I didn’t want to wait to do this post, since it’s an expansion of the previous one. The first three points I discussed there all involved player choices in three of the major quest lines – the main quest, the civil war, and the Dark Brotherhood quests.
These cases marked the relatively rare point at which the player had a choice about how a questline would proceed (or, in the case of Paarthurnax, a side aspect of the main quest). For most game quests, the choice is simply whether to go on with it or not. There’s often a great deal of tactical choice of how to accomplish a quest, but not much in the way of real dilemmas. Arguably, the choice to become a vampire or not in Dawnguard is one as well, as is the choice to become a werewolf or not in the Companions, but the Dawnguard one somehow just came across as a simple “Wanna be a vampire? Yes/No” and the Companions one just basically paused the questline where it lay if you didn’t decide to contract lycanthropy.
The main quest dilemma, of what to do about Paarthurnax, on the surface seems like a deep dilemma – do we kill this helpful, wise dragon for his history of terrible crimes in response to the demands of the Blades, or do we permit him to remain a hermit, accepting his help and more recent deeds as atonement?
Now, as an abstract moral dilemma, this is an interesting question, but in the game it comes off as something engineered to create a dilemma for a dilemma’s sake, especially since it’s a branch of the main quest and doesn’t really affect how you’ll proceed from there in regards to actually dealing with Alduin. What’s worse is that that of the two factions involved, one of them has been nothing but helpful (if somewhat pompous and more than a little naïve), while the other has been at best obnoxious and condescending, and at worst possessed of a sense of entitlement to the character as a resource to accomplish their goals – right up to the character’s blood. Worse, they just make the demand as an ultimatum, and won’t actually help do the deed.
Game mechanics don’t help a bit here either; the rewards for picking either side are pretty trivial and you can loot Sky Haven temple pretty thoroughly before reaching this point – and you can just steal anything that’s left. With careful planning, you can get Esbern’s potion and recruit the three Blades before this quest initiates, and lose only the “Dragon Hunts” you get sent on. Small potatoes, indeed. In a sense, though, this is a bright spot in this sorry excuse for a dilemma because at least they didn’t get the player to kill Paarthurnax by Appeal to Powergaming.
Given the complete lack of consequences or incentives to choose the Blade’s side in the quest, it essentially becomes a non-dilemma – I don’t know anyone that actually chose to kill Paarthurnax for anything besides a desire to see what happened or how tough he was. In my case, I simply modded the choice right out with a mod that allowed me to retain the allegiance of the Blades without killing Paaarthurnax, and never looked back, because finally telling Delphine and Esbern who was really in charge was vastly more satisfying than either of the original choices. I’d also have been sorely tempted to just de-essential them via the console and dispose of their sorry asses at this point, or at least Delphine whom I was heartily sick of by this point on my first play-through.
I could really go on and on about the Blades’ entitled douchbaggery, but suffice to say that if you want to create a dilemma, this is not the way to do it. While I praise the avoidance of leaving some mechanical treat to make killing Paarthurnax the obvious choice from a power standpoint, in every other respect this quest was a trainwreck, made all the worse by the Essential characteristic of Delphine and Esbern. This could have been avoided by quite a few means – a third option, making the Blades act less like snotty fucknozzles, or making Paarthurnax represent some sort of real danger if left alive, but it wasn’t.
In contrast, there’s the Dark Brotherhood questline which presents 2 dilemmas: first, whether to proceed with it and butcher Grelod the Kind, and second, what to do once Astrid has you in the shack.
The first dilemma seems a bit outrageous – going and butchering an old lady in her orphanage, until we consider that no one regards it as a crime. Granted, it’s in Riften, a hotbed of criminal activity, but the fact that this blatant slaughter of a helpless senior citizen goes totally unnoticed beyond occasional passing suspicion of the character is almost played for laughs – Grelong represents that terrible authority figure in so many kid’s stories , and the hilarity of this awful person meeting the wrong end of a greatsword has its place. Either that, or Grelod is known to be way worse than we actually see, but that creates the question of why no one else has dealt with her, if her crimes against the children are so horrid that summary vigilante justice against her is approved of. Constance pretty much tells us that this is a joke if she’s asked. Another amusing bit of trivia is that Grelod, inexplicably, is a member of the NPC class lumberjack for skill determination… go figure.
