The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Like the rest of Earth’s population, I had a wonderful time with Skyrim when it released in 2011, and for hundreds of hours afterwards. Then one fateful Sunday I realised I’d spent six hours smithing weapons and mining for ore, and decided it was probably time to stop playing now. 

It turns out I got off the train early: in the intervening years the modding community has gone from strength to strength, doing its best to keep The Elder Scrolls V looking like it was released last week. With Skyrim Special Edition’s arrival in 2016 those modders have a new and improved base game to work with, and the results are getting seriously close to the hyperbolic promises made in my YouTube sidebar. ‘PHOTOREALISTIC SKYRIM: INSANE MOD!’ they shout. And ‘ULTIMATE SKYRIM GRAPHICS 2017’. And ‘Justin Bieber FORGETS words to "Despacito" LIVE’, although I’ll concede that’s not immediately pertinent here.

Curiosity got the better of me. Exactly how good can you make Skyrim look these days, using Special Edition as the new baseline and cherry-picking the finest community-made visual mods? Deadendthrills achieved a frankly fearsome level of fidelity with the original version, but years have passed since then and graphics cards have gained multiple zeros on all their spec sheets. Is it possible to get Skyrim looking so realistic that it takes a second for your brain to distinguish it from reality?

The results of my own personal quest surprised me: not only did I get the game looking beautiful enough that I want to play it all over again, but those gorgeous graphics mods have fundamentally changed the way I play now.

Click for the full 5K image.

Finding the right mods

There’s a particular alchemy to selecting a series of mods that work well together. Very often one mod will want to overwrite another’s files, or there’ll be some overlap between seemingly disparate mods (like a snow replacer and a water overhaul) which will end up cancelling each other out. I’ll throw my hands up at this point and admit I let YouTube’s sizable Skyrim mod content creator community do the hard work for me on this front. Taking the recommendations of Fevir, NcrVet, Ultimate Immersion, and others, I compiled a list of texture mods, weather mods, flora overhauls, water improvements, armours, and NPCs—in addition to essentials like the Static Mesh Improvement Mod—that looked believable, consistent with Skyrim’s world, and above all, beautiful.

Personal preference is the ultimate deciding factor in any mod list like this, but to make Skyrim SE look like my screenshots, these are the ones to use:

Immersive Armors - Really high-quality, high-resolution and lore-friendly apparel for NPC and player alike.

ApachiiSkyHair SSE - In all honesty the vanilla hairs were fine by me, but this hair overhaul is required by Diversity (see below).

Unofficial Skyrim Special Edition Patch - If you only install one mod, make it this. It squashes bugs and refines things you never noticed were broken or clunky before. It won’t make your game look better, but your experience will be much more polished.

Realistic Water Two - A water overhaul that improves everything from transparency effects to foam texture resolution and coloring. I like the watercolor version, but that’s just my preference.

Verdant - A Skyrim Grass Plugin - Fills the outdoors with wonderful grasses, mosses, ferns, bushes and flowers to frolic in. One of the most immediately transformative mods on the list.

Vivid Weathers - I tried out a few different weather mods, and Dolomite Weathers nearly prevailed, but to my eye Vivid Weathers produces the more realistic lighting conditions in conjunction with the lighting mods below and my chosen ENB (more on that later).

Cutting Room Floor - A lot of unused assets were found in Skyrim’s code after release, probably relics of content that Bethesda ran out of time to include. This mod puts it all back into your game, and is required by several other mods.

Simply Bigger Trees SE - Sprawling new four-hour expansion which… just kidding. It makes the trees bigger.

Forgotten Retex Project - Improves the textures of commonly found items and quest items.

LeanWolf’s Better-Shaped Weapons SE - Turns the vanilla weapons into artisanal masterpieces. You can see the individual marks on each blade and the texture where it’s been hammered into shape. Incredible. Works well with Immersive Armors to make the game feel new (and look new in screenshots).

Nordic Snow - Improves snow textures to higher-resolution images, simply. 

Ruins Clutter Improved - Like Forgotten Retex Project, this mod improves a lot of the incidental items used as set dressing throughout Skyrim—specifically, in this case, those found in dungeons and caves.

Skyrim 2017 Textures - Another hugely transformative mod, with enormous scope. Retextures much of the wild and several cities up to 4K. Use this as your base retexturing mod, upon which other more specific textures can be added.

Skyrim Flora Overhaul SE - More lovely plant life to populate Skyrim’s once brown and barren tundras. It’s compatible with Verdant, but be careful which files you overwrite when installing. Load Verdant after this to get the best from both mods. 

Static Mesh Improvement Mod - SMIM - An absolutely staggering piece of work which improves the 3D modelling of items and architecture throughout Skyrim. 

Diversity - An NPC Overhaul - Diversity completely changes the appearance of every NPC in Skyrim. The end result is a slightly disconcerting uniform attractiveness, but if you’re sick of everyone you encounter looking like Danny Trejo this is the mod to fix it.

Enhanced Lighting for ENB (ELE) - Special Edition - It’s not an ENB, but more of a pre-ENB lighting mod which changes light values so that all lights look better after you apply an ENB. To be honest I’m not sure whether I have this working with the below mod or whether one is cancelling the other out, but I’m really pleased with the end result so I’m too scared to upset the apple cart.

Enhanced Lights and FX - Removes all lights that don’t have sources, and modifies the values for the lights that do. That means it gets really dark outside at night and in unlit areas of dungeons. It also means, together with all the other mods in this list and my chosen ENB/Reshade, the lighting always looks believable. 

Enhanced Textures Detail - An incredibly clever mod that doesn’t overwrite any of your current textures but instead uses actual magic to make them look nicer in your game. Magic or .ini file values, at least.

Using the Nexus Mod Manager to install these mods and set their load order is basically essential. It’s theoretically possible to do it all manually, but in the time it would take you to modify the .ini files correctly and ensure the right files live in the right locations, you could have coded The Elder Scrolls VI from scratch. It also affords you the advantage of swapping particular mods in and out to observe their effects.

On to the installation.

Click for the full 5K image.

