Jetlag is not nearly as difficult to shake as having to leave your home to travel halfway across the world again. Vacation was a very good experience but it also reopened memories I had cauterized over the past few years. Unfortunately, my life situation is not one such that I can immediately pick up and move again and I have an entire life with friends and, more importantly, a job waiting for me here in Hong Kong. Having income and prospects for the future goes a long way.
All in all my vacation was a good one. I was able to visit family members, friends, and even relax a little bit at the beach. I discovered a whole new world of craft (i.e. expensive) beers that actually taste pretty good and don’t give me a migraine after drinking just a small amount. I also had to go through some very strenuous times when we received news that our dog was not doing well and was in the hospital. Luckily, everything turned out well and she’s living comfortably again even though she is still quite old.
What was most affecting about the vacation is that returning home lifted a huge weight I had forgotten about off my shoulders. Even now I still feel breezy and able to face just about anything… or maybe that’s just fatigue from jetlag. In any case, I have hope that I can reduce my stress levels and live a comfortable life with fewer worries as I move along. In combination with that I am also very happy that the next game I will be tackling for the blog is the independently produced action game Bastion.
Bastion is a game I became very curious about in the past few years when I heard such rave reviews about it. Coming at an early time in the recent indie explosion, the game was renowned for its unique storytelling, good soundtrack, and narrator. I know next to nothing about the game and am looking forward to going in fresh with no expectations.
Bastion was released by Supergiant games in 2011 and received almost universal praise from many reviewers and podcasters I read and respect. It is billed as a single player action role-playing game wherein the main character, named “The Kid”, wakes up in a world that has been destroyed by an apocalyptic event known as The Calamity. As the kid explores the world, it reassembles itself around him and is inhabited by enemies who offer many unique challenges that require different strategies and weapons to counter. It is up to The Kid to travel to the Bastion to find the secret that will enable the world to resume as normal, whatever that may turn out to be.
I know literally nothing about the game except that the art style is very interesting and the narrator is lauded for his performance. I anticipate a wealth of storytelling techniques and metaphorical imagery to explore and pontificate about, but I also am looking forward to a solid game experience. I am not usually into games such as Diablo or Torchlight, although I do get the urge to play them from time to time. I hope that Bastion will offer me a tight experience with opportunities to customize The Kid to be the kind of character I enjoy playing as.
If you have any tips or things to watch out for before I begin please let me know. This may include useless skills or weapons to avoid, things that may enhance my experience, or any other tidbits you wish me to know (excluding spoilers). I am very interested to know what any of you think about Bastion, this type of game, or any general discussion you may have. I look beginning.
It’s good to be back.
In the meantime, I have been playing other games not listed on the backlog list including Bioshock: Infinite, Dishonored, and long term strategy games like Europa Universalis 3 and Hearts of Iron. It's been a good little diversion from the classics I've been playing today and is a good way to compare the problems of yesteryear with today. I'll probably bounce between some of these until the middle of June when I come back.
I hope you all have a great spring and join me when I come back from my epic journey to the East Coast to play Bastion.
Good luck and enjoy yourselves,
Well, we’re finally at the end. After roughly fifteen to twenty hours of game play, I have finished Ultima Underworld. This post will cover my brief backtracking to the crypts of Level 5 and my final confrontation with the Slasher of Veils. Follow me into the bowels of the Stygian Abyss to explore (part of) Level 8.
One Last Frustration
With the tri-part key, all eight talismans of Caribus, and the confidence of seven completed levels under my belt, I descended to Level 8 of the Abyss to take out the lurking evil that is the Slasher of Veils. Garamon had informed me he may be able to help me with this overwhelming task if I could acquire his bones and return them to his grave in the crypts. Putting this at the top of my list of priorities, I set forth.
