerd if I didn’t point out that in Morrowind you can basically go say hi to the boss at any time, especially if you have access to reliable sources of invisibility and/or levitation, and the boss is pretty much immortal* until the appointed conditions are met. That said the plot dictated immortality is a large part of his shtick and if you do come to him early he basically says hi back and sends you on your way.

    *Far as I know it’s also possible to, primarily by exploiting the game mechanics to obtain entirely overpowered gear, overcome the immortality mechanics without fulfilling all the conditions of the plot.

    1. Mokap says:

      You didn’t even need to abuse enchanting/alchemy – with Bloodmoon, you could find the arrows in a treestump (always forget the name of the arrows – think it’s the arrows of slaying) that do something like 5000 damage in one hit. If you shot Lorkhan with them, the game crashes. In Oblivion, I think you could hit Mehrunes Dagon with wabbajack with the same effect.

      1. IFS says:

        If you wabbajacked Dagon it changed his HP to whatever the thing he would be transformed into would have. You could then kill him, he’d fall over in the street and nothing would be made of it. The game didn’t crash, he just showed up again once you got inside so the ending cutscene could trigger.

  8. Vect says:

    Yeah, the whole “Can’t kill Ulfric” problem really grinded my gears. Like, even in New Vegas (take a shot, I guess) the game accounted for you killing Caesar, and it wasn’t like he was just some guy in a major city. The game at least forces you to relinquish most of your weapons before having a face-to-face chat with the guy, who is surrounded by guards.

    I had thought that it would have made sense if rather than just sitting on his throne, you had to move up in the Stormcloak ranks to get a chance for a proper face-to-face with Ulfric since, as noted, he’d probably be in hiding and not be simply talking to every schmuck that wanders into his lair. That or if you’re entering his keep your weapons get confiscated and any sign of magic turns enemies hostile. I thought about magic nullification such as either a MacGuffin that drains your Magicka or being forced to drink a Magicka-draining poison, though I guess the former would raise too many questions about “Why isn’t this used more” or something.

    I also thought about the Challenging to a Duel option. I guess the conceit is that your character would need to have some level of in-universe prestige (either through story progression or completion of a major sidequest) for the challenge to be accepted because otherwise it would not be taken seriously. Alternatively, I thought it would have been hilarious had the option to challenge him came as a last-minute option in the Stormcloak questline where after conquering Solitude you get to challenge Ulfric in front of his entire army (you’re obviously an important person in his army and he can’t say no or he’d look weak/hypocritical), at which point you can beat him and turn the power over to a faction of your choice (“Hey Elisif, sorry about killing your dudes, how’s about becoming High Queen?”). Taking power for yourself might only be an option for a Nord character and it’d come with some restrictions.

    1. Chauzuvoy says:

      So for contrast:

      In both games, there’s a faction of assholes that the player might be at war with or allied with. In both games, players are invited or ordered to meet up with the leader of said faction for some reason. Depending on your feelings towards the faction and/or character, it is reasonable that the player might try to kill them. To discourage this, Obsidian:

      1: Placed Caesar in a part of the map that you need to be ferried to by the legion, basically meaning that they have to not be instantly hostile, unlikely if you’ve been travelling with Boone or otherwise shooting the Legion whenever you see them.
      2: Had a literally security guard NPC take away all the player’s weapons upon entering that area.
      3: Made the area a big base filled with legion soldiers, so if you decide to shoot the guard and fight your way up, it’s a suitably epic battle (Unless you take advantage of the plot)
      4: Wrote a few throwaway lines about how Caesar isn’t really important anymore, and that power in the legion will basically fall to the next guy and things will go on as they have been until something bigger and more plotty solves the problem for good.

      Obsidian looked at their story and thought “OK. You want to kill Caesar? Go for it.” There are a lot of obstacles to just walking up and shooting him, but they acknowledge that that’s something the player might want to do. There’s at least one story point where you can end up armed in front of Caesar even as a staunch NCR character, I believe you get to keep holdout weapons if you’ve got them, and in one of the side quests it’s possible to kill him via botched brain surgery. Even ignoring that, the Legion base camp where Caesar hangs out is set up as a pretty functional dungeon with Caesar as the boss, if the player does decide to play it that way. And then they write the story such that it can continue even if the player does so.

      Bethesda’s stories in Oblivion, Skyrim, and both their Fallout entries have this problem where they’ll set up something interesting like the civil war, only to have it completely fall apart the second the player is asked to interact with it. The world was well thought-out and richly-detailed right up until the point where you started inhabiting it, and as a player character you innately create some kind of narrative decoherence field, preventing anything from making sense within whatever the draw distance is. Their environmental storytelling and the little vignettes they’ll create out of a few notes, object placement, and enemy choice are really the best-written parts of their games, but they’re also the least interactive. You’re wandering around having the pre-written story delivered to you as you explore the setting of it. It’s interesting, because the New Vegas example isn’t really much better than Ulfric in Skyrim in terms of responding to player choice in a major way – killing Caesar doesn’t have a huge ripple effect on the whole rest of the game. But because Obsidian designed the story around the PC instead of the NPCs, it works a heck of a lot better in play.

      1. GloatingSwine says:

        Bethesda’s little environmental vignettes also contribute to the reason that their Fallout worlds feel like nothing has happened for 200 years until the player comes along.

        Environmental storytelling fundamentally consists of the question “what happened here”, so it’s good at addressing events which occurred in the past, and Bethesda’s design is based on the expectation that because the player can go in any direction at any time, they can’t be expected to have any context about the world beyond the overall context of “post-apocalypse!”

        So they are left with nothing but tales of the old world to tell, because the player can’t be expected to have context about the new one and their environmental vignettes can only tell the past.

        1. This is also a reason why their choice of a voiced protagonist is so wildly baffling, because a voiced protagonist works much better as someone who really inhabits and has a role in the world instead of an outside observer of it, and the protagonist in Fallout 4 is an observer du jour.

