Building the Aesthetic: The Beauty and Wonder of Skyrim
"Whatever the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not." - John Keats
Beauty is experience. Though years of glitz and glamour may have skewed us enough that we believe beauty needs only to be seen in order to exist, our waking minds know better. Beauty is far more than just a cursory glance at an airbrushed visage. Beauty is a deep appreciation for the world that surrounds us. While the word may have become watered down (as so many have), the experience of true beauty has not. Wonder, awe, the immensity of thought involved with understanding something seemingly perfect; we have not forgotten this. We may have lost touch with our knowledge of true beauty, but we have not forgotten.
I have put over 400 hours into Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. That is 10 work weeks, 400 therapy sessions (or approximately $66,000), 6.4 million babies born, and over $10,285,714,285.71 in Wal-Mart revenue generated. I only include the statistics so that those whose jaws are currently being picked off the floor can understand the relative time our world spends on equally questionable activities of "worth." My point in mentioning my time spent in Skyrim deals more with a comparison of time spent in "reality" versus time spent in "virtual reality" and the motivations behind such dedication.
Assault on Mind's Keep
Skyrim is an assault on the senses. Masterfully crafted to place you in situations that are gigantic in scope, the game's artistic philosophy is never at odds with gameplay. This means that every engagement I initiate is enhanced by four keys critical to immersion:
1.) Audio - I always liken the auditory ambush that is Skyrim to a "city-born" person's first day in the deep forest. Sure, the city is a cacophony of noise, but very rarely does it sound any louder than a constant hum. The forest never fades away. With all the species contained within fighting for the attention of a perspective mate, or warning off a predator, combined with nature's gentle whispers of wind, the forest never sounds the same. Skyrim attempts to recreate this feeling, AND layers on a phenomenal soundtrack.
Each area of the region has a customized soundtrack, as does each engagement you face along your journey. When exploring, the soundtrack is light and airy. If a dragon swoops down, the mood of the soundtrack bumps up in intensity by a factor of 11. The same happens when nearing an essential portion of the game - the player is informed by a change in the very nature of the music.
If the soundtrack to Skyrim is what sets the tone for each aspect of the game, the sound effects are what reel in that tone into being integral to the "reality" of any given situation. For instance, when a dragon swoops down on me, I hear him before I ever see him. I hear the beating of his wings displace the air around me, and I hear him speak in the Dovah language. Accompanied by this is the stark contrast of musical tonality that occurs during a dragon engagement. Each of these aspects would be great on their own, but together they thrust you into the situation with a sense of authenticity. This is saying something, as fights with dragons are not well documented.
Finally, the detailed minutae that Bethesda paid special attention to in the development of Skyrim brings home the quality of the gaming experience. The thousands of NPCs (Non-Playable Characters) that are encountered during quests are all voiced in a unique, regionally appropriate manner: footsteps ring true in distinct environments, weapons sound authentic, and dungeons are legitimately creepy. Combined with soundtrack and vibrant encounters, these small details place you directly into the realm of Skyrim.
2.) Visuals - I've found that I always fall a bit short when I attempt to explain the beauty of Skyrim strictly with words. Some things need to be seen in order that they may be believed.
3.) Feeling - The feedback provided by current gaming consoles is rather unique in the video game realm. Certainly, we have experienced the Rumble Pack in previous generations, but the haptic feedback provided by the dual rumble controllers found in the current generation's controller designs offer a much more experience-based, well... experience.
Haptic feedback is based on the psychological study of cutaneous sense data (touch). This data is taken into consideration when developing both the controller and the game in which the controller will act as gamer interface. In doing so, the game's action sequences are fed directly into your hands whilst both the visual and audio cues are being fed into their respective receptacles, culminating in an authentic experience.
Take the dragon engagement that I mentioned above. When said dragon first swoops after me, and I hear the wind kick up, the soundtrack change, the scream of the dragon, and see the breathtaking render of the mythic beast, I am also feeling a gradually building rumble in my hands. These encounters happen at random in the world of Skyrim, and I have found myself feeling real fear in these moments. Real emotion. Real reaction. Real experience.
Imagination - It is critical, when speaking on the "draw" of video games, that one acknowledges the active participation of the gamer. In order to truly find a game worthy of being called great, a gamer first has to believe in the fictional world. Once this belief is set firm, the gamer can then begin to actively participate with their imagination, bringing the game to life. This is the beauty of gaming and the beauty of art as a whole: It requires an active mind from both creator and participant.
It is in this light that Skyrim succeeds in ways that a majority of video games cannot. When I play, I am in Skyrim. I am the hero. I am my character. I make decisions as I would in "real life." To me, this connection is the hallmark of greatness in art. That is, when you can see yourself inside the work of another without disconnect or doubt.
Varying Levels of Truth
Playing Skyrim has put into perspective how we actively take for granted the world around us. If beauty is not placed immediately in sight, we tend not to see it. Games, and all art for that matter, that consciously envelop you in beauty in order that you may learn to love it are wonderful reminders that we need to take time out of the redundancy of our lives to appreciate the gorgeous visage of our home (and the occasional metaphorical dragon battle, of course).