“Running Gag” An original song by me, Paul Fidalgo.
Alright, you know, how on Saturday Night Live they tell a Joke, a lot, until it isn’t funny anymore Well that’s as good a way as any to tell You about myself and how I manage to Relate to those unfortunate enough to find Themselves involved in intimate relations with a Man who can’t assemble a coherent personality I guess that what I’m sayin’ is I’m a
Punchline A solid bit An easy laugh I can be your running gag
Hold on, I think that I just caught you crack a Smile, a ray of hope that tells me that you might look Past the crap and understand the little boy who Had a lot of trouble making friends, okay I’ll stop, you’re right, it’s probably too early to Begin to dump the bullshit that I put up with when I was twelve, but it’s kind of important if you Want to know more about me than that I’m just a
Punchline A solid bit An easy laugh I can be your running gag I’ll slay the crowds I’ll impress your mom I can be your stand-up man
And I promise not to cry In front of you
Refresh my brain, what is it we were just talking About? Oh yeah, I was going on about how I can use self-deprecating humor as a Way to hide, but we can change the subject but Before we do I just want to be clear that I am Not a nut; a little on the spectrum but I Swear it’s not something you need to be concerned About. Just keep on telling yourself that I’m just a
Punchline A solid bit An easy laugh I can be your running gag I’ll slay the crowds I’ll impress your mom I can be your stand-up man
An original song, written and performed by me, Paul.
Back when I was lonely oh I could not comprehend Why my species had decided that I was not one of them Got my diagnosis and I wrestled with my pain I made friends with my weirdness, now I’m lonely just the same
But perhaps I only serve as a reminder of the truth That not everyone is beautiful or revels in their youth And while no one will admit it we all feel it in our guts That while all the pieces fit so nicely All I do is jut
I don’t know who to talk to and I don’t know who to trust Though I’ve tried to imitate the moves the TV said I must The glow from my small candle tells the world what I’m about But its light reflects and redirects to something sticking out
Now I try to take into account my old proclivity To presume that anybody’s given any thought to me And I know that to all thoughts of hope my mind has long since shut But that filthy fucking fact remains that All I do is jut
Like a sore thumb
Now I’m a tolerable person, by now I’m sure you’ve found And you can have a beer with me when there’s no one else around But I will understand it when your real friends arrive If you excuse yourself politely and pretend I’m not alive
I could be a great companion, and a true friend to you all But no one responds to questions or will answer when I call Oh how much I’d love to reach out and pull myself out of this rut But your averted gaze confirms that All I do is jut
I must confess (though to do so is to slash At my own grapevines), we poets often do Great harm to ourselves — for instance, when you’re weary And distracted and we bother you with our poems; Or when our feelings are hurt because a friend Is brave enough to criticize so much As a single line; when, uninvited to do so, We recite all over again a poem or passage, One of our own, that we’d just got through reciting; When we lament the fact that people never Notice how hard we work to create our poems, So finely drawn, so elegantly spun out; And when we hope that the very minute you hear That we are poets you will summon us Into your presence, command us to write poems, And forbid us to be poor.
– Horace (as translated by David Ferry)
Gods want offerings. In almost every myth, in almost every religion, the gods desire offerings from humans, and usually they are expected to give something in return. They don’t always, but that’s those mysterious gods for you. Whether they’re the human-like gods of Olympus, Yahweh in the Kingdom of Heaven, or the sprits of animism, they want humans to offer something of themselves, and in reciprocation they might be inclined to grant some sort of boon.
Give some of your crop to the spirit of the harvest in the hopes you won’t starve. Sacrifice a human life to the volcano god so maybe it won’t erupt in anger and kill us all. Send your checks to the televangelist to increase the chances that God might favor you with riches.
The “maybe” is important, because the god (or, more precisely, the idea of the god) has to have some wiggle room for all the times it fails to deliver. You didn’t give your best crops, so there was a drought and we all starved anyway. The human sacrifice wasn’t sufficiently innocent, so the volcano erupted and killed us all anyway. You didn’t give enough of your life savings to the televangelist, so God kept you poor anyway.
