The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind® Game of the Year Edition

Update: Patreon has removed the fraudulent campaign page for violating its TOS, specifically with regards to "impersonation:" With allowances for satire and comedy, " You cannot pretend or impersonate another creator, such as using someone else's name, brand, or content in order to raise funds."

Original story:

Morrowind, the best of Bethesda's long-running Elder Scrolls series (and I'll hear no more about it), is set on Vvardenfell, an island within the Dunmer home province of Morrowind. The mainland is never properly seen: The Tribunal expansion technically takes place there, but it's contained entirely within the walled city of Mournhold and so doesn't really count. It's a shortcoming that the ambitious Tamriel Rebuilt mod, which we took a closer look at earlier this year, aims to overcome by recreating and adding all of that missing landmass to the game. 

The project is entirely volunteer, which is one of the reasons there's no end in sight after more than 15 years of work. It's also why you probably wouldn't be surprised to see a Patreon campaign supporting its creation. Don't back it, though, even if you're a big Elder Scrolls fan, because it's a fraud. 

"There is currently a link going around to a Patreon page masquerading as our official account, asking for donations to keep Tamriel Rebuilt running," a message on the official Tamriel Rebuilt website warns. "This account is not affiliated with us in any way, shape or form. We do not have, nor do we plan to have, a Patreon account at all." 

The mod makers say they've made Patreon aware of the situation, but the campaign remains up for now. Fortunately, nobody has donated to it so far. (And to help keep it that way, I'm not linking to the campaign page.)

Despite not being complete, Tamriel Rebuilt is playable as a work-in-progress. You'll need a copy of Morrowind and the Bloodmoon and Tribunal expansion to dive in—if you've got all that, you can download the most recent release of the mod here

Thanks, PCGamesN

Call of Duty®

I have never seen a more tragic comments section than the one from a few weeks back when we asked our readers to share their most tragic save file disasters. Over 200 of you shared stories of despair and woe as hard drives crashed, Uplay cloud saves glitched, or a simple misclick spelled doom for countless hours of gaming.

We've collected the saddest, most heartbreaking stories below so that you can wallow in their misery. And if you didn't get a chance to contribute your own story, do so in the comments.

The lost library 

This one hits hard because the emotional loss is so apparent. It's one thing to fall in love with your Morrowind character and your adventures together, but Bear's story of losing his entire library of collected books in Morrowind because of a virus really stings.

Commenter: Bear

My first Morrowind character. I had made an Argonian and enjoyed the wonders that the game had to offer, discovered mods a number of hours in, got myself a few decent ones, joined House Telvanni to appreciate the irony of being an Argonian and of Telvanni, and progressed very little on the main questline but became deeply infatuated with the world.

I kept telling myself, I'll do the main quest later, and something would come up. When the "something" was the Thieves Guild, I became captivated with in-game theft, and I claimed a home that was empty after I'd murdered the owner as my loot den.

I use the word loot loosely. I was only interested in one type of item to steal: books. I ventured back and forth across the continent stealing every book I could manage, piling stacks of books as high as I could manage in my den of ill-gotten goods, occasionally tossing other stolen things on the floor, but my pride were the hundreds of books stacked taller than my Argonian. The small room would take a good ten minutes to load because of the sheer amount of books. I'd take detours while exploring just to raid places looking for books. Even if I got one book, I was pleased to be able to add it to my collection.

This was the first time I'd pumped so many hours into any game, ever. It was probably 2003 or 2004, and I had a PC that was rough around the edges at best. It was passed to me by my father as a reject for his own uses, no doubt in hopes that I would get my 12 or 13-year-old behind off the family PC with minimal trouble, and it worked. Until my young self made an uneducated choice in my forays on the internet and I picked up a particularly nasty virus while trying to download some free graphics editing software. The PC wouldn't boot. My father refused to help me fix it (apparently he had regrets for giving me my own PC, because my internet usage increased rapidly) and I couldn't figure it out.

My father finally just reformatted the hard drive and when I went to restart Morrowind, my hundreds of hours and couple years of gameplay was lost. I'd just lost the one thing that helped let me escape the troubles of being a bullied, friendless kid so easily before.

Lost in space 

Not all of these stories have to do with losing a save file entirely. Some deal with the existential horror of being trapped in one location, never able to escape. Of course, that horror becomes a lot more tangible when there's a giant xenomorph rapping at your chamber door.

Commenter: Bob McCow

Alien: Isolation is a bit mean with the saving system. You have to find what looks like a retro telephone booth and dial a number, making sure that Mr. Alien is not about to skewer you with his tongue or show you his six freaky fingers. You can only go back two save points, so you have to be very careful.

After a month spent hiding in lockers and wetting myself, I'd progressed through the game painfully slowly. I was escaping from the nest and it looked like I was finally getting Amanda off Sevastapol for good. I only had to take a lift up to a safer level. Sadly, I dropped a gun while being chased by the Alien and it got wedged in the door in a very glitchy way. The glitch meant that although I could take the lift, the next level wouldn't load. I was stuck! I couldn't retrieve an early enough save file to avoid the glitching gun. I haven't had the courage to replay the entire game to get to that point, so I'll never know if Amanda made it.

She's left forever in that lift with the Alien banging on the door outside.

It's not you, it's Witcher 3 

Listen, people make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes can hurt us, but I'm not sure if I'd ever end a relationship over a lost game save. But I guess The Witcher 3 isn't your average game.

Commenter: Piantino

Some time ago, my ex girlfriend wanted to play The Witcher 3 and I shared it from my Steam library with her. One day she played it in my PC, and when I came to play I realized that the save files in The Witcher 3 are the same when you share from your Steam library, and she saved her game in the same slot as mine. I lost my lvl 55 Geralt, my witcher gear and swords—everything. My time in Ard Skellige looking for treasures didn't serve for anything. I broke up with her some time ago and I use this story to explain why she is now my ex hahahaha.

Happy birthday 

I'm sure parents are equally as responsible for deleted saves as failing hardware. But there's something especially tragic when it all happens because they were trying to do something nice for you.

