Sea of Ghosts: Skyrim’s Wasted Potential

Skyrim lives and breathes, active on every level. The skies, the land and the shallows each accommodate monsters both mythical and actual. Under the shelf of a vibrant sky a medley of colours stretch a restless landscape upon which the elk graze and the mammoth ramble. Salmon soar upstream as the torrent surges below and hawks glide across the face of the sun, casting shadows across the backs of the sleep bears below.

Above the surface Skyrim is beautiful.

Such beauty is immediate, apparent from the very first scene. Only after time spent exploring will the player realise that Skyrim‘s beauty is only skin deep. It does not extend beneath the surface. There are places not penetrated by light, where the objects do not glisten, where Skyrim neither lives nor breathes.

It is ugly, empty and aimless: the water.

Underwater, Skyrim is devoid of the life that makes the world above so interesting. Submerge and suddenly the brilliance of the wind swirling across the ice melts into nothing but a heaving vastness of unbroken brown. Beneath the surface, beneath the sea, there is nothing.

The lakes, lagoons, rivers and seas of Skyrim are not a deterrent to the intrepid explorer. It’s quicker to swim straight through a body of water than it is to sprint around it. The player can pass through water as if it’s not there, and because there is nothing in the water to impede the player the player will do just that.

Skyrim‘s water is empty geography placed only to decorate the world, to make it feel real. While this is necessary, it only succeeds above the surface, above the map, where the water looks and feels as if it belongs. When the player actually explores the water they realise it’s little more than a theatrical prop. It has no substance. In a world inhabited by fearsome predators, a world that places so much emphasis on exploration, the emptiness of the water seems especially wasteful.

The destitution of the water oozes mystery. But wading through the obscurity of Skyrim’s waters is perpetually disappointing because no mystery is ever solved. The underwater environments are impenetrable in their ambiguity and offer no encouragement for the player to explore their surroundings because they contain nothing of note for the player to discover. Unless the player is teased with evidence of existence mystery ceases to exist and exploration becomes absurd.

Skyrim’s entire seabed contains only a few chests and although a great lack of subterranean treasure is a disappointment it is not the biggest disappointment. It is not items that I desire. It is a challenge. It is danger. Ultimately, it is death.

For all its unscripted events and aggressive enemies Skyrim rarely feels like an intimidating place to explore. With feet firmly on the ground, a weapon tight in hand and a throat ready to thu’um, the player is equipped to manage all manner of attack. In the water the player is stripped of all these abilities; the water is the one place the player could have felt truly vulnerable.

As it stands Skyrim’s water can bring safety to players. They can retreat to the water when being chased by predators and rest in the knowledge that they cannot be reached. The water needs its own legitimate threat, and in not adding such Bethesda missed an opportunity to bring true fright to Skyrim.

I want to feel vulnerable as I swim around staring toward the middle distance at the impervious gloom. I long for a reason to be afraid but it is not there.

Assassin’s Creed II‘s final Assassin’s Tomb has the player implement the series’ classic platforming techniques to progress through a watery dungeon. If the player waits long enough at the water’s edge an enormous octopus is seen ominously drifting through the dark water. Of course, the octopus was not physically in that water. It appeared only for a short cutscene. Ezio could swim through the water entirely without consequence. But the suggestion alone was enough to frighten players, ensuring they concentrated particularly hard to prevent from falling into that water, the octopus’ dismal domain.

If Skyrim cannot put me face to face with a legitimate underwater threat it could simply suggest such an encounter. Skyrim is a world populated by myths and legends. Introducing the notion of an abominable sea creature would ascribe some genuine mystery to the water and make it a veritably intimidating place while complementing Tamriel’s existing lore.

The mere mention of a predatory force within Assassin’s Creed II‘s unclear environment was deeply unsettling. It is a simple technique that would translate well to Skyrim‘s water. But belonging to a franchise with such expansive lore and fantastical concepts Skyrim should supersede simple suggestion and offer the player tangible conflict.

While the emptiness of lakes and rivers may be understandable, it seems particularly wasteful to allow the open water — the setting with the most potential for terror throughout the entirety of Tamriel — to remain lifeless. It is here in Skyrim’s Sea of Ghosts that the most horrifying denizens should dwell.

Thematically the Sea of Ghosts promises so much that it never delivers. There are no ghosts, no corpses, no danger and nothing to be afraid of. Yet an enormous expanse of frozen water is a concept strong enough to allow my mind to run amok with grotesque Lovecraftian creatures. While players are appreciative of mystery they must be rewarded for their expeditions. If players aren’t rewarded with evidence of a discovery, if not an actual discovery, any semblance of mystery fails and there becomes no mystery at all.

I want my expedition to be rewarded and I want terror to be my reward.

I want to stand at the precipice of a watery chasm and feel the ice crack and shift beneath my feet above the weight of some apocryphal force. I want to jump and stagger in a desperate attempt to maintain balance, only to fail and plunge headfirst into a nightmare. I want to be disorientated as I am devoured by darkness and panic as I frantically search for the surface. I want to shiver as I realise I am anchored by the wayward limbs of the gargantuan shape slowly emerging from the ocean’s deepest trench. I want to scream as as the creäture pulls me toward it, dragging me deeper and deeper into Cimmerian depths, into absolute darkness, into the void, until I drown staring into its eyes.

I want to be too scared to enter the water ever again.

In focusing so much on populating Skyrim’s skies with threats, Bethesda failed to address what lies beneath. Dragon attacks occur so often they can saturate the player’s experience. The pang of dread felt upon the player’s first few dragon encounters invariably wanes as play time increases and the player realises they have all the necessary attributes to best the creatures. With the player’s abilities suppressed by water any threat that must be dealt with become doubly dangerous, lending the water a credible quality and allowing the entire world to feel more genuine.

For whatever reason, be it technical drawbacks or a critical misjudgement, Bethesda failed to realise Skyrim as well as they could have. Instead of being a frightening and truly challenging hostile environment Skyrim’s water is but a thin veil of decorative pretense draped randomly across an otherwise interesting world, something the game and the player’s experience suffers for.

This feature was originally produced for and published on Pixels or Death – 07/02/2012

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3 thoughts on “Sea of Ghosts: Skyrim’s Wasted Potential

  1. I dunno if you’re playing on PC or not, but if you are, the Frostfall Hypothermia mod makes swimming in frigid waters deadly (kills you after 30 seconds), and even if you get out, being wet will make you likely to die from sheer cold soon, unless you build a fire (The point of the mod is to add realism to surviving in the frozen north in general). Furthermore, the Here There be Monsters mod adds I think 9 giant beasts (loosely based on real world myths, but made with the meshes of Skyrim’s monsters, such as a chaurus) in the Sea of Ghosts to battle. I know Bethesda didn’t make those mods, but if you want a much more deadly and scary Sea of Ghosts, fighting a giant serpent in the sea while you’re freezing to death is pretty much as terrifying as could get.

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