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Gold In Them Hills: Skyrim In 2014

Dragonporn

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This is the latest in a series of articles about the art technology of games, in collaboration with the particularly handsome Dead End Thrills.

An occupational risk of Christmas is that the great mead (Jaffa Cakes) hall of my in-laws’ living room will inspire me to reinstall Skyrim, post a few fancy screenshots, and sure enough get a few emails asking for some mythical mod guide. Then comes the abuse: “He doesn’t want anyone to have his secret sauce!” Or: “His Skyrim doesn’t look like that – *snort* – those are Photoshopped.” Only they don’t capitalise Photoshop because they didn’t have to sit through that publishing meeting, lucky old them.

They’re almost right about one thing: my Skyrim doesn’t look like that. Likewise, when someone asks me what English weather is like, I don’t answer: ‘It’s like that evening drive between Dorset and Wiltshire when a torrential downpour gave way to just the best sunshine that lit up the faces of distant historic buildings and cast painterly shadows across dale and field.’ What I tell them is that, nine times out of ten, ‘it’s shit.’

What posters of modded Skyrim shots fail to mention is that their game only looks like that 1 per cent of the time, from 0.01 per cent of the vantage points on the map. The numbers are only slightly better for any videogame screenshot worth a damn. Whether you’re an industry screenshot artist or a Steam Community superstar or whatever, what you’re doing is marketing. Selling. Lying by omission.

What the posters also don’t mention is that the mountainous challenge of taking those shots is precisely why many people play Skyrim now more than ever. Alduin is dead but the quest for ultimate graphics goes on… and on. The fallacy of asking ‘how to make Skyrim look like that’ is that you simply don’t know what Skyrim might look like whenever you fire it up. That’s the point. Two years after it came out, when I climbed up a mountain and started bashing in the console commands, I had absolutely no idea I’d see this:

This isn’t a guide to playing Skyrim with mods, then, as I would probably use a very different setup if I wanted traditional gameplay. It’s not a guide to taking good screenshots, either, so much as knowing how to look for them. This, Curb fans, is my Seinfeld reunion.

The Command Console

Myth number one about Making Skyrim Pretty is that it takes ‘hundreds of mods’. Much of the reason for doing this guide is that I’ve used several neat tricks along the way that do much of the work but are either taken for granted or dismissed. So let’s begin:

tfc / sucsm / player.moveto – You probably know about tfc (Toggle Free Camera) and tm (Toggle Menus) already; you might even know about tfc 1, the free camera that freezes game time. That’s Screenshot 101. sucsm (Set UFO Cam Speed Multplier – sexy!) will make the free camera slower and more precise. The free camera’s great for scouting for locations, angles, etc, and this is where player.moveto comes in. Maybe you want to set up a pose for a screenshot or just ensure the game’s loaded the highest LOD around your new location, so click on a small nearby object with the command console open – a shrub, a tree, just not the bare terrain mesh – and type player.moveto .

tcl – This is basically noclip for your character. It lets you fly about. It also stops you mid-fall if something goes wrong, or if you teleport into the ground or, as is entirely possible in the pre-alpha nudist colony of Skywind, someone’s privates. Make sure there’s no target object selected before using it.

tai – Turns the AI on and off. You’ll need this if you want to free cam around your horse without running it off a cliff at the same time. Good for posing enemies and NPCs, too. Just be sure the right entity’s selected in the command console first.

setfog – This is fundamentally useful for taking good screenshots or otherwise dolling up Skyrim’s outdoor terrain. The biggest reason shots like the one below are so elusive isn’t mods, but the suggestion of volume and proportion using basic fog levels. The setfog command expects two numbers, one for where the fog starts and another for how far it transitions. Something like setfog 4000 5000, then, will see a more abrupt change than setfog 4000 30000. Every scene and camera position requires its own values if it’s to reach its full potential. With default values, the scene below would just be a flat wall of textures.

fw – Force Weather. Skyrim has dozens of weather types not limited to the four main categories of clear, cloudy, fog and rain. Places like Solstheim and Sovngarde have their own, for instance. Some change everything while others focus on bloom intensity, colour saturation, fog alpha/colour, etc. I’ll usually try out all of them for a screenshot, often with the help of the invaluable Director’s Tools mod.

mfg – Adjusts facial expression, eye direction, etc. This command was broken by a recent patch but returns thanks to the mod MfgConsole. More on those later.

fov – Adjusts FOV. Bit obvious but couldn’t really leave it out.

save – There are many reasons for creating saves using your own filenames at any given moment, which you can do by just typing the name after this command. You might want to restart the game with a custom resolution, set up a load of shots to be taken properly later, have a great lighting setup going, or just insure yourself against a crash. I went through a phase of naming them after things I’d just had to eat and now have no idea what’s what, so avoid that common pitfall.

help – Returns all the object IDs or console commands that match the given term. Useful in conjunction with inventory or spawn commands like player.additem or player.placeatme.