Commenter: Robáird Mac An TSaoir

In the late nineties, my dad surprised me for my birthday with some PC upgrades: a new monitor, bigger hard drive, and new graphics card. Of course, he'd wiped my old hard drive. Ten years of save files, writing, gig upon gig of films and music, all gone.

Commenter Grom Hellscream sums up the tragedy perfectly:

"Happy birthday, son. I formatted your entire childhood."

Groundhog Day 

If you've ever saved immediately before your demise only to find that you're now stuck replaying your death over and over, you can sympathise with Berty Bennish's story.

Commenter: Berty Bennish

I was playing the first Call of Duty back when it first came out. I would regularly save my games but in this instance, my last save was a couple of levels before the incident. It was the daylight St. Mere-Eglise level. After destroying the tank that comes out of the wall I ran round the corner heading towards where you would get in the car. I killed a couple of guys and ran a bit further. Game decides to auto save right when a German soldier pops round the corner and blasts me in the head. Instant death.

Game loads.

Instant death.

Game loads.

Instant death.

and so on…

What's hilarious about this particular story is that another one of our commenters had nearly the exact same problem.

Commenter: ImpatientPedant

When I was playing Call of Duty, way back in the day, there was a tank section. I hadn't saved for the entirety of the (rather long) mission, and contrived to save at the exact moment a shell was fired in my direction, a shell which would wipe me out.

Every time I tried to reload, the shell would fire and I would die. Over and over. I was shattered.

If a psychologist interviews me years from now and asks me why my dreams often have intermittent flashes of light, this is 100 percent the reason. Poor old toddler me.

Sorry, Mom 

Parents have unwittingly destroyed thousands of hours of time invested into games, but Zach Fathaigh's story flips the script. I'm assuming his mother had a hard time looking at him for a few days after.

Commenter: Zach Fathaigh

1996's The Realm is a fun proto-MMO that my mom was obsessed with. You get four or five character slots, I can't remember which. My mom let me have one of those slots (thank you, Mom). My older brother asked me what the game was like and I wanted to show him how fun it was to start a new character. So I looked at the list and saw Mom's two really badass characters, my character, and a level 1 naked character. I deleted that one to make room for my brother's character.

The deleted character was a mule with hundreds of hours worth of loot. I forgot about this incident entirely until my mom reminded me of it over the weekend.

Sorry, Mom.

Double whammy

We've all had hardware fail. Picking up and starting a game from the ashes of an old save is awful. Having to do it twice? No thanks.

Commenter: Kyosho

Christmas of 1999, I get the one game I really wanted under the tree. That big, ugly (beautiful?) orange and purple box. Planescape: Torment. From Christmas day until just before New Years, I put about 25-ish hours into the game. I was really into it. Then my hard drive crashed. I was devastated. I had the computer fixed within a week, but it took me another month or two to work up the nerve to start the game over from scratch. I did it, though. Even made some slightly different choices. It was a bit tedious to read ALL that text again, but after a good 15 hours or so, I got back to where I'd been. Played another 20-ish hours and... BAM, another hard drive crash.

Here's a tip, kids: Don't skimp out on your power supply when building a PC. It killed two hard drives before I knew the cause. Anyway, to say it was soul crushing was an understatement. I haven't beaten Planescape: Torment to this day. I've tried going back to it, but I end up losing interest before I ever get back to where I was. Best RPG of all time? Maybe. It's too painful for me to be able to ever know.

Tower of Trials 

Speaking of hard drive failures, I can't stress enough how important it is to back up important projects. We had countless stories about people losing game saves, but entire games? Seriously, don't wind up like Matt.

Commenter: Matt Pruitt

I once made an entire game in RPG maker VX-ACE. It was called the Tower of Trials. It was short and utilized only the assets the game provided. It had some random elements, little story, and was intended for short-runs about 30-40 minutes long. I worked on it for two years, starting on my old laptop and eventually finishing it on my first PC. It was my own little project and only a few of my friends played it. Then I discovered why people told me not to buy cheap HDDs. My hard drive crapped out on me and two years of work was lost. My oldest version of the game was on my old laptop and only had three floors of the tower completed. Needless to say, my current rig is running on a Samsung SSD.

Harry Potter and the Computer Thief 

It's one thing to lose a save file, but to lose the ability to play a game altogether? Now that's tragic.

Commenter: dxdy

Back in elementary school, 2001 or so, I really liked Harry Potter. Neither me nor my parents could afford a PC or anything to play modern games (had an Atari 130 XE though), so I was very happy when someone left Philosopher's Stone installed at the school's computer lab.

I could only play video games for a limited time after classes, so I only made it to Herbology Class over the course of several months. The game felt amazing to me, probably because I was reading Harry Potter books around the same time.

Once I went to school as usual, but after arriving I noticed it was completely deserted. Normally, entire halls would be filled with sounds of children playing but there was not a single soul in sight. I went upstairs. After walking around for a minute, I was spotted by the principal's assistant who rushed me to the cafeteria.

When we arrived there, I saw that all students were crammed inside. I quickly learned from colleagues that the school was robbed overnight. Robbers broke the window and stole a boombox, whole bunch of chocolate bars from school's kiosk, and every single PC from the lab. I lost not only the save file I worked for what felt like eternity, I lost the ability to play my beloved game in the first place.

These were just a few of the great stories our commenters told us. For the rest, be sure to check out the comment thread from last week.

Some comments were edited for grammar and clarity.

Half-Life 2

Every year PC Gamer's editors and contributors vote on a list of the 100 best PC games to play right now, and every year our Top 100 list is contentious. A game is always too low, and another too high, and another unbelievably missing. Such is the inevitable fate of any List Of Things In A Certain Order.

But this year, we decided it would be fun to transform the heated comment threads under our list into a list of their own—the Readers' Top 100. Last week, I asked you to pick your top two games from our Top 100 list, and suggest two games to add. I then compiled the votes (1,445 of them), weighing the write-ins more highly than the picks from our list, given that it's much more likely that 50 people would chose the same game from a list of 100 than all write in the same game.

