Landscape Archaeology of Rorikstead and Environs in Skyrim VR

Rorikstead

Rorikstead

 

Landscapes gather. They gather topographies, geologies, plants and animals, persons and their biographies, social and political relationships, material things and monuments, dreams and emotions, discourses and representations and academic disciplines through which they are studied. So landscapes are mutable, holistic in character, ever-changing, always in the process of being and becoming.

—C. Tilley and K. Cameron-Daum, Anthropology of Landscape

Introduction

The landscapes described in the opening quote from Tilley and Cameron-Daum can be either natural or synthetic (even though I am assuming they were only speaking of the natural world here). As an archaeologist, I was curious to see if I could conduct landscape archaeology in the game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but do it in the immersive world of the virtual reality (VR) edition of the game (Bethesda Game Studios, 2017). This experimental case study combines archaeology, phenomenology, psychogeography, and mapping/GIS all in a VR wrapper.

This write-up is presented in a few sections. It begins with a description of the results of planned walks from the countryside into a small village. A discussion on mapping and GIS follows, including a how-to for creating GIS maps based on synthetic environments. Next comes a description and commentary on flora and fauna of the region as well as the synthetic landscape’s materiality. I then return to Tilley and Cameron-Daum (2017) to engage with their definitions of landscape, using them to define my experiences within a very small geographical space within the game. I conclude with a post-script on conducting archaeology in synthetic worlds and what this case study means within a wider, future context of digital archaeology that can include VR as well as augmented virtual reality (AVR).

Walking into Rorikstead

Stu Eve’s PhD thesis for University College London, Dead Men’s Eyes: Embodied GIS, Mixed Reality, and Landscape Archaeology (published in 2014 by Archaeopress), and his 2012 article for the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, “Augmenting Phenomenology: Using Augmented Reality to Aid Archaeological Phenomenology in the Landscape” provided the necessary framework for me to undertake my Skyrim explorations. I wanted to follow Eve’s methodology of using one’s senses and the landscape to navigate towards a small village. I was curious to see if I could hear things going on in the town before I could see the town, and if my proximity to the town would trigger events that I could observe and perhaps reproduce. This marked the beginning of an intensely rich investigation of the landscape, and I am grateful to Eve for his pioneering steps towards realizing what he calls “embodied GIS,” and it was my hope to see if his methods would transfer to a synthetic open world.

 

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Detail, map of Skyrim (source: T Cook, NexusMods, CC0—public domain)

The village of Rorikstead is situated at the western end of a valley near the center of Skyrim. It backs up against foothills and commands a view of the valley and the ring of mountains beyond. There is one cobblestone thoroughfare passing just to the east of the village, winding its way into the mountains to the west and into the valley to the north and east, the eastern part of the road featuring crumbling stone walls to either side for a short distance.

Rorikstead itself consists of two farms, a manorhouse, and an inn, all built of river stone with thatched, peaked roofs. A fire burns constantly outside the inn warming a pot of red mountain flower tea. Two shaggy longhorn cows stand nearby. The farms grow the Skyrim equivalent of wheat, potatoes, leeks, and cabbages, tended by three farmers. A stone gristmill stands in the yard of the easternmost farm. The town is quiet, the only sounds coming from the farm tools working the earth, from occasional conversation between residents, and from two young sisters who play at tag during daylight hours.

An approximately two-minute walk from town to the northeast brings one to a small river. To the north at about the same distance is a camp for a giant and his mammoth. To the southeast are foothills leading up to a Forsworn bandit camp and a dramatic overlook towards a ruined fort, and to the south is Lund’s house, a hermit who lives just outside of the village proper. In Skyrim, at least one feature or element of built heritage is within the viewshed at any given time from any given place, and these include small shrines and abandoned monuments that do not appear on the player map or on the compass display during travel. Note that the presence of augmented reality (AR) data (annotated compass and other data windows) in a virtual reality (VR) space creates something I call “augmented virtual reality” or AVR. Players accessing a synthetic world via VR hardware receive various notifications through their head-up displays (HUDs), much like Eve describes when fieldwalkers in the natural world access data through technology in real-time during their surveys.

Before I began my planned walks from different areas of the landscape into Rorikstead, I made sure that the game’s music was turned off so as not to obscure any of the region’s ambient sounds (wind, rain, animals, people). I also began my explorations at 0800 by the world’s clock (24 game hours = ca. 1 human hour; see below for a note on time) so that I could approach the village when people were awake and working, and conclude at nightfall to see if the village changed regarding its non-player character (NPC) activity.

To start, I positioned myself by the Forsworn camp. At a distance of about 30m, the bandits shouted warnings at me: “That’s close enough.” I stood there for a moment too long, prompting them to launch arrows at me from behind their cover, and I fled down the hill toward town.

