There are lots of survival games, but there are also lots of games which could be survival games with the right mods installed. Over the course of Survival Week we'll highlight a few of those games and i)write a diary of our experience playing with it ii) explain how to do it yourself.
I found Meeko sitting by the side of the road. He is one of Skyrim’s shaggy, grey wolfhounds that look as old as they do stupid. He saw me, turned around and ran into the thicket. I followed him through the trees, where he led me to a run-down shack. I looked inside and there, lying still and grey on the shed’s single rickety bed, was Meeko’s owner. He was dead. The mongrel looked to me, blinked in the cold and seemed to whine. All right then, I thought, you can follow me. It was a decision I never came to regret. Later on, Meeko killed a lot of people for me.
But more importantly, Meeko kept me warm in Skyrim’s deadly mountain passes. One of the mods I have installed is Frostfall, which gives the player a few extra things to worry about. Exposure can leave you freezing to death, while being wet means you succumb to the cold even faster. You have to keep yourself warm at fires and fill up on hot soups to keep your ‘exposure meter’ from dropping too low. Once, I tried to swim across a small, icy river and before I could get a fire going on the opposite shore I passed out from hypothermia. I woke up in a familiar inn, penniless, frostbitten and with this note in my pocket.
That’s Frostfall. Anyway, one of the lesser-known features of the mod is the effect companions have. You see, just travelling with a friend actually makes you feel warmer. In the wilds, Meeko the dog would sleep at the end of my bedroll and he really would keep my feet warm. That’s why having him around was so great. That’s why I was sad when he died.
Let’s go back. It was day one of our trip around Skyrim and the snow was falling lightly. I knew it was falling lightly because that’s what the latest Frostfall notification told me. “Light snow begins to fall,” it said. I was planning to do a circuit of Tamriel’s vast winterland by visiting each of the province’s four Orc strongholds, where I knew I would be welcome (I had been made an honourary Orc in one of these fortresses already, the remaining three were my destination). I was not going to use fast travel (I have disabled it with Frostfall) and I was not going to travel by horse or wagon. It was just me and Meeko and our own six feet.
I was also not the Dragonborn. Just an outlaw from a two-bit band of ambitionless thugs. The use of another mod has allowed me to follow a new life and live in a Skyrim without Dragons or Shouts. That might seem stupid to some people, but if I’m going to turn my game into the story of one dashingly average rogue, his loyal canine friend, and their survival against the elements, I don’t want everyone to keep calling said rogue by a stupid nickname. Besides, the name I have chosen is much better. (It’s ‘Muldoon’).
So there we were, sitting in Solitude, getting ready for our big adventure. I crafted all the things we would need to keep us warm and well-kept. A cloak, a tanning rack, a tent and sleeping bag, a walking stick, a torch, a lantern. I’ve also got 6 pieces of emergency firewood and a bunch of food and wine (alcohol temporarily staves off the cold). The gates of Solitude opened wide and we, the happy adventurers, were on our way. We were not long on the road when we stumbled on a ransacked caravan, complete with husband and wife corpse combo. In hindsight, this should have given Meeko and I the foreshadowing we needed to avoid what happened next. But no. We were not very good at divining cadavers.
The faithful animal companion of Hollywood always dies at the end of the movie, to popcorn-flavoured tears. The animal familiar of literature always dies during some climactic moment of judgement and sacrifice, in passages blazing with meaning and symbolism. Meeko died on the first day of a 10-day journey, after I accidentally skewered him with my scimitar. He had charged into Robber’s Gorge -- a camp of bandits -- and, in my hurry to keep by his side, I ran into the fray swinging extra hard, slicing not only his attacker but the dog’s own flank too. He flumped to the ground and I froze. Meeko was dead and I had not even travelled a mile. I frowned. And then I murdered the rest of the bandits.
I could have stopped and reloaded an earlier save, reanimating the mutt and trying to pretend nothing had ever happened. But imagine it. Every time those big, old eyes would have looked up at me I would have known. I would have turned away in loathing, hating this creature, this imposter, this Meeko 2.0. Who could face that? This is Survival Skyrim now, Muldoon. You have to live with the consequences. I left the bandit camp and carried on. The road ahead was lonely (and colder) for the loss of my friendly hound. I took step after lacklustre step until, thinking it would help ward off loneliness, I had the idea to keep a journal of all my encounters. This journal ended up 22 pages long. So for the sake of brevity, levity and sanity, I will inflict you only with this extract.
