Imagine a world. Imagine a world where the crunch of frosted grass beneath your feet exists within its own vacuum of peaceful silence. The skies swirl with clouds on the horizon, portending rain in the night to come. The tall evergreens sway gently overhead as you reach the top of the rise and look down upon the land below you—all the world holding its breath, waiting.
Then a cave bear roars and you find yourself knocked down by a quarter of your health. Such is the way of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, yet you wouldn’t know this from looking at the box cover. The game’s title and logo are metallic against a visual texture simulacrum of an old leather book, its edges adorned simply with runes. The design is beautiful, and it does not fail to evoke a sense of curiosity, yet it suggests no indication of the game itself; rather, it invites the viewer to attribute their own meaning to it, though they may not be familiar with the game, nor the series from which it hails, nor even with the art style or creative choices presented by the cover—a premise not unknown to Sonja K. Foss, author of Defining Visual Rhetorics. As she expounds, “Visual rhetoricians are interested in the impact of symbols on lay viewers—viewers who do not have technical knowledge in areas such as design, art history, aesthetics, or art education” (306).
Each person who views the Skyrim cover experiences it in a different manner, as each person maintains their own “conceptual lens” of perspective; the response to the image is based on the viewer’s “experiences and knowledge, developed from living and looking at the world” (Foss 306). If, however, we alter the cover, we may give the viewer additional context—evidence, one might say, which the viewer may use to estimate the purpose of the design as intended by the designer.
In the first alternative cover I designed, I wished to embrace the vastness of Skyrim; therefore, I broke through the cover, demonstrating the world beyond, while keeping enough of it hidden that the senses of wonder and curiosity would remain. I kept the title in the same style as well, as I wished to pay homage to its ubiquitous quality as the Skyrim font, particularly after making the decision to incorporate the original cover into my design. Though I could not discover the designer of the Skyrim box art, nor those for the other games in the series, there is a common form that nearly all of them share: a symbol prominent on a plain background, with signs of wear and small runes bordering it, redolent of a well-read old tome—the implication being one of mystery and adventure in a fantastic world of a time long past. It has become a staple of the series, and a far cry from much fantasy cover art over many genres, which tend to emphasize a hero or monster. Here, the story is the theme.
This alternate cover design I provide expands upon the story, showing a glimpse into its setting, even providing subtle hints to those lore-buffs who are shrewd enough to catch them. It is less abstract than the original, yes, but by no means is it concrete. Though my intent was to demonstrate (or at least tease) the expansiveness of the world, it remains up to the viewer how to interpret it; a person more familiar with the game’s lore may, for example, recognize the symbol of the Imperial Legion bursting with flame, and thus associate the cover art with war (which is indeed a major aspect of the game). Despite allowing less room for interpretation than the original design, it still communicates abstract concepts in a way often foreign to typical discourse. As Foss states,
Exactly what the message is of an artifact is often open to myriad interpretations, limiting its persuasive potential but expanding its potential to communicate functions that may be less dominating and more invitational (Foss and Griffin), more eclectic, and more fragmented. Study of the visual, then, may help move rhetorical theory away from a focus on changing others to attention to a much broader array of functions for symbols and thus to a greater understanding of the infinitely varied actions that symbols can and do perform for audiences. (309)
In order to further experiment with the cover and explore the effects of alternative artifacts, I created a second cover, vastly different from the first and from the original Skyrim art. This version places a focus on the main character—the Dragonborn—as shown in the trailers for the game (though the player can customize this character to fit nearly any appearance). Above this figure, cloaked in shadow (artificially darkened), rises Alduin the World Eater, primary antagonist of Skyrim and intensely shiver-inspiring dragon. Fire arises from the Dragonborn’s shoulders, simultaneously representing the flames of anger and determination, as well as visually separating the character from the shadowy form behind him, providing a contrast for ease of viewing. The backdrop in this version is noticeably darker and less saturated with color than the one used in the previous version, emphasizing a darkness meant to be set aright. Once more, I maintained the same font for the title, but in this case, I layered it over the top of a darker shade of itself, with bluish smoke to complement the fire. Finally, a wafting billow of smoke obscurs Alduin’s and the Dragonborn’s lower halves, tying them into the desaturated background and adding an air of intensity, much as the obscurring fog in a horror movie adds to the suspense.
I believe that my alternate versions of the box art are no match for the symbolic power, nor the sundry subtle capacities communicated by the original. My interpretations are more direct, thus providing more context to the viewer at the cost of limiting the possible inferences that can be made from it. However, I also believe that there may exist some viewers who prefer one or both of my versions, who can interpret the their facets similarly well, and who can delve into their symbolism with equal enthusiasm. That is the true beauty of both art and its interpretation—the essences of visual rhetoric.