Saturday, July 7, 2012

My "SkyReal" project

So I think it's safe to say that if you know me, or have been following me, you know that I love Skyrim. Best game to come out in 2011, hands down, for me. Maybe even further back. I played through the game "to completion" on two characters. Now I put quotes on "to completion" because Skyrim is not the type of game you ever really finish. There's always more to do, and things to find. It's a vast, vast world. But on my first two characters I completed the main story, all the side quests, and a vast majority of the miscellaneous favors, objectives and activities. In essence I played both character until I had emptied my quest logs (not as easy feat). In the process I logged over 350 hours, and all 50 achievements.

But anyway, despite how much I love the game, there were always some things that bothered me. But the number one thing that I was disappointed by was the feeling of immersion and realism. Although the living world is phenomenal (NPC's go about a daily routine, and things happen whether you participate or not), once you look past the radiant AI characters, the world itself felt less like a world and more like a playground (this is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just not my preferred play style).

I'm talking about environmental immersion, which I find to be lacking in the vanilla version of Skyrim. Well, thankfully that's why Bethesda makes its editing tools available to the community, and the mods have been steadily pouring forth since the tools were released. And I've continued to scour the offerings looking for choice mods that help with this facet. I'm calling this effort my "SkyReal project". So here below is the short list of mods that I've got installed that help increase environmental immersion in Skyrim. Let's begin, in order of importance:

1.  Realistic Colors and Real Nights (RCRN 3) - Legacy Preset: So what this mod does is provide a complete overhaul on how the game renders environmental post-processing. It amps up the HDR, and makes use of custom shaders to make the world look prettier overall. But the color shifts are more of a subjective thing, so your mileage may vary on whether you like the game better with the richer colors or not. However, I installed this mod for one reason mainly - darker nights. Although I found the nights in Skyrim to be beautiful, you never got the feeling that darkness was dangerous. This changes that. The makers of this mod have created three versions of this mod, with each one making the nights progressively darker. I have the Legacy preset which is the least dark of the settings, but it is definitely darker than vanilla Skyrim - enough to make you cautious about roaming around at night. This mod also works on dark indoor areas as well, which has the effect of making it almost impossible to meander through many of the world's dungeons without a torch. Yep, you now have to make difficult choices about whether to bring out your torch to look around, or if you want to try to sneak through in the dark. And the way that this mod handles the HDR means you can be blinded momentarily when going from pitch black to fully lit - again increasing the tension of dungeon-delving. This is one of the best mods for increasing environmental immersion, so this is why I put it at the top of my list.

2. Sounds of Skyrim (The Wilds and Dungeons) - This is actually a pair of mods, but they really belong together as they provide the same benefits but to different areas of the game. As you can guess from the title, these mods add sounds to the world. But not just a few sounds here and there. No, this is one of the most ambitious audio overhauls I think I've ever heard. Both mods adds tons of new ambient sounds, making the world sound so much more alive. You hear ravens call, wolves howling, moose calls, insects buzzing past your ears, and trees swaying in the breeze with The Wilds. And you hear draugr moaning, rocks falling, metal  creaking and a whole host of dungeon life scrabbling around in the dark in Dungeons. Although none of the sounds are tied into any of the game's content, it doesn't really matter. What it does is create an atmosphere which you didn't know was missing...until you install these mods.

3. Pure Waters - This mod changes the way that the game renders the various bodies of water in Skyrim. By and large it's goal is to make the water in Skyrim more realistic. As with the top mod, some of this is subjective, as what looks real to some may seem not so real to someone else. Water can appear differently in different conditions, so there's no one "correct" way to render water. However, what this mod does which I found to be worth keeping is that it changes underwater to something like I would expect. Submerging yourself with this mod, you'll quickly see the difference, in terms of your loss of visibility. When you combine this mod with the above mod, no longer can you amazingly see from shore to shore when underwater at night. No, this mod will have you waiting for daylight to go swimming unless you want to go groping around in the dark, which feels right to me.

4. Better Dynamic Snow - This mod is really simple, but it's also really powerful. I actually really consider this less of a mod and more of a bug fix. All it does is apply the default snow texture onto the snow that accumulates when a storm is going on. With the vanilla Skyrim, the accumulation effect simply applied a flat white texture onto surfaces, which works from a distance, but up close just looked horrible. I installed it primarily because of how MUCH snow is in Skyrim, and it left me scratching my head why they chose a flat texture for this effect (when the default snow texture was already loaded in memory, since it was being used for the surrounding terrain).

5. Disable Fast Travel* - This mod does exactly what it says it does - you can no longer open your world map and fast travel to any place you desire. If you need to get somewhere, you either walk with your own two feet, or you buy yourself a horse, or you rent yourself a carriage. Now, I put an asterisk on this mod because although I like the amount of environmental immersion is provides, I have opted instead to leave myself the OPTION of fast traveling, but ONLY as a last resort. So, in most games I'm happy to make use of things like fast travel, but for a game like Skyrim where a large amount of the "fun factor" is in just exploring and seeing the world unfolding before you, I want to participate with it and not "skip ahead" just to get to the content. One of the chief reasons I don't play with this mod active though is that while I love the idea of not being able to warp around the world, the game is designed with that mechanic in mind, so your options outside of that are really limiting. Case in point: The carriages you can hire to take you places are only available in, and can only take you to, the capital cities - settlements like Ivarstead or Riverwood are strangely carriage-less. Yet these settlements would seemingly rely heavily on carriages to bring them supplies, etc. from the larger cities. So if someone ever releases a mod which increases the network of carriages, I might re-enable this mod.

6. Leveling Merchant's Wallets - This is a mod that simply makes more gold available to the game's merchants, and the amount that they have available changes the more you sell to them (they get wealthier) so that you can actually sell things out of your inventory. Now, you could make the argument that this mod actually takes away from environmental immersion because what it does is enable you to pretty much just use a single merchant for the entire game, but I actually see it as a realistic application of capitalism. If I sell all my unwanted gear to a merchant who can afford to buy it all (and there is complete absence of anything like this in the vanilla game which in itself is strange), it makes sense that he could turn around and sell it for more than what he gave me, which would in turn make him wealthier, and finally able to buy more from me the next time I visited. The reason this mod doesn't offend my sensibilities and actually increases my environmental immersion is that I feel as though I'm establishing relationships with merchants, and those relationships are what make buying and selling a better experience. I was never a fan of the way that the vanilla game relies on your speechcraft skill to increase the amount of gold that merchants carry. I am fine with the skill being used to determine how much the merchants will pay you for selling to them, but having their purses being directly tied to my ability to speak eloquently never made any sense to me. This mod fixes that gripe, and you'll never have to worry about hoarding gear in your house or making multiple trips to vendors across the city to offload your junk again.

So those are the mods I've got installed right now, which help give Skyrim that sense of environmental immersion I was hoping for. If you know of any additional mods that you think should be added to this list, please feel free to post it in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and maybe I'll see you on the road to Markarth!