It’s important that a god’s followers don’t get to know exactly what the god wants, precisely what it will take to win a specific good in return. It’s all trial and error, but folks we sometimes call priests start to believe they can home in on what a god wants, and followers trust them to get them pointed in the right direction, generally. But even the priests don’t know for sure.
Now, I’m thinking about this after having read Anne Leckie’s wonderful novel The Raven Tower. I’ll do my best not to give away anything too central to the plot, but suffice it to say, some of its main characters, including its narrator, are gods. They vary in their relative size and power, but they can increase that power through humans’ offerings. If you get a small band of hunter-gatherers to make small offerings to you, you suddenly have more god-fuel to do nice things for them (if you want to). If you get an entire continent full of humans to dedicate shrines, prayers, and sacrifices to you, well then you’re probably a pretty big, badass deity, strong enough to fight and destroy rival gods.
But the catch is that the gods always have a limited pool of power from which to draw. A super-god who gets plentiful offerings from hundreds of thousands of humans might be seemingly invincible, but to wield that power — by waging a war, making major changes to the environment, or bringing things into being — drains those resources. A super-god who squanders their power, their “God Points,” can become a puny god rather quickly. Think of it like your “magicka” bar in a role-playing video game. You can cast your most powerful spells, but you need to replenish that resource before you can do it again. In the meantime, you’re probably rather squishy; that is to say, vulnerable.
If you’re someone who, like me, does not believe in any gods or other supernatural entities, it’s easy to begin reading something like The Raven Tower and default to an attitude of superiority or condescension. Ha, well, it’s a good thing I don’t believe in any gods, and I don’t have to sacrifice anything to some unseen being in the mere hopes of a possible boon that may or may not ever come.
But you’re smart. I’m sure you can see that the attitude represented in the preceding paragraph need not solely apply to the supernatural.
That’s what I’m thinking about. Again, you’re probably a really smart person so you’ve probably already thought of a bunch of things you could substitute for gods; ideas or institutions or principles to which we give and give without ever really knowing whether we will receive any blessing or salvation. I bet a lot of you thought of The Market, and that’s a great example, and maybe the best one as far as our global civilization is concerned.
I also bet some of you thought of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, which pits the old gods of mythology against the modern gods of technology and mass media and whatnot. I’d understand if you thought of that, but I’m one of those very few sci-fi/fantasy geeks who was thoroughly unimpressed with that book, but that has more to do my own particularities about storytelling, and less to do with whether the book makes a Good Point or says Something Important. I’m sure it does, I just don’t think it said it very well.
For me, the most salient modern analogue to gods and our offerings is close to what Gaiman was getting at: social media. Social media is our pantheon.
Let me tell you where I’m coming from, so you can decide if I’m just too awash in self-pity to be taken seriously.
I’ve been doing this being-a-person-on-the-internet thing from the moment I got a 2400 baud modem in my Packard Bell PC from 1990 or so, when I wrote album reviews on my friend’s local BBS. I played a character on a Ren & Stimpy-themed Star Trek board on the Prodigy network. I have written thousands of blog posts. I have been a writer for a couple of well-known outlets. I have started dozens of websites. I have launched a handful of podcasts. I have emitted well over 100,000 tweets. I have written and recorded dozens of songs and put them online to be bought, downloaded free, and streamed. I have uploaded dozens of videos of all kinds. I have self-published an ebook. I have shared untold numbers of photos and even drawings. I have established a few Facebook pages. I have participated in several subreddits. Though I have never TikTok’d, I did make a few Dubsmash videos and Vines. And yes, I have a Substack.
None of it has made a dent. None of it has broken through. None of it has “gone viral.” None of it has validated my existence.
My latest attempt to be a Relevant Person on the Internet is on Twitch, streaming myself playing the games I love while chatting with the folks who are watching. I’ve been doing it on a regular schedule for about five months, and apart from a couple of truly kind and delightful people who have graciously given me their time and attention, almost no one watches.
I have no illusions that this will make me “famous” or even provide a meaningful income (I don’t even qualify to make money on Twitch yet), so what is it I’m after? When I began, I think I was sincerely more interested in Twitch becoming a kind of substitute for real-world socialization. As someone with Asperger’s/ASD and no real friendships in my geographical area, I was feeling genuinely lonely (regardless of the pandemic). Having recently become obsessed with a couple of PC games, this seemed like a great way to find that kind of connection without having to, you know, go to dinner parties or whatever the hell it is you humans do.
