Published on September 17th, 2014 | by Matt Wolsfeld


A Modder’s Descent Into Madness

Video game Modder’s brains works a differently than that of normal gamers; Matt goes down the rabbit hole with Skyrim, and we almost lose him.

There is something that separates the mind of a normal gamer from that of a modder. I use the phrase normal gamer not as a slur, but as a compliment. It refers to someone who is content to enjoy a game put before them as the developers intended. They are receptive to the inputs of the developer and ask questions of themselves based on the experience they are having. Modders live by a different set of rules. The developer’s intentions are not enough for the modder; they must craft a world to their own liking, regardless of the pain involved. Modders are the warlords and tyrants of the video game world. They destroy and rebuild (rebuilding is sometimes optional), only content when the resulting game reflects their exact whims and desires — at which point they move on to the next game on their list. The mind of a normal gamer and a modder is separated by one thing: obsession.

The two are not mutually exclusive on a long enough time frame. It is possible for a normal gamer to be a modder and vice versa, but never within the span of a single game. I recently learned this the hard way when I was able to finally pick up one of my favourite games of all time on PC during the summer Steam Sale: Skyrim. I first played Skyrim on the XBOX 360 when it was initially released. A diehard fan of the Elder Scrolls series, I knew I wanted to experience all the game had to offer on the PC, unrestricted by the confines of console development. However, as an impatient nerd with an obsessive personality disorder, I also knew that I wasn’t going to wait for that to happen.

My first playthrough of Skyrim was innocent and as dictated by Bethesda. My character, a stealthy and snarky Wood Elf (or Bosmer, for those like me who cringe at any disregard for the overwhelming lore Bethesda has laid out for its Elder Scrolls universe) explored the land of Skyrim within the tethers of the XBOX’s limits. There was nothing unrewarding about this experience either; I sank countless hours into establishing myself as a fixture in this imaginary universe and, all in all, considered my Skyrim experience one of the all-time favourites in my video game career.

Fast forward to this summer. Since I had already sank a healthy life into the game at one point, I told myself I wouldn’t bother getting Skyrim on PC until I could get it at a huge discount. As a frugal gamer, I realized the impracticality of spending full price on a game twice and somehow managed to stave off my hunger for an untethered Skyrim experience.

Until the Steam Sale.

My wishlist alert exploded that day. Skyrim and all of its DLC at 75% off. The game I loved so much and all of the added content I had yet to play at the low, low price of $7.50. It was a no-brainer. I bought it immediately and set aside a mental note to tackle it in the near future. And tackle it I did. I restarted my career in the land of Tamriel as an Imperial (in an uncharacteristically self-aware moment, I realized I almost universally neglect the human characters in fantasy RPGs and decided to give them a fair shake of the dice). The world was just as welcoming and enjoyable as I had remembered it, even as the mage I had decided to fashion my character into (again, a rebellion against my constant desire to project myself as more stealthy and cunning than the gangly and uncoordinated reality I was forced to endure). And then it happened.

It was an article reminiscing over the greatest Skyrim mods that had appeared over the years since its PC debut. Typically, I considered myself a normal gamer. I love to wrap myself up in a game like a good storybook, experiencing it word-for-word from the developers like listening to a trained bard. But the screenshots. The shadows. The detailed armors. The fix for that god damned horrible menu UI. They all spoke to me like a serpent from the tree of knowledge. I knew I had to have more.

It worked well at first. Like any modder I waded into the pool of code manipulation softly to begin with. Pre-wrapped mods with easy installers. And things looked great. Better than before even. But not all was smooth. There were glitches. There were remnants of shadows and tears across textures. They nagged at my obsessive desire for perfection, even in the virtual world I had at my fingertips. So I dove deeper. I installed back-end mods, mods that required manual tinkering of behind the scenes functions with names like AddDisplaySuperSamplingResolutions or bFloatPointRenderTarget (don’t ever underestimate the importance of bFloatPointRenderTarget). And like a swift injection of heroin it made everything better.

Until the day it all crashed. Literally. I came back from a weekend lake trip and tried to boot up Skyrim for a quick couple of quests, only to have my heart sink when it finally happened: the inevitable CTD (or Crash To Desktop in layman’s terms). At first, nothing seemed to work. I uninstalled everything and reinstalled it again, only to see the same disheartening message: “Skyrim has Stopped Working. Searching for solutions…”. I clawed my way through forums and pages of code. I reinstalled mods in alternate orders to see what was working and what wasn’t. I spent hours on a fresh install to try a new fix, only to see the same maddening result. This went on for a solid week. Even in my worn and wearied state I would still try something new from time to time to see if I could crack the code. I refused to believe it was never going to work again, and I refused even more the idea of returning to a stock experience. Like the old saying goes: once you go mods, you never go back.

And then, just when I had lost all hope, a shining ray of light appeared. The game started fine without a key back end change. I knew I needed it for the others to work, so I tried a previous version. Success! Like a chess player confident in his victory, I placed the final pieces of my work one after another slowly but suredly, revealing the giant grin of someone who had at long last beaten his archrival. As the last mod was enabled and the game came to life, I shouted a great cheer of victory and turned to my unbelievably wonderful, patient, and kind girlfriend who was sitting beside me. “IT WORKED!” I said, like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning. “IT’S FINALLY OVER!”

She turned to look at me, donned a smile just about as big as mine, and said, “Thank god, because I don’t think I could watch any more of that.” And it hit me. I had spent an inordinate amount of time and frustrating effort trying to fix a game that I myself had broken, despite the fact the same, unmodded game had given me unbelievable amounts of enjoyment years before. I smiled back at her, turned off my computer, and we left the room. None of this is to say it wasn’t worth my time, or that I’ll never mod again (because let’s face it, some games are just too tempting to tinker with). But, like Hannibal after crossing the Alps and sacking Rome, I couldn’t help but look back at the elephant carcasses and trail of corpses I had left behind and wonder if I shouldn’t have just stayed at home in Carthage with a nice cup of tea and the old book I had enjoyed so many times before.

The obsessions of a modder are a gift and a curse. They will bring you to the greatest extents of pleasure and satisfaction you can dream of, but at the cost of your sanity and valuable hours of your life. I think, for now, I’ll just sit back and reflect on my journey for a bit. The rabbit hole that is modding is far too exhausting for a simple Wood Elf like myself.

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About the Author

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is a Saskatoon-based environmental consultant, musician, and media vampire. When he's not finishing 'just one more quest' in Skyrim or binge-watching Twin Peaks, Matt can be found barricading himself into a room with his keyboard and a 3rd cup of coffee to write more songs nobody will ever hear.

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