Ultima 7: The Lost Gem? (part 2 of 5)

I wanted to finish up this series of posts months ago, but I got bogged down with a bunch of “real life” stuff.  Hopefully I can finish these up and move onto Assassin’s Creed 3 before anything I have to say about that becomes too dated.  Hiatus aside, I’m still not done talking about Ultima 7.

Design Choice 2: Size and Scale

I used to be easily impressed by big games.  I wouldn’t say this is necessarily the case anymore, but I think it’s an understandable response to be awed by a massive amount of content.  Ultima 7 offers that essential RPG experience of developing a character by trying to maximize the amount of choices the player can make.  This is the precursor to the sandbox age; the spirit of creating a simulated world with complex rules based on the environment instead of some abstract objective like jumping or shooting.

Physical terrain

As stated in my first post, you have a lot of access to most of the game map and content in this game pretty early on.  Ultima 7 isn’t the size of a Bethesda Softworks masterpiece (probably due in part to 90’s PC hardware limitations), but when considering the amount of interactivity each little location offers, it becomes clear that Ultima 7 doesn’t just look big, it IS big.

Like Ultima 6, there is no world map; one scale of perspective runs consistent from start to finish.  Consequently, although the world of Britannia doesn’t feel like its own continent, the fact that everything is in one scale has the effect of making exploration more challenging.  After all, the zooming in and out is just a method to funnel a player into specific areas.  It has the effect of making the game environment seem larger than it is by propping it up with empty content.  As I stated in the first post, U7 doesn’t do funneling.  Consequently, the map doesn’t want to give away to the player what’s important and what isn’t.

This approach makes exploration feel more organic.  Take the town of Yew for example.  Yew is supposed to be a town populated by forest dwelling rangers, loggers, and recluses.  Consistent with this design, the houses are set deep into woods, often away from the main roads and paths.   Rural Yew is like any other rural town; it has ill-defined borders.  Naturally finding a cabin in Yew should be as difficult as finding a real remote cabin in a real forest.

On the other hand, it’s really frustrating to miss a key location because it’s literally 20 feet off the beaten path.  Navigating a town should not be as challenging as navigating a complex dungeon or vast forest, but in U7 it is.

Depth

Not only is the size of Ultima 7 large, but also the level of interaction with the environment is meaningful.  Bales of wool can be spun into thread with a spinning wheel, bread can be baked, and swords can be forced at a blacksmith.  There are hundreds of items filling houses, dungeons, and secret passages.  If you want to count your party’s total gold, you’ll need an abacus.  Locating yourself requires map and a sextant (which will only work if you’re outside).

Maybe more impressive is the level of NPC interaction available.  Text trees are detailed and can often lead to long and detailed conversations.  A townsperson doesn’t just tell you about what they know about a something, but what they think about it, what their opinions are on other people in the town.  Sometimes you’ll get an entire life story.  Touching inventory or murdering a civilian prompts any witnesses to call the town guard.  Guards will either arrest you or force you to pay a fine.  That’s assuming that the NPC is awake, which is not always the case as most have set sleep patterns.  During waking hours, NPC’s don’t just stand in their own homes, they go out into the world and work their fields, spin thread on a wheel, make weapons at a forge, and hit up a pub at the end of the day.  Often the fiercest critic of the player’s behavior comes from inside your own party.  Party members will leave or renounce you in the event that they aren’t being fed or witness unethical behavior.

Although all this detail is really cool, like the lack of a world map, it often just serves to complicate completing a pretty standard objective.  Having to constantly feed up to seven different party members is frankly annoying.   Being policed for ethical violations by your own party is logical considering the emphasis in prior Ultima installments on morality, but you NEED to break some rules in this game (this theme is more evident in Ultima 8 and is supposed to tie into the conclusion of the series in Ultima 9). and there’s not any meaningful way to reconcile the disagreements here.  And the abacus weighs like 5 pounds…  There’s something appealing about needing arrows to use a bow, or people needing food to live, but not so when it fills up 50% of your inventory.

U7 is a great example of what can be done with a huge amount of effort into programming an environment.  The sheer volume of content though stands in the way of actually letting the player accomplish anything.  Constantly feeding party members, rearranging equipment, and moving items back and forth is a chore.  Nothing is ever fast or convenient because there is so much detail here and each bit needs to be navigated separately.  It just feels like you’re falling all over yourself doing anything.

The problem with adding so much stuff in, and forcing the player to manage a huge amount of information is that it obscures the actual objective.  Is U7 a detective game?  Sort of.  Is it a sort of medieval Oregon Trail?  Sure.  Is it an action game?  It’s in there, but not so much.  The main take away is that the more that is added, the less the main point of the game is clear.  Ultimately solving this game has more to do with shaking down leads and enduring a lot of seemingly useless conversations than battling dragons.  I’m not sure if that makes a lot of sense.  The lesson learned should be that, before you go and develop a really massive game, you should pick what the core mechanics are first.

This is still a problem in newer games as well.  Ask yourself this, does Assassin’s Creed I really need to be a sandbox style game?  Does that add anything when there are basically only a few missions to accomplish and where there are essentially no benefits from the free-roaming experience of wandering around Acre?  Contrast this feeling of estrangement with the original Tenchu, which takes the same stealth kill mechanic and challenges the player to hone their craft and achieve a higher level of score and mastery.

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