Level 8 is basically a molten chasm constructed of nothing but cliffs and rivers of lava. The dragon scale boots nullified the threat of the lava, but it did not get rid of the threat that constantly respawning fire elementals posed. These things were everywhere and could make quick work of my level 16 character if I got caught by surprise. I spent most of the time searching the southwest area filled with bone piles for any sign of the correct one, but they all looked the same. I finally came across one particular nook containing a stone golem, supplies, and several magic rune stones strewn over the ground indicating a struggle. I assumed this was the site of Garamon’s final stand, but made sure by testing with other generic bone piles that stack together into piles of multiple units. Satisfied that the bones did not stack, I returned to the crypts of Level 5 to give his remains a proper burial.
After interring the bones, the ghost of Garamon appeared to thank me for stopping his brother and putting him to rest. Before leaving, he tried to brainstorm ways to take out the Slasher of Veils. Hmm… if we only had items of pure virtue… to which I responded with “what about these talismans?” That seemed correct, but “how can we destroy them to release their power?” he asked. “Drop them in lava?” Seemed good enough for him.
So the answer is to destroy all of the items I have been working so hard to attain to force the Slasher through a dimensional rift, banishing him from Britania forever. Easy enough, right? With this information, I took one last look at the levels I had worked so hard to explore and stepped into Level 8 for the last time.
Finding the prison of the Slasher of Veils was very easy with the dragonscale boots. After just a minute of walking through the lava lake and fighting a few flame elementals, I found a large central structure with a stone door and triangular indentation matching the tripart key. I’m pretty sure I skipped roughly half the floor by doing this, but I don’t really mind since I seem to have wrapped up most of the story threads I had encountered. Nervously, I put the key into the giant door to reveal…
The Slasher of Veils trapped in the middle of a lava pool. Fortunately, he is unable to move allowing me to walk around getting some glamour shots for the blog. It is interesting because as an adult I had no apprehension about walking around the area and exploring the chamber, but as a child, I can imagine being very scared that the demon may spring out of his reverie at any moment. It was a fleeting thought, but one that made me think about how I interface with games now. In any case, I began the procedure of banishment by tossing all eight talismans into the pool. After disposing of the last talisman, the Sword of Justice, a moongate opened swallowing the Slasher of Veils AND me with it!
Dumped into a chaotic landscape of mysterious paths, disembodied eyes, mouths, and constant damage, I immediately started running. There were several paths to take, but I remembered the advice I wrote down given by a crystal ball on level one saying that the green path was correct. With the Slasher in pursuit, I sprinted all the way down the path which seemed to go on forever. In fact, I was almost completely dead by the time I reached the moongate exit and was worried I would need to do the whole thing again. Fortunately, I made it just in time and the gate slammed shut behind me trapping the demon forever.
Finally thanked and given a quick “Sorry” by the Baron who had essentially sentenced me to death in the Abyss, I boarded a boat back to Britania and traveled back to Earth to sleep off the adventure. I had finally finished one of the most revered games in the history of PC gaming: Ultima Underworld.
Next time I will be giving my final thoughts about Ultima Underworld, but, in the mean time, I have been playing through a few other games that were not on the list. I have just about played out The Binding of Isaac, although I would like to unlock the final levels to truly “finish” the game. I’m not sure if I will go for all of those achievements on there, even though I hate to be outdone by Gary. I also began playing Dishonored which is a pretty cool game and has been enjoyable since it strongly evokes the feeling of Thief: The Dark project. (It’s also easier to play without having to stop and take notes as I do when blogging.) In any case, I am looking forward to the next game I have picked and hope to begin writing about it soon.
What is the game? Oh, sorry. The next game in my sights is going to be a critical favorite: 2011’s Bastion. I am excited about this one and hope I can complete it before plans put temporary brakes on the blog. I will be visiting my parents in the United States in May and June and do not plan on playing too many games for the blog at that time. Anyway, stick around while I collate my thoughts about Ultima Underworld into one package for you.
Hint: I really liked it.
[It really does help to have the medallion.]
[The maze without the Crown of Maze Navigation.]
[The same view with the crown on.]
Uh-oh, looks like Tyball was responsible for kidnapping the princess, but meant to use her as a vessel for the pan-dimensional demon The Slasher of Veils! And now that I have killed him and released the princess, the hideous creature will soon escape and wreak havoc on Britania! It looks like we've really messed things up down here. I had no choice but to figure out a plan to get to level 8 and defeat the Slasher of Veils. I also took the opportunity to smash Tyball’s orb with an orbstone to restore magic abilities on level 7.