          1. GloatingSwine says:

            But how would we have coped without the wildly inconsistent emotional display from line to line where you can range from bland inquisitiveness to “WHERE’S MY SOOOOOOON!!!” within the scope of a few seconds.

            Bethesda really should not be trusted with voice acting, they’re liable to do themselves an injury.

            (Though I suspect they’re not alone, “make sure that the emotional tone is consistent no matter what the player selects to say” is probably a difficult problem that needs interactions to be structured properly to account for possible responses).

          2. Decius says:

            That’s not a problem of a voiced protagonist. That’s a problem of budget constraints and a Bioware-style set of “choices” for the protagonist to say how they agree to do stuff for strangers.

        2. Sam says:

          This is exactly why I can’t take any of the “environmental storytelling” in Fallout 3 and 4 seriously. Dead person surrounded by nicknacks or beer or somesuch? But this is supposed to have happened 200 years ago and never got pushed aside? Cleaned up? Or even just thrown out back so the woman setting up shop in this diner or this family starting a farm don’t have to sit down for meals with Jerry the Skeleton staring at them?

          When the world is set 200 years after the apocalypse, whether a new society moves in or not, things don’t just sit there forever. If it’s outside there are storms, animals, and whatever abominations/mutations are in the latest Fallout. If it’s inside there’s decay, humans, collapsing supports, and probably the same factors as the outside environment.

      2. Tizzy says:

        I came to dread any quest in Skyrim that was more ambitious than a simple dungeon delve. Always waiting for it to break at any turn. Can’t say I ever had that feeling in New Vegas.

        And while we’re dealing with environmental storytelling : why are there never any survivors? That frustrated me no end. Find some written evidence of the people who came in before you, sometimes recently, follow the story unfold, arrive too late. Way to make me feel like a hero, Bethesda!

        I found one place where you walk in some cave for no reason and inadvertently save someone from their former associates. Even though it’s a very simple setup, it still managed to bug out for me.

        1. Radkatsu says:

          I’ve been planning a post-apoc story along these lines. It’ll be set over some 100 years or so, and each part will be a roughly self-contained story arc following a particular group of survivors. The location would be large but still small enough for the protagonists of a future story to come across remnants of previous survivors.

          In some cases a story will have a very bad ending for the characters where they fail to achieve their objectives, but a future group will find their remains and use the work they started to complete whatever it was, and similar things (including potentially BAD GUYS finding and making use of something the good guys of a previous story did, taking advantage of the head start).

          I’m kind of too busy writing other things at the moment, but I’m planning this a bit at a time for whenever I have time for it :)

    2. Andy_Panthro says:

      I killed Caesar in my playthrough of New Vegas. It didn’t feel very satisfying though. I’d reached the usual state of over-powered-ness, and when I got to the part of the main quest where you get to talk with him, instead I gunned down every last one of them. Alas, his replacement was never available to get shot at, and no matter the scores of legionnaires I killed, they could still send a sizeable army for the end-game.

      1. manofsteles says:

        I wouldn’t be surprised your lack of satisfaction upon killing Caesar was entirely intentional on Obsidian’s part. While the fight itself is supposed to be epic, given the amount of enemies and the layout of the encampment, Caesar’s death will not keep the vanguard of his army from attacking Hoover Dam, since Lanius is with them, as you pointed out. It seems that they used one of the possible approaches discussed in the article, by allowing the PC to assassinate a faction leader, but writing the main quest to allow for that contingency while hiding a backup leader out of the PCs reach.

        1. GloatingSwine says:

          You can actually assassinate the leaders of all of the major factions in Fallout: New Vegas.

          And then eat them.

          And there’s a special perk if you do.

          1. Radkatsu says:

            Mm, delicious Meat of Champions.

          2. Decius says:

            Wait, you can eat House?

            1. Vect says:

              Yes. Yes you can.

  9. Primogenitor says:

    Which game has worse writing and why – Elder Scrolls V or Mass Effect 2 ?

    1. Nyctef says:

      Skyrim almost certainly, I’d say. With Mass Effect 2, pretty much everything except the main quest was great – the individual character stories were the highlight of the game and there were plenty of interesting sidequests as well. I can hardly remember anything in Skyrim that lived up to that, with only the Dark Brotherhood questline almost being decent. Everything else was pretty meh story-wise.

      1. Nyctef says:

        I should say that a lot of the worldbuilding in Skyrim is fairly well done, and the fact that people can have long arguments about whether it’s better to support the Stormcloaks or the Imperials means that they definitely got something right there. It’s more the actual in-game questlines that are mostly forgettable.

        1. I like the fact that you can actually say “screw you, I’m outta here” and go destroy the Dark Brotherhood instead of joining them, too. That was one of the coolest moments in the game for me.

        2. Sleeping Dragon says:

          I will readily admit that at its high points Skyrim’s writing has nothing on ME2 at its high points. So do we try to average the horribly uneven writing of ME2 or do we compare the lowest points or what?

          The thing is Skyrim’s writing is primarily that, bland and forgettable, thieves’ guild questline is entirely made of stupid but, like all the questlines, it’s largely self contained and ultimately optional. I don’t think Skyrim comes close to the compound stupidity of ME2 main quest or at the very least in ME it feels much more jarring because, like Will said below, writing is much more at the core of that game.

    2. Will says:

      (I’m going to answer an adjacent but, IMO, more interesting question.)

      Mass Effect suffers infinitely more for the shoddy writing than Skyrim does. Mass Effect is built on the quality of its writing; the gameplay is Just Another Gears Of War But Worse (more literally than many) and there’s nothing to do except mediocre dude/bug-shooting and absorbing the writing. When the writing is bad””and it is often bad, and extremely so””the game has nothing else to fall back on, no other pull, and so there’s nothing for the audience to do but sit there and say “wow, this sucks.”

