Ultima 7: The Lost Gem? (part 1 of 5)

I somehow came across some rants on the Ultima series from this guy.  Ah the angry video game reviewer, a genre only the internet generation could have created.  America salutes you.  The trip down memory lane put me on another detour though, and I got to wondering if Ultima 7 had made its way onto GOG.  Fast forward a little bit more to installing Exult and Ultima 7: The Black Gate again for the second time in the past five years.  I’m writing about another ancient game here, but I have such strong and conflicted emotions from Ultima, I can’t help trying to hash some of it out.

Brilliant or Flawed? Does Ultima’s future depend on whether its past stands up to scrutiny?

When I finally saw Ultima 7: The Black Gate in action in 2007, I was blown away with the complexity and care that was put into making it.  I also got an intense  jolt of deja vu.  I was just as blown away when I stumbled upon Ultima 6: The False Prophet (or a watered down SNES version of it), at a video rental store sometime during the early-90s.  I think I was about 10.  The False Prophet sadly went back to the video rental store unfinished (I think most10 year olds don’t stand a chance against that game), but the experience never left me.  That experience sat dormant in the back of my mind until I started looking up the other Ultima games, and finally discovered Exult, a fan-based plugin that makes Ultima 7 run (without using DosBox).

I have never really been able to answer the question as to why this series just seems to resonate with me, especially considering that I didn’t play most of the Ultima games when I was younger.  There has to be something here that sticks.  Anyways, my second run U7 run through has been enlightening, especially after obsessing with the series, including a walkthrough-heavy struggle with Ultima 8 (DosBox and all).

Even as a child I recognized that Ultima 6 (even the SNES version) was just light years ahead of a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Warrior.  The NPCs in Ultima got up, did a full days work, gallivant about, and then went to bed to do it all over again the next day.  Night turned to day, inventory management was realistic, health was restored not by the act of resting, but the act of eating and camping out for the night.  Logically, caves were dark inside, and so was night.  And this is on top of the virtue/karma system, or at least a stripped down version of it, carried over from Ultima 4.  You can steal pretty much everything, but not without paying a literal moral price and potentially facing a rudimentary justice system.  Compare this to the NES Zelda where apparently everyone is just sitting in the dark cave behind a rock wall waiting for you to bomb your way inside.  The depth of what the Ultima series was attempting  just can’t be compared against anything else out at the time.

Ultima 7 continued the series trademark of offering immersive gameplay by doing all sorts of things just as big, but with some other improvements over its predecessors as well.  Ultima 7 (and I am not talking about the SNES version here), takes U6  a step further by casting off the cumbersome menus, distracting HUD-style data dumps, and rigid geometric tile grids.  These are replaced with fluid movement, greater object interaction, stackable 2D layers, and a generally simplified control schema.

In a nutshell, Ultima 7 is the Skyrim of 1992.  The world exists, with or without you.  Oddly enough, the fan base sort of exists off on its own as well.  Because Ultima is pretty much a dead series (other than MMO expansions there hasn’t been a new title since 1999, and some reboot I mentioned in recent post), there seems to be a sort of a love-it-or-never-heard-of-it dynamic going on.  And there is definitely a rabid fanbase.  Doing a Google search you’ll find as many pages with Ultima fan remake projects as pages with information about the actual games (as mentioned earlier, I’m using Exult).  But why is that?  What makes this game so appealing to some people, and at the same time so obscure?  The answer to both these questions is arguably the significant number of unique and extreme design choices.

Choice 1: Difficulty

It’s hard to determine what the right level of difficulty is.  It’s a double-edged sword; the developer can either completely alienate its potential audience or foster a rewarding sense of personal development.  Depending on which aspects of U7 you’re looking at, it’s either an incredibly easy game, or incredibly hard.

A large portion of U7 is geared towards combat.  Of course, this is unsurprising in an RPG with a medieval fantasy twist.  There is a familiar formula; kill bad guys, get loot, get/find better equipment, level up, do it all over again with tougher bad guys.   Leveling up in U7 is done by accumulating experience, then training with masters located somewhat randomly throughout Britania.  This method of increasing battle stats replaced a system where stats were increased by meditating at various “virtue” shrines.  You can buy equipment and weapons from merchants, but the best way to get great stuff is by finding it in random dungeons.  Spells must be purchased from merchants, and consume a form of MP, as well as other physical reagents that must be stocked.  With armor, there is a classic trade-off; better protection generally means less available weight to carry other items (although this is completely broken by the presence of rare Magic Armors, which are both superior in strength and have reduced weight).  There are plenty of weapons and armor to build a powerful team, which can include up to eight characters (including the player’s character, the “Avatar”).  Again, not that any of this is novel or uncommon for an RPG.

