Skyrim remains a comfort game for me over a decade since I first played it, and I still find new ways to enjoy it to this day. My idea for this column came from recalling the freeing feeling I got when I would be let loose into that huge open world and completely ignore those crusty Greybeards trying to tell me my fate. The side missions in Skyrim truly run the gamut of scale; you could be uncovering a city-wide conspiracy on one mission and then going to chop some wood for 20 gold in the next.
But even in these more throwaway quests, you may find a new option that you never expected, like an invincible dog companion. One fetch quest that is made infinitely more memorable by the writing of your NPC companion is “A Daedra’s Best Friend,” where you run into a talking dog named Barbas that inexplicably sounds like he’s been isekaied into Skyrim from somewhere in Queens. In the typical structure of the quest, you help Barbas get back into the good graces of his master, the Daedric prince Clavicus Vile, and can then choose to either kill Barbas for the Rueful Axe you retrieved or spare him to get a pretty sweet masque.
It may end with a pretty standard moral choice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add extra dimensions to the quest yourself. When I was playing through Skyrim on Switch this year, it finally occurred to me that there actually was a third option here: I could leave the quest unfinished and have Barbas follow me around forever! Obviously I’m not the first player to discover this exploit by a long shot, but it was still mind-boggling to take a quest I have thoughtlessly completed countless times in a new direction.
So after I got a mission from Clavicus Vile, Barbas and I never went to get the axe; only chumps play two-handed anyway. I took my dog with me to apply to wizard college in Winterhold, got him stuck on level geometry while cutting deranged paths through cliffs and mountains to get to my objective, and had him hold onto my car keys when I did a drinking contest with Sam Guevenne.
There are definitely tougher companions out there. Barbas doesn’t dish out a lot of damage at all, but he’s got one absolutely killer ability, which is titanium-grade plot armor. Most companions will take splash damage from your spells and melee strikes and start limping around uselessly once drained of their health. You can throw Barbas into a Giant Camp or toss fireballs at him all day long and he’ll stay standing through it all.
Having an invulnerable pooch in Barbas was also an interesting wrinkle to put in Skyrim combat as it scales in difficulty, because he would draw attention away from me when I needed to heal or just felt like staying back and chucking out blizzards. I needed this more and more as enemies eventually increased in power, and I had more fun being able to pace out battles with Barbas than I did going solo or with more frail companions.
Some points in Conjuration puts even more allies on the battlefield, but certain items can make that unnecessary. I had one great fight against a tanky Draugr Deathlord by blocking him with Barbas and then summoning a Dremora on its other side with the Sanguine Rose staff I had just received, hardly taking any damage myself.
There is some friction along my chosen path, though. Barbas will basically take a vow of silence for as long as you have him, losing part of the charm that made the quest great in the first place. Your only dialogue options with Barbas are to discuss the history of the axe you’re seeking or to tell him to get lost. He also barks pretty frequently, which can be disruptive if you prefer to soak in ambient music or hear the town guards roast you in real time.
Barbas is absolute kryptonite to the popular stealth archer play style as well. He won’t go into stealth and follow your lead when you crouch, because his AI as a quest sidekick differs from that of normal companions. He also follows very close behind you, getting you stuck in tight corridors and other areas even more than humanoid allies do. Pretty much anything rogue-related is out the window with Barbas in your party, since he is a bit of a narc and you will incur a bounty if he sees you stealing — an odd trait for an evil Daedra.
I’m not touching a bow in this run, so at least the stealth flaw isn’t too painful. But I began to imagine Barbas’ silence not as a questing dead end, but as subtle punishment against me for not returning him to full power by the side of his true Daedric master. I would probably be pissed too if I were an immortal hound who punishes mortals for their greed with twisted deals, reduced to a follower of some idiot Spellsword running around smashing mudcrabs and chasing butterflies.
Even with this weighing on my mind, I’m too used to having Barbas with me to give him up yet. He’s even accompanied me on a huge rite of passage for any Skyrim character: my dark elf’s first trek into the cavernous underground city area, Blackreach. Hopefully he’ll find meaning in his new life by munching on some giant glowing mushrooms to try to trip or beating up some Falmer.
This experience with Barbas definitely epitomized the sandbox nature of Skyrim for me. As good as some plots and characters are, it really clicks in when you’ve become motivated by your own goals and stories as a player or the character you’re portraying. Maybe that’s why modders are still creating for this world, and entire game concepts have even been conceived within the framework of this one game. I don’t see myself growing out of playing around in Skyrim’s sandbox anytime soon.