The hill encouraged a route of travel (but did not restrict me to staying on the smooth slope), and I had an option to use the bandits’ footpath with its switchbacks, or I could jump from rock to rock for a faster way down. About halfway down the hill, the town appeared in the hazy distance, maybe 400m away. I could stand on an overlook to see the entire valley. I walked through grass and brush, hearing my footsteps, and noticed the constant wind, which reminded me of parts of Montana or Wyoming. In Skyrim, wind equates to remoteness. As I reached the road with the town about 50 m from me, I noticed the elements of the farm “build” themselves. What was a brown patch of land suddenly became a fenced farm with vegetables and two farmers working the ground. I repeated my approach to the town from two other directions, and the farm appeared in detail always at about a distance of 50m. NPCs appeared as if on cue, albeit at random locations around town, but always along the same tracks set out for them.

I tried a different approach, this time from Lund’s cabin. Finding the place was somewhat difficult, but a small fence and upward-leading trail brought me along two switchbacks until I could see chimney smoke. Rounding a corner I saw a small stone house with a thatched roof that looked just like the other buildings in Rorikstead. I could not see the village from the house, but could from a small overlook nearby. Within a minute I found my way back down the hill and to the door of the village inn. Had I turned left on the main road, I would have continued out of sight into the mountains of the Reach, the curve of the road immediately obscuring the town.

Walking into town from Lund’s house, I noticed two girls chasing each other. I followed them as they ran around the village, and then noticed that they repeated the exact same circuit. After the second chase concluded, I stopped one of the girls to talk to her, and afterwards she waited for her sister to catch up to her where they continued their game of tag along the same track. I noticed similar habits with the guards along the road, two of them walking back and forth, exchanging news or pleasantries with me as I passed.

Lastly, I headed down towards the Hjaal River and got distracted by a modest, candlelit shrine, and later by a carved pillar. Several hundred yards away from town, Rorikstead no longer appeared as an icon on my compass, making me reorient myself on the map. Knowing to keep the river behind me, I found my way back to the village at dusk, keeping clear of the giant’s camp on my right, and noting how several moose appeared in the gloaming to forage. The village was completely quiet, the farmers retired, the children somewhere inside, and only the sleepless, torch-bearing guards walking the main road.

Compare walks between villages as shown on the map, and how the landscape encourages certain routes of travel, affecting time and distance as well as facilitating encounters to advance the action of the game, to give players something to do, to learn, something else to engage with. Skyrim’s landscape is one of play, purpose-built to funnel the adventurer from place to place, opening up the world. In the natural world, the landscape merely is. It is amoral and agnostic, posing no intentional hazards or rewards to humans, but rather existing as a space that happens to be occupied and exploited by people, animals, plants, weather. The landscape changes over time thanks to formation processes caused by the above forces. Landscapes in games such as Skyrim, however, never (or at least not yet) erode, flood, erupt, crack, or catch fire unless explicitly told to do so by the developer. My repeated trips to my personal Skyrim house wear no trail. The infinite game of tag by the sisters in Rorikstead make no circular track. The land would appear to be the same without the presence of NPCs. Their rapture would leave no trace, just like my own adventures do not impact the space. I advance the plot but do not change the world.

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Cobbled main road to Rorikstead

The archaeologist can learn a few things from engaging with Skyrim’s landscape. First, the environment can be used for training and discussion, answering questions about why things appear where they do, and how the landscape influences movement and migration of NPCs and animals. Judging from the observation of the residents of Rorikstead, however, it is clear that they have programmed behavior, a force field trapping them in town, adding a touch of human sorrow knowing that without a player’s intervention, the young NPC Erik will never be able to go adventuring even though he tells his dream to anyone who will listen. It is the player then that has full freedom of movement, albeit constricted by deadly drops and sheer cliffs, much like the natural world. We cannot go everywhere. But one final break-in-presence brings the VR player back to reality: one can walk to the edge of the world on a road at which point the game informs you: “You cannot go that way.”

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The gate to Morrowind from Skyrim. “You cannot go that way.” (upper-left)

All of this exploration of the landscape was enabled through design. When reviewing Eve’s thesis case study, his team was able to determine a reason for why their selected village was situated the way it was, and why the dwellings were placed just so: a commanding view of the plain below, and proximity to natural resources to be used for commerce. The residents settled in an area where they could both sustain and protect themselves, exploiting their environment to their benefit. The landscape existed long before the arrival of the villagers, and human ingenuity and common sense led to the foundation of the settlement.

Similar forces might be at work within Skyrim, but one must ask if Rorikstead was placed as the landscape was designed, or if the landscape existed and the developers decided that the eastern end of the valley would be a perfect place to put a small town. The designers must have followed other rules in placing villages, cities, and other points of interest, making sure that towns were spread evenly throughout the landscape, and that one could see something else to explore no matter where one is on the map.

Skyrim’s map designer, Noah Berry, gave an interview about his design process, which indicated the combination of randomness and logic he uses to make believable environments (https://80.lv/articles/skyrim-designer-on-building-virtual-worlds/). Berry stated that the map design must serve the goals of the game and its narrative arc(s). When one examines the world map with all of its locations revealed, one sees how faithful its design is to the underlying mandate. There is flexibility in the map, but that flexibility plays within the rules.

