RESTO RA­TION Mods

How mod­ders are un­earthing odd­i­ties lost in de­vel­op­ment.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Sam Greer talks to the mod­ding arche­ol­o­gists who are work­ing to re­store cut con­tent.

For as long as there’s been a mod scene, peo­ple have tried to ‘re­store’ parts of games that, for what­ever rea­son, were never fin­ished. In re­cent years, some of the ef­forts have be­come truly colos­sal. A few, like the KOTORIIRe­stored Con­tent mod or the stand­alone Stalker: Lost Al­pha, are deemed es­sen­tial by some fans.

Vam­pire: The Mas­quer­ade– Blood­lines launched in a sorry state ow­ing to a trou­bled de­vel­op­ment. Yet smit­ten with its am­bi­tion, fans have turned it into a beloved RPG. One fan is Werner Spahl. “I first took no­tice of un­used as­sets when I in­stalled an early ver­sion of the Unof­fi­cialPatch, at that time cre­ated by Dan Up­right,” says Spahl. “When I took over from him I started look­ing for other lost con­tent, es­pe­cially when I be­came aware of how un­fin­ished Troika was forced to re­lease the game.”

Spahl is no stranger to the mod­ding scene. For him it has been a life­long hobby. “I have prior mod­ding ex­pe­ri­ence from the Atari ST days on­wards, when my brother and my­self cre­ated a mod of one of the first mul­ti­player FPS games called Midi­mazePlus. Later on I made a Doom mod called The­meDoom Patch, in which you could ex­pe­ri­ence Aliens, Preda­tors and Ter­mi­na­tors, fol­lowed by a lot of small Quake, Jedi Knight and Half-Life mods up to Xen War­rior, in which you play as an alien grunt.”

I can­not re­call a time when a dis­cus­sion of Vam­pire:The Mas­quer­ade–Blood­lines didn’t also in­clude men­tion of the Un­of­fi­cial Patch, a mod that not only makes the game vastly more playable but can, op­tion­ally, bring in a load of planned or un­used con­tent. A chemist by day, Spahl has been work­ing on the mod for over ten years now. “I do it as a hobby, it’s never been a full-time job.”

Mod­ders to the res­cue

That a game’s good rep­u­ta­tion largely rests solely on the ef­fort of hard­work­ing fans ded­i­cated to mak­ing it playable and com­plete, is a tremen­dous com­pli­ment to the work put in by Spahl.

Yet even games that launched to huge suc­cess and were packed full of con­tent still have a myr­iad of things left be­hind in de­vel­op­ment. The Cut­ting Room Floor is a restora­tion mod for sprawl­ing fan­tasy RPG The El­der Sc rolls V: Sky rim. Its cre­ator, Arth­moor, has been work­ing on it since Novem­ber 2016.

“I no­ticed them al­most im­me­di­ately while I was work­ing on the OpenCi­ties mod,” says Arth­moor about the mark­ers he found hid­den in three of Skyrim’s cities that seem­ingly served no pur­pose. “I was told not long after that they be­longed to civil war con­tent that had been cut. It wasn’t un­til a cou­ple of years later that I de­cided to go back and look to see if there was more and pos­si­bly bring it back to the game.”

His mod re­stores en­tire quest lines re­lat­ing to the Skyrim civil war and be­yond, whilst also bring­ing in NPCs and lo­ca­tions. For a game al­ready burst­ing with things to do, the Cut­ting RoomFloor adds a lot that is sub­stan­tial.

Like Spahl, Arth­moor is no stranger to mod­ding. “By the time I was start­ing on Cut­ting Room Floor in earnest, I had sev­eral Skyrim mods al­ready com­pleted along with five years’ worth of var­i­ous projects for Obliv­ion as well. So I al­ready had the ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind me to start a project like this.”

It’s not just fans who have taken to mod­ding. Josh Sawyer, project di­rec­tor and lead de­signer on Fall­out: NewVe­gas at Ob­sid­ian, of­fered a small mod post-re­lease called the JsawyerMod that tweaks the game

Ex­haus­tive re­search is re­quired to make it pos­si­ble

more in line with his orig­i­nal plan for the dif­fi­culty. The mod was con­ceived after the game was com­pleted. “I started to re­alise that with our de­vel­op­ment cy­cles for the DLCs, and due to some tech­ni­cal is­sues with how the DLCs and main game in­ter­act, there were quite a few is­sues that we wouldn’t be able to of­fi­cially ad­dress.”

In­tent on ad­dress­ing these is­sues, Sawyer was also keen to balance the game’s dif­fi­culty more to­wards his orig­i­nal vi­sion. “I held back on the base dif­fi­culty of Fall­out: New Ve­gas be­cause Fall­out3’ s base dif­fi­culty was low and I didn’t think it was rea­son­able to spike up the chal­lenge too much. I wanted to cre­ate a more chal­leng­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in the mod.”

