A few weeks ago Armand from Bits ‘n’ Bytes Gaming inspired me to check out The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, a game I’ve been curious about for years but never felt compelled to pick up. After a quick dash around some of the local game shops I found a copy of the Bloodmoon expansion tucked away amongst a neglected pile of second-hand titles and miraculously, a few shelves down, Morrowind and Tribunal, all for the paltry sum of £5. I even picked up Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis for 25p. How could I resist?
Since installing the base game and all its expansions I’ve not actually started playing Morrowind properly yet — and it’s not for the lack of trying either — you see, since its release over nine years ago Morrowind has amassed thousands of mods, from the slight to the seismic, and, well, I’m not the sort of person who’ll play vanilla without checking them out…
But where the hell do you start with that many mods? And with a game as big as Morrowind?
Guides. Lots of guides.
If you don’t know already, myself, Armand and (former Tap writer) Yapette have been chronicling our efforts in taming this wild Bethesdian beast right here on the Tap forum so feel free to drop by (or even join in)!
It all started off simple enough; apply the official and unofficial patches, apply some discretionary tweaks and give the graphics a spit and polish (if only there wasn’t a ‘but’ here), but things soon became unstuck shortly after installing the patches and moving on to the tweaks. Oh the tweaks. ‘Don’t bloat the game with mods’ I thought, ‘don’t get carried away’, ‘keep it simple’.
Two weeks ago I was grinding through extensive guides and maintaining a rapidly expanding list of mods ranging from ‘this sonafabitch is going in’, to ‘myeh, could be useful’. Enhanced stealth, a more balanced economy, darker nights, stronger magic classes, wandering traders, NPCs that pursued you through loading screens, bow zoom, in-game time display, script and dialogue packs that made NPCs respond with less generic remarks — there were loads; some worked better than others, some didn’t work at all.
Since that over-zealous spell I’ve freshly installed Morrowind after messing something up along the way and — for my own sanity — have boiled down the list to largely essential fixes, tweaks and graphical buffs. Therefore, I’m keeping it as close to vanilla as possible despite originally having greater aspirations.
The first problem I had was the sheer volume of mods out there and by extension the number of conflicts that could arise from using them all together (many guides advised using as fewer mods as possible to ensure fewer issues — sound advice). Alarmingly certain mods required their own patches and to make all this skullfuckery even more unbearable some weren’t even compiled properly and needed restructuring and further editing. Testing all of these mods was another problem seeing as many of them would only affect sections later on in the game or in far flung lands, not to mention even mods that appeared to be working correctly could very well have bodged something up out of sight. But that’s not even worth thinking about.
It quickly became apparent that the more I bent the game to my will, the more likely it was to break and eventually it did, prompting me to evaluate my creeping list of mods. That’s when I started thinking about how far should I be taking Morrowind beyond the bug fixes and whether it really mattered.
I remember a few years ago buying Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines and stumbling across some sort of patch feud between two modders by the name of Tessera and Wesp. Tessera was responsible for the True Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines Patch (or True VTMB Patch for short) which sought to fix only the bugs that shipped with the original game. Wesp’s modestly named Unofficial Patch on the other hand aimed to fix the bugs that shipped with the original game as well as make various tweaks to balance the gameplay and restore content left out by Troika.
Spiritually the two mods were very different despite both markedly improving the overall experience; one was simply a vanilla fix-up, the other was a fix-up that added unused content and attempted to balance the game. At some point however, a petty war broke out between the two over whether Wesp’s Unofficial Patch was indeed a patch at all on the basis that it added content and took liberties with the make-up of the game, ultimately aligning it more with a mod. I’ve no idea how the feud started but it spans multiple forums and even stretches as far as the defamation of each others Wikipedia patch entries. Suffice to say, semantics had never been so much fun.
