Chapter IV: The Agony of Choice

Skyrim is supposed to be an RPG. There is no use trying to pretend otherwise. It’s meant to be a fantasy role playing game. The problem, however, is that as an RPG, it’s a complete failure.

Do you know what the point is with an RPG? The whole basis for role playing since the dawn of the genre?

Choice. Allowing the player to make their own decisions, to exercise free will and having them face the consequenses of their actions, good or bad.

Fallout understood this concept. Baldurs Gate understood it. Even Fable, one the most simplistic role playing games I’ve ever played, understood it.

Skyrim does not.

You’re not given a choice in this game. None of your actions have the slightest impact on the world. Sometimes, if you are EXTREMELY lucky, you get two options on how to solve something. But those instances are rare. Otherwise, you’re on the plot railroad, and there ain’t no sidetracks. And the thing is, these limitations can make some of the skills you can train yourself in completely meaningless, making you wonder why you bothered with those skills in the first place.

For example:

During the “Dark Brotherhood” story arc, you’re hired by a woman named Muiri who asks you to kill a bandit. The bandit in question tricked Muiri into thinking he was in love with her. In reality, he used her to get close to the Shatter-Shields, close friends and a surrogate family to Muiri, to rob them of their valuables.

The Shatter-Shields disowned Muiri, believing she was in on the scam, leaving her without friends or family in Windhelm, forcing her to move to another city to try and start over.

So she hires you to kill the bandit that ruined her life. So far, so good. A bit dark, but otherwise a fairly basic story, right?

But then the mission throws you a curve ball by having Muiri ask you to, for a small bonus, kill Nilsine Shatter-Shield, the daughter in the family that rejected her, her childhood friend and as close to a sister as she’s ever had.

Right after the family lost their OTHER daughter to a psychotic serial killer.

Now, you can either refuse to kill Nilsine, in which case Muiri is left bitter and alone, judging you for not going through with it….

Or you can kill Nilsine, leading to her mother committing suicide from having lost both her daughters.

Those are your only options in this mission.

However, if someone COMPETENT was writing this, I could think of one or two other choices you could make…

You could use your Speech-skill to convince Muiri to forgive the Shatter-Shields and move on, since killing her childhood friend wouldn’t accomplish anything. Oh wait, that would make sense, and we can’t have that.

Perhaps you could, if you have sufficient points in Charisma, convince the Shatter-Shields to forgive Muiri. No wait, that’s right, there is no stat for Charisma.

Maybe if you have a high Intelligence score, you could try and reason with them, arguing Muiris innocence. But that would mean there was an Intelligence score. Silly me, I keep expecting this to work like an RPG.

Perhaps the Bandit has a journal that proves she wasn’t involved, and in fact is only one of several similar cases? Nah, that would require putting effort into the quest. Can’t have that.

No, let’s just ignore these four perfectly valid solutions, and just go with NOT making you feel like you’ve actually helped someone. That sounds much better, doesn’t it?

Dave: That’s not fair! That mission is part of the Dark Brotherhood arc! If you want to feel like a good guy, you shouldn’t join a faction of assassins!

I’d argue that it’s fully possible to be an assassin with good intentions, and there’s nothing in the doctrines of the Dark Brotherhood (which they don’t follow anyway) preventing you from trying to help people, and in fact all that’s stopping you is the bad writing, but fine, let’s go with that answer.

Then there’s the quest “Paarthurnax

This quest is given to you by the Blades, an ancient organization formed by the Dragonborn-Turned-Emperor Tiber Septim,

In earlier games, they served as bodyguards to the emperor, but in Skyrim they are retconned as dragonslayers who have sworn an oath of allegiance and servitude to the Dragonborn.

In other words: They work for you.

They inform you that the leader of the Greybeards, Paarthurnax, is in fact a dragon.
Of course, you already KNEW that, since by this point you’ve already met Paarthurnax.