My totally unscientific method does cause a few problems, namely: how much more do you weigh the write-in votes? A multiplier of three produced the most interesting list in this case, though next year I may ditch that tactic all together and take write-ins only. The danger is that a write-in-only list might be more easily swayed by organized campaigns (though that certainly happened anyway), and for this first attempt, I wanted to include a baseline to build off of just in case the suggestions were too scattered, or too homogeneous.

It worked out pretty well despite the uneven, improvised methodology—but do think of it as a fun exercise and not a perfect representation of PC gamers' tastes. Caveats out of the way, check out the list below. (Games that aren't on our Top 100 list are in bold.)

The PC Gamer Readers' Top 100

  1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
  2. Half-Life 2 
  3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 
  4. Dark Souls 
  5. Borderlands 2 
  6. Fallout: New Vegas 
  7. Mass Effect 2  
  8. Doom (2016) 
  9. BioShock 
  10. Doom 2 
  11. Fallout 2 
  12. Deus Ex 
  13. Portal 2 
  14. Life is Strange 
  15. Starcraft 
  16. Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn 
  17. Grand Theft Auto 5 
  18. League of Legends 
  19. Diablo 2 
  20. XCOM 2 
  21. Fallout 4 
  22. Dragon Age: Origins 
  23. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind 
  24. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds 
  25. Bioshock Infinite 
  26. Overwatch 
  27. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 
  28. World of Warcraft 
  29. Rimworld 
  30. Path of Exile 
  31. Planescape: Torment
  32. Fallout 
  33. Dishonored 2 
  34. Crysis 
  35. Stellaris 
  36. Crusader Kings 2 
  37. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain 
  38. Dishonored 
  39. Half-Life 
  40. Warcraft 3 
  41. Quake 
  42. Factorio 
  43. Prey 
  44. SOMA 
  45. Fallout 3
  46. TIE Fighter 
  47. Elite Dangerous 
  48. Rocket League 
  49. Civilization 5 
  50. Heroes of Might and Magic 3 
  51. Starcraft 2 
  52. Nier: Automata 
  53. Stalker: Call of Pripyat 
  54. Wolfenstein: The New Order 
  55. Minecraft 
  56. System Shock 2 
  57. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion 
  58. Psychonauts 
  59. Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition 
  60. Knights of the Old Republic 
  61. Age of Empires 2 
  62. Thief 2 
  63. Endless Legend 
  64. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 
  65. Titanfall 2 
  66. Warframe 
  67. The Secret of Monkey Island  
  68. Kerbal Space Program 
  69. Europa Universalis IV 
  70. Hotline Miami  
  71. Payday 2 
  72. Battlefield 1 
  73. Dota 2 
  74. Total War: Warhammer 
  75. Mass Effect 3 
  76. Batman Arkham City 
  77. Rainbow Six Siege 
  78. FTL 
  79. Stardew Valley 
  80. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 
  81. The Talos Principle 
  82. Tyranny 
  83. Civilization 6 
  84. Undertale 
  85. Knights of the Old Republic 2 
  86. Team Fortress 2 
  87. The Witness 
  88. Thief Gold 
  89. Arma 3 
  90. Dying Light 
  91. Alien: Isolation 
  92. Hyper Light Drifter 
  93. Planet Coaster 
  94. Jagged Alliance 2 
  95. Call of Duty 2 
  96. Transistor
  97. Mass Effect 
  98. Freespace 2 
  99. 7 Days to Die 
  100. Ultima Online

For reference, the top 10 games on our list this year were: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dark Souls, Dishonored 2, XCOM 2, Portal 2, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Mass Effect 2, Alien: Isolation, Doom (2016), and Spelunky. If you want a condensed sense of how our tastes differ from those surveyed, here are a few observations:

We like Spelunky a lot more than everyone else. It was in our top 10, but didn't even make it into the Readers' Top 100.

While Half-Life 2 has lost some stock in our minds, it hasn't in everyone's. It was 11th on our list, but 2nd on the Readers' list.

Everyone agrees that The Witcher 3 is great. It was first on both of our lists.

Skyrim is still chugging along. It was 26th on our list, but came in third in reader voting.

Borderlands 2 wasn't on our list, but came in 5th. Did Borderlands fans came out en masse, or are we just weird for not putting it on our list?

14th place is pretty impressive for Life is Strange. Rimworld ranked pretty high, too. Either these games are more popular than we realized, or the survey happened to be circulated among their biggest fans. Probably a mix of both.

League of Legends fans showed up to challenge our preference for Dota 2. It came in at 18, while Dota 2 was knocked down to 73. Justice?

If you'd like to compare the lists directly, I've put them side by side in a spreadsheet. Thank you to all 1,445 people who responded to the survey! Feel free to suggest new ways to compile this list in the comments, and I'll take them into consideration next year. My skill with Excel spreadsheet formulas is at least double what it was last week, a cursed power that will only have grown by next year.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

During the climax of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Millennium Falcon crashes through a dense pine forest and skirts toward the edge of an icy cliffside. The trees splinter and pancake as the space jalopy slides to a halt and our heroes emerge unscathed, leaving a shower of splinters and snow in their wake.  

But the trees are not what they seem. The forests in The Force Awakens, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and an episode of Sesame Street are all hiding something. They’re family. 

A significant amount of Mother Nature as represented in games and film starts life at SpeedTree, a small middleware company out of Lexington, South Carolina. Stranger still is that co-founder Chris King credits Bethesda Game Studios director Todd Howard for the company's success and the eventual deforestation of the Star Wars pines.

Todd Howard and the timber in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are also indirectly responsible for the alien forests on Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar. You can blame Howard for the best trees in videogames and even in a rival series, The Witcher 3, with its vast windblown forests. You can also blame him for 3D models of the White House and surrounding shrubbery, likely tossed around the US Secret Service’s network to this day. 

You can allegedly blame him for CG pubic hair in 50 Shades of Grey (but don’t, King is totally unaware if SpeedTree's software was used as a dynamic genital hair generator. There are better solutions, I’m told. Still, it’s enough ambiguity for hope). 

