The Altered Scrolls, Part 17: Bullies and Heart

By Rutskarn Posted Saturday Jan 30, 2016

Filed under: Elder Scrolls 87 comments

Last time I proposed to talk about what Skyrim does well. It’s a long list and one I’ll relish exploring–but I’m going to have to put it off a little longer. I can’t talk about what’s done right until I get at the core of what’s done wrong, and I think the things detractors usually blame–various mechanical evolutions, paradigm shifts, or just plain they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to RPG sacred cow absences–aren’t really at fault. Nothing Skyrim does wrong had to be done wrong, even every major element of the design was kept intact.

It’s clear Bethesda built Skyrim around a clearly visualized model player: somebody who wants to enter a fantasy world, casually browse content without running up against impediments, frustrations, or a need to master additional playstyles, and then get back to real life without worrying about forgetting some important detail or systems mastery that would impede a return days or weeks later. Pleasing this model player meant several obvious sacrifices: the loss of stats, the drive toward making questlines similar and similarly approachable, the trimming away of little mechanics that added texture (and friction) to previous titles. But each of these sacrifices, while necessarily resented by grognards, has a purpose. They all contribute meaningfully to creating an experience that is well designed and exuberantly approachable and that is straightforward to slip in and out of at will, however long the player is away.

The real misfortune of Skyrim isn’t what mechanics the team sacrificed to a purpose; it’s what finesse was lost without purpose. Their weakness is not in creating gameplay but in creating meaningful and appropriate context.

I'm going somewhere else with this, but a minor random example of that phenomenon: this guy who calls you out for having made a living selling stolen goods, despite the fact that before you do his quest--after this conversation--you literally CANNOT do that. Was anyone paying attention?
I'm going somewhere else with this, but a minor random example of that phenomenon: this guy who calls you out for having made a living selling stolen goods, despite the fact that before you do his quest--after this conversation--you literally CANNOT do that. Was anyone paying attention?

I am peace with the idea, for example, that a modern Bethesda-style open world game means some NPCs will be unkillable. Some companies make open-world games where every character can be killed by the player–Bethesda flirted with this approach for one game, Morrowind, and then consciously abandoned it forever. Reasonable enough. The developers concluded that the bulk of their players a.) want to be able to interact with as many NPCs as possible and b.) don’t want NPCs to die by accident or malice if they’re going to be important later on. That’s not a problem. It’s a valid game design choice–it’s a valid sacrifice to make. But if you’re going to design your game that way, you need to be mindful of how it interacts with player emotions, goals, and expectations.

Last time I talked about how Ulfric’s unkillable nature frustrates the player’s problem solving ability, but there’s a more illustrative, straightforward, and universal example. Let’s talk about Skyrim’s bullies.

They’re in several places in the game, but the town of Riften is the worst example: from the moment the player enters the city there’s a revolving door of clowns who accost the player, threaten them, tell them that if they step out of line the NPC will directly or indirectly deal with them. And that’s meant to be that. They clearly expect the player character to cower in fear, move on, and stay out of trouble. And because all of these NPCs are invulnerable–because all that happens when you defeat an invulnerable NPC is they squat a bit, then they stand up, then the player gets fined by the guards, then nobody acknowledges what’s happened–because there is no real questline addressing any of these moronic overconfident belligerent assholes–“moving on and staying out of trouble” is more or less what the player character is forced to do. And that’s not just stupid, that flies directly in the face of what kind of game Skyrim is trying to be, exactly the sort of game it so frequently and skillfully embodies at most other times:

A power fantasy.

Skyrim is about being literally the only person in the continent who can stop immortal, powerful, terrifying creatures from harassing and intimidating the countryside. Skyrim is about gaining the strength to solve any problem, climb any ladder–to rewrite the history books and bring order to the frontier and treat with gods and kings alike. And you have to take shit from every penny-ante urban thug the game deigns to give a name and backstory–despite the fact that by virtue of speaking to me and calling me out, Maul inspired much more actual desire to fight and win in me than any of the game’s nameless snarling undead.

This is something so many other games understand. When Psychonauts needs a villain to motivate the player for its early levels, it introduces a loudmouthed punk named Bobby Zilch who mocks you before every competition. He exists to exploit a pretty basic feature of human nature: when someone tries to demean us and we beat them, especially at whatever they’ve assumed we’re bad at and they’re good at, it feels amazing. This isn’t some arcane or controversial take; it’s a very basic format of power fantasy that’s been around as long as videogames, as long as film, as long as storytelling. It’s why the first thing every teenage superhero does after getting powers is show up the student who’s made their life a living hell. So having NPCs who approach a character’s power fantasy, threaten them, and cannot be beaten in any meaningful way–ie, one the bully recognizes–is inexplicably perverse. It makes you question what the developers thought they were for and why they put them in.

I talked about how the features Skyrim sacrificed aren’t the real waste, and I’m going to double down on that now. If I can only make one point at all about Skyrim in this post, it’s this:

My complaint here isn’t that every NPC should be killable because NPC unkillability is not to blame.

It’s a deceptively backwards way of thinking about it. If we could kill Maul or Maven Black-briar, that would shut them up and would end my frustration. Thanks to NPC invulnerability I can’t do that. Therefore, NPC invulnerability is bad.