Choosing an ENB

Initially I was almost disheartened when I installed this giant list of mods, loaded my game, and found a familiar-looking Skyrim staring back at me. The textures were much improved, yes, and the landscapes populated by much more realistic plant life. But it didn’t look like a generational shift. It was still recognisable, and that was exactly what I wanted to avoid. Applying an ENBSeries preset, a popular community lighting mod available for games like Fallout, Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto, would change all that in an instant.

You’ll hear it said a lot among the modding community, but there’s no more dramatic change you can enact on your game than applying an ENB to it. Therefore, my particular pick would be paramount. There are so many competing ‘photorealistic’ or ‘next-gen’ variants of Boris Vorontsov’s famous lighting mod that you could lose days watching those transitional wipe videos on Youtube demonstrating them all, but in the end I landed on one I was very happy with: the catchily named PhoenixVivid ENB Reshade. While the majority of ENBs feature way too much contrast and bloom for my taste, this one works beautifully with Vivid Weather and my existing lighting mods. It produces dramatic but believable lighting conditions at any time of day, indoors or outdoors, and also exaggerates the depth-of-field and ambient occlusion effects for a more cinematic view.

Click for the full 5K image.

Downsampling

At this point Skyrim started throwing out some really impressive imagery, so it was time to take things to the extreme. GeDoSaTo from Peter “Durante” Thoman will let you render games at resolutions far exceeding your monitor’s native output, and then ‘downsample’ the image so that it fits back on your screen. But you likely already know that, because you’re reading an article about making Skyrim look photorealistic. The question, really, is how much closer it can bring us towards that goal. 

My monitor’s native resolution is a slightly unusual 2560 x 1600, so I used GeDoSaTo to render Skyrim at twice that: a retina-seducing 5120 x 3200. All those high-res texture replacements really come into their own at this resolution, and the confluence of ENB, mods, and resolution produced natural landscapes that approached photorealism, given the right framing. 

It’s a frame rate killer, of course. My specs (GTX 1070, i7 2600K, 16GB RAM) were no match for that downsampled resolution and could only render the game at around 14fps. Attempting a 12K resolution resulted in a single-figure frame rate, which was frankly too unwieldy even for screenshot-hunting.

Click for the full 5K image.

Making Skyrim playable again

My longstanding reservation with mod collections like this when I see them elsewhere is: yes, but is it actually playable? There’s fun to be had by being a photojournalist in Skyrim and scouting out the best locations for screenshots, but after you’ve spent all that effort imbuing all that beauty into the game, it’d be a shame if you didn’t actually play it. 

I was able to pull it back to around 45 fps (I know, I know) by disabling downsampling and making use of BethINI. Simply put, it’s a handy tool that modifies your prefs.ini file and comes with new graphics presets which really boost performance. Using BethINI’s ‘ultra’ preset is much kinder to frame rates than the vanilla ‘ultra’ setting, without compromising any visible fidelity. 

Meaningful gameplay improvements

I was surprised by how far I could push Skyrim, which is another way of saying I was surprised by the sheer talent and enduring commitment of the modding community. What surprised me even more, though, was that the concessions I made on my photorealistic screenshot quest actually improved the gameplay experience, too. 

Firstly: play without the HUD. Really. I disabled it just to take screenshots at first, and my inherent laziness meant that it stayed disabled while I played. I soon found that not having a bunch of quest markers, a crosshair, dialogue subtitles and health meters is, to use the Skyrim modder’s favourite word, a hugely immersive experience. Archery was suddenly satisfying again, and in the absence of a big quest arrow guiding me forth I engaged with the environments properly, looking for signposting cues and navigating using landmarks. 

All my efforts to produce realistic lighting changed the way I played, too. Suddenly going out at night without a torch was a terrible idea (a mechanic I always loved about Dragon’s Dogma), and certain areas of caves and dungeons were simply pitch black unless I illuminated them. It meant I had to treat lighting like a game mechanic, like Skyrim had suddenly become a Thief game. 

Having those little moments of revelation as I realised I had to play the game differently was a wonderful thing. It’s inspired me to go through Skyrim all over again, which is what I always secretly hoped the right collection of mods would do. And now as I do it, I’ll perpetually be on the lookout for killer screenshots.

PC Gamer

The Creation Club was Bethesda’s most contentious E3 announcement. A follow-up to Valve’s failed paid mods program, the Creation Club will allow third-party developers, including modders, to create sanctioned add-on content for Fallout 4 and Skyrim: Special Edition. This content will be sold through in-game marketplaces for Creation Club Credits, which can be purchased via Steam.

The short version is that it’s paid mods. Bethesda insists that the Club isn’t paid mods, but it is. Crucially, it’s also a dramatically improved version of paid mods. Many questions remain unanswered, but we do know that Bethesda will screen applicants, curate Club content and optimize everything themselves to prevent conflict between mods. Club content must also be original, meaning existing mods won’t suddenly cost money. Perhaps most importantly, Bethesda says “there will still be plenty of free mods as well.”

"At first I was against it, but after talks with some other modding friends I changed my mind."

Troy Irving, Fallout 4 modder

Assuming Bethesda follows through on these rules, the Club could actually be a positive development for modding. It’s not perfect; as our own Chris Livingston wrote, Club content would be better off free, with the store itself acting as a way to promote the best mods and compensate talented modders. In any case, it is a rare opportunity for modders to profit off their passion. 

With all of that in mind, I spoke to three of the top Fallout 4 and Skyrim modders from the NexusMods community to gauge their thoughts on the Club. As it happens, everyone I spoke to has already applied to be a Club creator.  

Improvements and inquiries

“At first I was against it, but after talks with some other modding friends I changed my mind and actually decided to put an application in,” says Troy Irving, creator of Fallout 4’s Settlement Supplies Expanded mod, which contains over 400 new objects and structures. “I saw it as another paid mods scenario, which was terrible the first time, but it’s a bit different this time around.” 