But Todd Howard didn’t make the trees or the alleged pubes or the technology behind them. Howard just gave a small company a big job that helped it keep pace in an industry overgrown with new possibilities.

A seed is planted 

SpeedTree is a middleware solution for videogame developers and, more recently, filmmakers who need to make realistic trees en masse, quickly. That doesn’t mean SpeedTree is as simple as a copy and paste engine, or that it spits out photorealistic trees within perfectly simulated ecosystems. It’s easier to think of SpeedTree as more of a specialized tree canvas, a tool used to generate whole forests of trees that look similar but aren’t carbon copies of one another. 

SpeedTree’s tools also include massive libraries of textures for rendering vegetation, and animation tools that simulate wind moving through branches and leaves. Beyond the time and energy saved making so many trees, SpeedTree’s vegetation is also designed to conserve as many system resources as possible. 

For a simple understanding of how it works, the story of their success, and where SpeedTree is being used today, I talked to King over the phone and through a few scattered email exchanges. He’s a bright, generous character, the kind of person that blends a simple answer into an extended anecdote before coming full circle into a question about me. I get the impression the trees are in kind hands. 

“It’s all procedural, meaning we use curves and numbers to input into an algorithm that will generate this tree, and as you change those curves and numbers so changes the tree,” King tells me. “But once you get a definition, you can just hit randomize, one button, and it’ll make a tree that looks similar to the last, but not exactly like it. And you keep hitting randomize and it’ll keep hitting these different random variation, so you can populate a unique forest with trees very quickly.” 

But it’s important to clear up a common fallacy, he says. “It's a misconception that Speedtree generates these procedural trees on the fly, when in fact, it is an offline procedural tool. The procedural part is there, but it's just a tool that the artist uses to create the shape.” 

Simply put, every time you play The Witcher 3, SpeedTree isn’t procedurally generating a new forest. While a game is in development, artists, level designers, and programmers work together to generate a wholly unique forest using SpeedTree’s procedural tools, then touch up and arrange the final result by hand. Once the trees are in place, SpeedTree is also capable of handling “all the loading, culling, level-of-detail, lighting, and wind effects for entire forests” in real-time.

The Witcher 3 has some of the best trees in videogames.

Without the ability to summon a forest of wholly unique trees at will and render them in a live environment, developers have to build their forests entirely from scratch. This can be done by spending endless hours making small tweaks to branch structure from the same starting model, or by building an in-house solution to generate their own trees – albeit likely one with fewer features. Now, when peering out into the verdant, swaying canopies of Toussaint, the time saved and focused elsewhere is plain to see.  

Before setting the stage for Geralt, SpeedTree was a loose assembly of good ideas without testimony. Around the turn of the millennium, videogames with massive forests of distinct timber weren’t a common technical ambition, often reigned in by console hardware. For the most part, they were all done by hand, but off the tail of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind—whose development predates SpeedTree and itself contains many-a-thicket—Bethesda likely wasn’t ready to create a larger space with more realistic trees capable of running on modern PCs and emerging console hardware. They would need help, and that help was just sprouting. 

Counting rings 

Unlike most modern middleware and niche software companies, SpeedTree’s origins aren’t the result of surgical, chartered market research and Silicon Valley capital juicing. King inadvertently started SpeedTree with co-founder Michael Sechrest, the result of modest ambitions steered by restlessness and passion. 

Sechrest and King met as graduate students in the Computer Engineering department at the University of South Carolina in the late 90s. “We were deeply involved with real-time visualization on those huge old Silicon Graphics Unix systems, doing visualizations for the Office of Naval Research and the Department of Energy.”

Coinciding with the release of the original Nvidia GeForce GPU in 1999, King and Sechrest wanted to start a business and bring their experience creating detailed visualizations to the PC, which was finally capable of rendering their work in real time. The pair formed Interactive Data Visualization (IDV), Inc., which King considers “A great name for a company that does engineering visualizations, not so great for vegetation in videogames and films!”

Here's what a modern SpeedTree tech demo looks like in UE4. 

By 2001, the two found steady business creating pre-rendered 3D visuals and animations for a handful of companies, building architectural renders and flyovers day after day. It was good work, but rendering trees for video and stills didn’t challenge their programming skills in the same way videogames would. For King and Sechrest, it was one thing to model a scene and let a powerful computer render it overnight; and another to generate a forest and render it live in the same environment as a little Geralt and hundreds of invisible systems without setting the average household PC on fire.

But during a discussion about the creation of a particular flyover, the client and lead architect was very particular about the trees, requesting that each species be recognizable, a specific height, and to appear wind-blown. 

Without software capable of achieving such effects, King and Sechrest made their own, which ended up as the very first version of SpeedTree. “It consisted of a very rudimentary version of the SpeedTree Modeler and a small 3ds Max plug-in,” King says, “It worked well enough. In 2002, we released it as SpeedTreeMAX.”

More than 40,000 people downloaded the demo, including Todd Howard of Bethesda.

Chris King

It was a useful tool for creating more detailed trees, and in creating a new program entirely, their coding know-how was stretched a bit. In time, King and Sechrest saw an opportunity in SpeedTreeMAX. If properly recycled, the two wondered if the SpeedTree Modeler could be used to make assets for videogames, and if so, whether or not anyone would need them. 

To check, they posted an article on OpenGL.org to introduce developers to SpeedTree’s tech and gauge interest in a version that produces trees for real-time rendering engines. In a stroke of luck, Sebastien Domine of Nvidia read the article and downloaded the included demo, which demonstrated how SpeedTree could be used in a real-time setting. Domine was impressed by the technology, but he also figured a real-time SpeedTree would be an excellent promotional tool for a new Nvidia GPU. He contacted King and Sechrest, they struck a deal, and they started work on SpeedTree’s first true real-time demo.

From a cliched tech demo to Star Wars, SpeedTree has come a long way.

