Recently, I started to play and mod Skyrim. After all these years of ignoring the game (since I had already played Morrowind and Oblivion, and was thoroughly exhausted with these games) I decided to give it a go, particularly because I noticed that it had tens of thousands of mods, some of which I assumed must be quite polished and robust at this point. Sure enough, as I started modding my game (it’s incredibly easy now thanks to Nexus’s Vortex mod manager) and optimizing my mod list, I reached 300 mods, and was playing a far more visually enjoyable, far more action-packed game, with various immersion and quest mods making the experience less predictable and more adventurous.
Among the mods I’ve been using are some that add survival mechanics to the game. Popular mods like Campfire, Frostfall, Realistic Needs and Diseases, Hunterborn, and Wounds turn Skyrim into a brutal survival game where you need to stay warm, hydrated, well fed, and well rested. Journeys to nearby caves and dungeons now become far more dangerous, and you might need to stop and set up camp at some point to survive it, which requires a bedroll and firewood. To harvest meat, pelts, and other things from animals you kill, you need to spend in-game hours properly field dressing them. You can develop injuries like bruises, concussions, and broken bones, which weaken you and take time to heal. Raw food makes you sick and needs to be cooked, and nasty weather makes you colder. Additionally, I use Vivid Weathers, which makes nighttime much darker.
These mods were appealing to me because they seemed to add a sense of danger to the game that was previously missing, which would make the game more immersive. They also seemed to add functionality to elements in the game that previously didn’t really have any. All of the food and drink found in the game now had a greater purpose. The climate, weather, and time of day were more of a factor while traveling. Inns where you could rent rooms became more important safe havens. Time and money had to be spent more wisely. The game was no longer like a mindless walk through the park, and every task the player took required planning and preparation.
However, after spending some time with these mods, the immersiveness wore off and became mundane repetition. At first, it was fun to have to manage all these new stats and take environmental factors into greater consideration. But after a while, after adjusting to these new mechanics, they stopped adding spontaneity to the experience and became automatic and predictable actions. Obtaining supplies became too easy, making the danger element disappear and become a chore element instead. I found myself spending more time doing unadventurous things like idling at inns or sleeping in them longer until the sun came up or the rain stopped. Spending in-game hours field dressing animals just seemed like an extra menu step for the same result rather than being something exciting to look forward to. The only mod that really kept my interest was the one that added wounds, since it still made combat a little less predictable.
What this experience showed me was something I already understood, which was that, in game design, when judging game mechanics, context matters. The reason why those survival mechanics didn’t improve the game is because Skyrim is simply a shallow game. In fact, even though some of the mods have clear improvements (such as the graphical mods), overall, the vanilla experience is not really altered, only sugarcoated and refined here and there. The survival mechanics have no real value to them because there is no game objective to make them valuable. The objective is always the context that gives or takes value from a game mechanic and evaluating a game mechanic without considering the objective it is connected with is to ignore a crucial aspect of the mechanic.
To make this clearer, compare the survival mechanics here to the ones frequently found in the “Open World Survival Crafting” genre, in games such as Rust, ARK: Survival Evolved, ATLAS, Conan Exiles, and so on. In these games, survival elements like eating and staying warm may at first glance appear to be as repetitive as they are in a modded Skyrim, but the objective in those games is very different. When playing in the online public servers, particularly in the ones that are PVP-enabled, players are locked in an arms race with one another. Maps have a limited number of key vantage points to build your base on, which players are rushing for and competing with each other to obtain. Further, the survival mechanics tend to be so harsh in these games and the competition so fierce that it all encourages playing with large groups, which is possible, since they are online massive multiplayer games. Without cooperation, a player or a small group of 2-3 will likely never see any of the more substantial content these games have to offer, which include large monster boss battles, large player-versus-player battles, unique treasures, and so on.
What this means is that the survival mechanics possess a twofold purpose in those games. On the one hand, they serve to further encourage cooperation among players, which complements the online multiplayer feature. On the other hand, and more importantly, they serve to build a sense of hype for the latter half of the game. The first half of these games consists of a repetitive gathering of resources to ensure your survival, as well as the treacherous process of locating and joining the group of players you are playing with. Players have to spend time building up a resource pool so that they can construct better tools and structures for their future fortresses. This process can take a while, and it isn’t the most exciting; however, once you’ve successfully fought off other tribes of players, and you’ve successfully worked the grindstone long enough to amass a substantial amount of resources, as well as carved out for yourself a comfortable enough position with which you can use to launch yourself into the content that really matters, said content is made all the better for it. By the time you reach the second half of the game, you’re both relieved and stunned that you made it, which tends to make you look forward to the next part of the game even more. You can see this in effect at a much smaller scale in the battle royale games like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds or Fortnite where the first half of matches in those games are usually spent searching buildings or mining for materials, while the latter half consists of eliminating the remaining players in the ever-diminishing map space with whatever arsenal you were able to obtain for yourself.
With this in mind, what purpose do the survival mechanics in a modded Skyrim serve? Functionally, little to the point of nothing at all. They grant some life to some of the miscellaneous objects in the game, which previously only existed as set dressing for backgrounds, but it all ends up being far more tedious than it’s worth, because Skyrim lacks a second half to the game. The whole game can be found within the experience of collecting junk items and going to caves and dungeons. There’s no broader next-level experience to reach, and the objective never changes. Without that, the survival mechanics are just for show, and the tedium sets in with no relief precisely because of this.
Another mechanic I can quickly draw upon to demonstrate further is the lockpicking system. In Skyrim, you have to play a small mini-game when picking open locked containers. The mini-game isn’t in real-time and even if it was, it wouldn’t really make a difference. Most players share the sentiment that this lockpicking mini-game is pointless and becomes very tedious after a while. In the survival crafting games, however, locks on containers are viewed very differently. When playing on a PVP-enabled public server, other players can break open your supply containers and steal the resources you worked for. Having locks is suddenly a far more important aspect to the game and working to get them open may require stealth or manipulation to pull off since you are on a live server and everything is done in real-time with other players. Any kind of lockpicking mini-game here would have far more value than it would in a game like Skyrim because of the difference in context.
Evaluating game mechanics works in this exact same fashion regardless of the mechanic in question. Before thinking about a particular game mechanic, always consider how other mechanics in the game complement it. A specific mechanic can mean a very different thing in two completely different games and balancing that mechanic so that it is enjoyable to engage with depends entirely on the genre of game. You could essentially apply this to anything you judge, by the way: context is important, and it is best to never disregard it when analyzing something.