My most magical gaming memory isn't a story of triumph or defeat, of a plot twist or a shock death. It's not even something unique from its game; it could happen multiple times. It's wandering into a town in The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, as snow falls, the snow music plays, and the game says that today is a holiday. There's no particular reason why I should find this so special. The music is good but not that good. The graphics, though very good at the time, were still obviously insufficient for any consideration of realism. Even the memory of the game might be wrong – I recall Daggerfall, but it could have be Arena, the first Elder Scrolls game.
So what made it so special to me? It's the holiday popup, I think. It says “This world is real. These people will be living their lives, having their problems, celebrating their holidays, whether you talk to them or not.” And the combination of the snow, music, and idea of holidays hammered that home – emotionally, it tapped a tiny bit into the cultural idea of the “White Christmas”, the holiday that gets everything right.
The weather grows more ominous as I approach the barrow on the top of the hill....
Game writer Jason Schreier collected a set of quotes from reviews and descriptions of Skyrim which all use the term “visceral”, often incorrectly. But one of the definitions quoted does relate to Skyrim, and it's not the combat or violence. It's snow, and weather, that does it. In Daggerfall my experience was with an idyllic form of snow, but that's not the only one. Snow can also indicate danger. Even if I'm safe in my home playing on my computer, I know that snow can be uncomfortable, harm, or even kill.
And video games can trigger that instinctive reaction easily. With people or most graphical depictions, the “uncanny valley” threatens to get in the way of understanding. Snow, on the other hand, is easy. It's a bunch of white dots. Yes, the white dots in Skyrim are much less pixelated than Daggerfall, but it's the same idea, used to better effect – snow in Skyrim the game immediately, viscerally makes Skyrim the setting feel solid, as well as dangerous and rugged.
The snow stopped coming down, but the swirling wind is picking dust off the ice....
I love weather effects in games, which may be apparent. There are lots of little things in games that set people in the worlds. Paper doll effects when putting on different equipment. Proper-sounding footsteps. The beauty of running water. Gunshots sounding exactly right. Announcers in sports games. These things all help to create an instinctive bond between the player and the game, in a way separate from core components of a game like plot or mechanics.
In a free-form, open-world game like Skyrim, these little things are especially important. Consider the importance of the radio in the Grand Theft Auto games. I will never be able to hear “Cult Of Personality” without thinking of San Andreas, just as you may be unable to think of Vice City without “I Ran (So Far Away)”. The less linear the game, the more attached the player needs to be to the game world. Skyrim's superb graphics, dense setting, emergent narratives, character design, and attention to detail in things like snow and other weather effects anchor the player in its reality, even if they totally ignore the somewhat dull main storyline.
Down on the plains, the rain begins....
The first game I remember seeing random weather effects in was Ultima VII: The Black Gate. I do not know if it was the first ever – although the series was responsible for so many firsts that it's entirely possible. The Elder Scrolls games have, in many ways, filled the same niche as the Ultima games. Both were crossover hits, the role-playing games that everyone played. But more importantly, both were open-world pioneers. In Ultima, shopkeepers kept their own hours, players could forge equipment and bake bread for profit, and the world's inhabitants lived in their own world, not a world built entirely for the player character. They're also both exploration-driven game types, where you can focus intently on a main quest, or wander around a forest and go spelunking if a cave catches your fancy. And it rains. In Ultima VII, you'll find rain quickly, wandering through a swamp that shows how dangerous the world is. It's appropriate. And excellent. It's worth noting, then, that the year the Elder Scrolls series started, 1994, is also the year that Ultima collapsed, thanks to the disaster of Ultima VIII: Pagan.
Dozens of games since have used weather effects, often to great effect. Ultima VII Part 2 (yeah, the name didn't make sense then either) used weather effects to drive its plot, as magical storms demonstrated the collapse of the natural order. Final Fantasy VI's fantastic opening credits sequence uses scripted snowfall. World Of Warcraft added weather effects in an early patch, which delighted me, as I had just started playing when suddenly there was rain and snow. It also shows up in strategy games – snow falls in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne and other real-time strategy games.
It's snowing again, and I love it....
The interesting thing about the random weather effects is that I find them wonderful in part because they don't affect the game mechanics. Rain in Skyrim doesn't make the fields so muddy you can't walk in them at full speed. It just looks and sounds nice. If they actually did that, then I would plan out how to behave during different weathers, which would change something that simply adds to the experience into something to be constantly judged and weighed.
It is snowing in Skyrim.
I knew I wanted to get Skyrim as soon as possible in part because the setting was so perfect for weather effects. Bethesda had not failed me before, not with Daggerfall's snow, not with Morrowind's rain. It's not the only reason, of course, but it's indicative of their commitment to world-building. It's in the emergent behavior of a dragon fighting a giant, it's in the randomly generated quests that don't seem all that different from the normal quests, and it's in a blizzard blowing as you confront an ice troll on the Seven Thousand Steps to High Hrothgar. It is the creation of the potential for magical moments of beauty.