The Art of Modding

When a game releases, it takes on a wholly different form. It ceases to be a project or end goal only accessible internally and becomes something that, through each player, grows to be infinitesimal in variations of experience - especially if it was designed to immerse and encourage creative thinking. One such game is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, released in 2011 by Bethesda Softworks. A sprawling fantasy role-playing game - RPG - that places the player in a living, breathing digital world with the freedom to do whatever they wish, Skyrim was a smash success and is widely regarded as the foundation to build modern RPGs from in terms of player interaction, design and escapism.

But what if the developers of Skyrim weren't the only ones capable of making such immersive, inspiring and curiosity-piquing environments and experiences? What if there was additional content for the sprawling world of Skyrim just waiting to be discovered - and it was made purely by admirers of the game? Enter the fans - they're fiercely passionate, committed and increasingly integral to the lasting appeal of countless games including Skyrim. Some game developers encourage and welcome the creation of custom content by fans for titles they've released as a way of stretching the appeal and public consumption of a game beyond a normal "trending" lifespan. These modifications, or mods, range in scope from texture re-colourings and minor tweaks to entire new environments and experiences (quests, events) complete with recorded dialogue, a fleshed-out story and integration with the base or "vanilla" game content. 

Modders, responsible for breathing new life into aging titles with their creations, are one of the most valuable assets to the gaming industry. Unfortunately, several developers are rather touchy about the general public fiddling with their projects, so modding capabilities are often restricted or outright discouraged. Thankfully for many titles including Skyrim, that certainly is not the case. I applaud the developers who support modders. A game is indeed a source of income and integral to making a developer profitable, but if permitting modding - even with respectable restrictions - can extend the life of a title by several years, then why not allow for it? Classic titles such as the original The Sims games, Duke Nukem 3D and countless others are still enjoyed by many to this day, played in modern times. Of course, those games simply being incredible and works of art in their own right contributes to their lasting success, but mod and custom resource integration is widely considered by many as an integral part of their experiences. Of course, don't even get me started on specific mods such as Final Doom, which ended up assisting in building the foundations of future titles in the Doom series including the recent 2016 release.

Video Credit: Brodual (Youtube)

Myself and countless others consider mods as art when built from passion and vision. Many gamers also consider modders who take their projects seriously and respect the importance of effort, time, uniqueness and creativity as artists. Painters, writers, actors and other figures in media widely accepted and recognized by the rest of the world generally follow similar guidelines and are held in high regard. Therefore, I hold modders in gaming in the same category, and there is no reason that they shouldn't be treated as equals despite working with a different and often misunderstood medium. We're always going to be afraid of what we don't understand but admire and gravitate towards what we do understand. Perhaps by shedding a little light on the modding process through this piece, you'll gain a newfound understanding of what goes into making something "just for a stupid game."

Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

One of the most recently well-received mods released for Skyrim is a very special project called ClockworkIt's a sprawling, grand and borderline insanely-detailed project that seeks to take your breath away as a player immersed in an ever-expanding world. And it likely will. Without spoiling any major aspects of the storyline associated with the mod, allow me to divulge a brief summary of the project. 

Clockwork adds several new locations to the world of Skyrim, including a massive, steampunk-inspired castle that the player can gain as a player home... if they can figure out how to leave once they encounter it through a path that cuts them off from the rest of civilization. Encountering several strange characters lurking around the castle and surrounding areas (including a mausoleum, tunnels and gigantic underground Dwarven - Dwemer, in-game - city), the player must work towards solving the mysteries of the castle, therefore finding a way to repair the magical teleportation machine housed in the basement. All of this occurs whilst immersing the player in vivid, meticulous surroundings even more lush and believable than most of what the developers of Skyrim themselves came up with. The tiniest details, right down to working clocks adorning the halls and finely polished wood panelling that shimmers in the light of custom-made gas lamps, only add to the immersive power of Clockwork. The quest that the player is embroiled in quickly becomes one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling amongst other quest mods for the game. 

Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

Oh, and also add the fact that the player is haunted throughout the quest from nearly the beginning by a ghost that succeeds very easily in being a shocking, downright unsettling presence that will scare you. The horror-tinged atmosphere mingled with steampunk and fantastical properties makes for a fully engaging experience that will be difficult to want to end... if you can reach the end, that is. See what's in store for you in the utterly spellbinding official trailer for the mod below.

