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.

Level of detail comparison between Xbox 360...

... and PS3.

Different levels of detail on PC available with tweaked .ini settings.

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.

    • Eddie Cameron
    • November 23rd, 2011

    I’ve been considering the same thing. I’m fascinated by how this is one of the few “open-world” games that I haven’t been really able to spatially grasp, if that makes any sense. In previous Bethesda games, GTA, or even Just Cause 2, I have a pretty good idea of the size objects are in relation to the whole map. I’m >40 hrs into Skyrim and still feel ‘lost’.

    I have a couple theories of my own. First, the 3D map makes it much harder to see details, so you have to guess scales from ground level. The lack of roads really fucks with me, I can’t compare the time I took to travel somewhere with the distance on the map.
    Secondly, and more personally to me I think, is that I never end up travelling over the fastest path, I get distracted by the greyed out icons in the compass bar, and HAVE to visit them, even if I don’t end up going into the dungeons. I then of course tend to exaggerate journey times when I look back on them.

    I love the confusion though, I lose the sense of exploration with most open world games very quickly. GTAIV held me for longer than most games, but Skyrim’s map is still almost completely fresh.

      • Lack_26
      • November 24th, 2011

      I’ve found I’ve had a lot more success with getting to grasps with Skyrim’s spaces by eschewing the 3D map entirely (and the compass) and mapping it all by hand (and as a result not using the fast travel).

      I made a rough copy at roughly twice scale of the collector’s map (the plane of Whiterun hold is about a page of A4), I’ve found even the base map has some spatial distortion going on and it is missing some key features, especially tributaries to the rivers, which can throw your idea of where you are (The river between the hill in the middle of White-run hold and Hjalmarch mountains to the north, not present on the map but quite a major point).

      The vertical elongation of the mountains has caused some confusion when judging distances but at least it’s reasonable if you decide to triangulate a position and I know that a fair few of my markings are off, since I’ve later judged their position to other landmarks and roads and found them to be in the wrong place.

      Still, once you start getting the smaller hills, the cliffs and rivers drawn in it starts to come together better, I know Whiterun hold, the northside of Lake Klinalth and the riversides of White River well enough, and the distances betwixt places.

      But despite wider travels I have no idea of the scale of other places I’ve been, like The Rift and East March (primarily due to either chasing dragons or being chased, not a lot of time to write a map then), I don’t think I went a great absolute distance, at least by comparison to Whitehold but it seemed massive due to the winding paths I took.

      For me it’s the mountain sizes that really throw me off, I see them and my brain knows they must be 10, 20 miles away but I can run to their base in 10 minutes. This distortion, especially the steepness and lack of foot-hills, really mucks with your perception of distance.

  1. I’m frequently surprised by how far I’ve travelled. I’ll leave a city, find a few dungeons, look at the map, and realize I’ve walked farther than I had imagined. I’m not sure if this is because the map only shows a part of the world, or some other reason. But the sense of scale in the game is definitely odd. It’s not a problem, really, it’s just that in Oblivion and Fallout 3 I always had a sense of how far I had gone. I haven’t gotten that figured out in Skyrim yet.

    • Mike
    • November 24th, 2011

    Its funny how the ingame geometric space sometimes never correlates to the lore. The Imperial City for example, is supposed to be the crown jewel city of Tamriel. And it works when you are inside, the high walls, seperate districts and White Gold tower work to make it feel like a properly big city. But in reality, you can walk around the entire thing in minutes from the outside. Its barely 1km across.

    • So the overworld map maybe at a different scale than that in town areas. Like the old JRPGs from the 90s!

        • Adrian Forest
        • May 14th, 2012

        That’s an interesting comparison, yeah. Although the area between towns/dungeons is still shown to the player at a 1:1 scale. But also, and this is something I’ll devote a post to at some later date, the towns themselves are kind of unrealistically small, as though they’re meant to be abstracted representations of larger towns.

  2. No game did this better than Freelancer.

    “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.”

  3. Interesting and well-observed post! Not played Skyrim yet but sense of place is pretty important to me in open-world games so I’m unsure how I’d react to it. The idea of such high-level abstraction in an open-world RPG (genre which is supposed to simulate copiously) is puzzling to me, though I can see how they might have wished to manage their workload while maintaining the player experience they wanted.

