Chapter V: A Tale of Two Games

Let’s talk about the story of Skyrim, shall we?

Dave: Hold on a minute! It’s unfair to pick on the story of Skyrim. The story has always been the weak point in games by Bethesda. You don’t play their games for the main story!

Ok, since when is that an excuse for poor writing!? If everyone knows that the writing is their weak point, and they continue to make poorly written games instead of trying to improve the writing, then it’s completely justified to call them out on their poor writing skills. Wouldn’t you agree?

Let’s begin.

As I mentioned in Chapter I, the story begins on a prison escort on its way to Helgen. Once past the crappy excuse for a Character Creation menu, you’re told that your name isn’t actually on the list of prisoners sentenced for execution.

Do the Imperial soldiers apologize for the inconvenience and let you go, since they have no legal right to hold you prisoner, let alone EXECUTE you?

After all, as far as they know, you’ve committed no crimes and they just picked you up when you tried to cross the border, right? Sure, there’s a civil war going on, but that hardly makes “crossing the border” a crime punishable by death. Especially if you play as any race other than Nords, since the Stormcloaks are exclusively nords.

I mean, It’s not like you’re going to share any state secrets. The people being executed are rebels, led by Ulfric Stormcloak, and surely they will want his death to be known as soon as possible, to signal the end of the Stormcloak Rebellion and the Skyrim Civil War?

No, of course not! They just say “Well, since you’re here, we’ll kill you too” and sentence you to death for absolutely no reason other than it being Wednesday.

If this sounds like a dick move, consider it an example of an issue I hinted at in Chapter II. Namely, Skyrim is almost exclusively populated by morons and assholes. If you’re lucky, you meet someone who’s one or the other, but for the most part the two tend to blur together.

In fact, I defy you to name five people in this game that are neither evil or stupid. I can only count four. Paarthurnax, Kodlak Whitemane, Tolfdir and possibly Emperor Titus Mede II. (I didn’t get a chance to know him very well, seeing as during the one quest where I met him I had to kill him. With no choice in the matter, of course.). Everyone else is either stupid, malicious or both.

See, whereas Fallout had the Karma-system, this game has no way of determining alignment. Of course, If you’re a good writer this doesn’t stop you from writing multifaceted and complex characters.

But the problem is, the people who made this game aren’t good writers. Because of that, almost everyone have the same personality. In other words: They’re dickheads!

Dave: Wait, the writers or the characters?

Yes.

In my opinion, this game could really benefit from some sort of alignment system, if only because it’d give the writers guidelines for how to write characters with any depth to them…..

Anyway…

There you are, sentenced to death by people who have outright stated they have no reason or right to kill you. So far, this is shaping up to be the shortest game in the history of role playing.

But just when you’re about to get your block knocked off, the execution is interrupted by the arrival of the black dragon Alduin. He kills several soldiers and prisoners while also causing massive destruction and chaos, giving you a chance to make your escape.

During the escape, you’re given an option to follow an Imperial or a Stormcloak soldier.

(And in twist that will surely leave Dave in shock, this choice makes absolutely no difference, since the end result is the same)

You flee through some hidden caverns underneath the Helgen keep, and make your way to safety.

Dave: So? What was wrong about that?

I’m glad you asked, Dave, and I will counter with a very simple question.

Why did Alduin attack?

Dave: Because he wanted to save Ulfric. If Ulfric dies, the war ends. Alduin wants as many as possible to die, so he can devour their souls.

Fair enough.

But why did he attack Helgen, instead of attacking the caravan before it arrived? Wouldn’t it be easier to destroy a caravan guarded by a handful of guards and set the prisoners free, instead of attacking an entire city full of soldiers and risk Ulfric being killed in the collateral damage, while also dealing with all the soldiers? Sure, they pose no threat to Alduin, but I’d imagine it’s still pretty annoying to have a bunch of people shooting arrows at you.

Not to mention Ulfric may well be killed by Imperials while trying to escape the city.

And while I’m asking, how did Alduin know Ulfric was there? Ulfric must have been caught recently. After all, why else would they take him to a relatively remote mountain village, instead of Solitude to face execution?

Even if Ulfric was caught a long time ago, who told Alduin where Ulfric was going? Nobody is shown to collaborate with Alduin. (It’d be an interesting idea, which means it’s not going to happen in this game)

Does Alduin have any telepathic abilities or some secret shout that gives him the power to track people? If so, you have to ESTABLISH those abilities at some point.

