Winter Isn’t Coming: Why I Don’t Believe Skyrim Is Cold
Brendan Keogh laments Skyrim’s failure to evoke the winter’s chill.
The honeymoon is finally over. I still love Skyrim. I still want to spend the rest of my days playing it. But, finally, after more than 110 hours in a single playthrough, I’ve found something negative that I just can’t stay quiet about. No, it isn’t about the combat or the glitches or the unlimited dragons or any of those typical, boring, insignificant things others have complained about. I looked past all that; none of it bothered me. No, what has been bothering me is that in the past 110 hours of play, in the past 110 hours of wandering from the plains of Whiterun to the highest peak of The Throat of the World, not once have I felt cold. Not once.
I was told that Skyrim was a harsh, desolate region, whose terrifying weather chiseled the toughest men and women in all of Tamriel. But then I walk its mountains and cities and I see adults and children alike strolling through a blizzard in sleeveless attire, not even flinching. My character swims in arctic conditions and doesn’t even gasp. I’ve come across bandit camps that are bedrolls completely exposed to the elements beside a campfire that couldn’t possibly be burning without an unhealthy dose of napalm. There is a whole heap of snow in Skyrim but there is no cold.
It sounds nitpicky, to be sure, but the lack of coldness is the only challenge I face in believing in Skyrim as a real, diegetic, internally consistent place. Everything is so intrinsically connected—politically, geographically, historically—to make the province feel consistent and real that to overlook the element that makes Skyrim and its Nords so infamously tough—the fact it is cold—seems like a massive oversight.
“But Brendan!” I hear you cry. “What about all the snow?”
Sure. There’s snow. There’s a lot of snow. And ice. And blizzards. And it all looks marvelous and majestic. My problem is how all the snow and ice and blizzards affect the people. Or, rather, how they do not. Nobody seems to feel cold, and that is my problem. What is lacking is any kind of reaction to the weather. No one in all of Skyrim seems to think the weather harsh. No one dresses for it. Hardly anyone comments on it. Bethesda has put in visual elements to show me it is cold (look at all the snow!) but as none of them seem to affect anyone, it hardly matters. I am not convinced that anyone in all of Skyrim actually feels cold.
In Morrowind, the third Elder Scrolls game, much of the continent of Vvardenfell was blighted by ash storms. The city of Ald’ruhn, in particular, got smashed by these storms on a regular basis. The sky would turn the dark crimson of a blood clot, and Morrowind’s already short draw distance would be nigh cut in half. Crucially, when an NPC (or the player’s own character if playing from a third-person perspective) faced into the wind during such a storm, they’d raise an arm to their forehead to shield their eyes from the dust and ash. It was a simple animation that every NPC did exactly the same, but it added so much. It made it clear to the player that this ash storm wasn’t just some sprites spiraling around on the TV for the player’s benefit; it was an actual storm that was actually affecting the citizens of Vvardenfell. It fleshed out the provinces living in the shadow of Red Mountain and the hardships they faced on a daily basis.
Such a simple animation as an NPC shielding their eyes could have done wonders for Skyrim. I am meant to believe that this is the harsh, untamable north with a climate so harsh it breeds an equably harsh and untamable race of people. Instead, all I see is fake snow being blown across a set for the sake of the camera.
Skyrim needed to show the hardships its weather forces on its people. Not just a blizzard, but a blizzard that affects people. It didn’t have to be much. It just needed NPCs to shiver when they are standing still during a snowfall. Have a bandit camping in the woods wear something with sleeves and sleep on something warmer than an old bedroll. Make me believe that this is a harsh, frozen land and not just a temperate one with snow sprites circling the player’s camera.
Just this week past I finally started watching HBO’s Game of Thrones series. Immediately, I couldn’t help but make comparisons with Skyrim. Game of Thrones’s world looked cold but, far more importantly, it’s people looked cold. It sounded cold. It felt cold. A wisp of frozen breath lingering after a spoken, trembling word. The scrape of steel on stone as a shovel is used to clear snow from a footpath. The squelch of muddy dirt trotted through with melted ice. The unspoken anxiousness with which winter is both anticipated and dreaded.
And the armour! How the armour in Game of Thrones bulges with padding and fur beneath and over the plating! This is the kind of armour warriors wear when it it cold! Not loose singlets!
From the forests around Riften to the coast crumbling into the icy sea beneath Winterhold everything just feels too comfortable. Too moderate. Skyrim wants me to believe it is a cold and harsh land, but I don’t believe it. Visual effects alone aren’t enough for me to believe in an invisible element like the weather; I need to see their effect on the people in the world. I need to be convinced that someone, anyone, in this world feels cold. Why should I feel cold if no one else does?
Image credit: "Cold" by //Not Real Life