There are spoilers here for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood faction here.
The first half of the Dark Brotherhood questline in TESIV, up to an including ‘The Purification’, and the player’s arc through that organisation is Oblivion’s strongest content. While most of its appeal is certainly down to its quest design (which is, simply, better and far more imaginative than the rote collection or killing quests seen elsewhere), it also distinguishes itself from the rest of the game by thoughtfully constructing a community within the Dark Brotherhood. In a game also featuring a Mages, Fighters and Thieves Guild – not to mention a lengthy Arena career – the Dark Brotherhood, alone, manages to make the player feel a member of an organisation rather than its sole saviour. Other guilds are acceptable vendors of quests, but the Dark Brotherhood exceeds them in one important respect: only there does the player become attached to the group’s NPC members, seek them out for advice and relish interactions in the Sanctuary, the Brotherhood’s headquarters. This is all the more impressive since the Brotherhood stands for the values most alien to most players, worship of an ancient, evil deity and taking pleasure and pride in murder. There is, of course, a dramatic shift in the quest line halfway through, after which it becomes much more of Oblivion’s standard fare, but is first half stands so far above the rest of the game’s content it’s worth examining why, and particularly how the player comes to feel they have joined, in a real sense, a ‘brotherhood.’
The Elder Scrolls games are renowned for their scale so it’s surprising that the Dark Brotherhood faction quests are Oblivion’s most confined in space and the number of characters you meet, at least before ‘The Purification.’ Where the Mages Guild has the player visit every city in Cyrodill (except obviously Kvatch), completing one quest in each to join the guild proper, the Dark Brotherhood’s quests and NPCs are, for half the quest line, in one abandoned house in Cheydinhal. Merely to enter the Arcane University, the player meets seven guild leaders and a vast number of other wizards but in the Sanctuary there are just seven NPCs, excluding the pet rat and skeleton guardian. This amounts to one of the Brotherhood’s greatest strengths; while the Mages Guild offers a parade of disposable characters we encounter once or twice and whose personalities amount to ‘good wizard’ or ‘bad wizard’, the Dark Brotherhood’s limited scale introduces more interesting nuance.
Gogron gro-Balmog, the guild’s orc, sets himself apart first visually by being the only member wearing heavy armour and also in that the player first overhears his complaining about the weakness of stealth. These two bits of information establish the premise for our every interaction with the character (including killing him in ‘The Purification’) and he can be counted on to advise the player at the start of every mission to murder their target as openly and violently as possible. He celebrates contracts without bonuses since it frees him to murder as he pleases (‘Who needs magic items when you’ve got raw skill? And the great thing about killing a target up close and personal is you can talk to ’em before you do it!’). He despairs when the player is tasked with faking a death in ‘The Assassinated Man’ rather than killing someone: ‘What, fake a death? And you can’t even kill the enforcer? I don’t envy you, friend.’ Moreover, when other guild members can be found in the training room crouching in front of dummies and stabbing them with daggers or shooting arrows, Gogron simply draws his battleaxe and swings. This is hardly the most subtle characterisation – probably a lost cause given the game’s atrocious voice acting – but it is effective. The consistency of Gogron’s writing helps to define the Dark Brotherhood as a community – these are like-minded individuals, but also individuals who put their own spin on their contracts and this informs their advice. Similarly, Antoinetta Marie mentions when you first meet her that when Lucien Lachance found her she ‘was living in a gutter’ and her advice is always informed by this bitter experience. She relates her captivity in the Imperial Prison, her stay on a prison ship and even bizarrely notes in ‘The Assassinated Man’ that she ‘once slept in the Chorrol Chapel Undercroft. It’s damp, cold… and cursed!’
Of course, the fact that we can seek guild members out for advice at all is unique in terms of faction quests (while Owyn does this in the Arena it is a forced part of the dialogue) and adds immensely to the sense of camaraderie. Doing the rounds with each guild member before heading out on a contract is part of what elevates the Dark Brotherhood above, for instance, the Fighters Guild. In that faction, it is all too easy to exhaust every dialogue option with everyone but the quest giver and enter a routine whereby you revisit the guild, go straight to the quest giver and immediately leave. This is what makes many of TES’ NPCs – in Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim – vendors for quests to be exhausted rather than characters to interact with. In the Dark Brotherhood, the cycle is broken up by introducing a period where players are encouraged (often directly by the Valtieri or Ocheeva) to consult their brothers and sisters about the contract in question. Likewise, we’re regularly instructed to go to the guild’s shopkeeper, M’raaj-Dar to get useful, unique items like poisoned apples, adding yet another reason not to beeline from quest to quest since these are interesting items which can’t be bought elsewhere.