I wanted to see if I could derive any patterns from the map, and began by locating villages like Rorikstead to check how far apart each village was from the next as well as their proximity to the nine capital cities. Skyrim is divided into nine “cantons”, but not all cantons have villages (a village I define as a small location of a few thatched buildings and a population of less than 10). All seven villages occupy the southern half of Skyrim, are roughly evenly spaced apart, but vary in distance from their canton’s capitals. Like the capitals, the villages are situated on major roads that cut through the passable areas of Skyrim, following a route a walker might normally take even if there was no road present. More about roads in a moment.

The nine capitals largely sit at the outer boundaries of Skyrim, relatively evenly spaced from its nearest neighbors. When drawing lines to connect each capital to the next, however, a wheel-like pattern emerged, with all lines pointing to a central location like spokes on a wheel. The hub of Skyrim centers on the Nord capital of Whiterun. This makes sense for the reason that at the start of the game, the player quickly finds their way to Whiterun where they are given dozens of quests that carry them off to the far corners of the map.

Skyrimmap

Skyrim map annotated by the author with “action areas” circled in blue (original map by GameBanshee)

Natural barriers (e.g., mountain ranges, rivers, gorges), funnel players through the map. Roads become an obvious choice (although not required) for travel. As the player explores, the roads and natural contours wind around places of interest which I call “action areas.” These action areas can be explorable caves, ruins/delves, fortifications, and more, and create clusters of activity that can be circled on the map, defining regions. In Skyrim, it is not necessarily natural features that define a region and its capital, but rather the density of things to do and to explore. Skyrim’s cantons are not united through a common architecture or language as one might expect (and as what would eventually emerge in the follow-up game Elder Scrolls Online).

Landscape in Skyrim also creates barriers to lower-level players. The western regions are accessible only through two points of ingress to the north and south, requiring perilous passage and navigation. The game’s design requires players to be of a certain skill to access these areas, and uses landscape to discourage premature entry. Upon reflection, this is not unlike some locations on Earth for example, the remote sacred caves of Ajanta in India, or Petra in Jordan. The landscape tests the pilgrim.

So what can the archaeologist learn from such in-game explorations in VR? It should be possible to conduct similar exercises in the VR version of Google Earth, which features topography and 3D crenelated landscapes accessible via Oculus Rift, Vive, and Google Cardboard. Even if we cannot physically visit a space, using VR hardware would enable archaeologists to walk through landscapes they would otherwise be unable to visit. One can import Google Earth KML files into a GIS program (such as the open source QGIS) in order to add data, which one could then reference as one walked, the data changing depending on the walker’s location. This would realize the dream of Eve’s embodied GIS, but instead of bringing VR/AR to the field, one brings the field to the researcher’s own home or office for study. When dealing with synthetic worlds, it is possible to import a scanned image of a map into QGIS at which point it can be tagged with either GPS or Cartesian coordinates. It might be possible to then add elevations based on the VR world map to create a 3D GIS map that can then be tagged with data. This will become quite useful when creating GIS maps of procedurally generated environments that have never before been seen, much less mapped. These 3D VR maps can then be used to answer any number of research questions once the investigators are back from the field, querying, editing, and adding data on-the-fly. With VR, one need not necessarily physically occupy an actual space in order to answer questions of landscape archaeology.

I gave this a try, as will be described below.

A Note on Time and Distance in Skyrim

Distances in Skyrim are compressed and do not reflect actual distance in the natural world. Time in the game is also accelerated when compared to the real-time experienced by the player. Based on data from the Creation Kit wiki for creating mods for Bethesda games (https://www.creationkit.com/index.php?title=Main_Page), Skyrim, Oblivion, and the Fallout games use the same exterior cell size, which is a square 192 feet on a side. Skyrim‘s game world is a rectangle composed of 119 cells across by 94 cells high, which translates to 4.32 miles (6.95 km) across by 3.42 miles (5.5 km) high, or 14.8 square miles (23.82 sq km). The game-size translates to a scale of 1:10, which makes more sense when players activate NPCs through their presence. What appeared for me in 30 game-meters would have actually been triggered in the natural world by a more realistic distance of 300 m.

Time also factors in to travel across Skyrim. The game’s internal clock is set so that one minute of actual time translates to 20 minutes of game-time, which means that 24 hours in the game pass for the player over the course of one hour and twelve actual minutes. A walk that might take a player two minutes—my walk from the tree down the hill and into Rorikstead—would take 40 in the natural world. Assuming a rate of 3 mph (5 kph) walking downhill, this becomes a distance of two miles, again something reasonable when considering how things appear from that distance. Calculating game-time and distance very much becomes similar to calculating one’s weight on different planets. As players, our mass remains the same, but we weigh more or less than we do on Earth.

One curious point regarding measurements in games is that the scaling is unequal. Even though distances are compressed in Skyrim, the Z-axis (height) remains 1:1. To my avatar, a house is house-sized. Multiplying the Z-axis by 10 relative to the 1:10 ratio of the X- and Y-axes, would turn any character into a giant, and any building into an example of colossal architecture. In synthetic worlds, developers make the rules, and archaeologists must remember that at all times. They are not exploring an earthly landscape even if it looks like one.