[The last part of the key is mine!]
[My map of Level 6.]
[Haha. Not really, bub.]
Level five of Ultima Underworld is definitely the most bizarre design I have experienced so far. Although the map and layout is symmetrical, the individual areas seem very disconnected and each has its own quirks. They all came together with some strange puzzles and even crazier references that were a completely surprise. This is a pretty quick one, so let’s dive right in.
I had mentioned that I visited the tombs of Level 5 to retrieve the hilt for the sword of justice. I returned to explore the rest of the area from that starting point, but found it was actually cut off from the rest of the floor. Returning to level four, I found more stairs in the meeting hall that led to the central area of level five proper. Ripping my way through spiders and skeletons using my newly forged (and indestructible) Sword of Justice, I found myself in small room with one lever at its four corners and a pedestal in the middle. This is the site of the
that the knight had tipped me off about in return for the gem cutter. Using the correct combination, I found myself in possession of the ring and halfway to all eight of the talismans of Cabirus.
Continuing south I arrived in a large meeting room presumably used by the organization different societies attempting to create a utopia in the Abyss before it all fell apart after Cabirus’s death. Taken over by rodents and rubbish, the whole area was quite effective in conveying a feeling of ruin, decay, and tragic failure of an idealist’s plans. Sound familiar to anyone? (Bioshock)
Other than that, the other portions of the level surrounding the central hub were quite straightforward. The east was blocked and had a set of stairs heading down to level six, south led to a large cavern with a lava river and a sad mage pining for her lost boyfriend named Tom, and the west contained a shrine and an NPC named Anjor. Anjor is a wizard looking for eighty rock samples contained in the mines to the southwest to aid his magical studies. Unfortunately, the mines can only be accessed through a teleportation chamber the ghoul mine foreman knows about. I was not interested in carrying around so many rocks, but I retraced my steps to level four to return in the southeast portion of the map to talk to the ghouls.
[My map of level 5.]
Not quite the crypt keeper.
As a pleasant surprise, the ghouls were very helpful and formerly part of the larger society being formed in the Abyss. One ghoul, named Marrowsuck, converted some string and the dragon scales I had traded the trolls for into a set of dragon scale boots allowing me to walk on lava. I also spoke to a friendly ghoul named Eyesnack who taught me a song for a flute I had found in the meeting chamber that I am sure will come in handy later. After finally getting the combination to open the teleportation room for the mines, I stepped in and worried about how I would ferry all these rocks back to Anjor.
[All the other kooks with the dragon scale boots...]
What a weird surprise this turned out to be. The mines are laid out in a symmetrical grid with the required rock samples that actually have zero weight laid out as evenly spaced dots. Four ghosts flew around as I collected the dots in a giant and tonally
. Even though this is not nearly as egregious as
or ‘lol bacon’ type jokes in other games, it really tore me out of the experience since the rest of the game was moderately serious.
, but this one was just so out of the blue it seemed strange. I imagine it was cool on release, though, and took quite a bit of quest scripting to get working. I’ll let it slide.
Returning the stones to Anjor, I was given a giant chunk of gold that I am not sure what to do with and sent on my way. I explored a few more corners that hadn’t been revealed, found a hidden door that connected to the tombs, and finally made my way down to level six.
[Anjor the mage: giver of Pac Man quests.]
Next post I will get into my adventures on level six and my delight of how everything is coming together. I think I am actually getting really close to finishing the game (at the time of this post I am on level seven) and am looking forward to seeing its conclusion. Thanks for checking in even though this was a short level without much content besides the Pac Man reference. Level six has much more plot relevant action.
As always, follow me
on Twitter and leave any comments you have about your experiences with Ultima Underworld. It remains a joy to play and is definitely one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had while gaming for the blog. Every session reveals more influences it has had on game design solidifying its legendary status more and more for me, personally. I can’t wait to see what it offers up next!
[I'll just be chilling in this lava with my new footwear.]
[The map of Level 4.]
[Rodrick is on the line, here.]