For Irving, the Club’s improved quality control process, coupled with the fact that existing mods cannot be sold, was a big draw. It protects his mods and ensures the market won’t become saturated with overpriced garbage like $10 golden potatoes (yes, Skyrim had those). Many modders feel the same, including Doug ‘Gambit77’ Shafer, best known for his Armorsmith Extended mod for Fallout 4. 

“It seems like they’re really taking all those problems from [Steam’s paid mods] and are trying to stamp them all out,” Shafer says. “With the curation process, I don’t see people stealing other people’s work and trying to sell it. Their policy of not allowing already released content will stop any possibility of thievery. People can’t steal other people’s identities and shit like that. It seems like they’ve thought it out quite a bit.” 

Certainly, the Club is head and shoulders above the system Valve proposed in 2015. But there are still holes in Bethesda’s proposal, one of the biggest being how modders will be paid. Will they receive royalties based on sales of their content or a flat rate based on the scope of their project? Do creators get to decide? The modders I spoke to were divided on what payment model they’d prefer. One thing they did agree on was what kind of content they expect to see en masse on the Club store, namely custom armor sets and weapons. 

“They don’t have much conflict with each other and they’re easy to put in,” says Brendan ‘Expired6978’ Borthwick, creator of Skyrim’s RaceMenu mod, which greatly enhances the game’s character creator. “I mean, I wouldn’t say they’re easy to make, but they’re easy to put in the game and install in your game.”

The advantages of a simple mod like a piece of gear are two-fold, Borthwick explains. Firstly, it’s just an item entry, so it doesn’t inherently conflict with other mods. Secondly, it would be easier to instantly generate in-game, which is one of the Club’s most-vaunted features—being able to buy a cool new sword and wield it within seconds. 

That being said, Borthwick is more interested in expanding Skyrim’s core features, such as its follower system. Irving wants to make improved and custom weapon animations for Fallout 4, whereas Shafer is interested in building some from-scratch armor sets. 

Above: Enderal is one of the most ambitious Skyrim mod projects to date, but it won't be sold on Creation Club.

The impact on free mods

 Bethesda says the Club will include myriad content, from weapons and apparel to new locations and NPCs. But there’s been no mention of total conversion mods like Enderal: The Shards of Order, despite the fact that such massive mods are arguably most deserving of a price tag. So, why is the Creation Club ignoring the grandest mods in the business? Well, Borthwick believes total conversions are actually too big. .

“I don’t know about seeing that sort of stuff as DLC,” he says. “Those would be heavy engine mods, so they’d have to actually update the executable of the game to do anything with that ... I don’t think that’s really the target of the Creation Club mods, because that isn’t something you can easily put into your game.” 

"We do this in our spare time. I don t do it to make donations or money, I do it because I want to do it."

Brendan Borthwick, Skyrim modder

Total conversion mods essentially build a new game out of an existing engine, so they wouldn’t mesh with existing Fallout 4 and Skyrim save files. To offer them via the Creation Club, Bethesda would have to sacrifice compatibility, which they’ve trumpeted from the get-go. Meaning total conversions will all but certainly remain free passion projects—as will plenty of other mods, according to everyone I spoke to. 

“I don’t think it’s going to have a major impact [on free mods],” Borthwick says. “People are still going to be making mods on Nexus, and not everybody is going to try and push mods on the Creation Club … I don’t think it’s going to be something where people are just going to jump ship and start uploading tons of mods and go completely paid.”

Shafer agrees. “I don’t really buy into all the doom and gloom,” he says. “I know myself, and there’s plenty of projects that I would still be working on that would be free projects. In fact, most of my stuff would still be. I can’t speak for everybody, but if I was part of it, it wouldn’t stop me from working on the bigger picture stuff.” 

The gist of the knee-jerk doomsaying which followed the Club’s announcement is that free mods will dry up as modders all sell their souls to Bethesda, but these experts are eager to continue producing free mods. The other common argument against the Club, and paid mods in general, is that involving money in any way somehow taints the spirit of modding. Shockingly, none of the modders I spoke with agree. 

“We do this in our spare time. I don’t do it to make donations or money, I do it because I want to do it,” Borthwick says. “At the same time, I’m spending a lot of my time to do this and get almost literally nothing out of it … Most people would say ‘go find another job,’ but if you like doing this, what’s wrong with getting paid to do it?”

Shafer points out that if modders are being paid, they’re more likely to take on larger and more ambitious projects. Similarly, Irving expects the Club to attract new and talented creators to the modding scene—people who do stellar work but don’t have time to work for free. All of which could result in more and better mods. 

Yes, Steam’s take on paid mods was a dumpster fire. Yes, Bethesda could have done a better job selling the Creation Club. (Dwarven mudcrab armor, which we lampooned in 2011, probably wasn’t the best headliner.) And yes, there are still lots of blanks that need to be filled. Even so, many modders are optimistic, not just because they may finally be paid for their time and effort, but because the Club may well benefit the modding community as a whole.  

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion® Game of the Year Edition - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

A corner of the world of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has arrived in Skyrim with the launch of Beyond Skyrim: Bruma [official site], a mod set around Cyrodil’s city of Bruma. Unlike the still-in-development mod remaking Oblivion inside Skyrim, this mod is telling new stories set around the time of Skryim – 200 years after Oblivion. As well as recreating and updating the Bruma region, it brings new quests, characters, weapons, armour, music, and all that, plus a whopping 24,000-ish lines of voiced dialogue from a cast including professional actors. Fancy! Here, check out this trailer: … [visit site to read more]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Pity Skyrim's humble courier. He's charged with tracking you down in an incredibly dangerous fantasy world to deliver notes, letters, and quest instructions. While as the Dragonborn you're definitely recognizable, finding you as you race around the map killing monsters and looting dungeons can't be easy for the young man (though he does at times appear to be quite psychic), and the truly tragic thing is that this poor fellow doesn't even have his own place to live and rest between his deliveries.

Thankfully, celebrated Skyrim modder Arthmoor has stepped in with an equal dose of mod skills and empathy, and the Provincial Courier Service mod is the result, giving our favorite letter-carrier a proper home and base of operations. In it you'll find a desk, a bed, a dining area, a kitchen, and other creature comforts the courier can enjoy when he's not running all over the world trying to stick a letter in your pants.

