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The archaeologists of Skyrim

Meet the players trying to bring Tamriel's lost history to life.

In the dank underbelly of Riften, through the sewers that service the town and into the dripping cistern that the Thieves Guild calls home, is a man called Rune. He rises at 8am, stands about for most of the day until 10pm, and then goes to practise with his dagger on a dummy for a few hours until bedtime.

If you should talk to him, he'll tell you that all he knows of his past is that he was recovered from a shipwreck near Solitude with nothing but a stone in his pocket with strange runes on it. And if you were to examine a bookshelf in the cistern, you'd find a letter from someone called Arthel Newberry that says, “I've used every source at my disposal and I still can't find a trace of your parents. Whoever they are, they've completely erased themselves from history.”

So starts one of Skyrim's greatest mysteries. Fans have spent the past few years trying to discover Rune's identity on forums and wikis across the internet. "I looked all over Solitude, but I can't find anything in any of the shipwrecks," said BlueRaja on StackExchange in 2012. Tantalisingly, there's a wrecked ship called the Orphan's Tear, but his trail in the game itself ends there. "Does this shipwreck actually exist - is there any way we can help Rune?"

A rumour began to circulate that Rune's dialogue is a direct quotation from Spaceballs. It really isn't. Hopes sprang for Skyrim's expansions to fill in Rune's backstory, but they didn't. Arthel Newberry couldn't be found. With neither Solitude's shores nor DLC offering answers, another answer for Rune's missing history arose, an extrinsic one: Bethesda hadn't finished it.

"Ah, yes. I've been asked about Rune a number of times," Roger Libiez tells me. Otherwise known as Arthmoor, Libiez is one of Skyrim's leading modders, author of Unofficial Skyrim Patch, Alternate Start - Live Another Life and Open Cities, some of the first stops for any new install of the game on PC. He's also behind Cutting Room Floor, a mod that uncovers unused quests, NPCs and entire villages in the game's code and adds them to the live game. "If ever you had the feeling that Skyrim was missing something, you were probably right!" says the mod's description on Nexus.

"I had been hearing about unfinished content in the game for a while but didn't really think anything of it at the time," says Libiez. "It wasn't until I really started examining some of the gossip and looking into the files that I realised there was quite a bit that was left unfinished." The Skyrim community had begun to discover evidence of bits of the game that weren't fully functional or hooked into the world. "So I decided that since nobody else had done it yet, I'd go ahead and dig up what I could find and make something of it."

Cover image for YouTube videoSkyrim Remastered PS4 gameplay - The first few hours in the Old Kingdom

Some things are small, like a note that gives more backstory to a Dunmer necromancer called Vals Veran, or a sleeved version of the Stormcloak Cuirass. Other things were much larger. Like an archaeologist, Libiez came across traces of entire villages that hadn't been realised in the final game. "For instance, Nightgate Inn is just a remote lonely place in the unmodified game, but they left behind a large number of clues for where the village of Heljarchen had been planned." If you install the mod, you'll now visit a settlement with NPCs, a blacksmith, alchemist and two farmhouses.

The information wasn't complete. Like an archaeologist having to turn from gingerly brushing around ancient postholes to designing a full recreation of a Saxon village for tourists, he had to, as he puts it, improvise, using existing assets and interpreting the lore to keep it consistent. "Sure, some liberties probably had to be taken with what you find in the NPC homes that were added, but everything uses assets the game provided so it all looks like natural fits." Other material was surprisingly complete but sitting in the game's code, just waiting to be hooked up, such as quests and NPCs for the College of Winterhold.

"I was completely unaware that people were trying to unearth stuff buried in script or whatever in Skyrim," Brett Douville says when I tell him about Cutting Room Floor. Douville was Skyrim's lead systems programmer, and he betrays as sense of mild relief when he tells me that his contributions to the game aren't as likely to be found as those of artists and quest designers in his old team. "I'm kind of lucky because when I don't finish something it probably doesn't compile, so I have to either finish it or take it out."

It seems surprising that there's so much unfinished content floating around in the files that download to your PC, especially since, as Douville says, developers are generally cautious of leaving material behind ("No one wants another Hot Coffee"), but leaving less questionable content isn't something his team would've worried much about as they completed the game. He's very aware, however, of there being major chunks of data and systems left in the game that were never completed. There was, for instance, to be an economy for towns like Riverwood, so they'd generate materials and you'd be able to affect it by sabotaging or rebuilding them. It was a feature that Bethesda Game Studios head Todd Howard had mentioned at E3 2011 and players called it out when it was missing.

"As I recall it ended up being more of a frustrating thing than anything else, because it would affect the local economy and it'd be harder to sell stuff or whatever," Douville says. "Although it would have been possible to fix that, I think, it was kind of late in development to take the risk and we took those things out. That sort of thing is pretty common with games; in Bethesda's case, sometimes those ideas come back around later in future games now that they have a bit of a handle on the pitfalls to avoid."

Cover image for YouTube videoSkyrim PS4 and Xbox One Trailer - Skyrim: Special Edition E3 2016

There was another big feature, too. Bethesda began building a system which governed a dynamic civil war between Skyrim's two major factions, the Imperials and Stormcloaks, but never completed it. Enter another modder: Apollo Down, author of Civil War Overhaul. It's currently unavailable, since he took all his mods down from Nexus in protest at Trump's election, but its description began, "I have painstakingly restored the civil war in the spirit of what Bethesda intended, before they decided to ship the game half-done."

