Anyone who's read my previous posts on this wiki probably knows how I feel about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Whilst my opinion of it isn't exactly low per se, it's not very high either. I feel as though it's a very shallow and poorly put together game overall, and whilst my opinion is unchanged, and shall remain so, there is one mitigating factor that took a boring, disappointing RPG and turned it into one of my all-time favourites. That anomalous factor, as you've likely guessed, is its modability.
Originally, before ascending to the PC Master Race, I played Bethesda games on the PlayStation 3. Having played the PC versions of the more recent Fallout and The Elder Scrolls entries, I won't ever be able to go back to the console versions. To be clear, I'm not saying consoles are an inferior choice (though they obviously are in some respects), I am saying that the PC version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the superior version. In addition to more stability at a higher framerate with better quality textures, there's also the ability to mod it. At first, I thought that modding would ruin the "purity" of the game, but two hundred odd mods later, I realised that I wasn't bastardising it, but rather I was molding it to the shape that best fit me as a player, and in some ways, turning it into the game it always should have been.
Part 1: The Big Things (Exploration, Combat, and Gameplay)
Some might say that mods are just a novelty. And it's true, some are. Turning the Dragons of Skyrim into Macho Man Randy Savage might seem like a good laugh, but is that really the whole point of modding my game? I'll get back to that later. For anyone who thinks that mods are only for people who want to fight Thomas the Tank engine with lightsabres, allow me refute that now. Whilst the core mechanical failings of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim remain, and cannot be fixed (though they can be mitigated), most of my problems with the game were washed away with mods, leaving a game that I can play forever. To be clear, this article is not exhaustive in any way. The mods discussed here simply exemplify what I feel makes modding so worthwhile, and in this case, necessary.
I'll start with the one everyone knows, Frostfall - Hypothermia Camping Survival by Chesko. This mod manages to feel like a major overhaul, despite having extremely simplistic interface. For those who don't know, the main aim of Frostfall is to make Skyrim's rigid north a more dangerous and unforgiving place, forcing you to put some more thought into how you play, and what you take with you on your next expedition (this is assuming you play without fast travel). It's fairly simple, but it can have a huge impact on gameplay. Suddenly, jumping into frozen rivers isn't an afterthought; it's suicide. In southern Skyrim, this isn't really an issue, so new players sticking around the starting area don't have anything to fret. However, should you venture to the frozen tundra and glacial regions to the north, you have to come prepared. If you're not geared up with cloaks (see Cloaks of Skyrim and Winter is Coming) and armour to cover your fleshy bits, you'll be more easily exposed to the elements, which leads to a variety of negative effects, up to death. Not unlike how radiation works in the Fallout series, this seemingly tiny addition adds an element of danger and hostility to what should be a land full of stubborn and hardy Vikings. This mod adds more than just danger, it adds some thought to it as well, thus creating an element of challenge and immersion missing from what was a very mindless and dull experience.
Though less than fifty kilobytes in size, TK HitStop by tktk goes a long way to make the combat in The Elder Scrolls V: Sykrim less dull. Vanilla combat feels empty, and over time; it doesn't feel like you're actually hitting anything. Combat is at the core of this title, yet the kinaesthetics, the "game feel" simply... isn't there. Anyone who's played a character action title, or even an APRG like Dark Souls should know what I mean. The "feel" of hitting an enemy (and getting hit by an enemy) is at the heart of the experience. Yet, instead of focusing on ensuring the game is fun to play, Bethesda prioritised adding as much content to the game as possible, even if all of it might end up feeling samey and boring. TK HitStop doesn't make the combat as visceral and pitch-perfect as something like Metal Gear Rising: Revengance, no mod can do that. However, it does mitigate the bad gameplay, taking a snoozefest of a fight into something with a little more punch. By adding a short pause and a bit of screen shake, the mod simulates the two essential sides of good game feel in a combat-oriented videogame: power and resistance. You feel the weight of your weapon crashing down on your enemy, and yet, at the same time, you get a feel of their flesh and bone resisting your cold steel. It feels meatier, chunkier, and more visceral, and though it'll never hold up to games with good mechanics and game feel, it does take an empty combat system and turn it into something servicable, which makes this mod essential for me.
Though there are plenty of alternatives, Darker Caves, Dungeons, Ruins, Towers, Nights by lighting_luke and Realistic Lighting by kurtcop are probably my go-to mods for making sure nights, dungeons, and other dark places stay dark. By getting rid of the weird tinted nights and dungeons, you suddenly learn to cherish the light, and fear the dark. As is the case with Frostfall, you can no longer venture out into the perilous world of Skyrim unprepared. Without a good supply of torches, or a trusty lantern by your side, you will find yourself lost, alone, and scared. Like the next mod, it makes you carefully consider when to go out and effects the overall pacing of the game.
