Survival Mode

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.

You want me to go…up there?

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.

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Video Games and My Ceaseless Guilt

During the pandemic era, here in the Lost Year, we have been given a reprieve from the stigma attached to excessive video game playing. The experts have told us, as conveyed to us through the most elite media outlets, that being forced under the fat thumb of the socially-distant lockdown-quarantine absolves us of any anxieties we might have about wasted time, lost productivity, or rotted brains. For the age of COVID–19, video games are now good for us. Hooray!

So now I can spend hours exploring, battling, spell-casting, smithing, concocting, and acquiring inside the metauniverse of Skyrim, free of any worry that I ought to be doing something more worthy of my time. We’re all stuck at home, after all! These are extreme, extenuating circumstances! There’s a goddamn killer virus out there, for god’s sake!

Oh, but here’s the thing. Just like everyone else on Planet Earth, the pandemic has upended many aspects of my life, but one thing that has remained unchanged is my location in space. As a socially-averse autistic already working from home for the past decade, I was already not going anywhere. Not even the coronavirus could disrupt a life outside the home if it didn’t exist to begin with.

Nonetheless, when the Great Lockdown began in March, it still felt to me like a doctor’s note authorizing me to indulge in video games again.

(An aside for some context: I say “again” because I have had spurts of game obsession at different times in my adult life, starting with games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII near the end of college. Later, as time for games became scarcer, I would go through periods of serious Civilization addiction for installments III, IV, V, and especially VI, which Steam tells me I have played for almost 1400 hours, which doesn’t even count the additional hours spent playing it on my iPad. More recently, I became enamored with The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the WildAnimal Crossing: New Horizons, and, my current alternate-universe-of-choice, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, all on the Nintendo Switch.)

Since the vast majority of my time playing video games is solitary (save for when my semi-interested partner happens to be in the room), I have always perceived playing them as a way of sinking into my own little world. But I think being exposed to so much positive social reinforcement regarding quarantine video games made me feel like I was doing something with a speck of social value. It wasn’t just me being a weird 40-something dude manipulating cartoon characters in fantasy worlds all by my lonesome. Now I was in with the in-crowd. Everyone was doing it. We were being alone together.

But despite this absolution, I knew that I couldn’t claim to be leaning on video games to get me through the pandemic. I wasn’t being kept away from my job or unexpectedly burdened with truckloads of free time I didn’t know what to do with. If anything, my job got busier, my kids were home with me more often, and I actually find I have less free time now than I did in back the Long, Long Ago. I’m not killing excess time by playing video games. I’m frittering away the precious little time I have.

So really, I shouldn’t overstate how much time I actually spend on these damn things. The fortnightly Saturday evenings and Sundays I don’t have my kids at home are really my only opportunities to truly binge on pretending to be a Destruction-magic-specializing Wood Elf. (One who just became Arch-Mage of the College in Winterhold, what-what!) All week, I’ll look forward to long, uninterrupted play sessions that will allow me to fully commit to some major quest within the game, rather than settling for less time-consuming side tasks or level-grinding. But when I finally get to dive in, it isn’t long before the Guilt sets in.

I should be doing something more productive, the Guilt says. I should be doing something more creative. I am wasting my precious waking hours and living days on an experience from which I will derive no benefit beyond the temporary sensations of escapist hedonism. That’s fine for a little break from the workaday world, says the Guilt, but it’s no way to spend an entire day.

And maybe the Guilt is right. I’m a writer, a performer, and a composer, and I have the extraordinary privilege of being safe, employed, fed, sheltered, and loved during a major crisis, and I could be using it to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways. Even though very few people will ever read this piece, for example, and only some fraction of them will have found it valuable, creating this piece of writing at least adds something to the world that wasn’t there before. Hours and hours spent in Skyrim, Hyrule, or Duckbutt Island (my Animal Crossing domain) have no impact on the real world outside my video game console, except in what they prevent from coming into being.

It’s probably futile to attempt to quantify, even vaguely, what is lost or gained by spending time on video games. Because I could just as well speculate that the games might be a way for me to build up the reserves I need to create things to begin with. Perhaps they are addressing something in me psychologically, such that they become a net-benefit. Before writing this, I read a number of pieces asserting just that.

“I suspect that the total intensity of the passion with which gamers throughout society surrender themselves to their pastime is an implicit register of how awful, grim, and forbidding the world outside them has become,” writes Frank Guan in the conclusion to his wonderful 2017 (pre-pandemic) piece on video game obsessives in Vulture. Earlier in the piece, he says, “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.” Well, for me, the world was definitely grim and forbidding before COVID–19 came around, and Placelessness, USA has always been my hometown. So maybe it’s a wonder I haven’t gone whole-hog on video games sooner.

The point is, though, that I don’t know, and I do know that time spent in a game is time not spent on literally anything else. And I’m not smart enough to know whether or not that’s okay.