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Rant: NPC V ///// Remaking a reality

When the world no longer meets with your approval, you change it. There is a mod for that. 

Every game comes in two versions- the one you buy on the shelf, and the game you make out of that game. As early as the late 1980’s, gamers began modifying certain aspects of games- whether for artistic purposes of gameplay is a fine point that cursive research didn’t provide me a ready answer to. I assume it’s somewhere between the two- experiments into changing gameworlds, activating certain bits and bytes, creating animated sequences with pre-built characters in a certain game, but this is the realm of urban legends and suppositions. We're not going there. 

Making a game your own happens in two stages- first you play and master the game, then you discover the limits the game sets upon you and you begin to develop ways of unbuilding the limitations in the original game. 

Modding was a new field for me. I became very obsessed with load orders and frame rates and squeezing out everything numerically possible out of 3GB of Ram- the limitations of a 32-bit windows emulator- and setting it to recognise 2GB of Video RAM, having the latest build, extending the papyrus cache and balancing mods to work smoothly together.

I suppose this part has to be a little geeky and showy- I am proud of the depth to which I evolved the graphics and gameplay of Skyrim from the original, Vanilla, version into something that was simply mine in play, look and world. Whether this would be anyone else’s taste is questionable, but it kept me very busy and content. Very much so indeed- hundreds, if not a couple of thousand hours went into learning where to look for textures, balancing survival mods, adding a doublejump and keeping the whole damn thing running for more than 30 seconds. Cayenne- one of my character builds- was the first one to blink! I was so happy. :DD This kind of happy. 

Working towards a playable version with over 150 mods running is. It just is. You want it to be. It’s your own world, mixed together out of thousands of options, from which you have chosen, after hours of careful reading, experimenting and blending, made a selection of conditions that suit your subjective taste. It has the depth you feel is suited to your virtual and personal character. Tailored the load order carefully to avoid conflicts in memory usage, texture layers and does Frostfall come first or last, FFFFFFFFF! Crashed again. But it was beautiful while it ran, and it was mine. Who would want to escape such an elaborate escapist fantasy? 

I hope you like screenshots- they’re that world's version of holiday pictures. I could write a lot, but it seems appropriate to share some here. If you don't like pictures, there are more words below. 

Character Evolution


Friends (and Relations)

One of the first lines from a game that’s stuck in my mind is “You’re well fed and wide awake”* and in another dimension. Or another dungeon. And everything is squared-ish. But, hey, three-dee and monsters, in 1993. And- otherworldly mushrooms that make you hallucinate? Great. Better than moldy bread and what is that… why… am I carrying that with me? Que inventory management. This is a habit that continues meticulously throughout many incarnations of my virtual avatars. But back to “Well fed and wide awake”.

Skyrim’s, or in my case “Oldrims”* world is, as discussed in part 2, not the vastest of game worlds. It’s very pretty to run through and explore initially. But some of it simply doesn’t make sense, and for someone who has played newer games, the way it plays and looks feels outdated. While in some games, this wouldn't bother me- the gameplay supersedes the graphics in ways that make the graphical representation something I don't pay attention to- knowing that this world was open for the changing made its flaws glaringly obvious. 

Let’s start with something basic, but world-spanning: you can’t knock on doors, and ask the inhabitants of houses politely whether you can enter. This may be put down to Lore-friendly Norse coarseness, and may be the most immersive aspect of the original game, but it simply did not feel right to be invited somewhere and not have a civil way to enter the house. And here began my first foray into gameplay mods, after having played around with a few graphical modifications and texture replacers. And, with relative ease, I found something called “Simply Knock”, which did exactly what the name suggests. It allowed me to go to a door, rap a virtual fist against it and ask if I may enter an abode. It took two minutes to install and worked flawlessly. 

This was a very encouraging beginning to a process of complexification that would make my characters hungry, thirsty, tired, drunk, dirty, sick(-er) and addicted to the many potions I was chugging (side-effects now include stumbling around, reduced vision…). I added many animals to the world, made the enemies more varied, gave the NPC's new looks, skins and clothes (and feet!)- promoted their diversity, you might say- made women smile or frown, and added some new and unique stories for me to experience. I gave myself sunsets to rival Caspar David Friedrich paintings in their romantic splendor, the option not to take part in what I considered a necessary, but uncivil war in which neither side was really worth joining, and- briefly- the option to take over as the ruler of the land, figuring that, if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em. I also made the combat more challenging and reliant on my skill as a player, rather than my stats as a character. I got my side-quests off a notice board. Later on, I added feeling cold and camping, which turned the game world from a decorative character in my personal tale into one which I had to be aware of at all times and respond to, rather than just seeing it as a connector between various quest locations. A sunny, warm day was suddenly one that filled me with joy and a fierce blizzard could kill me in minutes. And I could hear the rain in-doors…*** 