But that’s just not the whole story. NPC invulnerability is obnoxious in this example, but so, so many mechanics are frustrating when they are implemented poorly. Morrowind’s lack of quest arrows helped it feel like an objective and open-ended challenge, but when the quest directions were terrible, it was an unbelievable pain in the ass and you bet it hurt the game. We don’t need to get rid of NPC invulnerability to address the times when it’s frustrating and retrograde. We just need the developers to realize how making NPCs invulnerable causes the player to react in certain situations.

For example, what if beating Maul made him scared of the player? What if a script flipped when the player reduced him to 0 health and he made awkward and unconvincingly-macho excuses to leave conversations afterward?

What if Maul recognized the player’s toughness and offered, instead of the same threats he gives everyone, a sort of game-recognizes-game respect? And what if some other punk laughed at Maul, attacked the player, and got his ass kicked?

What if Maul only took really petty, deniable pot-shots at the player and always in the middle of conversations, so the player had an excuse not to go buck wild on him? And what if the Thieves Guild questline built up to getting even with him in some meaningful and satisfying way?

Or failing that, if there’s really no time, no budget, no will or means to make this character fun or satisfying or interesting, how about just not making him an arrogant jackass at all?

When we talk about games being emotionally resonant, that’s usually code for saying a game’s trying to be Art with a capital A. It’s a way of getting across that the game’s trying to inspire feelings not usually associated with escapist media–it’s going to make you sad, it’s going to make you heartbroken, it’s going to make you think. It’s going to make you feel things a fun game wouldn’t. Talking about emotions at all seems to be the exclusive provenance of reviews for swishy indie games and the occasional critical darling Triple-A entry like The Last of Us, a way of distinguishing titles like those from the stuff we use to relax and have a good time. And that is a huge, huge, huge mistake. Emotional resonance is as key to escapism as it is to any other form of creative expression. We don’t enjoy Raiders of the Lost Ark because there’s planes and machine guns, we enjoy it because we want the scrappy well-meaning underdog adventurer to win against the brutal fascist bullies. Every scene in the movie emphasizes how the villains use their power and wealthy to control others, and every scene with the hero shows him overcoming their terrifying marshaled resources with his own inner strength.

With these confrontational belittling unswattable characters, the developers of Skyrim forgot that how the player feels about the game and NPCs within it is important. And I can’t understand how that happened. This is just the most obvious and illustrative example I can imagine–though there are some nice narrative turns, littered throughout the game are other little moments that show the developers didn’t give enough thought to a player’s emotional drives, reactions, or needs in a given scene. It’s never quite enough to damn the experience–the mechanics and presentation are far too polished–but I do think it’s enough to keep most of it from being really memorable…and given the resources and talent that went into making it, that’s a real shame.


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87 thoughts on “The Altered Scrolls, Part 17: Bullies and Heart

  1. Da Mage says:

    You can sort of see where this happened. In Oblivion I can’t really think of an NPC you encounter that is a dick that you don’t eventually get back at. If someone is mean to you, the quest normally ended up with them being the bad guy. Hell, they built an entire quest around killing the prisoner that taunts you at the beginning of the game.

    Skip forward a few years and you get Fallout 3, where you are forced to negotiate with Little Lamplight, a town of immortal and entitled children. Somewhere between Oblivion and Fallout 3 they started writing ‘characters’ that weren’t just quest hooks, and these obnoxious annoying and unkillable NPCs started showing up.

    And since then nothing has changed, who else hates Marcy Long in Fallout 4 and the fact YOU CANNOT REMOVE HER from sanctuary hills.

    1. Sam says:

      Yes! Marcy and Jun are just the worst! Technically you can remove them I think. With Local Leader you can order NPC’s to other settlements you have, so just order them to some backwoods Mirelurk infested pit without defenses and the problems solved on our end.

      But this ties in great with what Ruts was saying about how there’s no actual satisfaction for the player. Like Ruts’ example of Maul experiencing a bigger fish choosing to rough him up and learning to fear the PC, if Marcy or Jun could have some interaction that stopped their unending stream of bitterness/depression that would be so much better and would probably make them actually stand out in a good way for the player.

      Unfortunately this is hampered by Bethesda’s insistence of removing all those little mechanics that let a players’ actions to mean something. Without any kind of Science/First Aid/Speech skill the player can’t make Jun or Marcy shut the hell up. By rolling all those stats into just the SPECIAL and making the Perks into just stat boosts and number modifiers the player loses their most important means of connecting with the world, their interactions with the NPCs.

      1. James says:

        By default marcy and jun are not move-able even with the perk, you can with the console fix that however. i think its “setpv ballowmove 1” you then need to wait for some game time to pass for the characters trait table to be looked up and checked and then you can move them, my advice, use the command, go do a quest or 2, when you get back you should be able to move them.

        1. Rutskarn says:

          The console: fixing shit Bethesda shouldn’t have broke since the console was invented.

          1. Bropocalypse says:

            The true reason the console and and mod tools exist is for the same reason that people make up ideas to fix broken narratives.

      2. Orophor says:

        Totally agree that the lack of New Vegas style skill-based dialogue options is part of why I’ve only done a single complete play through of FO4, with saves before aligning to a faction.

        One thing to note: you can pick up the main quest line without saving the minute men. If you skip Concord and head straight to Diamond City you can continue the main quest from there. That leaves Sanctuary Hills free of any annoying NPCs other than Codsworth at least.

