The Arctic Flora of Tamriel: Botany in Video Games

Crouched down on the hilly tundra outside Whiterun, the Dragonborn spots their quarry. No, not a dragon, nor a lumbering mammoth, but a patch of tundra cotton, swaying gently in the breeze coming down the Throat of the World.

Plants have been antagonists, useful items and scenery in video games ever since Mario jumped over his first piranha plant. As a big RPG (role-playing game) fan, more than once I’ve been caught unaware (virtually) while inspecting a digital ecosystem.

Given the recent release of Fallout 4, a highly anticipated RPG, I thought it would be fun to look at the real-world inspirations behind some of these virtual plants.

An image of tundra cotton from the video game and a photo of cottongrass plants.

Although the leaf shape indicates that tundra cotton may be a dicot (having netted leaf veins) rather than a monocot like real-world cottongrass (parallel leaf veins), the cottongrass—an iconic tundra plant—clearly inspired Elder Scrolls‘ tundra cotton. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

Skyrim takes place in the titular northern province of Tamriel, the setting for the Elder Scrolls series. Previous Elder Scrolls games have featured the fungi-dominated island of Morrowind, or the temperate, mixed-hardwood climes of Cyrodiil. In both cases, the plants in the environment help to set the mood of the game by telegraphing to players a sense of fantasy and familiarity respectively.

Skyrim is no exception—this alpine and Arctic realm features many plants that are inspired by those found in our real-world polar regions, thus adding to the realism and helping transport the player on an Arctic adventure.

A photo of a flowering plant (Castilleja sp.) and images of mountain flower from the video game.

There are striking similarities between the Castilleja species, which are found in Canada’s Arctic and alpine regions, and Skyrim‘s mountain flower. For instance, flower and bract colours are important characters in distinguishing both the real and fictional species from each other. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

Some Skyrim plant species are direct copies of their real-world counterparts, like juniper (in-game juniper) and wheat. Some, like gleamblossoms, are completely fictional. Others are re-named versions of terrestrial species; for instance, you or I may recognize snowberries as holly.

Skyrim‘s mountain flowers—very, very similar to real-world Castilleja species—are easily distinguished based on flower colour. And in the game’s universe, they are additionally differentiated by chemotaxonomy: the differences in the health effects that they impart on the player indicate that different chemicals (secondary metabolites) are produced by each species.

Just like all real-world vascular-plant species, the virtual plants of Tamriel have been placed in different environments associated with that species, which enhances the realism of the virtual ecosystem. Aspiring e-botanists will have to search high and low to find them all; don’t worry, just like with real-life floras, high-quality “dot maps” of where they are located also exist for the Elder Scrolls series.

Photos of a lichen and a moss, paired with an image of their video-game counterpart.

Even lichens (left) and mosses (right) are re-created in detail. As in real life, both organisms have ethnobotanical uses for Skyrim players. Images: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature, © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

In Fallout: New Vegas, as with the other members of the Fallout series, the player navigates the wasteland of a parallel, post-apocalyptic Earth, surviving on their wits, resourcefulness and a steady diet of (mostly) irradiated plants. Many of these plants, such as white horsenettle (Solanum elaeagnifolium; in-game plant) and barrel cactus (Ferocactus sp.; in-game plant) are real species.

Images of plants from the video game.

Fallout: New Vegas takes place in a parallel world that is based on our own. As such, two legumes that are common in the southwestern United States, pinto beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and honey locust (Prosopis glandulosa), are re-created with a high level of accuracy. Images: © Bethesda Softworks (license CC-BY-SA)

Plants populate many, many types of video games, sometimes as antagonists. While I’ve yet to see an ambulatory cactus on my field excursions, some fungal species actually do control plant hosts—not unlike the ancient Thorian in Mass Effect.

Whether friend or foe, plants will definitely find themselves in video games for a long time to come, healing player characters, being a thorn on your parties’ side, or simply providing a richer gaming experience.

Images of plants from video games.

Though they may draw on real-world inspirations, many plants in video games are completely fictional (and antagonistic), including Plants versus Zombie‘s peashooter, Final Fantasy‘s cactuar, Super Mario‘s piranha plant, and Mass Effect‘s Thorian. Images (license CC-BY-SA): © Pop Cap Games, © Square Enix, © Nintendo, © EA

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