Let’s talk cities. They are meant to be busy hubs of trade and discourse. They are supposed to be a mix of decadence and squalor. They should be big. They should feel alive. They should feel like Novigrad.
I consider Novigrad to be the best city in gaming because it does these things so well. Even though that ‘Shady Individual’ has no ‘life’ and will pop out of existence when he walks far enough away, it adds the impression of a city busy with people. And of a city that has stuff going on, with people moving from one thing to another as part of their lives. Vanilla Skyrim had almost none of that. Just the blacksmith blacksmithing and some bloke chopping wood. It all felt so static, as if only my actions would ever change things and whilst that plays into the power fantasy of Skyrim very well, it goes too far.
So some mods were absolutely necessary to perk up the cities. First on the list is the Noticeboard Mod. Taking obvious inspiration from The Witcher 3, this mod adds noticeboards outside the inns in each city, one noticeboard contains quests including deliveries, bounties, and commissions for armor or weapons, whilst the other contains little tidbits that give insight into the lives of the inhabitants. It humanizes the drone-like residents of the city whilst also giving me quests – it is a must have mod.
There is also the Immersive Citizens mod, which aims to give the NPCs actual ‘lives’. They live, they work, they go on lunch breaks, they go for a round at the Inn come sundown. This will annoy you as you go to buy some iron ingots only to find that the shop is closed for lunch, but it also adds autonomy to Skyrim. Things will happen regardless of your presence, you are no longer the center of these character’s lives.
Thirdly, I had to get around the fact that the cities in Skyrim are puny. Solitude, the largest city, actually has a population of about 40, verses Novigrad’s several hundred inhabitants. Now, quantity does not equal quality. If I can make the cities feel bigger and busier, then this ceases to be an issue. Immersive Settlements and JK’s selection of city expansion mods (see Whiterun here) provide that solution. They don’t actually make the cities much bigger, and major cities like Solitude and Whiterun are exactly the same size. What it does do is some rearranging to make them feel bigger. It creates the feeling of there being excess space in the city, and that is all you need to make you think it could be the bustling hub of activity it’s trying to be. The Bannered Mare also gets an outdoor seating area, which I think is lovely. And the best thing? It’s compatible with Open Cities. Oh yes.
There is also something to be said for the first person camera, the one advantage Skyrim has over The Witcher 3. It allows you to see each NPC up close and see the city up close, rather than from a point far above the player. Instead of moving over the cities’ inhabitants, you move with them and become as much a part of the crowd. That compensates for the size issues in a big way. With work, Skyrim’s cities won’t have scale, but they will have intimacy, and feel every bit as alive as any of The Witcher 3’s offerings.
And so I find myself drawn to the cities in a way that no other game has managed. I wonder about the city as a part of the rabble. In the day I forge weapons and armor for the mannequins and display racks in my house, and in the evening I kick back with the rest of Whiterun and join in singing Ragnar the Red. It’s a good life.
Next week we’ll turn our attention to the wilds. Hunting, fishing, dragon slaying and tomb raiding are all on the agenda – you’re all invited. No vampires.