Then they tell you to kill him, saying that until you do so, they refuse to help you any further.

I repeat.

The Blades tell you, the Dragonborn, whom they are honour bound to follow, help and protect, and to whom they owe every single victory they’ve had during the course of the game, and who is solely responsible for giving them access to the ancient Sky Haven Temple, that unless you kill Paarthurnax, they won’t help you any more.

Now, how would a properly made RPG solve this quest?

(Obviously, a properly made RPG wouldn’t have made this an issue in the first place, but let’s just ignore that for a moment)

Can you use your Intelligence score to point out that by refusing to help you, they are in fact breaking their oath? No, because Skyrim doesn’t use stats, so there is no Intelligence score.

Can you use your high skill in Speech to explain that the only reason they’re in the Sky Haven Temple is because of you slicing your arm open to unlock the door, and that they owe you? No, because you can’t expect that, just because you are the most persuasive person who has ever lived, you can convince people to use common sense.

Can you lie about killing Paarthurnax, and just bring them any piece of dragon bone? No, of course not. Silly me.

When they tell you that if you’re not going to kill Paarthurnax, they will refuse to help, can you threaten them, pointing at all the monsters you have defeated over the course of the game, the graveyards you’ve filled, and ask them if they really want you as an enemy? Ha! What a cute little imagination you have…

Maybe you could tell them that Paarthurnax is, in fact, the one responsible for teaching humanity how to use the Thu’um, and as such is directly to thank for the fact Alduin was defeated and humanity was freed from his tyrannical reign, and surely the freedom and safety of EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER LIVED SINCE THE DAWN OF RECORDED HISTORY is enough to forgive his crimes? Of course not! That’d just be silly!

In fact, if you tell them that Paarthurnax, at great risk of his own life, betrayed Alduin and decided to help humanity, they claim that’s only proof that he might betray you at a later point, since all he’s done is prove he’s untrustworthy.

And sure, that’s a good point… After all, it’s not like he switched sides at the height of Alduins power. It’s not like before he switched sides, humanity had no realistic way to fight the dragons, since the lack of a Dragonborn meant Alduin could just revive the dragons, even if the humans managed to kill one. I mean, That would mean Paarthurnax sided with humanity out of compassion rather than necessity-Oh wait, that’s right, that’s exactly what he fucking did!

But no, you can’t use any of your skills to explain BASIC FACTS about Paarthurnax. He used to be in league with Alduin, and killed THOUSANDS of people! He must pay for those lives.

Never mind the literal BILLIONS of people who have him personally to thank for being alive. Never mind the fact the whole reason humanity flourished, and Tiber Septim himself ever coming into being to form the Blades in the first place, is because of Paarthurnax betraying Alduin.

Dave: Well, technically it was thanks to the Elder Scroll that Alduin was defeated, not Paarthurnax’s betrayal…

Perhaps, but without the thu’um rendering Alduin flightless, I’m willing to bet they would’ve never gotten the chance to use it in the first place. Not to mention they probably wouldn’t have been able to survive long enough to retrieve the Elder Scroll without the Thu´um to help them fight dragons.

I just don’t understand the reasoning behind this quest.

Dave: Isn’t it obvious? The blades are dragonslayers. If the Dragonborn won’t slay a dragon, they won’t follow him.

BULLSHIT! That’s not how an oath of allegiance works! You can’t claim you’ve pledged yourself to serve the Dragonborn, and then start issuing ultimatums. If you’ve pledged yourself to my service, you serve until I say otherwise.

If you’re not going to do as I say, you have broken your oath, and you are no longer allowed to be a member of the Blades. And yes, this is my decision to make! The game has outright told me I am the one calling the shots, even without all the shit I’ve done for them already!

Dave: Well, they could just find another Dragonborn…

Oh, Sure they can! Oh wait, that’s right! The prophecy on Alduins wall specifically mentions me as “The Last Dragonborn”. So no, they haven’t got a damn choice! They can either do as I say, or fuck off back to the shithole where I found them.