    2. Decus says:

      I’d kind of count the Oblivion Guards as that too, really. In terms of quests though you’re absolutely right and the jerks did tend to be the surprise villains you could kill at the end. Or you could just kill them anyway because they weren’t actually immortal.

      It really has gotten progressively worse over time, from FO3 to Skyrim to FO4. As another element to how annoying it is, usually the characters you can kill are actually far less obnoxious overall. And the immortal guys definitely should not be able to so instantly rejoin combat.

      It shouldn’t even be something that necessarily needs combat to the death to solve, though I identify that as a failing of Skyrim/FO4 as well–most everything they’ve built is built around combat. There’s no option to go up to obnoxious NPCs ask them to stop harassing you or anything else that could eliminate the problem without murdering them.

      And even when it comes to murdering them it’d be easy enough to just make it an option in the menu. There is absolutely no reason to force everybody to deal with immortal NPCs. Hell, the Brotherhood exists. Slavers exist in Fallout. There are plenty of ways that NPCs try to use to get rid of you or other NPCs yet you cannot use them yourself–immortal flags or not those methods should present themselves as very deliberate “the player wants this guy gone” choices.

      1. Radkatsu says:

        I actually wrote a short post on the subject of being able to kill NPCs in Bethesda games not so long ago.

        I feel it’s quite unfair that the games where I WANT to kill everyone don’t let me, while the game where I feel no need to assassinate the entire population actually DOES let me. Guess that’s the difference between Beth and Obsidian, though.

    3. Destrustor says:

      Wait, you actually speak with Marcy? Is there any reason to do that ever?

      1. Andy_Panthro says:

        The problem with Marcy is that she CONSTANTLY whines at you if you’re within a few metres of her. You don’t need to actually talk to her, she’s happy to just shout at you. For me, it was a constant cry of “I can’t believe you let mama murphy die like that!“.

        Even with all the leadership perks or whatever, I don’t think you can send her to another settlement either.

        1. James says:

          i said somewhere above here how to “fix” that it is however a PC only fix

      2. Mintskittle says:

        It isn’t so much choosing to speak to her as it is just happening to wander by which triggers her to mouth off. And it may just be me, but she seems to like being where I want to be whenever I return home.

        1. Destrustor says:

          Hm. Yeah, that would be annoying.
          Good thing my actual house is a settlement I keep empty of people.

          1. Rutskarn says:

            Oh, don’t worry. Preston will find it. He’ll be understanding, at first–he’ll think, you just need some space. You’re not snubbing him. You’re not ignoring the cause. You just want some peace and quiet before you go on to defend the commonwealth.

            And the reports of danger will flood in. And he’ll wait in Sanctuary. Picking up tin cans. Tuning out Jun and Marcy. Spinning up his laser musket, canceling it, spinning it up again. Grinding his teeth long into the night.

            The commonwealth will fester and you’ll be nowhere to be found.

            Sometimes he’ll go out there–alone–to the ridge over your home, and he’ll look through the glowing windows and he’ll wonder. And he’ll whisper into your walkie talkie, and watch you wake up and check it, and wait for you to fall asleep again.

            And then one night you’ll wake up to fire and flames. And the last thing you hear before the roof comes down is Preston’s voice crackling through your walkie:

            “A settlement is in need of some assistance.”

            1. Trix2000 says:

              …That makes him into a SO much more interesting character.

    4. SgtRalph says:

      Interesting, I actually find Marcy a lot more tolerable than the unkillable NPC’s in Riften or the children of Little Lamplight. While she can be antagonistic towards the player she doesn’t have any dialogue that comes off as insisting the player is weak or has to listen to her. She comes off bitter but given all the people she’s lost on the way to Sanctuary it feels like a real reaction that you might see in a real person; she’s not looking to make more friends just to lose them too. At least that’s what I got out of her and it’s a good deal better than grating children that insult you because they know they’re invincible or a crime lord that smugly dismisses your character and can never be brought to any sort of justice.

      I also recall Marcy occasionally admitting things were looking a little better which felt like a nice concession. She’ll never be friendly with the player but she won’t be hostile all the time. Then again I don’t hang around in Sanctuary too often so maybe I just don’t have to listen to her as much.

      1. Cinebeast says:

        I’m also confused by the antagonism going on here for Marcy, and for Jun in particular. Marcy I can understand — she’s abrasive. But her abrasiveness feels perfectly natural, considering her circumstances. And what’s wrong with Jun? He’s got depression, people. I’m seriously not getting where the Jun hate comes from.

        1. Shamus says:

          I barely interacted with these characters, so I wouldn’t know. (I lived at the gas station alone like a gun-crazy hermit.) But my guess is that just because there’s a justified reason for it in the game doesn’t mean it’s fun.

          If the developer came up with a brilliant and totally justified reason for you to hear an air raid siren 24/7, that wouldn’t make it any less annoying. I suspect the complaint isn’t, “This character has no reason to be annoying”, but more: “This game does not benefit from having an annoying character.”

          If any of these people were part of a story or had a character arc, it would be different. But the game gives us people that are unpleasant and then gives us no reason to care about them. They’re not developed enough for us to care about their struggle. (As far as I know. I don’t THINK they have quests.)

          1. Da Mage says:

            Exactly right.

            The game dumps Marcy and Jun at your starting home, where they complain whenever you get near, with no other context. If you could move them to another place, fine, if they had a quest after which they would be a bit nicer, fine.

