I have so many problems with Skyrim, but there’s still something compelling about it. Maybe the simple act of trudging through an expansive wilderness, replete with ancient ruins to explore, is enough to carry all its weaker elements.
Well, whatever — the legendary game that has been re-released more times than you’ve had hot dinners is at it again, and has finally appeared DRM-free on gog. I have to admit, this is the signal I’ve been waiting for to give it another go; I didn’t get all the expansion packs the first time around (only Dragonborn), and nor have I seen the visual upgrades of the Special Edition or the reams of “Creation Club” micro-packs that came after that.
Here we go again…
Surviving Skyrim (Anniversary Edition)
I will say, off the bat, it immediately feels more colourful. All of my memories of Skyrim are of it being washed-out, desaturated, everything compressed into hues of brown and grey. But as the sun emerges over your cart of prisoners in the intro, the sky is blue and trees are green — it’s pretty! And it’s running on maximum quality settings because even my 3-8-year-old PC is good enough for maximum Skyrim! So that’s a real plus for the Special Edition upgrade.
On escaping the burning ruins of Helgen, my journey began with an unfamiliar question: “Do you want to enable Survival Mode?”
I actually pondered this for a while. Traditionally I’m not that interested in Survival Modes, figuring they add too much boring bookkeeping and frustration rather than interesting challenges… But as we all know, there comes a time in an Elder Scrolls game when you’re an invincible demigod and you’re just running through dungeons catapulting enemies into oblivion. Maybe some extra twists could blunt that meteoric rise to invincibility? Maybe some limits could force my wanderings to be more considered and therefore interesting?
Another thought clinched it: maybe these changes could push me out of my comfort zone, and stop me from falling into the same bits of the game I always see. You can’t Smith your way to ascendancy if you can hardly carry the materials home, right?
Only one way to find out!
Survival Mode mostly remixes existing mechanics, so it fits in very snugly. It adds Hunger, which erodes your maximum Stamina as you get peckish. It adds tiredness, which erodes your maximum Magicka the longer you stay up past bed-time. Finally, it adds Cold, which erodes your maximum Health if you don’t wrap up warm. These states also have some impact on regeneration of said meters, but the objective is clear: you want to stop yourself from getting too tired, cold or hungry (and in the game).
These three riffs seem blindingly obvious in hindsigh. Beds, resting and food already existed in the game, but were effectively optional. Sure, resting at home got you a wee buff, but you could live without it; and sure, food restored a bit of health and stamina, but you also had potions for that. Now regular sleep and filling your belly are necessities distinct from other gameplay mechanics.
Coldness is more fresh, though it’s still perfectly intuitive. Climb a freezing mountain peak in a blizzard and you’ll surely catch a chill; stand next to a campfire (or a blacksmith’s forge!) and you’ll start to warm up again. Some foods that contain a sprinkling of Fire Salts can restore warmth too, though I feel like this is a missed opportunity — where’s my Cooking skill/perk tree where the best foods are gated by my progress and maturity, just like Smithing?
Speaking of Smithing, coldness is also impacted by your clothing, and I actually think this is another missed opportunity. Clothing provides more insulation on the same trajectory as the tiers of defence — Steel armour is warmer than Iron is warmer than Fur and so on. Yes, wait a second — Iron plate mail provides more warmth than Fur? Why not set the warmth of armour on an alternative line, so you have to make a choice between wearing the most protective armour versus the warmest clothing depending on where you’re going that day? This could be a delicious way to keep the low-tier armour relevant for… well, the entre rest of the game!
Honestly I think the best part of the triad of Survival meters is that they can creep up on you. While hunger is easily satiated by the commesurate kleptomaniac who has instinctively raided every larder, solutions to coldness and tiredness can be harder to come by as you wander further afield.
Tiredness in particular is hard to counteract, because you can only sleep on specific beds. You might start a day having got a full night’s sleep at home, but by the time you’ve reached a dungeon and got half-way down it, you might be starting to worry about finding somewhere to crash. Another twist is that in Survival Mode you also need to rest in order to level up — yes, I have managed to go long enough without sleep that I’ve levelled up twice on finally flopping down on a pile of hay.
And then, ah yes, there is travel. That’s another seismic shift — because Survival Mode disables Fast Travel.
I had mixed thoughts going into this. Morrowind did not have Fast Travel at all and I think it’s a much better game for it, but it had alternatives: Vvardenfell had a vibrant public transport network of boats, Silt Striders, Mages’ Guild teleporters and even ancient Dunmer Propylons… and that’s before we mention the spellcasting options, Divine and Almnsivi Intervention and the Mark and Recall spells (or, indeed, the Athletics skill tree that let you run like the wind). Meanwhile, Skyrim has… the carts between the major towns. It’s so obviously a game designed around having Fast Travel available.
Maybe it’s still too early to say, but surprisingly, it’s holding up a lot better than I expected. For a start, the carts between major cities are no longer single-use things that get you to the Fast Travel marker for the first time and are never touched again, and have become regular lifelines. And I never bothered with horses at all before, but with miles of manual travel to undertake on any given adventure, suddenly I am using them (though they keep dying so I guess I’d better start buying Horse Armour).
The other aspect is that it’s very easy to just blast all over the world with Fast Travel, missing out on all the serendipitous stuff that just happens along the roads. Travelling caravans. A Vigilant of Standarr shanking a daedra. Hunters attacking deer. Bandits being merked by wild horses. The more you walk, the more of this stuff you see that makes the place feel less like a theme park and more like a… well, world. It absolutely is time consuming, but I rush too much so — for the moment at least — I’m inclined to chalk all this enforced wandering up as a Good Thing.
(Also you will also soon realise that the game isn’t as “big” as it looks, and most journeys are over in perfectly reasonable time. On the other hand, I could swear they’ve increased the sprinting speed.)
And it has forced me out of my comfort zone. Survival Mode’s final, brutal change is that it clamps down on carrying capacity, so I’ve had to commit heinous crimes like wearing Light Armour so I’ve got more space for precious loot — and having Lydia sworn to carry my burdens is another necessity rather than a luxury.
So I’m actually happy with Survival Mode. I’m more than happy, in fact — I think it’s a no-brainer that should well have been there from the start. It’s not that it adds anything new exactly, more that it gives a whole heap of previously decorative features some actual significance. Beds. Food. Travelling.
Ultimately, you can no longer gloss over so much of the world, and yes, I think forcing engagement with all these little bitties really does make Skyrim a stronger game. While previously it was so frictionless as to dissolve into a bland soup, the addition of just enough resistance through Survival Mode makes it a whole lot more engaging.