How my quest for photorealism in Skyrim turned it into a much better game

Like the rest of Earth’s population, I had a wonderful time with Skyrim when it released in 2011, and for hundreds of hours afterwards. Then one fateful Sunday I realised I’d spent six hours smithing weapons and mining for ore, and decided it was probably time to stop playing now. 

It turns out I got off the train early: in the intervening years the modding community has gone from strength to strength, doing its best to keep The Elder Scrolls V looking like it was released last week. With Skyrim Special Edition’s arrival in 2016 those modders have a new and improved base game to work with, and the results are getting seriously close to the hyperbolic promises made in my YouTube sidebar. ‘PHOTOREALISTIC SKYRIM: INSANE MOD!’ they shout. And ‘ULTIMATE SKYRIM GRAPHICS 2017’. And ‘Justin Bieber FORGETS words to "Despacito" LIVE’, although I’ll concede that’s not immediately pertinent here.

Curiosity got the better of me. Exactly how good can you make Skyrim look these days, using Special Edition as the new baseline and cherry-picking the finest community-made visual mods? Deadendthrills achieved a frankly fearsome level of fidelity with the original version, but years have passed since then and graphics cards have gained multiple zeros on all their spec sheets. Is it possible to get Skyrim looking so realistic that it takes a second for your brain to distinguish it from reality?

The results of my own personal quest surprised me: not only did I get the game looking beautiful enough that I want to play it all over again, but those gorgeous graphics mods have fundamentally changed the way I play now.

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Finding the right mods

Skyrim SE Mods

It's not all about the graphics. Here's our guide to the best Skyrim Special Edition mods.

There’s a particular alchemy to selecting a series of mods that work well together. Very often one mod will want to overwrite another’s files, or there’ll be some overlap between seemingly disparate mods (like a snow replacer and a water overhaul) which will end up cancelling each other out. I’ll throw my hands up at this point and admit I let YouTube’s sizable Skyrim mod content creator community do the hard work for me on this front. Taking the recommendations of Fevir, NcrVet, Ultimate Immersion, and others, I compiled a list of texture mods, weather mods, flora overhauls, water improvements, armours, and NPCs—in addition to essentials like the Static Mesh Improvement Mod—that looked believable, consistent with Skyrim’s world, and above all, beautiful.

Personal preference is the ultimate deciding factor in any mod list like this, but to make Skyrim SE look like my screenshots, these are the ones to use:

Immersive Armors - Really high-quality, high-resolution and lore-friendly apparel for NPC and player alike.

ApachiiSkyHair SSE - In all honesty the vanilla hairs were fine by me, but this hair overhaul is required by Diversity (see below).

Unofficial Skyrim Special Edition Patch - If you only install one mod, make it this. It squashes bugs and refines things you never noticed were broken or clunky before. It won’t make your game look better, but your experience will be much more polished.

Realistic Water Two - A water overhaul that improves everything from transparency effects to foam texture resolution and coloring. I like the watercolor version, but that’s just my preference.

Verdant - A Skyrim Grass Plugin - Fills the outdoors with wonderful grasses, mosses, ferns, bushes and flowers to frolic in. One of the most immediately transformative mods on the list.

Vivid Weathers - I tried out a few different weather mods, and Dolomite Weathers nearly prevailed, but to my eye Vivid Weathers produces the more realistic lighting conditions in conjunction with the lighting mods below and my chosen ENB (more on that later).

Cutting Room Floor - A lot of unused assets were found in Skyrim’s code after release, probably relics of content that Bethesda ran out of time to include. This mod puts it all back into your game, and is required by several other mods.

Simply Bigger Trees SE - Sprawling new four-hour expansion which… just kidding. It makes the trees bigger.

Forgotten Retex Project - Improves the textures of commonly found items and quest items.

LeanWolf’s Better-Shaped Weapons SE - Turns the vanilla weapons into artisanal masterpieces. You can see the individual marks on each blade and the texture where it’s been hammered into shape. Incredible. Works well with Immersive Armors to make the game feel new (and look new in screenshots).

Nordic Snow - Improves snow textures to higher-resolution images, simply. 

Ruins Clutter Improved - Like Forgotten Retex Project, this mod improves a lot of the incidental items used as set dressing throughout Skyrim—specifically, in this case, those found in dungeons and caves.

Skyrim 2017 Textures - Another hugely transformative mod, with enormous scope. Retextures much of the wild and several cities up to 4K. Use this as your base retexturing mod, upon which other more specific textures can be added.

Skyrim Flora Overhaul SE - More lovely plant life to populate Skyrim’s once brown and barren tundras. It’s compatible with Verdant, but be careful which files you overwrite when installing. Load Verdant after this to get the best from both mods. 

Static Mesh Improvement Mod - SMIM - An absolutely staggering piece of work which improves the 3D modelling of items and architecture throughout Skyrim. 

Diversity - An NPC Overhaul - Diversity completely changes the appearance of every NPC in Skyrim. The end result is a slightly disconcerting uniform attractiveness, but if you’re sick of everyone you encounter looking like Danny Trejo this is the mod to fix it.