            But they have neither. Marcy constantly complains about you, and Jun is constantly depressed. You can have these characters in your game, just don’t put them at the player’s house with no way to remove them (you can’t even kill them, despite not being quest related).

            It would be like if a relative turned up at your house and spent 5 years living with you and constantly complaining until you finally left. You won’t care about what happened to make them that way, you’d just want them to leave.

            1. SgtRalph says:

              Makes sense. I also chose to primarily live out of the gas station so I only have to deal with them on occasion. I can see how they would become irritating if you make Sanctuary your main base and have to deal with them all the time.

              1. acronix says:

                To be honest I believe that’s why they put the gas station so close to Sanctuary: so that you can avoid those two annoying characters.

      2. Incunabulum says:

        That sort of thing is fine – at the beginning. But she never grows out of it. Like, seriously woman. I know you’ve had a rough time of it, but here you are in a reasonably safe place with decent people, plenty of food and medical care, order is spreading throughout the Commonwealth and you *still* WALK UP TO ME to tell me ‘you don’t have time to chitchat’? Then why’d you walk up to me? I didn’t *want* to talk to you.

        Its just another example of the static ‘worldbuilding’ BGS does now in their games. We’ll set this little thing up to tell a story and leave it there as-is for the entirety of the game.

      3. Radkatsu says:

        *open console*
        *click annoying immortal brat*

        Not so smug now, are you, you little bar stools? :)

  2. NC_Schrijver says:

    One of the worst insults to the player with Maven Black Briar is during the Imperial Questline when you take over Riften with the Imperials. What do you see when you enter the Jarl’s room? Maven just sitting on the throne lording over Riften with Imperial backing. Even though its public knowledge she backs the thief guild and corruption being her middle name, she just sits there unopposed. This just wanted me to go full stormcloak, cause her arrogance and overall dickery gets even worse afther this.

    1. Grudgeal says:

      I think Markarth and Riften are pretty much designed to be faction opposites — both towns are corrupt and run by the local family, with an open secret that they’re terrible terrible people, and if you overthrow the terrible jarl during the civil war another terrible jarl takes his/her place. Also, both families are plot important so you can’t kill any of the terrible people in it for reasons, even though they’re terrible.

      Though at least the Riften jarl is just naive, not actually evil.

    2. Avatar says:

      The WORST part with Maven is when she threatens you with the Dark Brotherhood. Now this isn’t necessarily out of character for her; there’s actually a Black Sacrament in her basement with a rather peremptory letter. But this isn’t a game where the Dark Brotherhood is a shadowy organization that the player has heard about but never encountered – it’s one of the factions you can join!

      But no response of “oh, uh, we don’t kill our own” is available. Or “you’ll find we’re not Listening”, if you’re far enough in the questline. Or even “I personally slew them all with my bare hands already” (and give the game props for even having that as a possibility – but why would you make it possible to turn on one faction, but not the other?)

      That said, I feel like complaining about the Thieves Guild quest line is like punching a cripple at this point – it’s so bad, all over the place, that pointing out yet one more problem is kind of pointless. It’s like they got the writers for Mass Effect 2 to do one of the main factions…

    3. Vect says:

      The funny thing is, Maven could have been a good antagonist for the Thieves Guild questline as a fatcat you plan a heist against to get the guild out of her grubby mitts. It would have been a good way to humble her as well as keeping the questline more about actual thievery than Mystic Thief Cults.

  3. Zagzag says:

    “however long hte player is away”

    Caught one for you.

  4. Nidokoenig says:

    “you need to be meaningful of how it interacts”


    “every penny-ante urban thug the came deigns”

    The game.

    “confrontational belittling unswattable characters”

    I’m being nitpicky here, but this doesn’t look right to me without commas.

    I wonder if part of the issue is with most characters being killable. If the game was set up so that there were neutral areas or classes, like how in an RPG you have unkillable placed NPCs generally in towns and mobs or random encounters generally outside, you don’t get people asking with any seriousness why they can’t just kill this idiot. It’s not just that you can’t kill Ulfric, it’s that you could kill just about everyone between him and the front door, but he’s immune.

    1. Alex says:

      “I wonder if part of the issue is with most characters being killable.”

      No, it’s not. The problem is with having characters that make the game more annoying for their existence, that the player cannot make less annoying. Jar Jar is no more unkillable than any other character in a non-interactive movie like Star Wars, but people still hate him.

      A Skyrim where you cannot make a petty criminal stop being annoying fails as both a power fantasy and as a simulation. You are Paul Muad’dib, and your name is a killing word. You can literally bind a key to the “Tell dragons you’re coming to eat their soul, and have them fall out of the sky in terror” action. It makes no sense that it should be impossible to force a mere thief to respect someone who eats dragons, or have them die trying.

      To expand on what Rutskarn suggested, it would also benefit the game to expand nonlethal combat elsewhere. It should be possible for a skillful opponent to simply beat a bandit into submission, such that they will offer you the lion’s share of the combat rewards (XP and loot) just for sparing their lives, or throw down their weapons (and perhaps their coinpurse as a distraction) and flee. Some would flee and not surrender, some would surrender and not flee, and some might make a more considered withdrawal, but not every fight should end with a corpse.