In true videogame form, the demo showed a mech launching and dodging missiles amidst breeze-blown trees, and was put up for download on Nvidia’s developer portal to a fervent reception. Chris tells me that “over the next three months, more than 40,000 people downloaded the demo, including Todd Howard of Bethesda.” Videogames were growing more capable with better technology, and the task of filling bigger, more advanced worlds with realistic, varied trees was growing bigger too. And King and Sechrest now had a major game developer on board to showcase their tech. 

“The only problem was that we'd never sold middleware,” says King. “We had no idea how it should be priced. Amazingly, Todd helped us determine what we both agreed was a fair price and then and there he became our first games client.”

King continues as I imagine an ambling Linklater-directed montage, Howard, King, and Sechrest huddled over a pile of paperwork and tree textures, pinning them to the wall and nodding as revelations dawn one after the other. Emails and phone calls don’t make for a good montage.

“Fast forward to March 2006. Oblivion is released for the Xbox 360. It was a monster hit and the SpeedTree logo appeared on the back of the box,” says Chris, “The perception was that SpeedTree may not be efficient enough to run effectively on a 360 or PS3. Because Oblivion demonstrated in grand fashion that SpeedTree was ready for primetime on any platform, it's probably the single most important title we've ever been a part of. We will always be grateful to Todd.”

At the time, an open world game at Oblivion’s scale running on a console was unheard of. And while the final Xbox 360 version is widely considered a buggy, nearly unplayable mess, SpeedTree demonstrated that it could manage to render trees on 16 square miles of land on hardware that predated even the most average of gaming PCs in 2006. It worked, and that was enough to draw industry-wide attention to SpeedTree.

The exchange went both ways, too. Would Oblivion have captured imaginations like it did with boring and repetitive forests? It doesn’t look great by today’s standards, but at the time, streaming in diverse stretches of vegetation on the relatively meager Xbox 360 specs was a technical breakthrough, proving that open world games could work on lesser hardware at a high fidelity. It set a trend and games with even denser forests followed suit, evidenced by games like The Witcher 3, which would look very different (or wouldn’t exist at all) if not for SpeedTree. 

Branching out 

A snippet from White House Down featuring SpeedTree. 

By today’s metrics, Oblivion is an old game. Now we get thousands of new games every year, a good chunk of which use SpeedTree, and some of which want a little more than a procedural tree tool. What about modeling the life of a tree? When I ask King whether simulation of arboreal biology is a priority for them, I’m told no in the best way possible: an extended anecdote from the left-est of fields. 

Shit, we'll make it 8,000 feet high, we don't care. It makes no difference to us, we're not bound by these botanical rules. What do you want it to be? Do you want it to be White-House-shaped?

Chris King

“One of our competitors was based in Europe, and the US Secret Service, believe it or not, is a customer of ours, and they put together simulations of the White House grounds, or at-least they were talking to us about it.”

It turns out that spending resources on creating systems that consider the laws of nature would only sequester SpeedTree to an even smaller niche. 

“So they call the European people and told them what the problem was and they said, ‘Well, our stuff is botanically accurate and Southern Magnolia's don't grow 80 feet high, so our software won't do that.’ King gets a little louder, “And they called us and we were like, ‘Shit, we'll make it 8,000 feet high, we don't care. It makes no difference to us, we're not bound by these botanical rules. What do you want it to be? Do you want it to be White-House-shaped? We can do that as well.’”

The Secret Service weren’t even the first clients to request similar detailed models of the White House lawn. King says it’s requested so often that it’s become a running gag in the company. The amount of games and movies that feature it as a setting is surprisingly high, and the request for technology that can emulate the nearby vegetation is in equal demand. Filming there is prohibited, and so the the more often SpeedTree becomes a requested tool, the easier it is for future film crews to turn to them.   

From Oblivion to the Secret Service, SpeedTree has since branched out into generating vegetation in general. King and his cohorts are also currently prepping the full release of SpeedTree 8, which is a big leap forward in physically based rendering (PBR) tech, and showcases their new material scanning hardware and software used for an ever-growing database of megatextures and models. To create such a deep library, King even employed a specialist whose job is to literally scan as many plants as possible. Imagine that, strolling about the planet looking for pretty plants to immortalize every day. Noble. 

Prior to placement in a game or film and removed from the discerning touch of an artist, the trees and shrubs and cacti look serene, eerie. They’re nature’s aesthetic devoid of context, cleaner and healthier than any plant will ever be, the Stepford wives of common ferns. They look real, and to someone looking up at the prominence of a potential mountain of work creating their own assets, SpeedTree’s prices are a much more appealing alternative. Still, as useful and seemingly advanced as SpeedTree’s tech might seem to developers, it has plenty of room to grow.  

 “You could say we're currently near the center of the spectrum of digital fidelity in tree models.  We look good from the distance players typically view trees in a game situation—on or near the ground and maybe 10 to 100 feet away.” says King, “So, in ten years, hopefully we'll be zooming from space to a vein on a leaf seamlessly!” With more games like Star Citizen and Dual Universe looking for the same scale and adaptability, King knows they have their work cut out for them. 

 SpeedTree was even used in the 2015 Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Spotlight. 

In the meantime, with every wave of new games, we get a firsthand look at how it’s changing. King can’t disclose everywhere you’ll see SpeedTree used next, but Destiny 2, like the original, will make use of SpeedTree. He also tells me that Industrial Light and Magic has more or less standardized SpeedTree, and that barring any breakthroughs in vegetation generation it’ll be used in most of the upcoming Star Wars films. 

Ubisoft also brokered a deal with SpeedTree in 2016, agreeing to use it as their standard vegetation modeling tool. Given the size of Assassin’s Creed: Origins’ map, SpeedTree makes perfect sense. Since Avatar, SpeedTree has been used in nearly 100 films and well over 1,000 games, making it the industry standard. It's everywhere. 

Rogue One’s beachside battle on Scarif, arguably the series’ best battle ever, used SpeedTree. Whenever you slap a new player into a tree in Absolver or make a hasty getaway through the forest from an irate honey badger in Far Cry 4, SpeedTree is there. So the next time you take cover behind a big hardwood in PUBG, remember who generated its bulletproof bark, and in turn, set the table for this chicken dinner and many more to come. 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

We're still a ways out from VR becoming Mancubus-mainstream.