[I sure waited long enough.]
Well, Chinese New Year was a good chance to get away from work for a while, but not a great way to get any gaming done. I had hoped to use the five day break as an opportunity to knock out a lot of Ultima Underworld. Unfortunately, you can see by my lack of updates, this was not the case at all. Much like Christmas or Thanksgiving, my wife and I spent about twelve hours each day sitting around my in-laws' house eating, watching television, or sleeping. Ultima Underworld did not fit anywhere into this schedule. Too tired to get into a long gaming session after each day, we simply hit the sack and did it all over the next. I was left with about two truly free days to clean up the house and get various things finished which amounted to roughly forty-five minutes to one hour of actual play time. Luckily, I was able to finish Level 3 and actually acquired part of one of the talismans! Thank goodness…
“We’re right in the middle of a reptile zoo!”
Consistent with my impressions given by the previous floor and those gathered from the Looking Glass podcast, each floor of the Stygian Abyss has its own particular flavor and design. Unfortunately, Level 3 is one of my most disliked tropes in games: water levels. Stepping out of the periphery of the level into its large central area, it became immediately apparent I was located in the middle of a giant swamp.
I blame my aversion to this kind of level on the fact that it is mostly wide open and requires ages of searching nondescript areas to find a small important item but inevitably missing some. Hopefully this is not true for Level 3 because I have been swimming around the lake for quite a while and think I have found almost everything and don’t plan on doing much more of that. But, let’s not jump ahead, before exploring the dangerous waters I skirted around to discover the circumference of the shore. While looking around this area I encountered a bizarre dead end hallway that unceremoniously teleported me to an identical hallway. Reentering this same zone then proceeded to send me to yet another identical hallway on the other side of the map! This one was only a one way trip and I was forced to start exploring after being separated from any previously mapped out exits.
Avoiding the water because of the dangerous squid creatures in the swamp, I found what looked like an artificially excavated dungeon with several locked storage rooms and an agitated bandit. I tried to talk politely to him, but must have made a mistake and was attacked. After an awkward battle and several degraded weapons later, I was finally able to dust myself off and move beyond their hideout to return later when I found away into those rooms.
Just beyond the hideout was another complex filled with giant lizardmen. I had been warned about these creatures before and decided to treat them with as much respect as I could. This proved difficult when they were unable to speak English. They seemed to understand what I was saying, but could not respond in kind starting one of the most interesting puzzles I have encountered in the game so far.
Deviation: Old vs. New Game Expectations – An off the cuff half baked argument.
Even though, as far as I can tell, learning the language of the lizardmen is not “required” for finishing the game (talisman hints are provided by rare English speaking lizardmen), it was certainly expected by the designers. Just a little beyond the main entrance of the compound I found a prisoner. The poor guy had his tongue cut out and was unable to speak but begged me to secure his release. To do this, I had to talk to the lizardmen whose language I have no idea how to speak, write down vocabulary, go back to the prisoner, type in the word for translation, interpret his pantomime, and piece together the language myself. While performing this task I kept thinking to myself: “Would this ever happen in modern game design?”
The quick answer for me is no; absolutely not. Many modern games place similar puzzles in players’ paths to vary game play or slow progression through a story. A lot of these modern puzzles are nothing more than slight diversions that may take clues from the environment or some short amount of thought to get through so that the player will not get frustrated and quit altogether. Very few games will demand a player think outside of what is directly presented to him or her and use systems in ways not explicitly illustrated to come to these conclusions. The lizardman puzzle has several layers of work that make it a very satisfying problem. After seeing similar conversations I was able to find commonly repeated words and take them to the prisoner. Interpreting his actions, I made a short list of words including “lizardman”, “friend”, “kill”, “trade”, etc. to test out in conversations. With a few adjustments I was able to have functional interactions with these creatures in their own language. I was even able to understand the language without consulting my notes after twenty minutes or so. I felt like I had actually learned something and I fully expect to be required to make use of that knowledge further down the road.
