Monday, November 2, 2009

Ultima Retrospective Part I, or "How to create worlds."

If there's one series that helped form my gaming tastes early on, it was the Ultima series. Created by Richard Garriot - or Lord British as he's better known - and the now defunct (Well, devoured by Electronic Arts in any event) Origin Systems, Inc., Ultima was a series of RPGs that helped define what a video game RPG is. More than that, though, Ultima introduced far more depth than most RPGs in the inclusion of the virtue system. The series evolved from a simple "Hunt down the big bad" format to include themes with more depth such as social commentary or encouraging the player to act in accordance with an ethical system. The world of Britannia was an expansive, living world and gave one a giant sandbox to play in. And then they reverted into the base RPG format for Ultima IX. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

So join me, if you will, as we walk though the history of the Ultima series. Please note, I'm going to be including a lot of spoilers here for the entire series. But really, we're talking about a series that has its roots almost thirty years ago and hasn't released a new game in the main series since 1999. I don't think I'm spoiling much more than what a cursory read of various Ultima-related Wikipedia articles would give you.

Akalabeth: Before we hit the main series, let's take a trip into Ultima pre-history. Akalabeth was created by Garriot in 1979 and is essentially a prequel to the series. It was basic (And incidentally written in BASIC) dungeon crawler and is among the first, if not the first video game RPG. The over world is a top down perspective while the dungeons are explored in a first-person 3D perspective. The Ultima series would keep to that mix of perspectives until Ultima VI. There's no real story to speak of, but it's the point of origin (no pun intended) for the entire series, so worth a mention.

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness and Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress: I'm going to cheat a little bit and hit only the basics on these two games. The reason is that I haven't really played them to any great degree. It mostly has to do with the fact they run at mach speeds on any modern computer and I lack a slow enough system to actually enjoy these games. But they're important to the series none the less, so here we go.

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness is the true beginning to the series. You play as a stranger from another world who travels to the world of Sosaria. There, you must travel the world to free it from the grip of Mondain, a dark sorcerer who is rendered immortal by the aptly named Gem of Immortality. The Stranger transverse the four continents of Sosaria as into space and through time, completing quests, saving princesses and various other non-cliched RPG staples. Eventually, the stranger goes into the past and destroys the gem and kills Mondain. Don't try to explain how all of this didn't create hundreds of messy temporal paradoxes. It'll give you a headache.

Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress is the only Ultima (Outside Ultima IX's tutorial level) to take place on Earth. The enchantress Minax, Mondain's lover, launches an attack on the Stranger's homeland to avenge Mondain's death and clear the way for her own invasion of Sosaria. She does so by messing the the fabric of time in the Stranger's homeland. The Stranger, in turn, embarks on a journey through time and space to hunt down Minax. That Stranger and his wacky time travel.

Ultima III: Exodus: Now we're starting to enter more familiar territory for me. I first played Ultima III at a friend's house on his Nintendo Entertainment System. I didn't realize what the game was at the time, to be honest. Looking back, it seemed like just another RPG.

The Stranger is summoned back to Sosaria to take out the last vestiges of Mondain and Minax's evil, Exodus. Exodus, as it turns out, is a demonic machine and child of Mondain and Minax. Don't ask me how that works. I suspect blood rituals and a correspondence course in electrical engineering was involved.

Exodus has launched his assault on Sosaria from his home base on the Isle of Fire which is protected by a large snake called the Great Earth Serpent who can only be passed by way of a password. The lands of Sosaria had been radically altered since the Stranger last visited. It appears that when Mondain was defeated in Ultima I, a fail safe went off which caused the other three continents of Sosaria outside the Lands of Lord British to vanish. The Stranger travels Sosaria and with the help of a being called he Time Lord (No, not that one) and several companions, he assaults Exodus and defeats the infernal machine. With punch cards.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Stranger - Master hacker.