      In contrast, Skyrim doesn’t really lean on its writing. It’s there almost as an afterthought. Despite the bad writing, the game is still fun. (And don’t get me wrong, a lot of the writing””particularly the guild questlines, by which I mean all of them, not just the Theives Guild, though that may be the worst example””is execrable.) It’s possible to ignore the writing and have a good time stabbing Draugr in the face. (Granted: there’s a log of Draugr face-stabbing. It gets old. But every now and then you can liven it up with stabbing bandits, or Falmer.) There are bits of environmental storytelling to stumble over and think are neat. There’s nice vistas to view, mountains to climb, a handful of interesting dungeons (and dozens of boring ones) to explore. There are things to do other than take in the bad writing, and so the game is not as crippled by it as Mass Effect 2+.

    3. Michael says:

      Mass Effect 2.

      Skyrim’s writing is functional. Not great, stupid in places, but it’s functional. It tells the story it sets out to. It provides a mostly credible world, and generally follows it’s own rules.

      Mass Effect 2’s writing requires you read the tie in novels. It’s not as egregious as Dragon Age: Awakening and Inquisition (or Mass Effect 3, for that matter) but it’s on it’s way there. Characters are dropped in front of you with no explanation. Characters have to engage in irrational out of character behavior because the power of plot compels you. The story it’s trying to tell doesn’t really connect with the larger narrative. And with god as their witness, they will make you sit through a lot of shaky exposition, whether you want it or not.

      Skyrim wants you to do some stupid pointless things sometimes, but it’s content to let you wander off and screw around as long as you want. Mass Effect 2 (and especially 3) demand you do exactly what they say, “right now, or there will be consequences, mister!” Or, put another way, Skyrim is content to present sub par writing, Mass Effect 2 demands you accept it’s writing.

      Skyrim has some derpy stuff, but it never says, “okay, now you’re going to side with the terrorists who tried to murder you, and killed a bunch of your friends because the powah of plot compels thee!” I suppose if you chose to role-play an ex-thalmor operative whom the Blades had tried to kill, and was fleeing for their life when the game began… but there’s no support for that in game, unlike taking the Sole Survivor background in Mass Effect.

      With Skyrim, it’s never quite willing to say, “nope, you can’t play this faction at all.” If you choose not to, it’s a role-playing decision on your part. But it’ll still drop a quest marker into your journal should you change your mind later.

      Mass Effect forces you to make idiotic decisions, sometimes mid-dialog, with no out, because Bioware has a story and they’re going to insist you follow the script.

      1. I didn’t really get about Inquisition. In Origins they had some novels to set up some of the characters (Loghain in particular), but they did a good job of setting him up in game so you didn’t need to read the novels.

        The Orlesian Court politics in Inquisition, on the other hand were DREADFUL. I mean, even if you read The Masked Empire, they were dreadful, but at least then you KNEW WHO THESE STUPID PEOPLE WERE. But the in-game stuff was so unspeakably lazy. Leliana just spits out the biggest and most interesting bit of the matter before you even GET there, so instead of some actual intrigue we got . . . a halla statue mini-game.

        WTF Bioware. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the game, but that section was the very worst part of the game BY FAR.

  10. All of those ‘solutions’ – bar the last two which are so generalized as to be functionally meaningless – completely undercuts the foundation that story is built on in order to accommodate player agency. When you’re running around Skyrim, the people aren’t talking about the “Windhelm” rebellion. They’re called Stormcloaks, not the Eastmarchers. At every opportunity, the game presents Ulfric and Ulfric alone as the core center of the rebellion and having the city become the deciding factor at the last minute or having the Jarl cowering at some undisclosed plot door invalidates Ulfric as a character and the war entirely.

    Now, if you don’t particularly care for that story or have something to say about the importance of player agency, fine, but that’s a different discussion. My point is that those solutions…aren’t. And I don’t mean they ‘aren’t perfect’, I mean they don’t solve the basic problem, they just shift it somewhere else.

    1. MichaelGC says:

      What’s the basic problem as you see it? The solutions work fine to resolve the issue of Ulfric’s death ending the war whilst he’s also accessible but unkillable, which I think is the basic problem Rutskarn is referring to. I don’t think they’re intended to fix all the problems of Skyrim in one fell swoop, or even resolve the particular issue with Ulfric in a supersatisfying fashion – just make it a little more sensible and no longer at direct odds with itself.

      And if Ulfric is the core of the rebellion, how does killing him early and thus ending the war early become ‘functionally meaningless’?

      1. Couscous says:

        I am not sure why it would hurt the story to have you only able to meet Ulfric after you have firmly hitched yourself to the rebel cause. It just needs to be after the player has established himself as opposed to the empire in that questline enough that it doesn’t make much in game sense to try to kill Ulfric. For the Imperial side, you shouldn’t meet him until you are killing him.

        But really, the entire civil war quest line was shallow and lacking in content to the point where being able to end it early would have been a plus. It did not feel like they spent much effort on the civil war part of the game.

        1. MichaelGC says:

          No indeed – the: “kill 5 more Imperials to liberate Falkreath!” mechanic wasn’t exactly a high point in videogame immersion history…

        2. Actually, they did work on the Civil War…a LOT. Like, it was going to constitute the vast majority of the game and be SUPER robust…but instead, they truncated it down to what it is now. A modder who was trying to actually improve the vanilla version found out while poking through the guts of the game.

          If I remember correct, he said they ‘hardcoded’ all the extra content into the game but simply left it unactivated so that it was the worst of both worlds. It couldn’t be replaced and it couldn’t be unlocked.

    2. Rutskarn says:

      I don’t see it that way.

      Even taking what the game’s story dictates about Ulfric’s role in the conflict–which, and I cannot stress it enough, is totally at odds with its gameplay–Ulfric is less a brilliant strategist and more a rabble-rouser and symbolic leader. Making him a martyr would only make him a more potent central figure, which means both of the first two solutions are absolutely that.