This advice system also has the benefit of allowing us to develop relations with the Brotherhood’s other members at a more natural pace than we see in other factions or the main quest. Oblivion is frequently guilty of writing characters who vomit their life stories at the player in one dialogue instance, but the writing here displays a rare subtlety. I don’t mean to suggest this is a perfect system – you still, after all, gain a character’s trust within in-game days – but it surpasses the alternative. We develops a relationship with guild NPCs as their career progresses and they, likewise, come to respect and trust the player as a member of their secret organisation. Vincente Valtieri offers to make the player a vampire after ‘The Assassinated Man’, making good on his promise early in the faction quests to offer them the ‘dark gift’ if they earned it. Likewise, after completing ‘Scheduled For Execution’, Teinaava, the Argonian, trusts the player enough to ask them to kill his former friend, the renegade assassin.
I’ve seen it written that after ‘The Purification’ the Dark Brotherhood quests are worse, which is certainly true, but also that ‘The Purification’ ruins what was good about the Brotherhood up until then, which I dispute. Rather than undoing the sense of community within the Dark Brotherhood and the strong characterisation of its members, which as we have seen takes place partly through strong writing and partly through game design, ‘The Purification’ represents its best possible conclusion. ‘The Purification’ tasks players with eliminating every member of the Cheydinhal Sanctuary, where Lachance believes a traitor resides. It asks that we use what we have learned about the habits of the group’s brothers and sisters as well as the physical space the player knows so well and turns it to a creative challenge. Much like ‘Scheduled for Execution’ which had players re-enter the Imperial Prison backwards, making a familiar environment unfamiliar, ‘The Purification’ makes players think about their knowledge of the Dark Brotherhood in a new way. Probably, for instance, the player has already seen Valteri’s note in his room where he bemoans about his weakness to garlic, but this is transformed here from a benign bit of characterisation to a crucial detail to dispatch him easily. Likewise the player is well aware by then of the hours at which the various members eat and Lachance even supplies a poisoned apple to be deployed for the purpose.
The quest is certainly far from perfect since frequently other guild members will refuse to acknowledge you’ve attacked one of them and they have absolutely no conception of the corpses on the ground. In my recent playthrough I had Ocheeeva express her thanks on behalf of her brother for killing the rogue shadowscale, just as she was standing over his dead body. Those engine restrictions aside, though, the quest allows us to use what we’ve learned about characters, from Valteri’s vampirism to Gogron’s fondness for heavy armour and Telaendril long absences from the Sanctuary.
Lachance notes when giving you the quest that it will test your loyalty to Sithis, which is certainly true and surely calculated. In order to continue to progress in the Dark Brotherhood, we must destroy the community we’ve become attached to. The point drives home the Brotherhood’s murderous nature better than any books or dialogue. Where in other factions promotion is a smooth linear progression, the Dark Brotherhood emphasises stepping back from what, for us, was the Dark Brotherhood – the Cheydinhal Sanctuary – to see the larger organisation at work. The move also has the beneficial side-effect of preventing us from completing the quest chain with the group’s membership still intact. They do not have the opportunity to become stale fixtures with nothing new to say once you’ve become Listener, and the fact that they die is ultimately part of their appeal. If they stuck around after the chain ended with nothing new to say, or worse it was necessary to talk to them to collect gold, buy upgrades or perform some other routine task they would rightly be despised.
The Dark Brotherhood is an evil faction (frequently cartoonishly), and wrecking the sense of camaraderie you feel with its members is true to the fiction and, critically, makes for a good quest. Still, when I, at least, think of the Brotherhood it is of the Cheydinhal Sanctuary and not the myriad dead-drops and dungeon crawls which take place after ‘The Purification.’ The Dark Brotherhood is elevated by its first half, which so effectively achieves a sense of community among ritual murderers it overshadows what comes after and even much of the rest of Oblivion.