      1. pdk1359 says:

        Yes, so very much yes.
        If the game is 90% combat (and another 90% loot sorting), then allow different types of combat; nonlethal damage, intimidation, save-or-die stye effect that end the fight, whatever

        Seriously, how many players would mind getting a semi-reliable to guaranteed ‘knock them down and leave them cowering’ effect?
        So many games have some manner of ‘web them to the floor to better wreck their face’, what if the enemy would just up and give up the fight at that point?
        Heck, a charm/dominate spell; they stop fighting ad serve you. what happens when the spell wears off? Usually they either go back to fighting or kill themselves, depending on the game. Why not have them just go and cry in the corner, or just up run?

        Heh, you could even set up a few additional factors; after leaving so many people alive you get a rep for mercy, and people are more willing to just drop their stuff at your feet and leave.

        1. Destrustor says:

          The worst part is the game makes it seem like it’s a possibility; some enemies beg for mercy if they get to low enough health, cower on the ground for a few seconds, and then they recover enough health for the AI to decide it’s good enough to attack you again.
          So the first time you actually try sparing a sniveling heap of blood and tears begging for its life, it just ends up with you getting an axe to the back of the head anyway.

          It almost feels like a hastily-removed feature, because they didn’t have the time or money to figure out how to script whatever would naturally result from sparing an enemy.

          1. Watrrmark0n says:

            Actually, I think you have to sheath your weapon or something for the character to recognize that you’ve accepted their surrender. Otherwise they will assume that you haven’t and get back up after a while. If you do the proper actions, they’ll just get up and leave. This is extremely unintuitive and never explained in game, but oh well.

    2. guy says:

      The fact that most NPCs are killable simply means the player is specifically frustrated with not being able to kill the ones who aren’t. They’d still be angry with the annoying ones; they just wouldn’t attempt to kill them because they’re used to not being able to.

    3. Rutskarn says:

      Cheers–squashed all the typos. Bit of a rough night.

      1. MichaelGC says:

        I still see one but it’s a very mild one so we’ll let it slide. This time.

      2. Bropocalypse says:

        One more: “power and wealthy”

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          Seconded. “their power and wealthy to control” Should be “wealth”.
          At least you don’t have to fix all the typos within 30 min of publishing!
          EDIT: 32 minutes now? Vaccilation inflation!

      3. Metal C0Mmander says:

        “I am peace with the idea” Well sadly you’ll never be at peace with the typos in this article.

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          Wow. I missed that one too. Amazing how difficult it is to proof stuff.

  5. Ilseroth says:

    Personally my biggest frustration with regards to Riften is that within a few seconds the town forcefully grabs me into conversation with annoying thugs *three times.*

    First you got a thug up front trying to work you for protection money, then you get Maul being an absolute git and then a few moments later you have Brynjolf harassing you and making implications of your moral fiber *even if you haven’t stolen a single septim.*

    The worst thing is, this is purely intentional. They *want* you to deal with people forcefully stopping you from just exploring and enjoying the content as you want. Most of the other towns just have events happen then you elect to interact as you want, with exception to Markarth’s murder at the front gate, but Riften very specifically forces you to enter from the door that sets up this chain of harassment.

    While I agree that NPC immortality isn’t inherently a flaw (despite me greatly enjoying it in Morrowind) I don’t think that the fact that NPCs are annoying and don’t get any karmic retribution is what really frustrates me. For me I think it is mostly the fact that I can hurt them. The game is recognizing my decision to attack them as a legitimate one, but my decision to kill them as being incorrect. I think this is mechanically awkward.

    If you want to prevent a player from killing characters, just have the player put away their weapon in the presence of said character (or when looking at them). This directly informs the player that aggression towards this character is not an acceptable means of solving the problem (despite it being the solution in 99% of all video game issues) Of course it has a similar issue as immortality as it hinders player choice, but it does so openly and establishes the rules mechanically.

    The situation as it stands has you going “Ok it’s on!” and you smack a person and then they go into a bit of a crouch and you go “Wait what? Urrrgh why is he not dead?” The alternative is “Ok it’s on… oh wait no he isn’t actually aggressive, oh well.” Still frustrating but it’s honest.

  6. Ninety-Three says:

    The “you didn’t earn a septim of it honestly” is part of a system where NPCs will react to what skills you have. If you have high Destruction or Illusion, they’ll bark about you being a mage, and the line in that screenshot can be randomly triggered any time a character sees you if you have some thiefly skills (I don’t remember exactly what skill triggers it). So it’s not just clumsily implying that you sell stolen goods, it’s bizarrely stating that the NPCs can magically detect your skillset just by looking at you.

    1. Joe Leigh says:

      Not when Brynjolf says it. He says that no matter what. Level 1, level 40, whatever your skills. If you don’t have much money he has some variation where he says you live on the streets or something, but still with the implication you stole everything you own. Guards will say crap like that if you have a high pickpocket or something, though, yeah.

      1. guy says:

        The ambient remarks imply your reputation proceeds you, and admittedly you do get high skill rankings by using your skills a bunch so it makes sense that it would (at least if your early pickpocketing days were variably successful).

        1. Ninety-Three says:

          The problem with having them trigger based on you having the skills though, is that they’ll trigger even based on skills you’ve barely used, trained only in monster-filled caves, and I think it can trigger on a skill that’s never been used at all.

    2. Is it skill-based? I always thought it was whatever guild quest I’d most recently done. I got comments about being a mage when I’d become archmage, then ones about being shady when I was doing the thieves guild or assassins guild, and so on.

