Why Skyrim’s most barren environment, the Reach, makes for a bountiful world

Like most nations in the real world, Skyrim is anything but homogenous. It has no one definitive landscape or city. It’s a sum of disparate parts stitched together into a rich geographical tapestry. While the concept of variety in most open-world games translates into a series of playgrounds – jungle area, ice area, desert area and so on – Bethesda has proven itself a master of nuanced worldbuilding. In Skyrim, as with previous Elder Scrolls titles, the developer has paid as much attention to how the parts fit together as to the parts themselves.

No region exemplifies this tendency more than The Reach, a hold to the west. Wedged between two mountain ranges, frequently shrouded by claustrophobic fog, strangled by spindly plants and occupied by a resentful indigenous race, The Reach is arguably the most distinct locale in Skyrim. Yet it is also a microcosm of Skyrim’s identity as a nation – held together by the very tensions that threaten to destroy it.

First impressions matter, and there are many first paths a new player can take into Skyrim’s expansive world. But few will find themselves venturing to The Reach before they experience Skyrim’s other regions. The nation’s contours bend the player away from its murky paths. None of its landmarks stand out on a distant horizon, hidden as they are behind the mountains.

Only two paths cleave between the mountains to connect The Reach with the rest of Skyrim. Each leaves the main highway between the cities of Whiterun and Solitude to spiral up and around mountain passes, and then drops the player into The Reach’s north or south. These paths are easily overlooked; they don’t go anywhere else. Skyrim’s helpful street signs, indicating cities across the country, point off in all other directions at these intersections, with only the one lonely arrow directing you into The Reach. The Reach is a dead end. You will not stumble upon The Reach while trying to go somewhere else.

The Reach possesses its own geography, its own politics, and its own cultures. Walking down either path, the shift from the rest of the Skyrim into The Reach is stark. The brownish grass gives way to solid stone. The green trees and flowers make way for the skeletal grey juniper trees, their roots clinging to the rock with eerie desperation. As the paths descend down from the grasslands into The Reach proper, a thick fog typically descends on all but the most fair-weather days.

There is a suffocating dankness to The Reach that extends from the sky overhead down to the earth underfoot. The river that carves a path through the region is a murkier colour than the waterways elsewhere in the country, as though the fog has polluted the water itself.

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