The mod also provides an optional home delivery service, which means the courier can just bring his missives to your house (or one of your houses, if you're doing quite well) instead of materializing in your immediate vicinity, which certainly sounds like an improvement from his perspective. And, now that you can track him down for a change, you can also swing by his shack during your travels and collect your mail from him there. Everybody wins.

Okay, it's not a palace, just a humble abode, but we can all agree the fellow deserves it. You'll find the courier's new digs on the road outside Whiterun, and you'll find the mod, and the instructions on how to install it, on its page at Nexus Mods.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Richard Cobbett)

For a few horrible minutes during E3, it looked like Bethesda might seriously claim that The Elder Scrolls and Fallout were part of the same universe. Thankfully, not. Despite this being an era where Sony wants a Ghostbusters universe and Universal thinks demeaning the Universal Monsters by linking them with a top-sekrit monstah hunting group led by Dr Jekyll is anything other than schoolboy fan-fiction, Bethesda’s Pete Hines has been quick to go “What? No. No! No…>” Phew! Honestly, it’s bad enough that Daggerfall has six endings, ranging from the villain becoming a god to orcs being either defeated or victorious, and canonically all of them are true.>

But at a time when we’re seriously asked to pretend that “Dark Universe” is a thing we should want to see, that unholy union really wasn’t impossible…

… [visit site to read more]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Graham Smith)

In among the game announcements at E3 2017 Bethesda also announced Creation Club, “a collection of new game content for Skyrim and Fallout 4.” That content includes new weapons, armour, crafting and housing features, and changes to core systems, and you buy all of it in-game with ‘credits’ purchased for real money through Steam. Is this a new paid mods system? No, says the FAQ, “Mods will remain a free and open system where anyone can create and share what they d like.” … [visit site to read more]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Richard Cobbett)

The sign of a truly hardcore world is that it has its own languages. Klingon. Dothraki. Elvish. The term for these is ‘Conlangs’ – aka ‘constructed languages’ – and whether you see them as a vital part of world-building or a joke-in-waiting on The Big Bang Theory (they’re due a third one one of these days), there’s more to them than just slapping together some uncommon syllables and hoping it sounds alien. Well, actually, that’s exactly> how Klingon started, but never mind. Done right, paying attention to language offers more than just another DVD extra. Or at least, it can do…

… [visit site to read more]

Garry's Mod

Achievement hunting on Steam is serious business. While Valve's storefront might not have Xbox's Gamerscore or PlayStation's Trophies, there are still plenty of PC gamers who appreciate the way Steam achievements challenge them to play games in new and interesting ways. Then there's the satisfaction of knowing you're one of just a small percentage of players who've explored every nook and cranny, maxed out every stat, or earned every gold medal a game has to offer. 

The thing is, a lot of Steam achievements are kind of boring. Kill 10,000 enemies, hit level 99 in every class, finish the game on Ultra Nightmare Hardcore difficulty—most of the objectives feel like they've fallen straight out of a free-to-play MMO's quest log. Even the rarest achievements are often little more than tedious grind fests, requiring you to play 500 online matches in a multiplayer game with no active player base, or fight alongside a game's developer when that developer has long ago moved onto their next project. 

These achievements aren't particularly fun to earn, let alone read about. But buried in Steam's massive catalog of games are some truly obscure, brutally difficult achievements that less than 0.1 percent of players have managed to accomplish. These are achievements worthy of the name. Most of us will never earn them, but we can dream.

Note: Total owners approximated from SteamSpy. Verified achievement stats through AStats.

Devil Daggers

Devil Dagger - Survive 500 secondsTotal Owners: 236,000 Completion Percentage: 0.1

For something you could complete in the downtime between Dota matches, frantic FPS Devil Dagger's one and only achievement has managed to defy 99.9 percent of players for well over a year now. That might seem odd given how simple its requirement sounds: all you have to do is survive for 500 seconds. I mean, I do that all the time. See. That last 500 seconds? I just survived that. 

But yeah. Surviving Devil Daggers is a wee bit tougher than running out the clock in real life. Despite the game selling for a mere fiver, just 0.1 percent of players have managed to avoid croaking for the 8 minutes and 20 seconds necessary to snag the 'Devil Dagger' achievement. Watching replays of those runs is equal parts mesmerizing and depressing, making it painfully clear just how amateur my own skills are. I could probably spend the next year playing nothing but Devil Daggers and still not come close to the graceful death-dealing of players like the world-record-smashing bowsr. When the apocalypse hits and the whole world goes to hell, I'll be the redshirt incinerated in the first ten seconds.

Crusader Kings 2

Not so Bad - Survive the End Times Total Owners: 1.4 million Completion Percentage: 0.1

Crusader Kings 2, champion of the grand strategy genre, is full of intricate, multi-layered achievements few players have managed to unlock. From installing a female ruler in the five baronies of the Orthodox Pentarchy, to trampling the Pope with a horde of elephants, over a dozen eclectic achievements are currently sitting at a completion rate of less than 0.1 percent.  

The one I want to shout out, though, is the 'Not so Bad' achievement awarded for surviving the End Times. Ostensibly, you unlock this achievement by surviving the rise of the Prophet of Doom and the Black Death he's convinced will destroy humanity. A Crusader Kings player going by the username Xolotl123 on Reddit, however, inadvertently earned themselves the achievement due to their investment in high-quality hospital care and their imprisonment of the Prophet for disturbing the peace. The Prophet then hanged himself, but not before sending the player a letter that read: 'If you are reading this letter, I am with God, or with Lucifer..., if so, then you were right. If not, then I was right.' 

I've not had the time to play Crusader Kings 2, but after reading this story, I think I'm going to have to clear my schedule. Any game where you can avert the End Times through hygiene is a winner in my book. 