      If Ulfric was abroad, that would be an excellent way to show how important he is to the cause–either because he’s:

      a.) dodging attacks, Imperial plots, and Dark Brotherhood contracts every moment of his life and can thus only emerge when The People need him

      b.) In the field, doing hero stuff

      Having Ulfric sitting in a throne room of a captured city who lets any foreign stranger through its gates does tell me that he’s the central figure of the rebellion, but it also tells me a lot of other things–that he’s completely secure and doesn’t have any powerful enemies. Moving him out of the throne room emphatically solves those problems.

      1. Tizzy says:

        It’s also worth noting here that, at the end of the civil war quest line (for whichever side you decided to support), nothing has changed: the war rages on, the field bases are still operating,…

        Given how little they offer in terms of gameplay or world building (you cannot wipe out camps, even temporarily. The officer is always unkillable ) I was very disappointed by that design decision. Even if it is more realistic than the rebellion disappearing overnight, I would have preferred a game that acknowledged my choices more readily.

        1. Will says:

          the field bases are still operating

          And their bosses are still immortal. This was especially jarring since the end of the civil war sort of implies you should go around cleaning them up, but nope””the best you can do is cut them down to a single person and then run away, and everyone will respawn by the time you come back. It’s stupid and infuriating.

      2. “Even taking what the game's story dictates about Ulfric's role in the conflict”“which, and I cannot stress it enough, is totally at odds with its gameplay”“Ulfric is less a brilliant strategist and more a rabble-rouser and symbolic leader. Making him a martyr would only make him a more potent central figure, which means both of the first two solutions are absolutely that.”

        The game’s LND is a different issue. I’m not arguing that and I said as much. However, your comments about Ulfric are completely contradictory to how the game presents him. He’s a Jarl by birthright, holds a seat of power as well as lands and titles, and has political and military allies. There’s nothing symbolic about any of that and his actions are constantly being commented on MULTIPLE occasions as being calculated and politically motivated. He is absolutely not and is never shown to be a “rabble-rouser”.

        “Having Ulfric sitting in a throne room of a captured city who lets any foreign stranger through its gates does tell me that he's the central figure of the rebellion, but it also tells me a lot of other things”“that he's completely secure and doesn't have any powerful enemies. Moving him out of the throne room emphatically solves those problems.”

        Again, he’s a Jarl by birthright, so I have no idea what this ‘captured city’ comment is about. Regardless, those aren’t problems because again, that is how he’s presented in the game. That’s the point.

        As I said, the game has a very clear goal with how they present this character and why, and your solutions completely negate the foundation on which this story is built. Yes, you don’t see that as a problem. I get that. What I’M saying is that you are presenting these as solutions the developers could/should have employed, which implies that your indifference to the narrative damage they would cause should be a ubiquitous viewpoint.

        I disagree.

        1. Will says:

          He is absolutely not and is never shown to be a “rabble-rouser”.

          He is completely and unquestionably a rabble-rouser. The stormcloaks are quintisentially rabble, and Ulfric has roused them. He is a calculating rabble rouser, in that his decision to rouse the rabble is very intentional and strategic, but there’s no question that demagoguery forms the backbone of the stormcloaks’ rhetoric.

          In any case, Ulfric’s birth and nobility is basically irrelevant to the civil war plot. It gave him a good excuse to duel Torygg (off-screen and before the start of the game), but is completely irrelevant in-game and certainly not foundational. It would make no difference to the plot if he held Windhelm by birthright or by force of arms.

          (To be clear: Ulfric is noble and does hold Windhelm by birthright. Ruts made a factual error. But it’s irrelevant to the larger point.)

        2. Decus says:

          But the game’s LND is not a different issue. You are saying “Ulfric is a Jarl and it’s thus super important for him to be on that throne–it’s his throne!” and rutskarn is saying “Ulfric was in hiding until he was captured and then suddenly after the PC appeared and by chance he escaped execution he decides to, well, not go back into hiding and instead chill on his very accessible throne all day, every day with no given explanation”. That is the LND and is very much a part of this issue and in fact is the crux of your disagreement. The game is sending conflicting messages all over between its narrative and how its narrative actually exists around the PC.

          The PC being able to easily kill Ulfric only to be cock-blocked is one layer of LND, but the layer that is “it should also be easy for any NPC to do so” should most certainly not be ignored. It’s the more easily solvable layer, really, via Dark Brotherhood comments, Imperial comments or otherwise but I can’t recall hearing anything suggesting “yeah, we can’t just walk in and kill him because”. Ulfric not only breaks around the PC but also by the logic of the world/setting itself.

          And going further with that, there are two potential meanings to be drawn from the lack of commentary (lampshading) as far as “fixing” things go: 1) The lack of comments is the problem–add comments from NPCs stating why they cannot kill him 2) they should want to kill him and yet they are not killing him so obviously killing him doesn’t matter and might even make things worse! Rutskarn went with (2) for some of those solutions and since it’s all fanfic, mind-theater land anyway it’s not inherently more wrong than anything else.

          1. No. The LND is the superficial cause of the discussion, but my point is exclusively in response to what he suggests as solutions. They undercut the way the character is presented in the game, and he doesn’t consider that an issue. Which he’s within his rights to believe…but then, he makes it explicitly clear that resolving this problem of player agency is ubiquitous:

            “This is not just a question of personal preference, as most debates about Skyrim”˜s place in the franchise become; this is not a matter of what kind of game I think Skyrim should have been.”

            By his own admission, the problems his solutions would cause not only don’t have value to him personally, but it should be taken for granted that they don’t have value to anyone else either. I disagree with that sentiment. Frankly, I consider it rather presumptuous…but that’s me.

          2. Vect says:

            I’d say that a solution would be to have a regent like Galmar sitting in the Windhelm throne while Ulfric’s off doing stuff. It solves the issue of Windhelm not having a figurehead while also avoiding the “Ulfric’s just sitting around with his thumb up his ass” issue. It’s only once you’ve done enough stuff to be deemed trusted and important that you’ll get the chance to meet the big man himself, who will be off at a warcamp or something. Same could work with Tullius, only with a commander like Rikke.

  11. Andy_Panthro says:

    Attempting to kill Ulfric was one of the final things I did before deciding to ditch the game entirely in favour of Fallout 4.