Read about how I created a VR walk to Rorikstead in Skyrim.

I also wrote a how-to guide for creating 360 panorama images in Skyrim that can be used with Google Cardboard (or similar).

Synthetic World GIS

Another activity that I wanted to try was to see if I could create a Geographic Information System (GIS) map of a synthetic world. The goal was to see if I could generate enough usable data from a synthetic world for a GIS software application to return answers to queries run against the map, or to create heat maps and other data visualizations. While I am still working on generating output—which an issue of my learning how to use the software’s output features, including scripting in Python and/or SQL—I succeeded in importing quality data points. The steps below describe how I did it. These steps should be able to be followed by others mapping similar spaces in other digital built environments.

Note that this is my very first time using GIS for any purpose, so it is probable that I lack fundamental skills in understanding its application to archaeology. I will be searching for training on GIS and its practical use in archaeology. That being said, my inexperience did not prevent me from at least trying something with maps and GIS.

Software Used

I used the following software programs for Mac OSX as I created a usable GIS map:

Adobe Illustrator CS5—I used this program to open and manipulate the original topographic map’s multi-layered SVG file.

Inkscape v0.92—This open source application opens SVG files and can convert them to DXF (AutoCAD) files, which includes line art and data points.

QGIS v2.18—QGIS is the open source GIS application similar to ArcGIS, which allowed me to import DXF files as individual layers tied to specific classes of map features (e.g., ruins, camps, caves, etc.) and then export those for other GIS applications.

Procedure

1. Preparing the Map—I was able to find a high-quality topographic map of Skyrim created by NexusMods user “T Cook” published as a CC0 (public domain) scalable vector graphic (SVG) file. Vector graphics can be enlarged without losing image clarity unlike their more static TIFF, JPG, and PNG counterparts. I opened the SVG file in Adobe Illustrator CS5 and then opened the Layers panel. Cook had created individual layers for each class of map feature. After much trial-and-error I discovered that I could get usable results in QGIS if I saved multiple SVG files, each with only a single map feature layer (e.g, shipwrecks.svg showing only shipwreck locations in Skyrim). I saved a total of 30 SVG files. Once the layers were saved separately, I updated each one in Illustrator by deconstructing the individual elements in each sub-map. In order to get data points to appear in QGIS, I had to use Illustrator to ungroup the collection of shipwrecks (for example), and then I had to dissociate each plotted shipwreck location with its shipwreck icon. Doing this step allowed me to import the icons and the data points as separate layers, which QGIS would later display as either dots or shapes. NOTE: If one tries to import a multilayered SVG file into QGIS directly, the data points will all appear in a single layer making it impossible to differentiate between features.

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Plotting ruins in Illustrator

2. Converting the Map Layers—Adobe Illustrator CS5 does not have an export feature that can produce readable data by GIS software. I had to use some middleware, Inkscape, to convert the map layers to something QGIS could use. I opened each SVG file in Inkscape and then chose the Save As function to save each SVG file as an AutoCAD Drawing Exchange Format (DXF) file. This conversion process recognized the features in the SVG layer files as data points, allowing them to be plotted in QGIS in the final step (see below).

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Converting an SVG file to DXF

3. Importing to QGIS—I created a new GIS project file in QGIS and then dragged and dropped each DXF layer file onto the blank white “mapboard” to begin drawing the map. With every import the map grew in both size an complexity, ultimately revealing the rich topographic landscape of the original map along with actual data points tied to map symbols for everything from burials to lighthouse locations with the ability to turn layers on or off depending on the research questions being asked.

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QGIS rendering of the Skyrim map showing Rorikstead (right) and placement of various features

Takeaway

One can use the above procedure to create GIS maps from any static image. One need only scan a map, open the scan in Illustrator, hand-mark individual features, creating new layers for each class of feature being marked. Following the creation and marking of layers, one can then convert the SVG file into a DXF file in Inkscape, which can then be opened in a GIS program. While I did this for a fantasy world, one could do the same for older maps of cities, counties, or countries, and then overlaying those older, now-annotated maps over the top of contemporary maps that already exist as public domain for GIS users. For example, one can view and download an ordnance survey map of York from 1851 as a PDF from the National Libraries of Scotland, open the PDF in Illustrator, add layers, and then save it as an SVG file for conversion to DXF prior to importing it into QGIS for comparison against the York of 2018. 

NOTE: My first QGIS rendering (pictured above) contains errors based on incorrect cropping of SVG layers in Illustrator. Make sure that the layer of each SVG file is constant to ensure proper placement of data points on the GIS map as exported in DXF format.

Flora and Fauna in Western Whiterun Hold

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Tundra Cotton (image: Elder Scrolls Wiki)

Part of understanding a landscape and how people occupy it is to see what kind of plants and animals it supports. In my investigation of the village of Rorikstead, I limited myself to a 2-minute walking radius, meaning I could explore the landscape to the north, south, and east of the village within a maximum of two real-time minutes of walking at a normal pace. I also began my explorations at around 10 in the morning (in the game), concluding them after midnight in order to see if the landscape changed after dark. I was curious to see what plants and animals existed to support life in the village, which sat approximately five minutes’ walking from the capital of Whiterun. What could support the families in Rorikstead, and what might need to be bought?