UPDATE: I forgot some…

disable / markfordelete – Too many screenshots have to be written off due to some unwelcome ‘item’ – I never said Skyrim Lunchbox, did you say Skyrim Lunchbox? – poking into shot, or a drive-by photobombing Mudcrab. Making them vanish with disable is the dirty way to do it, but that just hides them and leaves them cluttering up your save. markfordelete does it better. Works for foliage, rocks… pretty much anything except the base terrain mesh.

getpos / setpos / getangle / setangle – You can to specify axis x, y or z after this to get the relevant value. Great for moving posed or frozen enemies to just where you want them.

setscale / player.setscale – Pretty much as above but for the size of a selected entity or the player. Maybe you’re doing some epic panorama and your character’s silhouette would be more readable if he was stood in front of the fog rather than a rock. Maybe your Day Of The Lupins theme needs some of the flora to be ten times bigger. Massive dogs?

The ENB Series

ENB stands for Easy Now, Boris, a reference to creator Boris Vorontsov’s unique approach to forum banter. Not really. Boris is a genius and one of the most important single figures in PC gaming today, so respect due. (On which note, it’s time for a cup of coffee and a quiz. Is this a) a bureaucratic Dark Elf from the Great House of Redoran; b) DJ Tim Westwood, whose weird Lowestoftian street patois can kill a dragon at 50 yards; or c) proof that we’ve been living in Skyrim all along?)

I use one ENB and one ENB only, and that is K. Every ENB has a philosophy nowadays, be it cinematic moodiness or MAXXED OUT PHOTOREAL1SM, but Kyokushinoyama has the best: pure pixel-pushing fantasy. He also has a habit of jumping off this modder-go-round and taking all his files away with him. Someone kindly uploaded several of his presets here, though, including the latest K-ENB Extensive: The Living Lights. That’s what I’m using.

This could get complicated very quickly, but like most things Skyrim it’s worth finding out for yourself. There are ENBs and quasi-ENBs and high performance faux-ENBs for everyone, so who am I to tell you what to use?

That said, using K as an example, just because these things can murder your framerate while ticking a lot of next-gen boxes doesn’t mean you should leave everything turned on. In fact, the only time I come close is when doing something like this:

This shows many of Vorontsov’s latest features in action, some augmented by K: indirect lighting, complex ambient occlusion, depth of field, subsurface scattering, detailed shadows, etc, etc. More importantly, and somewhat rarely, they’re in balance. The DoF is ‘popping’ the foreground more than obliterating the background, the bloom is just so, the ambient occlusion is enriching the face with accurate light fall-off without crushing the detail. But ambient occlusion has a terrible relationship with fog, and in the game’s exterior cells will often leave landscapes with a blotchy complexion at the cost of half your framerate. I just turn that and DoF off when outdoors.

Again, though, it would be wrong to suggest that ENB alone can give you this look. I’m not joking when I say that this is the single square foot of Skyrim where I’ve found this precise combination of lighting. I also have the character looking in a precise direction towards candlelight filtered through a quite complex indoor environment. I’ve frozen the game the precise moment a mod called Facelight turns an additional revolving light source on the face, which in conjunction with the candle and all its surrounding particles has made the face glow and eyes sparkle. I’ve used a pose mod, and in this shot placed a blue lantern on a precise part of the floor. I’ve used a very low FOV at great distance to smooth out certain shadowing discrepancies. I’ve picked the lip colour and hairstyle that works best with all of these elements. Know, then, that when people say it takes ‘a cocktail of mods’, they’re barely telling you anything. This is chemistry.

Rant: One of the go-to snarks of the Reddit or Kotaku comments troll is that ‘oh look, she takes two bottles into the shower.’ Very good. Never gets old. Furthermore, I get that there’s a ‘Glamazon’ epidemic that’s as old as modding itself, and that the scene is riddled with appalling lolicon bilge. Fact is, though, that I grew up surrounded by rock art books by the likes of Frank Frazetta, Roger Dean and Hipgnosis – Dean reprinted by Psygnosis, of course, just to wrap it all up with a bow. I love Conan in all its forms. This Skyrim is my playground. I put it to you, then, that she does in fact take all the bottles into the shower.

One last thing to say about ENB is that it’s recently introduced the enblocal.ini file that takes control of your memory management. The latest K-ENBs use it and it’s extremely effective. I’ve gone from multiple crashes to desktop to none whatsoever on the exact same hardware and INI files. Nada. Zip.

Mods

By this point, hopefully I’ve diminished the role of mods to a more reasonable level. They’re as essential as you choose to make them, which is to say that different people focus on different aspects of Skyrim’s world. Installing ‘hundreds of mods’ to make things ‘beautiful’ works about as well as it would on your car.

I will champion one very recent mod, though, without which that earlier mountain shot couldn’t happen. Same goes for the one a few lines up.

Real Clouds, says creator Soolie, “adds pseudo-volumetric clouds to Skyrim, i.e realistic 3D clouds. These clouds will change in coverage and altitude depending on the current weather. As well as normal clouds, there are also rain clouds which you can see raining in the distance. There is also a random variation applied to the coverage and altitude to create more variation.” It’s entirely possible that without this mod I’d have seen little point in returning to Skyrim long term. It doesn’t always work, to put it politely, but is a version of Skyrim you simply have to see when it does.