And let me say this, those two or three of you who do show up to my Twitch streams? If you’re reading this, I can’t tell you how much it means to me. Thank you.
So why isn’t that enough?
Let’s get back to the whole social media pantheon thing.
There is a Twitch god. There is a Twitter god. There is a YouTube god. And so on. Maybe each platform has several gods attached to it. For example, maybe there’s a “Just Chatting” Twitch god and a Fortnite Twitch god, as well as a Journalist Twitter god and a MAGA Twitter god (but I guess that one might be too literal).
With every selfie we share; with every sub-256-character joke we tell; with every rant we vent; with every second we livestream; with every retweet, like, upvote, and upload; we are offering ourselves to the gods. We are sacrificing to those unseen forces that we believe control our destinies. We may not give them our crops or our corporeal bodies, but we do give them those things we value most and have in limited supply — that’s what makes it a sacrifice. Our time, our efforts, our attention, our images, our faces, our stories, our identities, our preferences, our connections to others, our feelings, our supplication, our gratitude, our fear, our personal information, and our deepest thoughts. Every stream is an offering. Every tweet is a prayer. We are feeding and refueling the gods.
And the priests — sometimes we call them “influencers” — try to guide us in how best to maximize our relationship to those gods. They can’t make promises! We know the false priests by their claims of “10,000 followers overnight!” They can only tell us what they have learned from their years of scrying and exegesis and, yes, sacrifice, and we can follow their lead or not. We can never know what is enough. We can never be sure whether an offering will be accepted and what blessing, if any, will be granted.
So we pray harder, and we offer more and more of ourselves. Favor me! we cry.
What do we want? Some want fame and fortune and, seeing that some have achieved this through social media, we know it to be possible. Some want to become priests themselves, to be shepherds to those who were once, like them, lost. Some want to right a wrong or defeat an enemy, and each prayer or offering is akin to a complaint to the manager or a report to the principal: Did you know what that person just did? We demand retribution!
Some — and I suspect most — want to feel like they matter. They seek to justify their existence. I seek to justify my existence. What more important question does anyone ever ask of a god than Why am I here? We seek the answer through the metrics of retweets, shares, likes, follows, and subscriptions. We don’t know what counts as enough, what number equates to an existence justified. But we keep offering and praying all the same.
Or, at least, I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing.
Now you, who are very smart, might expect me to talk about how I need to stop this nonsense, how we all need to wake up and realize, Eureka, there are no social media gods, and that we sure as hell don’t need them to tell us we matter! And that is entirely correct, we don’t need them. You are indeed very smart.
Because if, as in The Raven Tower, the gods have a limited supply of power, a pool of magicka that can be spent, well, we can simply refuse to feed them! We can starve these gods of their sustenance and in so doing free ourselves. We can diminish them to demigods or sprites, such that they can no longer control us. Others can be wished out of existence by our determination to ignore them.
But that’s not what I’m going to talk about.
Instead, I’m wondering if it might be better — for me, anyway, probably not for you — to give in to this idea. To just go with it. To own it. Maybe there is more sanity to be had in conceiving of these unknowable paths to personal validation as gods — as beings, persons — to be appeased and appealed to. Maybe if I stop thinking about whether real people are paying attention or assuring me that I belong to the human family, and instead think of these platforms as supernatural forces, the failures won’t feel so personal. The unanswered prayers won’t feel like a rejection by the tribe.
The gods are, after all, mysterious! There’s no way to know what they really want. A mere mortal like me can’t be expected to divine their unfathomable thoughts. Best I don’t try, and just keep offering. And maybe I’ll stumble upon a blessing, and, like Skinner’s pigeon, keep doing that one thing over and over again, like a rain dance or a mantra or a holy rite.
I’m tired of trying to get other people to care. But maybe I can please a god.
There was a thing I noticed when I absent-mindedly opened Twitter on my phone the other day. I say absent-mindedly because if I’m not using Twitter for work, I’m almost certainly doing it out of habit, not because I have something to say or am experiencing a sudden hunger for tweets. Anyway, the thing I noticed was how my anxiety level went up almost immediately.