      Oblivion went by skills, I’m pretty sure, as I decided to be a summoner early on and I kept getting told that I “smelled of death.”

      1. guy says:

        There are also some remarks triggered by quests.

    3. Primogenitor says:

      Whenever I hear these character development triggered lines, it really highlights when character development is NOT acknowledge e.g. wearing obviously high end heavy armour and the guy in a sackcloth vest still thinks he can take you in a fist fight.

      I would rather it reacted to the clothes I was wearing than anything else – also solving the “I am wearing a full-face generic stormcloak helmet, how do they know instantly that I am the Archmage of Winterhold?” problem. And now that I say that, isn’t that what New Vegas’ faction clothing system did more so than Fallout3/4/Skyrim?

      1. Radkatsu says:

        Fallout 4, surprisingly enough, actually does this. Not all the time, to be sure, but a good number of comments are thrown your way by random NPCs depending on what you happen to have on (power armour, vault suit, whatever).

        1. Andy_Panthro says:

          Of course you also get comments about your vault suit while you are wearing power armour…

          1. Radkatsu says:

            Well, I AM wearing it… it’s just not visible lol They probably should’ve put a couple of additional checks in for that though, yeah :)

  7. Xeorm says:

    Actually, I kind of liked that we couldn’t randomly kill people just because they annoyed us. Having to put some effort in really helped, at least once you became powerful enough that killing townsfolk wasn’t a big deal.

    1. Sleeping Dragon says:

      What exactly do you mean by “having to put some effort in”? It’s not that those NPCs are really strong. or under superheavy guard or something, they literally cannot be killed unless a specific point in a quest allows or, typically, demands it.

  8. RedSun says:

    During the season, I think Campster brought up that you can only really affect change in the world by murdering things, which I think is also part of the problem. It’s not just that we can’t hit the guy-we can’t fuck with him.

    You have speechcraft, but you can’t insult him or spread a nasty rumor about him. You can pickpocket off him to the point where you steal all the clothes off his back, but he won’t notice. You can’t use your magic to curse him or charm him or cover him in ants. You have no ability to interact with anything other than via murder, and you can’t murder Maul, so you just got to put up with him. And frankly, I think haranguing NPCs is way more satisfying than putting an axe in them. It makes you feel funny. In a lot of ways, I think it gives the player a much stronger power fantasy to just be a dick to people.

    1. Supah Ewok says:

      Like, say, being able to close and open a door in his face, preventing him from entering his house? Or keeping him trapped in a hallway as you lock and unlock the doors on either side, taunting him by opening the opposite door every time he gets near the other, and reversing when he tries to backtrack?

    2. Cinebeast says:

      This would be ideal, I think. Whether or not you can kill everybody, you should have non-lethal opportunities to affect the characters and the world at all times.

      It wouldn’t even need to be complicated. Would it have been so much trouble to play a dialogue clip when Maul loses his clothes, or change his idle animation to a “modesty stance” or something?

    3. Ranneko says:

      This is why I invested in pickpocketing, people who insult me end up not wearing any pants. Not that they react to this in any way.

    4. Izicata says:

      The game has a system for non-lethal combat. It’s not a very good one, but it has a system; brawls. You click the “get in a fight” dialogue option, your weapons are automatically unequipped, and you and the NPC punch each other in the face until one of you falls over. However, AFAIK you cannot get into a brawl with Maul. Bethesda could have let you say “oi m8 fite me ill rek ur arse swar on me mum” and punch Maul until his dialogue changes, but they didn’t.

  9. Phantos says:

    In a game all about killing things, where all you can do is kill things, they don’t let you kill things. And then they made us want to kill every NPC by making them insufferable idiots.

    You actually cannot screw up a game concept harder than that. That’s like if the next Mortal Kombat forgot to put in fighting. That’s like a car racing game where you can’t drive a vehicle. Even Sonic ’06 let the player move around in the levels. They didn’t leave out the feature where you go somewhere or do anything.

    How did Bethesda forget what game they were making, as they were making it??

  10. Rayen says:

    As an unabashed morrowind fanboy i will say not being able to collapse an annoying NPC’s skull via warhammer really annoys me. I understand why they did it, but i still don’t like it and it causes problems. For example go attack a stormcloak/imperial frontier camp, all the soldiers go down but the general/leader is unkillable. this leads to a problem where i have a guy that I CANNOT KILL even though he is my sworn enemy follow and constantly attack me and have to reload a save from an hour before because there isn’t a way to get rid of him.

    1. Will says:

      Knock him to the ground and run away. It’s pretty easy to get far enough away that he won’t follow. Or just keep pounding his face in every time he gets up””it’s like a stress ball, but more homicidal.

      This is one of the most asinine, idiotic design decisions in the game, though. When I finished the civil war questline, the leader of the remaining side practically asked me to clean up the opposition camps, but nope, there’s this one idiotically-immortal dude sitting in the middle of each one that I can beat the tar out of, but can’t kill. Way to go, guys.

    2. modus0 says:

      The worst thing about those generals, is that there is absolutely no reason for them to be immortal. Especially after you resolve the Civil War for the opposing side.

      The Unofficial Skyrim Patch thankfully has removed their “Essential” status, yet another example of modders fixing Bethesda’s mistakes.

      1. Worthstream says:

        Oh, thanks. Having never played without the unofficial patch i was a bit lost there.

