This post is my response to Critical Distance’s May and June of 2013 “Blogs of The Round Table” — ‘One With Nature’.
I’m sure that many of those responding to, or simply pondering, this month’s Round Table will also have Skyrim on their minds. That’s probably because it is honestly the most beautiful sandbox I’ve ever played in. The natural world, here, is large and alive: with wildlife, with changing weather and climates, with the potential for random adventures.
Images such as the above are commonplace in Skyrim. The game is pretty. I remember once climbing a tall mountain, for some reason. Perhaps I was looking to cut my journey to a certain location short by just, you know, going over the mountain. I ended up lengthening my journey considerably, because I turned around.
Much to my delight, I was greeted with a stunning view of Whiterun. I could see the whole valley sprawling out below. Miles away (seemingly), white-capped peaks stretched across the screen. The sun was setting. Let me put it this way: I stopped playing to stare at this virtual landscape. I dragged my friend away from his funny YouTube videos and cheap beer so that he, too, could stare at the nice picture. He was ‘mirin pretty hard, and he’d already played through Skyrim.
One of the defining characteristics of Skyrim’s take on nature is its clever use of scale. Somehow, the makers of Skyrim can convince the player that a mountain range is many miles away when, in (virtual) reality those mountains are only a 10 minute walk from where he or she is standing. The same applies to every aspect of the natural landscape. The forests, valleys, rivers, and caves are all very, very close together by real life’s standards.
This squishing together of the virtual landscape allows the gamer to explore the world without the nasty inconvenience of having to schlep a hundred miles before seeing major changes in climate and geography.
Besides making things less arduous, altering the scale allows for the comparison of the unique parts of Skyrim’s natural whole. The player, by quickly transitioning from, say, the heavy snow and jagged iceburgs of the arctic to sprawling pine forests and fast-flowing rivers, is better able to appreciate each environment in light of the only recently experienced other. This comparison on-the-fly makes the pieces shine more brightly in their unique hues, thus making the whole seem less like a painting, and more like a stained glass window depicting a many-colored landscape.