The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been lying to me, and I’m not sure I can get over it. Oh, sure, I know Skyrim’s guards haven’t all taken an arrow to the knee and that, instead, they just share the same dialogue pool. I’m well aware that despite its attempt to pretend otherwise, Skyrim is a glorified fantasy version of The Truman Show. And I’m absolutely fine with that, despite its flaws, I get as big a kick out of playing Skyrim as Bethesda does reselling it to me. Rather, the mundane thing that tears me up about Skyrim are its torches.
It’s all the fault of a YouTuber by the name of Nikolas Lloyd , aka Lindybeige, who specializes in discussing medieval history. He’s produced some superb videos, including one debunking “berserkers,” but it’s his piece on the indoor use of torches that’s given me food for thought.
To cut the story short, he argues that medieval castles and the like didn’t have torches on the walls, and instead, if you were roaming somewhere at night, you’d take a light source with you. With the aid of a little maths, he points out the sheer impracticality of omnipresent torches, how you’d need to have servants constantly cycling round the castle relighting them. And from that point on, I started dwelling on Skyrim’s apparent blunder.
To be fair, it’s not the only game to line its dungeons, castles, and so on with impractical light sources. But thanks to the ludicrous amount of time I’ve ploughed into it (200+ hours and not counting), it’s Skyrim that’s brought the issue into focus.
I’m using “torches” as a catch-all term for indoor light sources, everything short of candles, but let’s take Dragonsreach in Whiterun. The main hall alone sports 12 large, flaming torch / brazier-style devices, which we can assume use either charcoal or wood. Based on their size, a little smaller than the average BBQ, we’ll say that each burns for between two and three hours.
Assuming they were lit on a staggered basis so they wouldn’t all go out at once, and that it takes about 20 minutes to fill and relight each, that’s at least hours spent just relighting them, on top of which they’d also need cleaning. That’s to say nothing of the smell; the Jarl of Whiterun has two of them next to his throne, which can’t be pleasant.
The Jarl’s hall in Falkreath makes use of what could be oil, which, if this lamp oil company is correct, would last over 20 hours. That seems more reasonable, until you factor in that there are 86 of these goat horn-sized vessels scattered around this medium-sized dwelling. Then there’s the fire hazard – one of Skyrim’s more entertaining mechanics is the way you can knock a lamp into a pool of oil and use it to ignite your enemies. One loose arrow or misplaced spell could turn the Jarl’s hall into an inferno.
I could go on – there’s also the question of just who goes around dungeons helpfully lighting the torches, dodging draugrs as they do so. But it’s not the impracticality of Skyrim’s indoor lighting situation that bothers me, fascinating as I find it. Instead, the knowledge that Lindybeige’s video imparted has left me craving something better.
It wouldn’t be practical to just mod the torches out of Skyrim, though the excellent Realistic Lighting Overhaul is a step in the right direction. The game’s interiors are separate locations that you teleport to by opening a door, so during the day, you couldn’t have light filtering in because there’s nothing but a void outside.
But imagine an RPG where you’re forced to bring along your own source of light, where dungeons are not merely dimly lit as in Skyrim but pitch black. Or what if, sneaking into someone’s home, the only light is what trickles in through the windows? And enemies that would otherwise be easy to dispatch could knock your torch out of your hand and leave you flailing about in the dark.
Then there’s the fear factor; if you’ve ever experienced a power cut and found yourself fumbling around for a flashlight or candle, you’ll know how unsettling the blackness can be. I’m not suggesting The Elder Scrolls become a survival horror series, but when it comes to difficulty, dimming or even turning out the lights could be an alternative to just doubling the number of enemies. Skyrim’s sound design is superb, so you’d have audio cues to assist you; you’d just have to pay more attention than you normally would.
Bethesda has leaned into Skyrim’s survival aspects with its survival mode, soon to be part of the upcoming 10th Anniversary Edition, so it’s open to offering different gameplay experiences within one title. Ditching wall-mounted torches would add a note of practical realism, but it could also elevate The Elder Scrolls or any other title that took the same tack.
As for dragons? They bring their own light, so you’d be in no danger of missing them.