Hold on, Paul, I can hear you thinking. That’s not some novel insight. Everyone knows that Twitter makes us all crazy. Yes, yes, but before you so rudely interrupted me, I was going to say that I noticed why I became so much more anxious (compared to my normal slow-boil-anxiety that is ever-present).
Yes, Paul, you’re butting in with again. We know why: because everything is terrible and there’s nothing to be done. You’ve already written this essay, Paul. Well, that’s what you think, know-it-all imaginary reader! I’m still one step ahead of you.
What I noticed—and no more interrupting, please—was that my surge of stress had less to do with the particulars of each individual example of things-being-terrible, and more to do with the dizzying variety of topics of concern to which I was being exposed, and about which I was implicitly expected to feel something. Strongly.
And I just wouldn’t.
Now, I almost typed “couldn’t,” but in fact the whole point of me even telling you about this (assuming you haven’t already left because I made you mad earlier in this piece) was because I realized that I had a kind of agency here. I realized, or at least remembered, that I could choose my areas of concern. I actually don’t have to have Big Feelings about everything.
Think of this. In another era, before the internet was a thing, there was only so much we were likely to be exposed to in our day-to-day lives. Assuming a moderate degree of cultural literacy and interest in affairs beyond oneself, a person might have Big Feelings about things in their own lives, in things going on in their families and communities, and in the broader sweeps of current events (in other words, what was in the newspapers or on the evening news).
In addition to these more universal areas of concern, a person might have particular interests in one or more subject matters of some social relevance; the environment, business, homelessness, racism, naughty words in popular music, whatever. You’d probably have your ways of keeping up with the developments in those areas and have corresponding Big Feelings about things that happened within them.
If you cared a lot about, say, environmentalism to the exclusion of most other things, you might not have any idea what was going on in the fight for racial justice. Or maybe you would! If you did, it was because you sought that information out, proactively. You chose to add that area of concern to your plate. And good for you!
But here’s what wouldn’t happen. You probably wouldn’t be aware of what was happening in, say, evangelical Christianity, or computer programming, or crime and policing. Maybe you did! But it would be because you chose to. Unless you sought out information about those topics, you probably didn’t know a lot about what was happening within those spheres of concern, and therefore were spared having Big Feelings about things that happened within those spheres.
You were also likely spared the expectation of having Big Feelings about them.
Hell, if you were someone whose primary area of concern was environmentalism, it could be that you were really focused on, say, the preservation of forests in New England, and maybe had little idea what air pollution was doing to people in China. You might have no idea how neglected infrastructure caused water to be undrinkable in American minority communities. It’s all environmentalism, but there existed no firehose of information that would force ideas upon you that came from branches of a larger topic (air pollution in China), or interconnected with others (systemic racism leading to the neglect of a community’s water supply).
Today, because of the internet, there is a much better chance that we can be made aware of all these other areas of concern. Far, far too many important issues have gone unaddressed for ages, in large part because most folks simply never encountered them. They didn’t know what was happening outside their existing areas of concern. The fact that those of us who care a lot about climate change are now acutely aware of how global warming will harm the global poor, for example, is really good. In an earlier age, we might not have known that, or not really understood it.
A single human, however, cannot carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. There is a fine line between being well-informed and overwhelmed. The well-intentioned person who cares about those New England forests should also know what smog does to the lungs of people in Beijing, and how a broken system can allow Black people in Flint to be sickened by lead in their water.
But the lava-flow of information from social media makes the implicit demand that our naïve environmentalist also be aware of, concerned over, and have Big Feelings about, say, every crazy thing a Fox News personality says, every shady dealing by business executives, every hint of hurtful cultural stereotyping or appropriation in popular media, every lie told by a politician, every new statistic about job loss and poverty, every wasteful expenditure by the federal government, every idiotic and backward bill introduced in a state legislature, every abuse of authority by police, every example of neglect of military servicemembers, every instance of unfair preferential treatment, every poorly conceived public musing on unfamiliar topics, every foot inserted into every mouth, every head inserted into every ass.
It’s good that we know what’s going on in spheres to which we once did not have had access. It’s good that gross injustices are now being put squarely before the eyes of people who would otherwise have looked away. It is a blessing. We can do more to make more things better because we know more.
