When I reviewed the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic about a year ago, I described it as a game that relied on the player's either willingness or ability to suspend disbelief. I didn't really elaborate on that point, but I think it touched upon something worth thinking about. To me, the visual environments of KOTOR offered a poor abstraction of the Star Wars universe. Hence, they did a poor job conveying the sense of intergalactic, space-opera adventure they were intended to convey.
Part of the problem, I think, had to do with the Star Wars universe itself, too much a product of 1970s visual effects technology—awesome for its time, no doubt, but stifling perhaps as an aesthetic influence decades later. Drab spaceship corridors and flat desert expanses don't necessarily make for very engaging experiences when translated to the interactive medium of video game level design. The other part of the problem, of course, was the limited graphical rendering capabilities of 2003 game console hardware. It just never felt like I was exploring a living, breathing planet or space station when I moved around the 3D space. I was too fully aware of the environments as individual maps, separated not by geography but by programmed loading screens.
If The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is any indication, we've come a long way baby. I don't mean to compare apples to oranges here. I'm actually not trying to compare the two games at all. What I am saying, however, is that since first playing this game a couple weeks ago (a bit late, I know), I've never encountered a virtual environment so visually and technologically ambitious.
For those not versed in video game culture, the aesthetic style of The Elder Scrolls series is of the high fantasy variety that regards elves, trolls, and magic swords as the stuff of commonplace. If first we had J.R.R. Tolkein literature, compounded by Dungeons & Dragons role-playing, further compounded by The Legend of Zelda plus two-and-a-half decades of technological innovation, then today we have Skyrim. It's an open-world game in the truest sense of the word. In other words, there is no distinction between background art and foreground art, only a matter of simulated distance and perspective. Those distant mountains aren't just two-dimensional decorations. They represent a physical geography that you as a player are free to explore and traverse, provided you can find a path that isn't too steep for your character to climb.
The name Skyrim actually refers to the fictional region in which the game is set. Bounded by ocean and mountains, the interior landscape encompasses all manner of open valleys, craggy peaks, forests, swamps, and rivers. Skyrim is not the first open-world game. It's not the first and probably will not be the last game to wow me with its incredible scope and detail. That said, the detail in these environments astounds me. It's not just the millions of polygons that comprise both the macro and micro landscape. It's not just the beautiful HD textures that adorn those polygonal surfaces. It's in the sculpting of the geography itself, with its convincing shifts in elevation and assorted placement of boulders and vegetation. Never has a fantasy universe, in and of itself, felt so convincing. Never have I succumbed to such a grand illusion.
An Epic of Ant-Sized Proportions
Out of curiosity, I tried Google searching for an answer to how large is—in relative scale—the over world map of Skyrim. I couldn't find any kind of definitive answer, but some people were saying that the game world was roughly equivalent to the size of the game's predecessor Oblivion, and that game world was supposedly about 16 square miles. Unfortunately, I don't have any data or confirmation to really back that up, but it strikes me as a believable guesstimate. And all in all, I'd say that's a pretty impressive accomplishment, to be able to create such a enormous environment of such detail and inherent authenticity.
Oddly enough, however, I get the feeling that the game is intending to convey a world much larger than it realistically appears. How big is Skyrim supposed to feel? The size of England? The size of France? The size of Rhode Island? I really don't know. But the sheer amount of lore embedded throughout the world and its own implied grandeur—I'm talking annuls of wars and conquests—would seem laughably constricted to a mere 16 square miles. At one point while playing I ran down from an isolated monastery near the top of one of the game's tallest “mountains,” and it took me little more than a minute to get to its base, across a valley, and through the gates of a village called Whiterun. One of the reasons this Olympic-style feat was possible is due to how fast your character can sprint—straight down the side of a sheer mountain, no less. It's almost as if there's an invisible treadmill underneath my feet. But I think it's also because the game world is really not as epic in scale as it leads me to believe. In fact, I think very few game environments are actually as large as implied (Hyrule, Liberty City, etc.).
This isn't in any way a criticism. If anything, it's a testament to a game's capable art direction. The view from a 32-inch widescreen television screen is just not the same as observing the world with full peripheral advantage, and I get the impression my brain is blowing up all that virtual space to a magnified scope. What would this environment actually look like if I were able to inhabit it as a real space, I wonder?
Let's Make This Real
The first time I saw The Legend of Zelda—though it would be a long time before I played it myself—I looked on with a sense of wonder. Those simple graphics (combined with that iconic chip-tune melody) evoked a sense of adventure much larger in spirit and meaning than was contained in the individual parts themselves. I haven't played a new Zelda game since a little bit of Twilight Princess on the Wii, but it's interesting to see how Nintendo has reinterpreted the essence of that series using present-day hardware and technology. It's almost like they took those early abstractions as the real deal, and they've maintained the series as more of a brand than anything else. I do think that Ocarina of Time took the series an incredible step into the third dimension (I'm probably in the camp that ranks it as one of the greatest games of all time), and I'm sure the newest Zelda adventures make for great games as well.
But to me, it's almost as if Skyrim is a more authentic spiritual successor than anything Nintendo will probably ever put out again. It's a game more in keeping with the promises that the original Zelda made to video games as an expressive medium. While I find it hard to evaluate Skyrim for the actual game that it is (there's a lot more to talk about), as an experiment of pure immersion, it's like entering a whole new Hyrule—a vast over world with unlimited secrets and dungeons to explore. At the very least, it's as if someone took the original Zelda (itself a bit of a high fantasy adventure, by way of Japan) and decided to evolve the game's core aesthetic in the direction of photorealism (and now I realize that the first time I talked about Skyrim it had to do with photorealistic violence).
For good, bad, or for neutral, the need for suspending disbelief is becoming continually less of an issue.