I’ve lost track of who’s winning. All the residents of Skingrad have descended into barbarism, going at each other with knives and clubs and fists and arcs of fire and lightning. They’re yelling battle cries, but over the swords and the screams I can’t make out what they’re saying.
I know they’re fighting for Skingrad, though, for control of the city itself, each citizen’s faction denoted by the colour of the hood on their head. Blue is winning. The screaming is lessening, my framerate is increasing. “Can’t we settle this peacefully?” comes the flageolet voice of Lazare Milvan as he brings a steel warhammer down, into, and through the skull of Salmo the Baker.
(Image credit: Nickies / Bethesda)
This carnage is the product of Nickies’ Worldwide NPC Gang War, a mod for The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion that turns Bethesda’s rambling RPG into a feral, province-wide melee. Drop the files in your data folder and suddenly every character you meet will be sorted into one of a number of gangs—equipping a hood of a particular hue to mark their allegiance—before dedicating themselves utterly to an all-eradicating crusade against everyone in a different hood in a quest to assume control over each of Oblivion’s cities.
It’s framerate-tanking lunacy, and my mission to get it working saw me start 20 new games and experience an even greater number of crashes, but I love it. Gang membership spreads virally: If one figure with a hood approaches a crowd of unaligned NPCs, their heads will suddenly sprout hoods like factional fungal bloom.
Then they all start killing each other, leaving the city streets an eerie kind of empty as everyone congregates at one corner for a knock-down, drag-out brawl. It’s two whole kinds of scary: The first kind comes as you roam the streets of empty cities, desperately looking for the war like you’re hunting down a party you’ve not been invited to. The second part comes when you find it:
It’s an absurdity that works particularly well in Oblivion’s waxwork world, as if all these plastic dolls have finally given up on pretending to be human and unleashed the beast inside. It’s reminiscent of the Working Joes from Alien: Isolation in the way they switch instantly from stiff, uncanny etiquette to utter bloodthirst.
Once every character in a differently coloured hood is safely in the dirt, the remaining gang instantly snaps into Oblivion’s trademark stunted conversations in groups of two or three. “Arch-Mage Traven is the first to take such a hard stance on Necromancy,” says a Khajiit with one foot on the dead face of Ontus Vanin, “It upset more than a few people.” It makes me wish we lived in the world where Bethesda had leant into the unearthly jank that inhabits all its games instead of angling for unattainable realism. Would I like Starfield more if there was a possibility Sam Coe’s hat could change colour at any time, leading him on a quest to exterminate all life in the galaxy? Yes, and my vocality on this topic is why they didn’t let me write the review.
It’s not just about aimless violence, although that is a solid percentage of it. The Worldwide NPC Gang War mod turns Oblivion into a bonafide territory control game. Each faction tries to recruit new members while at the same time assaulting and seizing the game’s cities (by entering their various castle throne rooms and hitting modded-in “I win” buttons). Once the gangs have reached a certain number of members and every city has had a “victory banner over the Reichstag” moment at the hands of your favourite Mages’ Guild member, a great final conflict is meant to take place in the Imperial City.
Meant to. I confess, I never got that part to work quite right in my hours with Oblivion: Gang War Edition. All my gangs were made up of real lazybones: Once they’d finished the immediate slaughter and seized their cities of residence, they just hung out and talked about mudcrabs.
(Image credit: Nickies / Bethesda)
But given what an effort it was to get the mod working at all without crashing—something I attribute, basically arbitrarily, to the fact I’m running Windows 11—I wasn’t keen to poke at its fragile functionality to make that aspect work. Besides, I got to see an octogenarian wizard abandon his spells and absolutely annihilate a man with a club, which ordinarily isn’t an experience you can get outside of specialist venues.
The author of this mod, Nickies, has more inventions in the same vein. There’s the mod that lets you order real-life Domino’s via an Oblivion NPC, the one that lets you turn anyone in the game into a book, and the one that curses you with a nemesis who will hunt you down between games: Across Morrowind and Oblivion, to be precise. If, like me, you’re still carrying a torch for the Bethesda of old and are into the idea of seeing just how weird people are getting with it in 2023, you can find them all on their Nexus Mods author page.