- The fish soup has cured me of my illnesses. I leave town without even speaking to anyone. Sweet dreams, Dawnstar! On the road out, the Frostfall notification tells me of incoming weather fronts. It reads: “A furious snowstorm draws near.” It’s probably nothing.
- Attacked by more wolves.
- An Old Orc stands in the blizzard by the roadside surrounded by bear carcasses. He complains about wanting a “good death”. In Orc society, simply laying down to die is dishonourable and pathetic. You must die in a good fight. And since I am an honourary Orc, I understand his request. We fight and he dies well. Praise Malacath, Orc brother! You have made your tribe proud this day! I stoop down and take his gold.
- I am freezing again, with snow-blinded vision. But the Nightgate Inn materialises on the roadside. I’m glad to see the innkeeper, but not so glad that I don’t steal all the potions in the building. The only thing I buy is some more Fish Soups. I warm myself by the fire and then leave.
- Attacked by wolves.
- I drink some wine to keep my body warm (but not too much). Soon I find a pitched tent and a crackling campfire by a picturesque waterfall. Ah, the great outdoors!
If you plan to make a similar journey with these mods (see this article) I can tell you that your two best friends in all of Skyrim will be Fire and Fish Soup. Unless you have a dog by your side, in which case, you will have three best friends.
When I arrived in Riften, late at night on my fourth day of travel, I got horrendously drunk. The Realistic Needs and Diseases mod which governs your hunger, thirst, tiredness and illnesses, also tracks how much alcohol you consume. I went into the Bee and Barb, Riften’s scummy tavern, and drank. I drank until the people said I looked ill. I drank until the room looked like the inside of a bottle of Irn Bru.
I passed out for four hours and came to again, only to find everyone else still supping. I went outside to get some fresh air but, obviously, the town was under attack by vampires. I fell over on my way back into the inn.
The next morning I woke up thirsty, famished and unable to move. My hangover had combined with some Bone Break Fever I had neglected, and this created a crippling disease that left me too aching to carry anything. I gulped down some fish soup, which struck me as a terrible hangover cure, and went outside. A courier handed me a note. It was Mid-Year Day. Unable to face another night of debauchery, I left town and carried on my Gran Torino of Orc strongholds.
By the sixth day I had made it to Falkreath and there was only one Orc stronghold I hadn’t visited. (The stronghold of Largushbur was wet and under a giant’s siege. The stronghold of Narzulbur is unremarkable and easily robbed). I estimated one or two days more travel and that would be it. I didn’t count on meeting Barbas.
I had been actively avoiding quests and favours the whole way along my journey. Laughing in the faces of the citizens of Dawnstar, scoffing at the requests of Riften reprobates. But when talk of a dog hanging around the road outside Falkreath reaches my ears, I am hooked. Part of me foolishly thinks Meeko might still be alive. But of course, it is just Barbas. I didn’t remember him from my first dander through Skyrim’s frosty wastes. So to meet a dog that looked identical to my old friend Meeko was a nice surprise. The only difference with Barbas is that he...er… well, he talks. He is a lost pet, the wiseass dog of demon fame, who wants to go on a little quest to be reunited with his old master -- a daedra called Clavicus Vile. I cannot refuse. What can I say? I am a sucker for those stupid dog eyes.
Twenty-four hours later and I am stumbling back into Falkreath, exhausted, hungry, cold and riddled with mild vampirism. Barbas’ master did not want him back. Instead, he asked us to go on some ridiculous journey halfway across the province. As much as I love these dumb hounds, I was not getting THAT sidetracked. With fast travel off, that is a whole other adventure. The good news? Barbas is still by my side and will be until either I ask him to leave or until the daedra’s quest is done. (I will never do this quest).
The final Orc stronghold, Dushnik Yal, lies another day to the west. Recovering at Falkreath for the night, I have time to think. The first time I played through Skyrim, I did not have half as good a time. The survival mods add so much that I would petition for any Elder Scrolls lover to try them out. But what I think really improves the game is the restriction on fast travel. In vanilla Skyrim, when somebody gave me a quest, I would instantly accept and, without thinking, just teleport to wherever. I rarely cared about what I was doing (the amount of dry characters don’t help much) and I was running on the fumes of an XP binge. In this run-through, however, when I am asked to do a quest I do the following things:
Back out of the conversation
Take a look at my map
Are you fucking joking?