Rising Storm / Red Orchestra 2

Bringing a sword to a sword fight – As an American soldier kill an Axis soldier wielding a Katana, with a Katana. Stick it to Tojo – As an Allied soldier, kill 100 Axis soldiers with a bayonet. Total Owners: 2.7 million (unreliable due to free weekend) Completion percentage: 0.1 - 0.2

Rising Storm's focus on historically authentic, asymmetrical WWII combat means that, naturally, American soldiers do not spawn into the battlefield with katanas. In order to get one, you have to defeat a Japanese soldier who's carrying one. And in order to get the "Bringing a sword..." achievement, you then have to pick up their katana, find another Japanese soldier with a katana, and then defeat them with the weapon of their ancestors. It's a hard scenario to concoct in an FPS where rifles and grenades are the preferred way to fight.

Bit.Trip Beat

MEAT.BOY SMELLS - Get a perfect in 1-1 using only a game pad.Total Owners: 311,00Achievement percentage: 1.6

Heresy! An achievement that requires ditching the holy mouse and keyboard for a filthy gamepad? What does BIT.TRIP BEAT take us for, console players? Everyone knows a good M+K combo is the only way to play. Sure, it makes driving games a bit twitchy, and performing combos in third-person action games can be tricky without analogue sticks, and fighting games don't always work so great, and stealth sequences tend to be a little wonky with WASD…

Okay. So maybe gamepads aren't that bad. Still, locking an achievement to a specific piece of hardware is a surefire way to tick off achievement hunters. The BIT.TRIP devs found that out the hard way with the game's 'SIXTH.SENSE' achievement, which required players to beat a level using Razer's short-lived Sixense motion controller. The backlash to 'SIXTH.SENSE' drove the devs to delete the achievement from Steam completely, which technically makes it one of the rarest achievements out there. Not quite as rare as a game with motion controls that don't feel like total garbage, but still…

The Stanley Parable

Go outside - Don't play The Stanley Parable for five years Total Owners: 2.1 million Number of achievers: 2 verified through AStats (6.9 percent on Steam) 

Games are meant to be played—we usually take that much for granted. It's a little odd, then, when a game actively encourages you not to play it. Odd, however, is what The Stanley Parable's all about. I mean, one of the game's endings involves running back and forth between two buttons for four hours. And that's not to mention the pointed commentary on the nature of free will and the human tendency towards obeisance. Like I said, odd. 

The Stanley Parable's weirdest elements, however, are definitely its achievements. In addition to an achievement simply entitled 'Unachievable' (paradoxically earned by 3.9 percent of players), there's the 'Go outside' achievement that tasks players with not playing the game for five years straight. Since The Stanley Parable released in October 2013, no one can legitimately earn this achievement until October next year. Of course, that hasn't stopped some unscrupulous Steam users from setting their computer clocks forward to unlock the achievement early.  

Cheating to not play a game? I guess some people will do anything for their sweet cheevos. 

Garry's Mod

Addict - You have wasted a year of your life playing GMod! Total Owners: 13.2 million Number of achievers: 9 verified on AStats (1.8 percent on Steam) 

You can do a lot of things in the 8760 hours that make up a single year. You could play 105,120 matches of Rocket League. You could marathon the entire current run of The Simpsons—all 617 episodes—38 times over. You could hitch a ride on a rocket and fly to Mars, with enough time left over to plant the seeds of an interplanetary rebellion

You could also spend every one of those 8760 hours playing Garry's Mod in order to unlock the 'Addict' achievement. And when I say playing, I don't just mean booting up the game and letting it idle in the menu. You have to be connected to an active server for your time to count. Unsurprisingly, the hefty investment involved has kept the achievement's completion percentage at just 1.8 percent, even with achievement hunters over at AStats devising strategies for minimizing the resources used by Garry's Mod so you can leave it running in the background while you tend to other tasks. 

I have to wonder, though, how many people left their computers on while they were working or sleeping solely to unlock this achievement? At a modest estimate, 8760 hours' worth of electricity would cost roughly $210 USD, which is a whole lot of money for a single achievement. Kind of puts all those pesky microtransactions to shame, doesn't it? 

Train Simulator

DLC scenarios Total Owners: 995,000 Completion percentage: 0

Speaking of money, Train Simulator boasts some of the rarest achievements on Steam, but that's not because they're brutally difficult or stubbornly obscure. Heck, the achievement descriptions make it pretty obvious what you've got to do: the 'It Works For Dogs!' achievement reads 'Awarded for completing scenario [RailfanMode] Barking. It's not like the game's unpopular either, with nearly a million owners on Steam and a median playtime of a respectable 7.5 hours. 

No, what makes Train Simulator's achievements so rare is that fiendish friend of ours: DLC. Train Simulator is notorious for having the most expensive DLC on Steam, with its total value currently sitting at $6254.43 USD. Worse, Train Simulator ties many of its achievements to its DLC, leading to a wealth of 0 percent and 0.1 percent completion rates across the board.  

But that $6254.43? I'd want a real honest-to-god train if I was forking over that much cash. If it was anything like Train Simulator, though, it'd probably lock out the train whistle as premium DLC. Steam whistle: only $0.99 per toot! 

Ark: Survival Evolved

Artifact Archaeologist – You personally retrieved all Eight Artifacts! Total Owners: 4.7 million Completion Percentage: 0.2

A whole lot of people play ARK: Survival Evolved, and yet even the most common of its seven achievements has been earned by less than 5 percent of players. But while 95 percent of ARK players haven't defeated the game's first Ultimate Life Form, 99.8 percent remain vexed by its toughest achievement: 'Artifact Archaeologist', rewarded for retrieving every Artifact in the game. It sounds simple enough, but this is where ARK's nature as an Early Access game comes back to bite it on the rump.  

According to the achievement description, there are only eight artifacts in ARK: Survival Evolved. This isn't true. There are 14 artifacts in total, 10 of which can be obtained through normal play, 3 which are locked to the Scorched Earth DLC, and one which can only be spawned through a console command. For a game that has already seen its fair share of controversy, ARK has left quite a few achievement hunters pretty disappointed. Still, at least they can take solace in the giant bees that have just been added to the game. That's something, right?  