Some games will have quick and dirty puzzles involving physics or button patterns, but that knowledge is rarely ever touched on again in my experience. It seems like a kind of slap dash diversion from the system you are supposed to be having fun with in the first place. Unlike a ham handed slider puzzle in Resident Evil, learning a language of cultures sequestered in this dungeon seems to make sense in the context of the game. I did not feel lifted out of the world but more invested in it. These lizardmen were helping me to patiently learn to communicate with them as a people. It felt like something I had accomplished.
In my opinion, game designers (mostly AAA, sorry ) do not put enough expectations on players. It seems as if any challenge falling outside of the particular feedback loop a game is presenting will instantly be left on the cutting room floor as being "not fun". I am afraid that inflated budgets and comparmentalized production systems have diluted the feeling of authorship and intimacy with a game. In order to satisfy the huge investments in game production, the product itself must appeal to a large group of consumers. In many cases this can lead to not necessarily a "dumbing down" of games, but certainly a more bland experience. I would compare my experience to that of playing Skyrim where experiences just seem to move past me like water past a rock in a river. I barely have any meaningful influence on anything and am simply letting content wash over me. In Ultima Underworld I feel as if I have interacted and learned from the systems and environment, not just consumed them. This is the kind of design I am looking for and the recent resurgence of independent developers asserting their vision has given me hope.
Back to the adventure.
After learning a new language and freeing the prisoner, I was finally able to take care of the largest piece of business in the entire floor: discovering a piece of one of the talismans. Some English speaking black lizardmen sent me to find a lost expedition in return for a reward. All I found were a few paper scraps and bones, but I also got a clue as to where the blade of the sword talisman is. The note informed me that the piece is hidden under a pond in the southeast, but how could I find it if I couldn't swim? This caused a little bit of a problem.
I had previously discovered a suspicious area with a ramp leading down to nowhere and had noticed a glitch while walking down the hall that wouldn't let me proceed when too close to the wall. I clicked the 'look' and 'use' actions on a strange piece of vine-covered wall, but nothing seemed to happen. It turns out the player is required to 'look' at the wall multiple times before the vines are removed and a secret door is revealed. This is the first bad design decision I have run accross in the game. It is not unreasonable to think that many players may click the wall, see nothing happen, then discount it much as I did. If I had not tried several times then it would never have been found. I'll let it slide, though.
Behind the secret door was a lever that drained the pool in the southeast corner of the floor allowing me to go through a sunken door. After fighting a ghost I found a shrine and the blade I was looking for. As soon as I find the hilt I think I may have a good idea who can put it together. I also hope that I can use the sword as an unbreakable weapon for the rest of the game. That would be very welcome after going through at least ten or fifteen swords and cudgels.
Packing up my silver resurrection tree, new found blade, and knowledge of the lizardman language, I descended further into the unknown depths of the Stygian Abyss. Level four awaits me.
Besides the obvious Level 4 content, I sincerely hope to push out the next update sooner. This one was almost finished for a week, but I couldn't quite mop up the rest of the level to have enough to write for a full post. The holiday proved to be much busier than I expected and I hope to push forward a little faster. Wish me luck, and if you have any tips about some things I may have missed feel free to leave a comment or contact me.
As always, follow me on Twitter (@backlogkiller) for mini updates and news about what I'm doing. I also urge you to listen to the new Dark Souls podcast produced by friends of the blog Kole Ross and Gary Butterfield: The Bonfireside Chat. The show progresses through Dark Souls, one of the best games of the past few years, discussing gameplay, lore, and boss battles. It is one of my favorite shows that I look forward to every two weeks. Whether you are a Dark Souls expert, a new player, or someone looking to get into it, the show is great and has some good discussion and interesting guests. Give it a test run!
That's all for now. I hope to see you sooner than later for Level 4 of Ultima Underworld. Also, please get System Shock 2 from GoG.com. It's truly one of the best games I have ever played.
After going through the head-twisting roller coaster that is Spec Ops: The Line, I am back on board with Ultima Underworld and making progress. I explored and cleared out the second level of the Abyss and feel good about my progress. My character, Pemulis, is a level eight druid who is focused mainly on hand to hand combat and spell casting… although I haven’t used any magic besides healing spells. As combat gets tougher I may need to cast ‘Resist Blows’ or offensive spells, but that’s for later. For now, join me in my journey through the land of the dwarves.
