Every day this week, we'll be visiting a version of Skyrim unlike any you've ever seen before - a world thrown into anarchy and chaos by Sheogorath, God of Madness, and the assistance of over 200 blindly-installed mods. In our first part, get ready for epic dinosaur battles, Whiterun's new theme park, fandom striking in the strangest places, and an awkward meeting with an old friend.
Like most of the best and worst ideas I've ever had, this started with a whim. I was browsing the Steam Workshop to see what kind of things modders were working on, with the idea of picking the best for a brand new playthrough, and trying to work out why I didn't have any enthusiasm. It's not like there's not loads of cool stuff. Damn near every aspect of Skyrim has been worked over by this point.
Then it hit me. Where would the adventure and discovery be in simply picking something off a menu? I didn't want to install, say, "Really Pretty Flying Boat House Mod" only to walk over, see it, go "Oooh," and be done. I wanted to turn corners and actually be surprised by what I found.
There was only one way - to embrace chaos and random chance. But how?
In short, I didn't choose some mods. I chose all the mods. Whole Collections on Steam Workshop, sight-unseen. Running through the Skyrim Nexus' categories and just hitting the download button without even looking at names. Even asking a few friends to send over mods, which I'm pretty sure is why the Riverwood tavern currently houses a gaggle of transexual adventurers and I apparently own an all-male brothel/bath-house outside Whiterun. Thursdays are veal night. Bring the kids. By the time I was done, I had over 240 of them installed, and actually knew what about ten of them were.
This is not a nice thing to do to Skyrim. I'm not going to keep harping on about this, because it's not fair to blame the camel for buckling under the weight of the straw - never mind the anvil that all these mods count up to - but yes. It crashes all the time, some areas are impossible to enter, several armour items were corrupted somewhere leading to random acts of nudity, the frame-rate is regularly drop-kicked into single digits, and as for balance... forget it. This modded Skyrim is I Want To Be The Guy: RPG Edition, only without the sense of mercy or fair play. If you feel like trying this experiment for yourself, great. Don't let your actual savegames anywhere near the result. Consider yourself warned...
And now, let the adventure begin...
My adventure begins in a familiar place; the Live Another Life mod. This starts you off in a locked hut somewhere in the world, where the goddess Mara appears in statue form to ask who you want to be - a shipwreck victim, a new recruit to one of the Guilds and so on - and both kits you out and teleports you to an appropriate starting position for that storyline. It's a good way to skip the intro and tutorial dungeon, especially if you've done anything that might dick around with the scripting (ahem), with a quick new quest for when you want to activate the main story. It's not quite the brand new, never-seen-before intro I wanted, but at least it opens up potential beyond the default Helgen stuff.
I pause for a minute to decide how to play this. All good Skyrim gimmick-diaries need rules; this one will too. Our heroine is a spellsword, Compass, who I have no doubt will live up to the heroism and sense of personal responsibility expected of a Dovahkiin. She's an Imperial, and this is her face:
Game mechanics wise, everything seen is playing on the default difficulty. Fast travel is a no-no, since that would probably mean missing cool stuff or bypassing interesting mechanics for surviving in the wilds. Any mods that present themselves have to be switched on, to at least their defaults, but cranked up a bit if it sounds like fun, and only switched off if they're causing impossible problems or just killing the fun. In the end I switched off one that made hunger/thirst a priority, since it was getting in the way of seeing things, and a couple of town mods that otherwise crashed everything.
Beyond that, given the likelihood of things breaking, some console commands are allowed. Death is not a problem, at least not as a running thing to worry about. Finally, most importantly-
...and mid-configuration General Tullius, Ulfric Stormcloak, and their men suddenly burst into the room, knocking seventeen kinds of shit out of each other. Tapping Ulfric on the back, he immediately swings round from a battle with his nemesis to say hello, and also offer awful polygon sex.
Oh yeah. This - if not that specifically - bodes well.
Even so, the first attempt at living in this strange new world... could go better.