An individual, however, can only do so much. They have a finite store of emotion and processing power. Yet the social media universe demands Big Feelings about almost literally everything.
So what I figured out was, hey, I don’t have to do that. I can allocate my anxiety. I can decide how much of my concern will be distributed among a set of issues. I can choose the issues into which I will dive deeply, and which ones I will merely wade into. And I can choose to keep my eyes and mind open to new areas of concern as they cross my awareness, and from those, decide which I will allocate my emotional and intellectual resources, and which ones I will leave to others better suited to do something about them.
This is not about assigning absolute value to one issue or another, to say that environmental issue X is more or less important than racial-justice issue Y or corporate-ethics issue Z. It is about deciding, of my own volition, where my particular talents, experience, interests, and skills are best directed. I can care very much about corporate ethics, but good lord I know nothing about business. I can choose to learn more about it, of course, or I can choose to offer my support to those who know what the hell they’re doing. If I were to writhe and churn over every wrongdoing by a CEO, I would merely make myself ill, and do nothing to further the cause of reform. I can support good efforts without accepting a personal emotional stake.
The idea isn’t that we shouldn’t care, or that we care too much, but that we, as individual human animals, can’t live in that feeling, that concern, that outrage for such heightened frequencies, intensities, and durations. We can genuinely and deeply care about a wide array of issues without taking each new infraction, offense, or horror as an emergency for which we are responsible to witness, demand redress, and emotionally digest. We aren’t built for it.
Whatever your bag is, whatever gets you passionate about making the world less shitty than it is, go and dig deeply into it. Take advantage of the many tendrils of the Information Superhighway and expose yourself to the secondary and tertiary issues that overlap with yours. Follow the intellectual paths that speak to you and make it a point to keep learning more. Let your moral circle widen, and as Vonnegut said, let your soul grow.
But a widened moral circle needn’t contain a porous heart. Be intentional about the frequency, volume, and quality of the information you allow into your sphere of concern; resist the expectation that you voluntarily convert each piece of information into shrapnel to be lodged in your chest. You can care without rending yourself asunder. I know it’s possible.
And of course, there’s plenty we can just stop caring so much about altogether. Moments ago, the twitterverse demanded I have Very Strong Feelings about a rude word emblazoned on a ring worn by a U.S. Senator.
About a year ago, I announced my intention to complete a major writing project that I had begun, and subsequently abandoned, two and a half years before. Publicly declaring my intention to finish this piece, “The Big Thing,” was a way to hold myself accountable. I was generously granted two weeks at a writers’ retreat and the necessary time off work to bring this project into being, and my failure to actually make something out of it, no matter how well justified, was a stain on my sense of self that all great Neptune’s ocean could not wash clean.
And besides, it was about stuff that’s really important to me.
Long story short, I buckled down and finished the damn thing, and it’s now the cover story for the April-May 2021 issue of Free Inquiry magazine. It’s 11,300 words-and-change comparing and weighing two views of humanity’s future: transhumanism (we’ll all be saved and improved by technology) and “collapsitarianism” (we’ve blown it and civilization will crumble).
Why these two? Because I feel pulled toward both so strongly, despite their disparate outlooks. It’s the longest piece ever published by Free Inquiry (for which I am immensely grateful) and its editor, Tom Flynn, says it “just might be one of the most profound” (for which I am immensely humbled).
In this post, I offer an excerpt from the main article, its opening “chapter,” as it were. I do ask that you’ll take some time and read the whole thing. It’s been made free to non-subscribers of Free Inquiry, so you are welcome to simply click over, read it in your browser, or add it to whatever read-it-later service you prefer (but please do actually read it later, don’t let it just be another link you totally intend to get to someday).
It begins like this:
Not too long ago, humans believed that the stars determined their fate. Some still do. It was a belief born of naïveté, misunderstanding the nature of those diamonds in the night sky. But it was also a sign of our hubris, to presume that those lights in the firmament could have any interest in us.
Rather than feel controlled by them, we now understand that the stars are not gods or arbiters of fate but places we now aspire to explore. The knowledge of what stars actually are, and how insignificant we are in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos, has humbled us. And yet we are brash enough to speculate that one day we will be determining the destinies of stars, not the other way around.
