Mar 05 2021

My Weirdly-Specific Skyrim Modding Wish

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The Akorithi Twins sell from a cluttered market.
The Akorithi Twins sell their wares from a market with two flying pennants and walls embedded in other walls. Just an ordinary day in modded Skyrim?

I, am a goofus.

I had Skyrim running, patched and modded all to heck, but running. It was fine. Everything was fine. But something kept annoying me.

Solitude is too damn small.

I mean, the cities in Skyrim have always been little more than a single neighborhood with delusions of grandeur. If you put ALL the Skyrim cities into one place, you’d have something roughly the size of the Village of Bree in Lord of the Rings Online, yes? Skyrim’s cities are stupidly small. I’m used to that.

But not Solitude. I can’t accept it. Solitude is the New York of Skyrim (or possibly the London would be a more apt comparison). It’s supposed to be a major seaport and one the biggest cities in the world, it has no business being one street smaller than some single historical castles. I live near a shopping mall that is literally bigger than Solitude. And since Solitude is where Shady will end up spending most of her time in my “ultimate wishlist playthrough” (long story), I decided to go ahead and mod it up right.

For a long time I ran with Great Cities: Solitude, which definitely beefs up the docks area, but lacks personality. Mostly it adds empty fronts and a few NPCs wandering around. This time I decided I wanted something that felt more alive for all of the cities generally, so I landed on the JK’s Skyrim + Dawn of Skyrim combo (with some additional mods for other towns), with Solitude Expansion to add some life to the docks. That helped, but it still wasn’t quite there, maybe 65-70%.

And then, I looked at Enhanced Solitude. This is a mod that basically takes a baker’s dozen of the modder’s favorite Solitude mods by disparate authors, rearranges them into something like a cohesive whole, and also adds a whole new neighborhood as well as expanding and redecorating the existing ones. In short, if you want Solitude to feel alive, Enhanced Solitude is the one you actually want.

Why don't more mods put advertisements in town?
Have you ever been to a city that DIDN’T have signs promoting shops? But I’ve never seen it in a fantasy RPG before. This one detail sold me on Enhanced Solitude.

(The same author has a docks mod intended to go with it, which includes elements of Solitude Expansion, and it’s nice but buggy and, well, the author is not exactly helpful about it.)

Unfortunately, Enhanced Solitude is not compatible with the JK/Dawn combo. Like, at all. As shown in the top image, combining them adds duplicate NPCs, artifacts all over the place, it’s a mess. Of course, this is only really a problem in the overlapping parts of the city (i.e., the market)—the new areas added by Enhanced Solitude are fine. The author provides a “patch” that essentially tears out the JK/Dawn stuff by the roots… but that also breaks Dawn of Skyrim’s changes to other cities (“Hmm, why are half the textures in Whiterun broken all of a sudden?”).

I don’t want that. I want the mods to play nice together. I could go through and manually delete offending items and clone NPCs in the game via console commands, but that could lead to instability and would be instantly negated if I ever ran an update. No, the only “right” way to merge these mods and have it stick, would be to create a patch. And so began my descent into modding tools. If I could just “suppress” or hide/undo the parts of Enhanced Solitude that conflicted with JK/Dawn, I’d have the best of both worlds! And what’s more, I could upload the patch to Nexus and let all the other people who want the best of both worlds to share in my handiwork.

A week later, I’ve dug into SSEedit, Creation Kit, even looked at editing models in Nifscope. I’ve watched tutorial videos on YouTube until my head spun… and at the end of the day nothing to show for it but a file called “Enhanced JK’s Dawn of Solitude” that… doesn’t actually do anything. It’s not that I couldn’t figure this out eventually if I was willing to keep banging my head against it, but the real question is… why am I doing this?

The western district of Solitude, that isn't there for 95% of players.
Is one more neighborhood for my digital catgirl to mostly never go to, really worth staying up until the wee hours night after night for?

It’s a nice little neighborhood, it’s got a bath-house and a bookstore… but will my experience of playing Shade-Of-the-Candle really be that much better for it? I can delete the extra actors and random junk around town with the “disable” command and have a mostly-working town that just has a few bottlenecks of idle markers where they don’t belong. I could have done that three days ago and been actually playing the game. Why am I fighting with this? Or for that matter, I had my 65-70% without Enhanced Solitude at all, why not be content with that. I have art commissions, writing, job hunting to do… all of which are infinitely more important than making a fictional town that’s not even mine seem just a little less fictional.