A different way to say this is that I took control over the world and the way it worked, increasing my choices within it, the ways my character was affected by it and could develop within it- you might call it emergent gameplay. This also includes ways to interact with and move through the world, including teleportation, rope arrows and sewers, eating food to sate hunger, giving gifts, sex- creating situations where there had formerly only been a single path. Though I never did figure out how to implement a dragon uprising on humanity, by the time I was finished, my world was not only beautiful and deadly. It also included many layers of passive interaction and visual details, such as weather, dirtyness and clothes, making it feel more “lived-in”, diverse (for Skyrim) and realistic. And the Skyrim Nexus continued providing me with new options, made for free consumption by people who cared about it, on a daily basis.****

I ended up spending as much, if not more time, adjusting the parameters that would affect this world and how long I would be able to walk through it- first manually, then with more advanced sorting tools. 

The game became the game and realising that I could affect the way its systems worked began to remind me of other forms of activism I had engaged in previously- always looking for ways to change the world, but never finding them with this ease. I couldn't help but draw comparisons between modders, who put their time and energy into subjectively improving this virtual world, and real life activists I knew, who directed their energies in similar ways towards the physical one- some modders may be both. I drew hope from the idea that people are willing to improve the world they inhabit when they see the need and have the tools to do so, and share these changes with others, creating a community of resistance to a static state of existence in a commonly shared world. From what I understand, a successful mod its market value in intellectual and social capital, but the will to spend hours learning the systems underlying a game world, then applying that knowledge to effect a change to that world is a generous act, sharing it even more so. This hope continues to nourish me, though it is beginning to be joined once more by other hopes.

With their help, it was easy to set up a new economy, new systems of social interaction, even change the climate here! As the “real” worlds of politics, economy and society outside my screen seemed to fall apart, I felt I was building my very own escape capsule to something that was, if not better, at least made sense to me personally. So it just had to work, and, after much building, cursing and rebuilding, it became a fantasy I was happy to be a part of. It challenged my technical and “artistic” skills, teased my brain and made me click a lot. And it was good, addictive fun. 

When I felt I had finished building that world and it worked, I left it, and have not returned to it since. 

Nor have I returned to any other virtual realm, save for a brief interaction on social media last week and writing here- emails excluded. My Skyrim build will still be there when I get back to it, as will all the mods I so carefully set up to work together, and the very “real” people I discovered and my emotional connections to them- they are all frozen in a very large archive on one of my hard drives*****, like the inhabitants of a fairy tale castle that has been frozen in time by magic, they await the lifting of that spell. Meanwhile, it is cold and rainy in a Berlin May and I find myself wishing for some sun while looking for real-world challenges.

This part ends here.
The last part of NPC will deal with another reality.

Don't Escape 3 is a point-and-click adventure by the scriptwelders. It reverses the game trope of a prisoner seeking to escape a location by placing you in a situation in which you slowly discover that your freedom will cause great harm to others and challenges you to sacrifice yourself for the common good. While this is not everyone's cup of tea in real life, it is worth exploring, at least once, virtually. It can be played here: 

* bonus brownie points if you can guess where that comes from
**oldrim= the non-special edition of Skyrim. Still legendary, though.
*** and by then, I had also added the music from the Witcher games. Though I enjoyed the epicness of the original Skyrim soundtrack once, it soon became repetitive. The more whimsical tunes, with their folk and rock influences, with the occasional epic instrumental track, felt better suited to my playstyle. When I didn't turn off the sound entirely to listen to podcasts while playing. 
**** On the whole "Should Modders be paid?" debate, I come down on the yes side. They should be paid by the studio that originally developed the game, as they're extending the life cycle and visibility of the software product. It's free advertising for the company, though the main benefactors are other gamers, modding does keep a game and its community alive and vital for much longer than the developers had originally hoped. 
***** I do hope Inigo reaches V3 by the time I return- that is truly a great mod, and I would love to know how that story ends. 


(This is still my favourite piece of battle music from TW3. Apparently it belongs to Ciri and CdProjekt)


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