I was feeling miserable earlier this week. When writing about video games is your day job, it can be hard to take pleasure in them, especially as the pressure to churn out articles on the newest releases can suck all the fun out of them. So, I downloaded Skyrim‘s Anniversary edition on my PS5, more as a cry for help than anything else, and I happily discovered an entirely new game.
After busting out of Helgen with Ralof (you’d never catch me chumming up to the people who just tried to behead me), I was met with a menu I’d never seen before: did I want to enable survival mode?
Much like Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim now has a built-in hardcore mode. It disables fast travel and automatic health regeneration, adds the need to manage hunger, warmth, and fatigue, and makes it so you can only level up when you sleep. Because the mods on PS5 are crap due to a lack of script-editing capabilities, I decided to give it a go. It completely changed the way I play.
I always take on the Bleak Falls Barrow quest to return the Golden Claw to Riverwood. It’s a nice way to refamiliarize myself with the controls, and it works well with the little story I tell myself as I roleplay. It’s normally a simple little quest. Just walk up the path, take out a few bandits and draugr, and then it’s back to Riverwood for a hero’s welcome. In Survival mode, this is not the case.
Even the simplest excursions require proper planning now. Am I going through a cold area? If so, I should travel during the day when it’s warmest. But I play a stealth archer because I’m a basic bitch, so this makes combat trickier. I also need to pack food because a rumbling tummy will alert enemies (being hungry actually does reduce your sneaking skills).
I immediately noticed in Bleak Falls Barrow that restoration magic became a necessity. Survival mode also halves carrying capacity, so you can’t just schlep a load of potions around; you’ve got to be able to heal yourself. I normally ignore this skill tree, so it was fun to find a fresh way to play a 12-year-old game.
By the time I got to the draugr boss at the end of the dungeon, it actually felt like a boss battle. Normally, I’d just save a level-up so I could heal mid-fight, but you can only level up when you sleep in Survival mode, so I was battling this thing at level one. On top of that, fatigue, hunger, and cold all combined to reduce my total health, stamina, and magicka, lowering the regeneration rate of the latter two.
Survival mode turned what’s been a cakewalk for 12 years into a real challenge, and every dungeon boss I’ve fought since has been similarly tense. It also makes the journey back to base tricky. You used to be able to just fast-travel once a dungeon was cleared, but not anymore.
After freeing Thorald from the Thalmor in Missing in Action, I had to flee across the icy wastes of Haafingar and was nearly killed by exposure. I started the rescue mission tired, as I didn’t rest in Solitude after the carriage from Whiterun. That was my first mistake. The horse I stole and left nearby as a getaway car ran off—mistake number two. I ran out of potions, my magicka had been cut in half, and my health was slowly being chipped away by the cold.
I’d used up all my supplies after a tough battle with a High-Elf torturer, and all the nearby caves were infested with ice wolves, frost trolls, and Falmer, I couldn’t catch a break. What I first thought was just a unique cave effect turned out to be a Survival mode quirk: My vision blurred due to tiredness. Being slowed by the cold and blinded by fatigue made me feel like I was really going to die out in the frozen wilds of Skyrim…
Luckily, I stumbled to Dragon Bridge and crashed at the inn, but the experience showed me the journey home can be even more treacherous than the mission itself. I gave my Dragonborn a well-deserved 18-hour sleep and filled their belly with vegetable soup before heading back to Whiterun.
Because of these new difficulties in adventuring, Skyrim actually feels like the oppressive environment NPCs always touted it to be. I’ve been forced to adapt or die, and it’s made me play in a more thoughtful manner than I ever have before. Before I go on any mission, I make sure I’ve slept, packed food, and planned a route that should keep me as warm as possible.
A pleasant consequence of this is I’ve been a lot more engaged with the towns, villages, and cities I’ve stayed in. Because of the drastically reduced carrying capacity in Survival mode, I can’t just loot everything to pay for my escapades and become obscenely rich in an instant. I need to use (or pilfer) the resources around me.
I’ve robbed farms for food, stolen gold out of lockboxes just so I can afford to buy potions, and taken up alchemy so I can make potions instead and sell them for a profit. It also turns out a lot of the farmers around Whiterun will actually buy the produce you take from their fields, so I accidentally discovered a lucrative side hustle as a cabbage farmer.
After 12 years, Skyrim has never felt this fresh. I’m someone who gets incredibly bogged down in crafting the perfectly modded experience on PC, so it’s been delightful to have the vanilla game offer such a new experience. I think it’s time I moved on from Whiterun and restored the Thieves Guild to its former glory in Riften. All those B&Es I’ll have to commit across the nine holds will be a lot more time-consuming since I have to go everywhere by foot and carriage, though.