There’s a popular Skyrim mod called Frostfall I’ve had installed for a while. It takes all those background weather effects, the snow and rain and fog, and pushes them into the foreground where you can’t help but notice them. It achieves this by letting them kill you. You know that expression “a little rain never hurt no one”? Yeah, forget that.
Somebody at Bethesda put a lot of effort into modelling the climate of Skyrim in the regular game, but apart from that one area near the top of The Throat Of The World that can chill you to death, it normally doesn’t affect you. Frostfall, on the other hand, models temperature and exposure and dampness, and will slowly freeze you to the bone if you wander off without adequate protection. To prepare you for that, Frostfall also lets you craft cloaks and sleeping tents, makes eating soup and standing near fires grant warmth and dryness, and also lets you take that wood you chopped just to watch the animation and light an actual fire with it.
I’ve been messing about with Frostfall on a savegame where I’m playing a Khajiit – one of the catfolk – named Hunter. He’s a hunter, yes. I’m imagination personified. Thanks to another mod called Live Another Life, Hunter S. Tomcatson isn’t the Dragonborn, hero of prophecy. He’s just an ordinary catman with a bow and a cloak who has been tooling around for nine levels shooting wildlife, skinning them, and selling the bits. That’s literally it. Sometimes he gets attacked by bandits, but since I didn’t initiate the main questline, Hunter lives in a Skyrim that doesn’t even have dragons in it.
The main supernatural occurrence in Hunter’s Skyrim is fast-travel. Memories of slogging through the ash wasteland in Morrowind, or being funnelled by those tedious mountain passes while Cliff Racers swooped down like broken pterodactyls, have made me rely on the fast-travel in more recent Elder Scrolls games (and ride horses a lot too). But to get the most out of Frostfall you need to see it on foot and you need to see it continuously.
To that end I’m going to spend an afternoon travelling across the country, and I’ve banned myself from fast travel while I’m doing it. No carts or boats or mounts either. I’ll visit all the capital cities of the various Holds and see if I can do it without freezing to death. How long will that take? Let’s find out.
I fire up Skyrim through the Nexus mod manager, then spend the next 15 minutes googling “skyrim frozen in place bug” and “skyrim double mouse cursor bug”. That’s what it’s like playing moddable open-world games, but I get it working in the end and remember that it looks like this.
Riften is the easternmost city in Skyrim, your standard wretched hive of etcetera. From here I’m heading north to Windhelm, through The Rift. This is the part of Skyrim that’s perpetually autumn, with tall deciduous trees and leaves on the ground around purple mountain flowers. The weathersense ability Frostfall gives me says it’s “temperate” this afternoon and would be safe if it wasn’t full of bloody spiders because you can’t have a fantasy game without giant frigging spiders. I almost die to two of them immediately, but bolt back towards the shadows of Riften’s walls until some guards come out to save me.
Setting off again, I discover a two-wheeled cart abandoned by the side of the road. These pointless bits of world furniture are a riot to kick around because the physics on them is nuts. Run into one and it’ll bounce off down the road. I consider kicking a cart all the way across the country, but then I run into it from the wrong angle and take damage so scrap that idea.
As soon as I leave the temperate Rift my exposure level drops. At Darkwater Crossing I warm my hands near a fire, just like the non-player characters do. One of them offers me a quest, which I politely turn down. I’m on holiday, just a tourist right now.
Outside this settlement are steaming hot springs, which I work my way around to avoid getting wet. The water may be hot but getting wet in Frostfall is a bad idea, because as soon as the temperature drops that water becomes ice and you transform into a popsicle in no time. While paying attention to the pools I stop paying attention to anything else and get jumped by wolves. Although I kill them easily enough with arrows, one of those wolves had a contagious disease and now I’ve caught Rockjoint. It does not sound glamorous.
In Eastmarch Hold the pines are covered in snow, and so am I. Weathersense tells me “The air is frigid and deadly.” It also tells me I’ve attained the rank of Cave Bear – as you level up Frostfall increases your exposure resistance and gives you a fancy title. Cave Bear sounds like something I’d look up on Urban Dictionary, and then be convinced the definition wasn’t true.