THOSE are their only options!

But you know what the funny thing is? Believe it or not, I’d be able to forgive ALL OF THIS! Every single piece of shitty writing and braindead character motivation in this quest, were it not for ONE teeny tiny little detail….

YOU CAN’T KILL THE BLADES!

THAT is not an option in this mission! This is one of the most obvious opportunities for a writer with a basic understanding of storytelling to write multiple solutions.

But instead, they give you ONE option.

Kill Parthurnax.

The only other option is to not do the mission. And that is not a fucking option in an RPG!

If you’re going to give me a scenario where the people in question are impossible to sway, threaten or convince, at least give me the option to kill them, even if that means I fail the quest. That’d still be a resolution!

See, choices aren’t just there to pad out the game. They are necessary, not only because it makes you feel like you control the story to a degree, but also because not enforcing choices can cause huge problems later.

For example…

During the course of the game, you come across several of the Daedric Princes, god-like entities from the plane of Oblivion. They give you quests to complete in exchange for benefits, such as magical artifacts, unique weapons or armor.

But the thing is, some of these Daedric Princes are violently at odds with one another, with different agendas, goals and philosophies. One of the quests even has Molag Baal task you kill the priest of another Prince.

In any other RPG, this would be something that has long running ramifications, seeing as you have now made yourself an enemy to a demi-god who owes their allegiance to nobody but themself! This could potentially lead to them seeking revenge, which in any other RPG might make you want to weigh your options. Is helping this Daedric Prince really a good idea in the long run? Is the reward they offer really worth it? You’d have to make a CHOICE!

But in Skyrim, it doesn’t have any lasting impact on the game. Nobody comes after you, nobody is upset and there is NOTHING preventing you from completing quests for the other Daedric Princes, including the Prince whose priest you just killed.

Now, this is bad in and of itself, but it also leads to a giant pseudo-philosophical problem. In this game, you can do a mission for Boethiah, making you her champion. You can become a werewolf, which means that once you die, you will go to Hircine’s realm in oblivion and hunt with him for all eternity. But then, you can pledge your body and soul to the service of Nocturnal. You can also become the Listener of the Assassin’s Guild, which may or may not bind you to Sithis for eternity. All in the same playthrough. 

So, my question is: What happens when your character eventually dies? Won’t that pretty much tear the spiritual realm apart, since two or more deities now have an equal claim to the same soul?

See, this is another very obvious situation where the writer should force the player to make a choice. The paradox I’ve just outlined is the perfect justification to enforce that choice. Forcing you to make these choices means you want to play the game again, to explore a different approach. But of course, Bethesda decided this wasn’t something people playing an RPG would be interested in.

And lastly, there’s the Skyrim Civil War.

This isn’t just one quest. This is an entire series of quests, taking up several hours of gameplay, where you lead one of the warring factions of Skyrim in victory against their enemies.

The factions are the Imperial Army and the Stormcloak Rebellion.

I decided to side with the Empire.
We fought across half the country, with missions leading us down into abandoned grave catacombs and holding off attacking armies, laying siege to cities and finally attacking Windhelm, the seat of power of Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak himself. After fighting through the city, we finally stormed into Ulfrics throneroom, and defeated him in combat. With his last breaths, he asked to be killed by The Dragonborn, since it would make for a better story.

After I killed Ulfric, the imperial general held a speech in front of the citadel, before the imperial army that has killed and died for this peace. Finally, the country is free!

Cheers and applause all around!

And so, I left Windhelm, happy to have contributed. Who knows what impact I may have had on Skyrim? I’ve brought peace to this war torn nation! Finally, this game has allowed me to ACCOMPLISH something!

But as I kept playing, I started to realize that I’ve only contributed in prolonging the war!

