The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game often hailed as one of the greatest of its generation. With its high replay ability, immersive detail, and a vibrant (for lack of a better word) modding scene, Skyrim manages to maintain an unprecedented level of relevancy in online gaming discourse—even over ten years removed from its initial release. However, I would say that a key element of the game’s success is its soundtrack. Picture this, you’ve just slain a mighty dragon atop a mountain and you’re feeling pretty epic—and rightly so! You walk away from the battleground, in search of new adventure, a new challenge… And you hear this music:
It’s enough to make a battle-hardened Nord cry. This might be my favourite track in the entire game. It never fails to make me nostalgic and puts me right back into the world of Skyrim. Or, in a different vein, you’re wandering down a seemingly safe road just outside of the city walls… Then you hear this dreaded sound:
“Steel On Steel”
You’d be lying if you said this didn’t immediately make you scan your surroundings in search of danger. Although, let’s be honest… It’s likely a low-level wolf charging towards you, unknowingly approaching the unforgiving steel of the Dragonborn’s sword. This is the power of Skyrim’s music. It can make you tear up, make your hair stand on end (even if the threat doesn’t warrant this at all), or inspire a sense of wonder. It’s the kind of legendary, seminal soundtrack that most composers can only dream of producing—beautiful, lush, immersive, catchy and every other adjective you could think of—and one that’s been an ever-present source of inspiration and joy for me since its release. In this post, I’m going to be discussing exactly why that is and why this collection of songs is so special to so many.
It’s difficult to talk about why Skyrim’s soundtrack is so impressive without first talking about its immersivity. “Immersion” is a word that’s frequently and synonymously used in the modern gaming community to describe a game’s quality. Still, the word is quite difficult to define in a video game context. So, what does the word actually mean and how does it apply to Skyrim and its music? In A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, Winifred Phillips describes true immersion as the feeling when “the gamer has stepped through Alice’s looking glass, and is now wandering free through Wonderland.”
Read More by the author: Sound Design as Music: How Mick Gordon Embodies the Modern Music Producer
While I’ll admit this is a somewhat pretentious description of the concept, it gets right to the point. Immersion is the feeling of absolute and total submersion in a video game. It’s a flow state in which the player becomes so involved in what they’re doing that the activity of playing comes completely naturally. To achieve this kind of feeling, the player has to consistently receive interesting sensory information from the game environment, act and have the world react to their choices, and experience deep emotional connections with the content. As video games are an interactive medium, they have a unique ability to immerse a player in their experience. Music plays an integral role in this immersion. Skyrim’s soundtrack does this in a couple of key ways that glue the game together into a coherent package.
The first way that Skyrim’s music serves to immerse you in the gameplay experience is that it gets you into the perfect headspace to play the game! Jeremy Soule sets up a player for their adventure through the land of Skyrim with the track: “Awake,” the first track you hear in the game:
It isn’t overbearing, it isn’t flashy, and it doesn’t interfere heavily with the expositional dialogue that we’ve heard a million times. Instead, it hints at a greater adventure to come down the road and sets up for the gameplay ahead. This is incredibly immersive and allows you to focus on projecting yourself into the world. Yes, even the kind of people that max out all of the character customization sliders to create horrendous abominations have to admit that the opening scene and its music are a perfect combination for roleplay and immersion.
However, let’s go back to where it all started for a second—that iconic theme. I don’t know about you, but I can remember hearing it in the trailer for the first time in and being completely blown away. But it isn’t just the quality of the theme that makes it so good… As modern games strive to blur the line between the real and the virtual, it’s the job of a composer to bolster this idea—to enhance the realism of the world and the depth of the cultures found within the game.
To immerse a player via the music for this type of game, a composer must do their research into its background and environment. In Skyrim’s case, Soule and game director Todd Howard wanted Skyrim to feel distinctly Nordic in nature and so the theme reflects this. The pounding rhythms, the shouted vocals (in a language specifically designed for the game) and the powerful strings all culminate to form the main theme for Skyrim and immediately drag the player into the epic world that Bethesda created:
But if you think that’s where the blood-pumping, spine-tingling power of Skyrim’s soundtrack stops, you’d be dead wrong. In a RPG like this, it’s important to signal to a hapless, adventuring player that the action is about to start, so that they can ready their weapons and prepare for battle. Skyrim uses a dynamic system for this akin to systems that can be found in many other modern games such as DOOM (2016) and its sequel DOOM: Eternal (2020). This means that “exploration” music will play until an enemy approaches and the battle music fades in. The cause of this can either be a deliberate action taken by the player, or it can be triggered by set-in-stone story beats. An example of a combat track from the game, “Caught Off Guard,” can be heard below:
“Caught Off Guard”
This, like all combat tracks found in the game, immediately makes you feel like a deer in the headlights. You may spin your in-game character around and around until you find the source of imminent danger. These types of tracks don’t just serve a gameplay function, however. They also bolster that sense of immersion I spoke about earlier.
The increasing level and quantity of the rhythmic instrumentation sets these tracks apart from the majority of Skyrim’s ambient soundtrack. Still, Soule manages to sneak in the aforementioned Nordic-influenced vocal timbre from time to time—often mirroring the game’s theme song. Only serving to further immerse a player in the province of Skyrim, this breadth of musical genre (whilst still fitting firmly within the “vibe” of Skyrim’s other musical numbers) showcases Jeremy Soule’s mastery over writing video game soundtracks that reinforce the various micro-gameplay loops while managing to maintain the theme of the overall game.
Another important aspect of Skyrim’s music is that it comments on the player’s actions constantly. For example, at the completion of a quest when a little drum pattern plays. Or, rather, when you level up and are rewarded by an epic choir of Nordic chanting! This is one of the most important soundtrack aspects of interactive games, as they try to influence the player to complete certain actions. Jeremy Soule’s que for levelling up is a particularly good example, as why wouldn’t you want to level up when you get to hear that badass music every time you do it?! This increases a gamer’s emotional investment in the game and is crucial to their immersion. As they are one of the only direct ways of communicating musically with a player, it’s important that a game gets them right—and of course, Skyrim does!
Skyrim “Level Up” Sound
J.R.R Tolkien once said that the beauty of fantasy is in its escapist quality. This is a quote that I very much agree with. For the majority of my life, film and games have aided me in briefly forgetting my surroundings. Through immersion, this is possible. As I’ve written above, music certainly plays a huge part in that, with Skyrim and Jeremy Soule’s music being an incredible example.
The soundtrack is hugely important to me and many others. This is not only because of the beauty found in its detail, but also due to its ability to immerse. Whether that immersion is found through the game’s theme song, the dense action music that immediately (and with quite startling efficiency) readies you for combat, or the lush environmental music that submerges you in the lore and fantasy of the Skyrim province, the score for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will forever be one of the greatest soundtracks ever composed for a video game.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings surrounding this beloved soundtrack and I’ll leave you with perhaps my favourite musical moment of 2021 as a parting gift—the Skyrim 10th Anniversary Concert! These are some of the finest performances of these tracks I’ve ever heard, and they definitely deserve a listen! As always, thanks so much for reading!
Skyrim 10th Anniversary Concert
Raised on the evergreen rock gods of ‘Priest and ACDC, Max has been surrounded by music that’s hard and heavy from a young age. Music; among many other interests such as sci-fi, fantasy, sound design and herps (reptiles and amphibians), has always been a part of his life and Max is never happier than when he finds a new band to share with the world! He’s also in a classic metal band called Underking!