The guilds in Skyrim are like your sex life: short and unsatisfying. Zing!
Now, I've already talked about anticlimaxes and such in one of my better blogs, but I want to get a wee bit more specific. Whilst the guild questlines in Oblivion felt like they could be games in their own right, the ones in Skyrim were as underdone as your mother's cooking.
Spoiler Warning: Major plot points of several guild story arcs will be discussed here. Read on at your own risk.
So before I talk about some other great travesty, one nagging question must first be answered. Who gives a fuck? Are these questlines so important I have to write an entire blog complaining about them?
I think they are. The main quest is not really meaty enough to stand the game up on its own (and that is a very bad thing) but the guild questlines can be big enough that, combined with the main quest, we have a lot to do outside fetch quests and tedious errands. Not only that, but they allow for more focused questing for different play styles. It allows us to roleplay by joining a faction of like-minded individuals. For those uninterested in the main quest, or who want to experience something different, the guilds were there for them. They still are, but they also break the cardinal rule of storytelling: being forgettable.
Then and Now
Back in the good 'ole days, Oblivion was still something to behold, and whilst Skyrim is certainly technically superior, it's storytelling is lacking, even for an Elder Scrolls game.
Simply put, the guild questlines in Oblivion were easy to pick up, but difficult to master. You started as a lowly initiate or associate, and slowly proved your worth. In Oblivion, it felt as though you were really rising through the ranks of your chosen guild. They were much longer than the ones in Skyrim, and had an epic feel to their story.
The Mages Guild made you go to every town before even being admitted into the Arcane University. These quests weren't filler, however. They were fun, unique subplots (unlike Radiant fetch quests) that introduced the underlying conflicts. Remember the Necromancer in the Cheydinhal chapter? That introduced you to a problem that was way over your head, but it was a conflict you would later resolve.
Every single one of those quests in every single city had an interesting story to tell. Completing a quest in every major city is a bit of an ordeal, but once you are finally admitted into the Arcane University, you feel like you earned it. The underdone Radiant quests in Skyrim rob us of that satisfaction.
A Radiant Rise through the Ranks
The loss of said satisfaction is a symptom of Skyrim's larger problem: too much of it is underdone. The Companions quest line is by far the worst, but it also had the most potential. It started off right; you begin your career as a Companion doing errands and petty favours. Then you do one randomised job and get to recover a fragment of an ancient battleaxe. So far, so good. After that, you become a member of the faction proper. Now, I think the game should have made you spend more time as a whelp, making that eventual acceptance all the sweeter. The much bigger issue however, was that there was no real tangible story to be had outside the Proving Honor quest. Instead of being there to add additional fun to the Companions, it actually makes it worse. Instead of adding substance, it substitutes the story. Our ascenion to the upper echelon of the guild hinges not on well-focused storytelling, but generic Radiant questing.
Here's one example. Aela the Huntress told me that an animal had invaded a house in Riverwood, and I had to exterminate it. So naturally, common sense and logic kicks in and a scenario in my head forms. I imagine that the creature wandered into the home, and when the family noticed it, they trapped it inside. Now all I have to do is go in there and clean up the mess.
It seems I expected too much of radiant questing. As soon as I entered Gerdur's house, I noticed Ralof cooking by the fire. Out of nowhere, a generic wolf spawned, only to be quickly dispatched by the capable warrior living there. I didn't even do anything! This also raises a lot questions about the quest I was given. First off, where was the wolf the whole time? Was it waiting inside the house the entire time with Ralof? If this is true, why was I even needed? Gerdur and Ralof are both capable fighters, and one wolf won't give them any trouble. Also, why didn't Ralof kill it sooner?
Or did it suddenly arrive the moment I got there, through magic? If that's the case, then Aela is some kind of oracle, and there is some freaky Minority Report bullshit going on here. Either way, this quest is not a suitable replacement for an actual story. Remember A Rat Problem? Same scenario, but without all the immersion-breaking randomness of Radiant questing. Radiant quests will never be better than the well-focused and well-written stories that come with side quests. Not to say that it's a bad idea, I just feel it's not being implemented correctly. The execution for the Radiant encounters and quests and sloppy and half-baked; it's certainly not the kind of quest I want acting as filler for the guilds.
An Aversion to Antagonism
Continuing on my criticism of the Companions, I'd like to point out its lack of a central antagonist. Other guild plots had a main villain to oppose you, and they were better for it. Focusing our efforts against Karliah and Mercer Frey made the Thieves Guild a much more engaging and personal experience. The final fight with Mercer in Irkngthand was an epic battle for the ages. In many ways, it was a better boss fight than Alduin, because of the atmosphere and length. He frequently turns invisible during the fight, furthering the longevity of the duel. It's a great climactic finish to what I consider to be the best guild in the game.
The Companions questline has no such antagonist. There is no villain for us to hate. The story dissolves into a series of dungeon crawls with no real respite. The Silver Hand has no leader, and every quest involving them is the same. Go to X dungeon and kill 'em all, rinse and repeat. There's no story here; it's just a loose collection of hack and slash dungeons, with no character-driven conflict to speak of.
The Silver Hand could have been an organisation with a set of grey ideals, but instead they are portrayed as evil bigoted monsters who hate your kind. Where's there side of the story? What's their motivation? "They hate werewolves" just isn't enough. In Oblivion, there was always a bit more intrigue. The Dark Brotherhood quests had you unravelling a mystery: could there be an assassin amongst assassins? The Mages Guild was caught in a firestorm of controversy and under attack by the necromancers, led by the sinister Mannimarco, King of Worms. At the end of the Fighter's Guild quests, you were confronted by your old ally Maglir, who actually had relatable motivations. It was difficult for me to kill him, and that's part of why it was so entertaining. In many stories, the villain makes the plot. Take that out, and what's left?