It's certainly something of a provocation. While Cutting Room Floor unearths features and quietly leaves them to be discovered around the world, CWO transforms the nature of the game, replacing the rather unsatisfying scripted battles that represented the war gripping Skyrim with the two sides autonomously taking over holds across the map and defending them from their enemies. Sieges and battles rage and can be won or lost, and the numbers of casualties will affect the sides' fortunes. The armour you're wearing will affect how NPCs will view you and you can turn sides and face the consequences. There are many other features besides, but they're all led by what Apollo Down found in Skyrim's files.

He'd stumbled across a series of scripts called CWScript while making his previous mod, Dragon Combat Overhaul. They related to the civil war, and he realised that he could invoke it through the console to start a siege at Markarth. "As a lark I tried it out, and to my surprise the thing actually worked, was fully voiced, and it was clear that Bethesda had already done all the work. I literally just had to pull out some blocks in the code and it immediately 'worked'." The hard part, he says, was marrying up the hard-scripted battles in the shipped questline with the civil war's dynamic ones.

Some elements are unabashedly his and not what's in the code: he added mages and giants into the armies, a controversial decision for lore-strict fans, though he claims there are dialogue references to the presence of mages and a quest relating to recruiting giants. "95 percent of CWO is coded by Bethesda," he says, but he also repurposed some speeches by faction leaders so they'd be spoken by both sides so the material was stretched out, a feature Bethesda's code was already using. "Being true versus fun-to-play, my first and foremost goal is to make something fun," he says.

When I tell Douville about CWO, he's thoughtful but clearly a little stung by its description. "I hear the micro-aggression there in the suggestion that the game was 'half-done'. It saddens me a little bit," he says, pointing towards the number of happy hours players clock up in the game. For Douville, it's clearly not half-done.

"My response to Brett is: I certainly don't mean to offend," Apollo Down tells me after reading Douville's reaction, explaining that the wording of the description, and its cocky meme-saturated presentation, is in part down to his online persona, constructed to keep his real identity secret. "But him of all people taking offence to me saying the Civil War is 'half-done' is frankly surprising. It is half done. Heck, it's not even 10 percent of what was originally planned." He maintains that Skyrim is one of his favourite games of all time, which is what led him to want to find and make more of it playable, but for him what shipped is literally incomplete. "You only have to look at the code to see how much was abandoned mid-sentence. You [Douville] of all people are the one who knows how many ideas were left behind so close to completion."

For Douville, Bethesda's intention was always to ship a fun game. "We pared back on things that didn't deliver that. There was a complexity to the civil war stuff that I just don't think we were able to fully support." His team was not large by current standards, around 100 people, and that meant making hard decisions with Todd Howard's philosophy in mind: "We can do anything, we just can't do everything." "The Civil War stuff was a bit of a negative example. It wasn't really paying off as well as we had imagined, and so we pared it back to not be as big a focus. That's just the push and pull of development."

This, to me, is what's fascinating about unearthing unused content in Skyrim. For fans, passionate players who've sunk hundreds of hours into playing the game and want more, the unused code is a treasure trove of new content which has a natural home in the live game. The modders' work is one of restoration rather than insertion, because it should be there and would've been if it wasn't for the shortcomings of development time, budget or, perhaps, talent.

For Skyrim's developers, it's the stuff that didn't get done along the way because it didn't work; because it lay down another creative path; because there wasn't time to make it good; because it satisfied too narrow a slice of its market. But that doesn't mean the game is incomplete without it. This unused content is part of another potential game, one where some of the thousands of little decisions that go into development went in other directions. "I think players make a mistake to think there was *one* thing that we intended," says Douville. "Like, just finding the vision for the tone of your game might take months and months of development.

"I get it, people see a game or hear about what it's about and they start dreaming about what that means. And they are sometimes disappointed when the final result is not what they envisioned. I get it. But let's be frank: there are no perfect games. The only perfect game is the one in your head. It's impossible to have a game that is an ideal."

"I most certainly agree with him that art is never finished, only abandoned," says Apollo Down. "A line was clearly drawn about halfway through the assets of the civil war, and I am volunteering to erase that line as much as possible because I love the art that much." He likens restoration to the idea of there being a track on a Radiohead album that you can't access unless you fiddle with its MP3 file. "If you could hear a Radiohead song that *nobody* else has heard yet and Radiohead never got a chance to release, you better believe that you're going to restore the content and disseminate it to loyal fans everywhere."

For Rune, though, performing his daily routine under Riften, can his story be found hiding among the scripts and dialogue that construct his world? Douville remembers nothing of him, and despite searching, Libiez hasn't come across a whisper of it. "If it was cut, they cut it before any work was started," he says, but then he wonders, "It's entirely possible Bethesda left it as a story hook for a modder to come along and flesh out later. They've been known to do that before." Whether Bethesda's provocation to those who'd sift through the game for its undiscovered history or simply a forgotten sidestory, Rune is still there to be written.