You can never have your first few hours with a game back.
In that precious window, you're still coming to bear with the world around you and the mechanisms through which you interact with it. Your perceptions and understanding of both are still malleable. They're soft, wet clay that hardens bit by bit the more you play with it, the more shape you give it. And when a game is special to us, when it strikes us in a certain way or at a certain time and resonates, those first few hours can feel so significant in retrospect.
The drive to recapture a feeling of novelty within the beloved is common in gaming. Nostalgia fuels an abundance of projects and purchases; Kickstarter campaigns promise to evoke preciously-held games with injections of fresh material, franchises beget sequel after sequel, spiritual successors and pale imitations.
You don't have to have grown up with a game to want to relive that early period of discovery, either. Every now and then I find myself watching the pre-release trailers for some of my favorite games in recent memory, the ones I followed most closely, and I remember—or try to remember—what it felt like to launch that game for the first time, to pass my first few hours in it, to slowly unravel and to understand what it contained.
Those trailers can still give me shivers, and I can still replay the intro with fondness and interest, but it ends there. The old never becomes new again.
Five years since its release, most of us have impressions of Skyrim that have hardened. They're not immutable, exactly, but the experience of starting again will never feel quite like that first time. Even when playing with mods that change your starting location, overhaul the graphics, or alter core systems, the familiarity remains. You can gouge at the clay, but that underlying form will always be recognizable. You put countless hours into both making and mapping it.
That is, for me, the most significant thing that Enderal (an overhaul mod for Skyrim to end all overhaul mods) offers. It's not an add-on to the Elder Scrolls universe. Instead, it's a completely original world, and although it reuses a great number of assets from Skyrim, there are countless new, purpose-built assets as well.
For every familiar-looking enemy mesh or building, there's something completely unique, some unfamiliar puzzle, new characters to meet, new stories to tell. You get these moments of recognition, but they're fleeting. They fade into the background because the context has changed, and that recognizable element is nested in a room you've never seen, or speaking in a voice you've never heard.
It's deja vu: the RPG.
As someone who has made countless Skyrim characters over the years, what sticks with me most is just how precious items felt during my first hours with Enderal.
That was pretty much the opposite of what I expected when I installed the mod and booted one of my most played games on Steam. In Skyrim, the game's introduction practically pelts you with all the weapons and armor you can carry, and all it takes to kit a new character out in something superior is remembering where a particularly good cache is.
Then you start to feel spoiled. You can go from zero to head-to-toe enchantments quickly if you know where to look, but by virtue of presenting a completely new world, Enderal deprives you of the crutch a veteran player might instinctively lean on. The first fully-clothed and lootable corpse I found felt like some divine gift, and although they're far more common from that point forward, that feeling—of stumbling onto something very special—stayed novel.
It also introduces a few features that make even the most common items more valuable. Cheese, bread, potatoes, they've all saved my life. Healing potions and spells are abundant, but they raise your Fever level, an ailment that afflicts magically sensitive individuals (even those who don't go out of their way to wield spells) in Enderal's universe. Visiting magical sites will also raise your fever, though the items there tend to be worth the risk.
Healing potions are seemingly everywhere, but it's harder to find fever reducers. This means that food items, even a few apples or bits of cheese, are vastly more significant than the inventory clutter they became in Skyrim because they can be used to heal without worsening your fever.
Skyrim never made me feel like engaging with food and cooking was necessary, even though some domestic and mundane part of me wanted to, and it was one of the first things I modded back when I was playing regularly. That Enderal addresses that without tacking on traditional (and overdone) survival mechanics is a big part of what keeps these particular systems feeling fresh.
In some ways Enderal is not quite as tight as the Bethesda-built world it rests on, but in some crucial ways it's improved. Enderal offers a world that is a little more compact and purposeful than Skyrim's.
There is a kind of fatigue that can come from an open world that seems boundless and half-random, with only handfuls of more deliberate vignette points scattered throughout. Within Enderal, a much higher percentage of the world feels significant. That might be a direct result of its slightly toned-down scope and scale, but that doesn't hurt it. Things feel placed with particular care, less to fill in the empty gaps between key points.
It's hard to pin down how playing Enderal felt for me after 200+ hours with Skyrim (and probably just as many mods) beyond returning to that idea of clay. If I didn't have such a daunting backlog already, the biggest selling point might be that it provides an original and reasonably large RPG—100% free—by plugging into an existing, popular game.
It's robust in its own right, but there's more. Enderal is just barely recognizable as Skyrim. That lump of clay is almost as good as fresh again, waiting to be reshaped with only the barest of old tool marks set in it. You can never have your first few hours with a game back, but with Enderal I got far closer than expected.