Skyrim director’s cut: meta and potatoes

, | Game diaries

You might be able to tell by looking at the picture above that Twain — my character in Skyrim — is having something of a crisis of confidence right now. That’s him on the barstool, drowning his sorrows at the Vilemyr Inn, and I can’t blame him for his despair. While Steam tells me I’ve spent nearly 18 hours in Skyrim since I started keeping this diary, I can’t help but notice that Twain’s still wearing the same grungy furs he’s had since early on in the game. What’s worse, I could pull up a menu showing that despite all that in-game time the poor guy is still only level 11. If we were able to ask him, Twain would probably take a swig of Honingbrew Mead and express that he felt like he’d been through all this before.

After the jump, mod-induced deja vu syndrome

Twain and I actually have been here before. Just a bit ago we went up all Seven Thousand Steps to High Hrothgar. That’s a major early story piece in one of Skyrim’s main quests, and confers on your character a fairly essential set of special abilities — his Dragon Shouts. It’s a signature set piece in the game that involves climbing the highest mountain in all the world of Tamriel, and to its credit Bethesda really delivers the high alpine goods on this piece of story. My problem is that just as I was nearing the very top of the Steps (which is the ancient footpath that winds its way up the mountain) my game crashed to the desktop. No error message, no hang, no warning, no nothing.

Such crashes are a fact of life if you dare to put more than a few different mods and plugins into the game. You learn quickly the wisdom of saving often. Almost as a tribute to how entranced I was with the scenery and blowing winds and snow as I sent Twain up that high mountain, I’d forgotten my own save-game discipline and it cost me. Thankfully, you can set Skyrim up to do automatic saving not only when you enter new areas and buildings, but also at various time intervals. Suffice to say after having to re-climb the mountain that I lowered the time interval on autosaves “in the wild” in the game’s options.

The great fallacy of browsing a site like Skyrim Nexus is seeing all sort of graphical and gameplay tweaks that “improve” the game that independent creators have devised and wondering why Bethesda didn’t include such graphics-improving bells and whistles right from the get-go. After you’ve installed a few dozen different plugins and labored through troubleshooting why Skyrim suddenly won’t start or is behaving in exceedingly odd ways, you learn a better truth: there are reasons those wonderful things that mods do were left out of the game originally.

That’s not to say that mods aren’t worthwhile and can’t greatly enhance the Skyrim experience — quite the opposite. The point is, when you add in all those mods you’re doing so with tradeoffs to performance, stability, and game balance. Those are all things that are likely to suffer negatively if you’re not heedful of what you’re doing. Choose the wrong mod for the wrong situation, and you’ll find yourself having lost more than just a few save games. That’s what happened to about five hours of Twain’s existence in Skyrim, as an example.

Last entry, I mentioned how much I was enjoying a mod called Frostfall that forces your character to deal with the extreme cold climates of the mountains and snow in the game. It really is an outstanding gameplay idea, and one I’d call almost essential for anyone attempting to truly add some verisimilitude to the world of Skyrim. Having said that, you may have noticed some glorious sunrises and sunsets in a few of my screenshots here. That’s the work of another mod I’m in love with, one called Project Reality: Climates Of Tamriel. CoT as it’s called, gives you glorious skies to look at, amazing weather effects and lighting, and very dark nights and dungeons. When the shadows hit just right, it makes playing Skyrim feel almost like stepping into a 17th-century baroque landscape. There’s a problem, though. Frostfall 1.6b (the current release version of that mod) isn’t compatible with CoT. What happens when they “mix” is that your character will get wet for no reason, and there’s no way to make him dry out. Being wet adversely affects your character because it causes exposure in colder areas of the map and makes health rapidly decrease. That’s bad.

And it’s my fault, too. The main page for Frostfall pretty clearly states this incompatibility with Climates Of Tamriel. I’m the idiot who didn’t read it — and it isn’t really even hidden in small print, either. It’s right at the top of the page. In my case, I only discovered my stupidity when Twain got into a colder area of the world and could barely stay alive even when just walking around. The only way to fix the problem was to roll my game back to a save that was five hours earlier in gameplay time and pick up from there. (I should again add here that this was a problem of my own doing and neglect. I was able to contact the creator of Frostfall, a wonderfully accommodating fellow named Chesko, who informs me that version 2.0 of his mod is in the third and final beta test stage and will include support for Climates Of Tamriel that fixes the problem with compatibility with that mod. I’m eagerly — and impatiently — awaiting it!)

While a rollback like that is one problem with modding a game like Skyrim as heavily as I’ve done, the other is the difficult decisions that conflicting mods force you into. In the case above, I had to decide which was more important to me: Climates Of Tamriel’s lighting and weather environments, or Frostfall’s realistic exposure of your character to the elements. I ended up (narrowly) deciding to stick with CoT, which meant uninstalling Frostfall. (As an aside, the ease of installing and uninstalling mods is one of the best reasons to recommend unconditionally the Nexus Mod Manager, a free utility from Skyrim Nexus. Hopefully Frostfall 2.0 gets here soon and I can reinstall that.) Such a decision was hardly the only one I faced when setting up the mods for this playthrough of the game. For instance, one mod I’ve been dying to see in action is called Warzones — Civil Unrest. What Warzones aims to do is to bring the civil war in Skyrim into dynamic life. It is able to put dozens of fighters out into the fields battling one another in small and large-scale battles that add some oomph to the reality of one of the game’s primary story bits. Sadly, it is another mod I had to decline to use. For one thing, the high-detail .ini settings I’m using mean that Warzones will likely grind the game into a complete freeze-up when it tries to put huge armies together for a battle. I’m also using a mod called Scenic Carriages (along with a mod that completely disables map location to map location fast travel) that makes it so the easy travel between cities is actually handled by putting you in the back of a carriage and having you bump along the roads in real time…which sadly would include all sorts of problems if you bumped into a big civil war fight from Warzones on a journey between cities.

Such tradeoffs are part of the experience. You trade stability for beauty and detail. You trade a mod that does one cool thing for other mods that do other cool things. The good news is that even with all of the setbacks I’ve had with Twain’s experience early on, I’m more drawn back to the world than I’ve ever felt while playing the game previously. I know that there’s much cooler-looking arms and armor awaiting him in the game as I level up and proceed further into his story. It’s time I soldiered on to cast my lot with the thieves and assassins of Skyrim!

(Sometimes the frustrations with trying to play Skyrim with over a hundred mods running together can make you wonder if it’s worth the effort. Then you get a sunset like that.)

Next time: He’s Crafty, He Gets Around