I've complained about multiple aspects of Skyrim, promising positive words would be forthcoming. It's time to deliver, and I really do have a broad array of options. However, Skyrim tends to be most effective with its local stories and smaller quests. When Skyrim tries to go big, it often falters due to poor writing, over-promising, or a disconnect between the story and the gameplay. The happiest exception to this trend is the Dark Brotherhood questline, which is one of the game's great successes. This is because it obeys the rules of good writing, and of good game design.
The Orphan and the Clown
The Dark Brotherhood quest shows up very early in Skyrim, though it doesn't announce itself as such. Asking bartenders about rumors, or simply listening to chattering guards, you may hear that a boy named Aventus Aretino is performing the Black Sacrament, a ritual that summons an assassin from the Dark Brotherhood.
As you wander the tundra around Whiterun, you will also encounter a jester with a broken cart he is using to transport his mother's coffin, whom you can help by convincing a local farmer to repair the wagon wheel. You can also report him to a local guard on suspicion of smuggling something in that giant coffin.
These two events introduce major characters from the arc and demonstrate that the Dark Brotherhood is a real, known force in the game world. The player's efforts to resolve Aventus' problem also reveal some of the nuances of the Dark Brotherhood's mission. To actually get to Aventus, you must commit a crime, since the house is locked. When you break in, you find him, exhausted, in the midst of the Black Sacrament's grisly accoutrements. He then begs you to kill an old woman who runs the orphanage he was sent to after his mother's death.
At this point, the Dark Brotherhood sounds like a pretty wicked outfit. You've had to commit one crime just to impersonate them, and killing a sweet old woman seems just plain evil. This changes when you reach the orphanage.
The woman you've been sent to kill, Grelod the Kind, turns out to be positively horrible, promising a beating to any orphan who doesn't complete his chores, and another beating to anyone who complains. In a charming postscript, she reminds the children that nobody wants them, then instructs them to tell her they love her. If the player chooses to kill her, nobody in town will complain. They named her "the Kind" ironically, as it turns out.
To get to this point the player has had to do several things that go against the law and morality. At the same time, Grelod was an exceptionally cruel person who arguably deserved her fate. Through the story of this quest, the game has presented arguments for and against the Dark Brotherhood itself. Then, the game lets you express the opinion you have formed.
A short time after you kill Grelod, you will receive a note from the Brotherhood telling you that they know you stole their job. Then one day you will go to sleep and wake up in a dilapidated shack, faced with a woman in assassin's garb and three bound, helpless people. The woman, Astrid, is the leader of the Dark Brotherhood in Skyrim, and tells you that you must kill someone in order to leave the shack.
Of course, there are four choices here, not three.
If as a player you reject what the Dark Brotherhood stands for, you can kill Astrid at this juncture, free her would-be victims, and escape from the shack using a key found on her body. This initiates a short quest where you break into the Dark Brotherhood's sanctuary at the behest of the Empire and kill them all. While not as involved or interesting as joining the guild, this option allows the player to reject the Dark Brotherhood's ways not by letting a quest linger, unfinished, in his journal but rather through his actions. That's a choice not available in most of the other quests.
A player who's not put off by the situation, though, can do as Astrid asks, kill one (or more) of the captives, and earn his own place in the Dark Brotherhood.
The player can then journey to the Dark Brotherhood's stronghold in Falkreath at his leisure. Upon arrival, he's introduced to the group of assassins, almost all of whom are among the most interesting people in the game. The dialogue that introduces them, especially Babette's rendition of her latest murder, expresses their characters with tremendous economy, so that each becomes clearly defined in only a few lines.
The dialogue also shows their tight-knit relationship. The regimented Brotherhood of past games has morphed into a "family", of which Astrid is the "mother". The guild's traditions have crumbled because the Night Mother, the corpse that connects the Brotherhood to their god Sithis and alerts them to performances of the Black Sacrament, has not spoken to anyone in the guild for years. Without a Listener to hear her voice, the Brotherhood are cut off from the Night Mother, orphaned just as Aventus was. Astrid has taken on the role of Grelod, the surrogate, albeit a kinder one.
In these circumstances, the Brotherhood receive their contracts by listening out for rumors of people performing the Black Sacrament. This plot point is actually amazingly stupid; it is totally inconceivable that people who are performing a ritual meant to summon an assassin are spreading that around. However, the quest has already seen your objection and overridden it by making this exact process part of your introduction to the guild. Remember back when everyone was talking about Aventus performing the Black Sacrament? By making the player directly participate in the most ludicrous part of the setup, the developers are able to cover over this flaw in the story's logic.
