Every season has its own distinct landscape look, feel and characteristics. This has permeated into game design incredibly pleasingly. It is easy to think of a video game setting bathed in the bright light of summer or covered by the golden palette of autumn. However, no season is perhaps as striking, atmospheric and powerful as winter. The winter landscape of games can be so perfectly represented and impactful that they appeal to our real-world attachment to them – the crunching of snow, leaving tracks and patterns, the eerie quiet, and the different dynamic frost and ice bring to a landscape, for example. Through design, the use of aesthetics and symbolism, by appealing to our senses and by containing features that affect and change the land, distinct and brilliant winter landscapes come to life. Deliberate design and the careful inclusion of many often-underrated elements of the landscape results in powerful vista compositions, effective and realistic winter plantings, and deep use of the architecture and scale of the land, that goes beyond the aesthetic. And, while the other seasons are more colourful and verdant, winter displays the bones of the landscape, where spatial composition and layout is exposed, and underlying design and features are revealed. By merging these with robust world narratives and environments rich with magic and majesty, we are gifted magical, wintry vignettes and transported to spectacular and powerful places.
The impact of Skyrim’s winter landscape hits twice in the early moments of the game. As the screen fades from black, the landscape shows us that the season is winter, encasing us in pine trees, winter mist, and snow, providing a glimpse of the landscape’s aesthetic. After escaping the chaos of the introduction – evoking a similar sense of release at the beginning of Oblivion – we emerge from the caves and are greeted with a beautiful, expansive view of Skyrim. This is the moment that the landscape tells us, with no subtlety, that winter is not only the season but the whole setting. Winter is infused into the very land, featuring meaning, symbolism and design that transcends a wintry aesthetic. This is what plays a big part in our eventual feeling of total immersion, becoming as much a part of the landscape as the mountains, snow, plants, trees and forests.
The forests and trees of Skyrim’s landscape are a crucial and excellent winter element. From airy and welcoming, to dark and dense, the pine trees (particularly) and forests, reveal a lot about a landscape influenced by Nordic and Scandinavian culture, myths and tales. Crucial to Norse mythology, trees play a key role in the creation myth: Bor’s sons (Odin, Vili and Vé) crafted a man called Ask (an Ash tree) and a woman called Embla (possibly ‘elm’ or ‘vine’) from tree logs, and from these descended the races of men. This importance was heightened due to the central role that Yggdrasill, the tree of fate, had in Norse mythology. This is particularly interesting when considering winter and trees, as Yggdrasill is sometimes seen as an evergreen tree (like a pine) – ever steadfast and standing proud in winter when others have gone dormant. Leaning on Norse mythology as it does, there’s a connection to be drawn between this importance of trees and the prevalence of evergreen and pine trees in Skyrim – exerting an influence on the land ad being an important, interactable landscape element. This significance of trees, particularly in winter as they remain dominant features of the landscape, seems to be mirrored by Skyrim’s people. Throughout the land, trees are deployed as important feature or focal points in design, particularly in central courtyards and squares, which demonstrates a reverence and practical side they have in design terms. This in turn is reflected by real-world design use, where trees are used as great architectural focal points. Their efficacy in such a use is exaggerated with evergreen trees: the fact that they are always present, giving colour, and form and structure through their architectural qualities. This means that they will always show the structure of the garden or landscape, becoming one of the bones of design ensuring it retains its form; exposed in winter but crucial to giving the layout anchor points, frames, screening and focal points.
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