As described earlier, Rorikstead sits at the western border of Whiterun Hold on the border of the Reach, which serves as a buffer between the regions of Skyrim and Hammerfell (which is outside the area of gameplay). Mountains rise to the north, with foothills in all other directions tapering into a large plain nearly bisected by the Hjaal River. The foothills are dotted with evergreens while the valley is largely covered with scrub and grass.

Skyrim allows for the harvesting of certain plants, and the surrounding foothills and the valley itself sported tundra cotton, purple mountain flower, and thistle. A few fallen trees sported the Mora tapinella fungus. As one entered the village, the flora transitioned to include lavender at the edge of town, purple and orange varieties of mountain flower outside the inn, and red mountain flower cooking in the communal pot, making tea.

Rorikstead is a farming village with two farms. The lowermost, Cowflop Farm, features wheat, potato plant, and cabbage. There is also a chicken coop, free-range hens, and occasional eggs. Lemkil Farm, a short walk up the hill on the opposite side of the road, boasts cabbage, potato plant, and leeks.

The land surrounding Rorikstead features a number of creatures, which appear at different times of day. During daylight hours, I encountered two sabre cats, three skeevers (aggressive rodents), a blood dragon, a giant frostbite spider, several mud crabs, a wolf, and monarch and blue butterflies. I also observed two Giants, and during an earlier visit encountered three high elves (Altmer) escorting a Breton prisoner along the road through town.

As day transitioned into night, I observed several deer, elk, and moose, a fox (which I watched as a sabre cat attacked and ate it), plus many torch bugs and luna moths. I also saw two mammoths (they are herded by Giants), and bone evidence of other mammoths scattered across the valley floor.

Returning to town the next morning, I was curious to see if the contents of Rorikstead’s houses reflected what I observed in the field. In Farmer Lemkil’s house, I noted rabbit, pheasant, garlic, a chicken egg and a pine thrush egg, plus the herbs elves ear and frost mirriam. Game trophies hung on the wall featured elk, mud crab, and slaughterfish.

In the Cowflop family home there was garlic, cabbage, carrots, elves ear, frost mirriam, rabbit, pheasant, and salmon. The Cowflops also displayed trophies of moose antlers and hides from two large beasts.

Rorik Manor contained slaughterfish steaks, garlic, cabbage, rabbit, pheasant, elves ear, and frost mirriam. Trophies included bear, goat, elk, and unidentified animal pelts.

Aside from the chickens the only other domesticated animals were two shaggy longhorn cattle penned between Rorik Manor and the inn, which belong to Cowflop Farm.

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Shaggy, horned cow (image: Elder Scrolls Wiki)

Based on the evidence found in the field and in Rorikstead’s homes, one can determine a simple, shared diet of cabbage and garlic with herbs, supplemented by rabbit and pheasant and occasionally fish. The manor also contained wheels of cheese. I was unable to find evidence of any of these animals and fish in the wild, however, but they may yet appear in the landscape, or are traded for or purchased in Whiterun itself.

In speaking with the residents, Rorik, Jouane, and Reldith all talk about how the land has flourished because of their hard work. Rorik goes so far as to mention that when he arrived that the land was “useless,” but now has the best soil in Skyrim. They work the land, and the land sustains them. What farming cannot provide the residents forage from the landscape or trade/purchase. Living in the hinterland is not easy, nor is it uncomfortable, although the young NPC Erik admits to feeling trapped in the hamlet and desires adventure in the wider world.

Engaging with Anthropology of Landscape: The Extraordinary in the Ordinary by Christopher Tilley and Kate Cameron-Daum, UCL Press (2017).

Twenty years following the publication of his seminal book A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths, and Monuments, Christopher Tilley returned with co-author Kate Cameron-Daum to revisit contemporary landscape archaeology on a small scale in a region of Cornwall. In their 2017 book Anthropology of Landscape: The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, they define a number of layers to understanding a landscape and all of its relationships, which include biography, place, motility, mediation, agency/ aesthetics/ well-being, conflict and contestation, nature and culture, and scene. What follows are Tilley and Cameron-Daum’s definitions followed by my application of them to Skyrim’s Rorikstead valley based on my time there in VR.

Biography: We examine the biographies of persons and the manner in which the landscape becomes part of whom they are, what they do and how they feel.

There are only nine permanent human residents in western Whiterun Hold, all living in the village of Rorikstead. The town’s namesake, the Nord Rorik, has the following to say about his feelings for where he lives:

“Look around you. Most of the lands you see are mine. Most of this I purchased while my comrades were fighting in the south, helping the Empire against the Aldmeri Dominion. Back then, nothing would grow here and so the land was worthless. Now, thanks to hard work and the gods’ blessings, our farms prosper.”

Rorik shares his manorhouse with the Breton Jouane Manette who saved his life during the Great War. The war-bond of friendship has kept the old men together, and it was the person of Rorik and not the landscape that drew Manette to Rorikstead. Manette offers a similar sentiment to the land he now lives in:

“Our prosperity is simply the result of hard work, good fortune, and the blessings of the gods.”