Many mods preform this same function, but when it comes to basic needs, I only ever use Realistic Needs and Diseases by perseid9. In addition to making diseases harsher (again, adding another element of much needed danger and thought), this mod adds a requirement that you eat, drink, and sleep to stay alive, or at the very least, stay at your peek. As is the case with Frostfall, this does mean a long expedition can be dangerous, requiring ample preparation. However, it also changes the pacing and structure of how I play. Coupled with mods that make the game darker, this forces me into a cycle of rest and action, much like the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, which switches between elements of a social simulator and a dungeon crawling JRPG in intervals just long enough for you to enjoy them, without getting burnt out on them. Imagine the following scenario. With night fast approaching, a mighty hunger rising in your stomach, and a thirst that requires at least three bottles of mead to quench, you decide to stop at the local tavern, buy a meal and some drink to go with it, and finally head to bed after listening to the bard sing a couple of songs as you warm up by the fire. In the morning, you speak to the bartender, who tells you of a haunted tomb in town. You gear up and head out to take on this dungeon, and after emerging victorious, pack full of loot, you return to the tavern for some well-deserved rest. The next morning, you sell your loot to the local merchant in the inn, and use some of that coin to purchase whatever supplies you need for your trip up the nearby mountain. Instead of simply following a quest marker above your head and killing everything you see that's red, you have to put yourself into the same situation as your character, making The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the challenging and immersive RPG it should have been all along.
Part 2: The Little Things (Immersion, Atmosphere, and Aesthetics)
Not every mod completely overhauls the game by fixing its major flaws or changing it into a radically different experience. With a lot of little mods, each improving the overall look and feel of the game, you'll end up with something greater than the sum of its parts, blending seamlessly into what I consider to be one of the most immersive experiences I've had as a gamer.
As you are probably aware, one of the best perks of the PC version is the multitude of high resolution texture packs that turn the bland vanilla game and turn it into a breathtaking masterpiece. One of the better known re-texture series is the aMidianBorn Book of Silence by CaBaL and his team. These mods seamlessly replace the lower resolution textures in the game, giving the armours, a crisp, fresh look to them, compared to the duller, blander ones in the base game. Alone, each individual mod might not seem like much, but it goes along way.
People often say that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a pretty game. I think this is true to some extent, but that extent comes when you realise that this game had to be made to accommodate software that was already over six years old by the time of release. Even with vegetation and clutter as sparse as it is in vanilla, I still experienced framerate drops on my PS3 version, which shouldn't have any at all. On my PC, I can run the base game at a solid sixty FPS. Consoles can barely handle the main game, let alone the breathtaking views granted by mods like Tamriel Reloaded and Towns and Villages Enhanced. There's plenty of other overhaul mods too, such as Whiterun Complete and Sexy Riften. This way, you can customise the game world to your own personal preference or, if you're doing another playthrough, and want to shake things up, a new texture mod can keep things fresh.
Then of course, there are other mods you can use to bolster the game's appearance, with almost no impact to framerate. Before using mods like Immersive Saturation Boost and Vibrarnt Auroras, I never realised how dull and muted the colour palette was. The difference can be subtle, but there is a difference, and just these two mods can go a long way to make Skyrim a more beautiful place.
Part 3: Content
Think The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has a lot of content? Bethesda saw fit to create three "meh" add-ons before moving on, and whilst I do think most of them were okay, none of them were as good as the expansions provided by the community, such as Wyrmstooth, Moon Path to Elsweyr, and Falskaar. Those three I just mentioned are the cream of the crop when it comes to the unoffical add-ons, but they're also just the tip of the iceberg. The sheer multitude of these mods is what makes the modding community so mind-blowing. The content provided on Nexus and Steam Workshop will provide you with enough content so that you can play for hundreds upon hundreds of hours. Then of course, there's also custom-made dungeons like Ogmund's Tomb. Sometimes, you'll find mods that add small, isolated locations to forgotten corners of Skyrim. With enough of these mods, you'll have a game world that is teeming with life.
Then, you have mods that add new towns, like Evonbale and the Elder Scrolls Places mod, which integrates lore-friendly locations the world, one of which I discovered by accident, only to discover later that the extremely high-quality dungeon I explored for a bounty quest was actually made by a modder.
Want to ensure you'll never get tired of your game? Grab Extra Encounters to keep things interesting, and Additional Music Project, so the music won't get stale. While you're at it, download all of HothTrooper44's mods. Seriously, you won't regret it. Then there's Weapons of the Third Era, and a multitude of other weapons and armour mods that add to the depth of the crafting system, taking advantage of its open-ended nature.
All of this content, and how much did I have to pay? About seven dollars.
Part 4: Freedom
The best thing about modding The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the sheer amount of freedom you have to mold the game into the game you feel is right for you. On console, what the developers make is what you get, end of story. On PC, this isn't an issue; you get to decide what's best for your own game. This personalised approach to gameplay is what I love the most about modding. Think the final boss should be tougher? There's a mod for that. Disagree with Bethesda's decision to include fast travel? Wish you could go back to the The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind style of getting around? You can do it!
Remember what I said about novelty mods earlier? Personally, I play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for an immersive experience, not to screw around with lightsabres and naked anime girls. I have other games for that. However, depending on your tolerance level, there are plenty of great mods that can fit right into the game world. How can I not get Dragonslayer from Berserk? It's called Dragonslayer! He might be mostly a joke, but Throthgar is an excellent addition to the game and personally, it doesn't bother me. Bethesda couldn't put these kinds of mods in the game, because someone might get offended. That's what makes mods so great. You, the player, get to decide what you want in your game.
Almost any fault with the game can be fixed this way, and though this in no way excuses incompetence on the part of the developer, it does mostly make up for it in the end. To me, what matters most is the end result, and the game I ended up with is far better than most games that are great to start out with. Modability is an interesting anomaly in game developement, because of its infinite potential, both for correcting a game's faults, and for expanding upon its strengths even further. Like I said, it doesn't mean that any critique against Bethesda's game design is invalid. If anything, mods made me realise how terrible of a game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is, even as I was building one of my favourite RPGs ever.
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