The civil war in Skyrim is one of the game’s biggest overarching plots, but it is also one of the weakest. Skyrim is a world full of adventures waiting for the player to embark on. However, the civil war lacks much of the charm and entertainment value of the game’s more fun and exciting quests, and its prominence hurts the game much more than it helps.
The civil war in Skyrim is contested between the Empire and the Stormcloaks. The Empire is the current ruling structure of Skyrim, and while the Imperials are powerful, their recent banning of Talos worship as well as their recent attempts to negotiate with the Thalmor – a fascist elven empire – have proven very unpopular. Meanwhile, the Stormcloaks are a resistance movement devoted to overthrowing the Imperials, but they are primarily focused on the rights of Nords while ignoring or even discriminating against Skyrim’s other races.
Starting from Alduin’s attack on Helgen in Skyrim‘s introduction, the main questline involving the return of the dragons and the Dragonborn’s growing power is unique and interesting. However, the civil war is the exact opposite. It lacks the elements that make so many of Skyrim‘s best quests work, and is drawn out far too long. It feels like a shame that so much of the game is devoted to the squabble between Imperials and Stormcloaks, despite it being one of the game’s least engaging aspects. Sadly, there are several points of Skyrim‘s civil war that can be dissected in order to explain why it’s the game’s weakest element.
Skyrim’s Civil War Is One Of The Game’s Dullest Quests
One thing that drives most of Skyrim‘s quest is engagement. Even upon first being given to the player, many of the game’s quests have a sense of intrigue or entertainment to them, so much that many players ignore Skyrim‘s main quest after the intro in order to have fun with various side quests. It could be that the quest-giver is a fun character, or perhaps the tasks that they bestow upon the player sounds especially exciting. And of course, many of these quests turn out to be very rewarding, or at least give the player an enjoyable romp while they last. However, the civil war storyline lacks many of these perks.
Although there are a lot of players involved in the civil war storyline, most of them lack any unique spark that makes them stand out. This means that it can be hard for a given Dragoborn to feel completely invested in the ongoing missions, even if they particularly agree with their side or despise their rivals. Most of the characters simply feel like soldiers or commanders for their respective side. Even though Ulfric Stormcloak’s rise in Skyrim is interesting, the ensuing questline fails to maintain that level of hype. Unlike the wide variety of colorful characters that the Dragonborn meets elsewhere, the civil war and the parties involved feel much more dull and uninteresting. As a result, the plotline just seems to drag on, not helped by its great length compared to the game’s other quests.
When quests in Skyrim are fun, the player will naturally want to see them through and keep playing to see what else they can find. The civil war, unfortunately, is not that compelling. When the game has so many more interesting quests that can be embarked on, working on the civil war questline feels like busywork that keeps the fun parts of the game on hold.
Finishing Skyrim’s Civil War Is Not As Rewarding As It Should Be
After going through the trouble of finishing Skyrim‘s civil war, the player would naturally be expecting a good ending. However, no matter if the Stormcloaks or Imperials win Skyrim‘s civil war, there is no clear happy ending. Despite being one of the game’s longest quests, the resolution to the civil war is not only not completely conclusive, but the results can leave the player feeling disappointed.
No matter which side the player chooses, a large portion of Skyrim will see major changes as a result of the war. Jarls who supported the losing side will be replaced by those who support the winners, and these replacements are not always for the best. For example, Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun is one of the most reasonable and likable NPCs that the player will meet in the game. However, if the player sides with the Stormcloaks, then they have to fight him during the Battle of Whiterun and force him to surrender his throne. Likewise, if the player sides with the Imperials, then Maven Black-Briar – one of Skyrim‘s worst unkillable characters – will become the Jarl of Riften. Both of these outcomes leave their respective holds worse off than before, and they are not the only ones.
While some positive changes can be made, such as Brunwulf Free-Winter becoming jarl of Winterhold following an Imperial victory, it’s hard to ignore all of the damage that the civil war leaves in its wake. It is difficult to feel good about a victory when a fair amount of likable characters lose anyway. Unfortunately, that is the feeling that Skyrim‘s civil war leaves in its wake.
The Thalmor Would Have Made For A Better Overarching Plot In Skyrim
One unfortunate thing about the civil war is that there is potential for a much better plot in plain view. The Thalmor play a role in the civil war storyline, specifically regarding their treaty with the Empire, but they would have been much more effective as primary villains. In fact, it was the Thalmor’s banning of Talos worship in Skyrim that kick-started the rebellion against the Empire. In each encounter with the Thalmor, it becomes clearer that they could have been much more in Skyrim.
The Thalmor are a fascist faction of high elves, and in all of their appearances, they establish themselves as arrogant, abusive, and generally evil. They are a perfectly hateable adversary for the Dragonborn to face off against. There are a few quests where the player gets to oppose them, but their presence would have been much stronger if they had been a primary enemy. A major storyline involving fighting the Thalmor all across Skyrim would give the player a clear, loathsome enemy to fight, and ultimately a satisfying conclusion at the end of the arc. It may be a simple idea, but sometimes doing a simple concept well can be more effective than trying to weave a complex narrative. If Ulfric had been working for Skyrim‘s Thalmor, then that could have led to a much more interesting questline.
The Thalmor were a perfect enemy to despise, and they play their role in Skyrim well. However, they would have been more effective if they had taken the place of the civil war questline. Sometimes all a game requires is a big, bad enemy to defeat, and the Thalmor were precisely designed for that role.
Skyrim‘s civil war questline establishes itself early, but sadly never makes itself feel as special as the game wants it to be. The characters and situations involved simply fail to measure up to the fantastical quests that can be found elsewhere in the game. For as good as Skyrim is, its civil war questline ultimately failed to measure up.
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