Before we progress to my Skyrim wrap-up, I’d like to share a few brief notes concerning art design. I don’t think I’ve ever made more than a perfunctory mention of art when talking about the previous games, and that’s because I’ve never had much of substance to say about it: Daggerfall has too many pinups, Morrowind looks weird and cool but a bit too brown, Oblivion‘s wilderness is pretty, characters across the franchise look like dollar store coloring books or pantyhose dolls. In each entry the art does a passable job of capturing a fantastical setting for the game, whether that’s a novel setting like Vvardenfel:
Or a prosaic Tolkish pastiche like Cyrodiil:
And then there’s Skyrim.
Skyrim‘s aesthetic absolutely reinforces its key setting elements: every building in Skyrim looks like you could reach out and get a splinter, the architecture is laced with recognizably Nordic flourishes and patterns, and the air has a tangible frostiness to it even when there’s no snow on the ground. But it’s that last point that speaks to what’s probably the series’ most aggressive artistic statement, and one that has mixed results: Skyrim is relentlessly desaturated.
Skyrim‘s colors are all muted and grayish, to the point where outside of the occasional flame or spell effect you’re hard-press to find a bold color anywhere. Once can pretty easily figure why: the warmest regions are meant to feel brisk, the coldest like perpetual galleries of hoarfrost and rime. When a place is cold, there’s generally more clouds; light is generally filtered, colorless, and weak. Therefore, a muted palette is a straightforward way to communicate low temperatures visually. If this was Bethesda’s goal, they’re broadly successful.
But remember that interior I showed you earlier?
There’s no windows here. All the lighting, in theory, is coming from that candelabra–or assuming we don’t insist the game’s environments have real light sources that make sense, which doesn’t seem like a whole lot to ask, the light’s coming from a magical miasma conjured by a Bard College too cheap to spring for glass or tallow. Neither demand such oppressive bleakness. Nor does the area’s context, which actually rejects that austerity: this isn’t the frozen and hostile outdoors, crawling with bandits, beasts, dragons, and the dead–it’s a nice warm safe building in a big town. It’s a building dedicated to art and culture in a vibrant fantasy setting, and it’s as depressing as a dentist’s office. In other words, while the grayness makes sense as an artistic statement in some contexts, the thoroughness with which it’s applied is overbearing. And it needn’t be this way.
Compare that shot of Riften at the top of the article to this screenshot of Cloud Ruler Temple, a frosty mountain fortress in Oblivion:
It’s absolutely a subtle thing, but note how the warmth of the orange contrasts against the noticeably blue tint of the environment. The result conveys a sense of coldness without being sterile. You can convey cold with subtle choices in coloration. You can convey cold with sound–and Skyrim does this so well in places the art is secondary. You can convey cold through NPC behavior, such as warming hands in a fire (which they do) or huddling and shivering as they walk (which they really don’t). Simply dropping the saturation is a broad and ungainly solution.
These screenshots are absolutely chosen to make my point–you could find a Skyrim screenshot that’s more colorful than an Oblivion screenshot, but I contend that you couldn’t do it quickly. The game’s visual palette is bland and its depressive effect is cumulative. What’s really interesting, however, is that this isn’t a new problem. Morrowind has borne rightful complaints about its brownish cast since release. If anything, I find it interesting that Skyrim hasn’t provoked as strong a backlash–is this because Skyrim‘s art style accomplishes its goal of making things feel cold, while Morrowind‘s patina arguably counters its exotic tone? Is it because more of Morrowind is focused on atmosphere and more of Skyrim is focused on gameplay? Or are people just better disposed toward Skyrim?
Most probably, the answer is “all of the above.”
Mass Effect 3 Ending Deconstruction
Did you dislike the ending to the Mass Effect trilogy? Here's my list of where it failed logically, thematically, and tonally.
Starcraft: Bot Fight
Let's do some scripting to make the Starcraft AI fight itself, and see how smart it is. Or isn't.
Deus Ex and The Treachery of Labels
Deus Ex Mankind Divided was a clumsy, tone-deaf allegory that thought it was clever, and it managed to annoy people of all political stripes.
Mass Effect Retrospective
A novel-sized analysis of the Mass Effect series that explains where it all went wrong. Spoiler: It was long before the ending.
Another PC Golden Age?
Is it real? Is PC gaming returning to its former glory? Sort of. It's complicated.