As I enter Windhelm a little vignette plays out on the street to illustrate its local brand of fantasy racism for my benefit. I ignore it and warm myself in an inn. “You all right?” says a Nord named Nils. “You look like you might be sick.” I can’t remember which food you eat to cure diseases and all the shops are closing as it gets dark, so I decide to push on. Rockjoint sounds non-fatal, right? Next stop, Winterhold.
You know the phrase “off-piste”? It’s what they call backcountry skiing in Europe. I like it because it sounds like “off-pissed” and I am a child. Anyway, I’ve gone off-piste in my haste to get to Winterhold because the sun’s gone down and Frostfall is helpfully putting “You feel chilly” messages up in the corner of the screen with worrying frequency.
A fort looks like it might be a hospitable place to visit, until I approach and the wizards who live there hurl magic ice shards at me until I run away. Off-piste then. Still, the aurora looks lovely.
I find another cart and kick it for a bit. Still chilly.
Nearing Winterhold I find a road, then light a campfire on it. You can gather deadwood to do this, but I’ve got enough lumber in my backpack – the backpack is another Frostfall addition – to start a proper burner.
Leaving the fire, no longer chilled, I pass an Imperial patrol escorting a Stormcloak prisoner through the snow. I neglect to help the bound man in the tunic. I’m not a hero today. But a short distance down the road two ice wolves attack and I backpedal until I reach the patrol again, and the man I’d failed to help helps me, punching a wolf as big as him.
It claws him to death before a volley of arrows from the Imperials drop the wolves and I’m left standing over his body. “Move along,” says one of the guards. “Imperial business.”
“A furious snowstorm draws near,” a message informs me as I enter Winterhold. I decide to spend the night in the city, although every conversation I pass is about how dangerous the College of Mages has made it here. I rent a room at an inn and sleep till morning.
The next morning it’s still snowing. I push on towards Dawnstar, trying to follow the coastline of the Sea of Ghosts. On the shore there’s a cluster of inexplicable fires. Trying to warm myself by a lumpy black object near the centre of them, I realise it’s a corpse. Nearby there’s a spellbook: Fire Cloak. I don’t think I’ve ever stumbled across this little scene before, but I’m imagining the story. No wonder they call wizards dangerous in Winterhold.
Dawnstar is an underwhelming port town without much going on. Here the conversations are all about the nightmares the locals are sharing, and Frida at the Mortar & Pestle alchemy store admits she doesn’t have a cure for that. She does have a Potion of Cure Disease though, so I buy that and finally get rid of the Rockjoint.
While Hunter drinks his potion I make a cup of tea, but I’m antsy to leave Dawnstar. The next city on my itinerary is Solitude, the biggest in Skyrim, and it’s the one where things get interesting. The eastern cities are pretty bland-looking, but in the west the architecture’s more impressive.
Two bandits and a pair of giants herding mammoth face off in the snow. It’s a pretty one-sided fight. The giants flatten their opponents with their fists, not even bothering to do the thing where they swing their clubs and launch people into the air like baseballs.
I loot the bandits.
The swamps of the Hjaalmarch are covered in low fog, islands of brown grass surrounded by blue water. I’ve crossed this swamp a dozen times before in regular games, splashing my way through carelessly. Now I’m weaving around the water, trying to follow the land and jump across the narrowest stretches.
I get so lost doing this I end up at the wrong settlement, arriving in a lumbertown called Morthal instead of the grandness of Solitude. I stop to chop some wood and warm up.
Back in the swamp, pausing to check the map frequently, I realise I’ve made another mistake. Solitude is halfway up a mountain and I’ve worked my way to the steepest end of that, an unclimbable prow of a cliff-face. To get to the path that leads to the city gates I need to go west from here and cross a river, but it’s getting dark and even colder.
Screw this. The Karth River is wide but I need to cross it quickly before the temperature gets any lower, so I jump in, ignoring Frostfall’s “The water is frigid!” warning. I aim for a sawmill on the north bank, dragging myself ashore and racing straight through the door. Then I stand next to a lumberjack who is stirring a pot over his fire. He looks at me, dripping wet, and calmly offers me a job chopping wood.
Later, dry again, I walk uphill to Solitude’s gates as the stars come out. Skyrim has a lot of stars, and two large, low-hanging moons, so I can forgive the nights for not being very dark, although of course there are mods that provide inky blackness if that’s what you’re into.