I recently had the privilege of chatting with the visionary modder who brought all of this to life. Joseph Lollback — known by his username Antistar on nexusmods, the modding community site hosting Clockwork — has been working on the project since before the developers of Skyrim even released proper modding tools to the general public. It was my hope to get a peek into the mechanics, creative process and sheer amount of talent and work that went into making something as compelling and immersive as Clockwork, and Lollback certainly didn't disappoint. I feel that ending this piece with such an impactful interview (through Lollback's responses, which were as immersive as the mod itself) is the best way of conveying the artistry present in the modding community. It's not just about "playing". It's about experiencing. And for those naysayers ready to pounce with "experiences exist in the real world" arguments, well, who's to say that gamers don't go out into the real world? Are we followed on a 24/7 basis? No. I'm pretty damned sure that we all seek different forms of escapism, and that is why many seek it through digital experiences before going back out into this utterly chaotic, self-destructing world. A century ago it all about was books, followed by cinema. It's an overreaction and massively biased misconception that "playing" is "all we do." And it needs to stop. Assumption and fear is mankind's most vicious and devastating weapon.

Video Credit: Antistar (Youtube)

Moving into the interview and shoving the politics of digital media aside, I invite you all to explore just a sliver of the conceptualization and implementation process behind a true masterpiece by an artist as true and capable as any other reputable name that comes to mind. I personally thank Joseph for his contributions not only to this interview, but to the gaming landscape in general. Clockwork is not his first mod, and it definitely won't be his last. He is just one of countless incredible artists out there — all you have to do is be willing to discover them and appreciate their creations.

To read other pieces I've written pertaining to the gaming industry, including reviews, click here.

Congratulations on the launch of Clockwork. After such a lengthy development, it must feel strange yet satisfying to release this project for the general public. What was it about the project that kept you invested enough to see it through to completion? Where there setbacks or moments that almost made you quit the development process?

Four and a half years is a very long time to spend on a single project. I never really considered giving up on Clockwork, but there were plenty of times when it seemed like I would never get it finished; that there was just too much work. It's just putting one foot in front of the other, though. "What's next on the list?" And then you get that thing done - and then the next thing, and the next thing. The times when I became demoralized were probably when I forgot that and looked too far ahead, seeing all the work and obstacles I still had to plough through.

As for what kept me going... I don't know; one might call it Sunk Cost Fallacy, but I can't get away from the fact that I didn't want to waste all the work I had already put in. Also I had faith that what I had planned was worthwhile - that it would be something special and that people would get a lot out of it - once it was finished. And it had to be *finished* - more or less in the way I'd planned from early on - or it would fall flat. A location that doesn't quite make sense because the story isn't there to explain it, or a story that just stops halfway through... I didn't want that. Finally, the story and themes in Clockwork are important to me, and I wanted to get them out there.

The story of the project's development is quite extraordinary - stemming prior to the release of Skyrim's Creation Kit. I'm guessing the storyline might have been established from the very beginning, but perhaps I'm wrong. Could you shed some light on how such a brilliant storyline and cast of characters came to be?

It does all go back a long way, yes; to before Skyrim's release, even. The design came first, and the story and characters were developed according to the needs of the design. For example I wanted a castle that the player character could believably come to own, so I needed a story in which they encounter a castle that's uncontested and likely to stay that way, is in good condition, is available for the player character (as opposed to basically anyone else) to live in, and so on.

Some things came out of earlier thoughts I'd had going back to quest mods I'd considered making for Fallout 3 (but decided against in the end, obviously). The main thing was "how can I have voiced dialogue without needing voice actors?". (I wanted to avoid the work overhead associated with managing other people, if possible.) The solution was to use Text To Speech (TTS) voice synthesis with some post-processing, and to have all characters with lines be robots/androids/computers/etc. A pretty good fit for Fallout's pulp sci-fi setting.

Bringing that forward to Skyrim, the robot equivalents in the Elder Scrolls setting are the steam-powered automatons made by the long-lost Dwemer. That was the beginning of the focus on the Dwemer in the story, and in the end, that's why the mod is called Clockwork - simply because I wanted to use TTS for the voices.


Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

Clockwork touches on some dark, deeply emotional elements that envelop the player from nearly the beginning as soon as they enter the Velothi Tunnels. Regarding this fright-riddled introductory dungeon, what were some of the most difficult things to pull off technically?

By far the most difficult part of the Velothi Tunnels dungeon was the Glass Lake sequence. This was largely due to the lighting engine in Skyrim being (somewhat arbitrarily) limited and difficult to work with. The set-piece element of the Glass Lake area is the "thing" (trying to avoid spoilers here) following the player under the frozen surface of the underground lake, glowing with a bright light.