Ugh. Where... where the hell am I? Why is my skin so smooth and my hair so... flowy all of a sudden? I thought... I thought I was meant to be on a cart, about to set some people on fire for thinking they could chop my head off. What...
Compass, my child, I am Mara. I offer you the gift of a new life, a life such as no Nord, Imperial or Whatever has ever even dreamed of. All you need do is choose your fate, and I shall grant your destiny. What shall it be?
Thanks, Mara. For the second attempt, I opt for a specific start - a patron at the Riverwood tavern, which comes with both a promise of no immediate dragon ambush and also actual clothes. (Oddly, Compass did apparently have a set of mining clothes on, they were just invisible. Whether a bug or sabotage from some other mod, I have no idea. I will however point out that the anatomically correct nudity comes as no surprise - not only are nude mods the most popular, there are no fewer than three different female body replacement meshes. The guys in the game also of course let it all hang out if you swipe their trousers, but their naughty bits unsurprisingly get much, much less loving attention.)
Riverwood is pretty familiar, except for a gigantic aqueduct running behind it for no apparent reason and a new evil base across the way. At least, I'm assuming the "Evil Lair of Hydra" is evil. I hate to make snap-judgements, but I can't actually get in without a crash. Maybe they just sell cookies.
There are some differences though. I've never seen Skyrim so grey and murky... like North Yorkshire on a sunny day. When it starts raining, it gets worse - not a polite little storm, but a full-on monsoon. Also, as a status message helpfully explains, rain makes you wet. It's not just being polite. With a sinking feeling, I checked the in-game manual to discover that while getting wet isn't a problem per se, getting cold and wet can kill. And Skyrim? Skyrim is a pretty damn cold place, even in the nice bits.
I head back into the tavern to let it pass and check my gear. I have... basically nothing. The standard fire spell, a cheap mace, some bits of jewellery, and some food. For armour, we're talking a shirt, a thin skirt, and some boots. A nearby vendor offers to sell me essentially every spell in the universe, but I don't have enough cash. Chatting with the other patrons, a group of friendly transexuals offer to join the journey - and hey, those are ladies with plenty of experience handling a sword, right? Before I can pick one as an official Follower though, they're all upstaged when a decapitated Triss Merigold from The Witcher 2 runs up and asks to join without moving her lips. Or indeed, having any.
Ooof. Bad choice of words.
Even without eyes, Triss manages to follow along for a while, only to vanish early and never re-appear. So, pretty much like The Witcher 2 then. Alone, I find myself wandering through the snowy forests towards Helgen, and quickly discovering that my gear is nowhere near warm enough for even these climes. Before long, there's snow all over me, and things only get worse when night falls. The temperature drops along with it, and in this Skyrim, night is pitch black.
Then the messages start appearing. Messages like "A Forsworn is hunting you." Gulp.
Also, I finally figure out what's wrong. I can't see the world for the trees. Skyrim has big ones already, but now they're huge and absolutely everywhere. Forests are now incredibly oppressive at times, especially when a group of Hammerfell mercenaries suddenly bursts out of the greenery. A gloriously powerful, metal, version of the Skyrim theme kicks in as I blast the first two with flames - noting in the process that my magicka now regenerates incredibly fast. I don't have unlimited firepower, like you do when you stick god mode on, but the big blue bar refills itself within seconds.
The first merc to fall donates his armour and sword to my adventure - absolutely superb, if unenchanted, quality gear for a Level 1 character - and things are officially on.
Then I get killed in one hit by an unseen Thing. Grrr.
Fleeing, what would normally be harmless woods are now more like survival horror. I have no idea where I am, Skyrim has no interest in being balanced any more, and there's at least one enemy following me for whom my best sword attacks are like throwing pavlova at a castle wall and expecting it to turn into dust. Arrows shoot out of nowhere, wolves... well, I'll get to that in a second, but they do something far creepier than howl... and then out of nowhere, a torch! Light! Not just more red dots!
