Skyrim director’s cut: tales I tell myself

, | Game diaries

By January of this past year, playing Skyrim had become a chore to me. I kept telling myself that when Bethesda released their mod tools–The Creation Kit–that things would somehow get better, that the shortcomings I’d begun to struggle with in the game might be fixed by the modding community that had done such excellent work with Oblivion and the Fallouts. It is entirely possible that I was totally right about that…but I never found out. Just ten days after the Creation Kit arrived in early February, I abandoned Skyrim. I’d hit the wall and was burnt out, but not so much that I didn’t vow to return at some future point in time.

Perhaps it was the cold snap that brought unseasonably cold nights to the East Coast this fall. Perhaps it was just absence making my gaming heart grow fonder. Whatever the reason, recently I started to feel that pull back to Tamriel’s far north province. November marked the anniversary of Skyrim’s release, and after a year of patches, DLC, and fan-made creations, I wondered what the state of the game was. I knew that if done right a fully-modded version of Bethesda’s game could be a brand new experience; a Director’s Cut of sorts. If I chose wisely and installed carefully maybe I could finally get out of Skyrim the experience I’d always wanted to have.

After the jump: Spoiled for choice.

I go into what will be my second major play-through of the game well aware of the limitations inherent here. I’m fully aware that in Skyrim the combat can be dull and the story bog standard. Those are not the hooks the game has put in me, though. What brings me back after nearly a year are other things it offers.

For starters, I have every expectation that I can make a fully-modded version of Skyrim look as lovely as any fantasy RPG I’ve played. I think I can create environments that captivate, but do more than that. Other games show you beautiful vistas, but they’re the equivalent of matte paintings in movies. One of the draws to Skyrim is showing off those stunning horizons…and then inviting me to come explore them.

The other thing that has me eagerly headed back to Skyrim is a bit more abstract. My favorite RPGs of the last few years–The Witcher 2 or Dragon Age: Origins, for instance–have sat me in my chair or on my sofa and told me a story. The game doles out more story to me as I make smart decisions in the game and develop my character(s). “You sit there,” these games say, “and we’ll tell you about your character and the world he or she inhabits. We’ll show you the consequences of your decisions and strategies.”

Bethesda doesn’t do that particularly well, and Skyrim–even with improved story pieces–is no exception. What it does do well is give me a framework to hang my own story on, and that’s what I’m in the mood for at the moment. When I sit down to play this time, the story the game wants to tell me is of secondary importance. I’m more interested in using Skyrim as a vehicle for the tale I want to tell myself. In fact, that became my thesis and drove the choices of which mods I added to the game. These mods will shape the story I’m going to absorb myself in and alter the way I play this time.

“This time” indeed. Last winter I put 80 hours or so into Skyrim. I completed two major faction quest lines. I went deep into two others. I killed dragons galore, and explored plenty. That said, in my 80 hours of play I think I barely dabbled in what seemed like the two major quest lines in the game. There are three cities I’ve never seen. There are three more I felt as if I’d spent very little time in at all. My character was a chainmail-wearing, axe-swinging, magic-using terror, and somehow I managed to get to level 32 while feeling like I’d barely scratched the surface of the game world.

My goal this time around is to not only play a different kind of character, but to also play him in a different way. When I started this process off, I didn’t know exactly what sort of character I wanted to play, I just knew I wanted something different from the heavy armor and big axes and fireballs I’d wielded last year. I also knew I wanted to try to lose myself entirely in the world of Skyrim as much as possible.

To that end, I’d try to do what I’d done a few years ago playing Oblivion. I spent a good hundred hours or so playing a fully-immersed experience in that Skyrim prequel. As I set things up with mods in that game, my Oblivion guy had to eat, drink, sleep, and be mindful of diseases. I’ve no doubt many of you are thinking that it sounds like the dullest, most fiddly thing in the world. There are some of you, though, who are nodding vigorously that this is the only way to play a Bethesda open world game. We exist; don’t judge us.

Creating that sense of “you are there” was the first filter I used when sorting through thousands of available Skyrim mods. The thing of it is, there are so very many fan-made creations out there that trying to sort through all of them and pick out the best to use (as well as choosing mods that won’t conflict with one another) is almost as challenging and long-lasting a “game” as playing Skyrim itself.

While I was initially taken aback by the cliff wall of decisions and choices to make on how to proceed with modding the game, I eventually found some of the best hand-holding resources on the internet to guide my path. First of all is a “mod” called STEP. STEP stands for “Skyrim Total Enhancement Project”. STEP isn’t actually mod, though. Rather, it is a frequently updated, step-by-step PDF (with links) for adding a large group of mods, most of which are centered around visual enhancements to the game. The 125 or so mods in STEP all interact well together. I didn’t use all the mods in STEP, but I used a great number of them.

Perhaps an even better resource for choosing mods to install is a fellow known to the Youtube universe as Gopher. Gopher has done comprehensive videos to help folks build fully-tricked out, modded versions of Fallout and Fallout New Vegas. For the last year has done a weekly series called “Skyrim Mod Sanctuary” that highlights a group of the best mods available in that game. With the anniversary of Skyrim’s release, he’s done a 5-part “Anniversary” recap covering all the mods he’s talked about over the previous twelve months, explaining which are still essential, which have been updated, and which have gone out of date. That five part series is an excellent place to start.

In fact, it is in one of those five episodes from Gopher’s video series that inspiration struck for the story I want to tell myself this time in Skyrim. During one episode, he shows a mod that adds very small buckler-style shields. Some of the shields that can be crafted are almost form-fitting on the arm of a player, which are perfect for a nimble rogue-ish type. Then in the same episode he shows a revamp of some armor that appears to be a quest reward for the Dark Brotherhood faction quest line in the game. They’re the assassin’s guild in Skyrim, and the revamped armor looks great, and now I’m thinking of Ezio Auditore in Skyrim and I’ve got my story. I’ll be a scoundrel and ne’er-do-well who runs off to be a thief and hired killer…but who eventually sees his own destiny as The Dragonborn and tries to find redemption by ridding Skyrim of all those dragons.

And yes, he’ll have to be worry about hunger, thirst, and fatigue. He’ll also have to be mindful of dying of exposure out in the cold, nordic environment. I want him to fight for his survival against the harsh world itself as much as the monsters skulking around the plentiful underground lairs and dungeons. I want him to go deep into a revamped crafting system not simply as a diversion, but as a necessary element of advancement through the game. As I go bumping down that road to the headsman’s block in Helgen, I know that soon I’ll be crafting cloaks and chopping firewood and learning new cooking recipes. I’m gleeful with the anticipation of an entirely new and hostile Skyrim spreading out before me.

NEXT UP: Dragons Can Wait.

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