Also, we established in the last chapter that killing Ulfric won’t actually stop the war. More likely, it will escalate matters when the Stormcloaks and their sympathizers hear that the Empire has killed Ulfric. This is what I hinted at in the last chapter.

You see, despite their name, the Stormcloaks aren’t really followers of Ulfric. The name “Stormcloaks” was originally meant as an insult from Imperials, which the rebels then appropriated.

The rebellion itself was fundamentally centered around worship of Talos. Making Ulfric High-King was never the end goal! Ulfric was just someone with authority and charisma, representing traits the Nords value. Killing him doesn’t mean the core issue of Talos just goes away! All it does is killing someone who, arguably, has a legitimate claim to the crown, a man who would allow people to worship their god again.

Instead of a leader to follow, he becomes a symbol to rally around. A hero who died for his beliefs.

So either the war ends with Ulfrics death, in which case the writers completely missed the central issue in a storyline THEY THEMSELVES WROTE, or it keeps going, meaning the entire quest line of the Skyrim Civil war I talked about in chapter IV was a complete waste of time.

(Neither explanation inspires much hope….)

But if the goal was to prolong the war, Alduin had EVERYTHING to gain by Ulfric being executed.

Attacking Helgen was the absolutely dumbest tactical move he could have made, and not only because Ulfric survived the attack.

In what other way is it stupid?

Let’s say you’re Alduin. You know there is a civil war going on in Skyrim between the Imperial Army and the Stormcloak Rebellion. You want as many people as possible to die. Now, you don’t have to kill them yourself. As long as they die, it’s to your benefit, and neither side in the civil war is aware of you or your army of dragons.

(Never mind the fact that you’re immortal, so you’re not really in a rush, and you could pretty much just sit in the afterlife with your mouth open and eat everyone who dies.)

What should you do?

The answer is that you should wait until one side has defeated the other. That way, they will have limited supplies, their fortresses will be in disrepair, their troops will be exhausted, their equipment will be worn out and their strategic leaders will relax, since the crisis is over. This means they have little to no preparation or capability to defend themselves when you send in the aforementioned army of dragons and wipe them all out.

Now, I’ve never read “The Art of War” from cover to cover, but I seriously doubt that you’ll find that answer in the military teachings of Sun Tzu.

Do you know why?

Because it’s so fucking obvious, that if Sun Tzu, considered one of the greatest military minds in the history of organized warfare, believed it worth mentioning, he may as well have written an addendum to the book, outlining strategies like that.

And my guess is that the book would be called something along the lines of

The Art of War: The “YOU DON’T FUCKING SAY” Edition

Now conversely, do you know what is the absolutely worst thing you can do in that situation?

SHOWING YOURSELF, AND REVEALING THAT THE DRAGONS HAVE RETURNED!

Why?

Because if you do, chances are they will unite against this new, common enemy.

And even if they don’t, you are attacking them at the peak of their martial power!

Dave: So what?! The dragons can’t be killed! If they die, Alduin just resurrects them again. They are unstoppable, except if the Dragonborn is found!

Right you are, Dave. Now, do you know how someone would find out if they were the Dragonborn?

DaveBy killing a dragon.

WRONG!

The correct answer is: By absorbing the soul of a dead dragon. They don’t actually have to kill the dragon themselves, just stand near the corpse of one before Alduin gets to it. So if the Dragonborn happens to be in a city, let’s say Whiterun, and a dragon attacks, and the soldiers are well trained, well supplied, well equipped and pretty much prepared for war, chances are the Dragon might get killed (since, as we’ve established in Chapter II, the dragons are morons and don’t fight intelligently), which means the Dragonborn might be found.

And guess what?

THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT FUCKING HAPPENS! 

(And keep in mind, Alduin was aware of the prophecy that the Dragonborn would return!)

If Alduin, and by extension, the writers of this game had any brains at all, they would wait with the dragon invasion until AFTER the civil war was over.

Not only because it makes all kinds of sense from a tactical standpoint, but also because that’d mean the civil war would actually be part of the fucking story! If you want to fight dragons, you have to deal with the civil war first. It’s called a storyline! In Fallout New Vegas, you don’t get to go straight to caesars camp and talk with him. In Fable II, you don’t get to travel to Bloodstone and talk to Reaver, first thing you do.

Having the civil war come first would make you want to play the civil war and who knows, you might actually get invested in the story! Not to mention it’d build suspense and mystery around the dragons, culminating in them finally appearing!

