Skyrim’s dirty little secret is that it isn’t that large. Oh, it remains fairly gigantic by the standards of other virtual landscapes, even next to its youthful imitator and usurper, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But set against what it pretends to be – a kingdom stretching from arctic wastes to the temperate south, racked by dynastic squabbles and laced with the treasures and detritus of millennia – it’s actually pretty dang tiddly, a little over 14 square miles in scope.
14 square miles? That’s no bygone, mystery-shadowed dominion rearing its shrines and watchtowers amid sunflashed snow. That’s a jumped-up theme park, a country music festival. More to the point, that’s approximately the same size as The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, a game which has become something of a punching bag for Elder Scrolls aficionados in hindsight – neither as grand as its swaggering barbarian brother, nor as memorably odd as burned-out hippy uncle Morrowind. Steer clear of distractions like temperamental mammoth herds and you can walk from one side of Skyrim to the other in half an hour.
I’m being quite obtuse, of course. If open world games were required to be as large as their inspirations or narrative aspirations they’d never get finished, and in any case, who would have the time to play them? The fascinating thing about open world design is that it’s not really about size at all. It’s more the art of the deceptive miniature – of making the poky or digestible seem enormous to the point of exhausting, even as distant cities reveal themselves for neighbouring hamlets, fearsome mountains for mere well-appointed foothills. Skyrim is extremely good at this, to a degree I’m not sure any game environment can rival save the corkscrew terrain of the original Dark Souls. It launches on Switch this week, glory of glories, and I’ve spent a few hours with the remastered PC version to remind myself of its achievements.
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