Water is always moving in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. No matter its form, it is always in motion. Snow falls, rivers run, lakewater ripples, ice shifts, and the damp ruins of Skyrim drip with cold, forgotten water. It is what binds the land of Skyrim together. No matter the peoples or the monsters or the biome or the town or how high up or beneath the ground one is, there is always water nearby. It is omnipresent, and it is beautiful.
There is a catharsis to be found in how water is portrayed both visually and sonically in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It is unchanging, the whims of the world—good and evil—have no sway against it. It flows, rests, and sits just as it has for the past thousand years and it will continue to do so until Skyrim is no longer. There is peace in that, in something that is immemorial. To know that water will always be there is serene, but it also highlights the futility of every action in the game. The people of Skyrim will grow old and die, the monsters will do the same, and the player will forget about their save file one day and move on. But the water will be there, and it will still be flowing, sitting, and dripping. Water in-game is something to behold—the textural look of the clear snowmelt that flows throughout Skyrim is what the ideal version of water is. Clear, natural, and perfectly cold. It flows and moves around rocks in a creek under a bridge. Dew rises off of it in the morning. Follow the creek and maybe you’ll find treasure or deer sipping from it or a monster to slay. It guides us. We may not know it, but it is with us in every step we take in the world of Skyrim. Even if we cannot see it with our eyes, it finds a way to our ears. In the deepest, most cavernous dungeons and ruins of Skyrim, there is water. We may not see it, but we can hear the sound of dripping in the distance. A constant dull wet pat that helps ground us in the fact that the surface we left is far, far above. Water does not flow down here, it falls.
Even up above in the hilly vast tundras and mountains of Skyrim, the sound of water is inescapable. we hear it rushing as we walk by a colossal waterfall and the sound is consuming. It becomes everything as it even drowns out the non-diegetic soundtrack. On the flip side, the peaceful flowing sound of a humble brook can calm us after a hard day’s adventure. Standing alongside one of the small creeks outside of Whiterun and letting the sound of water flowing over, under, against, and around eroded rocks is enough to stop one in their tracks. That sound re-binds us to this virtual landscape. It begs us to take it all in because one day water might consume it all. It cuts through mountains and forests alike.
The stillest ponds and lakes near Solitude are, themselves, never truly still. Their surfaces ripple as fish bob for food and as deer and wolves swim across them from time to time. The player disrupts that stillness, too. We dive headfirst into the water. Maybe it is a shortcut, maybe not. Either way, those lakes and ponds move and they do so in their own, subtler ways that still have the power to evoke a certain sense of bucolic beauty that even I struggle to find the words for.
Water comes in another form that only knows movement. Snow. It falls and blows on the wind almost everywhere one is in the vast lands of Skyrim. It attaches to the player and moves as we move—a cold, natural shell that lasts but a few moments before it is shaken off. If one finds themselves in the highest mountains, then snow might blind them. Up there, endless snow flurries dance violently on the wind and, like the waterfalls, the sound of their movement consumes the soundscape. The snow on the ground, too, is never really still. It moves slightly, is sometimes caught up in great gusts of wind, and the player is constantly crunching through it and shifting it. That crunching sound of boots falling on the snow serves as a reminder that no matter where one is, there too will be water.
I have always been fascinated by the presence of water in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and how it is framed as just another part of nature. But it feels like more. It feels absolute. Whether that was intentional or not, that just seems to be how it is. Water flows all around the player whether they see it or not, they might hear it or they may not, but it is there. It will always flow around them.