Enhanced Lighting for ENB (ELE) - Special Edition - It’s not an ENB, but more of a pre-ENB lighting mod which changes light values so that all lights look better after you apply an ENB. To be honest I’m not sure whether I have this working with the below mod or whether one is cancelling the other out, but I’m really pleased with the end result so I’m too scared to upset the apple cart.

Enhanced Lights and FX - Removes all lights that don’t have sources, and modifies the values for the lights that do. That means it gets really dark outside at night and in unlit areas of dungeons. It also means, together with all the other mods in this list and my chosen ENB/Reshade, the lighting always looks believable. 

Enhanced Textures Detail - An incredibly clever mod that doesn’t overwrite any of your current textures but instead uses actual magic to make them look nicer in your game. Magic or .ini file values, at least.

Using the Nexus Mod Manager to install these mods and set their load order is basically essential. It’s theoretically possible to do it all manually, but in the time it would take you to modify the .ini files correctly and ensure the right files live in the right locations, you could have coded The Elder Scrolls VI from scratch. It also affords you the advantage of swapping particular mods in and out to observe their effects.

On to the installation.

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Choosing an ENB

Initially I was almost disheartened when I installed this giant list of mods, loaded my game, and found a familiar-looking Skyrim staring back at me. The textures were much improved, yes, and the landscapes populated by much more realistic plant life. But it didn’t look like a generational shift. It was still recognisable, and that was exactly what I wanted to avoid. Applying an ENBSeries preset, a popular community lighting mod available for games like Fallout, Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto, would change all that in an instant.

You’ll hear it said a lot among the modding community, but there’s no more dramatic change you can enact on your game than applying an ENB to it. Therefore, my particular pick would be paramount. There are so many competing ‘photorealistic’ or ‘next-gen’ variants of Boris Vorontsov’s famous lighting mod that you could lose days watching those transitional wipe videos on Youtube demonstrating them all, but in the end I landed on one I was very happy with: the catchily named PhoenixVivid ENB Reshade. While the majority of ENBs feature way too much contrast and bloom for my taste, this one works beautifully with Vivid Weather and my existing lighting mods. It produces dramatic but believable lighting conditions at any time of day, indoors or outdoors, and also exaggerates the depth-of-field and ambient occlusion effects for a more cinematic view.

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Downsampling

At this point Skyrim started throwing out some really impressive imagery, so it was time to take things to the extreme. GeDoSaTo from Peter “Durante” Thoman will let you render games at resolutions far exceeding your monitor’s native output, and then ‘downsample’ the image so that it fits back on your screen. But you likely already know that, because you’re reading an article about making Skyrim look photorealistic. The question, really, is how much closer it can bring us towards that goal. 

My monitor’s native resolution is a slightly unusual 2560 x 1600, so I used GeDoSaTo to render Skyrim at twice that: a retina-seducing 5120 x 3200. All those high-res texture replacements really come into their own at this resolution, and the confluence of ENB, mods, and resolution produced natural landscapes that approached photorealism, given the right framing. 

It’s a frame rate killer, of course. My specs (GTX 1070, i7 2600K, 16GB RAM) were no match for that downsampled resolution and could only render the game at around 14fps. Attempting a 12K resolution resulted in a single-figure frame rate, which was frankly too unwieldy even for screenshot-hunting.

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Making Skyrim playable again

My longstanding reservation with mod collections like this when I see them elsewhere is: yes, but is it actually playable? There’s fun to be had by being a photojournalist in Skyrim and scouting out the best locations for screenshots, but after you’ve spent all that effort imbuing all that beauty into the game, it’d be a shame if you didn’t actually play it. 

I was able to pull it back to around 45 fps (I know, I know) by disabling downsampling and making use of BethINI. Simply put, it’s a handy tool that modifies your prefs.ini file and comes with new graphics presets which really boost performance. Using BethINI’s ‘ultra’ preset is much kinder to frame rates than the vanilla ‘ultra’ setting, without compromising any visible fidelity. 

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Meaningful gameplay improvements

I was surprised by how far I could push Skyrim, which is another way of saying I was surprised by the sheer talent and enduring commitment of the modding community. What surprised me even more, though, was that the concessions I made on my photorealistic screenshot quest actually improved the gameplay experience, too. 

Firstly: play without the HUD. Really. I disabled it just to take screenshots at first, and my inherent laziness meant that it stayed disabled while I played. I soon found that not having a bunch of quest markers, a crosshair, dialogue subtitles and health meters is, to use the Skyrim modder’s favourite word, a hugely immersive experience. Archery was suddenly satisfying again, and in the absence of a big quest arrow guiding me forth I engaged with the environments properly, looking for signposting cues and navigating using landmarks. 

All my efforts to produce realistic lighting changed the way I played, too. Suddenly going out at night without a torch was a terrible idea (a mechanic I always loved about Dragon’s Dogma), and certain areas of caves and dungeons were simply pitch black unless I illuminated them. It meant I had to treat lighting like a game mechanic, like Skyrim had suddenly become a Thief game. 

Having those little moments of revelation as I realised I had to play the game differently was a wonderful thing. It’s inspired me to go through Skyrim all over again, which is what I always secretly hoped the right collection of mods would do. And now as I do it, I’ll perpetually be on the lookout for killer screenshots.