In the last blog post, I had commented about the shored up wooden walls and how it may indicate that I was in some sort of mine. This was not too far from the truth since it turns out almost the entire floor is populated by dwarves. What is interesting is that Ultima Underworld was released AFTER all the extra races aside from humans were retconned out of Britania in Ultima 4. Looks like some vestigial elements are showing up from the original game design. Or maybe this is what happened to all the dwarves that disappeared… Anyway, the level is a huge and organized complex with very little in common with the disjointed and ad-hoc construction of level one. I hope that each floor holds a different personality making them exciting to explore.
The first friendly entity I encountered was a crazy dwarf named Ironwit. He wasn’t much help, but was able to string enough interpretable sentences together to ask for help retrieving his blueprints. Always wanting to help in hope of rewards I agreed. The directions I received were just as mixed up as his brain and consisted of these notes I jotted down:
- Prints in store room, need flying?
- Flying potion in ‘spiral room’
- Key to potions in ‘golden maze’
- One potion is poison, the other flying. Which is which?
This is all I had to go on. Fortunately, the ‘spiral room’ was easily found and is exactly what it sounds like: a spiral walkway leading down to the potion store room. I was able to jump to the ‘golden maze’ which did not seem to be a maze at all, but rather a room with a strange golden path on the floor and a key at its end. I thought it may be a trap if I stepped off the path but nothing happened. Taking the key and opening the store room I found the red and green potions. Because Ironwit could not tell me which was which, I had to experiment on my own with the aid of leeches in case of poisoning to remove the venom. After identifying the flying potion, flying to the store room, and returning the blueprints, I did get a reward: another flying potion. Great, I already had one and it just got replaced. Fortunately, it came in handy later.
I continued exploring the level and did not find much of note architecturally. There is a central hub with hallways extending in the cardinal directions. The northern passageway leads to a group of hostile goblins I was able to take out with a lot of retreating and healing. Much less friendly and more formidable than the goblins on level one, I do not think I have much to gain from them besides experience and some loot. I had come from the west which held only a portcullis that (I thought) couldn't be opened, the mad dwarf’s fun house, and the shrine I used to level up. The eastern path led to a strange room with a crystal ball and another resilient sphere, while the southern path revealed the dwarven mines and a locked door. As I explored, I found several scraps of paper with various mantras used to level up different attributes at the shrines. Even though all of the mantras from Ultima 4 are here, there are some new words that raise different stats. Some can even be combined to level up more than one at a time.
Checking the mines led to some fortuitous discoveries. I found a blacksmith named Shak who filled me in on some seriously important information. On level one, I had been told that eight ‘talismans’ must be gathered in order to complete my mission, but I was unsure what they were. Shak informed me that at least two of them were a sword and a shield. He also said that they were split up among the factions to grant equal power but are now held out of spite. Looks like I will have to revisit these groups to find which talisman they all have. Taking this information, I attempted to find a way to enter the fortified area marked with the ankh and blocked by the portcullis.
Inside the Walls
I attempted to pick the locked door in the southern passage about fifteen times before it finally opened. Luckily, lock picks do not seem to break and I can keep one for the entire game. It turns out I had found the back door to the dwarf king’s court. A quick exploration showed that there was, in fact, a guard just behind the portcullis I could have asked to open it, but my light source was not powerful enough to reveal him. After speaking to the king for a while, he revealed that the mine was being terrorized by a gazer. You may remember these from Ultima 4 as beholder-type creatures that can put players to sleep. Fortunately, they lack this ability in Ultima Underworld making the fight much less scary. I agreed to help the dwarves with yet another hope of a reward.
Returning to the mines, I destroyed the rocks workers had caved in to trap the gazer and engaged in battle. After several minutes of swinging and a few close calls requiring cat and mouse healing, the horrible monster popped like a balloon. When I told the king the good news he rewarded me with a sacred symbol of honor for the group: a small chisel. He also asked me if I wanted to see his treasure room and gave me the password. This was unwise.
