Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an amazing open world platform with a ridiculous number of missions that your character can partake in. More than that, it is a beautiful world with many interesting things to see no matter where you go. With that in mind, I have played over 240 hours (hence the title) and I wanted to talk about a number of things I found very interesting and wonderful as I wandered through that digital world. No matter how much I love the game, there are things that make the gameplay utterly secondary to the world itself. What I have found is that due to a number of interesting factors, playing open world platforms such as Skyrim can give you feelings akin to traveling to a new place, hence why I have spent so much time there.
To clarify this, let me explain a few things. There has been a great deal of research into how the thought of, say, an apple makes the mind react the same way as if there were a real apple present. It is fascinating work, but can also speak to why some video games become so immersive. The visuals can tie the viewer into memories and associations linked to what they are seeing on the screen. There has also been research on vacations and the effects that traveling has on mental health. Research has shown that travel can have a positive effect on everyone with many benefits. Now we get to where the connection is: I hold that wandering around in open world platforms, like Skyrim, can offer the same mental health benefits as travel.
This is not to say that developers made such worlds with that in mind. While there are a few games made for those purposes, I think the open worlds might be better for things like the vacation effect. So with that in mind, I took a look at just one open platform that I realized I have been playing a great deal. I do get a degree of the vacation effect when I wander around and look at everything with wide, amazed eyes. Any time you can look around the world—digital or not—and simply admire what you are seeing and lose yourself in it, I think you can find the goodness that travel can supply. If you can keep from letting the game get in the way of the environment, then all is well.
One of the first things that captured me was the fact there appeared to be as much detail put into the appearance of nature as there was to the people. When you look at the artifacts of the world, their realism really does grab your attention and make you feel like you are looking at the real world. Sure, it is obvious that this is all game animation, but there are aspects of it that really make things different and pseudo-real.
For example, the buildings all have a similar design aesthetic to them, which makes sense given that the primary designers of these structures were Nords, but it seems true depending on what race/culture these creators were. The many Dwemer complexes all have a similar design core to them as well, which makes them feel real. There seems to be a history in the buildings, a visual feel of time and purpose that made me interested in finding out more, which can conveniently be found in the library of books scattered through the world. That level of detail is amazing. Even when something is broken or barricaded, it seems real as well with accurate representation. Such a simple thing, but utterly vital if the plan is to help immerse players in the world.
Not only are the buildings well-designed, but so are the plants. The trees have surprisingly individualized appearances, rather than simply cut and pasted. The birch trees, for one, look very real—to the point where identifying them as birch trees is very simple. Things move in the wind. There are different mushrooms, flowers, and other plants all around, mimicking the natural variations of foliage in the real world. That right there makes the world feel alive—even more than the buildings. Wandering through the various forests, plains, areas with hot springs, etc. is wonderful because there is an infinite variability actually present in nature. And when you pick flowers or such, you don’t get all of them, you usually take the stem and flower rather than the whole plant, which remains and can regrow. This keeps a consistency in the landscape and is a detail I had not expected.
Then there are the rocks and mountains. I am a huge fan of mountains, so I can be really picky about them. I mean, I like going to see mountains on my vacations because they, more than anything else, make me feel relaxed and connected to the world. So, with that in mind, there are some impressive ranges throughout Skyrim where each area has differences in the build and accessibility, making them individual ranges rather than the cut and paste that many developers might default to. The border mountains that wall off the play area tend to be steeper and far more difficult to climb, limiting access solely to the areas allowed, of which there are few and far between.
The internal ranges are not as tall or as foreboding, and in a number of areas, are rather easy to climb to the top of in order to survey the landscape. There are some stunning vistas available where you can see mountains, forests, and waterfalls from quite a distance. Such views are very comforting as they comply with the way vistas affect people normally. The rocks also have differing textures, making it possible to figure out where you are due to the terrain rather than solely by the map as you become more familiar with Skyrim. That feature surprised me and made me happy.