It's a group of travelling adventurers, and someone from a newly founded "Hunting Guild". They handily destroy everything behind me, we chat for a moment about how grateful or not, I do not in fact want their literature, and then they head off down the road. I'm about to do the same, when suddenly:
I spin round, but there's nobody there. Only a small, inquisitive looking dog, and...
Pfft. Dogs can't talk. It's not like they're microwaves.
Except they can. They don't converse, but most of the classic Skyrim animals can talk now - generic... pardon the expression... barks, but still words. You know the only thing weirder than having a Mudcrab mock you as you try to kill it? No. No you don't. But you will, soon enough...
Speaking of weird, look who I met on the way to Helgen. He kills me with fire when I try to go into his house. In retribution, I steal his pig and hit him so hard, Minecraft is now sprite based.
Arriving at Helgen, it's to the discovery that Alduin has already been and gone, and both Hadvar the Imperial Tutorial Guy and The Other One Whose Name I Can't Remember are lying wounded in a cave.
Riverwood! You need to... warn Riverwood! Get me a healing potion from the now completely obsolete tutorial cave and (cough) I can...
Will this new tutorial cave also have giant bloody spiders in it, by any chance?
I'm almost positive it won't.
Aargh! That still counts! Die in a fire, Todd Howard! And your little developers too!
Please... the health potion... while I still remember what it feels like to have blood...
Yeah, about that. Hypothetically, if I was about to die in some horrible, unfair way, and it was you who had the power to save me, what would you do?
MMM THAT WAS TASTY HEALING POTION. WELL, BYE!
Getting to Whiterun to tell the world that dragons want to eat a sizeable chunk of it proves an absolute nightmare. Everywhere I go, there are monsters - and if there aren't, they spawn out of nowhere. Models in bikinis with knives. Orcs. Wolves. If I stick to the road, there are often guards or travellers - but that can't be expected, only made use of. It's a complete throwback to when Tamriel was called Arena if you remember that, Day Z with a target on my back if you're more into modern games, and a maelstrom of sadistic entropy if you like fancy words. My F9 pressing finger has no fingerprint left.
The worst bit comes when I stumble on a circle of stones, populated by a small cult of lightning-spewing sorceresses and their skeletal minions. Easy to walk around? You'd think! Except no. Because on either side of them lives a pride of lions, whose aggro radius is measured in light-years. As for the long-way round, well, even assuming no spawns, there's a giant there, and a... triceratops? Yes. A triceratops, bullying some horses. Every single one of these things is instant arse-kickery.
But you know what they're not? Friends.
BEST. DAY. EVER.
Just to be clear, this absolutely destroys Skyrim, to the point that my computer shuts off a couple of times trying to render it. The AI has no idea what it's doing, things get stuck on the scenery, and the framerate plummets. But that's not important. Why? Because dinosaurs. Fighting lions.
Whistling a happy tune, I continue on my way to Whiterun, pausing only when a guard sees me with a weapon drawn and rushes over in case I do anything illegal with it. But wait a minute...
Bronies. Why did it have to be Bronies?
Excuse me? You have a problem with one of the few shows that combines classic nostalgia with a modern sentimental twist; one that treats little girls with the respect they deserve instead of churning out fluff-
My Little Pony, skinny and bony...
Who's your favourite pony? I like Pritt-Stick. You know. From the second series. Where they're all rendered into glue. And the glue has sparkles, only it's not magic, but tears. The tears of little ponies. What I'm getting at is-
Enough! I'm warning you!
You're a grown man obsessed with a show for tiny little girls who like pink things and ponies. What do you have to say to that, hmmm?
Two things. First, that there is nothing wrong with any sincere fandom, especially one that seeks to make an emotional connection not often found in this frosty land, and if you cannot appreciate that, you have my most sincere pity.
Uh-huh. And the second thing?
FUS RO DAH!
Yep. Turns out every Nord - every single Nord in Skyrim - has been taking sneaky trips up the mountain, and all of them now know this Shout. It's amazing how annoying it is when it's you being blasted off mountains every few minutes, though it does make civil war fights hilarious.