His list of tweaks might seem mi­nor but they make for a vastly dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence when put into prac­tice, and for the cu­ri­ous, rep­re­sents a chance to play a kind of ‘Di­rec­tor’s Cut’ of the game.

“Most of the changes were easy to make,” Sawyer elab­o­rates. “Bethesda’s tools are ter­rific for mak­ing and edit­ing con­tent. My work­flow at home was very sim­i­lar to what it was as work. The rea­son the mod is called JSawyer is be­cause our nam­ing con­ven­tion for lo­cal files at work was first ini­tial and last name. So the mod is re­ally just named that way be­cause my work en­vi­ron­ment at home was the same as at Ob­sid­ian. I just wasn’t con­nected to any source con­trol.”

The nitty-gritty

Sawyer con­tin­ues, “There were a few things I had dif­fi­culty chang­ing and I made a bunch of ‘dirty’ ed­its in the process. Dirty ed­its (changes made as a short­cut to get a mod work­ing that may in turn cause prob­lems or con­flict with other mods) aren’t re­ally a thing that we had to worry about when work­ing on Fall­out:New Ve­gas through source con­trol, so I wasn’t sure how to deal with them. A tal­ented mod­der [Xporc] helped me clean up the dirty ed­its and make the changes I was hav­ing dif­fi­culty with.”

Restor­ing miss­ing con­tent is, as you might imag­ine, no easy task. Ex­haus­tive re­search is re­quired to make it pos­si­ble, trawl­ing through ev­ery inch of the game’s files. “At first I sim­ply started check­ing out the game files them­selves, a lot of which are in nor­mal text for­mat like those defin­ing items, stats, di­a­logues or bring­ing quests to­gether in Python scripts,” Werner Spahl ex­plains of his re­search for Vam­pire:The Mas­quer­ade-Blood­lines. “Later I be­gan to search the VPK archives [the means by which as­sets are stored in Valve’s Source game en­gine] with PakEx­plorer for un­used mod­els, graph­ics and sounds too.”

For this mod, Spahl didn’t limit his search for in­for­ma­tion to the game it­self. “In case of our big­gest restora­tion yet, the li­brary quest, I con­tacted Brian Mit­soda [de­signer

and writer on VMB] and he sent me what­ever he could re­mem­ber and we built the quest around his info.”

Not only does com­plet­ing work left un­fin­ished by the devs take time, some­times there are few traces of the orig­i­nal as­sets. En­tirely new ones have to be cre­ated, in spec­i­fi­ca­tion with the orig­i­nally in­tended idea. “I also asked him about most of the other new maps we cre­ated, but sadly he couldn’t help us much, so a lot is im­pro­vised,” Spahl says.

In the case of Arth­moor’s Cut­ting RoomFloor mod for Skyrim, the process was straight­for­ward. “At first it was a mat­ter of re­con­nect­ing a few di­a­logue op­tions in quests to re­store their flow, then rein­te­grat­ing some items and other sim­pler things that had been in­cluded with the game but not added to things like the lev­elled lists. Most of the data was al­ready in place so it wasn’t overly dif­fi­cult to re­con­nect a lot of the ma­te­rial.” There were a few ex­cep­tions, though. “All of the as­sets used by the mod were al­ready in­cluded in the game, but some did need mod­i­fi­ca­tion to be com­pletely use­ful, like the south­east en­trance gate to Riften, and the sleeved ver­sion of the Storm­cloak ar­mour. Since I’m not at all versed in 3D mod­el­ling, I had some help from friends and com­mu­nity mem­bers to fix those parts up.”

Re­mem­ber that gate? Blocked off for seem­ingly no rea­son at all? In­cred­i­ble that it took a fan to set things right but still, Arth­moor has done us all a pub­lic ser­vice.

Of course, even the restora­tion mods them­selves have to cut some con­tent. “I elected to leave out the por­tions of cut con­tent that re­ferred to the civil war, the real-time car­riage rides, and to the bat­tle arena in Wind­helm,” ex­plains Arth­moor. “The civil war con­tent had al­ready been re­stored by Apol­loDown’s CivilWar Over­haul mod and there would have been con­sid­er­able over­lap be­tween the two projects. The com­plex­ity of it would have been fairly over­whelm­ing at the time, and still would be, due to the sheer num­ber of places that quest line cov­ers.”

And as some­one who laments the cut to a load­ing screen, it’s a shame about the real-time car­riages. “It would also have re­quired ex­ten­sive ed­its to a lot of navmesh records on main roads, near high-pop­u­la­tion ar­eas, which would have re­sulted in a ton of com­pat­i­bil­ity is­sues with other

ABOVE: Blood­lines has its charms, and the Unof­fi­cialPatch makes it playable and adds higher qual­ity ef­fects.

TOP: It’s hard to be­lieve any­thing was left out of the mas­sive, jam-packed Skyrim.

ABOVE The Mo­jave Waste­land can still make me pause but its beauty hides the dead­li­est mod­ern Fall­out.

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