Hyperfocus? Perfectionism? Pure mule-headedness? I dunno. Maybe part of me thought getting into modding might lead to some kind of creative outlet that wasn’t as frustrated as my writing and art have been of late, but that hope is forlorn I suspect.

But all that said, if there’s anyone out there who IS experienced at modding and knows what they’re doing, who’d like to walk me through the process of making these changes I want, please let me know! ‘cos I think I’ve hit a wall with my current understanding and have no idea what to do next.

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Jan 16 2019

Shade-of-the-Candle and Her Swords (Personal Art)

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Shady considers combat something of a failure state– making wisecracks at somebody who’s dead isn’t half as much fun– but if she has to fight, she’ll straight up murder you. >.>

She employs an acrobatic, free-wheeling dual-cutlass combat style that emphasizes wild leaps and flashy, unpredictable moves… you’re never quite sure if she’s attacking, she’s running away, or you’ve just bled to death from a million tiny cuts.

(Can’t believe I forgot to post this here! My online presence needs a cleanup, I think…)

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Jun 01 2016

Someone to Overwatch Over Me

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DVaGneech and TracerBlitz by the-gneech on DeviantArt

Taking a little break from Ghostbusters [1] to get into Overwatch. This is a fun action-oriented online game from Blizzard (makers of World of Warcraft [2]) which is being described as a “hero shooter.”

What’s a “hero shooter”? I have to admit I barely understand the term myself. The shooter part is easy– the controls and interface are standard FPS. The “hero” part apparently refers to the fact that instead of controlling a single player avatar or character, you choose from a variety of characters depending on the needs of the team and the situation. So if your team needs a damage dealer to lead an assault, you might choose the jetpack-boosting soldier, but if they need to defend a point you might choose the sniping archer.

Overwatch has 21 characters currently, broadly grouped into “offense,” “defense,” and “support,” with subcategories of “tank,” “builder,” and “sniper.” Gameplay is fast and woolly: you are grouped up with five other players (either friends you’ve pre-grouped with or randomly-selected players of a similar level/rank) and tossed into an arena against a team of six other randomly-selected players (or AI foes of choosable difficulty). There are basically two missions currently: conquer waypoints, or escort/deny a moving payload.

I’m told it’s somewhat like Team Fortress 2, but as I’ve never played that, I can’t address it.

Now normally this isn’t the sort of thing I would expect to get into, being pretty much all action and no plot. The “payload” being delivered or blocked isn’t even identified beyond being a thing on a truck (it looks vaguely like a giant electromagnet). And I couldn’t tell you what made me interested in checking it out, other than a vague hole in my nerdery where LotRO and Borderlands used to be. But once I decided I wanted to play it, I found myself going on a long and painful journey into the underworld, by which I mean Windows gaming.

The Exciting Adventure of Gneech vs. His Computer

My gaming PC was quite beefy once upon a time. Specifically, around 2008 or so when I bought it to be an awesome platform for playing Lord of the Rings Online. It served me well in that capacity for a long time, and it never had the slightest problem with Borderlands 2, so I fully expected it to be capable of running Overwatch.

Ha, ha, silly me. How was I to know that Microsoft and/or NVidia had imposed mandatory retirement on my video card? (In fairness, the card design is 10+ years old, which is a very long time in the world of computers. But the thing still works! Assuming the fan motor stayed good it’d probably keep on working for 10 more years if the software would support it.) After much wailing and gnashing of teeth about not being able to afford a contemporary gaming rig, I finally took a gamble and bought a new card, basically a 2014-ish version of the same card. Any better/more powerful? Not really, as far as I can see, but it has DirectX 12 drivers, which the old one doesn’t, and that’s what was required for Overwatch to work.

However, the new card and the old system don’t really get along very well. Windows keeps polling the card like the guy in Smooth Criminal: “Video are you okay, are you okay, are you okay video? Video are you okay, are you okay, are you okay video?” But the video card, trying valiantly to render things the game is throwing at it, doesn’t answer quickly enough, so Windows decides, “Oh, the video card must have crashed, let’s reset it.” Which kills the driver, and by extension, kills the game. Usually about 10-30 seconds before the end of the match I’m currently in. -.-

Now this PC (currently on Win 7) is eligible for an upgrade to Windows 10, so I thought that might fix it. I tried to upgrade to 10 before, only to have it keep crashing on the old card, which was not supported by Windows 10 because reasons. I figured, “New card! Specifically states compatible with Windows 10 on the box! Maybe this will fix everything!”