The more observant readers among you might be wondering about the title of this chapter.

“A Tale of Two Games”

What I mean with that title is that this isn’t a complete game. It’s two halves of two different games, smashed together with little to no care of whether or not the two have anything to do with one another.

Think about it. you have the threat of Alduin, the Black God King of All Dragonkind, First Ruler of Man and Mer, Devourer of Souls and Armageddon incarnate.

And no, I’m not exaggerating at all with that description. From what I’ve been told, in Morrowind, you were fighting to avoid the world turning into a necropolis, and humanity turning into zombies or worse.

In Oblivion, you fight to keep Mehrunes Dagon, the Daedric Prince of Destruction, from entering Mundus, turning Nirn into a blasted wasteland and either enslave or wipe out humanity, thereby making the world an extension of his domain.

In Skyrim, you are not fighting to save a kingdom, or a continent, or even humanity itself. Alduin’s final goal is the COMPLETE AND UTTER ANNIHILATION OF THE PLANET. That is why he wants souls. Once he has devoured enough souls, he will have enough power to fulfill that purpose. He IS the end of the world personified.

But apparently, someone at Bethesda looked at that premise and thought “That’s not interesting enough! Throw a civil war in there as well!

So all of a sudden, we have a side plot of a civil war in Skyrim. An entire quest line that, ultimately, makes fuck all difference in the finished game.

It doesn’t matter what side wins in this tumultuous conflict that has Skyrim split down the middle. It’s not like if you finish the civil war, the winning side will fight alongside you against Alduin.

Why not cut the civil war, put more effort into the main story, iron out the problems, work on the writing and actually make a game people won’t look at and go “let’s not bother with the main story. It’s not any good anyway”. If people say that your main storylines aren’t very good, put in some effort and PROVE THEM WRONG!

And if you still want the civil war, just make that a DLC!

Sure, people don’t like DLC’s, but wouldn’t you rather have a complete game with a story you’d actually be interested in, rather than this badly constructed piece of crap?

Maybe you could cut a few Daedric quests too, and make the Civil War not just a battle between humans, but have some Daedric Princes getting involved as well, maybe to further their own agendas or just for their own amusement.

Boethia, Malacath, Clavicus Vile and Sheogorath could all be involved with the war, and motivating why they’d be involved should be easy.

But let’s assume that the civil war HAS to be part of the main story, and if you were to remove it, some artistic message or social commentary would be lost.

Fair enough. Let it never be said I wasn’t willing to compromise.

Here’s how you do it.

Suppose Alduin attacked a convoy carrying Ulfric Stormcloak that, rather than going to Helgen, is on it’s way to Solitude where Ulfric is to stand trial. Alduin attacks the convoy for the express purpose of killing Ulfric. Maybe it isn’t even Alduin himself attacking, but members of a resurrected dragon sect, like the one that spawned the Dragon Priests. They kill Ulfric, and remove the bodies of the imperial soldiers. This means everyone will blame the imperials for assassinating Ulfric rather than give him a fair trial, which might have seen him released and crowned as the new High-King.

Brewing paranoia and tension ensues.

Now, you are passing through the area when the attack takes place and witness it. And during the attack, you get knocked out by one of the attackers.

Then you wake up in a small cabin, by someone who found you.

Then that someone says something along the lines of “I’m such-and-such, by the way. Who are you?

Cue a proper character creation menu!

Now, nobody believes you when you claim that it wasn’t the imperial soldiers who killed Ulfric. And they certainly don’t believe you when you talk about “Dragon Cultists”. That sect has been gone for millenia. Clearly you just hit your head very hard.

The civil war could then be just the first part of the game! You can choose to try to meddle peace back and forth or fight with either side, ending with the enemy SURRENDERING. Your choice might have an effect on the ending. And once the war is over, one way or another…

THAT is when the dragons attack!

Now, how would Alduin know when to launch this attack?

Simple. He has informants in the form of cultists, masquerading as members of both factions, loyal to him alone. And maybe when he launches the attack, that’s when he uses some powerful spell or a special shout that restores the other dragons to life!

Cue the arrival of dragons loyal to him.

Alduin tasks one of the dragons to kill the people celebrating the end of the war, and leaves.

And when you defeat this dragon, you are revealed as the Dragonborn!