In the end I went with Wesp’s Unofficial Patch (or mod or whatever) on the grounds that if Troika were unable to release a stable, mostly bug-free game then what hope was there of the rest of the game being finished and tuned properly? This was the reasoning I held close to me whilst modding S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. I made the nights darker, my torch dimmer and more sulphuric, stealth was cleaner and more reliable (although still quite temperamental), the artefacts were (apparently) more useful and better balanced as were some of the weapons and items, there were fewer bugs and the game, overall, was a lot smoother. Of course, having not played vanilla Shadow of Chernobyl for any length of time prior to modding it I’ve no way of comparing the two experiences but I felt comfortable knowing that elements of the game had been tuned to my liking and many of the games glaring problems and certain minor issues had been all but stamped out. Adding to this, I rarely play a game more than once so it’s a given that I should want my first experience to be as good as I can get it.
PC gaming diagnosed with terminal tinkering.
“But what happened with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky Gregg? You remember that don’t you? You spent so long pissing about with it that by the end you’d lost all motivation to play it and it still ran like horse shit.”
This brings us full circle to a hot article Jason Dobry wrote about a year ago where he decried all the tinkering and technical nonsense synonymous with PC gaming, yearning for the console reality of loading a game up and it working straight out of the box with no drama. Now, as some of you may know, my computer is on its way out and as a result I have to consider buying PS3 versions of certain games to make sure they run properly, if at all. For a long time now I’ve been wanting to play Fallout 3 and more recently Fallout: New Vegas but my computer’s waning specs have prevented me from doing so. Of course it would be easy to buy either of them on my PS3 — debilitating pad controls and all — but I simply don’t want pure vanilla; I want a sundae full of fixes, tweaks and cosmetic improvements for my first playthrough. Alas, until I get a new rig this cornucopia will have to wait.
Tinkering is both a blessing and a curse however; a blessing in that no matter how small it is, if there’s an issue with a moddable PC game there’s usually somebody out there who’s created a fix for it. It’s a curse when — as highlighted by Dobry’s article and my time with modding Clear Sky — the excruciating and draining process of fixing, tweaking, testing and laboriously trawling forums and guides troubleshooting problems and trying to find those elusive killer mods start to sully the experience. There’s always the chance too that you’ll stumble across spoilers as you seek fixes for bugs later on in the game or tweaks to mechanics you weren’t aware existed. I can’t help but feel as though a certain element of a game’s mystique is lost in all of this tinkering, that playing straight-up vanilla is as raw, surprising and exciting as you’ll get; an experience unfettered by foresight and knowledge — but one that could potentially be inferior.
So, to mod or not to mod?
Only the other day Scout posted the following on the shared play Morrowind thread:
I’m reading this book called Air Guitar which is a bunch of little chapters on capital “A” Art and commerce in the US. The author goes on and on about the hotrodders of the 50s and 60s and how they took a car and carved it up and remade it to their liking. He really, really goes on and on but he called this a form of “embodied dissent”, against, I guess, the dominate paradigm, or in our case, Bethesda. And the car manufacturers were right on their tail, incorporating the best mods into standardized design, which were again cut up and etc., etc.
Which reminded me of this thread.
So shine on you crazy modders.
As far as I’m concerned modding is like an extended options screen exclusive to savvy PC gamers, allowing them to customise their experience in any way they see fit; to take the developer’s baton and run with it. There are caveats: there’s the issue of dashing the developer’s vision and moving the game away from what it was originally meant to be, there’s the possibility of spoiling specific events and sapping the magic and wonder from the experience before it’s even started, but perhaps most importantly there’s the often crippling impracticality of modding and the possible problems that arise from stacking fix upon tweak upon fix, never mind the extra time to deal with it all. If you can’t stomach the thought of getting tangled up in modding and would rather go vanilla then I’m just A-OK with that.
As I write this my Morrowind remains in a state of flux but hopefully I’m drawing closer to the light at the end of this long tunnel. I just hope that once everything is in place all this tinkering will be worth it. It better be. For Armand’s sake.
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