One of the village’s two farms, Cowflop, is co-managed by Reldith, an Altmer (high elf) woman who takes pride in her occupation and the land in which she works:

“What calling could be more noble than this? I see in your eyes that you think I jest. I assure you, I don’t. I am proud, and rightfully so, of the work we do here. Working the soil with your hands, seeing your seeds take root and grow, tending a herd . . . there is a joy in honest labor you won’t find elsewhere.”

Reldith lives and works with her Redguard partner Ennis, making Rorikstead unique in Skyrim for such a small village featuring Nords, Bretons, Altmer, and Redguard races all living together in relative peace at the edge of the world. They share the land with various wild and domesticated animals as well as a pair of Giants who keep to their camps nearby, tending to their mammoths.

Place: We discuss the manner in which different individuals are involved in place-making activities, that is to say how they name places, sometimes not places on any Ordnance Survey topographic map, the places they like or dislike. In this respect we consider landscape as being a set of relationships between places in which meaning is grounded in existential consciousness, event, history and association.

For Rorikstead, we return to a conversation had with Rorik as to how the village was named:

“Most of the lands you see are mine. Most of this I purchased while my comrades were fighting in the south, helping the Empire against the Aldmeri Dominion.”

This is corroborated by his friend, Jouane Manette:

“Have you met Rorik? He owns these lands, and it’s from him that our village gets its name.”

The history of the village of Rorikstead, the construction of its buildings, and the arrival of the other residents is unknown, but the current hamlet likely occupies the space of a much older settlement. In the lorebook Holdings of Jarl Gjalund (which can be found and read in the game), it mentions a town called Rorik’s Steading, which might pre-date the First Era (1E 0–1E 2920). The current town of Rorikstead was founded in the Fourth Era (4E 0–4E 201), some 4,000 years after the initial settlement. There are no signs of continuous, permanent settlement here, however, and it is puzzling how the name Rorik would be shared across millennia in a seemingly accidental way. The other residents are new and have little or no ties to western Whiterun prior to moving to Rorikstead.

Motility: We discuss the manner in which persons and groups move across the heathland landscape: the paths that they follow and the manner in which they move, on their own or accompanied by others. The temporality of movement and the sequences in which persons encounter places along the way may be fundamental to how people experience landscapes and thus feel about them.

In Rorikstead there is no evidence for horse-and-cart travel, and while some residents talk about going to the capital city of Whiterun, none can ever be observed to leave on errands. One of Skyrim’s main roads passes through the center of the village, winding its way through Whiterun Hold into the Reach and Hammerfell beyond. The road is cobbled, and appears to be maintained although the stone walls to either side of the road approaching town from the east are largely in ruin. Well-worn footpaths lead up the hill to the east of the village also, up to Serpent’s Bluff Redoubt, a Forsworn camp. Another footpath just to the west of Rorikstead leads one a short distance to Lund’s Hut, which contains the body of the deceased Lund.

The footpaths are clear desire lines and follow the landscape’s natural switchbacks, all leading down to the main road. This highway indicates a major desire/need to travel between cantons and regions, yet rarely features travelers. When it does, the road is traveled by foot with no evidence of horses or wagons. The road travels from Rorikstead to the southeast to Fort Sungard, then northeast to Fort Greymoor, and then east to Whiterun itself, while connecting with other roads along the way. If anything, the road was created to connect the capital with Whiterun’s fortifications, something that required sturdy road construction to support movement of troops and materiel. The region then benefited from the roads built for that need. In viewing the main road on a topographic map and ground-truthing it in the game, the highway follows the path of least resistance through the landscape, making for easy, fast travel, and presumably cutting down on its initial cost of construction.

Mediation: We discuss how the manner in which the heathland is encountered and understood alters according to whether people walk across it (and the manner in which they walk) or whether their encounter is technologically mediated – by modes of transport such as cycling; by activities involving tools such as fishing, flying model aircraft or holding a rifle; by riding across it on a horse; or by being accompanied by a dog.

In exploring Rorikstead and the valley it occupies, I traveled mostly on foot, but also tried transecting it by horse. My horseback travels set me about four “feet” higher than I normally am when I walk, and gave me a better vantage from which to survey my surroundings. I found myself more willing to just plunge down a hill over rocks and trees while riding my horse, and was more perceptive of the rolling topography as I continuously went up and down hills at speed. As flat as the valley appears on the map and to the eye from an elevated overlook, the actual ground undulates and is populated by divots, depressions, cairns, small tors, rises and ridges. The road mediates faster travel over more level surfaces, but the landscape encourages wild exploration, the explorer drawn to non-natural features in the landscape such as towers, shrines, ruins, and bonfires.

Walking across the Rorikstead valley is relatively easy, but one must pick one’s way around boulders and fallen trees, hopping over creeks and rivulets, and negotiating past potentially hostile wildlife. Being in the landscape makes one forget about the overviews seen from the foothills above as travel is relatively slow and requires attention to present motion through the material landscape that is actually there with each stride.