After that, the story can proceed much like it already does. Maybe the dragon attacks result in more casualties if either side defeats the other in the civil war. Perhaps capture of the dragon Odahviing is different, depending on what faction you favored. Maybe the Imperials favor a technical solution, and the Stormcloaks prefer beating the dragon into submission?

And then, of course there’s the ending…

Dave: What’s wrong with the ending? It was awesome!

And Dave has a point. On paper, it’s brilliant.

In the course of the game, you use a long forgotten shout, that causes dragons to temporarily lose the ability to fly. You learn it by using one of the eponymous Elder Scrolls to look back through history, at the final battle between three legendary heroes and Alduin. During the battle, they used the shout and, when it proved ineffectual, they used the Elder Scroll to throw Alduin forward through time, effectively making him your problem.

Kind of a dick move, really…Then again, they didn’t know what the Elder Scroll would do, so I guess you can’t blame them. On the other hand they come from Skyrim, which is populated by morons and assholes, so even if they knew, they probably wouldn’t care….

Anyway, with the help of this shout, you fight Alduin and beat him to the point where he retreats to the realm of Sovngarde, the Nord afterlife. (We’ll just ignore the fact that ONE person made Alduin retreat, whereas THREE people previously failed.)

In Sovngarde, Alduin intends to devour souls and rebuild his strength. To stop him, you have to follow him through a magical portal, enter what’s essentially Valhalla and ask the three heroes who fought him previously to fight with you.

So there, before The Hall of Valor, the three legendary heroes of the Nords, along with the Dragonborn, fight a climactic battle with the World Eater, the God-King of Dragon-Kind, the Devourer of Souls, the Black Dragon Alduin.

Dave: Exactly! Why is that not awesome? What could you POSSIBLY have to complain about with that cataclysmic battle for the fate of the planet?!

Simple: IT’S EXACTLY LIKE EVERY OTHER FUCKING DRAGON FIGHT IN THE GAME!

Alduin fights just like every other dragon! In fact, he is even LESS of a challenge than the other dragons! Why? Because now there’s FOUR of you fighting him, and THREE of you CAN’T DIE!

It’s not a question of “IF” you will win, as much as “WHEN”. There’s no clever new strategy, no feeling that this is anything special. Just the same strategy you use on all other dragons. Run around and fire arrows until he lands (after all, it’s not like you actually NEED the Dragonrend shout to make him land) and beat the shit out of him until he flies away or dies.

So, Alduin is defeated, and the world is saved. Next, you’re taken to The Throat of The World, where all the other dragons are flying around and celebrating Alduin’s death.

Now, in Fallout: New Vegas, what happens once you finish the game?

You get a slide show, telling you what effect your actions have had. You’re shown what the future may be like for the Mojave wasteland. You’re shown the difference YOU have had on the world.

What does Skyrim have? You get a quick chat with Paarthurnax, and then the game keeps going.

It all but says that the main quest-line wasn’t important. It’s just another entry in the quest log. No feeling of accomplishment. No sense that anything you’ve done mattered. Even the Greybeard’s speculate that Alduin may return, since you didn’t absorb his soul when he died. So chances are, you haven’t actually saved the world from Alduin, just postponed his victory. Thank you, game. For a moment I felt like I hadn’t wasted my fucking time….

Compare this to Fallout: New Vegas, where you have 4 different ways to end the game, and several more variations on those, based on your stats, skills, actions and choices during the game.

And the only one who decides if one ending is better than another is YOU. YOU decide what happens to the Mojave. YOU decide if Caesar, NCR or Mr. House should rule New Vegas, or you can go against all of them and take control yourself. That’s the reward you get for playing the game. YOU, a seemingly unimportant courier who got ambushed, shot and left for dead in a shallow grave in the Nevada desert, get the chance to rise up and show that one person can make a difference if they’re strong, or smart enough. And in the end you’re shown the consequences for your actions, good or bad.

THAT is a role playing game.

In Skyrim, you could’ve won the final battle with Alduin by standing back and doing nothing, since the other three heroes cannot die and Alduin is fighting like an idiot!

Now, before I end this chapter, there’s one last thing I found kind of fitting that I’d like to mention…

Once you finish the game, you have the Elder Scroll in your inventory.

And you can sell this item of supreme and unimaginable power to the library at the College in Winterhold.

What, you might ask, is this artifact of amazing power, this sliver of creation, this impossible abstraction-made-real and the namesake of the entire series, sold for?

2000 gold pieces. Not enough to buy an empty house.

I can’t help but feel there’s something strangely poetic about that….

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