Ah, 2006. An iconic year for the best PC games in more ways than one. Games like Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and Neverwinter Nights came out – and there were so many more. One of them was a very special game to me personally, and to many others: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
It had been delayed from an original release date of November 2005, and after much anticipation and hype, ultimately ended up being released as the first RPG title for the Xbox 360 the following March. This was a mere four years after the release of Bethesda Game Studios’ last entry in the series, Morrowind, which received awards and critical acclaim on PC and Xbox in 2002. Sure as can be, Oblivion also went on to receive praise and adoration alike, winning “Ultimate Game of the Year” at the Golden Joysticks in 2006, as well as Best Role-Playing Game of the Year from publications such as IGN, GameSpy, PC Gamer US, and much more.
To this day, Oblivion is a staple classic that is still enjoyed by both serious players looking for a grand high-fantasy adventure, and silly ones who want to revel in the broken chaos engine that Oblivion is infamous for. You could even say that Oblivion almost single-handedly kicked off the popular trend of ‘sandbox games with wacky physics and AI glitches’ in popular media, finding its way into many early YouTube videos and memes.
In 2021 we’re 10 years removed from a new Elder Scrolls game, and Skyrim is on its umpteenth re-release. While Bethesda has released Skyrim in VR, Skyrim on Switch, Skyrim Special Edition, and Skyrim Anniversary Edition over the past decade, none of them quite scratch the itch of a new Elder Scrolls experience, as you may expect.
It may not be a surprise that Elder Scrolls games (and Bethesda games in general) have some of the largest, most active, and well-known mod communities in PC gaming. Since Skyrim’s release, modding has become gradually easier and more accessible due to the popularity of Skyrim mods in media and YouTube videos, as well as mod developers simply having more time to fine-tune a game that wasn’t re-released ad nauseam. We’ve gone through the same song and dance with Skyrim for a whole decade, so what does modding Oblivion in 2021 look like?
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When I was a kid in 2008, I was naturally drawn to computers, since it was my father’s hobby and career. He introduced me to the ins and outs of the Windows file system, as well as installing PC games from The Orange Box to Dragon Age. Oblivion was one of those games, and when I wasn’t watching YouTube Poop videos, YouTube had all sorts of suggestions for entertaining modifications I could make to the game. Spells that would make NPCs do silly dances, flyable dragon mounts, underwater player homes, and even Final Fantasy weapons, complete with an in-game re-creation of the Sephiroth fight from Final Fantasy 7 – the possibilities were endless.
Despite the potential of an awesome and hilarious outcome, the process of modding was quite frustrating and time-consuming. Granted, it was much more difficult to do in 2008, with slower Internet connections and the modding scene still in its early days. Even Oblivion Script Extender (OBSE), a popular mod which expands the scripting capabilities of the game, was practically nonexistent at the time. It was very often with prayer and muttered pleas under our breath that we started Oblivion with new mods installed, as crashes were frequent, and determining which mods were causing them was like finding a needle in a haystack.
Mod load orders were sorted manually, and don’t even get me started on editing .ini configuration files. These issues aren’t completely absent in modern Oblivion modding, but thanks to community-created and maintained tools such as the Load Order Optimization Tool (LOOT), TES4Edit for mods with ‘dirty’ data, and BethINI for easy .ini editing, it’s much easier to avoid and even correct many of them. Not only that, but thanks to Wrye Bash, a mod manager for Oblivion which has been around since the beginning, you don’t need to spend anywhere near as long copying and pasting mods and mucking around in the file system.
These days, simply search “easy mod guides for Oblivion” with Google and you’ll find a few resources that will walk you through the process of making the game far more bearable to play in 2021 without affecting the base experience too much. For my game, I used the Quick and Easy Overhaul Guide for 2020 by Nitefox98 on Nexus Mods, which is where the majority of your mods will come from (with the exception of some bigger tools and texture packs). This guide will get you a patched, optimized, and better-looking Oblivion install in the course of an afternoon or so, and it starts out with all of the bare essentials in case you don’t want to get too deep into texture replacement and mod configuration. In all honesty, you could run Oblivion with just the Unofficial Patches and BethINI to configure display settings and have a perfectly fine time.
The entire land of Cyrodiil is your burrito, and you can make it however you want; or turn it into something completely new. Go wild. Just keep in mind that the more modifications you make, the higher chances become of things going terribly (and sometimes irreversibly) wrong with your installation. Such are the risks of modifying game files.
By Azura, be thorough and patient
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve drifted away from Oblivion. I’ve been spoiled by the far more stable engines of Morrowind and Skyrim, and had come to think my modding skills were so good that I didn’t need to worry about breaking things anymore. Oblivion brought me crashing back down to reality very quickly. In my own hubris, I picked a mod list that was almost 200 entries long, and installed them all sequentially without loading into the game even once to ensure things were working, which proved fatal after hours of copying and pasting.
Things appeared normal when I loaded up the game. I escaped the Imperial prison, had a few bouts in the Arena, got supplies, and set off toward Weynon Priory to start the main story quest in earnest. However, as soon as I crossed the bridge to the mainland… crash. After confirming where it was crashing in the game, I realized it was caused by a misconfigured mod. At this moment I realized I may have messed up pretty badly.
Unfortunately, since I didn’t install my mods in batches and failed to ensure things installed properly, I couldn’t tell which mod out of the 200 was causing the issue. While I could have dug in and possibly found it, the amount of time, frustration, and potential of messing the game files up further wasn’t worth it when I could simply start over from scratch.
