Please join me as I take a look at playing my favorite game Morrowind via the excellent FOSS engine: OpenMW. I'll be going into detail about the OpenMW engine, the Morrowind game itself, as well as discuss the development of OpenMW.
- Part One: The Engine
- Part Two: The Game
- Part Three: The Community
→ Part One: The Engine
→ What Is OpenMW?
From the official website FAQ: What is OpenMW/OpenMW-CS? -- "OpenMW is a free, open source, and modern engine which re-implements and extends the 2002 NetImmerse/Gamebryo engine for the open-world role-playing game The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind".
Despite it being a rather monumental task, the practice of rewriting game engines from scratch is rather common. OpenMW is written in C++ and compiles for several different platforms including Android, FreeBSD, Linux, macOS, and Microsoft Windows.
Morrowind being my personal favorite game, you can imagine my excitement upon discovering that OpenMW existed.
Of course at the time it could barely run Morrowind. But now just a few short years later not only is the entire game (plus expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmoon) completable, not only do most mods work fine out of the box, but OpenMW also now sports cool exclusive features that make it a step above the original engine.
Aside from being cross-platform (one of my personal favorite features), OpenMW also has:
- Native support for many mod features, such as "graphical herbalism", weapon sheathing, glowing windows, animated containers, and more.
- Native support for normal mapped textures, distant land, a larger in-game map, and other things not available in the original engine (without patches).
- A sophisticated object paging system, which provides for distanct statics among other things.
- Dynamic shadows that are well beyond what the original engine offers (though these are still relatively new and performance-heavy).
- Almost zero crashes. Compared to other Bethesda games I've played recently (*cough* New Vegas *cough*) it is a total godsend to not have to worry about the game constantly crashing.
- I can't speak too much about vanilla Morrowind, but I expect that despite the existence of projects like MGXE and MWSE (more on these later), there are limitations to how much crashing can be reduced in the original engine/game. Owing primarily to the fact that the entire OpenMW codebase is available for easy improvement, versus the closed-source original game.
- And last but not least: Experimental multiplayer support, through the fork called TES3MP (more on this later) and experimental VR support.
Most importantly, OpenMW serves as a way of preserving the legacy of Morrowind and its engine. Years from now, it's possible that the original Morrowind engine might not even work on windows due to simply becoming old. When that happens, OpenMW will almost certainly still be playable due to the code being free software (and thus endlessly hackable).
Full Disclosure: I'm the creator and maintainer of Modding-OpenMW.com, and I will be referencing this site throughout the episode.
→ Installing OpenMW
Now that we know (roughly, at least) what OpenMW is, it's time to install it.
GOG.com has the best deal on the game and best of all it's DRM-free, buy it there if need be.
How you install that depends on your OS; windows users can just install as normal, BSD/mac/Linux users can run the GOG installer with wine as one method of install. I personally created a
WINEPREFIX for the install at
WINEPREFIX=$HOME/games/openmw/mwpfx wine setup_tes_morrowind_goty_188.8.131.52.exe
Heading on over to the Modding-OpenMW.com install guide, several methods of installation are available depending on your platform. Since this is Game Review For Hackers, I'll be building the source and doing so using my
build-openmw python script.
Once both vanilla Morrowind and OpenMW are installed, you're ready to configure the game so you can play.
→ Initial Configuration
You might be wondering, "why can't I just play now?" - and this is a great question.
Since OpenMW is an engine, and not a game, it needs to be configured to point to the Morrowind game data files.
The best way to do this is to run the
openmw-wizard program and let that set everything up for you. If you've never ran OpenMW before, running the OpenMW-Launcher will actually run the wizard to get you setup.
With that completed, you can now play Morrowind using OpenMW!
→ Playing The Game
Out of the box, OpenMW should largely feel like vanilla Morrowind - with several options offered by the popular Morrowind Code Patch offered as optional tweaks in the launcher, in addition to a wealth of other options.