Today it’s pretty hard to see those stars. Pollution from smog and the spillage of light from our cities obscures our view of the heavens. The haze through which we must squint to glimpse the constellations reminds us, or reminds me anyway, that humanity’s upward trajectory is not a destiny but a story. A wish.
I am torn. I am stubbornly attached to the idea that one day we’ll all be living on starships, exploring the cosmos free of hunger, disease, poverty, and tribalistic conflict. Looking around at the pace of technological advances today, it still feels possible. I want it to be true.
But one only has to consider the speed and breadth of humanity’s destructiveness to have those dreams thoroughly dashed. Whether we look to the exhausted vitality of the natural world or the buckling integrity of our modern, enlightened societies, we can no longer deny the obvious. The world we made is crumbling.
I dread a global, systemic collapse for my own selfish reasons, of course. As much as I sometimes crave the solace and remoteness of a more rustic, pastoral life, I know that when the shit hits the fan, I’ll be one of the first to die of starvation or disease or be murdered by wandering marauders. I’m very much attached to, and a person of, the current age.
I dread it for my children even more. While they’re growing up faster than I can replace their socks, I can’t quite escape the guilt I feel for even bringing them into being when things are so dicey for the civilization they will have to make their way in. I desperately want them to thrive, not merely struggle to survive in a world their parents couldn’t keep.
Vacillating between hope and despair, I have somewhat paradoxically found myself captivated by two starkly divergent lines of thought, two seemingly opposing prophecies about the fate of humanity that at different times have seemed to me equally persuasive. One camp posits that human civilization is ripe for collapse and that industry, governments, society, and much of the ecology that sustains us will soon run aground, leaving the remainder of our species to cope with a blighted aftermath. The other proposes that despite the enormous challenges before us, human ingenuity will find solutions through technology and biological enhancement, defeating not just climate change but perhaps even death itself. I deeply yearn for the latter to be true. I am anguished that the former is much more likely.
In a more hopeful time, I was drawn to the optimism of transhumanism, the PhD-riddled intellectual movement that once excited my Star Trek–saturated imagination with its often-rapturous predictions of a humanity augmented with unimaginably sophisticated technology.
More recently, however, I have leaned away from utopian thoughts and into a palpable despondency. I have since recognized this feeling for what it is: grief. I am grieving for the world I once believed existed and the future I know never will.
Just as I was beginning to acknowledge this grief, I discovered a movement known as Dark Mountain. Not a formal association or ideology, Dark Mountain is a sort of cultural banner under which those who await the fall can gather. For me, it has served as a way to process what has become increasingly obvious: collapse is coming.
And yet, all the while I have been holding onto the wish that we are mourning prematurely and that there is still something better coming.
We might very well be capable of transcending our biological and corporeal limits and achieving wonders not yet dreamed of. Or we might soon be forced to reckon with all we have wrought upon this world and then struggle to find some way to atone and survive.
Transhumanist utopianism and collapsitarian despair. They may appear fundamentally at odds, but I think what attracts me to them both is their implications of inevitability. Both presume their vision of the future is inescapable, and their adherents suggest we not waste energy fighting that future; we should instead start preparing ourselves for it. It is the overlap of “the end is nigh” and “resistance is futile.”
What I need right now is clarity. I need an honest appraisal of where we are and where we are headed. Maybe you need it too. Are we doomed? If so, let’s face that hard truth and decide what to do from there. Are we going to save ourselves? If so, how will we do it and at what cost?
In either case, collapse or transcendence, who and what will we be when we come out on the other side? To answer that, we probably have to figure out who we are right now.
This is about more than trying to guess how things will look a century from now. This is about what it means to be human and deciding whether that, in itself, matters at all.
It’s freezing. I can’t stop shivering. I’m in the middle of a snow-blighted wasteland, and everything is white, and it would be hard to tell day from night if not for the fact that night is much colder. My only source of heat is some threadbare clothing recently issued to me, that at least includes a hood. I’m exhausted, badly needing sleep, and starving, but carrying precious little food. There’s a school—my school, actually—that’s really not all that far off, but the last time I tried to take shelter there, a mob of criminals tried to kill me. I barely escaped with my life. I know they’re waiting for me back there. There is a world of other places I could go—safe places, warm places—but I am on foot in this blizzard, and I don’t think I would survive the walk.