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Dragonrider - Tame and ride 5 dragons Total Owners: 11 million (unreliable due to free weekend) Completion percentage: 0.8

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you've played Skyrim, or at least heard enough about it to understand the game's premise. You're the dragonborn, you need to save the world from an evil dragon, yada yada yada. In short, the game basically revolves around dragons. 

How, then, is the achievement for riding dragons so rare? Only 0.8 percent of the millions of Skyrim players have tamed five or more of the mythical creatures and taken to the skies, which makes exactly zero sense to me. Who wouldn't want a dragon as their personal chauffeur? It's not like you'd have to worry about anyone jacking your scaly pal; any thief foolish enough to try would be charred to a crisp before they could shout Fus Ro Dah. I guess Skyrim players are just too busy getting busy and fighting Macho Man Randy Savage to spend their time becoming certified dragon pilots. 

Black Mesa

Rare Specimen – Send the Hidden Hat to Xen. Total Owners: 500,000 Completion percentage: 2.1 percent 

Hats are all the rage these days. I have it on good authority from my stock broker that the hat economy is only going to go up—and that's coming from a man who wears a top hat, so you know it's legit. My wardrobe is already full of baseball caps, bowler hats, fezes, and beanies, just waiting for the day when my fabric fortune will be ready to claim. The only thing I don't quite understand is why my broker keeps mentioning Dota. Eh, never mind. I'm sure it's nothing. 

Video games, it turns out, are just as keen to cash in on the hat craze. Black Mesa, the fan-made recreation of the original Half-Life, adds in the 'Rare Specimen' achievement that tasks good old Gordon Freeman with locating a hidden purple top hat and lugging it all the way from the Black Mesa Research Facility on Earth to the alien dimension of Xen. It might not sound that tricky, but apparently Gordon's more interested in trivial things like saving the world instead of securing his future in the hat economy--only 2.1 percent of players have carried the top hat all the way to its new interdimensional marketplace. 

Wait, that gives me an idea. What if I started selling digital hats instead of physical ones? Ooh, I think I'm onto something here. I better stop typing before someone beats me to the punch… 

Team Fortress 2

I tried.

Without bagels, I’d probably live to be 100 years old. But I have regular access to bagels and sourdough loaves and this sandwich bread always in my house called Birdman that’s covered in seeds and I don’t know why. I eat the stuff so fast I’ll be surprised if I make it to 50. 

In videogames, bread often gives you health instead of slowly seeping it away, a beacon of hearth and health. It’s been this way since the earliest games, and as technology became more capable of producing detailed environments and uncanny human likenesses, so too advanced the fidelity of the loaf. But the evolution of bread didn’t happen in a straight line. Diverse genres, art styles, and game engines shifted the purpose and priority of bread throughout the ages.

To get a clearer picture of how game bread has or hasn’t evolved, we’ve taken a look back at its implementation in some best games ever made to some of the most obscure.

BurgerTime (1982) 

As one of the earliest depictions of a hamburger bun, BurgerTime did a decent job. And it should have, given the name. Notice the inference of sesame seeds on the top bun and how the light diffuses on the bottom bunk. Early pixel art set a high bar for bunwork. 

Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1992)

A decade later, the burger genre fell out of vogue and fantasy roleplaying games stepped into the limelight. Ultima IV didn’t feature bread in a major way, but was an early example of inventory art, proof that you didn’t need the latest in computer graphics to make a great loaf. 

Jesus Matchup (1993) 

As a preteen, I went to a Catholic church camp even though I’m not and have never been Catholic. I ate the body of Christ even though I wasn’t supposed to and my friend Brian chastised me after the fact. He said I needed to get confirmed first and that I broke some kind of holy rule. The bread was just a thin wafer, like a sugar cone without the sugar, and maybe the aftertaste of it was a taste of hell itself. Jesus Matchup’s brown lump captures my disappointment exactly.

Ultima Online (1997) 

Pixel loaves hadn’t evolved much between Ultima IV and Ultima Online, but for one minor detail that changed the bread game forever for a few months. Ultima Online’s bread features a small blemish, giving the impression of a bite or piece ripped away for light post-adventure munching. The loaf went from inanimate prop to inanimate prop with history

Thief: The Dark Project (1998) 

Whether Thief should commended or condemned for its early attempt at modeling a 3D loaf is beyond me. All I know for sure is this: that’s a log. 

Someone’s in the Kitchen! (1999) 

You may know Steven Spielberg for his hit films like E.T. and Jurassic Park, but did you know his name was once mentioned in a trailer for a game he probably had nothing to do with? Someone’s in the Kitchen! isn’t just good reason to call the police, it’s a bad point-and-click edutainment game with one hell of an opening theme song. Also, you make a sandwich in it while a demon toaster—who is going to kill me, I saw it in a dream—judges your creation. The bread looks like my little brother sat on it, and is a shade of yellow I’ve only ever seen in bathrooms built in the 70s. Clearly, the late 90s weren’t great for game bread. 

The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind (2002) 

Even the modern masters of 3D bread had to start somewhere. In Morrowind, Bethesda drew inspiration from something other than felled trees and instead turned their eye to the sky, probably. I’m guessing here. They managed to suggest bread by texturing a footballish shape with what look like photos from the visible surface of Jupiter, a perpetually storming gas giant. 

World of Warcraft (2004) 

Just two years later an MMO, known for prioritizing multiplayer features over looking good, managed to bake bread that an Orc could tolerate. While the left loaf looks like a water chestnut, the precise angles and light divots up top are a convincing enough illusion. The right loaf, except for it’s undercooked coloring, nails the shape. And the inner texture marks a defined border between crust and light, fluffy inside. I’m tempted to throw some mayo, lettuce, tomato, and a bit of thinly sliced night elf meat on there just looking at it.

The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion (2006) 

Maybe Bethesda should’ve prioritized bread resolution DLC over horse armor. At a glance, one out of ten times I’m going to say that’s bread. The other nine times I’m going to say that’s a large misshapen potato. I lived in Idaho for a while. Got invited to a ‘Baked Potato Party' and yeah, they get that big.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (2007) 

While 3D game bread moved into potato territory, Recettear reaffirmed that pixels were still the way to go. Its depiction of Walnut Bread takes a good squint to make out, but when you get up close, the shades of gold and brown and white light diffusing on the outer crust nearly flash the entire baking process on the back of your eyelids. “Walnuts, soft dough and a bit of sugar…” do more than an extra dimension ever could.