  11. Volvagia says:

    “The first thing every teen superhero does is show up the student who made their lives a living hell.” Well, not in the modern (post 2003) Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) origins. But Barbara Gordon Batgirl’s story is ageless “superhero minimalism” (no angst, no wealth, no superpowers), so why has Warner Bros not…sees that they could release a $230 million Batman movie…never mind, they’re just confusing budget for quality.

  12. Ravens Cry says:

    There’s a wonderful word for what’s needed here: comeuppance.
    Or, rather, the lack thereof.
    We live in a world with a variety of bullies. Some physical, but, especially as we get older, emotional, but we, as a society, have decided for good or ill that responding physically to such is not acceptable.
    However, for most of history and pre history, for males at least, this was not the case. Someone makes a threat to you or demeans you, you made sure they knew not to do it again, lest you get a reputation as someone who can be demeaned such.
    But these games are missing that. Reaver from Fable 2, the young twerps in Little Lamplight, the bullies in Skyrim, despite the game doing everything right to make it personal, giving you every motivation to want to make them paste, does. Not. Let you.
    And, as Rutz points out, this is a deeply visceral and powerful emotion. How are these game designers missing that? It’s like they’re afraid to let you actually play the game.

  13. Tizzy says:

    Something I mentioned already in a previous post, but that I can see now is all about emotional resonance:

    It gets really OLD after a while to systematically come across the stories of all these various people who’ve been slaughtered by the Falmer, and to never EVER be able to rescue any survivors.

    Surely, it couldn’t be that hard to have a couple. Not hard to code, not a lot of extra resources.

    The most baffling case is a few times where you do come across survivors, but all of them are hostile so you end up killing them instead of rescuing them.

    1. Phantos says:

      It does take the air out of the tires of the SPOOOKY dungeon when you know exactly what’s going to happen every time.

      “Oh, a journal of some dudes who came in here before. I bet nothing bad happened and I won’t fight any Draugr this time!”

      1. galacticplumber says:

        Just once subvert that by having you meet the actual residents who are annoyed you rifled through their stuff. Guaranteed to at least get a nice bit of novelty.

      2. Radkatsu says:

        Bethesda clearly seems to dislike actual living characters, preferring their own style of environmental storytelling via corpses. So much so that this is basically all they do now. Hell, it can be argued that even their LIVING characters have more in common with static corpses than actual real people.

        1. Andy_Panthro says:

          I think I’d actually prefer a Bethesda game without any living characters (except a small number of enemies on occasion, but even those could be animals, monsters, etc.).

          1. TemporalMagnanimity says:

            Careful what you wish for, person from the past. That was basically Fallout:76 and everyone hated it.

  14. Content Consumer says:

    I’m not sure I agree completely – I still tend to think that making characters unkillable is something of a lazy design decision. Take for example the unkillable legion or stormcloak captains at the various camps that Rayen is speaking of – they’re unkillable because they’re supposed to be used later on if the territory changes ownership during the civil war. But you can sidestep it… I’d guess the simplest way would be to use a random name generator, and every time one dies, when the area respawns you put a new captain in with a new randomly generated name.

    “For example, what if beating Maul made him scared of the player? What if a script flipped when the player reduced him to 0 health and he made awkward and unconvincingly-macho excuses to leave conversations afterward?”

    Wish I’d thought of that for DYKWIA. I should look into adding that… the mechanics are obviously already there in the vanilla game, considering that you can beat up the Silverblood thug and get information out of him during the Forsworn quest there.

    1. Majromax says:

      > Take for example the unkillable legion or stormcloak captains at the various camps that Rayen is speaking of ““ they're unkillable because they're supposed to be used later on if the territory changes ownership during the civil war.

      The problem is that with the civil war as implemented, the player is locked into a faction relatively early on. After that point, there is no way that any of the now-hostile camps could ever become non-hostile, even if the territory changes hands via the cease fire.

      Immortal camp generals prior to commitment are blunt but sensible; persisting that after the commitment point is erroneous.

      This may be a retained legacy of what was allegedly a far more involved and dynamic civil war quest line/mechanic.

  15. SlowShootinPete says:

    There was this one time about twenty or so hours into my fourth or fifth play through of Fallout New Vegas that I was basically just filling in my world map, visiting all the little places I’d overlooked before because I had done all the big quests. I had enough of the end-game gear and perks that most challenges were pretty trivial, and I was basically just messing around to pass some time until I felt ready to take a break from the game for a while.

    I happened across some little shack from one of the dungeon mods I’d installed, and underneath it was a little bomb shelter sort of thing. Scattered through the rooms and tunnels were some computer terminals with journal entries on them for me to read, written from the perspective of a young boy who lived in the shelter with his family. He had a dad and a sister, and maybe a mother too, or maybe she had died from some tragedy, I don’t exactly remember. I don’t recall the story those computer logs told as being especially profound or interesting.

    What I’ll always remember, though, is that there wasn’t a young boy and his family living in that shelter. It was full of raiders. The last entry written on the terminals had an ending you can probably guess. When I found and read the first one, the context of the casual and effortless violence I was visiting on those helpless mooks changed really dramatically, from a momentary diversion from idle wandering to the most important thing for me to do at that time. I think it’s telling that I remember less about the details of the world building fiction the modded wrote for that dungeon than I do of my invented narrative for what each bandit must have thought and felt while watching his buddies get thrashed by the power-armored wasteland courier with three different machine guns in his pockets. I don’t know if there’s any more viscerally powerful motivation than turning the tables on a bully.