After reinstalling, choosing a simpler mod guide, and taking my time to methodically install each mod and confirm they work, I was finally ready to give the game another test run. I even created a new character, got to the end of the prison/sewer sequence, and saved at the point where you are first able to go into the open world so that I could test for crashes without going through the intro over and over again.
Although, as is par for the course in Oblivion, there are still the occasional “how did this even happen” anomalies that make me burst out with laughter. I keep them in my game just for the novelty. Like Rowley Eardwulf’s brows being so low that they completely cover his eye sockets, and when you ask him about “rumors” he suddenly opens them wide to reveal large, beautiful brown eyes for no reason at all.
Wow, this game is old
As I tested to see if there were any issues with crashes in certain areas, I noticed a strangely familiar issue: the longer I played, the more tiny crackles in the game’s audio would appear. It almost sounded as if the game was lagging, or on a delay, but the game played fine. Eventually, it would get to the point where the audio sounds like it’s coming out of a broken speaker, and the only way to fix it (temporarily) would be to completely close and restart the game. Last year, while playing Morrowind, I also experienced this problem, but it took a lot longer for it to ramp up to full glitchiness, and it wasn’t too annoying to restart the game every hour or so. In Oblivion, I couldn’t explore a single cave without starting to notice the audio degradation. For both games, it doesn’t seem to be an issue that many people know how to fix online, and it isn’t typically mentioned in any mod guides that I have read either.
Luckily, I found a solution, by accident, in the comments section of a 2018 video titled “Oblivion music stutter” by Lordzio on YouTube. There, one or two users said that the fix was simple: put two files called dsound.dll and dsound.ini into the root directory of your Oblivion install. They then linked to a website, IndirectSound, which explains why this file fixes the sound issues.
Apparently, a lot of older PC games with 3D positional audio rely on audio hardware acceleration to play stereo sound properly, and modern Windows operating systems simply don’t support that feature anymore. Support for DirectSound, which provided such hardware acceleration, was dropped in Windows 7 and Vista. So to get the audio for older games working, you need to emulate the hardware acceleration, which is where IndirectSound comes in. You can read more about the specifics on its page, but after downloading and pasting the two files into my root Oblivion folder, audio has stopped stuttering, and while the placebo effect might be speaking for me, I’d say it sounds better too.
Wh…why are the mages invisible
Finally, while this issue wasn’t caused by any specific mistake I made, it’s just a reminder that sometimes problems with mods manifest in the most humorously random of ways. After I had finalized my setup, I sat down to gaze upon my work in satisfaction of a job well done and began a new playthrough. Graphics appeared surprisingly detailed compared to what Oblivion originally looked like (ahem, potato), and it seemed to be performing excellently. As far as I knew, I finally nailed it after failing miserably the first time. But then I got to Chorrol.
It started with a man walking toward me from down the street. He smiled wide and greeted me, apparently oblivious to the fact that his whole body, except for his hands, feet, and head, were entirely missing. Invisible, perhaps, but there wasn’t any magical effect to indicate it. Interesting, I thought to myself, Well, if it’s only one person, I guess I could live with that. Oh, sweet summer child.
As I strode into the Mages Guild, it became comically apparent that the entire Guild had sold off their physical bodies to a Daedric Prince, and are now cursed to wander the land as floating appendages. Every so often, you’d find one of them wielding a giant yellow sign that reads “WTF!? I’m A Missing Mesh!” Turns out one of the mods I installed in the last batch, Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul, had a mod file that was accidentally enabled and required textures/meshes from a different mod that I never installed. Conveniently, it was a simple fix since I had taken measures (batch installs, you know the drill) that make things easy to roll back and readjust. The cherry on top was that when I reversed the mod, all of the Guild mages were in their undies when I loaded back in. All in a day’s work for the humble Oblivion modder.
That sounds super chaotic, why would I want that?
Oblivion modding can be as involved as you’d like it to be. While it is possible to experience vanilla Oblivion on newer consoles as well as PC, the base experience is terribly dated, and many of the game’s systems and glitches are notorious for being annoying or completely game breaking at times. Mods such as the Unofficial Oblivion Patches, tools like BethINI, and much more have been created by the community specifically to fix glaring flaws with the original game that Bethesda either neglected to fix, or didn’t anticipate needing to prepare for, such as modern operating systems and hardware. At the very least, I highly recommend installing the essentials, which should only take you about an hour tops; they will greatly improve your playing experience, while still allowing you to see Oblivion in much of its original glory.
However, if you get addicted to the chaos and satisfaction of successfully molding this classic RPG to your liking like I did, it has never been easier to do despite the potential hangups and learning curve. I find that the unpredictable nature of each playthrough and mod configuration adds a lot of fun to the game, as someone who has played the original many times. If you’re feeling particularly daring, you might want to look into mods that turn Oblivion into entirely different games, like with Nehrim: At Fate’s Edge.
Oblivion can almost always be found nearly anywhere for a low price, on PC at least. The Steam version has a base price of $15, but it isn’t rare to find it there or elsewhere for less then $5. If you don’t have other methods of acquiring it (I just so happen to have installation discs from the Elder Scrolls Anthology), then digital copies are the way to go, and the most convenient if you happen to mess up your installation while modding. Regardless of what you decide to do, Oblivion is a classic Bethesda RPG worth re-experiencing in whatever way you prefer, and it can very easily be played over a laid-back winter break. Don’t let the lack of Elder Scrolls VI get you down too much. Simply mod your own Elder Scrolls VI into existence.
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