Exodus marked the end of what's called the Age of Darkness trilogy. The first three numbered Ultimas, while classics in their own right and undoubtedly influential on pretty much every RPG ever made for a computer or console, were not the greatest of games. Their plots are straight-forward "seek out bad guy and kill him dead" setups. There are interesting twists and influences that come from science fiction as much as fantasy. But it is the next three games where Ultima really starts to hit it's stride.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar: Ultima IV was a turning point in the series and is one of the most memorable RPGs ever made. Garriot starts to pull away from the more formulaic "kill the boss" type of game. Ultima IV is a game about self-improvement. Your character isn't out to slay an evil terrorizing the land, but rather, out to gain enlightenment. There aren't many video games in existence whose main goal is a form of self actualization.

You play ask... Well, actually, that's one of the more interesting questions of the entire series. You may or may not be the Stranger, the protagonist of the first three Ultimas. Later games in the series say that you are, but with a lot of the extra races and D&D detritus that was cut back for Ultima IV, it's possible that you aren't. But, for the sake of the argument at hand, let's err on the side of the later games and say that you are, in fact, the Stranger from another land who bested Mondain, thwarted Minax, and, um, punch-carded Exodus.

The game starts off by asking you a mess of philosophical questions that align you towards one of the eight virtues: Compassion, honesty, valor, honor, sacrifice, justice, humility and spirituality. The virtues are, incidentally, all governed by three guiding principles: Love, truth and courage. Your class is defined by which virtue you favor. After that, you're thrown into the world of Britannia.

"Wait, Britannia? What happened to Sosaria?" you might ask. Well, in the wake of Exodus's death, the remains of Sosaria were geographically altered. The lands were rearranged and some major cities were destroyed. Soon after, Lord British united the remaining towns into a single kingdom, Britannia. Lord British decided to create the virtues as a system of beliefs for the people to follow and put a quest in place to find a single individual to become the avatar - the living embodiment - of all eight virtues. That's where you come in.

The bulk of the game has the Stranger travel the world and gaining points in each of the eight virtues and collecting several key relics. Once the Stranger has become virtuous enough in a single virtue, he can meditate at the shrine using the rune and mantra and attain partial avatarhood. Once he's done so for all eight virtues, he and his companions - each of whom represent one of the virtues - must travel into the Stygian Abyss and consult the Codex of Infinite Wisdom and become an avatar. I say "an avatar" because it conceivable that another avatar could come into being. It just never happened.

Ultima IV introduced many staples of the series. The virtues and their various paraphernalia, the major cities and the companions would all be seen through the rest of the series. Moongates, which were a method of travel in Ultima III, are now located near the major cities and will remain more or less where they are until Ultima IX manages to mess even that up.

The companions themselves would gain increasingly prominent roles in the coming games. Most of the companions are based or are even the alter egos (In the same way Lord British was Garriot's alter ego) of people Garriot knew. Several of the companions, like Iolo and Shamino have appeared in the Ultima games from the start. Others were added for Ultima IV. Shamino, it should be noted, was one of the eight kings of Sosaria in Ultima I and is another self-insert of Richard Garriot, meaning he's in the game twice.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny: Ultima V pulls back a bit from self-actualization goal of Ultima IV more towards a big bad terrorizing the world. But we're not crashing head-long into cliched territory. In fact, quite to the contrary. Ultima V contains a giant, over-riding social theme. That is the dangers of implementing a moral system as an absolute law.

Between Ultima IV and V, the Great Council, Britannia's ruling body outside of Lord British, had magically raised the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom from the depths of the Stygian Abyss - an act that will in no way come back to bite them in the ass in the next game - and enshrined it on an island now called the Isle of the Avatar. Lord British, in what I can only describe as either a fit of stupidity or a mid-life crisis, decided to enter the Underworld exposed by raising the Codex and explore, leaving his friend, Lord Blackthorn, in charge of Britannia in his absence. Things go well, at first. Blackthorn is reportedly a good man and a good leader. Enter the Shadowlords. The Shadowlords, you'll eventually learn, were born from three large shards of the Gem of Immortality - each aligned against one of the three principals - and three individuals slain by someone driven mad by the three shards' power. They corrupted Blackthorn and caused him to enact the virtues as twisted, absolute laws and oppressed the populous. Meanwhile, Lord British is captured and imprisoned in the underworld.