    The whole game is a rather frustrating experience. For everything I felt it did right, there was something else that fell flat.

    For what it’s worth, the “frontier”-style of the world was actually a good idea, as it promoted exploration and really increased the feeling that it was cold and remote. It’s something which called back to Morrowind, and made the idea of the mysterious stranger (or Player Character in this instance), more appropriate.

    1. I wrote a while back about Skyrim and I think it’s the total lack of responsiveness that the world has not even to the player, but to itself. Take the dragons as an example. They appear and then… nothing happens. To be sure, the game tells you that getting rid of the dragons are a big deal, but we never see:

      1) Less merchants on the roads
      2) People traveling only with armed guards
      3) Prices rising
      4) Shortages of essential goods
      5) Dragons eating sheep in the fields
      6) etcetera

      They have this great setup where a nation in the midst of a civil war has gigantic fire breathing lizards descend upon it. What an awesome excuse to ratchet up the tension of the story. I detailed some of the possibilities in a blog post but the important point is that Bethesda chose to have precisely nothing happen. You can go through the whole game without triggering the main quest, and nothing is different. It really is just Skyrim and oh by the way now there’s dragons. Same is true for the civil war. We never really “feel” the effects of a civil war.

      Just a totally static gameworld. What a shame.

      1. Andy_Panthro says:

        To a certain extent I think this is down to engine limitations. One of the things I’ve written about previously is how lacking the set-piece events are. When you reach the first city, the lord in charge will send you out to kill a dragon, and it’s a little event in a ruined tower with you and about five other guys. At that point I wasn’t very powerful, so the city guards should have had no problem dealing with it (and they do quite a good job if you just sit back and watch for a while). There’s a very similar sort of event with an oblivion gate in oblivion, which had a similar problem (five guards plus you, defeating various scamps and such that come out of the gate before you go and close it).

        The introduction to dragons involves a single beast laying waste to an entire town, with the guards and people powerless to stop it. This sequence was better, but still not great, and was reminiscent of Kvatch in Oblivion. They really want to tell a big, grand story, but lack the tools to do so. Big events either happen when you’re travelling to a place, or if they happen when you’re there they involve a small handful of NPCs on either side.

      2. Radkatsu says:

        Interestingly, the Star Wars prequels suffer the exact same issue. Massive galactic war rages but nothing changes. Coruscant continues to function with no reduction in revenues, no disruptions to its political structures, no food lines, no massive subscription drafts, no nothing. It’s just business as usual. Mr. Plinkett covered this pretty extensively in his reviews and it really shows just how little thought Lucas put into the world and story (likely because he didn’t have any other writers to call out his bullshit like he did with the originals, heh).

      3. Merlin says:

        And it’s worth remembering how closely this resembles Fallout 3, as well. You’re building a (terrible) water purifier for a wasteland that never talks about needing water.

        1. Radkatsu says:

          Yep. Building something no one needs for people who didn’t ask for it and trying to hold it against the people who want to activate it. Um… what? The amount of dissonance in the main questline for Fallout 3 is insane.

          And let’s not even go near the GECK nonsense. Changing it from a useful item for starting a settlement to some magical matter converter… and then taking it apart to use in the purifier instead of JUST ACTIVATING IT? Again, what?

          I’m pleased to see Fallout 4’s writing isn’t quite this bad at least. It’s still railroading (ohoho) and linear, but at least they’ve got a slightly better handle on things like shades of grey morality in factions.

      4. Syal says:

        All the Bethesda games are pretty static. In Morrowind there’s a siege on a tower, but if you kill everyone in the tower the besieging force doesn’t notice. There’s a gangster everyone knows and talks about but only three quest-related people notice when you kill him.

        But for some reason, they’ve gotten worse at planning around that; Morrowind was a Cold War-style conflict with lots of subterfuge, but everything’s got to be an invasion now.

  12. Christopher says:

    I’d like to talk about Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.

    For those of you who don’t know, it’s a neat little CRPG with a fun setting and some interesting ideas, but specifically I want to talk about playing a half-orc or half-troll.

    Because if you choose to play either of those races, roughly 60% of the games content IMMEDIATELY becomes locked out to you. Entire quest chains, entire cities, basically become nothing more then a quick place to dump loot. And even then, certain shop keepers won’t deal with you.

    While this is cool and world building, it’s also amazingly frustrating to a player that didn’t know that going in.

    I genuinely love games that make race and class matter when you’re interacting with it, see pillars of eternity, but I’m just pointing out that there is the other end of this extreme Skyrim style thing, and it’s got some major flaws itself.

    1. evileeyore says:

      “While this is cool and world building, it's also amazingly frustrating to a player that didn't know that going in.”

      If you read the race descriptions going in you’re told that Half-Orcs and Trolls are highly stigmatized and that everyone that isn’t half-orc or troll is a racist orc/troll hater.

      Granted the game doesn’t hold your hand and explain the implications of this… but…

      1. Christopher says:

        That’s not the same as saying “you won’t be able to do a large chunk of the content of the game” and you know it.

        Pillars of Eternity allows class and race to matter by opening up new dialogue paths without necessarily shutting off content if you didn’t pick the right race.

        My point is that Arcanum sits on the other end of the extreme which I think some people like to rosy glasses about.

        1. Grampy_bone says:

          You know what sucked about Arcanum? Those stupid golems in the early mine dungeon that are immune to magic and break your weapons when you attack them.

          1. That’s what dynamite is for.

          2. djw says:

            The Black Mountain Clan (BMC) mission sucks because it was way to hard, way to early, and there are traps everywhere on the bottom level (but almost nowhere else in the game). Ironically, after the BMC mission the game is too easy.

    2. Henson says:

      “While this is cool and world building, it's also amazingly frustrating to a player that didn't know that going in. ”

      This could describe so many different parts of Arcanum. What an ambitious, infuriating game.

