‘Skyrim’ is a Great Survival Game, Actually

In a crowded genre of crafting and mass multiplayer chaos, ‘Skyrim’ still reigns above.

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May 5 2017, 8:00pm

All Skyrim images courtesy of Bethesda

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

We live in the era of the survival game. While the Steam tags might paint a confusing portrait of what that genre looks like, any dip into Twitch during a given weeknight gives us a pretty good idea of what the contemporary survival game looks like. The ARK: Survival Evolveds and Rusts have players enacting their wildest survivalist fantasies, and those players can create whatever they want out of the raw labor power that they put into those games.

Want to create a giant house? Put in the time and effort to create and protect it and it's yours. Want to make a giant pen for your dinosaurs? It's your week of playtime to do with whatever you see fit with. Go hog wild. Hundreds of thousands of John Lockes are logging into these servers and rendering the world sensible and usable with their raw labor. That grass isn't going to become a thatched roof by itself, after all.

I've tried many of these games, and they have yet to hook me so far. There's something in me that prefers the arcade action of Battlegrounds as opposed to the "build it and defend it" gameplay of many of these survival games. I like the idea of being a character in a difficult, violent world who is just trying to scrape by to survive.

There's something alluring about not being able to build a castle or a fort and simply having to make do with what is available. It's a fantasy of one human against the world, and if video games really do generate "power fantasies" then that is probably the most singular and prevalent one: That you or me, regular people by all accounts, could manage to make an impact in the morass that is our world despite essentially living in the ruins of the things built by those who came before us.

My lack of desire for building paired with my yearning for a semi-survival experience has led me down a number of roads to finding my perfect survival game. It's Skyrim.

Skyrim doesn't have any of the markers of a normal survival game. Unmodded, the world can barely hurt you. The harsh winters, and the snowstorms that can appear at any moment, do very little to slow you down. Your Argonian warrior won't starve to death while making the long trek between cities. A dragon might try to hunt you down, but it won't do much to get in your way the minute you turn around and begin shouting for it to die already. The game is about making the player feel like they are the dragonborn, and being the dragonborn means being a powerful person. The game doesn't want to get in the way of that.

The fan community has stepped in, of course, to generate a serious survival element in Skyrim (for the PC at least). The popular Frostfall modification adds a set of mechanics measuring wetness, coldness, and a general idea of exposure that forces the player into paying very close attention to the world around them. The blizzards are no longer just a bit of visual messiness that prevents the player from sniping enemies with a bow from 500 meters away. Instead, they become a real threat, something to run from and be pursued by.

Embracing Skyrim as a kind of survival game is mostly about making the player feel less special. By reducing the Dragonborn to just some regular human, I get a sense of what it feels like to be someone that the world wasn't made for. It's almost like a simulation of being an NPC; I'm just another robot responding to a set of circumstances that are beyond my control and my sense of place in the world.

It is a thinning of plot armor or of being special, and the popular combination of Realistic Needs and Diseases and the Hunterborn mods gets at this effectively. The former forces the player to be realistically shot-through with their relationship to the fantasy world of Tamriel, and the latter gives the player the opportunity to break down the steps and mechanics of hunting for survival.

With this combination of modifications, the player can be faced with the decision of fording a river to collect the game they have killed or making a run for it back to the closest town. The former will allow them to eat for a long time; the latter will keep them from freezing to death in their wet clothes. They have to pause—and think—and understand that they are vulnerable in that waiting.

Embracing Skyrim as a kind of survival game is mostly about making the player feel less special.

This use of Skyrim is much more interesting to me than any given play session of games in the so-called survival genre. Smacking a rock with a hammer to create the means of generating a stone wall, which then makes a house, pales in comparison to the stress of knowing that I cannot make a house in Skyrim. A campfire, sure. But to find shelter, and to therefore feel safe, I have to depend on my knowledge of the space around me, my weapons, and a little luck.

Most survival games sell themselves on your vulnerability. A dinosaur, or another player riding one, might wreck you at any moment in ARK. Some human with an assault rifle might make the choice to ruin your entire night in Rust. Beyond those factors, with specific kinds of mechanical affordances to make them happen, the games have very little surprise to them. You generate something you want to keep, and another player or a monster might sweep it away.

In Skyrim, modified into a survival arrangement, the thing that sweeps your accomplishments away is the world itself. The NPCs and stories of that world are all about its harshness, and with mods a player can experience that bitter reality, and the self-satisfaction that accompanies hardiness, themselves. It is so easy to be on the precipice of existence in a dragging battle with nature itself, and in that way, Skyrim can—almost accidentally—transcend these other games that are designed with that in mind.

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