We’re All Todd Howards Climbing Mountains in the Hyperreality of Skyrim

See that mountain? You can climb it.

These sentences were apparently uttered by Todd Howard during the presentation of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo. But try to find that moment, and you’ll be met with memes, bug montages, references to mountains and open world games, and speculations on whether designers referred to this utterance. There are some extant recordings from E3 2011 when Howard was presenting a demo of Skyrim to mainstream publications. In some of them, Howard muses about how “You can walk to top of that mountain.” This phrase punctuates the grandiose world of Skyrim. Similar soundbites can be heard about vastness and limitless possibilities in other recordings, but talk about mountains is absent. Months later, Bethesda’s YouTube channel published the demo footage presented on show floors. This time around the murmur of the exhibition is gone and Howard’s hushed delivery is exchanged to a more measured one: “You can walk all the way to the top of that mountain.”

Each utterance seem to encapsulate a similar idea. Are they the same? Utterance is an articulation of thought coming forth as interpretable sound. We call these words and sentences, but we don’t treat sentences and words as interpretable sound when we think: articulation brings them forth as such. From where? How do we think about mountains when no sound leaves our lips? With words and images. They relate to landscape descriptors, large piles of rock, the sound they make rolling downhill and to each other as verbal, visual and aural images.

Mountains, Redux

In a kernel of Howard’s mind, an image of a mountain exists. This image cannot be a static one, as thoughts take form in line with context. If an image of a mountain is in flux, then so is every image, forming thoughts with images of The Elder Scrolls, video game production, presentation and so forth. Repeated several times, these images referencing each other become connected, just as words form connections with other words according to language. An image of a mountain consists of images of rocks, snow, dirt, hiking, climbing and so on. We associate one with another, hence they emerge together as thoughts cemented into images, akin to a painting made out of colors.

What makes this idea of climbing mountains so influential? Howard’s more measured presentation would be a good starting point. In it, he says that “Each time we do a new Elder Scrolls game, we like to start fresh […] to bring a virtual fantasy world to life. So we’ve rewritten the render, we’ve rewritten all the gameplay, the scripting language, the faces, the foliage. And all this comes together in our new engine we call the Creation Engine.”

Howard talks about a fresh start in reference to genre traditions and production practices. He aims to evoke awe associated with creation of life and paints a picture that looks new and familiar at the same time. The presentation claims to depict an image that’s dependent and independent of images at once. This isn’t possible, since images are always relational. If we encounter something truly new, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend it, since we have no point of reference.

Next, let’s have a look at the number of ways associations with this mountain has appeared.

Skyrim has received several expansions, patches and enhancements since it came out. See that mountain? You can climb it in high definition.

Skyrim has been released in 2011, 2016 and 2017. Five and six years after its initial launch, the picture of the mountain has been painted over to fit in homes with different consoles, to be hanged on virtual reality walls and to pocket it. See that mountain? You can climb it on PC, PS3, Xbox 360, PS4, Xbox One, VR and the Nintendo Switch.

Skyrim has been supporting modifications ever since it was first launched on PC. You can recolor the painting yourself or have it recolored to your liking. See that mountain? You can climb it as Sonic the Hedgehog while Thomas the Tank Engine rains down fire from the sky.

Skyrim

Novelty and Repetition

How many times and ways can one look at paintings of mountains before they start to look similar? People ponder questions like these with memes that insert Skyrim’s introductory section in viral videos and by creating comic panels where Todd Howard is depicted as a cunning salesman who wears people’s skin to promote Skyrim. These attempts point towards commonality and differentiation at once. In this process, images of mountains are associated with Skyrim so many times and ways that they become inseparable and unrecognizable on their own. People make jokes at the expense of Skyrim’s ubiquity and omnipresence on social media while perpetuating its omnipresence with the remixing and distribution of images.

This remixing seems inescapable and endless. Bethesda have been loud about their intent to transcend storytelling methods and narrative end-points. They dub these attempts “Radiant AI” and “Radiant Story.” These ideas first surfaced in connection with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but have changed in their aim and execution over the years. These systems in Skyrim mix and remix narrative beats to offer unlimited quests and scenarios unique to each playthrough. How do these systems differ from the creation, promotion and experience of other game systems?

Skyrim is packed with systems that in themselves rely on the value of novelty. Pulling the trigger on the controller yields an action with the character’s corresponding arm: a swing with a shiny blade, a block with a sturdy shield and spell-casting to colorful effects. How many times and ways can we swing a weapon before it starts to bore us? Flashy animations become familiar after use and attacks become functional, rendering swords, axes and maces alike to utilitarian mundanity. Yet, the familiarity of fighting is inseparable from the dance-like steps we make with haggard bandits and mighty dragons between swings. We indulge in the repetition of pulling triggers and swinging blades as part of a larger whole, just as people redistribute and repaint popular paintings to feel part of a community. Skyrim can feel boring and exciting at once, just as sharing and making memes does.

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Skyrim

The Holy Mountain

How do people reconcile with contradictory feelings that arise from the dislike of swinging but enjoying the dance? With attempts of selective mixing and remixing of images. People name their babies as Dovahkiin, bake birthday cakes and paint pictures inspired by Skyrim to celebrate the dance and put images of swinging out of sight and out of mind. The notion of lying may surface in relation to these images. Some highlight unpleasant parts of swinging in contrast with promotional depictions of the dance. The cheeky tone of these videos gleefully reference communal jokes about lying and alleged lies at once. It’s as if one tries to paper over the contrast between swings and steps with the notion of lies as they devour promotional material after another. But who misleads who when people remix remixes and refer to the act of remixing all at once?

Images of reverence and revulsion, likes and dislikes surface as expressions that reveal and conceal themselves at once. People turn to authors in search for origin but find none in obfuscating promotional materials. So they make up their own origin story in reference to communal values. Skyrim appears in relation to our daily chores and loved ones and as a pervasive and invasive force of marketing’s personafied image capable of hacking car stereos, pocket watches and household appliances to install itself. It floats inside and outside of itself to sketch pictures of dualities. Whenever we go to sleep and open our fridge, thoughts about Skyrim and mountains can rear their head, recognized and recolored by Bethesda’s marketing brush.

Was there a mountain to begin with? What images does the idea of climbing elicit now? Mountains shrouded in marketing malarkey and communal memes. An experience that feels familiar and new at once. We associate ourselves with mountains painted to be climbed by a soothing whisper coming from the intimacy of our headphones; we become one with this voice that promises adventure and simultaneously shows excitement for their own promise; we turn into an image of Todd Howard eager to climb and paint mountains to be climbed. This painting is real and unreal, it exists inside and outside of us as a kindred spirit and as a stranger whispering sweet little lies.

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