The king’s treasure room is basically a giant pit containing an earth golem as a guard. I took the opportunity to use my flying potion to dip into the room, fly a few circles around the golem, pick up all the loot, and fly out of there. Now, this may seem a little immoral, but I’m trapped all alone down here! (I am also hoping that one of the pieces I snagged is a talisman needed for the end of the game). Having explored all that I could, I prepared myself to descend to level three.
Mechanics: Boring Conversations
Ultima Underworld is an adept dungeon simulation. The exploration of unknown mysteries, shock of monsters emerging from darkened passages, and discovery of hidden areas are things the game does exceedingly well. NPC interaction is something it does not do well. Every action in the game is built into the main user interface, including magic which is performed by organizing runes that can be clicked on to cast spells. The only action that takes the player out of the main dungeon view is starting a conversation.
This is not to say that the NPC interactions are particularly bad, but they are not very fun. I have yet to accidentally aggravate an NPC to the point of them attacking me, but I have angered them into ending conversations. What is the penalty for this? Having to reenter the conversation window, traversing the same choices, and hoping to make better use of time to get on the character’s good side revealing information. Ultima Underworld is essentially interrupting a fun and fascinating game (dungeon simulation) to play another game that is less fun (conversation tree exploration).
Even though this caused some problems in the Underworld series, Looking Glass developed a sublime solution for their other, more futuristic, dungeon crawling game called System Shock: every NPC is dead.
It’s actually genius. Instead of tracking the movements of entities and forcing the player to interact with them to get information about the world or plot, the team transferred this duty to recorded audio logs that could be filed away and listened to at the player’s leisure. This completely eliminated the need to interrupt the main game play element of simulation and still conveyed every bit of information needed to the player. This design trope continued through System Shock 2 and even into Bioshock, making the strong parts of those games shine (Action/RPG and first person shooting, respectively) while avoiding problems that may cloud or interrupt the experience. I only wish the team had figured this out earlier. Sucking me out of a dank dungeon and into a wall of text imposed on a digital parchment is not terribly fun, but it was the best they could do.
If you are interested in these kinds of things, definitely listen to this interview with Ultima Underworld programmer Dan Schmidt. He discusses how the game got started and built making it a great resource for my blog, too. I would also recommend you listen to all the other Looking Glass Podcasts. I really loved that studio and the stories are really great. Even Ken Levine, lead designer of Bioshock, got his own episode.
Next update will be my adventures through level three of the Abyss. I was initially worried about travelling up and down between the floors to complete larger objectives because I am used to respawning enemies, but this does not seem to be the case in Ultima Underworld. Once I have cleared a floor, I am able to explore it at will without the fear of getting ambushed. I have no impression of the third floor since I only went down the stairs for a few seconds immediately after finding them out of habit from other games. (If you fall through trapdoors to lower levels, you at least know where the ascending stairs are on the map since they were marked earlier.) Hopefully I can make nice with whatever civilization is on the third floor and take that all important talisman off their hands.
After completing Spec Ops: The Line I have been thinking about it compulsively. I cannot shake it, the game is haunting me. I feel the need to write down my thoughts about it to sort everything out so please indulge me. I will not be saying many different things than what many critics and the writer of the game have said, but I need to state my opinion. I will include a ‘press package’ at the end of the post for you to check out other extremely good reactions to the game.
Also note that this blog post will be FULL of spoilers. I will not be holding back. If you intend to play the game or are in the middle of playing, please stop reading and play/finish it. As for me, business as usual will resume once I get these thoughts out of my head. I hope you all enjoy it.
Spec Ops: The Line
In my opinion, Spec Ops: The Line is the most important game to come out during this console or PC generation. I place it above the sacred cow of Bioshock. Spec Ops is the new standard, the first true fully realized exploration of a video game as a piece of art by a big budget studio. Bioshock lambasted the medium of video games. Spec Ops condemns the players who play them. Everyone who owns a piece of technology capable of running the program should play it.