The cosmopolitan city of Solitude has bunting across its streets, jaunty triangles of coloured fabric adding cheer to its stone walls. It also has a public execution, but I ignore that and enter the Winking Skeever inn, where I warm my arse by another fire. Unlike the small taverns the fire’s in a corner instead of just being a big pit in the middle of the room, so I have to stand there staring at the mounted head of a polar bear. This place is maybe too fancy for me. Instead of paying for a room I push on through the night.
“Heavy fog rolls down the valley of the Reach.” This is the message I get travelling over the rocky terrain towards Markarth. It’s dark and it’s cold, so I try a shortcut by jumping on stones to cross a river, something I’ve done playfully in the past but now, when a fall in the water could mean death, I take much more seriously.
It doesn’t stop me from screwing up the final leap and plunging into the river, however. It seems like I only just got dry. On the far bank I approach a local to find out where I can find warmth, but that friendly villager turns out to be one of a party of Forsworn Foragers. The tribal Mad Max gang of Skyrim, the Forsworn are all antler hats and fur. Three of them draw weapons and attack.
Out of the undergrowth a surprise Mudcrab finishes one of them off before being shishkebabed by another, but the distraction’s enough for me to draw arrows and shoot the other two.
The combination of dampness and fog is killing me. My view’s warping and health points are falling off me in a trail of clumps as I rush uphill to the city of Markarth. Close to death, I ignore the murder taking place on the street and the questline it initiates to race into the Silver-Blood Inn and save my own skin with a seat near the fire.
Eventually I recover enough to enjoy the sights. Markarth is built into a cliff-face with a waterfall, which powers a turbine at its base. Its levels of carved stone edifices are linked by staircases, and standing on them listening to the water rush down is restful. I kick a cart into the water.
Turning south towards Falkreath I discover an Orc stronghold. They are not having a bar of me, and I’m not allowed in.
I warm myself by the fires outside a barrow named Valthume. Who lights these things?
After fighting my way through a Forsworn Redoubt I’m attacked by bandits. Sick of murder, I do a runner while the outlaws shout insults at my back. Everyone keeps telling me I’d make a fine rug, and they don’t mean it as a compliment.
In Falkreath Hold I find pine forests and see the colour green for the first time in an age. Curving around he southern edge of the map I enter Falkreath city by its cemetery, just in time for a funeral. I’d press F to grieve but it would only toggle the third-person view.
The last city on my checklist is Whiterun, in the middle of the map. Passing the familiar Guardian Stones makes me realise I’m retracing the steps I’d take in a normal playthrough, right at the start of the game. This is the boring bit where you slog to the village of Riverwood, excitingly named because it has both water and trees. It also has three carts in the street, so I try to invent the sport of cartball. Worried one of the carts might bounce fatally into a chicken and turn the village against me, I call the match off.
Whiterun wears fog like an ugly hat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it look this cold and forbidding before, fog as thick as ice cream. Outside the city I pause by the campfire of a band of travelling Khajiit. One of them complains about the weather. I feel you, brother.
I’ve decided there’s only one more Skryim experience I need to finish this travelogue with a bang, so I set off into the familiar grasslands of Whiterun Hold. To mark the occasion of my return, a wolf attacks me. And then two more, and then three more, and then I catch Rockjoint again.
At Fellglow Keep mages are hurling ice and summoning fire spirits to fight off bandits. They briefly unite in brotherhood to attack me. They’d be mad to follow me into the river, I think, diving in like an idiot to escape.
I’m wet and freezing yet again, and tempted to take off all my clothes and walk into the snow to end it all. But there’s still one important Skyrim sight I haven’t seen. I haven’t seen what it looks like from the air. These giants will oblige me.
Yeah, it’s just as cold up here.
It only took me three-and-a-half hours to traverse this entire country, but instead of the scale seeming reduced now, my appreciation for it has expanded. Sometimes the grey rocks under grey skies outside grey cities can be oppressive, but being forced to pay attention to Skyrim up close for an extended period has made me notice the subtle transitions, where the leaves are green and where they’re orange, where the grass is brown and where it’s buried under snow. It may not be realistically large but it’s large enough to contain varying climates and ecosystems, and they feel consistent. I’ve also gained some respect for whoever built all those bridges and lights all the fires. Those people (or undead Draugr, whatever) are lifesavers.