Ha, ha, silly me. So I upgraded to Windows 10… which absolutely refused to acknowledge that there was any graphics card at all other than “Generic Display Adapter.” And you know what Generic Display Adapters don’t do very well? Render 3D objects. So, while I did eventually get Overwatch up and running under Windows 10, it was completely unplayable.

So… finally… I rolled back to Windows 7, and I’m living with a 40% chance that any given match will cause my computer to crash. :P The (relatively) good news is that if it’s going to crash, it usually does it early on. If I can get past five minutes in the game, it’ll probably be stable until the end of the session.

I have had a fan very generously offer to build me a new machine and bring it to BronyCon in July, for which I’m super-grateful! Let’s face it, if the worst thing about the whole situation is that I have to wait a little over a month to reliably play the most current video game, I have it pretty damn good.

The Exciting Adventure of Tracer’s Butt

Although the gameplay is fun and engaging in a pure-action kind of way, it’s really the art and character design that appeals to me about Overwatch, as evidenced by the pic at the top of my buddy Inkblitzer and me rendered as D.Va and Tracer, respectively.

And honestly, even then it’s only a few of the characters who stand out. Certainly none of the male ones: with the exception of Winston (who is still basically Beast from the X-Men) they’re all the same tired old tropes of “Weary Soldier,” “Sheriff Shooty McCowboy,” “Wangsty Grim Samurai,” “Cackling NOT-the-Joker With a Bomb” and so on. But Tracer, the game’s mascot, is a Peter Pan-style gadfly who teleports around poking her enemies with sticks (well, bullets, but still). D.Va, my particular fave, is a Korean gamer girl with a bunny on her chest and a giant pink mech who flings herself into crowds of enemies like an enormous bowling ball, knocking them all for a loop. Finally there’s Zarya, who is basically a Rule 63 version of The Heavy from Team Fortress, who deadlifts her giant plasma gun in character introduction screens and regularly invites everyone to the gun show.

The prominence of female characters in the game (and quite probably the fact that they’re way more interesting than the male characters) has of course led to all sorts of internetty nonsense about it all, most famously about a victory pose for Tracer that people decried as being too much about showing off her butt when the character generally isn’t sexualized otherwise. Given that Widowmaker (super-cliche femme fatale sniper in a skintight bodysuit) is all about her catwalk strut, and that Mercy (the healer who literally has wings and a halo) is all “tender goddess,” the complaint was basically “Can we have one female character who is not primarily rendered in terms of the male gaze for a change?”

Blizzard, to their credit, said, “it’s a fair cop” and changed the victory pose, but by then the dweeby fanboys had latched onto the whole business of butts, which can make looking for Overwatch fan art an exercise in eye-rolling as you encounter one “Durr hurr hurr!” Tracer’s Butt piece after another. :-` It’s a minor nuisance, but still causes side-eyes around a character who is otherwise fun and engaging.

Still! It’s a minor issue at best and doesn’t really impact gameplay. So far everyone I’ve encountered actually in the game has been either typically uncommunicative (it’s hard to type in the team channel and shoot at the same time) or has been very nice, with few or no dickweeds encountered so far. While the basics of the game are simple, actually going up against live players is incredibly challenging– I finally had my first victory last night, and it was very satisfying to finally feel like I was getting somewhere after my first attempts were so sad. The game rewards study and perseverance, and that’s a nice feeling I’ve been lacking for some time.

Will I still be playing in six months? I have no idea. Will anyone? It depends on where the game goes, if indeed it goes anywhere. People have been playing Team Fortress 2 for something like a decade now with no signs of stopping. With no single-player story to “beat,” the only way to play the game is in matches with other players, which can be a blessing and a curse. There is no real finish to the game, which means you don’t get people going through the single-player, being “done,” and wandering off. On the other hand, if it gets to the point where players become scarce and every match is made up of one or two humans and a bunch of AI foes, it could become a ghost town real quick.

It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out! And it’s nice to be in on something new for a change. ;)

-The Gneech

[1] Sort of. The first draft is actually finished and I’ll keep posting about it in a day or two.

[2] Can you believe there’s a movie coming out for that? XD It actually looks pretty entertaining in its own schlocky way.

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