architectural visualisation / design / digital art

Sublime Experience – Skyrim

“Skyrim” (video game) seems to be the perfect case study that illustrates the ways in which designers of virtual worlds create sublime aesthetic effects. As shown in the previous article, the aim of ‘alternate history’ designers is to create an environment characterized by otherness, evoking a different space-time. The chosen mythical world is the western Middle Ages, as described in Germanic legends such as “Beowulf”, “Volsunga Saga” and the “Poetic Edda”, filtered through J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. If the legends and sagas already projected their mythical approach on history, Tolkien went to a totally new level when he invented an entirely fictional Universe, ‘the Middle Earth legendarium’.

“Bethesda Game Studio” continued Tolkien’s approach through further mixing his ‘legendarium’ with ancient legends. In the end, they came up with an entirely new world – the continent Tamriel, located on planet Nirn. All the history of Tamriel was recorded in a vast archive – ‘the Lore’, which constituted the basis of all video games in the ‘Elder Scrolls’ series, including ‘Skyrim’.

1. Natural Sublime. While playing ‘Skyrim’, the first way of experiencing the sublime is related to the breathtaking natural landscapes, drawing inspiration from Scandinavian and Siberian landscapes, which presented the necessary degree of otherness. You are removed from your familiar space-time and become immersed in a picturesque natural world with huge mountains, cascades, valleys and caves. Areas of tundra alternate with cold regions covered in snow, icebergs and glaciers; the relief map is designed to keep the player in a continuous state of awe through various scenographic effects such as magnitude, ascending/descending views, panoramas, picturesque, immediate contrast between different effects. The sublime varies from ‘the splendid’ to the ‘terrifying’, in Kant’s terms, or from the weakest feeling of sublime (‘light reflected off stones’) to weaker feeling of sublime (dark and deserted Northern landscapes with icebergs and glaciers, forgotten glacial caves) in Schopenhauer’s terms.

2. Historical Sublime. The dwellings scattered across the landscape instill other types of ‘sublime’ through various effects. In terms of scenography, the villages and citadels feature the same effects used for the natural landscapes – magnitude (Solitude), picturesque (Windhelm), contrast (Markarth), ascending or descending views. In terms of ‘historical sublime’, the dwellings appear as deja vu images from medieval cities. Their architecture and urban composition evoke viking or saxon cities with Romanic or Gothic cathedrals and monasteries, picturesque fortified castles and dense houses, scattered inside the citadels, giving a sense of organic development and historical depth. Everything, from the interior of inns to temples and palaces, is consistent with the evoked time period.

a. Mythical Sublime. The designers also added a mythical ‘Celtic/Germanic’ layer, in order to enhance the ‘otherness’ of the virtual world: the people of Tamriel worshiped pagan deities, “the 9 divines”, who often mingled in humans’ affairs. The races of the continent’s inhabitants also reflect this legendary Universe: humans, elves, orcs, dwarves etc. Legendary themes such as ‘killing the beast’, ‘the world eater’, ‘the trickster deity’, ‘the quest for the holy artefact’, ‘the land of the dead ancestors’ are integrated in the game’s stories. The mythic layer is also emphasized through Stonehenge-like ancient altars, burial grounds and ruined cities scattered throughout the landscape, whose purpose was long forgotten. Tolkien’s influence and its visual materialization through the ‘Lord of the Rings’ series has become a tradition in itself, carefully integrated by Skyrim’s concept artist, Adam Adamowicz. Thus, the city of Whiterun in Skyrim evokes Edoras in LotR; Markarth evokes Minas Tirith, the underground burial tombs evoke the depths of Moria and the Paths of the Dead; the elvish, dwemer and orc armors are obviously borrowed from the LotR trilogy etc.

b. Steampunk, Gothic, Lovecraft. The historical sublime is also present through the integration of ‘alternate worlds’ in the world of Tamriel. The long extinct dwarves (‘dwemer’) were an ancient, technologically advanced civilisation that built complex underground cities and galleries. They used mainly steam-powered machinery, built defensive mechanisms and dragged natural light through pipes deep into their underground cities. Here Adam Adamowicz was clearly inspired by Steampunk art (the 1900’s steam technology reimagined); however, in order to give it an ancient mythic flavour, he mixed it with Mayan architecture and decorations – the cities of the dwarves are carved in stone, probably evoking the ancient city of Petra as well. The complexity of these ruins, along with their magnific scale, age and mystery (no one knew the reason of the dwarves’ disappearance, their ruins were still full of their artefacts, dangerous traps and automatons) evokes a complex feeling of historical sublime.

The Gothic subculture is also introduced in the world of Tamriel through the ‘Dawnguard’ campaign; there are vampires in Skyrim, living in dark palaces, feeding on human cattle. Finally, H. P. Lovecraft’s world is introduced in the game through the ‘Dragonborn’ campaign as the separate realm of ‘Apocrypha’, in which mortals might gain access through reading ‘Black Books’ of hidden knowledge. All these mixed virtual realms accentuate the feeling of ‘otherness’, complexity beyond comprehension and grandeur.

3. Music. Skyrim’s soundtrack was composed by Jeremy Soule, an eclectic new age musician with clear historical influences such as pre-classical (Bach) and Romantic music (Grieg, Wagner). His music enhances the different types of ‘sublime’ experiences:

-natural sublime (splendid sublime: The Jerall Mountains, Kyne’s Peace, Distant Horizons, terrifying sublime: Aurora, The Gathering Storm, Frostfall, Tundra),

-historical/mythical sublime (From Past to Present, Solitude, The Streets of Whiterun, The City Gates, Far Horizons, Ancient Stones, Wind Guide You, Journey’s End).

The soundtracks become associated with the various types of landscapes and experiences in the game, contributing to the overall effect.

After experiencing the virtual realm of Tamriel, ‘Skyrim’ remains recorded as a vivid memory, a journey into ‘othernes’. After a few years, you might even become nostalgic of that realm, as many players confess. Therefore, I believe the game is one of the best examples of ‘legendariums’ offering a vast array of complex feelings of sublime.

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