For every guild we're given, we should be given two options, and those options needn't be "do it or don't". For the most part, guilds in Oblivion were just there. You either did it, ignored it, or got kicked out. There wasn't an option to oppose them. One part that stands out in that game was during the confrontation dialogue with Mannimarco. There's an option to say "let's join up and kick the shit outta those mages!" (paraphrased) . At first, I thought this was an alternative option for more sinister players, but no such luck. The guild quests in both games are completely linear, and that's a damn shame in a game that prides itself on non-linearity.
There was a bit of an exception to the rule, though: The Dark Brotherhood.
If you didn't want to join in Cyrodiil, the option was open to simply kill and loot Lucien Lachance. In Skyrim, this is expanded upon. Would-be assassins can still kill the Brotherhood's leader, and take it one step further. Not only can you kill Astrid, you can report their location to the Guard, and actively destroy them. For those who don't want to be affiliated with the Dark Brotherhood, this is an excellent alternative to nothing.
But what if Skyrim took it one step further? Imagine if the idividual members of the Dawnstar Sanctuary dispersed across Skyrim (many of the named characters would be replaced by generic initiates), starting an epic questline in which you hunt them down and deliver some justice? After you track the last of them down, Commander Maro could give you additional Radiant quests, tasking you with "Go to X dungeon and kill Y member of the Dark Brotherhood".
This could be applied to other guild quests as well. Why can't we join the Blackwood Company and subvert the Fighters Guild? Why can't I see things from the Silver Hand's point-of-view? Why can't I be a necromancer, and assault the Arcane University? More options means more replayability, and that's always a good thing.
Rise to Power
Hearkening back to Oblivion, I felt that that game nailed it. As I've said in previous sections, I felt the guild quests in Skyrim were far too short. They all felt rushed, anticlimactic, and unrewarding. The Companions questline can be reduced down to this:
- Run some petty errands.
- Do a randomly generated job.
- Go on a dungeon crawl with Farkas.
- Do another randomly generated job.
- Become accepted into the upper echelon of the Companions.
- Slaughter some Silver Hand and shit.
- Some more generic dungeon crawls.
- Go to a different dungeon and kill Hagravens.
- Come back to (gasp!) find Kodlak dead.
- Go on one last dungeon crawl and kill some more generic Silver Hand members.
- Attend a funeral (not so bad).
- Another dungeon crawl with all your buddies against some generic ghosts and an anticlimactic wolf spirit fight.
- The end.
Alright, maybe I'm oversimplifying, but you get the point. Everything felt so underwhelming and generic that I walked away unsatisfied with the entire experience. Length is very important in a story, and to be able to complete an enitre quest line in one sitting is a little disappointing. Instead of padding out the story with multiple generic dungeon crawls, they could have slowed the pacing and let us enjoy a slow burn. Longevity is more easily forgiven than brevity in a story, especially when we paid sixty dollars to hear it. Games like Dragon Quest VIII, Dragon Age: Origins, Rushed stories are easily forgotten; epic albeit well-paced tales are told for centuries.
Compare becoming Arch-Mage in both Oblivion and Skyrim. Personally, I prefer the former, because it felt well-earned. It was the final reward at the end of a long road; Becoming Arch-Mage felt like walking to the corner store and buying a candy bar. The robes are sweet at first, but the taste doesn't last long. I'm not saying the Mages Guild was perfect either, but the quests in this game still feel like a step down.
Another thing that bothered me was a lack of recognition for my effort. The fact that no one will even give you the time of day solidifies the feeling that you really never accomplished anything. No one in the guild seems to care or even realise what I've done for them. Travis Touchdown is too busy to bother with me, and everyone else is either oblivious to the fact that I saved the guild, or they're just completely out of fucks to give. It's bad enough that the denizens of Skyrim are oblivious to my actions (save for the guards), but shouldn't the people actaully involved in my exploits know about my exploits?
The Final Destination
This might seem like a nitpicky complaint to end on, but it should be said. Where the hell is Dovahkiin going when they die?
Does anyone else find it odd that nearly every questline ends with the promise of a different afterlife? How exactly is that going to work out? When the almighty Dragonborn finally dies, where is he/she going to go? Well....
- First, the Dragonborn goes to Sovngarde for defeating Alduin.
- But then out of nowhere, Hircine shows up and whisks him away to the Hunting Grounds.
- Then, Sithis calls the Dragonborn back to to the Void, where he must remain for eternity.
- However, Nocturnal reminds Dovahkiin of their deal, and they return to the Evergloam, where they stay for all eternity. For real.
Are these guilds all mutually exclusive then? To the best of my knowledge, an explanation as to how all these things are possible at once isn't given. And no, I don't want to hear about how they can all happen at the same time, because there was a Dragon Break or whatever.
This doesn't just happen in death, however. In life, the world famous Dragonborn is treated like a whelp despite ending the civil war, defeating Alduin, and being Arch-Mage of the College of Winterhold. An honourable warrior can become a stealthy servant of Sithis, and no one seems to notice. You are treated as two different people in those scenarios. There is no kind of crossover like Season Unending. All of these quests might as well take place in separate planes of existence.
All things considered, Skyrim feels like its going through the motions, but it's not nearly as fleshed out or as entertaining as it's previous iterations-at least in the guilds aspect.