What really stands out about U7 though is the fact that the combat, the training, the awesome armor and weapons, the killer spells; all of these are just completely irrelevant.  Combat is generally absurdly easy.  The combat difficulty also fails to elevate with progression (with a few unexpected and frustrating exceptions).  The lack of escalation turns out to be a blessing though (intentionally???), because there is little control over what happens when combat starts, and there is essentially no interface available to manage it even if you wanted.  Basically you hit “c” and the AI takes you and your team over to the bad guys and just starts hacking.  I mean, really, that’s it.  There is not even a Diablo-style clicking on enemies to swing a sword, the computer just sort of does everything for you.  There are rarely as many enemies (being outnumbered by slime or rats does not count in my book) as you have companions, so you have a numeric  advantage at virtually every encounter.  Even fire-breathing dragons and fully armored paladins aren’t able to stand up to you.  If combat is so easy, why have all this other stuff in there to build up your characters?  The lack of control makes battle feel like a chore, as there is generally no need to create any sort of strategy to deal with different problems.  Some of these issues could be due to Exult, as it is an emulator using the game file, but I don’t think that’s the case.  For such a celebrated game, there is just this gigantic design hole.

As far as plot resolution though, U7 puts a great deal of emphasis, as did prior titles, on puzzle solving.  This is where the difficulty really comes in.  Fortunately, U7 disposes of many of the lever based puzzles of U6.  The reduced number of switch and maze puzzles (the ones in here are still pretty nasty) have been replaced with something either brilliantly better, or infinitely worse in the event you’re stumped though.   The plot, and uncovering it, is really the true puzzle of this game.  Although from a conceptual standpoint, I think this is a great feature that clearly is a crucial element derived from the main plot, it’s also incredibly maddening in the event that you don’t know where to go next.

After passing a well-disguised tutorial (and also an imbedded copyright check), you are immediately off on your own.   There is no channeling the player into staged events or encounters.  There are no “the only bridge out of town is closed” or invisible force fields contrivances locking things up.  You have the freedom to go off and do whatever, pretty much right off the bat.  There is a good indication that you need to talk to Lord British as far as direction goes.  Then you need to speak with Batlin, who is obviously important because he’s the author of the “guide” that comes with the game (it’s like the first day of school you’re expected to do your pre-reading).  Batlin indirectly reveals leads that lead to resolving main pieces of the Fellowship story line, but after that, things get more murky.

Case in point, a series of key plot objectives are revealed to the player by a fortune teller.  Maybe it isn’t a huge leap that you would talk to a fortune teller (seems like a Shakespearean literary device), but to even know that there is one out there, and where she is, you have to endure a frustrating and completely unrelated linguistic mini-game with Lord British’s court jester, Chuckles.  Chuckles will only answer questions if you respond with answers that are comprised of one syllable words only, but he won’t tell you that’s what “the game” is all about, leaving you guessing as to why he’s just instantly terminating the dialogue tree.  Not only do you know know what the rules to “the game” are, the TRULY frustrating part is that there is absolutely no clue anywhere telling you that you should bother to play it.  There is no logical basis to assume that Chuckles has any sort of useful advice.  Nobody tells you to speak to him.  So, the player is forced into a situation where it is stuck with a challenging riddle, and no indication that it’s even relevant to the story.  Given the open-ended nature of the game, most players rationally would just jump to another solid lead.  Because you should probably run into the fortune teller as part of another quest, and speaking to Chuckles isn’t a prerequisite to having your fortune told, I guess there is at least an argument that this is excusable.  Or possibly, the expectation is probably that you’ve played a prior Ultima, and that you know this guy is important to solving your journey, even if he’s truly a clown.  As far as strategy goes, what’s the lesson to the player though?

The logical approach to this kind of problem in U7 is to play as a perfectionist, and attempt to complete every possible objective you run into.  But this approach would also be flawed; many side quests are just totally irrelevant to the main story, so you’re likely to have lot more misses than hits.  Not only are the side quests generally irrelevant in terms of the plot, they are irrelevant in that karma is no longer a prerequisite to completing objectives.  What’s worst though, might be that the people only thank you, as opposed to offering some sort of reward.  Are all these extra side quests just false leads?  If important things don’t stand out, how are you supposed to know what to do?  Things eventually narrow and become linear as the game progresses, but the journey to that point can be very irritating.

Needless to say, resolving the plot without a walkthrough would be very challenging.  But not knowing what the rules are is really where U7 excels, or fails depending on how you look at it.  Take the teleporter or optical illusion puzzles.  When you first encounter these, it’s unclear what’s happening.  The fact that there are false walls, or in some cases completely transparent hidden walls, in the game is just something that probably happens as a result of trial and error for most players.  There’s no clues or cues to indicate when you should look for this sort of thing.  Again, you wouldn’t even know to expect that these things existed without playing prior Ultima games.

The minimalist approach to conveying to the player what the goals of the game are is refreshing.  It’s totally an old-school PC game thing.  In a game where you’re supposed to be a detective, even if you’re masquerading as a warrior, not having a mini-mark everything up for you is appropriate.  Contextually, you could also make an argument that the lack of direction is crucial to one of U7’s major themes; that of questioning authority.  But we’re back at the other end of the double-edged sword.  Would you rather be hand held and told what the right answer is, or would you rather risk having a defeated player return your game to the rental store with his head down (assuming this were still 1992)?  I think I know which way modern developers are going after having played Skyrim, but I wonder what the consequences are for game design integrity.  At the same time, I wonder if some of these choices were made to sell strategy guides.  That said, there are abundant walkthroughs out there, but that might just ruin U7 for you entirely.

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