It also helps that they move on quickly. After performing a few murders for the family, the Brotherhood's routine is shattered by the arrival of the clown, Cicero, you met outside Whiterun. As it turns out, he really was transporting his mother—the Night Mother herself.
One Too Many Mothers
This sets up the central conflict of the Dark Brotherhood quest. Astrid, the current mother of the Brotherhood, finds her position challenged by its original Mother, and loses a great deal of her confidence. Before long, suspicious that Cicero is plotting to take over the Brotherhood, she enlists the player as a spy. This sows the seeds of her downfall—during this mission, the player hears the voice of the Night Mother and becomes the new Listener. From her, you immediately learn of a new contract: to kill the Emperor of Tamriel.
Given a problem that's suited to her talents, Astrid proves that she's both clever and bold. She rapidly figures out who the contract has come from, and devises a plan that will both force the Emperor to come to Skyrim and discombobulate his defenders. Most of the missions are not especially challenging, but they make sense in terms of a scheme that is apparent to the player, and lean on a skill (killing) that every player of the game will independently possess and refine.
The attentive player will find these missions ominous. The first of them involves murdering a woman at her wedding, destroying a newly-formed family. The second involves killing and framing the son of Gaius Maro, the Emperor's chief bodyguard. Again, Astrid attacks through a family connection.
Meanwhile her own family seems to be falling apart. Astrid still suspects Cicero, and Cicero himself is intensely jealous of the player's ability to hear the Night Mother, something he always wanted for himself. Eventually things come to a head. Cicero snaps, attacking the other members of the Brotherhood, and the player must hunt him down in an abandoned Brotherhood base near Dawnstar, with a choice to spare the pathetic man or to end his life.
Even the clown's departure does not assuage Astrid, however. Motivated by her jealousy, she eventually betrays the player to Maro. Unfortunately, he knows that Astrid orchestrated the death of his son as part of her grand scheme. After the player successfully infiltrates a feast and kills one of the Emperor's doubles, Maro attacks and invades the Dark Brotherhood's sanctuary, intending to kill all of them. He nearly succeeds, and the player only escapes death by hiding in a coffin with the Night Mother as the place explodes.
Upon awakening, you learn that someone inside the ruins is trying to make a contract.
Death be a Lady Tonight
The Black Sacrament appears only a few places in the world of Skyrim, most of them visited in this questline. To perform it, one needs to create an effigy of the victim using actual body parts, surround it with candles, and stab the effigy with a dagger that has been rubbed with nightshade petals while reciting an incantation. Most of the time, it looks roughly like this:
In the ruins of the Brotherhood Sanctuary, however, the horrifically burned Astrid is performing the Sacrament using herself as the effigy. It's an astonishing image, and does more to convey her total destruction and remorse than any amount of dialogue could. She puts out a contract on herself, and when you fulfill it, there's only one piece of unfinished business. Hiding the remnants of the Brotherhood in the old Dawnstar sanctuary, you go after the Emperor, the real one this time.
Although that mission is probably the meatiest in the whole questline, and terminates with a major assassination, it feels like denouement. The guild's arc has passed its emotional climax, and the confrontation with the Emperor comes not as a dramatic battle, but as an old man accepting his fate and going quietly. Once you fulfill Astrid's contract, it's all over but the shouting.
Do Show Tell
Skyrim's Dark Brotherhood quest succeeds for a variety of reasons. Quality dialogue and well-designed missions play an important role in creating characters that the player can identify and react to on an emotional level. While it's not perfect at this, the quest makes itself part of the world, dramatically eliminating what appears to be one of the player's safe havens. The quest makers also clearly remembered the old English-class admonition to show, rather than tell. Though the customary ocean of expository material is available, the story really develops through demonstrations like the incidental dialogue, the familial themes resonating through many missions, and dramatic moments like Astrid's contract. As a result, it feels more immediate and more human than any other extended questline in the game.
Most importantly, Bethesda's designers realized this wasn't a literary project. In writing, the saying may be "show, don't tell", but in game design it's "don't show, don't tell, do". The quest works around some of its fridge logic by having the player perform the unbelievable process of following up on a rumor of the Black Sacrament. It demonstrates the character of the guild through the player's actions, before he even joins. Even though the story's conflict revolves around Astrid and the Night Mother, it involves the player in both Astrid's and Cicero's madness, literally having the player fight off the ghosts of the Brotherhood's earlier incarnations. The Dark Brotherhood quest succeeds because it is not only a well-written quest, but also a well-played one.
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