It doesn’t help matters that we reptilians are especially sensitive to cold.
I’m obviously not describing real life, but a scenario from a video game. I’m playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but with a twist: I’ve activated its official “survival mode,” which adds a slew of extra hinderances to the normal game experience. My character can not only be hurt by the usual melee blows, magic attacks, and dragon bites, but by much more banal forces: hunger, fatigue, and extreme temperatures. Skyrim’s survival mode requires one’, would-be dragonslaying adventurer to eat at regular intervals, keep cold and heat at bay, and sleep—leveling up actually requires shuteye.
Okay, fine, so you carry a lot of food, bundle up, and rest whenever you can. Except that survival mode also significantly reduces your character’s maximum carrying capacity, so inventory management becomes an even bigger headache than it normally is. And one can only sleep in specially designated places that are not owned by somebody else. You can’t just plop down on the ground and sleep, you have to find an inn or a friendly house or eventually learn how to craft camping supplies—supplies which, of course, use up carry weight.
And honestly, one’s Skyrim character is supposed to be the Dragonborn, the prophesied savior of all Tamriel (the major continent and empire of the Elder Scrolls franchise). You’d think they’d be a little more, you know, hardy.
I am not usually a fan of survival type games; keeping myself alive seems difficult enough without having to worry about a fictional self. And I definitely don’t go out of my way to make difficult games even more difficult. But I have been playing so much Skyrim over the last year, I kept finding myself to be too powerful, too easily defeating even the toughest enemies, sometimes to a laughable extent. (My sneaking abilities were apparently so refined that professional murderers couldn’t see me as I stood directly in front of them, turning their faces into pincushions for arrows fired point-blank. Dude, I‘m right here. I’m the guy stuffing you with arrows.)
Watching Twitch streamer LucindaTTV a few weeks ago (I’ve started streaming on Twitch myself, so you should come and follow me there), I heard her talk about playing the game on survival mode without any other character-enhancing modifications (or “mods”), and how she found it a very satisfying challenge. Well, I wasn’t prepared to abandon my favorite game (and favorite alternate reality), so I decided to give it a shot. I fired up a new Skyrim game, set it to its highest difficulty setting (“Legendary”), and clicked on survival mode.
And then, the freezing, the starving, and the getting killed over and over and over.
Here’s the thing, though. As maddening as it’s been, Lucinda was right. Having the game layered with these additional handicaps has been oddly illuminating, and my victories—now much fewer and farther between—are all the sweeter. They are also usually by the skin of my teeth.
Along with the heightened difficulty of the game, survival mode also brings a heavy helping of tedium. I already mentioned the many frustrations of inventory and carrying-capacity management. But there’s also the raw consumption of real-world time taken up by simply going from point A to point B in the game, as, I think I forgot to mention, survival mode also disables “fast travel.” Normally, once the Dragonborn has visited a location, they can essentially teleport back there at any time. You want to start working on a quest based in far-eastern Windhelm, but you’re mucking about in Markarth in the west? No problem. As long as you’re outdoors, you just, as the Muppets put it, “travel by map.”
No more of that in survival mode. If you want to go from one major metropolis (or “hold”) to the other, you have to either walk or get a horse. There are some carriages and boats for hire in some places, but they are rare, and they don’t go everywhere. I started my game, like a genius, in a town called Winterhold, where there are no forms of transportation at all. And it’s always cold there. And I’m a lizard-person (or, in the game lore, an Argonian or a Saxhleel). Smart move, me.
This all means that there’s a good deal of planning that goes into every task you set out to complete. Let’s say the local jarl (sort of a duke or governor) wants me to go to such-and-such dungeon to fetch some artifact or other, which, successfully done, will see me rewarded with gold and maybe even a fancy title of nobility. Normally, you’d just stock up on your healing potions and head out. If you’ve already been to a location sort of near the destination, you zap yourself there and hoof it the rest of the way.