Clearly, the natural world of Skyrim is fun to wander through in order to see some beautiful terrain. Anyone who has played the game has doubtless been taken in by the landscape. I do enjoy that in my playthroughs—getting wowed by the ‘natural’ world. However, one of the things that continues to utterly amaze me whenever I see it is the sky. Sky is rather ubiquitous in game worlds, though quite often, there is little to concern yourself over. In Skyrim, there is lots of varied weather throughout the area, also befitting the terrain, meaning snow at altitude and rain in the plains. There has been dense fog, rain, snow, etc., all there to make the world feel natural and more lifelike.
Then there is the whole sensation of looking up into the clear nighttime sky and beholding the Aurora. The greenish skyfire that stuns viewers in our own far North is there for all to see, covering huge swaths of sky. To see it ripple and move has actually gotten me to stop running around and start staring. That is one of the many features of the game that makes me want to take my hat off to Bethesda. It looks just like all the videos I have seen of the Aurora, and to have included that is a great achievement for the game.
The moons are also equally stunning. When you behold the moons on a clear night, you can see they have craters and seas—all the features one might expect from our own satellite, but placed differently, making them unique satellites rather than cutting and pasting our own moon in there. The size variations, the fact that they move through the phases as time progresses, is just enrapturing. I often stop in my travels just to look up and stare. You can also note how they move across the sky as time progresses, giving you an organic feel of the progression of time. And yes, I did and do spend quite a while skygazing, taking in all these features, just relaxing into the experience. It is rather comforting and makes me happy. Of course, getting jumped by something while I stand there and stare is annoying, but such is life.
Despite that irritation, I love watching the wildlife of Skyrim. There are lots of deer and elk running around, as well as rabbits and curious foxes, all vying for my attention. Watching them get attacked by wolves, sabercats, bears, and spiders is interesting, because it gives you the feel that the world is moving on with or without you—that it is alive unto itself. It makes you feel as if the world exists without your need to be present and you are traipsing through someplace real where things happen without the need for an observer. That sensation is really different from most virtual worlds. Most games seem to be alive in several areas, but miss details that elevate the world to true life. For all that I love Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Tomb Raider, that is something they all miss, as the world is secondary to gameplay.
Another aspect that I really enjoy viewing are the monuments scattered around the region. They are all around; statues to heroes, small altars people have left offerings at, structures that are different in design to everything else and feel old. Many of them are not marked on the map and are only discoverable by wandering. To stand at a shrine and not see any indication of its existence on the map makes each discovery fun and interesting. Whenever that happens, it’s like when I am on vacation, discovering someplace interesting that isn’t listed anywhere. I love just going to one of the massive tomb complexes, marveling at the architecture, wandering around inside, and taking in all its wonders, such as art on the walls, secret doors and rooms, and torn carpeting. Those details are worth almost anything and are great fun to behold.
That detail for something that doesn’t completely affect gameplay, but rather the worldbuilding, is admirable. Sure, you get to fight things, but honestly the monster-to-everything-else ratio is rather skewed towards everything else. Even the areas where dragons’ roost, the curved walls with the glowing magical words—those are really exciting to visit even if there isn’t something to kill. I must admit that I love seeing dragons perched on those walls like some sort of great fire-breathing parakeet waiting for food to just walk up.
These are all details from the game that make it a pleasure to run around and experience. Playing Skyrim is far more than just going around killing undead, eating dragon souls, looting everything, and making potions; it is a place where you can go and immerse yourself in a living, breathing world that draws you in and asks you to feel at home. Once there, it is easy to run around in order to discover as much as possible about this new world. The discovery only makes the world more impressive rather than less, and this open world structure maximizes the enjoyment-to-cost ratio heavily in your favor. The cost of the game compared to my days of wandering within it is nicely balanced. In fact, it falls more in my favor than Bethesda’s. I keep playing Skyrim and discovering new things and places—more for the beauty of the world than its complex plotlines.
These varying details, how they are well-thought out and animated for the game, have amazing benefits when you look at it as a source of relief rather than simply entertainment. Sure, the game is fun, but its world calls to you, making you wish you were not restricted to simply Skyrim, but could visit Hammerfell, Cyrodiil, and more in order to see and experience it all. The world calls to you, and in allowing the world to have you rather than the narrative, it can free you to have all the fun of a vacation from the safety of your own home.