A former Skyrim developer has explained why players have spent almost ten years arguing over whether or not foxes lead the dovahkiin to treasure troves.
If you're not familiar with "the myth of the treasure fox," as developer Joel Burgess dubs the phenomenon, it stems from players in the early days of the game (opens in new tab) claiming that if you stumble across one of the creatures, you should follow it. Pursue it far enough, those players allege, and it'll eventually lead you to an undiscovered location that you can loot for a tidy profit.
Among Skyrim players, you'll occasionally see this tip: if you see a wild fox, follow it and you'll be led to treasure.Sometime shortly after shipping, we saw this going around online, and an informal investigation started. Who made foxes do this?!August 18, 2021
According to Burgess, that line of thinking is only half-true. As Bethesda started noticing increasing numbers of players talking about 'treasure foxes', the studio began to investigate where this behaviour might have stemmed from. Nobody had deliberately scripted this behaviour, so where was it coming from?
The answer lay in the game's AI navigation. Skyrim uses a system called 'navmesh', "an invisible 3D sheet of polygons that is laid over the world, telling AI where it can and cannot go." Once an NPC had decided what action it wanted to take, it would use navmesh to make a path to allow it to take that action. Foxes, with their relatively simple AI, can only run away from the player, but they still use navmesh to do so.
In Skyrim's grand open wilderness, the navmesh is very simple - very few triangles (the basic shape used to construct more complex, in-game shapes) are needed to create a field with a few rocks and trees. By contrast, significantly more triangles are required to build a point of interest like a camp or a homestead.
In the real world, a fox might try to put as much distance as possible between itself and a potential predator, but in Skyrim, Burgess explains that "the fox isn't trying to get 100 metres away - it's trying to get 100 *triangles* away." That's hard work out in the empty tundra, so a pathfinding fox will make a beeline for more complex areas, which Bethesda filled with treasure to encourage players to explore. That means that "foxes aren't leading you to treasure - but the way they behave is leading them to areas that tend to HAVE treasure."
Earlier this week, another former dev outlined how a single bee almost ruined the game's iconic opening scene, and Burgess' story is yet another example of the fascinating development process behind Skyrim. Even if it's not great news for the foxes.
Want a brand-new experience, ten years on? Here's our list of the best Skyrim mods.