I’m not an athletic man, but in Doom VFR, the upcoming VR version of 2016’s hit reincarnation of id’s classic shooter, I am Death Himself. As a possessed soldier tries to shoot me, I point a teleport marker and watch as everything slows down. I duck his bullets, teleport close, and shoot him in the face with a shotgun.

After a few shots, a Mancubus starts to flash, indicating it's ready to be torn asunder. I point my cursor into the center of the Mancubus and release the trigger, teleporting myself into the center of the obese demon. The Mancubus explodes and his immense body sags to the floor, the corpse so large that I have to step out of the empty shell to move on with the fight. Clearly, VR is cool.

But even for a relatively young technology, there have been very few major game releases for virtual reality headsets. It makes Bethesda’s all-in approach a confounding surprise, but by bringing Skyrim, Fallout, and Doom to VR, the company is in a good position to change the pace. In associating some of the biggest names in gaming to VR, Bethesda is trying to set itself up as a leader in VR development, build its own internal expertise, and help jumpstart a technology that has grown in fits and starts.

“If you believe something is going to be big, you can't just say, ‘oh, this will be big in six or eight years, so let's ignore it until it's big, and then we'll jump on the bandwagon,’” Doom VRF executive producer Marty Stratton tells me at Quakecon this year. “There's so much to be learned, and there's so many opportunities to be leaders. We want to be technical innovators, so when we see something we believe in, we want to be at the forefront.”

Of the three VR prototypes heading for release this fall, Doom is by far the best. The closed-in spaces of the UAC’s corridors look sleek and sci-fi inside a VR headset, and teleporting up and down hallways to blast imps and shotgun cacodemons feels spectacular, fast, and smooth. Time slows for teleportation or switching weapons, so I always felt able to react faster and be more badass than my weak, fleshy mortal body could ever allow. No matter which weapons I used, pulling the trigger of the controller felt as natural as aiming down the sights.

Shooting for the Skyrim

Sadly, all of these reasons are exactly why Skyrim VR, which is coming to PSVR first in November and PC sometime in 2018, is the weakest of the bunch. The wide-open vistas of Skyrim look pixelated and low-res running on the Playstation headset, and the 180-degree motion detection of the PSVR meant that I had to constantly use physical buttons on my controller to rotate myself and change direction. 

Descending one of a Skyrim dungeon’s many spiral staircases was dizzying as I used a teleport button to hop down a step or two, then tap-tap-tap-tap-tap to rotate my body, teleport, then rotate again.

Instead of feeling bold as the Dovahkiin, legendary hero of Skyrim, I felt like a child playing Fruit Ninja on a Nintendo Wii.

None of this compares to how disappointed I was when I first heard the call of an enemy bandit. I readied my sword only to find myself waving a wand in space, awkward and unsure if I was even making contact. I wiggled it around a few times and the bad guy fell over. Both of us looked embarrassed about the whole thing. Instead of feeling bold as the Dovahkiin, legendary hero of Skyrim, I felt like a child playing Fruit Ninja on a Nintendo Wii.

“Everybody says that,” says Pete Hines, VP of Marketing for Bethesda, when I complain about how the melee weapons feel. “The problem is that when you do this [he pulls a trigger on a gun], you don't detect the funkiness of the action because it's on a predestined path.” The gun behaves like a gun, in other words, and you’re pulling a trigger just like you’d pull a real-life trigger. “But when the sword swings however you move it, you notice it a lot more, now it does feel more like Fruit Ninja.”

Even though Skyrim will be coming to VR mostly unchanged, with all its quests, dialog, and NPCs in place, Hines expects that players will change how they play the game based on what feels good. In particular, he expects more players to become mages. “Because of the nature of VR and magic, it works exactly like you'd expect it to, because you're not missing the feedback.” Dual-wielding magic, in particular, works better in VR. Being able to move your hands independently gives you the chance to shoot fireballs in two directions at once, or hold a shield against one enemy while you shoot lightning at another.

Waiting for the Fallout

I enjoyed Fallout VR more than Skyrim VR at least, because the world running on a PC looked a lot better and my ability to turn in a full circle was unrestricted. Though I had the option of attacking raiders with a baseball bat, Fruit Ninja Skyrim style, I could easily ignore it since Fallout has a huge array of guns that feel good to use. Launching a mini-nuke at a Deathclaw and watching the blast in VR was every bit as fun as it sounds.

Still, it wasn’t quite right, and I’m not sure if the trade-offs are worth the momentary wow-factor of stepping into VR. Can I explore the Commonwealth Wasteland for hundreds of hours in this gear, or will I always start to feel green like an irradiated ghoul after half an hour?

These are limitations that come with taking an existing game and bringing it into VR. Problems with movement and feedback just aren’t solved yet, and these problems wouldn’t exist if a game was built for VR from the beginning. I can’t help but compare my time with Skyrim VR with Lone Echo, an incredible game that was built to showcase everything VR can do right now, and nothing that it can’t.

But for Bethesda, getting experience is worth it even if the end product isn’t quite perfect. They’ll put out the best version of their games that can exist in VR right now, and they’ll gain valuable internal experience with VR design. I can see how it’s a win-win for Bethesda to take a risk with these experiments, but I’m not as confident that buying these experiments offers much to long-time fans of these games desperate for a familiar experience in their seldom-used VR gear.

Skyrim VR is only scheduled to come to PSVR in November, with a PC release possibly coming in 2018. Fallout VR is coming to PC on December 12, and Doom VFR is coming to both platforms on December 1.

Borderlands 2

Damage dealing is the most selfish of gaming roles. It's not about mending the wounds of your buddies or taunting off the bullies attempting to harm them in the first place; it's about the ecstasy of climbing to the peaks of damage meters and watching ever-larger numbers splash the screen. If gaming in general is a power fantasy, a strong DPS build is the wet dream.