The game is fully playable and fully enjoyable at this point. But there's no need to stop here, because with mods one can massively expand and modernize the game. Let's have a look!
Before I get to adding mods, a few key settings changes are needed for specific features.
If you're using my website, any mod that requires a config value will mention it, and I do have a handy "Tweak Settings" page that advises a number of different things to change.
In general, if a mod requires a specific value to function, you can reasonably expect them to mention it on their respective download or home page as well.
→ Part Two: The Game
→ What Is Morrowind?
Released in 2002, the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is the first western open world RPG I had ever sunk my teeth into.
Before discovering it, it was safe to say my genre of choice was the JRPG (having grown up with them on the NES and SNES consoles).
Maybe I was just getting older, but it seemed to be at the time that the JRPG genre was growing a bit stale. It was my exposure to games like Knights of the Old Republic and Morrowind that ultimately served as sort of gaming "red pills", and I was never able to look back.
Morrowind comes from an era of games that doesn't hold your hand, nor will it apologize too much. My earliest memories of the game are ragequitting after being killed by a rat. Why can't I hit anything!? I'm honestly not sure why I kept at it; something pulled me back in and eventually I was completely into it.
There's no quest markers, very little spoken dialogue, and for those used to modern games that tell you precisely what to do and when it may seem like a vague mess that leaves you hanging. But that's exactly why Morrowind is great. You have to actually play the game! Crazy concept, I know. If you want to find out where to go, or what to do - talk to people. Make note of Journal entries. Learn the lay of the land. Explore, but don't get killed!
Contrast this to games which give you an arrow or other indicator for quests and objectives, Morrowind feels less like you are playing and more like you are living in the world. You're not just an occasional visitor, you live here.
There's so much in the game, you just have to go in and grab it. It's a fact that, after all these years, I'm still finding new things in the game (and I've done more playthroughs than I can count).
It's worth noting that Bethesda themselves were near bankrupcy when Morrowind was in development. I'm a firm (and likely not the only) believer of the fact that this pressure to succeed is part of what made Morrowind awesome. It was Bethesda's "Final Fantasy" in this regard, and it's why I think you don't see as much of Morrowind's "magic" in later Elder Scrolls games (as Bethesda chase the dragon of sales and accessibility).
→ A "Vanilla" Look
The vanilla look of Morrowind is timeless, though it has aged of course. Nowadays there are plenty of mod offerings for those looking to mod the game yet retain a vanilla look and feel. I encourage you to check out my website's "I Heart Vanilla" list if that's something you are into.
A lot of work has gone into refining and remastering the vanilla textures, specifically mods like Intelligent Textures. And there are many mods that strictly add content to the game while not touching meshes or textures; adding things like items, NPCs, quests, landmasses, and more.
→ A Heavily Modded Look
It's also possible to give the game an entirely new, more "modern" look with mods and replacers. My own website features a "Total Overhaul" guide that, when followed, transforms the game with huge amounts of new content, features, and visual goodies such as normal maps.
→ Expanding The Game: Landmass Mods
Each of these mods adds a huge landmass to the game:
- Tamriel Rebuilt is adding the mainland surrounding Morrowind. The mod, in its current incomplete state, easily more than doubles the land of the game. This includes fully fleshed out towns, dungeons, NPCs, quests, as well as Potemklin-like areas which are unfinished or a WIP.
- Province Cyrodiil aims to add the lands of Cyrodiil (found in Oblivion, but not necessarily as they are seen in Oblivion) to the game. Presently only the island of Stirk is playable, but the amount things one can see and do there is impressive. As with Tamriel Rebuilt, Stirk sports: a large exterior, numerous completed interiors, NPCs, and quests.'
- Skyrim Home of the Nords (SHotN for short) adds the lands of Skyrim, but not as they appear in the game Skyrim as that takes place well into the future. The result will be familiar but new areas, and the team has already implemented several towns, NPC, and quests.
