Tweaking Skyrim Image Quality

Author:Mark Warner

Editor:Brent Justice

Date: Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Before the proverbial ink was dry on our Skyrim performance and image quality review, we were already busy planning to investigate INI configuration settings and see what we could come up with to improve Skyrim's graphics. We've found some changes that make the game look and feel a little more alive, and we're here to show you what we've come up with.


Immediately after our Skyrim gameplay performance and image quality evaluation was published, we got to work tweaking this game with built-in tools. Like many PC games, Skyrim has the ability, through INI files, to tweak various graphics settings beyond the scope of what is available through in-game graphics options.

Skyrim, like its predecessors, is based on the highly configurable Gamebryo game engine at its heart. This means there is a lot of potential tweaking that can be done by gamers and modders alike. There are also a plethora of third party utilities, not officially supported, that modders have created to improve the graphics of Skyrim. There are so many in fact, we cannot look at all of them. However, what we can do is use what the game has built-in and show you the best ways to improve the graphics, without having to download any third party utilities. We want to see what can be improved with what Skyrim has built in.

Therefore, the focus of this article is what you can get out of Skyrim by manually editing the built-in INI configuration files. The files we will be editing are Skyrim.ini and SkyrimPerfs.ini.

Test Setup

For our test system platform we are using an ASUS P6T6 WS Revolution motherboard with an Intel Core i7 920 overclocked to 3.6GHz, and 6GB of Corsair DDR3-1600. For the power supply, we will be using a CoolerMaster Real Power Pro 1250W.

For all of the tests in this article, we are using only a single NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580. It is clocked at 772MHz with the shader core at 1.544GHz. It has 1536MB of GDDR5 memory running at 1002MHz for a data rate of 4.008Gbps. We're using NVIDIA's ForceWare beta driver package, version 285.79 for Windows 7 x64. The FPS cap of 60 FPS is uncapped, so that we can achieve the maximum framerates.

Testing Procedure

We are using the same performance testing procedure here as we used in our [I}Skyrim gameplay and image quality evaluation. We found that the view from the Dragonsreach fort in Whiterun to be one of the most demanding areas of the entire game. From that point, one can see almost the entire city of Whiterun, as well as a large amount of surrounding scenery and smaller fortifications. For our test, we started from this point in the early morning and walked (slowly) through the town. We then exited the main gate and mounted our patiently waiting horse. From there we ran from the Whiterun gate in a generally north-east direction through some wide open terrain, along a river valley, through a pine forest, and eventually to the bridge leading to the city of Windhelm. This test procedure takes about 10 minutes to complete.

All of the tests were performed from a baseline configuration of 2560x1600 with 8X MSAA, 16X AF, and "Ultra" in-game settings. We disabled VSYNC from the NVIDIA Control Panel. FXAA was disabled, and we did not force Transparency Anti-Aliasing. From that starting point, we began tweaking settings. The next page shows granular performance and image quality testing for each setting (or related group of settings) we found useful.

FXAA Post-Process Injector

Over at Skyrim Nexus there is an interesting little fan-made application called FXAA Post-Process Injector. According to the download page, this program allows gamers to "Enhance your graphics with a variety of post processing effects, including bloom, sharpen, Technicolor, sepia, tone map, vignette, and more."

While this is a popular application that gamers have been using to enhance contrast in Skyrim, it is really something we are not going to look at specifically. This program is a third party application, and simply changes the color tone or contrast of Skyrim. There are screenshots on the website linked above that shows what this can do for you in Skyrim. The purpose of this article is to find out how much we can extend Skyrim's graphical capabilities using built-in features of the shipped retail game, simply by editing configuration files. We may revisit Skyrim with community mods and programs like this at a later date, once there are texture packs and the like, but for now, we're sticking to INI editing to increase and improve the actual 3D graphical effects in the game.