    1. Supah Ewok says:

      “I don't know if there's any more viscerally powerful motivation than turning the tables on a bully.”

      I imagine that for gamer parents, having to save their in-game child would beat that.

      ‘Course Bethesda just got through showing that they were capable of screwing that one up too.

  16. Lupinark says:

    Whats worst about it for me is that Skyrim even actually has a partially built in mechanic you SHOULD be able to use to put bullies in there place, the “brawl” option in conversations you get sometimes. It’s oddly mostly only used in conversations with people you can actually end up liking (exception being that drunk jerk in windhelm) and who actually respond to losing to you afterwards. Better yet the guards generally don’t care about those fights. But it seems mostly out of place that you don’t have that as almost a “default” option for a lot of the people who smack talk you and such. It would probably end up making more people play as Khajit though just so they can make sure to lay the most pain on those guys with the extra unarmed damage though…

  17. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

    Just like the Nazeem guy in Whiterun saying how “you will never get to the Cloud district”. At least he is killable but damn it is hard to get to him without alerting all those he is around.

  18. Corsair says:

    I feel like a lot of Skyrim’s problems boil down to the game refusing to acknowledge you. It doesn’t matter if you’re basically a Paladin or the scummiest scumbag in Skyrim, people treat you the same either way. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting on a million septims or are dirt broke, doesn’t matter if you”ve killed a hundred dragons or can’t kill a kitten, doesn’t matter if you’re Thane of a half dozen cities and a mythic hero or if you’re some nobody cart-pusher. The game treats you basically the same either way.

    There is never a really tangible sense that you are growing as a character, which in my eyes is lethal to both a roleplaying game and a power fantasy. The game never really seems to tangibly acknowledge your deeds with the exception of some guard going “You look like you know how to wield a blade” or some stupid line like “I know who you are, Hail Sithis.” (That last one really sticks in my craw, not only is it just dumb but -why- do people outside the Dark Brotherhood know I’m part of it? We’re a secret order of assassins and I’m pretty sure nobody at our meetings is wearing the terrible guard outfits)

    Half of a power fantasy is the game acknowledging your power. Skyrim doesn’t do that really at all, it has one of the same basic problems of Oblivion, you can go anywhere and do anything at level one, with the critical caveat that -no one cares- in Skyrim.

    1. Bubble181 says:

      This is a large part of why I could never get into Skyrim.

  19. Daemian Lucifer says:

    You know whats the weirdest thing about this?That this problem of unkillable npcs has been solved already.Decades ago.In games like zelda.Where you have npcs in towns that you cannot harm in any way.And that doesnt mean that you cant just kill them,that means you cannot steal from them,you cannot push them,punch them,nothing.Yet here,we allow the player to do all of that to an npc,except killing them.Thus the player can get punished for daring to touch someone with godlike immortality,which is stupid.

    Worse,these immortal beings constantly are asking for it.And the thing about jerk npcs(something also solved decades ago by jrpgs)is that they either need to give you valuable information at some point,give you some powerful item,get their comeuppance,or just be completely removed from the main path so that its pretty much your fault for interacting with them in the first place.

    Of course,there were always exceptions to this(HEY!LISTEN!),but never dozens of them in the same game.

    1. acronix says:

      At last navi was being useful and not consciously there to annoy or hinder you.

      1. galacticplumber says:

        This is why every zelda game with a talking sidekick needs to have an option called ”Shut your mouth!” for people who just do not want to be regularly interrupted or whined at. Navi isn’t even the worst one. The spirit of the master sword is the most annoying character in the entire series.

        1. Shoeboxjeddy says:

          The thing that seals my agreement with you about Fi (the ‘helper’ from Skyward Sword) was after hours and hours and hours of unnecessary forced help, I found an enemy I couldn’t quite grasp how to hurt. I was losing a lot of health and getting annoyed when I was like “wait… Fi has COMBAT ADVICE!” so I asked her for help. She took a look at the enemy “huh, he seems to be armored and very quick… good luck, this could be tough!”

          WTF! Why even HAVE an advice button if she’s not going to at least give me a HINT of what to do??

          1. galacticplumber says:

            Oh hell it’s worse than i thought… I thought they gave you a spout of entirely irrelevant infor with which would occasionally come in handy for someone who actually was having a hard time and wanted some info on an enemy. Fi can’t even do that? Really? Disgraceful.

  20. Bubble181 says:

    This also flows from the decision to remove most others ways of dealing with the world. As others have stated, you don’t necessarily want to kill these people, you want to be able to give them what they deserve (for the most part. It actually makes sense to want to kill some). The developers removed all kinds of lying, cheating, and so forth, and only left one way of interacting…Then made that impossible for some. Meaning you *can’t* interact with them at all, meaningfully.

  21. Interestingly enough, there are numerous times in Skyrim when you can punch-up a bully to force them to do what you want–without killing them. They could have done a lot more with the fist fights.

    This was one of the things I liked about Gothic, too–you can beat someone up without killing them, and it will often make them behave better toward you.

    1. SPCTRE says:

      Gothic, even in the very first game, also managed to implement a system similar to what Primogenitor described earlier where NPCs react strongly and believably to whatever kind (and rank of) faction armor you are wearing – it changes your status and their reactions in major ways.

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