The Wonderful World of Tweaks

A desire to fiddle with things is one of the main reasons I prefer to game on PC. I understand why consoles are so popular: console games tend to simply work without problems (although technical issues have become more common recently), so players can get right to playing the game without having to wrestle with drivers and such. This is possible because individual consoles have identical hardware to one another, making it much easier to design a game that runs reliably on the system. But the downside is that players can’t tinker with stuff. You can’t swap out the processor in an Xbox for a faster one. You can’t turn the shadows off in a first-person game to improve the framerate. In most cases, you can’t even change which buttons do what in a particular game.

But I want to be able to do those things. To me, dealing with drivers and patches and whatever else to get a game to run is a small price to pay for the ability to set up a game exactly the way I want. That kind of user control is the biggest advantage of the PC, and it’s an interesting aspect of gaming that can almost become a game itself. While I don’t often partake in truly hardcore tweaking, I’ve found myself going farther than usual with Skyrim, which, like its predecessors, seems specifically designed to be tweaked.

It starts with the graphics settings. With Skyrim, before I’ve even run the game I install the High Res Texture Pack, a free graphical upgrade released by the developers for all PC players. This takes longer to install than the base game did. Once it’s all done, it’s time to fire up the graphics settings menu. Skyrim looks at my computer’s specs and suggests I choose the “Medium” setting. I scoff. I select “Ultra”, the highest preset, and then I check each individual setting and make sure it’s completely maxed out, including the options relegated to the “advanced” section. Now it’s time to fire up the game.

Bad news. It’s running at about 3 FPS. I try lowering some settings but I’m still getting a terrible framerate. Time to check my graphics drivers. Lo and behold, there’s a new version available, so I install it. This somehow makes things worse; not only does Skyrim still run at 3 FPS, but there’s now a bunch of glitchy graphical artifacts everywhere. I turn to google for help, and soon find that the latest ATI drivers have problems when antialiasing (AA) is enabled in-game, and that disabling AA and selecting FXAA instead solves the issue. FXAA is a new way of doing antialiasing that’s not so computationally expensive but looks roughly the same. Voila! Skyrim’s now running at 45 – 60 FPS. I max out all the settings again, and the framerate doesn’t dip at all. The game now looks fantastic. Now that the game’s actually running the way I want, the next step is tailoring the controls. I fine-tune the mouse sensitivity, and invert the y-axis. I bind a few keys I’ll use often to some spare mouse buttons. Once these are set the way I like, I can start playing.

Normally, this is where I would stop tinkering and just get on with the game. But with Skyrim, there’s so much more to mess with. For example, the default field of view (FOV) setting is a bit low. Fortunately, this is easily fixed by bringing up the console with the “~” key and typing “fov 80” or whatever setting you want. Field of view is actually more complicated than most people think — check out this video (part 1, part 2) for a great explanation of what it is and why it’s important. But FOV isn’t the only thing the console is useful for. After playing a bit I found that the day/night cycle in the game was very fast, with one hour of real time corresponding to 20 hours of in-game time. By simply typing “set timescale to 10” in the console, I make time run half as fast. Later I bring this down even further, to 7.5.

Now it’s time to take things a little farther, and start messing with the .ini files. These are text files that contain a myriad of game settings, many of which are not accessible from the game’s menus, and tinkering with them has become something of an art with PC games. I usually don’t mess with .ini files unless something is really bothering me, but in Skyrim, something was: the shadows. Even with all the shadow-related settings turned all the way up, they looked really bad, seemingly made of gigantic pixels. A google search on how to fix this reveals that tweaking several shadow-related settings in the .ini files sharpens them right up. I happily applied these changes, but later found that I’d introduced some strange graphical flickers on distant landscape features. Some more intense google searching led to some alternate .ini file settings that I’m satisfied with. Interestingly, the shadow settings are something of a trade-off: you either get ugly shadows that are rendered out to very far distances, or you get nice sharp shadows up close but no shadows far away. I do notice some fade-in with shadows as I’m moving around outdoors, but the crisp shadows up close are worth it.

Of course, once you start messing with .ini files, it’s hard to stop. How about letting shadows be cast on trees? Yeah, I’ll turn that on. I honestly hadn’t noticed any mouse acceleration, but I disable it anyway. Depth of field can be toggled, and quest markers and the compass can be turned off. And then there’s the big one: a single setting, known as uGridsToLoad, tells the game how much of the outdoors to load at any given time. Increasing this has the effect of making distant things look better, but it can slow things down as the game not only loads more detailed landscapes but also any creatures that happen to be roaming in them. I turned the default setting of 5 up to 9 (the setting only takes odd values) without incurring too much of a framerate hit. This means that grass, trees and landscape features are viewable to a much greater distance, so looking out from a mountaintop is that much more impressive.

