Friday, June 29, 2012

Thoughts on gaming and Skyrim mods

I spent about twelve years not playing computer games. My hours in front of a computer were much better spent producing text and improving my craft, but that video game ban started to give way a  little when I moved to Portland and discovered that gaming has become a social thing. Among the circles I hang with, guy and gal geeks play competitively or even more often cooperatively, so I started gaming to be social.

At that same time, back when I was first starting to obsess over how much literary science fiction's fan base has shrunk and how poorly science fiction novels sell, I kept hearing the words Mass Effect, Mass Effect, Mass Effect being uttered by fans of the genre, including many who had long ago stopped reading SF novels.

Being true to my work ethic, I avoided the Mass Effect games until some Portland friends were kind enough to whack me over the head and point out that I was being an idiot. Why not stop focusing on what people had ceased doing and instead take a look at what they've taken up in the meanwhile.

And of course I fell in love with Mass Effect 1 and 2. They were everything that science fiction should have evolved into, rather than taking its tragic 1990s detour into cynicism and hyper-character focus at the expense of optimism and big ideas. So when Skyrim came along I didn't fight too hard to resist the urging of a good friend and jump into the fifth game of a twenty-year old franchise that I had no experience with.

Why a fantasy game? I grew up reading fantasy along with science fiction, and I would love to write in that genre at some point in the not too distant future. And so of course after having had it pointed out to me, continuing to look at what millions of fans are interested in seemed like a no brainer.

What's really impressed me about Skyrim so far isn't the game itself, but rather its ongoing evolution. Eight months after its launch it has a  much richer and more developed feel to it thanks to the efforts of a loose community of independent moders that the game's makers have wisely chosen to aid and encourage.Visually, audibly, and game play-wise Skyrim has been much improved by the offerings of these individuals and small teams, as aggregated and made available on and Steam's Workshop.

Colors have grown deeper, the vegetation more lush, and the surfaces of both still and moving bodies water more realistic, with better sun glares and ripples. The audio background is much more alive with everything from added flocks of birds and bird calls to the supernatural moans and the shifting of the earth in haunted tombs. Modders have also greatly improved the magic system with spells that let magic-wielding characters do everything from call down meteorites to summon a significantly wider variety of interesting servitors.

What's improved most of all for me has been the ability to add more background and supporting characters to the game play experience. Like many game worlds, Skryrim felt sparsely inhabited at first, and my lone-wolf protagonist and a single companion could traverse the realm without seeing any evidence of the civil war that was central to one of the main story lines. 

Mods like Warzones - Civil Unrest have added epic battles between fractions in that war as well as bandit hordes drawn to or fleeing from the chaos. These battles reflect the progress of the war based off the protagonist's success or failures. Still other mods have given players the ability to assemble small bands of allies to accompany the protagonist on his or her adventures, as well as being able to mount those friendlies on horseback. 

Lastly, I've enjoyed the mods that improve the quality of the supporting characters, by giving them unique skill sets and altered appearances to help differentiate them and make them more interesting companions who compliment the Dragoborn. May favorite among these is Void Craft's House Carls mod, which improves appearances, behaviors, and skills. 

Of course, not everyone uses or writes mods to help bring out Skyrim's essential flavor. There are mods that enable world fusion by adding arms and armor and monsters from a dozen or so fantasy anime series, the Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones and...My little Pony.

Oh the carnage.

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