Dinner Date (2011) 

I’d flake on a guy who thought it’d be a good idea to dip that twisted loaf in some red shit too. And look at that distribution! I’m not sure what’s being distributed, but half of that isn’t even bread, it’s Dark Brown Stuff. Jesus, man. We should never be able to see inside the bread if the tech isn't ready and can’t simulate a good bake. 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) 

Star Baker goes to Todd Howard this decade. Look at the fidelity of this loaf. A nice rise, detailed textures, and I can nearly hear the muffled tip-tap from the even bake. Forget adventure and the snowcapped mountaintops and vampires and dragons—like a toilet in a Tarantino movie, a good loaf is the keystone of any open world. 

Minecraft (2011)

Well regarded for its wild redstone contraptions and horrifying monuments to pop culture, Minecraft’s bread has been largely ignored, and for good reason. You’re one of the most successful games of all time, and a brown lump is the best you can muster? I’ve felt more love radiating from an old hotdog bun.

Scribblenauts Unlimited (2012) 

You can tell this was made in a bread pan, small specks imply the bread is airy and light, you can summon it whenever you like, and nearly every humanoid creature will eat it. It’s a crude child’s drawing, sure, but Scribblenauts built put time into simulating natural, albeit simple, bread world behaviors. Consider it this immersive sim, the System Shock, of bread. Place it in the world, and the world reacts to its presence.

Bioshock Infinite (2013) 

Source: David Miles on YouTube

If one game knows how good its bread is, it’s Bioshock Infinite. If you were to press pause and inspect the 3D baguette, it’d be possible to nitpick small design decisions, like texture resolution, flour distribution, and grain density, but because the bread is sandwiched with context—the dancing bread boy and his believable reaction to owning a baguette inside a big patriotic amusement park city held up by balloons that Ken Levine imagined using his brain, his very own personal brain—it doesn’t feel out of place. Realism is helpful, certainly, but the game world needs to feel alive, like a natural home for bread above all else.  

Team Fortress 2: Love and War update (2014) 

Bread is only monstrous when left to mold, and Team Fortress 2’s Love and War update bottles the essence of in a cute, tragic short film. There’s little purpose to the bread in-game aside from a few dough-themed items. Personally, I interpret it as a commentary on the state of game bread as nothing more than a simple prop and HP potion skin, new ideas and advances left in the pantry to rot. I see you Valve.

I Am Bread (2014) 

As a goofy physics playground, I Am Bread is fine. I do take issue with how controlling a slice feels like maneuvering a heavy sponge. Bread isn’t heavy and sandwich bread isn’t durable. One fall off the table and it’s over, usually. I Am Bread forgoes natural bread behaviors for the sake of a joke, but I’m not sure we’ll be laughing when our kids start to think they can wash the dishes with a sandwich.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) 

Everything about The Witcher 3’s world feels hand-placed. Small villages, big cities, and even monster-infested caves are brimming with life and purpose, but in order to maintain such a sprawling illusion, nearly all props and people are static. NPCs sit in the same place spouting the same lines and props like bread just sit there, looking delicious, but forever out of reach. What an awful game.

Fallout 4 (2015) 

After setting a new standard for 3D loaf work in Skyrim, Bethesda dropped the atom ball in Fallout 4, spending more time on the bread box than any bread at all. Modders came to the rescue again, modeling slices, sandwiches, and adding recipes any old ghoul could follow.

Dishonored 2 (2016) 

Karnacan bakers know how to bake bread. Lovely rise, nice crust, but a bit low res I’m being honest. Eating it gives you a small dose of HP, but the animation is a simple swipe-and-swallow maneuver. It’s pan for the course, and not much else. In 2016, it’s a good bake, but it’s not a great bake. 

The future of videogame bread

How far have we come, really? From BurgerTime’s advanced bun art to Dishonored 2’s simple dark loaf, videogame bread feels without a sure destination—a lumpy mass that needs more time to prove. Perhaps the future holds loaves we never could have imagined, or abominations, such as virtual reality pumpernickel that virtually tastes like sourdough. 

Will Call of Duty: WWII pay proper homage to the history and show families turning their nose up at National Loaf? Maybe someday we’ll spend as much money on naan as we do on spaceships in Star Citizen. All we know for certain is that bread will be there, a short roll for every dodge roll and an abundance of biscuits to crowd every RPG inventory.

FINAL FANTASY VII

The Oblivion Moment.

Everybody remembers the Oblivion Moment, yeah? It's been repeated in so many open-world games that even if you haven't played Oblivion you've had an Oblivion Moment, whether it was a Fallout 3 Moment or an Amalur Moment. It's what happens when you step out of the tutorial zone and get blinded by the dazzling light of the world you're free to explore, like a baby alien emerging from a human chest cavity. In Oblivion you've slogged through a sewer dungeon to get The Moment. You've earned it. You finally kill all the damn goblins and get to stand outdoors, on the shore of a rolling river. Across the water you see crumbling stone ruins, a bandit camp, and endless greenery leading off into the draw distance.

But you probably turn around at this point. You have that urge to go left instead of right at the start of a level, whether it was instilled by Pitfall! or Metroid. That's what I did, and behind me rose the white stone of the Imperial City. Bugger the countryside—that's where I went. For hours I walked the streets, talked to beggars, met the head of its Thieves Guild in a graveyard, and interrogated a suspicious merchant named Thoronir who had a face like a shiny punchable brick. They were good times.

When you leave the city you swap a location that seems full of possibility and bigger than it really is with places that end up shrinking your conception of the game world.

Too soon, I had to leave. Questlines kept sending me to towns with unlovely names like Chorrol and Skingrad. Oblivion and games like it don't want you spending too long in one place, because you'll start looking at it too closely and realize that there aren't that many people for a city of its size and start asking uncomfortable questions. There are 194 citizens and 119 guards in the Imperial City. How much crime do they think people commit? 