And sometimes they gets out of hand. Some builds are so powerful that developers pull the plug, worried that they're damaging the game itself. This is a celebration of those builds that have achieved or come near those marks: the most famous, powerful, interesting builds that disrupt a game's conventions as violently as the power chords of an Amon Amarth riff at a Chopin recital.

We know we've barely scratched the list of great builds here—almost every game has one! If there's one you think we should have included, tell us about it! 

Skyrim: Sneak Archer with Slow Time (2011)

Subtlety isn't really the first thing that comes to mind upon a first glance at Skyrim—after all, it's largely a game about some rando shouting dragons to death. But for years nothing struck fear into the hearts of giant flying reptiles and creepy Reachmen quite like Skyrim's Sneaky Archer build. It's still quite beastly, but YouTuber ESO describes it in its most broken form.

The build's cornerstone was the Slow Time shout, which you could extend by 20 percent with an Amulet of Talos and up to 40 percent by visiting a Shrine of Talos. Slap some Fortify Alteration enchantments on your ring and swig a Fortify Alteration potion, and you could push that over a minute. That's longer than the shout's cooldown. Pick up the Quiet Casting perk in the Illusion line, and you could wipe out a whole band of Stormcloaks before they even knew you were there.

Combine that with plenty of points in the Sneak line, Fortify Archery enchantments on every bit of gear, and paralysis or fear enchantments on your weapons, and you might be tempted to ask the fur-clad denizens to worship you in place of Talos. Unfortunately, Bethesda killed the fun with last year's Special Edition. Slow Time now slows down time for you as well. But even without it a Sneak Archer remains a force to be reckoned with.

The Witcher 3: Alchemy and Combat build

Most crazy damage builds feel as though they're breaking with the lore of their parent games, but The Witcher 3's combination alchemy and combat builds tap into the very essence of what it's mean to work in Geralt's profession. You're a badass swordsman thanks to 36 points in Combat, and 38 points in the Alchemy line see you chugging potions and decoctions along with making sure you're using the right oil for the right monster.

YouTuber Ditronus detailed the best incarnation of this monster setup, which focuses on stacking everything that gives you both critical hit chance and critical hit damage. Ditronus claims he can get hits that strike for 120,000 damage for the build at Level 80 and on New Game+. 

The tools? Pick up the steel Belhaven Blade for its crit potential and the Excalibur-like Aerondight silver sword for its damage multiplier. Use some other crit-focused gear along with two key pieces of the Blood and Wine expansion's alchemy-focused Manticore set and use consumables such as the Ekhidna Decoction. Toss in a few key mutagens and frequently use the "Whirl" sword technique, and Geralt becomes the spinning avatar of Death herself. It's bewitching.

World of Warcraft: Paladin Reckoning Bomb (2005) 

World of Warcraft has seen some crazy damage builds over the course of its 13-year history, but none has reached the legendary status of the Paladin class' "Reckoning bomb" of WoW's first "vanilla" years. It wasn't officially a damage setup, but rather an exploit of the Reckoning talent from the tank line that some Retribution (damage) Paladins would pick up. Originally, Reckoning gave you a charge for a free attack whenever you were the victim of a critical hit, and in 2005, you could stack this to infinity and unleash them all at once for your next attack. Build enough stacks, and you could one-shot other players in PvP.So how imba was this? In May 2005 a Paladin named Karmerr from the guild PiaS (Poop in a Shoe, if you must know) got his rogue friend Sindri to attack him for three whole hours while he was sitting down, guaranteeing critical hits, until the stacks reached a staggering 1,816. Their mission? The Alliance server first kill of Lord Kazzak, one of WoW's first 40-man raid bosses. Knowing their plan was controversial, PiaS asked a Blizzard Game Master for permission, and the GM claimed it couldn't be done. But Karmerr popped his invincibility bubble and, boom, killed Kazzak in a single shot. Alone. The devastation was so intense that it locked up Karmerr's PC for 10 seconds and the system was so unprepared by the 1,816 attacks it could only register the blow in second-long ticks until Kazzak died. PiaS posted a video, and within 24 hours Blizzard nerfed Reckoning from a 100 percent chance to a mere 10 percent chance and limited the stacks to five.

Diablo 2: Hammerdin 

Overpowered Paladins are something of a Blizzard tradition. One of the most infamous overpowered DPS builds of all time is the so-called "Hammerdin" from Diablo 2. The Blessed Hammer skill was the heart of the build, which shot out a spinning floating hammer that smacked any monsters foolish enough to get near. 

Hammerdins had been around in various incarnations for months, but the build came into its own in 2003 with the introduction of synergies. With Blessed Aim, Paladins could increase their attack rating; and with Vigor, they could boost their speed, stamina, and recovery. Damage, too, got a boost with Concentration Aura. But nothing made the build so broken as the Enigma Runeword, which sent the Paladin immediately teleporting into huddles of nearby enemies and clobbering them for up to 20,000 points of damage each. Watching it in action looks a little like watching a bugged game.

The catch? Almost everything needed to complete the build was outrageously expensive. But as the obscene number of Hammerdins dominating Diablo 2 came to show, that was never much of a deterrent.

Borderlands 2: Salvador

Forget specific builds for a second: Borderlands 2's Salvador is kind of broken by default. His class ability—"Gunzerking"—lets him fire off two weapons and reap their benefits at once, all while taking less damage and constantly regenerating ammo. Nor does this kind of destructive divinity come with any real challenge. If you've got the right weapons equipped, all you really need to do is sit still and fire away. Dragon's Dogma had the right of it: divinity can get kind of boring.

The right weapons push this already preposterous setup to absurdity. Pick up the Grog Nozzle pistol from the Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon's Keep DLC, which heals Salvador for 65 percent of all the damage he deals out. In the other hand, equip a double-penetrating Unkempt Harold pistol, which hits enemies as though seven bullets had hit them twice. Then pick up the Yippie Ki Yay talent that extends Gunzerking's duration for 3 seconds for each kill and "Get Some," which reduces Gunzerking's cooldown after each kill, and you'll always be firing, always be healing, all the time.