      1. Christopher says:

        This is true. Ambition that failed. Which always begs the question, is it better to be ambitious and fail hard, or safe?

        But in this case I’m talking specifically about the whole “your race doesn’t matter in the elder scrolls anymore!” thing that gets bought up a lot.

        I don’t like it either TBH, I like it when my race feels like a meaningful choice because in the lore it’s SUPPOSED to be meaningful. But the opposite extreme is also unfun to deal with.

        1. Spammy says:

          Well if we’re talking about Arcanum if you’re asking me to choose between the extremes of ambitious failure and successful but unimaginative safety, I’m going to have to say that the safety is preobably better because then people will play your game and see your content. I bought Arcanum off of GoG and didn’t make it past that dwarfhome dungeon crawl. The RPG system was a mess where you could customize any number on the sheet AND had to scroll through spells/blueprints, and the combat system itself never felt right or fun.

          If the game is safe and boring I might give up and stop playing out of boredom, but not out of frustration.

          1. djw says:

            I have personally spent about equal time in Arcanum and in Skyrim. I’m sure Bethesda made dramatically more money on Skyrim than Troika did on Arcanum, but I personally am very happy that Arcanum got made. I’ll say the same about Vampire: Bloodlines (but I did not much care for Troika’s Temple of Elemental Evil).

    3. IFS says:

      Playing a low intelligence half-ogre was some of the most fun I had with Arcanum. I had high enough strength to generally trivialize the awful combat and low int makes for so many hilarious interactions. I think my favorite was when I brought some lady her stolen painting, she immediately accused my character of having stolen it at which point my character burst into tears. She felt so bad she apologized and gave me double the reward.

      More on topic being locked out of content does suck, but it can also set up some really cool situations, and if something makes sense in universe I will appreciate it rather than be annoyed by it as I am with Skyrim.

    4. Cinebeast says:

      I’ve never heard of this game, so I want to know: do the orc and troll races get their own unique content that the other races can’t access? If so, that alone goes a long way to remedying the problem.

      If there’s a significant imbalance between the races, though, I can understand why this would be very frustrating.

      1. Christopher says:

        Not particularly, to memory. You can still beat the main story line, but a lot of the side stuff is just gone.

        1. I played a female half-orc on my first playthrough and did something like 90% of the game. Are you sure your problem wasn’t that you set your cha so low that everyone had a massive negative reputation toward you? Every character in Arcanum has a reputation meter for you and most won’t talk to you unless it’s at least “neutral”. If your cha is low (and half-orcs and half-ogres both get cha hits), it’s possible that almost no one will talk to you. It is NOT an automatic feature of the race, though.

          1. Hector says:

            I also played a half-orc, and did not have any problems accessing content. In fact, I can’t recall missing any quests of significance.

    5. djw says:

      That is a gross exaggeration. You are absolutely not locked out of 60% of the games content if you play a half-orc or a half-ogre.

      You do have trouble initiating dialogue if you have a low reaction score (which is usually a result of taking the “troll offspring” or “beaten with an ugly stick” background). You can mitigate this by wearing a smoking jacket, or by putting stat points into beauty, or my favorite, by robbing the Jewel of Hebe from the Panarii Temple in Tarant (make sure you have Virgil wait outside). Once you get your reaction score close to 0 there are no real negative consequences to playing a half-orc or half-ogre.

      If you choose to leave your intelligence low you get the “dumb guy” dialogue. I have not played that, so I don’t know how much it restricts your game play. However, half-orcs start with human average intelligence of 8, so in order to get the dumb guy dialogue you have to specifically choose a background that makes you stupid. Half-Ogres do start below the “dumb guy” threshold, so you may well be locked out of content if you are not careful with a half-ogre. However, you can still put stat points on level up into intelligence if you find this to be to constraining.

      The real problem with half-ogres is that you cannot play as a female (but this restriction also applies to dwarves, gnomes, and halflings).

      1. giantraven says:

        Low INT restricts content, but in the best most hilarious way possible.

  13. Grampy_bone says:

    What’s wrong with dungeon crawls anyway? They are the foundation of all RPGs, even going back to tabletop gaming. They may be the greatest innovation in the history of gaming. D&D was invented to simulate dungeon crawling, not to solve murder mysteries.

    1. acronix says:

      The problem is that it’s basically the only thing Skyrim does right. And perhaps even the only thing it does.

    2. Rutskarn says:

      Nothing at all, actually! I’ll go into this next post, but I don’t resent Skyrim’s success at dungeon crawling, just its failures at anything else.

    3. Cinebeast says:

      I can’t speak for Rutskarn or anyone else, but for me, the problem would be that Skyrim professes to offer more than dungeon-crawling. It does offer murder mysteries, and archaeological digs, and even promises role-playing opportunities. But it really stubs its toe on that front. If it didn’t claim to offer any of those, people would probably be pleasantly surprised by those quests.

    4. Daemian Lucifer says:

      They are the foundation of all RPGs

      No,they arent.They are the foundation of SOME rpgs.And even in the rpgs where they are the meat of it all,there are plenty of adventures you can run that involve 0 dungeon crawling.

      Also,just because something is the foundation,doesnt mean it has to bee the floor,walls,roof,interior decorations,and everything else.Even in the simplest d&d you dont expect a major quest for a member of thieves guild to involve nothing but your standard stroll through a dungeon filled with monsters to kill.

      1. evileeyore says:

        Exactly. Foundation does not mean ‘entire building’. It means ‘that thing you build the building upon’. The best RPGs have far more than just Orc and Pie on offering.

      2. Merlin says:

        Even among murder-centric RPGs, crawls are pretty strictly a D&Dism. Because why the hell would you structure heroic or dramatic adventure as a resource management game? That’s a great model for say, Agricola. But for action-packed, thrilling adventure? Not so much.

        1. djw says:

          I agree with what you are saying. However, the way the acronym RPG is used (misused) in popular video game culture absolutely does require inventory management and dungeon crawls.

          If you build a game without those things and then dare to call it an RPG the internet will explode with rage.

