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Freedom and Mutual Exclusivity in an Elder Scrolls Title

The Elder Scrolls has always prided itself on freedom. Freedom of choice, freedom to customise, and freedom to explore at the player's own pace. However, I think there's a point in these games wherein you simply have too much freedom, such that it makes for a weaker experience overall.

Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary (Oblivion)

In most entries in the franchise, you can be anyone and do anything, with no real restriction. In fact, even your actions themselves won't restrict your actions. You can the Listener for the Dark Brotherhood, Harbinger of the Companions, Arch-Mage of the College of Winterhold, a Nightingale in the Thieves Guild, and still have time to save the world from Alduin and end the civil war for the empire. Yes, you have the freedom to do those things, but the way in which you do them is often rigid. Instead of giving me interesting choices with which to deal, I am given a large sandbox full of disconnected jobs to complete, in no particular order.

I suppose the issue I have with well, every entry into The Elder Scrolls is that it offers a plethora of choices and no ultimatums. Should a known legionnaire really be allowed in the Dark Brotherhood? For a secretive band of assassins, the barrier for entry is awfully low. If I go on countless killing sprees, shouldn't the Fighting Guild think twice about letting me join their ranks? In fact, your criminal history seems irrelevant to most people, so long as you do enough "nice" things to balance it out, as is the case in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. So long as your face stat exceeds your infamy, you're generally regarded as a nice person. So long as your outstanding bounties are paid, you won't carry any sort of stigma for mass murder. At most, you'll lose a few stats, which isn't much at all. Really, what's the point of even bothering to slaughtering scores of people if I can't at least get recognised for it?

Chorrol Fighters Guild

The problem with all of these choices is that there are no restrictions in doing so. Almost no quests are ever time-sensitive, meaning you can pick up people's problems and add them to your to-do list like groceries in a shopping cart. This is one of the bigger strengths of the Dead Rising series for me. Without enough time to do everything, you're forced to assess who and what matters to you the most. The only real time-sensitive quest I can recall is A Brotherhood Betrayed, which makes sense. It puts pressure on the player and forces them to show some responsibility and logical thinking by prioritising this quest over others. After all, you're chasing a target that is likely to flee the province. Wouldn't it make sense for time to be of the essence? Now, considering the overwhelming amount of quests in any of these games, I don't expect a whole lot to be time-sensitive. What I would like to see however, is the game forcing players to show some commitment. A civil war shouldn't sit around wasting for you to finish it for them! In fact that whole quest line should have played out like the Civil War Overhaul mod, wherein Holds can be invaded in real time, forcing you to hold down the resistance, or risk losing entire regions and eventually, the war. If you start escalating something, you should either see it through to the end, or face the consequences if you deem something else to be of greater importance. That might seem like an inconvenient burden, but being shown enough respect to be responsible for your actions is satisfying in itself.

Making a choice in a roleplaying game should have consequences, be they positive, negative, or purely logical. I know having consequences for your actions seems like a scary thing, and that's something will undoubtedly scare of the kiddies, but having to think about your actions makes for a more meaningful roleplaying experience. This is one of the bigger weaknesses in this franchise for me. Because there's rarely any kind of mutual exclusivity involved in making a choice, there's very little meaning in making it. Whether or not you choose to join the a shadowy band of assassins worshipping a dark god has no effect on the world, and as a result, on the player. You're only choice for the most part is whether or not you want to go down the questline. If you want, you can really do just about everything in a single playthrough, which not only makes no sense, it makes my character lack a sense of personality. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim takes a step forward in this regard. After being approached by the Dark Brotherhood, you can actually choose to destroy the organisation instead of joining it. This is something of which I'd like to see more. When confronted with becoming a werewolf in the Companions, where's my option to say "no"? Sure, I could turn around and not do anything, but inaction is not the same as refusal to act. Where's my option to say "Werewolves are an abomination, I'll kill you all!", or "Nah, I think I'll just be a normal Companion, thanks."? Instead of fighting the Silver Hand, why not let me play as them, so they can be fleshed out a little more? What if I could join the King of Worms and work to destroy the Mage's Guild, instead of being forced to either save it or not participate? Let my character make a stand somewhere, instead of following everyone around and doing odd jobs for other people.

The Silver Hand Quest

In titles such as Mass Effect and Deus Ex, having mutually exclusive options might seem like padding, in order to lock you off from content on that playthrough, forcing you to play again. To an extent, this can be true. However, having to commit to certain decisions, with the potential of having a serious impact on your playthrough, gives you a stronger sense of filling a role. What kind of persona are you? Are you an honourable hero, or a dastardly assassin? Are you a sneaky thief or a soldier fighting for the empire? You can and certainly should be something in between, but the answer shouldn't be all of the above, because without any sense of consequence, the freedom for the player to make choices ends up just feeling empty.

Would you like to see more mutually exclusive guilds and quests?
 
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The poll was created at 19:26 on May 26, 2014, and so far 177 people voted.

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