The issues start with the ice needing to be partially transparent so that you can see this thing floating beneath it. There is no partially transparent ice in the base game, as far as I know. In fact there are almost no partially transparent surfaces in the game at all; due to various technical limitations of the game engine, I'm assuming. I needed to have multiple layers of partially transparent ice because it would look like a sheet of cellophane otherwise, and that was the first problem; multiple layers like that wouldn't render properly unless set up in a very specific way. It was a while before I discovered how to do it - by accident, in the end - when I noticed how the glass-work on the game's alchemy benches was set up.

The second problem was that shadow-casting lights don't illuminate partially transparent surfaces. Non-shadow lights do, but will only illuminate objects within their radius calculated from the point they were originally placed in the Creation Kit. If you dynamically move a non-shadow light somewhere else, it won't illuminate any new objects it's brought near. How to dynamically move a light around under the ice, then? Well, what about having one single gigantic sheet of ice for the entire cavern, so that no matter where the non-shadow light goes, the ice sheet is still considered something that was within the light's initial radius?

That would work, if not for the arbitrary limit on the number of lights than can affect a single object. (I call this limit arbitrary because there was no such limit in Oblivion; a much older game using a much older version of the same engine.) Even worse, it seems like a light is considered as affecting an object not if it's visibly illuminating it, but if its radius intersects with (I think) a bounding box the size of a perfect cube that contains the object. That was the problem with one big sheet of ice. (Imagine a pizza inside a perfectly cubic box, rather than the usual flat pizza box.)

It would have effectively limited me to a handful of lights (maybe five or six?) for the entirety of that massive cavern. And that's including the several lights the glowing "thing" required to look right. In the end, I had to slice the ice sheet into four square pieces, with the moving lights placed at the centre point where those four pieces meet, so that they'd all be considered within the light's initial radius. It still didn't allow for many lights for such a large area, but it worked.

That area was a real nightmare to get working.

Regarding such elements, the horror-based aspect of the main quest line in Clockwork is intense, surprising and kept making me check if I was being followed. Was this always going to play such a major role in the development of the story?

Almost certainly. I've always been a big fan of scary games - early favourites being the (older) Thief games, System Shock 2 and Clive Barker's Undying - and horror elements have crept into all the story-based mods I've made over the years. From Half-Life, to Neverwinter Nights, to Unreal 2, to Oblivion and now to Skyrim.

Closer to the start of work on Clockwork, there was probably one main influence; the 2001 Japanese horror movie "Kairo" (a.k.a "Pulse"), by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It was a big influence on my approach to horror in the mod, and one sequence (that also features prominently in the Clockwork trailer) is a direct homage to what I consider to be the scariest scene in Kairo; the scariest scene in any movie I've ever seen, actually.

Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

The centrepiece of Clockwork is Clockwork Castle, obviously. But just how did you come up with such a lavish, impactful interior design? Everything from the intricate woodworking to the gas lamps and paintings just oozes personality and a rich history. Did the layout for this eventual player home go through different iterations?

I didn't iterate on the overall look of the interiors that much, but I spent a lot of time on each individual asset making it fit as part of the cohesive whole I was building up. Basically the interior design came out of a lot of research and reference-gathering. I read articles and watched documentaries on the Victorian era, and spent a lot of time in Google image search. (I just checked and my reference collection for the mod - mostly images - is over 2GB.)

Before I started work on the interiors (the main hall was the first thing I did after the Creation Kit was released), I'd vaguely hoped that one of the interior tilesets would be close enough to what I had in mind that I could literally just slap a nice Victorian wallpaper on the walls and voila; done! At first I hadn't planned for part of Clockwork to be this big suite of new, Victorian-influenced art assets, but it didn't take much browsing through the base game's assets to see that they were great for a fantasy Viking setting... but not great for what I had in mind.

No, I put in the wallpaper, but then the stone trim didn't look right next to it; it needed wood panelling, and wooden flooring to match, and then the chairs and the beds didn't fit either, and I needed some light fittings...

The characters in this project are some of the most vivid and believable in any Skyrim mod. Was it difficult - in regards to both text and recorded dialogue - to develop them and provide the level of depth and personality players experience today?

Partially due to the order in which I worked on things, the characters in Clockwork were developed slowly over the course of a few years before I even started writing any of the final dialogue or documents (journals, notes, etc). I made lots of notes over that time; scattered lines that I thought sounded good, or personality points that I thought were important. That's it, really; those characters were bouncing around in my mind for a very long time.

Using TTS for the character's voices came with its own set of challenges; the two main issues being intelligibility and the difficulty in placing appropriate emphasis on certain words. Since it was an early decision to use TTS however, the characters were developed with that kind of "flat" speech and occasional odd bit of intonation in mind. Pronunciation was fortunately less of an issue than I'd expected it to be, but I did need to "massage" the spelling of certain words to get the TTS voice to pronounce them properly. A memorable example was the name "Nurndural". For that one I had to enter it as something like "in urn dure rall" and then chop off the leading "i" in post if the character wasn't literally saying "in Nurndural".


Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

Credit: Joseph Lollback (Antistar)

Was there content (quests, dungeons, interior spaces, characters) intended for Clockwork that had to be cut? Despite it being an incredible experience as it is, do you plan on adding more to the project aside from bug-fixes or minor patches?

I had far more ideas for horror elements than I ended up using; way more. Ideas are cheap, though. There wasn't time to implement those things; nowhere near it. They take a lot of time to put together, and you need the right pacing for scares; they can just seem comical if they're machine-gunned at you. Spacing them out, of course, requires extra content in between - things to explore, other things happening - which is even more work in itself.

There's not really any major cut content in the sense of something I partially made and then abandoned, though. I was careful - I wanted to be sure I wasn't wasting time on something since the project was already taking *so much* time.

I suppose Nurndural did end up a bit different to what I'd planned early on. It was initially going to be three discrete dungeons for the three quests that take you there - rather than a kind of non-linear, exploration-focussed dungeon with a hub area. I changed my mind before I started working on Nurndural, though. The idea was that it would be less work than three separate dungeons (and it made sense in terms of the setting too), but I'm not sure that that ended up being the case, in terms of how much content it required.

As for post-release content, a few people have requested a music box to be added to the castle - one that plays a particular piece of "music box" music you encounter during Clockwork's story. During development I *was* considering that, but didn't have time. So I suppose that is kind of cut content, and it is something I might include in an update. The other main possibility would be making one of the main characters available as a follower after the completion of Clockwork's quest-line. I'm not sure about that one - there are some technical issues I'd have to work out - but I am thinking about it.

The amount of detail injected into this mod is staggering, to say the least. With so many gorgeously appointed spaces and decorations, Is there a cell (area) within Clockwork that you're most proud of or satisfied with?

That's... a hard one to answer. I like different areas for different reasons! I think that I managed to make the Velothi Tunnels scary, Nurndural interesting to explore, and the Clockwork Castle interiors themselves beautiful and detailed...

I don't think it's the prettiest area (that's probably the Master Bedroom, in my mind), but if I had to pick one area that I'm most proud of in terms of how it works, it would be the Travel Room. I had this crazy idea for a metal relief map of Skyrim, with buttons in place of major towns that you can press, setting the destination of a huge Dwemer teleportation machine. And then - and then what if something on the machine lit up to show the current destination, and to use the machine you simply walked into it?

The Travel Machine is made of many different parts working together to make it possible; new and modified art assets, multiple scripts, multiple interior cells for all the Clockwork Terminuses you can visit... It was a lot of work - and it wasn't easy - but it turned out exactly as I'd hoped, which is a rare thing in game development.

The reaction to the emotional gravity of this mod is extremely positive, and it comes at no surprise given the amount of time invested in its creation. How much of an influence did the input of beta testers and others getting a peek at the mod have on the development of Clockwork?

I sort of feel bad saying this, but... not much of an influence, actually. With the mod being in development for so long, I had a lot of time to think about it; to plan things out. I knew exactly what I wanted. And at the same time, there was a lot about the mod I held back, not wanting to spoil things for people. So people would sometimes make suggestions or requests in Clockwork's Work In Progress threads, but the suggestions didn't really fit the direction of the mod.

Oh; there was one particular suggestion very early on - or rather a question. Kind of a significant one, in some ways. It was right after I first revealed that I was working on Clockwork, and the question was "Does this mod actually include any clocks?"

I *had* been considering adding clocks to the mod, but that made me think that I should really get on that. In fact that was the very next thing I worked on, and the clocks ended up being another element of the mod that I'm quite proud of.

Do you have plans for future Skyrim modifications? If so, will they be similar in function to Clockwork? There's certainly a hungry audience for these kinds of "experience" mods that I'm sure would support you every step of the way (though I understand if not, given how much time and effort this project required).
Oh no. No way. Absolutely not - I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint people there. I'd love to be able to just bust mods like this out regularly, but the reality is that it takes a huge amount of very hard work. Clockwork is by far the most ambitious, complicated and difficult mod I've ever made, and I think I'd like it to stay that way. Nearly five years is way too long to spend on a single project - and of course I was passing up on other mods I wanted to work on in that time.

In particular, I've been dying to get started on some mods I want to make for Fallout 4. I've resisted the temptation until now for the sake of actually getting Clockwork finished, but now that it *is* finished, Fallout 4 is where I'm headed next.

All photos and videos related to Clockwork courtesy of Joseph Lollback (Antistar).