As Far As The Eye Can See: How Skyrim Distorts Spatial Relationships
As a big fan of Bethesda’s open world RPGs, I’ve been utterly absorbed in Skyrim for the past week or so. As I’ve been playing, I’ve been struck by the way that certain mechanisms obscure and distort the way the space of the game is presented to the player. Some of these mechanisms are common to this series or lineage of games since at least Oblivion, so they’re definitely relevant to my examination of Fallout 3, but Skyrim seems to push them even further, and even has significant differences in the way they operate.
There are three mechanisms that I see as being both the most prominent ways Skyrim does this distortion, and which are, though not unique to video game spaces, certainly mechanisms with no direct analogue to real-world spaces. These are level of detail reduction, perspective distortion, and the fast-travel system.
By level of detail reduction, I mean the various means by which the game’s graphics engine renders visual elements with less detail the further away they are from the viewer. In Skyrim these include using less complex geometry, using lower resolution textures, and not displaying elements such as grass, non-player characters and so on for far away landscape. Doing this reduces the rendering load, and allows the game to run on less high-powered hardware, but it also serves to create an impression of distance. Human players are accustomed to being able to make out less detail on far away objects in the real world, but Skyrim renders landscapes with lower detail at a much closer distance than that which would reduce perceptible detail in the real world. That is, landscapes in Skyrim get less detailed at much less distance than real-world landscapes do. This creates a kind of optical illusion, that produces the impression that landscapes affected by level of detail reduction are further away than they actually are, meaning the player gets the impression that there is greater distance between their present location and the landscape they’re seeing. A stretch of landscape that might actually only take a few minutes to cross looks much further across than it is, and this creates the impression of there being much more space in the game’s world than is in fact the case. One thing that’s particularly interesting about level of detail reduction is that the degree to which it happens varies based on what the hardware the game runs on can support, and the graphics settings chosen (or altered using a mod or console commands) by the player. Some technically-minded PC players will go to great lengths to ‘correct’ what they see as a significant flaw in the game’s graphics. But even on the highest settings, there’s a significant degree of distortion created by level of detail reduction.
Perspective distortion creates a similar optical illusion. What I mean by perspective distortion is primarily the way that the game’s graphics engine renders far away landscapes as smaller than they would appear with a more natural perspective. Just like the level of detail reduction, this creates the impression that these landscape elements like mountains and cities are further away than they actually are. But there’s also a degree of distortion in the way that mountains are rendered taller than they actually are, relative to the surrounding landscape. Perspective distortions such as these create a sense of the spaces involved being much larger than the physical geometry actually is in practice. Unlike level of detail reduction, perspective distortion does not conserve system resources in itself. In fact, applying the distortion when rendering the game’s visuals creates an additional overhead. But like level of detail reduction, it creates an impression of immense space without that space needing to actually be present in the game world’s physical geometry. So in a way, it helps conserve system resources by allowing the impression of distance to be created with less game world geometry.
Unlike the other two mechanisms, fast-travel isn’t solely a matter of visual presentation of the space, and while the other two appear in pretty much the same way in Fallout 3, Skyrim’s fast-travel is a little different in one particularly important respect. While fast-travel from the map in both Fallout 3 and Skyrim only allows you to travel to previously visited locations, Skyrim also includes another form of fast-travel: horse-drawn carriages that can take you to the game’s major settlements instantly, whether you’ve been there before or not. This is a bit like Morrowind’s public transport fast travel systems, though much less limited: every one of Skyrim’s horse-drawn carriages can take you to every one of the major settlements. I discuss fast travel systems in much more depth in my MA thesis, but what’s important here is that both these forms of fast-travel involve moving between geographically distant locations without any regard to the space between. Significantly, many of the destinations that the horse-drawn carriages can get you to do not feature a horse-drawn carriage departure point. Once you’re there, you have to either use fast-travel or walking or riding normally to get anywhere else. The conjunction of the horse-drawn carriages and map-based fast-travel means that the major settlements in Skyrim can serve as hubs for exploration of the surrounding space, but it also means that it’s easy for the player to visit a large number of locations in the game world without really establishing a clear idea of how they relate to each other in the game world’s physical geography. Sure, you’ll always see where they are in relation to each other on the map, but the map’s scale can only be understood by reference to direct experience of the space it represents. And as has been established, that experience is always subtly distorted.
What these three mechanisms do is disconnect the player’s perception of distance and spatial relationships between locations from the actual spatial relationships between those locations as they exist in the game world’s physical geography. And there’s a particular emphasis on exaggerating the distance between locations. It’s very easy to get the impression that two locations are much further from each other than they actually are. What’s particularly interesting to me is the way this works with the way that spaces in Bethesda’s open world RPGs have been designed, at least since Morrowind, with a degree of abstraction. This is is something I (perpetually) mean to cover in its own post, but I’m talking about the way small towns and cities seem to be stand-ins, symbolic representations, of larger actual settlements within the fiction of the game, and particularly relevant to the question of distorting space, the way that relatively short distances between settlements seem to be symbolic of longer distances in the fiction. These means of spatial distortion seem to support that abstraction to a greater degree in Skyrim than in previous games in this lineage, even as Skyrim features larger actual settlements and distances than the prior games mostly have. They’re almost a means of extracting that fictional distance from the abstraction actually present in the geometry, decompressing the space in the player’s perception.
The relationship between different places is crucial to establishing sense of place, and these mechanisms don’t so much destroy those relationships as they do distort and disrupt it. This makes accounting for them and taking them into consideration essential to understanding the way that sense of place is created in these games.