Okay. Okay. Deep breath.
I’ll do it.
It feels momentous, looking at the distance between places and knowing that it will be a long slog there and back, through the cold. Instead of a videogame hop, skip and jump, it becomes a proper journey. An actual quest. I can look at Barbas’ moronic doggy face and know that the detour to the cave full of vampires was worth it.
Two nights later, the hound and I are standing in the Orc stronghold of Dushnik Yal. The longhouse fire blazes and the Orcs have all drawn their weapons. I have just punched the Chieftain's favourite wife in the face.
It started when I walked into the stronghold, soaked to the bone, and went straight into the longhouse to dry off. The wives were having an argument with the Chief over who was his favourite. I didn’t care. I spoke to a strong-looking Orc called Ghrobash the Iron Hand, who was sitting at the table and eating. He was a former traveller. “There’s a freedom the roads give you,” he said, “that the strongholds do not.” I valued this attitude and, as per Orc discourse, I insulted him. A brawl started -- only between the two of us -- and during the scuffle I accidentally swung too hard and cracked one of the Chieftain’s wives in the head. Meeko would be sad to see that, in the past ten days, my swing had not improved. The Orc tribe encircled me and I was promptly killed.
I eventually bested Ghrobash the Orc without assaulting his clansfolk and, being the honourable sort, he wanted to come with me on my journey. But according to my own Grand Tour, the journey was already over. Although, I supposed, there was one more thing I could do before I could call my own travels complete. One last stop before calling it a day.
Meeko’s burial was not going as well as I had hoped. I realised this as I was carrying his corpse out of the bandit fort where he had died ten days earlier. I dragged him unceremoniously toward the nearby river. His body swung and bobbed, and all the time his eyes were wide open, his dog face regarding me with a dumb, happy grin. When Barbas, the Orc and I had found Robber’s Gorge empty of all bandit bodies, I was worried Meeko’s body would have disappeared as well. But there it was, lying exactly where I remembered, completely alone. Barbas had sat down next to it, I like to think out of reverence. In reality, his AI follower mind did not even register his precursor’s existence. The Orc, likewise, stood idle and bored. But at least he had offered a small comment as we entered the gorge. “Smells like blood,” he said.
My first idea had been to cremate Meeko. The heat from the resultant fire would keep us from getting any colder and I would be able to say that, even in death, this faithful companion kept me warm. I dragged his body over the campfire, but of course, bodies don’t burn like that in Skyrim. It looked ridiculous. So I pulled him off again and started trekking toward the river, holding the body ahead of me, where it began to swing uncontrollably, like a heavy, furry pendulum. I soon reached the riverside, where I paused. I needed to place Meeko as close to the middle of the river as possible, so he would not fall limply on the riverbank. I reared back and swung forward before letting him go. This was supposed to give him a small measure of momentum. But this too did not go to plan.
Meeko’s body flew upwards, as if it had been volleyed from a trebuchet, and I stared in terror at his spinning, airborne corpse. Thankfully, there was still enough lateral distance to the botched throw that he ended up in the water. His body splashed into the cold and began drifting downstream, where it lodged against a rock and refused to move any further.
I sighed. Ghrobash was splashing about on the banks for no discernable reason. I decided I was not going to get another bout of frostbite trying to fish a dead dog out of a fast-flowing river, even if it was old Meeko. I went back to Robber’s Gorge to warm myself up. The journey was over. I had nothing left to do.
The sound of barking reached me and I looked to Barbas, sitting nearby. But it wasn’t him. This barking sounded fainter, further away. What the hell? I stood up and walked to the edge of the wooden palisade -- the wall the bandits had used as an archer’s post. Looking downward, into the gorge, I saw a patrol. Five Dawnguards were wandering through the pass. Among them, a single gorgeous husky. They were heavily armed but they didn’t see the need to draw their weapons.
The men and the dog passed us quietly and undisturbed, and it gave me a strange amount of satisfaction to know that, thanks to Meeko and I, that regal husky would not be attacked. They disappeared down the road and, save for the fire, everything was quiet. There were no more bandits at Robber’s Gorge.
You can read more Survival Week articles over here.