          1. Daemian Lucifer says:

            No it wont.Deus ex has no dungeon crawls,but is still being called an rpg with no problems.

            Inventory management is a bit harder to get rid of though,but it has been successfully reduced in multiple rpg titles.

            1. djw says:

              Well, okay, dungeon crawls are not necessarily part of it. I should have left that out of my comment.

              What people do expect when you make an rpg is inventory management and some form of character customization (both in the form of leveling up and in the form of creating the character in the first place).

              Some RPG’s have been successful without allowing you to create your own character (Witcher and Deus Ex for instance) but I’m sure that both of them have been targeted by anger on the internet for this. This is ironic because they both offer the opportunity to play a role that is highly detailed and interesting.

    5. Kalil says:

      I would say the biggest problem with Skyrims dungeon crawls is that Daggerfalls were so much more fun. ;p

  14. Actually, the solution to Ulfric’s immortality that would have made the best sense with the ethos of the rest of the game is “Ulfric has an artifact that makes him immortal so you have to go quest in a dungeon to end his immortality before we can kill him and end the war.”

    This could even have made the opening scene where the Empire captures him and tries to execute him more interesting, particularly if the Imperials (and even the Stormcloaks) came to the conclusion that Alduin’s appearance was related to whatever’s making Ulfric immortal. It also would have tied the dragons/shouting plot a lot more firmly to the Civil War plot and made those two halves of an actually central conflict. It would have made the optional peace council a moment of sensible conjunction for those two plots and extremely tense and interesting, because there would be the additional point that Ulfric is relying on the mystique of his “dragon summoning” to help fuel his cause, so if he agrees to the truce, what impact with that have on his cause? Maybe you can do some dungeoneering to unveil that this ISN’T the cause of his immortality and get an edge over him?

    That would have been a lot cooler.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      Or maybe just this (coming from the guy who hasn’t even played Skyrim…):
      Ulfric is in the throne room, you can talk to him but cannot advance closer than a few meters. You are also either stripped of your weapons before entering the hall or as soon as you attack with ranged weapons, he withdraws from the room and his guards (plenty of them) either kick you out (cutscene?) or ,thanks to level scaling, provide a fight you can only survive by fleeing very quickly. Or, maybe even betterer: You are told at the beginning of the audience that you’re on some kind of trap and it will kill you should you draw a weapon (which it does if you do). Hmm, that might even enhance the atmosphere a bit!

      I suppose those solutions would have taken more time and thought to implement than “go through the quest list and make everyone immortal who is still needed”. That’s one loop in the software to deal with every single character who should not die yet, rather than coming up with an in-game scenario for each of them. A lot less elegant but when launch day is just two weeks away, that’s a very strong argument.

      1. Yeah, I can’t imagine what a nightmare implementing AI to do what you said there would be.

        To be fair, it’s not just Ulfric. You can walk in and attempt to murder General Tullius at any time, too.

  15. Ravens Cry says:

    What Skyrim is is afraid.
    It’s like a DM who is afraid you’ll mess up the Amazingâ„¢ story they made, so they stop you from doing things but without thinking of any in world justification. “I throw a fireball at the king.” “Um, he’s unhurt.” “Does he have a ring of evasion?” “No, he’s just unhurt.” “Levels in monk?” “No, he’s just unhurt.” “Anti-magic shell around the throne?” “NO! He’s JUST unhurt! Now can we get on with this speech?! There’s still an hour left!”

    1. Tizzy says:

      Man, those speeches! Them Skyrim important folks sure like to hear themselves speak, don’t they?

      1. Ravens Cry says:

        Well, what else are they supposed to do, wave limbs clumsily while making crude, wooden facsimile of facial expressions at each other?

    2. Zak McKracken says:

      Maybe not a DM who’s afraid, rather one who’s lazy? I actually sort of get the choice because being a non-lazy DM means investing time but programming software to act like one is a lot more work than paying attention and reacting to players interfering with the story.

      I bet that’s the rationale: “We need to deal with players who don’t stay on the railroad quickly and effectively so we can spend more time making the game awesome for those who do.”

    3. Sartharina says:

      A DM can react appropriately to player actions. A game cannot make Sense Motive checks. They wanted Ulfric and Tullius both to be people you can walk up and talk to, with the security they’d have at those points in the game being abstracted away with the immortality.

      No – other NPCs can’t just walk up and kill Ulfric in his throne room – he has an alert bodyguard (But games can’t read the player’s intentions to notice an impending attack the way they realistically should) to prevent assassinations, and armies have to deal with the fortified and well-manned walls of Windhelm.

      1. WJS says:

        That doesn’t really help though. Even if the PC is so powerful that they’d be scraping the bodyguard off the walls for days, you still can’t kill Ulfric. Not to mention how before Helgen, Ulfric is a guerilla leader in hiding, afterwards he’s just chillin’ in his castle, and I don’t think they ever really explain why.

    4. Joe says:

      To be fair to all the railroading DN’s out there, characters would need to be very high level or have very powerful magic’s to discern the details of what protected the king. It should be as simple as. “The king is unharmed, you don’t know why.”. Maybe the details can be discovered after the fact, maybe not.

  16. Elric says:

    The best thing to do in Skyrim is install Interesting NPCs, and pretend all vanilla NPCs are traumatized people that have lost their minds due to the war and the harshness of Skyrim.

    1. Cinebeast says:

      I only got into modding last year, so I am so late to this party, but Interesting NPCs was damn good.

      1. Elric says:

        I always follow the same ritual with Bethesda games; I play unmodded the first time round, normally following the main quest, to experience the game as it was meant to be. Then I give the game a rest, usually for a year or two, waiting until all DLC, patches and essential mods have been released for the next, “hardcore” playthroughs where I try to experience everything the game has to offer, the best way possible, with as much survival as possible.
        For all of their problems, the fact that Bethesda games are so open and moddable is a revelation. There aren’t many game experiences that can keep up with a well modded Skyrim.