But I suspect we'll be seeing that later. Time to check in with the Jarl in Whiterun.
AGAIN! AGAIN! AGAIN!
Ahem. Where was I? Oh. Yes. The imminent dragon-based apocalypse.
Greetings to you. I-
Give me a Flame Grilled Whopper, large fries and a diet coke.
No gherkins. I want it my way.
You look like the Burger King.
Are you quite finished? We know you witnessed the dragon attack... or officially did, even if in reality you skipped it with some kind of mod thing... which makes you the closest thing we have to an expert around here. I'd like to hire you to fight it.
What kind of reward are we talking about here?
Vaguely defined, and not even close to the life-changing fortune that would come your way were we not in a role-playing game that can't afford to set you up for the next fifty levels. Also, I'm ignoring that you're Level 2 and regular bandits can kick your arse.
Just as long as the preparation for this battle doesn't involve any more giant Spider-Men.
I'm almost positive that it won't.
That's it! I'm taking my business to McDonalds!
Actually, the quest for the Dragonstone is quite a refreshing change. Inside the dungeons, nothing seems to have been switched around or made worse, making for at least one dungeon where I can not only survive easily, but have much more powerful equipment than I'd normally have thanks to looting bodies. It's not exactly ULTIMATE POWER, but a few stumbling zombies are exactly no threat. As opposed to normally, when they're merely a minimal threat. It's not much, but it's a start.
Knowing that there's a dragon fight coming up though, I take a bit of time to nip into a few other familiar places, fight some more regular enemies, and claw up at least a couple of levels and grab some perks. In the end though, the dragon fight isn't much of a problem. As usual, I have enough redshirt goons around to do most of the heavy lifting, and the fight is exactly as it was in the vanilla version.
Okay, so that part is a little different.
Now with basic access to the same Shout as pretty much everybody else, everyone immediately hails me as their Dragonborn hero. Hurrah for me. I return to the Jarl and he hands me the ceremonial Hat of Who Gives A Crap and the +2 Axe of If You Hadn't Noticed, I'm A Spellsword, along with instructions to go see the Greybeards on High Hrothgar. This I do not plan to do, for the following reason:
Greetings, Dovahkiin. You are blessed with a gift few possess, to harness the ancient words of power and channel them through your body, performing wonderous actions. Like Force Push. And. Uh. Ice Beam. Running Pretty Fast, that too.
So, basic magic then? Wow. That would really be impressive if we didn't live in a fantasy world where physical gods hand out terrifying power to amuse themselves, and every other person can shoot fire out of any orifice!
This is completely different! We have devoted ourselves to the pursuit of these words! We've learned almost three of them! Not each of course, but....
I'm sure your parlour tricks really impress the kiddies. But me? I walk out, I kill a few wolves, I walk back more badass. And you know the best part? I get to do all of it without completely wasting my life on a frozen mountain.
So, yeah. Of course, the Jarl's reward does go one step further - the title of Thane, and with it the service of Lydia, everyone's favourite Housecarl. I'm not exactly short on potential Followers in this version of Skyrim, but honestly they're mostly just faces rather than characters and at least one of them has simply buggered off. With Lydia though, you know where you are. Good old reliable Lydia; a familiar ally still around to proudly serve her new Thane with honour and professionalism and-
I am going to kill everyone responsible for this. Then me.
Tomorrow! Will the world be saved from dragons? Will the world's modding community be saved from Lydia's wrath? And is there any chance she'll find a respectable set of armour?
Skyrim: Week Of Madness
The insanity continues... come along for the ride...
Day 1: The World According To Sheogorath
Day 2: Quest For Dignity - The Housecarl Chronicles
Day 3: The Dovahkiin Riften Deserves, Not The Hero It Needs
Day 4: Yet There Is Method In It, And Also Cheese
Day 5: The Life And Deaths Of Compass Meridian