People often talk about getting lost in their favorite video games, but they usually don’t mean that literally. For the Elder Scrolls series, however, losing your way is actually part of the fun. Few titles have offered such a rewarding sense of exploration as Bethesda Game Studios’ first person role-playing franchise, which has reached its pinnacle with the most recent chapter, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
The game is a massive open-world adventure packed with vast landscapes, bustling cities, and countless hidden areas. It feels like a living world, and that impressive artistic achievement helped it win Game of the Year at the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards. The acclaim is a testament to the talent of the design team at Bethesda, and we recently learned more about what went into the production when we caught up with Computer Animation graduate Milton “Trey” Sharp, who spoke about his role as world artist on Skyrim.
“The Elder Scrolls was just an amazing experience,” Trey says. “One of the coolest things when you're doing environments is that at any given time your work is taking up 80 percent of the screen, and it’s really the environment that sells the game. I’m really proud of the scale. There’s no single serving experience to Skyrim, you really have to throw yourself into it, and I think people really enjoy that.”
Based on the sheer size of the land mass and number of quests available, playing through Skyrim can be an overwhelming experience, and it’s easy to rack up 60 to 100 hours just on a single play through. Taking a step back to look at the amount of content packed into the game disc, you can only imagine the unified effort it took on the part of the level designers and artists to create an immersive experience of that scope.
“Essentially how it worked is that the whole world was broken up into quadrants, which are called cells, and you’d get assigned a group of around 40 or 50 cells,” he says. “They’re all just blank too, there’s nothing there, so you have to sculpt height maps, paint the textures, and make the terrain look interesting. So in one area you’ll make snow, and then a path through the snow, and maybe some of it is stained red from an animal carcass. Then you’re placing trees and everything else that exists in that area. It was a lot of work.”
Another challenge in creating a world as big as Skyrim is making each new area look unique, while still feeling like a seamless whole. Repetition is a common factor when working on so much terrain, and Trey paid careful attention to detail in each environment he handled – things like making sure that when you walk through someone’s house that their belongings seem perfectly scattered, or creating organic clues of how to navigate the landscape.
“For story missions you’d have to do something like build a pathway up to a fortress on top of a mountain, so the trick is to lead the player to without it being confusing,” he says. “In those moments we have to give the player a visual reason to want to explore in a certain direction. On the other hand, there were also times where we got to create secret pathways for the designers to hide goodies in. That was fun, knowing that you’re creating these little play spaces where players can find something cool.”
It’s both the intimate and grandiose moments that make Skyrim such compelling entertainment, inspiring a curiosity in players that continues to reap new rewards after dozens of hours of playtime. Since wrapping production on the game Trey has become senior world artist at Superbot Entertainment, and appreciates having been able to contribute to The Elder Scrolls canon – which he explains only helped to reaffirm why he chose to pursue his career in game graphics.
“Being at Bethesda was an amazing opportunity for me, people spend their whole careers trying to get there, and I’m really proud of that work,” he says. “It’s funny because there was a time where I thought I might focus on architectural design instead, but my love of games set me on this path, and it’s really the perfect happy medium for me. I get to be creative and express myself artistically, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else now.”