The tall brush sways in the breeze as the purple-orange glow of dusk coats the hilltops. Even in the fading light, a cluster of red and white spotted mushrooms stands out, sprouting from the side of the road. I know this mushroom, Amanita muscaria, well. The genus Amanita contains some of the most deadly mushrooms in the world; any mushroomer who wants to live to old age should study them carefully or avoid them altogether. And while A. muscaria is not deadly, it causes a striking and unpredictable array of effects on the central nervous system, including swooning, feelings of great strength and vivid hallucinations. (After ingesting it, many believe they are Christ.)
Normally, I would simply admire A. muscaria and move on, but here I immediately crouch to pluck them from the ground. For in the kingdom of Tamriel, A. muscaria has far different properties: It’s a potent ingredient in shock potions, which are going to be useful when exploring the nearby Ayleid dungeon.
The world of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has an unprecedented level of beauty and detail. Emerging from the sewers at the beginning of the game, players finds themselves blinking in the sunlight in a landscape that, if not for the strange ruins dotting the countryside, could easily be mistaken for a rural area of North America. This is due not only to the realistic textures of the terrain, but also the familiar trees, plants, and mushrooms that populate the land. Beautiful games are usually strongly stylistic, but Oblivion is much more subtle – it offers less a style than a magnified version of reality. The familiarity of real-world plants in Oblivion provides the player a deeper level of immersion and makes the fantastical elements of the game that much more striking.
As an amateur mycologist, discovering so many lovingly rendered mushrooms in a videogame was the ultimate Easter egg – a secret tribute to the world of fungus in the last place I expected to find it. While A. muscaria is not surprising to stumble across in a videogame – a casual look through your grandmother’s kitchen might turn up red-and-white A. muscaria salt shakers or a badly painted wooden sign with its likeness – the inventory of mushrooms in Oblivion extends beyond the common species to include varieties like the Tinder Polypore and the Bog Beacon, a tiny mushroom found on rotting leaves. Some of these were uncommon enough that I had to look them up in my Audubon guide to confirm their existence.
I’ve loved videogames since my misspent youth in front of a Commodore 64. By comparison, mushroom hunting has been a relatively recent activity, one I’ve only taken up in the last 10 years. It’s a niche hobby, and one that will likely be viewed with suspicion if you bring it up in conversation. Excepting scenes of psychedilia, it’s rare to see mushrooms portrayed in media, especially in the array and detail found in Oblivion.
Noah Berry, an artist at Bethesda, said that using real-world plants was entirely in keeping with the Elder Scrolls series. “Personally, I’ve always found that some of the most vivid and absorbing fantasy worlds – in fiction, film or in games – have familiar elements operating as touchstones for the participant. Even if they only register on a subconscious level, the more realistic trappings can provide contextual grounding for the player.”
Hunting for mushrooms requires knowledge and attentiveness – they’re often incredibly habitat specific, growing only with certain trees and then only at certain times of year. One quickly becomes aware of the multitude of microclimates in the forest: small mossy areas, dry spots, rotting wood. Sometimes the presence of mushrooms can be as simple as enough dew forming in a spot; other times the conditions may be perfect but the mushrooms will not appear. This uncertainty lends a treasure-hunt quality to mushroom picking; the next patch of mushrooms could always be right around the bend. And the attention it demands comes as a relief, taking you outside your ordinary thoughts and worries and making you more mindful of your environment.
Once you lay your hands on a mushroom, you must identify it. Although this can be a complex and sometimes maddening task, it’s not fundamentally different from how Oblivion presents it: You wander around the woods, look for specific environments and learn to recognize a particular mushroom by examining its appearance and surroundings. Any gamer that has spent hours building their character in Oblivion could likely identify A. muscaria (known in Oblivion as Fly Agaric) instantly.
There is a form of learning here, a passive and much more subtle transmission of knowledge than that of a game like Carmen Sandiego, which presents you with facts and then offers rote memory quizzes as barriers to further play. Picking mushrooms in Oblivion is optional, immersive and rewarding. The knowledge gained is imprecise but nonetheless useful; playing Oblivion can broadly inform players about mushrooms in the same way that playing GTA IV can impart players with a general layout of New York. Although knowledge of plants and mushrooms is not likely to be of use to most people, this passive pedagogy presents intriguing possibilities for how learning in games can be structured.
The mycologist in me would love to see even more realism in Oblivion‘s fungi. While I’m aware I’m in the minority in finding excitement in an ultra-realistic mushroom-hunting game, I see no reason why the mushrooms in Oblivion could not hew even closer to reality. Why not assign poisonous mushrooms damage-dealing properties or allow players to ingest edible mushrooms for a small health boost? In a world as similar to our own as Tamriel, why not have the mushrooms appear in the same micro-environments they do in the real world? Doing so would only increase the realistic backdrop of the game.
Of course, this level of detail requires prerequisite knowledge by the designers and would strain an already massive development effort. The designers must draw the line somewhere. Ultimately, the plants in Oblivion are a backdrop in service of the gameplay – namely, advancing through various quests and battles to save Tamriel. “If we want the player to feel more ‘at home’ or safe, or comfortable with their surroundings, we might model something very close to reality. Conversely, if we want to whisk them away to a far off place, or if we want to make them fell slightly ill at ease, we might err on the side of the fantastical,” says Berry.
Although influencing the atmosphere of the environment is a fine and effective use of real-world models, I wonder what the result would be if instead of spurious narratives (anyone else tired of saving the world?) games drew from the much stranger realities of biology and science for inspiration, not just a backdrop. Mushrooms alone contain a diverse and startling world wide enough to support any number of science-fiction-like narratives. Take Cordyceps, a fungus that not only infests and kills ants and small bugs, but also causes them to climb to the top of nearby plants before they die so that the wind can spread its spores.
There may be little overlap between mushroom hunting and gaming, but they share a paradoxical nature: They are both viewed as diversions, and the knowledge gained from either pursuit rarely has any application outside of itself. Both can easily suck hours (or years) from your life and are thought of as at best a quirky habit, or at worst as a total waste of time. Yet both also offer a sense of immediacy that we rarely experience in our day-to-day lives. They are escapes, yes, but they free us from the prisons of ourselves and return us to the unmediated present. Whether this escape happens in the blue phosphorescence of a cave in Oblivion or a moss-covered forest in Washington State, I never feel I’m wasting time.
Zach Miller is a Seattle-based writer, poet and mushroom hunter who is currently working on a children’s novel. He may be contacted at quietsputnik[at]yahoo[dot]com.