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My Skyrim character, Nhazki, has completed the game’s main quest line, which I had arbitrarily chosen as the point at which I would be finished with the game. There are still things that Nhazki could do, of course. Guilds she didn’t join, quests she didn’t pursue (or even find), and even an entire city she never set foot in (although I did, with a previous character). But this felt like the end of her journey. This came with a certain sadness, because I’m aware I’m unlikely to return to the game again. But it’s time to move on, and reflect on my time with the game here.

I wrote a lot about Skyrim when I first played it years ago. On my return, I outlined the set of mods I planned to use, discussed the handling of gender and race in the game, wrote about its enduring appeal, and chronicled how I found (and embraced) some grind. Here, I’ll discuss some final thoughts and reflect on how the mods I’ve chosen affected the experience.

In my last post, I wondered how long Skyrim could retain my interest now that I’d gotten Nhazki the best possible equipment by grinding her smithing and enchanting skills. I was surprised to find I still enjoyed raiding dungeons and caves even though I had no more reason to search for loot, but doubted this would last. I was prepared to force myself onwards just to see the end of the main quest line.

But then Skyrim surprised me.

Surprises are, by definition, unexpected, but this was especially so because of how long I’d spent with the game. For my entire time with my first character, and most of my time with Nhazki, Skyrim tended to follow a certain formula. Skyrim’s outdoor areas areas are beautiful, but quests all point to its interior spaces, its predictable caves and barrows. While I enjoyed plumbing these locales, I’d had them figured out long ago, to the point that sometimes I found myself heading through on autopilot. But then the main quest took me somewhere completely different.

I don’t want to spoil it, but this location is not only different in design to all the others, it is also strongly connected to the history and legends of the world. These are things that have been referenced throughout the entire Elder Scrolls series, making the find especially meaningful for longtime players. For the first time in my journeys through Skyrim, I found myself exploring a place simply to learn more about it, rather than just heading to my next objective. The experience was such a shock that it made me wonder if there might be similar experiences hidden in other games in the series. It stands to reason that the designers would save such special things for the main story quests in the games, and I’ve played all of those, but earlier games like Morrowind had a bigger emphasis on allying with different factions with their own stories to follow, and I’ve certainly not tried all of those. Maybe they harbor similar surprises.

Truthfully, Skyrim is the last game in the series I’d have suspected to try something like this. It’s the most streamlined and polished of the Elder Scrolls games, has the fewest rough edges, and yes, is perhaps the most formulaic. For a sprawling, open world role-playing game, it’s remarkably focused in its design, catering to a specific type of exploration and adventure that can be found no matter what direction one wanders. This is executed so well throughout, that the designers would have little reason to deviate from it.

In fact, deviation can be harmful, as I discovered a little later when I found another surprise. This time, it was a bit simpler: Skyrim forced me to make a choice. Two different sets of allies, who’d assisted Nhazki on her quest throughout the game, found themselves at odds, and she had to choose between them. Which sounds simple — and it is — but it was so contrary to the rest of Skyrim’s design that it felt really strange. This was even odder because, in other games, I relish dealing with difficult choices that have real consequences. The Witcher series, for example, excels at this, putting players in difficult situations with no obvious answers, with events playing out differently based on one’s choices. Faced with a choice in Skyrim, however, I bristled, upset that I couldn’t keep working with both groups.

This moment crystallized just how different my enjoyment of Skyrim is versus a series like The Witcher. In Skyrim, I value my freedom above all. The Elder Scrolls series are famous for letting players do anything, but Skyrim especially encourages players to do everything. The freeform character skill system removes the need to decide one’s specialties before the game begins, and places no limits on a character’s development during the adventure. Quests are simple and lack true urgency, because the player is not meant to feel strong obligations. If you want to run off in a different direction, or spend a day reading books in a basement, it’s no problem, all your quests and tasks will happily wait. Freedom in Skyrim is more than just being able to travel the world at will, it’s freedom from consequence. No options are ever blocked off. Skyrim’s critics argue that this comes at the cost of any true meaning to one’s actions, and they’re right. But that’s what I play The Witcher for. In Skyrim, I enjoy being unshackled, free of worry, able to simply do what I want, when I want.

Skyrim had no more surprises for me beyond this point, but I did enjoy seeing how the story finished up. When, during the last stages of that story, I found that my travels across Skyrim’s beautiful landscape were starting to feel tiresome, I knew that the end of the story would mark the end of my time with the game. I’d made a conscious choice not to use the game’s generous fast travel system (which essentially teleports players to any known location in the world) during Nhazki’s adventure, and in many ways her travels were my favorite activity, thanks to the excellent mods I was using. I’d originally installed Climates of Tamriel for its weather effects, and those are great, but even more pleasing was the new sky. I stopped to admire many a sunset, cloud bank, or simply a beautiful clear day. The skies fit so well with the original game that I find it difficult to remember what it looked like without them.

Pure Waters (and its Pure Waterfalls add-on) is another mod that fit unexpectedly well into the game. It makes all of Skyrim’s water look vastly different, and I was afraid the land would look out of place next to it, but it actually meshes together perfectly, and makes Skyrim’s rivers and waterways far more beautiful. But what really made travels enjoyable was the combination of Chesko’s mods Campfire and Frostfall. The first adds camping to the game, and the second adds hypothermia and survival elements, giving players a reason to set up camp. It’s not as punishing as I feared, but does encourage proper preparation for travels, with enough warm clothing and supplies for camping. When the sun began to set while Nhazki was traversing the wilderness, I would seek a wooded area, spend some time chopping wood, and build a fire as darkness fell. Then I might cook some dinner over the fire, sit and eat, and spend a little time watching sparks drift up into the night. Then I’d pitch my tent, lie down, and drift off to sleep. In the morning, I’d eat some breakfast, clean up the spent fire, pack up, and head out on my way.

Speaking of breakfast, I enjoyed the new recipes in Realistic Needs and Diseases, but otherwise was underwhelmed by it. I was never short on food, and after Nhazki became a werewolf early in her adventure she had no reason to fear disease. Chesko, the author of Campfire and Frostfall, is working on his own mod for hunger and thirst called Last Seed, which sounds cool, so if you’re considering a similar mod, keep an eye out for it. At least Realistic Needs and Diseases is unobtrusive, whereas Campfire relies heavily on menus, which can make it seem fiddly. But since I’d slowed down the in-game clock using console commands (so 1 hour of playing equals 7.5 in-game hours, instead of the default 20 in-game hours), camping wasn’t too frequent and never felt like a chore. I was bothered that various aspects of camping forced a third-person perspective, however. I fixed that by installing the Enhanced Camera mod, which can be set to prevent the game from automatically switching to third-person and also gives Nhazki a visible body (and the ability to cast shadows!) while in first person mode. This was perfect.

With these mods, traversing Skyrim’s countryside was a joy. But it’s clear that players are expected to use fast travel. There’s a lot of trekking back and forth, and by the end, when I’d found most of the locations and surprises along the way and was simply repeating treks I’d taken many times before, it did start to lose its charm. That charm lasted for a long time, however, and I highly recommend this suite of mods if you are considering another go at Skyrim.

I’m certainly glad I had another go, and I managed to do most of the things I wanted to do. Nhazki had a memorable journey, but it’s time to say farewell.

Onwards to other worlds.