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Outside/In: Depicting the Natural World in Video Games

A forest in Skyrim

The open world environment of Skyrim is beautiful, and one of the most celebrated video game landscapes of all time. But an imagined world can be transformative ... and contain ideas about nature that are quite real.

Open Worlds
Justine Paradis

The world of Skyrim is vast. The open world video game contains cities, villages, and rugged wilderness: high waterfalls cascading into deep pools, packs of wolves roaming the edges of misty alpine forests, echoes in the canyons. The fifth installment of the Elder Scrolls series from Bethesda Game Studios, Skyrim is celebrated for the intricacy of its environment, and is one of the top-selling video games of all time.


“The world itself was almost the main character of the game, in a way. To say that it's just the background I think is not quite enough,” said Noah Berry, Skyrim’s lead environment artist.

“All the memories that you take away from playing a game … I think the world is sort of the larger encompassing vehicle that helps usher all that into you. We hope.”

But if you spend enough time in a fantasy, it might change how you relate to the real world - or reveal its underlying philosophy of how humans relate to nature.

Credit Eilian Parker on Flickr.

"It doesn't take much to look at a lot of the major open world games and see that they still can embody this very masculine charge of manifest destiny," said Ana Diaz, a games journalist for MinnMax and GLITCH MN.

"But then we're not even thinking about video games. We're thinking about the history and culture embedded in the United States."

Featuring Megan Sawyer, Ana Diaz, and Noah Berry.

This episode also alludes to an idea about modding and Skyrim as a survival game, explored in this article by Cameron Kunzelman.


Art direction and environment in the video game industry
Justine Paradis

"Skyrim has been really influential I think in terms of setting a standard for what players expect when they step into a video game universe. You see a lots of games attempting to make bigger and bigger universes, bigger and bigger experiences," said Jamin Warren.

Warren is the founder of a strategic consultancy called Two Five Six. He also runs Killscreen, a video game arts and culture organization dedicated to “showing the world why play matters.”

"I think video games historically have had a bit of a tortured relationship in terms of the way that they view the environment," said Warren.

Credit Nintendo screenshot
A screenshot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

But there’s a whole world of other games out there. From Minecraft to Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, games approach their relationship to their environment with a different set of sensibilities, philosophies, and biases.

Plus, video games are shaped by the tools used to build them and the pressure for commercial success.

"A lot of game designers... view realism as an end in and of itself, as opposed to an expression of a feeling or a point of view," said Warren.

"Now I think, fortunately, you start to see a bit more art direction. So it's not just about realism: it's about what mood you're trying to capture."

Justine Paradis is a producer and reporter for NHPR's Creative Production Unit, most oftenOutside/In. Before NHPR, she produced Millennial podcast from Radiotopia, contributed to podcasts including Love + Radio, and reported for WCAI & WGBH from her hometown of Nantucket island.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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