I have a tough time deciding what to play. My backlog, like so many of our loom Death Mountains of Steam Sale purchases, gives me the kind of analysis paralysis human beings were bred to handle. At the same time, my addictive personality really ties me down to a single game whenever I do decide what I want. It’s why I ended up streaming XCOM 2: War of the Chosen for seven hours at a time. When it comes to games I’m neurotic to the bone — no doubt about it.
This is partly why I never got deep into mods. I like to carve off one big, juicy slice of my “to play” list at a time. Bloating that with fan-made quests or features would just interrupt me even more. As it turns out, however, I had bigger concerns. It turns out modding the ever-loving Christ out of games is addictive, too. Plus it means I never actually have to choose what to play. I’m afraid the floodgates are open; I’m going full bore mod pervert now.
This technically started with BattleTech (the 2018 mech tactics game that you should absolutely play if you haven’t already). Unable to choose a new game, I grew obsessed with this old favorite all over again earlier this year. Only I already finished BattleTech. I needed something new. Something more perverted.
I found my answer in a still-healthy modding scene. There are basically three flavors of comprehensive BattleTech suites: a light dusting of better mechanics, a challenging overhaul of the base game, and “go fuck yourself mode.” I opted for the middle option. The long load times it added eventually introduced enough friction to break my bender. But the seed of modding — of making a game as unique or interesting as I wanted — was planted.
Enter E3. This year’s show didn’t have much in the way of truly new news. But it did hearken back to the past. Lots of sequels were shown. Some of which are successors to series we haven’t hung out with in a while (e.g. STALKER 2 and a Breath of the Wild sequel). Or else there was new content for games I had mostly written off (e.g. Fallout 76). Both of these conspired to get me jonesing for old games. Old games like… STALKER, Breath of the Wild, and Fallout.
I eventually landed on the last of those three. But I didn’t stop there. No. I wasn’t about to play New Vegas, an Obsidian/Bethesda joint from 2010, without some serious fan-made fixes. Fixes led to improvements. Improvements led to entirely new quests, weather, companions, and finally difficulty adjustments. A fairly comprehensive mod called Project Nevada makes the game much harder. It also lets you football tackle foes with your Power Armor to send them flying into space. Was I supposed to just not download that?
Ever since, I’ve been having a much-closer-to-nuclear blast with the older gem. I’ve run into far fewer bugs than 11 years ago and plan to finish the DLC. The problem is that the addiction didn’t deflect this time. It stayed put, latched onto the satisfaction of slugging increasingly interesting and deranged player creations into one big, beautiful mess.
I turned my attention to Fallout 4: a game I always thought had potential and just about the blandest execution imaginable by the human psyche. Settlements got all the tweaks I (and apparently loads of people who actually know how to make mods) ever wanted. NPCs got more diversity. The radio got a lot more variety and a little less Travis — the absolute worst in-game DJ of the franchise. Seriously, not everyone can compete with the literal Wayne Newton in a Vegas-themed game, but the Fallout 4 radio routine wears thin hours and hours before you can improve it.
I wish I could end this article on that note of final equilibrium. Unfortunately, one issue with Fallout games is that their setting is just so limited. You can only stretch “Mad Max with 1950s greasers” so far. That’s one area where the pretty generic world of Bethesda’s even bigger open-world affair, Skyrim, shines. It’s such a blank fantasy slate that modders can do whatever the hell they please with it. And oh… have they ever done exactly that.
I’m currently sitting at 42 New Vegas and 99 Fallout 4 mods. My Elder Scrolls experience is right in the middle, with 78 Skyrim mods. I’ve run into more bugs, crashes, and compatibility than I can count. Though even those are extremely illuminating. With every single crash or texture-less face, I always assume my bloated load order finally broke something, I won’t know how to fix. And every single time — at least so far — it’s actually turned out to be a glitch already present in the base game.
Usually they’re launch issues that Bethesda never had the time or interest to fix (and which modders often try to rectify for them). It’s a testament to the dedicated communities behind these games and a reminder of just how ramshackle the open-world juggernauts have grown. Fallout 4 feels particularly reliant on past and present mods. I’ve started recognizing certain perks, features, and even entire systems borrowed liberally from popular New Vegas creations. Settlements, for instance, which I considered half-explained and bland at launch, began years earlier as a player add-on. Now it’s finally full of vibrant and handcrafted characters… Though not via official DLC. The best characters I’ve met in the Wasteland have also come courtesy of the community. And they pair perfectly with the SimCity-ass overhaul I picked up.
It’s not just about the games themselves. Besides turning the games into something completely new, I’m also learning a lot. Not just about modding, either.
Partially, I’m developing a skill I can put towards tailoring future games. I’ve completely come out the other side and now believe my custom experience is just as authentic as the final product people paid $60 for at launch. Most games don’t come out fully “complete” anyway. Stuff gets cut to meet publisher deadlines and make investors money on time. One popular Skyrim mod I installed is literally just content that’s in the game files, but that the team didn’t have time to finish, test, and implement before launch. Modding is fundamentally changing the way I feel about the games I play.
I’m also learning about some absolutely delicious drama. Modders are saucy little sovereigns of their own, tiny nations. Entire kingdoms rise and fall and go to war in patch notes and error messages. Some of these are quite sweet, like shoutouts to other authors. Others can be sad, such as when one modder has to give up the hobby due to health complications. In either instance it’s a sincere, captivating peek into yet another pocket universe, semi-hidden online, just below the surface of media tens of millions of people purchase.
Now I feel like a part of that universe — or at least like I understand it a bit better than before.