Skyrim is a cultural monolith that looms large over the vast majority of games surrounding it. Whether you’ve played through the most recent entry in the Elder Scrolls series – and by most recent, I mean it launched ten years ago (yes, that makes my old bones rumble too) – you’re surely aware of its existence. On one hand, this is probably because it’s been ported to everything short of a microwave since 2011. On the other, it likely boils down to the simple fact that Skyrim is still a monstrously impressive achievement, and one of the most singularly gorgeous marvels in contemporary video games.
There’s room for a good laugh when we discuss Skyrim. You can glitch your way up mountains by spamming jump while on horseback, and there are hundreds of bugs that cause NPCs to look like complete and utter morons. However, when you slow down and actually take a minute to drink in the scenes around you, you can consciously meditate on the sheer scale of this borderline unwieldy world. Waterfalls feed winding rivers that stretch for miles outside of The Reach, while towering glaciers dwarf the dwarven ruins standing tall against the will of history. We all know that Skyrim is steeped in cold imagery, its massive snowscapes articulating the harsh bitterness of this unforgiving world – but there’s much more to it than that. I reckon landscape variety is one of Skyrim’s greatest strengths.
Just so we’re on the same page, let’s go through a few of the usual suspects. Winterhold is sublimely lonely, as is Septimus Signus’ outpost to the north of it. The mountains to the west, which lead up to Mehrunes’ Dagon’s shrine, are treacherous and commanding. On the other side of the map, we’ve got Solitude’s Blue Palace – which, you might remember, features the Pelagius Wing, or the route to Sheogorath’s demesne.
There’s Riften’s Ratway and Whiterun’s Dragonsreach, the sprawling rules of Labyrinthian and the undead majesty of fog-shrouded Sovngarde. But, just like in real life, the places occupied by people and imbued with assigned purpose are often deterrents from the natural majesty of the quieter world. Cities are impressive, but they rarely compare to the beauty of somewhere off the beaten path – a lake tucked away in the middle of a mountain range is far more enchanting than a metal spike that stretches towards the clouds.
This is what I mean when I say that Skyrim is still one of the most gorgeous games I have ever played. I’m talking about Ancestor Glade, the hidden haven on the outskirts of Falkreath solely inhabited by spriggans and moths, filled with ethereal waterfalls and divine trees. I’m talking about Blackreach, the strange but sublimely unique ecosystem located deep beneath the Tower of Mzark, and designed to connect the ancient dwarven cities of Alftand, Mzinchaleft, and Raldbthar. I’m talking about the Throat of the World, the immense peak that towers over the manmade cities surrounding it, deeming them as little more than irrelevant specks beneath its majesty.
The Palace of Kings and College of Winterhold may seem outstandingly impressive the first time you encounter them, but soon you become used to their shape, structure, and purpose. Nature, on the other hand, never loses a single ounce of its shimmering magic – something that is just as true in Skyrim as it is in real life.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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