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Lessons from the Aether: Skyrim and the Power of Setting


Tweet of the Day: Pacing Tips

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Video Games have always pushed the graphics envelope by looking to create better and more realistic images. They haven’t gotten human faces just right or human movement even with motion capture techniques, but some games, like Bethesda Softworks’ Elder Scrolls: Skyrim have mastered the art of presenting mind blowing settings that dare the player to explore them to the hilt. Skyrim is the latest in the Elder Scrolls series of sandbox (not open world I dislike the term as useless) fantasy games set in northern province of the Empire that rules the continent of Tamriel. The developers created a province mired in rebellion by a people modeled on the Vikings against said (Roman-like) Empire while dragons set fire to the land below. But it just another bucolic psuedo-medieval setting. Yes, it has the sword & sorcery, the strange races (elves but no dwarves although dwarven ruins are plentiful), and long history. But it is a game set in a land of rushing rivers, ice caped mountains and iceberg choked shores. One place in particular called (appropriately enough) Sky Temple, allows the player to gaze at frosted mountain range that gave the region its name: Skyrim.

It is the power of these vistas as well as the carefully crafted towns and cities of the setting that pulls the player in. The developers harnessed the power of setting to engage the players at a visceral level. It not simply a matter of killing a monster or defeating a dragon but of seeing what lies across the meadow, or on the other side of the ridge. Exploring old barrows full of restless dead never gets old. The ending (spoilers ahead) occurs in the world’s version of Heaven, under a dome of ringed luminous clouds ripped right out of Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso.

The game’s designers understood the power of setting to grab the player’s attention. Of course, the setting is populated with many interesting characters, various monsters, and lots of activities to keep a player entertained for well over a hundred hours of game play. But it is the space where it all takes place that really makes the difference. The amount of detail put in makes the game feel unique among its many rivals.

Setting is also important to writers. A carefully crafted setting with details both big and small will stand out to the reader as well. It is not simply another dragon lair on the side of a mountain, it is the ancient domain of sharp toothed wyrmn, carved out of the stone of crumbling dwarven domain. A secret elven village is not complete if it doesn’t lie deep in a forest where trees whisper to each other and fairies dance in the moonlight. It is not simply a city skyline aglow with the light of hundreds of neon signs but what those neons signs sell that matters.

Remember, details bring your setting to life and make it a place your readers want to live in.

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