Living in the Imperial City's great, though. The shack on the waterfront is the cheapest home in the game and also the best. Sure, it's a fixer-upper, but the fact it's small means everything you need is in a single room and you can swim to it from a nearby fast-travel point even if you're wanted by all 119 of the city's guards.

The big city is the place to be in so many RPGs. Almost all the good bits of Baldur's Gate II happen in the city of Athkatla, a city where almost everything is legal except unlicensed spellcasting, and that’s what all the cool kids are doing. When we reminisce about Planescape: Torment it's Sigil we think of, a city built on the inside of a giant floating doughnut, not Curst, a border town we visit way too late in the game to care about.

Imagine the Imperial City, built to GTA scale.

In the city there's something to find around every corner, and while in the wilderness there are impressive sights—the cliffs of Skellige, the mountaintop views of Skyrim—there's a lot of trekking to get from one to the next. In Sigil the Smoldering Corpse Bar, Ragpicker's Square, and the Brothel For Slaking Intellectual Lusts are all just a few screens apart. 

Thanks to the unrealistically low population numbers necessitated by processing power, video game cities cram their interesting characters close together. In the shifting tectonic city of Anachronox, from the game of the same name, you're never far from Whackmaster Jack and his brawling lessons or K'Conrad the floating informant. But eventually you have to leave Anachronox and travel to a spaceport full of scientists, then a world where everyone is obsessed with the democratic process. Neither is nearly as interesting. It's like when Final Fantasy VII makes you leave Midgar behind, or Mass Effect boots you off the Citadel—you swap a location that seems full of possibility and bigger than it really is with places that end up shrinking your conception of the game world. 

Anachronox, via GamesTM

Novigrad Noire

While RPGs are fixated on their progression from the small tutorial area to the big city to the wide world beyond, open-world games that aren't really RPGs (though they borrow some of their mechanics) have no compunction about putting all their effort into a detailed city you can't leave. Most of the Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row games, Sleeping Dogs, L.A. Noire, and a couple of the more recent Assassin's Creed games have concentrated on making ridiculously detailed cities for crimes to happen in. Now imagine the kind of effort put into those games poured into an RPG which traded detailed vehicle physics and shooting for dialogue choices and branching questlines.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was the closest the GTA series came to being an RPG. CJ could be personalized in more ways than just a new haircut and had stats that controlled how good he was at driving or running, as well as how chubby or muscular he got. My CJ and your CJ might have had different amounts of stomach flab, different girlfriends, different levels of respect with the gangs, and access to different fighting styles. But San Andreas was also the GTA that pushed you out of the city, forcing you to abandon Los Santos and its gang wars for the much less interesting San Fierro and then an airfield where you had to spend hours gaining a pilot's licence. When GTA became an RPG it followed the genre's lead by making you leave the city—and suffered for it.

Grand Theft Auto is at its most interesting in densely packed, intricately detailed cities.

Of course, there have been attempts at RPGs set in and around a single city before. Dragon Age 2's energetic haters and fans have been furiously skimming over the previous paragraphs waiting for a mention of it. But though Dragon Age 2 limited itself to the city of Kirkwall and its surroundings, it infamously recycled so much that it felt thinner than the previous, larger Dragon Age instead of feeling more compact and detailed. Kirkwall was a city with only one warehouse in it, though it must have been a pretty good warehouse since every other covert meeting and gang war took place there.

Dragon Age 2 wasn't the first fantasy RPG to limit players to one city and cop flak for it. Way back in 1989 the D&D game Hillsfar trapped characters in a city like Athkatla where magic was banned. And apparently so were levelling up and the turn-based combat of the other D&D games. There has been an RPG that made a single-city setting work, however: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Its night-time Los Angeles is made up of hubs representing Downtown, Chinatown, Santa Monica and Hollywood, each with a different atmosphere, each a different angle on the city of angels.  

Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines showed the potential of an RPG that made a single city its home.

Every hangout can feel meaningfully distinct when games stop chasing the goal of bigger meaning better, of trying to give us entire countries or even planets to ramble across.

Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines only works the way it does because you're a predator and the city's your feeding ground. It needs to have its dark alley with a guy pissing up against a wall, its multiple nightclubs, its believable parking lots, because those are places you can feed. Because those things make the city a perfect setting for vampires, Bloodlines had to pull off what other RPGs haven't. It was focused, able to evoke one place in a layered and hyper-detailed way. Even an inconsequential security guard had a story. Every hangout felt meaningfully distinct, even though two of them were goth clubs—one a kind of warehouse space, the other a converted church.  

That's what can happen when games stop chasing the goal of bigger meaning better, of trying to give us entire countries or even planets to ramble across and then having to repurpose the same story ingredients like they're stretching out last night's leftovers. In the city small distinctions can matter, even if it's the difference between the cafe you like and the one across the street you don't like. Spending time in one place makes us imbue it with significance if it does even the littlest things to earn it.

Games benefit from significance. A quest to save a place stops being item three in the journal when that place is the bar your favorite busker plays at. Finding out there's a fortune hidden in a building might make you want to steal it, but if the people who own it have a life beyond that you think twice. Characters who aren't just job titles and sleep schedules, shops that aren't just inventories and price lists, and locations that have as much personality as the people in them. How often do video game cities even bother naming their streets?

Geralt Theft Auto.

Now imagine a fantasy RPG with a level of detail equivalent to that of Bloodlines' Los Angeles or GTA's Los Santos. Taverns to hang out in, carriages to catch from place to place, markets to visit, and so many characters to talk to there'd be no reason to leave except for that one quest in the abandoned hotel outside of town. Or a futuristic version in a city with neon signs, hovercar traffic, late-night sushi bars, and sirens always wailing in the distance.

Maybe Cyberpunk 2077 will be that game, but even if it isn't, I've got my fingers crossed there are more people out there willing to overlook the reaction to Dragon Age 2 and try a one-city RPG again. I've had enough Oblivion Moments now.

...

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