Elder Scrolls Online: Magicka Dragonknight Vampire (2014)

Ever wanted to be a raid boss in an MMORPG? You could in 2014, not long after the launch of Elder Scrolls Online, if you were a magicka-focused Dragonknight who'd become a vampire. You were both DPS and tank, able to take on dozens of players in PvP at once and kill most of them as well.

The root of the problem was the vampire tree's morphed "ultimate" ability, Devouring Swarm, which sent a swarm of bats down on everyone else in melee range while also healing you for everyone hit. But every class who became a vampire had access to that.

Dragonknights, though, could also use their Dark Talons skill to root all those players in melee range while roasting them with fire damage at the same time. A huge magicka pool made it even deadlier. Then a passive ability called Battle Roar factored in, allowing the Dragonknight to replenish health, magicka, and stamina based on the cost of casting Devouring Swarm. And it gets crazier. If you were wearing the Akaviri Dragonguard Set, you enjoyed a 15 percent deduction in ultimate ability costs, essentially allowing you to spam Devouring Swarm.

This was already hellish with regular Dragonknights, but players who earned the "Emperor" title in PvP might as well have been Daedric lords. Being the current emperor granted buffs like 200 percent ultimate and resource generation, leading to situations like the one in the video above. 

The easy way to stop this nonsense was always just to stay out of range (although the DK's charge ability from the Sword and Shield line complicated that). Within a month, though, ZeniMax Online nerfed it to hell.

Diablo 3: Inarius Necromancer 

How do you bring interest in your four-year-old dungeon crawler back from the dead? With a Necromancer class, obviously! At least that's what Blizzard Entertainment was apparently thinking when it introduced the class to Diablo 3 in June 2017.

That makes the Necromancer the "youngest" entry on this list, but it's no less deserving of the honor. The damage Necromancers have been dishing out this summer is so crazy that the "best" broken builds change every few weeks. Not long ago the top dog was the Bones of Rathma build, which basically let the Necromancer kick back while an army of skeletons and undead mages did all the hard work. 

Nowadays it's the Grace of Inarius build (which YouTuber Rhykker calls the "Bonestorm" build), which centers on the set's six-piece "Bone Armor" bonus that smacks enemies who get too close with 750 percent weapon damage and boosts the damage they take from the Necro by 2,750 percent. Then the Necro goes around whacking everything with his Cursed Scythe skill with the help of another bonus that reduces his damage taken. Choose the right complementary skills and weapons, you'll soon be tromping through Level 107 Greater Rifts as easily as a katana slicing through yarn. Getting the set pieces will take a bit of grinding, of course, but it's worth it for the payoff. Until, you know, Blizzard nerfs it.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim, located in the icy northern reaches of Tamriel, is an unforgiving land of freezing blizzards, ruthless bandits, and fire-breathing dragons. But nestled among all this danger, warmed by fires crackling in stone hearths, are the taverns. These cosy, calming sanctuaries offer weary adventurers respite from the cold and chaos, if only for a few minutes. The hardy, resourceful people who call Skyrim home have mastered the art of comfort and hospitality, as anyone surviving in a place as cold and brutal as this would have to. 

And as you step into one of their inns, stone walls lit by the orange glow of the fire, tables stacked with cold mead and hunks of red meat, you feel like you can rest easy. Like you’ve come home. No mudcrabs or skeevers are going to scutter out of the bushes and attack you here. No fur-clad bandits are going to try and shake you down for gold with their bows and arrows. And, best of all, those pesky ancient dragons are too big to fit through the door. 

The perpetual howl and chill of the wind is replaced by the soothing music of a strumming bard, the murmur of the other patrons and the clinking of glasses. It couldn’t be more different from the white, wild outside, and it’s the perfect place for a tired, hungry adventurer to grab a cold drink, a warm meal and a soft bed for the night. You could always just sleep on some grotty old bedroll outside, of course, but the Dragonborn deserves better.

Entering a tavern in Skyrim perfectly recreates the feeling of escaping into a homely country pub after a long walk on a cold, windy day. That instant sense of tranquility and peace. You know you’ll have to go back out there eventually, but for now it’s just you, the fire and a pint of ale. Your troubles seem like they’re miles away, although the concerns of the average person in today’s world certainly can’t compare to the Dragonborn’s quest to save Tamriel from an ancient, evil dragon which wants to devour the world. 

You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to taverns in Skyrim, and their atmospheres reflects their locations. In the city of Riften, a hangout for criminals and other ne’er-do-wells, you’ll find The Ragged Flagon and the Bee and Barb, which are the kind of establishments where you’d get a dagger in the ribs for so much as looking at someone’s pint. While the Imperial capital of Solitude boasts The Winking Skeever, a luxurious, spacious watering hole with a fine selection of quality booze and grub. And as well as these city inns, there are plenty of smaller ones dotted around the countryside, including the Four Shields Tavern.

As well as offering food, drink, and beds, taverns in Skyrim are also great places to meet reliable mercenaries. You’ll often see these warriors sitting in the corner, like Strider in Lord of the Rings, waiting for an adventurer with enough coin to hire them. In The Drunken Huntsman in Whiterun, for example, you’ll find Jenassa, a Dunmer ranger who’s handy with a bow and arrow and doesn’t seem to mind if the Dragonborn slaughters innocent people. But you’ll need 800 gold pieces to retain her dubious services.

Taverns are also rife with gossip, which can lead to some interesting quests. Talk to the bartender and you’ll hear clues about various goings on in the world, including the Imperial boy Aventus Aretino attempting to summon the Dark Brotherhood: a rumour that ultimately sees you joining its ranks. Or you might hear about a shrine to the Daedric Prince Azura, which leads to you obtaining a powerful Daedric artefact. It’s a good thing the proprietors of Skyrim’s inns are so unashamedly nosy. 

The tavern is an important part of any fantasy world, whether it’s the Prancing Pony from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones’ Inn at the Crossroads, and Skyrim is no different. Wherever you drink and whatever your poison, these are fine places to spend your coin

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 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.

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