Not so now. In survival mode, you need to consider your current levels of fatigue, and decide whether to sleep first, and then take a guess at whether you might be able to find places to stop on the way to get more sleep and perhaps restock on food and supplies. How cold will it be? Maybe your best fighting gear isn’t sufficient to hold back the elements, but you can only carry so much, so you have to choose. Bring a wide variety of weapons? My heavy armor? A barrel’s worth of potions? If I own them, but can’t take them with me, there’s nowhere for me to store them in the meantime (at least until I’ve advanced enough to purchase property, but even then, it would all be stored in that location, which I’d have to travel back to the hard way in order to make any use of it.)
It’s like planning road trips for every time you play, planning stops for food and overnight stays. Except you’re not driving. And you’re probably going to get killed by something called a Deathlord.
And I’m a lizard.
But because of the additional drudgery imposed by survival mode, I’ve found that I’ve done much more exploring than I had when I was much more powerful and less apt to get killed. Indeed, forced foot travel in Skyrim necessitates exploration, trudging one’s way across vast expanses of a fantasy world that has been littered with surprises and mysteries, many I had missed when playing under normal circumstances. Very early in my survival mode playthrough, desperately trying to make my way to some kind of safe harbor in the blinding winter of Skyrim’s northeast, I happened upon a lighthouse I had no idea was there. It was pitch dark outside, and my character’s vision was blurred with exhaustion, hunger, and hypothermia. With my last ounce of strength, I made it to the door of the lighthouse and entered, delightedly warming up from the fireplace in the next room.
Seconds later, of course, I found that the living area had a recently-murdered body splayed on the floor with an axe in its chest. Despite the clicking sound of nearby monsters that reminded me of A Quiet Place, my weary reptilian gratefully ate the food that had been strewn about the floor in the preceding struggle, and slept happily in the bed of the recently departed.
The discovery of the lighthouse of course kicked off an entire quest, a quest that I was utterly unable to make headway in because of all the limitations I’d placed on myself with the game’s difficulty level and survival mode. So I had to abandon it halfway through, and once again cast myself out into the freezing cold to find the next oasis, and having no idea where it might be. (I had some idea, as I have played the game a lot, but as anyone who knows me will tell you, “direction” and “understanding my orientation in space” are not my string suits.)
And I knew that at some point, lord help me, I’d have to come back. Ugh!
And I did! Much later, of course, when my character was strong enough to stand a chance against the enemies lurking in the tunnels beneath the lighthouse. But even then, it was crushingly difficult, requiring innumerable do-overs.
But even these seemingly impossible quests have been deeply satisfying, in that they have asked much more of me as a strategist. No more can I trust in my character’s durability to withstand an onslaught of enemies as I hack and slash my way to victory. These guys were killing me in one or two strokes. I couldn’t count on supernatural levels of stealth to save me; not only were enemies far more keen to my whereabouts, but because they could now take much more punishment on Legendary difficulty, I’d find myself constantly running out of arrows, my only projectile weapons. Skyrim became more and more similar to Metal Gear Solid and Bushido Blade…but in good ways, I mean.
In other words, I could no longer simply think, well, I’m at level X, and I have these weapons and spells, so can safely assume that I can fight my way though any quest. No, I’d have to take each chamber, each corridor, each corner as its own quest, every turn was a new battle that required new tactics, and always mitigated by my constantly-dwindling resources.
It sounds cliché to say it, but playing Skyrim on survival mode has helped me appreciate what’s required of all of us when we want to accomplish anything meaningful. We don’t have unlimited resources, we don’t have unlimited energy, and so we need to plan. We need to make difficult choices; choices about what we will keep and what we will leave behind; what we will dare to attempt, and what we must wait to pursue; what ideals we will hold fast to, and which ones we will have to abandon.
(I steal a lot more in this playthrough than I ever have before, and keep singing to myself “Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat…”)
I’m not entirely sure I’ll stick with survival mode for my entire playthrough as Luap-Keshu of the Black Marsh. Sometimes the tedium does overpower the fun, and the last thing I ever want is for my precious video game free time to feel like work. But then I find a new location I’d never known about, or overcome some challenge I never thought I could, and I think of how much more meaningful those victories are. And if my lizard-guy ever gets far enough to own a home, adopt a child, marry, earn a lordship or several—and maybe save the world—I’ll know that for each of those triumphs, he’ll have truly earned it.