        1. I’m doing this with Fallout 4. Played through once, waiting until DLC is out to play again.

          For my money Skyrim was more fun, tho.

        2. WJS says:

          Well-modded Oblivion is a strong contender, at the very least. There were a number of game mechanics cut from Skyrim, that it’s not easy to mod back in. Many of the advantages of Skyrim, however, can be modded into Oblivion. And as Rutskarn says, I’ll take Oblivion Gates over Draugr ruins, thank you very much.

  17. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I have a question about invulnerability of npcs in these games:If you want them to say alive so you can do their quest,then why is the player able to attack them in the first place?If you want someone to be invulnerable,for whatever reason,just make it so that when the player targets them and clicks the button to attack,the character just internally monologues “maybe I shouldnt” instead of attacking.There,fixed.Its still frustrating to have in a game thats supposedly about complete freedom,but its way better than this stupid imortality.

    1. guy says:

      I think in this particular context that would actually be worse. There’s a lot of times in the game where plot-critical NPCs get involved in fights with other NPCs or the player. Having NPCs flagged as essential rather than being unattackable means they can be temporarily removed from the fight and made the most spectacular incident of my Least Subtle Assassin In Tamriel hilarious rather than painfully frustrating.

      You see, at the wedding where you go to assassinate the bride, much of the audience is important to some quest or other or is a skill trainer. I decided to turn into a werewolf and rampage through the crowd rather than be any kind of sneaky. Constantly getting interrupted would have been hellishly annoying.

      1. Viktor says:

        See, that right there, that’s bad planning from the game devs. Don’t put an assassination target in the same room as a bunch of plot-important people unless that’s the challenge. AoE spells are a thing, so is illusion magic*, and so is just walking up to her and axing her in the face. If the collateral damage from likely player actions would break your story, change things so it doesn’t rather than just filling a room with random nobles who can take a werewolf to the face and be fine.

        *My favorite method of killing people is to frenzy them and then hide while they run directly into a bunch of pissed-off guards.

  18. LOL, that you can’t do the quest to kill him because you just killed him so you can’t kill him reminds me of the beginning of Sleeping Dogs, where your first mission is to escape from police and if they catch you, game over; when you complete it you find your goal was to get caught by the police.

    It also has one mission that would drive the Spoiler Warning crew crazy, it would be fun to watch. The one after the karaoke hostess gives you a gun. Man, that makes no sense. Your cop boss wants you to remake a recent crime in a parking. He then gives you the gun and tells you to your fellow cops will play the enemies of the killer and you shoot them. Including some head shots you have to get. Then comes the end: your boss wants to ensure the owner of the gun gets condemned by the murder, he doesn’t give you any gun different that you had, then he tells you to shoot at the corpse. The protagonist then expresses his shock (before he does it anyway on insistence). If he hasn’t given you a new gun and this gun you’re shooting the corpse with has live ammunition, it means you’ve been killing your fellow cops to train on using a gun and reproducing the crime.

    1. Henson says:

      I think you’re mis-remembering or misinterpreting that mission from Sleeping Dogs. The only two cops in that parking lot are you and your boss, Pendrew. The people you have to ‘shoot’ are imaginary; you and Pendrew are recreating the shootout in your heads, and the gameplay is just there to visualize it.

      But yeah, I never understood Wei’s shock when Pendrew shoots the corpse in the car. Like, he’s already dead. And Wei’s been beating people up left and right. Why would we care?

      1. Gethsemani says:

        Wei cares because it is the first time he realizes that Pendrew is not playing by the rules. When Pendrew shoots the corpse, he does so so that he can fabricate evidence that someone else shot the dead person. Pendrew and Wei are fairly certain that the person they are framing is the killer (or at least the one who ordered it), but Wei hesitates because it is an immoral and illegal thing to do, and unlike his usual undercover work the fabrication of evidence can’t be justified as important to getting him closer to the big players.

        Wei beating people up is part of his cover, but Wei is also repeatedly shown to be a good guy who believes in the job he does and in the importance of due process and an uncompromised legal system. The shooting a body-scene marks the first time the game clearly tells us that Pendrew is not a good cop and that he has ulterior motives.

  19. Wide And Nerdy says:

    Say what you will about Skyrim. I never want to enter another Oblivion Gate and I never want to wander around lost in the bleak endless ash encrusted greyness of central Morrowind. I’ll put up with Skyrim’s problems to be able to run around in its world.

    This article made me want to play Skyrim again.

  20. loudwhitenoise says:

    Everything you say strikes a chord of accuracy. It’s like suddenly realising, hey, that’s what’s been up this whole time. Anyway, I wanted to ask, have you been using the DLCs when writing these articles? I could pretty much write my own piece with my opinions on how DLC doesn’t fit with the game, throws itself at you as soon as it can, and usually breaks the difficulty curve.

  21. Sylvan says:

    Kill Ulfric

    “We need Ulfric dead, but we need to know more about him. Who are his backers? An uprising like his couldn’t have made such swift gains without support. Is it the Thalmor, or anti-Imperial agents in one of the other provinces? Gods, it could be anyone in these uncertain days.”

    The execution?

    “It was staged to test the Thalmor’s loyalty, but the damn dragons fouled everything. I swear this war is cursed.”

    I could make it look like an accident…

    “No! If Ulfric Stormcloak dies now who knows what will follow him. There’s still some chance at peace, but if we make Ulfric a martyr that chance will be lost. If he dies, Skyrim, and the Empire, will bleed.”

  22. ivan says:

    So Rutscarn is my hypothertical player who took the wax key perk, lockpicked Calixto’s house (and got given a key by the perk), then opened the unopenable quest chest, because the chest and the door share a key; all without starting the quest and on his first playthrough? That is amazing, and gratifying, because I only realised that was a theoretically possibly chain of happenstance well after my first playthrough, and kinda assumed it never really happened to anyone.

    But, yeah, can confirm, in that chest you find Calixto’s diary telling you what he’s been doing, and why, and you can’t do anything with it at all.

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