Rorikstead’s inhabitants venture on the road in town, but largely keep to their farms and houses. They have what they need and have little reason to venture out. Occasional travelers pass through and use the main road, but do not stop in town to use the inn.

Agency, aesthetics, and well-being: We consider what the landscape, as a sensuously encountered material form, does for people and in reciprocal relationship what it does for them.

The village of Rorikstead is itself unremarkable featuring four stone buildings with peaked, thatched roofs. Its setting, however, is nothing short of spectacular, with views to the east of craggy mountains. Sunrises and sunsets as seen from the village are warm and beautiful (when it is not raining). Pre-dawn mist hugs the valley floor giving it a mysterious, primordial quality. The valley encourages movement from the village to structures or farther on to the Hjaal River for fresh water and fish, and the mountains draw one in, ultimately leading to footpaths up and into their snowy bastions. One travels the landscape logically, or at least as one would if traveling on foot through a similar space in Colorado. In VR, the materiality of the landscape is always experienced, and I forgot that I was wearing a headset while I was focused on getting around in the valley. The landscape drew me in and offered several things for me to explore, these things never being more than 30 seconds away in real-time. The weather changed frequently from sun to rain, from blues to grays, not unlike a walk in Scotland.

None of the villagers spoke about the beauty of the place, but only of its practical use for farming, or the near-universal lament that small, backwater towns are good places from which to escape.

Conflict and contestation: We discuss the ways in which differing attitudes and values to landscape relate to different modes of encounter and priorities: the politics of landscape.

At first glance, politics and conflict do not appear to weigh on Rorikstead. The village is peaceful, has two full-time Nord guards who patrol the streets (although they have no official residence, and perhaps sleep at the inn), and serves as a retirement home for two veterans of the Great War. That being said, the village occupies a strategic location at a pass between Whiterun Hold and the Reach and the region of Hammerfell. Potential enemies could enter the valley on their way to Whiterun with a relatively clear and easy route to the objective keeping south of the Hjaal River and mountains, taking the capital and by proxy the whole of Skyrim. That would be true were it not for Fort Sungard to the southeast and Fort Greymoor to the east with clear views to Rorikstead, the main road, and the pass between Whiterun Hold and the Reach. Enemies could be spotted immediately from either tower resulting in a relatively quick muster of reinforcements from Whiterun itself. The river and mountains to the north provide natural fortifications, forcing invaders into the valley. Without any natural cover, opposing forces remain exposed all the way from Rorikstead to Whiterun. Perhaps Rorikstead remains uncontested because of its protections further up the valley, although in contemporary Skyrim Fort Greymoor is abandoned, now occupied by bandits. Perhaps foreign intelligence has not yet discovered this hole in Whiterun’s defenses.

Nature and culture: What do these terms mean to people in the context of this landscape? Nature is to others an invaluable term informing their environmental ethics and politics and their encounters with the world. To strip a concept of nature away may thus have unintended and disempowering social and political effects in terms of a rapidly developing global crisis in which humanity is destroying the environment on which it depends. A stress on the materiality of landscape means that the anthropologist/researcher needs to be there, to experience the landscape through the sensual and sensing body, through his or her corporeal body. The body becomes a primary research tool. Such an emphasis on being there and observing and interacting with others stresses performativity.

The culture of Rorikstead is presumably a shared one based on the racial mix of its nine residents, but there are no apparent artifacts or art that are specifically Redguard, Altmer, or Breton. Inside the houses, however, are soul gems and the odd book of Daedric lore (a kind of black magic), perhaps pointing to something sinister underlying the village’s otherwise peaceful façade. The foodstuffs found in houses, in the fields, and in the valley are all Nord, as is the architecture, furniture, and home decoration.

ShrineAkatoshRorikstead

Ruins and Shrine of Akatosh, Rorikstead (image: Elder Scrolls Wiki)

Up the hill behind Rorik’s Manor lies a modest set of ruins, which are no more than a collection of incised boulders. Beside these rocks is a shrine to Akatosh, one of the three major gods of Tamriel, the continent of which Skyrim is a region.

Touring Rorikstead and its eastern valley and foothills through VR created an embodied experience that put me squarely within the landscape to experience it as I would any earthly natural landscape. As shown above, this landscape serves a practical purpose for the villagers, and a strategic purpose for the capital. Natural resources here are unremarkable when viewed at commercially, yet provide for the “human” and “non-human” actors within that landscape.

One takeaway from spending days in the western valley of Whiterun Hold is that I can publish this account, and millions of other Skyrim players can open their copies of the game and come to their iterations of Rorikstead to observe and record their observations. For those people who have neither the game nor the VR hardware, I can record panoramic images and 3D immersive walkthroughs (with sound) to share so that people might experience the landscape for themselves and can draw their own conclusions.

Digital landscapes can be experienced bodily and encourage not only movement but also stationary contemplation. Through movement I was able to find an overlook, and by remaining still, I could watch the living valley below change as day turned to night, and as deer and moose emerged to forage in the twilight. The town of Rorikstead grows quiet as the villagers retire, warm light escaping from the windows of the cottages, manor, and inn.