I will explain in greater detail in the next chapter, but for now, all I’ll say is that Ulfric dying doesn’t automatically mean the war is over. The only way to end a civil war so that it actually, you know, ENDS, is if your enemy surrenders! Otherwise someone else can just take the place of whoever you killed! Now thanks to you, Ulfric isn’t a regicidal asshole out to claim the throne. He’s a martyr who gave his life for the people of Skyrim!

The game is just TAUNTING me with how meaningless my actions are at this point!

It’s not that Skyrim doesn’t have choices…
It’s that the few choices you’re given have no real impact. Any choice you make is invalidated almost instantly, and you never get the feeling that you have any control over what happens. It’s almost like the writers are afraid of the concept of “Consequence”. They don’t trust you to make a choice, so they will either invalidate your choice or, more often, make the choice FOR you.

And that, to me, is the ANTITHESIS of what an RPG is supposed to be!

Dave: You’re just being overly critical. All RPG’s have situations when you have no choices.

Oh, sure. But you know what the difference is between Skyrim and a good RPG, like Fallout: New Vegas?

In a good game, scenarios where you have no choices are the EXCEPTION, not the RULE! Hell, taking away choice is a great way to show that “This is bigger than you!“. Done sparingly, it makes situations big and important. You know what doing it all the time accomplishes? It makes YOU, the player, seem insignificant.

Let me put this into context….

In Fallout: New Vegas, one of my absolute favorite parts is an unmarked quest called “Silus Treatment”.

The quest features the NCR, having captured a centurion from Caesars Legion named Silus. So far, their interrogation has yielded no results. That’s when you arrive.

The NCR decides to see if you’ll have better luck, since you’re not constrained by the same laws as members of the NCR military. As such, you’re to use whatever means you deem necessary to make him talk.

You’re then allowed inside Silus’ cell.

From here, you have a few options on how to deal with him.

In Skyrim, you’d have the option to hit him until he talks, or leave the room. MAYBE you’d also be allowed to kill him, thereby failing the mission, but who knows if you’d be that lucky…

In Fallout, you’re given, not one, not two, but FIVE DIFFERENT SOLUTIONS to this one unmarked quest.

(6 if you count the Skyrim approach of ignoring the mission altogether.)

You can:

  1.  Hit him until he talks.
  2.  Use your speech skill to mock him, until he gets so angry he starts revealing confidential information to prove himself.
  3.  You can be a dick and kill him, which makes the NCR angry.
  4.  If you’re siding with the Legion, you can help him escape.
  5.  Pretend you’re a Legion assassin sent to kill him.

My personal favourite is nr 5, an option that’s only accessible if you have a high enough intelligence score.

Of course, if you pick that option, he doesn’t believe you, and calls your bluff.

That’s when you start talking to him in latin.

Since the members of the Legion are all unaware that Caesar modelled his empire on ancient Rome, and instead believe he created it himself, the idea of someone outside the Legion speaking latin is completely unthinkable to them.

Silus instantly believes you and begs you to just let him go, and that his plan was always to disappear.

At which point you accuse him of desertion.

Silus gets angry, and tells you that he has been loyal to Caesar, never revealing any secrets, such as the spy they have hidden on the base, sending information from the flight control tower. He tells you how he has never questioned Caesars leadership, even when the latters prolonged seizures (caused by a brain tumor) would leave him incapacitated for days.

He ends his angry tirade by telling you that if Caesar repays loyalty with assassination, his empire will crumble…

At which point you reveal that you’re not with the Legion at all, you just got Silus to tell you everything and that if Caesar’s empire crumbles, it’s because his Centurions are so gullible.

That, right there, is what I want when I play an RPG. I want the choices I’ve made with my character to matter. I want the skills I’ve favoured to be useful. I want to be given a choice on how to approach a problem. I want to feel like I’m making a difference. In short: I want to ROLEPLAY!

But clearly, Bethesda and I have very different ideas of what the term RPG means.

The main difference being that my definition is correct.

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