In each chapter of On The Level, Andy Kelly celebrated a great map, level, or location from a classic PC game. This time, it's the snowy land of Skyrim from the fifth Elder Scrolls game.
Journey from one corner of Skyrim to another and you'll encounter a range of varied and atmospheric landscapes. Each hold has its own look and feel, which makes the map feel a lot bigger than it actually is. You get a sense that this is a vast country, rather than a small section of a larger world. Each area has its own history, cultures, and climate, resting in the shadow of the colossal Throat of the World—the tallest mountain in Skyrim, whose icy peak stretches far above the clouds.
To the south-east there's The Rift, an autumnal land instantly recognisable by its golden trees. Its proximity to the temperate capital of Tamriel, Cyrodiil, makes it one of the more hospitable places in Skyrim. But it's far from idyllic. The hold's biggest city, Riften, is a hive of scum and villainy, and home to the nefarious Thieves Guild. Other places of note include a honey farm, Goldenglow Estate, which rests on an island in the centre of Lake Honrich. Nowhere is safe in Skyrim—you'll have brigands and bears to watch out for in The Rift—but at least there's no snow.
Head north and you'll reach the volcanic plains of Eastmarch. Adventurers can often be found bathing in its natural hot springs, resting their weary bones. Geysers spit sulphuric water into the air, and it would be the perfect holiday destination if it wasn't for the skeletons, sabre cats, and occasional circling dragon. Continuing north, Eastmarch gets much colder. The area around its capital, Windhelm, is constantly covered in snow and battered by choking blizzards. This is the oldest city in Skyrim—home of Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak—and its ancient, inscribed walls speak volumes about its storied past.
West now to Winterhold, which sits on the banks of the freezing Sea of Ghosts. This was once the capital of Skyrim, but fell on hard times after the Great Collapse—a geological catastrophe that washed much of the city away, leaving only the College of Winterhold mysteriously intact. As a result, a lot of residents of Winterhold blame the college, a school for mages, for the event. The coast of the Sea of Ghosts is home to horkers and other animals, making it a perfect place to hunt for meat, tusks, and fur.
Travel south and the snow gives way to a harsh tundra dotted with scrub and gnarled trees. This is The Pale, an unforgiving expanse of land where farmers struggle to make a living from the frozen earth. The capital is Whiterun, a beautiful city dominated by the imposing palace of Dragonsreach. This once served as a prison for the dragon Numinex, whose skull now hangs above the Jarl Balgruuf's throne. This is where most new Skyrim players find themselves wandering after escaping Helgen. It's also home to Riverwood, a small village sitting at the foot of the Throat of the World.
Further south lies Falkreath, which is warmer than The Pale, but constantly veiled in fog and rain. As a result of this wet climate, it's covered in thick, verdant pine forests—and nestled in the middle of one is the town of Falkreath, which shares its name with its hold. The most notable landmark in the hold is Lake Ilinalta, in which you can find the crumbling remains of a supposedly haunted Imperial outpost. Falkreath sits on the border of Hammerfell, the desert home of the redguards, and you can even find a gate that leads there—but, for obvious reasons, you can't actually go through it.
North-west of Falkreath is The Reach, whose capital is built on the remains of an ancient dwemer city—the ancient race, sometimes called 'dwarves', that mysteriously vanished and left behind incredible technology. Its buildings are carved into the mountains, and huge waterfalls cascade from its highest points. The Reach is a mountainous area that's rich in ore, although miners' lives are made difficult by the Forsworn, a savage native tribe who want to reclaim the land as their own.
And finally, heading north, we find Haafingar. This is the smallest hold in Skyrim, but home to its capital city, Solitude, which—at the start of the game, at least—is held by the Imperials. The only road into the hold crosses Dragon Bridge, which serves as an Imperial outpost. Solitude sits on a natural stone arch, and has only one easily accessible entrance, making it highly defensible. Beneath the arch is the Karth River, which is home to the bustling ports of the East Empire Trading Company.
It's testament to the quality of the world-building in Skyrim that I was able to remember all this by heart. Of course, it also helps that I've also spent hundreds of hours there. I rarely play the game these days—as in completing quests and delving into dungeons—but I do like to return occasionally just to pick a direction and walk. Amazingly, I'm still discovering new things to this day.
You can watch the Skyrim edition of Andy's Other Places series below.