That’s all very nice, but I’m still not done, because I haven’t installed any mods. These user-made modifications can do pretty much anything, from changing how fast characters level to introducing new items or quests to the game to adding all-new graphics and sounds. The Elder Scrolls games have had strong mod support ever since Morrowind, and it would be silly not to take advantage of some of the great stuff that’s available, especially because the Steam Workshop makes installing Skyrim mods a snap (although some mods aren’t in the workshop). I’m avoiding gameplay and content mods for now because I want to see how the base game feels, but I may add some for future characters. But it wasn’t long before I installed SkyUI, which is pretty much essential. I don’t even remember what the inventory interface was like before, just that it was terrible. Of course, there are still some interface issues, most notably in the perks screen and the in-game map, but I can deal with those later. I also applied a nice lighting mod that makes nights and dungeons a bit darker and gives everything a more realistic-looking hue. Unfortunately it doesn’t come through in screenshots, but it can be toggled on and off with a single keypress, which is nice. Finally I installed a mod that tries to force the special “kill cam” finishing moves to stay in a first-person view. I found it jarring when the game would suddenly switch to third-person at the end of a fight, showing my character performing a cool-looking move, and then snap right back to first-person. Unfortunately, this mod doesn’t seem to work 100% of the time, and may have been invalidated by a game patch. Still, it’s better than default, and hopefully it will get updated or a similar mod will show up that works more reliably.

With all of these tweaking options, it can be hard to stop messing with things and actually play the game. But these tweaks and mods really do enhance the experience; both Morrowind and Oblivion kept people playing for years due to the excellent mods being produced, and I suspect the same will be true of Skyrim. And more generally, it’s simply a matter of making the game my own. I’ve written before about how Skyrim lets people play the way they want, but it also lets them tinker with or outright change the game the way they want, too. Each player might play a slightly different Skyrim from everyone else, one that bears their own mark as well as that of the developers.

What will your Skyrim be like?

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5 Responses to The Wonderful World of Tweaks

  1. Princess Stomper says:

    You can easily spend more time tweaking than playing, which can be fun at first but then when you REALLY mess things up can feel like a waste of time. I just do the bare minimum of tweaking (in Morrowind, setting up the water and lighting using tried-and-tested settings) and the fewest mods to get the experience I like. I used to use hundreds of mods, which was great, but then the game wasn’t really Morrowind any more. I think I have about 20 Skyrim mods and was using maybe 50 in Oblivion – but most were house mods and very minor changes.

    • waltorious says:

      Yeah, you have to be careful not to break things when tweaking. A big portion of my tweaking time is spent researching tweaks to make sure they won’t mess things up. I also try not to use too many mods, but I find that as time goes on I keep adding more. It’s a nice way to keep things feeling new after I’ve been playing for a while.

  2. jefequeso says:

    Tweaking is so much fun, and the ability to completely exploit/change the game is a big part of what made Morrowind so awesome. However, for some reason, I’ve never been very happy about using mods. Don’t really know why, but I like to keep the game as vanilla as possible. There are some very necessary ones, though. The SS1 mouselook mod, STALKER complete, the Crysis TOD mod, and the Morrowind fan-made patches that fix a lot of the game’s issues and balancing are a few that come to mind.

    • waltorious says:

      Skyrim is actually quite good without any mods. Certainly way better than un-modded Oblivion was. In Oblivion I would say that one of the leveled list mods was an absolute must-have… they fix the issues where every enemy is the same level as the player and at high levels even the most lowly of bandits have insanely expensive, rare equipment. But in Skyrim I haven’t touched the leveled lists. My level 17 character is starting to see more quality equipment show up but it seems to be handled much better and the rare stuff is still very rare. The only must-have mod so far is SkyUI which just changes the inventory interface. Others are all optional.

  3. geggis says:

    Great article Walter and modding is indeed addictive. I wrote a piece last year some time when I was modding Morrowind (http://tap-repeatedly.com/2011/02/to-mod-or-not-to-mod/) and suffice to say, I spent more time modding Morrowind than actually playing it. It was a gruelling process but it felt good to know that the game had many of its kinks knocked out for my playthrough. In the end however, it turned out not to be the game for me so I stopped playing it. Thankfully, Fallout 3 didn’t take me anywhere near as long to tweak but I ended up using a similar amount of mods. If anything my current ‘build’ is more stable than my previous one which had only a handful of tweaks. Modding is something you should absolutely make the most of as a PC player though, it’s a privilege!

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