With these three alone, what you have is not just a total conversion - the base Morrowind game is there - you have a total resculpturing of a massive world. The vanilla island of Vvardenfell seems huge on it's own, but the masses added by the above three mods take it to whole new levels - and best of all they are actively being developed so new content will be coming for years to come. I can't think of many other games that have this level of life still being breathed into them!
→ Part Three: The Community
→ OpenMW/TES3MP Hackers
OpenMW and TES3MP, impressive as they are, still need a lot of work before they are "completed" - and ultimately no software is every truly "complete".
OpenMW has a list of features to be added to round out parity with the original engine, as well as with tools such as MGE XE and MWSE.
TES3MP also has some evolving to do as bugs are fixed and features added. Not to mention, the eventual merging back into the OpenMW codebase, which will unify the projects.
There's a lot of great discussion happening on the OpenMW IRC channel as well as the unofficial Discord, and the TES3MP Discord server. Hop on over there, or to the OpenMW forums if you're looking to get hacking on either codebase.
If you care about Morrowind, Free Software, preservation, or any number of other reasons, and you know how to program - contribute to the OpenMW or TES3MP projects!
If you don't know any programming, you can still help out by simply using OpenMW or TES3MP and reporting any bugs you find. As OpenMW and TES3MP are community, volunteer-driven projects, progress can only happen when we make it happen. Ah.. sweet, sweet DIY.
→ Huge, Active Modding Community
In addition to the above, the Morrowind Modding Community Discord server is very active and can be in incredible source for hot new things. Hop on there to witness the masters at work, and maybe learn something too!
→ MGXE/MWSE - Hacking the Original Engine
Earlier in the episode I dropped a few names and never explained anything about them. You might be wondering: what are MGE XE and MWSE? Or, you might be wondering why I glossed over them. Allow me to provide further context.
Even today, the original Morrowind engine does see improvements and new features – the Morrowind Graphics Extender (MGE XE) and Morrowind Script Extender (MWSE) projects are working to keep the vanilla engine looking modern. These are fantastic projects and I'm glad they exist, even if they only benefit players on Windows using the original non-free engine.
By their nature, they exist as projects because the original engine is closed source. Since OpenMW is free software, no patches or executable hacks are needed to make improvements; indeed, some day all features offered by MGE XE and MWSE will be present (in some shape or form) in OpenMW - as well as totally new features that don't exist in either yet.
→ The Future?
I look forward to the day when OpenMW can completely replace Morrowind.exe, when OpenMW and TES3MP merge, and in general I am looking forward to many more years of enjoying my favorite game of all time. Huge thanks to all OpenMW/TES3MP hackers as well as the community of Morrowind modders. I salute you all!
- What is OpenMW? https://openmw.org/faq/#whatis
- The TES3MP Project website: https://tes3mp.com/
- Modding-OpenMW.com install guide: https://modding-openmw.com/getting-started/install/
- Script for building OpenMW from source on Linux: https://github.com/hristoast/build-openmw
- Modding-OpenMW.com list of TES3MP lua mods: https://modding-openmw.com/mods/tag/tes3mp-lua/
- Modding-OpenMW.com "Expanded Vanilla" guide: https://modding-openmw.com/mods/tag/expanded-vanilla/
- Morrowind Enhanced Textures mod: https://www.nexusmods.com/morrowind/mods/46221
- Tamriel Rebuilt project: https://www.nexusmods.com/morrowind/mods/46221
- Province Cyrodiil project: http://provincecyrodiil.project-tamriel.com/
- Project Tamriel project (SHotN): http://project-tamriel.com/viewforum.php?f=20
- OpenMW Official IRC Channel: https://webchat.freenode.net/?channels=openmw
- MGE XE Source Code: https://github.com/Hrnchamd/MGE-XE
- MWSE Source Code: https://github.com/MWSE/MWSE