Scene: The landscape may be regarded in various ways as nature, habitat, artefact, system, a problem, as a source of wealth, as ideology, history and so on. Why the people might describe it in these very different ways relates to their point of view and their interests and values, so inevitably the landscape seen from the ‘beholding eye’ means something radically different for a property developer, a local historian, an earth scientist, an artist and so on. Ten versions of the same thing is obviously an arbitrary number: there could be many more or less. The general point though is that political, economic, moral and aesthetic interests and values colour what people see and may inevitably lead to radically different attitudes. Landscapes are thus inevitably contested.

Regarding the Rorikstead Valley

Nature Valley wilderness meets village domestication and cultivation
Habitat Mild weather and peaceful neighbors lead to a peaceful village
Artefact Likely the result of a receding glacier
System People and land co-exist for non-exploitive subsistence
Problem Remoteness leads to personal and provincial isolation
Source of Wealth There is enough to survive on, but nothing to advance wealth
Ideology Local shrine to Akatosh and valley shrines to Talos and Zenithar
History Recent, Fourth Era village atop possible prehistoric settlement

Tilley and Cameron-Daum (2017) wrote, “people are materially entangled and entwined with landscape and precisely because of that they are emotionally bound up with its past, present and future.” When the authors use the term “people”, they do not write exclusively about a landscape’s permanent residents, but rather anyone who comes in direct contact with a place. This includes the visiting archaeologists who also become materially entangled and entwined, bound to the landscape’s past, present, and future.

psvr-gear

PSVR Hardware

Digital Post-Script

Everything noted above transpired within a 100% designed open world video game experienced through a VR headset and two handheld motion controllers observed by a PlayStation stereo camera, which translated the signals of my body into real-time motion and direction within that synthetic space. My in-game archaeological and emotional experiences were mediated by this hardware that granted me both access and agency within that space. I consider this to be little different than preparing for a climb with my ropes, shoes, handaxes, helmet, and other climbing hardware. Donning the VR rig is little different than putting on my hardhat, Class II high-visibility vest, Carharts, eye protection, gloves, and steel-toed boots in order to conduct archaeological fieldwork safely. I outfit myself for my work. If I do not have climbing hardware, I cannot gain access to the mountain. If I do not have my safety gear, I will not gain access to the site of excavation. My gear enables my archaeological performance. When I wear the VR rig, I am suiting up to conduct actual archaeological investigation within a synthetic space. My questions and methods are similar to my colleagues in the natural world. My tools are a little different, but my intent and actions in that archaeological space are the same.

When exploring the landscape around Rorikstead, I did experience one glitch. The dragon I killed (I had to protect myself and the villagers in order to conduct my investigations unmolested) spasmed violently on the ground as a skeleton until I logged out and logged back in, at which point the skeleton vanished, and the villagers went about their day as if nothing had happened. I did not record the glitch, nor was I able to reproduce it. I experience no other glitches in this space, which would have been flagged as a break-in-presence (BiP) within my experiencing the landscape.

I also realize that the region of Skyrim is a designed play-space with the express intent of encouraging open, wilderness travel, while providing traditional infrastructure (roads). The map feels naturally organic and behaves like the natural world in everything from terrain to flora and fauna to how the landscape and these “human” and “non-human” agents co-exist in that space. Non-natural features in the landscape draw players ever onward and into the world on purpose, the underlying logic in giving players places to visit and objectives to achieve. Performing as an actual archaeologist in this kind of space still yielded results and information about the designed space, a critique of its construction, but also creating an understanding of the machinery of the world. It is an alien space, and I am a human visitor in it. All of the agents in the game regard me in a reactionary way based on my proxemics. Actions happen the closer I get to something. Yet, the game being as complex as it is, will continue to operate even if I am standing still. The world turns when I am in it, and it persists with or without me.

The tools and methods I learned how to use within Skyrim can be applied to other synthetic spaces, but can also be used for sites and landscapes in the natural world. Maps are maps, and landscapes are landscapes, digital or otherwise. Photography and videography work the same way no matter what; it’s up to the archaeologist to determine when, where, how, and why to deploy them. The landscape has a say in those decisions no matter where you find yourself.

Conducting landscape archaeology on a small village and its environs within Skyrim lends itself to adapting this way of doing things to future investigations of other synthetic worlds, especially those future worlds that will be procedurally generated, designed games that then delegate world-creation to algorithms. Archaeologists must be prepared to explore and document these new spaces, which will be inhabited by both new, digital entities, as well as human visitors/residents who will interact with each other and with these new digital built environments. Skyrim archaeology is, therefore, a case study, a testbed for ideas of archaeology in any synthetic world.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

3 thoughts on “Landscape Archaeology of Rorikstead and Environs in Skyrim VR

  1. Pingback: A Defense of Practical Archaeogaming | Archaeogaming

  2. Pingback: Nerf Herding | The Geek Anthropologist

  3. Pingback: Game Studies Roundup #12: Agency in Räumen, beiläufiger Kolonialismus, Erinnerungskultur und die Macht der Musik – Language at Play

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