Listing a load of other specific texture or mesh mods would make this thing instantly obsolete, so what you do is this. Start by downloading the Nexus Mod Manager, reading any documentation as you go. Let it control everything, even if that means making your own zip files for mods downloaded outside of Skyrim Nexus.

subenji’s comment: Just chiming in to say I strongly recommend you ditch the Nexus Mod manager and get the Skyrim Mod Organiser instead – it keeps each mod’s files separated from each other and the Data folder, allowing for quick and easy control over priority and file overwrite conflicts, and keeping your Skyrim’s Data folder clean.

Now go through all the top-lists on the Nexus and use taste and common sense to pick from the buffet. Do this and you’ll end up with all the rock, water, fire and lighting mods I use. Just bear in mind that I don’t use any climate mods, or anything that might conflict with K-ENB.

There’s nothing in my mod list too extraordinary, with the exception of a little thing I call Supergrass. It’s just a simple ESP I made in the Creation Kit that trebles all the game’s grass densities. Google that one because there are several ways of doing it, and it’s never wise to blindly import someone else’s settings.

The wise thing is to grow your mod list organically. Let the dependencies, options and compatibility notes of each new mod decide what you seek out next. This should ensure you don’t leave out the true essentials like Skyrim Script Extender and the various unofficial patches. K-ENB, furthermore, comes with its own essentials for tweaking dungeon lighting, etc. If something in Skyrim bothers you, from the waves against the shore to the distant terrain textures, search and you will find. There is always a mod, and Nexus Mod Manager takes the pain out of the audition.

Oh yes, and get CharGen Extension, it’s amazing. Character generation made easy, or at least less awful. Get the aforementioned MfgConsole, too, for a reason that actually has nothing to do with facial expressions. It adds a new console command called GetModItem that lets you fill a game container with all the items from, say, your installed mods or DLC. It’s so useful.

Beyond The Nexus

Exit the vast and safe jurisdiction of the Nexus and the real adventure begins. Welcome to the Cursed Earth, the first outpost of which is Lover’s Lab. There you’ll find links to repositories around the world where your horizons will simply explode.

Do not go in the adult section. Do not go in the adult section.

Whether or not your ethical stance lets you download armours ripped from other games, many of these sites have the advantage of a more curated selection than the Nexus. You might find that a site in the Ukraine shares your taste in 4K textures, for example, and gives a load of neat links to follow. Of course, whether your copy of MalwareBytes lets you visit that site in the Ukraine is another matter. Ironically, many of these links will go right back to the Nexus, to things you never found using its own browsing tools.

INI Tweaking

Beyond advising that, thanks to ENB memory management, I’m using a uGridsToLoad setting of 9 without crashes, I’m not going there. INI configs needn’t change nearly as much as mod lists, and there’s plenty of advice out there. Just remember to back the things up and change just a few values at a time, and disable any in-game or driver AA or AF when using ENB. My ini files are really very small, changing little beyond some very famous shadow, multithreading and terrain LOD settings.

Okay, one random tip, then. There’s a mod called HiAlgo Boost that dynamically changes Skyrim’s internal resolution while you play to ensure a smooth framerate. Works with most ENBs but not, it seems, with the latest K, so maybe give it a try – because when it works, it works.

Project Skywind

Skywind is a ridiculously ambitious attempt to port the whole of Morrowind and its expansions into the Creation Engine using upgraded meshes and textures. It’s making all the headlines at the moment so I finally checked it out. What’s even more amazing is that it looks as good as that sounds. It must get finished, and only then can the devs stop pretending they never started Skyblivion as well. These guys are understandably wary of Bethesda’s lawyers, but they’re also not invisible. Far from it. So just kick up the world’s stinkiest stink if things get litigious and let the sheer scale of Skyrim’s fanbase save the day.

In keeping with the rest of this ‘guide’, I’ll share some anecdotes. The shots you’re seeing here and here are very selective, and just a few pixels outside the frame is nothing but bare terrain mesh with obviously tiled ground textures and a few scattered props. The NPCs have no clothes on. Creatures are few and far between. Don’t let that stop you, though!

What makes Skywind an awful lot of fun is that it’s just like any other Skyrim mod – though I’d recommend starting a new game in Morrowind (there’s an option) to be on the safe side. The mods I’ve outlined here make it very easy to rebuild and restock your character if you must. In terms of item and armour availability, ENB compatibility and things like water mods, it’s like walking through a door between Skyrim and Morrowind. And this, to answer the obvious question, is why these screenshots look like they do. Mods, again, are only part of the equation, and I really had to turn the aforementioned tricks to eleven.

The End

I do believe that’s everything, or at least as much as seems worth telling. A bit random, but then no guide to Skyrim modding will ever be complete, and the modding itself is a journey without end. That’s the beauty of it. If you take one thing from all this, whether it’s a file or just a renewed desire to explore game visuals through this extraordinary platform, then I guess it was worth writing. If you think there’s something to ask or add, hit the comments and I’ll oblige.

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