Skyrim’s Incredible Scenery Could Be The Secret To Its Lasting Success

With another version of Skyrim underway this year – a new edition celebrating the game’s tenth anniversary, launching on November 11th – I wondered what exactly makes Bethesda’s winter RPG so enduring. For me, it’s not the quests, characters, story, dungeons or combat that make me come back: It’s the world. Skyrim, the place, is easily Bethesda’s greatest creation – and to this day it remains one of the most atmospheric and evocative settings in video game history. But why is this so good?

It’s a very small open world by modern standards. You could probably squeeze a hundred Skyrims into Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. But Bethesda makes the map look larger than it really is, due to the wide variety of its geography. As you move around the world, the scenery, lighting, foliage and weather change around you, creating an effective illusion of crossing a large and diverse country. Each region, or domain, also has its own unique culture, history and architecture, which only contributes to this sense of depth and richness.

To the southeast is the Rift, a golden autumnal landscape of rivers, valleys and forests. Head north and you’ll find the volcanic plains of Eastmarch, where adventurers relax in the bubbling hot springs. You can almost smell sulfur in the air. Farther north, blizzards begin to blow and Eastmarch is suddenly covered in a thick layer of snow. Here you can stop and rest in Windhelm, Skyrim’s oldest city, whose ancient stone walls are carved with ornate inscriptions depicting thousands of years of Norse history. And all of this is just a small section of the map.

Travel west and you’ll end up in the Pale, a low-lying expanse of tundra littered with gnarled, wind-slapped trees, struggling farms and wandering giants. To the south, Falkreath, a region of lush forest where rain never seems to stop. Continue northwest and Reach will reveal itself: a misty mountainous region that houses the city of Markarth, built on the ruins of a long-abandoned dwarf city. I’m writing all of this from memory, which shows how indelible and vividly projected this world really is.

Skyrim’s terrain is analogous to real-world geography in many ways, with clear traces of the Scottish Highlands and Iceland’s volcanic plains. But when you look at the imposing Throat of the World, it’s a glaring reminder that this world isn’t entirely like ours. This incredibly tall, vertical, cloud-tickling mountain stretches for miles across the sky, and you get the feeling that some ancient and powerful magic must have plucked it from the earth. Dragonborn’s pilgrimage to the peak is one of the most memorable moments in history and, for many players, the first real taste of the immense scale of the world.

As I write this, over 20,000 people are playing Skyrim on Steam, which is remarkable for a game that has almost ten years. People still play it for a variety of reasons, including an amazing modding offering that is constantly breathing new life into the game. But for me, and I’m sure many others, it’s Skyrim itself that’s the real draw – and the reason the game is still worth playing today. There are better RPGs out there, but very few with worlds as attractive and absorbing as this one. I’m not sure if the next game, The Elder Scrolls 6, will be in Tamriel, but Bethesda will have to work hard to overcome Skyrim.