Iolo and Shamino summon the Avatar back from Earth to help save Britannia. The Avatar collects a number of his old companions and sets off to end Blackthorn's tyrannical rule, slay the Shadowlords and free Lord British.

Where Ultima IV was mostly about the soon-to-be Avatar learning the meaning of the eight virtues, Ultima V is about showing how those same virtues could be twisted into a rigid, oppressive code of laws. You and your companions are considered outlaws for not submitting to the new virtue laws. Interestingly, you can't directly confront the "main boss" of the game, Lord Blackthorn. It is impossible to kill him in combat, even with the game's one-hit kill weapon, a glass sword.

Ultima VI: The False Prophet: I hadn't even thought about Ultima for several years when one day a friend showed me a game on his old 286 PC. It had nice graphics (For the pre-3D rendering world,) and a free world to mess with. You could kill and steal, or you could do quests and help people. You could talk to anyone and pretty much everyone had something to say. It took a little while to figure out that the game I was playing was a sequel to the Ultima games I had played on the NES years earlier.

Ultima VI graphically broke with the earlier Ultima games. It was still a top-down game, but it was no longer one-tile large stick figures wandering around. Also out was the first-person perspective in dungeons. The Avatar and his companions, and all NPCs in general now had distinct looks and even portraits to go along with their dialogue. Britannia was now a much more pretty place to look at and the game play gained a bit more depth. The world was more of a sandbox than it had been before and you were free to roam as you like.

The plot goes like this. Lord British regained control of his lands from Lord Blackthorn at the end of Ultima V and all was going well.Suddenly, a horde of red, demonic looking (They were actually refered to as daemons in previous games) gargoyles invaded Britannia from the underworld, taking over the eight shrines. The Avatar is lured through a red moongate and nearly sacrificed on an altar, only to be saved at the last minute by his old companions Iolo, Shamino and Dupre. After beating a hasty retreat and defeating several gargoyles who followed them though the moongate they escaped trhough, Lord British tasks the Avatar with fighting off the gargoyle invasion and to save Britannia. Again.

Sounds simple enough, but really, it isn't. Let me introduce you to the theme of this installment of the Ultima series: tolerance. The gargoyles are invading Britannia not out of some evil purpose, but because someone stole their most sacred artifact, the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, from their homeland, the Underworld. In the process, they managed to destabilize set in motion the destruction of the gargoyles' underground home. Remember when I said raising the Codex wouldn't bite them in the ass? I lied.

As you travel the game, you learn that the gargoyles are an intelligent species simply trying to reclaim their stolen property and halt the destruction of their world. The Avatar is the False Prophet of their sacred prophecies who will destroy the gargoyles and must make a sacrifice for the gargoyles to survive. So what's an Avatar to do when his two options consist of die and let the gargoyles continue their invasion or commit genocide to save his adoptive world? I'm tempted to flat out say the solution, but it suffices to say he found a third option by which both sides could access the Codex and coexist peacefully.

The second three Ultima games are considered the Age of Enlightenment trilogy. The break with the cliched scifi/fantasy roots of Ultima I-III did much to turn Ultima from a basic RPG series into a classic series. Ultima IV especially breaks so many RPG conventions that it's easy to loose count. The closest the series comes to confronting a big bad end boss in the second trilogy is destroying the Shadowlords in Ultima V. And even then, you don't destroy them by sword and sorcery, but by solving a puzzle of learning their true identities and burning the shards that created them in a fire that represents the principle they oppose.

I'll stop this retrospective here and pick it up again in a second part before this goes too much longer. Join me next time when I review the best and the worst entries of the Ultima series.

Images courtesy of the internet.