A few days ago, as of the time of writing, I had a conversation with my friend Aldowyn discussing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The particular topic for discussion was an often contested feature of Skyrim's design, the use of the “essential” flag. As many of you are no doubt aware, non-player characters in the game who are involved with any of the game's vast number of quests often receive the distinction of being marked “essential” by the system. This distinction gives such NPCs and inability to be killed by anything in the game, even the player. The reason such a mark would exist in Skyrim, just as it did in it's predecessor Oblivion and the third main entry in the Fallout franchise, is so that their exists no possible way for the player to miss out of any of the quests offered. Since these NPCs cannot die, their contributions to the plot points and overall progression of any given quest can be assured. While I understand the logic behind this, I do not believe that the “essential” flag is necessary to making a good open-world RPG. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their current implementation is fundamentally flawed, which is the topic for this week's post.
The very first reason the “essential” flag can be problematic is that it can cause unnecessary frustration for the player. Among my friends, we often talk about a very common principle in Bethesda games. I call it the “Law of Inverse Likeability.” This law states that the less likeable (and more irritating) a given NPC is, the higher the odds become that said NPC is marked essential for one reason or another. Because of this condition, whenever player's are angered by NPCs, odds are they will have no recourse despite potentially being one of the most powerful and/or influential people in the entire world. The NPC that best exemplifies this phenomena is Maven Black-Briar, who resides in the city of Riften in Skyrim. Ms. Black-Briar owns and manages the Black-Briar meadery, which distributes their brand of mead, both high and low class, throughout Skyrim. In order to make sure that her business stays as profitable as possible, Maven has contacts in both the Thieves' Guild and the Dark Brotherhood that she uses to keep both legitimate businesses living under constant fear and the criminal underworld firmly in her grasp. Many other people in town also note that she is the unofficial ruler of The Rift, the region of Skyrim where Riften is the capital. Though well-meaning, the Jarl, ruler of the region, is easily manipulated by Maven through her steward and other members of her staff.
When players talk to Maven Black-Briar, she speaks to them in a very condescending voice, telling them that if they step out of line, she will have her contacts in the Dark Brotherhood get rid of them. While there are several other problems with that, including the fact that the player could have possibly systematically slaughtered the entirety of the Dark Brotherhood (which I will get to in a moment), the real issue stems from what happens when the player attacks her (and it is extremely hard to resist the temptation to do that). Once the player knocks Maven's HP down to 0, she falls over, waits for a few seconds, then gets back up and is instantly healed. This is because despite being one of the most pointlessly smug and arrogant characters in the game, she is marked “essential”. Most players I know want to kill her, but are unable to without the aid of console commands (which players on the PS3 and 360 do not even have access to). Even when the questlines involving her are all completed, the game never removes the essential flag from her, meaning there is no legitimate way to permanently dispose of her. Like many other characters in Bethesda games, most notably children (even if their essential flags are significantly more justified), she is character who is unbearably smug and suffers no consequences for it. This is a character who knows she has Plot Armor, knows players cannot harm her, and knows that she will always be on top. In a game without the essential flag, the writers would be more cautious about presenting such a character because the possibility exists that the player could just hack them to pieces in a drunken, psychotic rage. It would require skill either in positioning her character or changing around her interactions with the player to make her more palatable. Her annoyance is only made possible because of the way the essential flag is implemented.
The other problem I have with the essential flag is that it can often hamper the possibility for role-playing in games like Skyrim. The best way to explain this is to use an example of a time where the absence of an essential flag really increased the role-playing potential. Oddly enough, the scenario I am thinking of also comes from Skyrim, in one the best questlines in the entire game: The Dark Brotherhood. After completing a quest involving the death of a vicious and cruel matron of a small orphanage in Riften at the request of a young child who ran away from it, players can initiate the questline of this infamous guild of assassins by sleeping in a bed. When the player sleeps, they will awaken in the small shack with 4 others present, 3 of which are bound in front of the player with bags on their heads, the other 1 in a black outfit, watching the whole thing play out. The woman in black, named Astrid, explains that the slaying of the orphanage matron was a Dark Brotherhood contract, which the player stole. While this would normally anger her, she was impressed by the player's guts and skill, so she decided to test him/her. In order to escape and join the Dark Brotherhood, the player needs to kill one of the other 3. The woman ends her explanation by saying that no one leaves until “someone dies.” Contrary to what one might assume, players do not have to take their blade to one of the 3 bound “guests”. The alternative is for the player to ready their weapon and strike out at Astrid, initiating combat. Should they win, she dies permanently and the alternate version of the questline, where it is possible to eliminate the Dark Brotherhood in their own hideout, becomes available.
Imagine what this would be like if Astrid was marked as essential to the Dark Brotherhood questline and given the privilege of Plot Armor. Instead of killing Astrid, players would merely knock her out and still have to kill one of the 3 others to join the Dark Brotherhood. By choosing not to abuse the nature of the essential flag, Bethesda gave players an entirely new reality to explore and see what would happen as a result. While Skyrim only made this possible in the Dark Brotherhood questline, there are a number of other placed where similar alternate paths are plausible. It should be possible to sell out the Thieves' Guild to the authorities and go from there. When the Companions reveal their plot twist, it would make sense for the player to question whether or not they want to stay and consider betraying them from the inside. Lastly, what if killing the head of the player's chosen faction during the Civil War initiated a quest that let them defect to the other side or destroy both factions. The fact that players can kill anyone is part of why people praise Fallout: New Vegas. Contrary to belief, it is not because players are omnicidal maniacs who want everyone to die (I am sure that is just me). It is because it creates a significantly greater opportunity to role play and make interesting choices.
Despite all of my ramblings, I do still see merit in having a system that flags NPCs who are essential to quests. This is because while players might want to have agency, very few people like it when a quirk in the script of the AI, combined with the random spawning of enemies, results in the death of a very important NPC or shopkeeper. I do not hate the idea of an essential flag, what I take issue with is its current implementation. What I propose is a system where NPCs flagged as essential can still be killed, but only by the player. Other NPCs and enemies attacking them should not be able to kill them. While no one would shed a tear for the death of Maven Black-Briar, it would be immensely frustrating to fail a quest because a dragon chose the wrong moment and place to spawn in town, killing an entire town's worth of people. If only the player can kill essential NPCs, then they become the architects of the game. They can choose for themselves whether or not failing a quest is worth killing an NPC who is unnecessarily smug or downright detrimental to a society. In an RPG like Skyrim, designers want to encourage players to do their own thing and find their own path. This would be one of the easiest ways to do that.