    In WoW, roleplayers often use lore books and RPG companion books as their primary source of lore over and above the actual game. These books usually describe towns and cities as much bigger and more populous than their in-game equivalents. So the idea that in-game places are synecdoche for the ‘real’ place, that the in-game Goldshire is a representation of a much bigger town, is commonly entertained.

    But it does raise the question of whether Bethesda wanted players to be totally taken in by the fiction, or whether they wanted players (as I so often find myself doing in other games) to be saying “I understand that this isn’t as real as it could be, but I will pretend…”

    Other people do that…right?

    • nihilcredo
    • November 25th, 2011

    Something worth pointing out is also how time contributes to this space distortion (not in an Einsteinian sense).

    The default timescale of the game is 1:30 – one real-life minute equals a half-hour in-game. After being violently broken out of immersion when I realised I just had a melée fight that lasted from sunrise to sunset, I opened the console and commanded some realism into it with “set timescale to 6”.

    On balance, I enjoy this much better (also, my elf assassin now has probably a more healthy sleep schedule than I do). But an unforeseen effect has been that whenever I hike or ride from one city to another, I become painfully aware of the miniature nature of Skyrim as I can leave the Candlehearth Hall inn in Windhelm at dawnbreak, head south, stop along the way to climb a peak and kill a dragon, stop again to raid a Dwemer storeroom, and still be in Riften before lunchtime.

    With the default timescale, the trip would have taken me the whole day and I would have felt a little more like I had just gone through a long and dangerous journey.

  4. “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.”

    I find this, in newer more “realistic” games a common source of minor angst. My expectations for how things ought to be, reinforced by the realistic graphics, constantly rub against my discovery that the game is built around abstract, unrealistic systems that constantly need to be adjusted for. A world of Skyrim’s size with realistic geography would appeal to me far more, and I wonder why it has not been attempted yet.

  5. Skyrim‘s false sense of scale is primarily a consequence of its aggressive fogging of distant objects. I live on a hill in the country. Stepping outside and looking north-west, I can see a house nestled among some trees on on a ridge; it is about a mile away as the crow flies. Although I can’t see much detail, the colours of its walls, doors, and surrounding trees are almost as vibrant as objects a few feet away. I have to gaze several miles beyond the ridge, to a distant tree-line, before the colours begin looking muted and washed out. Farther away, on the horizon, I see only silhouettes of tree-covered hills and a blinking communications tower. I know the hills are full of vibrant greens, but they just appear washed out against the sky, a slightly deeper shade of blue. Skyrim mimics this atmospheric fogging, but imposes it very aggressively, making distant objects seem much farther away.

    The lie of Skyrim’s land also adds to the illusion, because there is almost always from rocky outcrop or craggy hill obscuring the transition between vibrant and washed-out colours. For example, look at your second to last screenshot: the colours of the distant mountain look very washed out, almost like it is twenty miles away, giving the impression of a large expanse of land between it and the nearer mountain. The illusion is less impressive in your second and third screenshots even though the mountains are probably a similar distance away, because there is nothing to break the line of sight between the player and the mountain’s base. The impression given by the second screenshot is that of a slightly hazy day, while the impression of the other is a clear day and a distant mountain.

    Adding to the sense of scale, is the exaggeration of altitude when scaling mountains. Weather and vegetation transition from lush woodland to barren mountainside quite rapidly and, with the accelerated day-night cycle, reinforce the sense of travelling large distances.

  6. I think Lee is right that the fogging contributes most to the feeling of distance.

    I don’t understand what you’re trying to describe with “perspective distortion”—that distant objects appear too small yet mountains appear too high? Isn’t that contradictory?

    That mountains appear so tall is just the result of them being actually quite close. The lack of a true horizon that mountains might disappear over could be a factor, except that I dont think the distances are not actually large enough in the game world for that to be relevant.

    I also have to disagree with your thesis about fast travel reducing perceived distances. I made a point of playing Skyrim without fast travel (having used it extensively in Oblivion and Fallout 3). The experience of actually walking between two cities, and the very small amount of real-world time it takes ends up making them feel to me much closer together than when I used fast travel over a similar distance. Fast travel introduces a discontinuity in time/space that I automatically interpret as longish; this is similar in feel to a * * * break in a book, I think.

      • Adrian Forest
      • January 7th, 2012

      I’m pretty sure my thesis was that fast-travel *increases* the perceived distance, so we agree on that, actually. 🙂

  1. May 13th, 2012
  2. November 27th, 2012

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