The second one is elegant, mainly because unless you find out from out-of-game sources, or you pay close attention to dialogue, or just decide to experiment. Astrid’s precise wording hints that you can kill her rather than the three prisoners. From a roleplay standpoint, this isn’t much of a dilemma at all – go with what your character would do. Mechanically, destroying the Dark Brotherhood is weaker – but still decently rewarding. In fact, the dilemma is really more of a puzzle.. what options do I have to get out of this cabin? It’s very well done, leaving the player a third option, but not making that option the obvious best choice, or even an obvious choice at all. How this can be so well done, while the Paarthurnax dilemma is so bad is a mystery.
Finally, there’s the civil war.
The real problem with the civil war is that it’s almost too well done, and there is no obvious right choice, especially in hindsight. Neither is stronger mechanically (other than that following the Imperial during the initial attack on Helgen gives you the slightly better family visit in Riverwood, due to access to smithing materials for free) and sympathy can swing both ways.
On the Imperial side, there’s the generally more egalitarian General Tulius who, once we get to know him a little, is a decent if crusty sort, and the Empire which is a fairly tolerant society, its putting up with Thalmor interference notwithstanding, as that can be chalked up more to Titus Mede’s political ineptitude than anything else. In Whiterun, Balgruuf, a just and fair man, remains Jarl, and the new Jarl of Windhelm when Ulfric is defeated is even more just and fair. We also avoid putting one of the Silver-bloods on the throne of Markath.
Siding with the Stormcloaks comes with the stronger initial recommendation of the Imperials trying to behead the player character under circumstances that are questionable, at best and outright tyrannical in their worst interpretation. We avoid putting Maven Black-Briar (who competes with Delphine for insufferable) on the throne in Riften. We get to rather more obviously stick in to the Thalmor (their plans to make Ulfric an unwitting pawn notwithstanding) and there’s the appeal to our real-world sensibilities that we’re fighting for religious freedom against a weird combination of Taliban Nazi Elves rather than caving in to them Mede-style. I also like Galmar Stone-Fist better than Rikke, from a personal standpoint.
Mechanically almost meaningless (aside from some wonkiness here and there, such as doing Mephala’s quest after Whiterun has been taken by the Stormcloaks) but emotionally surprisingly compelling.. and with a perfectly viable third option of just not doing the civil war quest at all, this is a beautifully-executed game dilemma and incidentally adds additional factions to join – factions that don’t simply promote you to leader at the end, and which actually are mutually exclusive with each other.
The civil war also is one that requires a little deeper thought, especially on the Stormcloak side which initially seems like an obvious choice, but tends to appear less attractive after a first play-through.
For example, the racism of the Nords when you first enter Windhelm seems pretty despicable off the bat – until you carefully consider that the Dark Elves don’t want to help because “it’s not our fight!” Isn’t it? Why not? You want to live in the place, but don’t want to fight for it? One wonders if the Nords would have the same attitude if the Dark Elves were willing to fight alongside them, especially since Ulfric seems to extend the honor of “True Nord” to anyone willing to act like what he considers a true Nord, as does Galmar – even a high elf PC. Or do the dark elves secretly favor the Imperials? If so, why are they just sitting it out rather than moving to an Imperial-controlled area and maybe fighting for them? The Nords are asses and the Dark Elves are mistreated.. but it’s not entirely clear that this is just pointless racism.
One doesn’t need to make Skyrim a philosophical exercise to enjoy the game – but doing so can greatly enhance the experience. In TES VI we can hope for a lot more Dark Brotherhoods and Civil Wars, and hopefully no more Paarthurnaxes.