Spec Ops: The Line is a third person cover-based shooter that looks very similar to every other modern military game you see at the store or on Steam. The plot takes place in the immediate future where a freak sandstorm has almost completely buried the booming city of Dubai. Giving somewhat contested international aid, the United States dispatches its "Damned" 33rd infantry battalion to aid the emergency evacuation of refugees. Soon after, communication with the division's commander, Colonel Konrad, is lost when he is ordered to pull out and refuses, opting to set up a martial government to organize a new evacuation plan as more sandstorms erode the city. You, the player controlling Captain Walker, are sent in with a two man recon team to seek out any survivors and report back to headquarters. Upon reaching Dubai, the squad finds slaughtered US soldiers in the desert and is soon confronted with armed civilian resistance who open fire on the squad. You and your teammates, Lugo and Adams, take down the aggressors and push on under the impression that Colonel Konrad has established his own military force of refugees and US soldiers and is occupying the city much as Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now did. Of course, the name Konrad is an obvious reference to this.
The game only uses Heart of Darkness as an inspiration and is not an adaptation which is made evident as things fall apart. Walker declares that the recon mission has now become a rescue and leads his squad into the buried city to evacuate the refugees and seek retribution on Konrad.
Mechanics, Game Play, and Meaning
The portrayal of Spec Ops as a standard, by the numbers modern military shooter is completely intentional. The game is a honey pot meant to attract people who play these types of games all the time only to pull the rug from under their feet unexpectedly. What may not be intentional is that the mechanics of cover-based shooting feel dated and do not work well. This makes for very frustrating play and many player deaths causing combat to be tedious and unfun which I think works in the game's favor. Why should killing people be fun? What I am sure IS intentional is that each 'action node' is easily identifiable with lots of 'cover' objects like sandbags appearing and endless waves of enemies emerging. Some battles result in the deaths of dozens of soldiers, and lest we not forget these are US Army personel even though we assume they are deserters. What this does is push the player into the mindset of most shooters where killing ceases to have any meaning beyond the idea that as soon as everyone is no longer moving the game can go on. This is on purpose. I even found myself saying "Jeez, how many more guys do I need to kill?" which horrified me in this context.
Do you want to go on? Ok.
After several chapters of fighting through luxury condominiums and hotels, the team sees a white phosphorus shell detonate, showering molten metal onto innocents and soldiers alike. A front row seat for its destructive properties as people scream and writhe on the ground while their flesh falls off of their bones. Only a few minutes later, your squad is brought to a standstill by the retreating 33rd Batallion. An army is guarding the retreat and is about to open fire on you leaving only two options: one is to use conventional weapons to attack, and the other is to use a nearby white phosphorus mortar to take out the troops. This is not a choice. Using standard arms results in your position being quickly overrun as you are outnumbered. When setting up the mortar, Lugo says "We shouldn't do this! We have a choice!" to which Walker responds "No. We don't." This is the discussion between our own conscious and that of the game designer. We want a way to progress without doing this because we've seen what white phosphorus can do, but the designer says "YOU MUST" and so we do, presumably given a free guilt pass out plot necessity. This is on purpose.
Do you want to go on? Ok.
After raining hell down on the troops, the squad treks through the mangled bodies. Survivors scrabble and ask for help. I put one troop out of his misery by shooting him to which Walker states on the screen "He was going to die anyway." After traversing the scorched battlefield, it is revealed that civilian refugees were at the head of the retreating column and were also caught in the rain of fire. The camera focuses on a dead mother holding her child, their smoldering flesh falling off the bones. Walker says "We didn't have a choice. Konrad forced us to do this." I felt sick. The game has tricked me, tricked the player into doing something I didn't want to do. What a betrayal.
Do you want to go on? Ok.
The loading screens get more and more bizarre upon each death. Their previously helpful gameplay tips of "Use your squadmates to flank your opponents" and "Press Q to throw a grenade" now read "Do you feel like a hero?" "How many Americans have you killed so far?" "You are still a good person."
There are only two options: either turn off the game or keep committing atrocities at the behest of the game designer to get to its end. Do you want to go on? Ok.
The squad fights through a shopping mall to reach a helicopter it uses to destroy a radio tower filled with US troops broadcasting propaganda. Adams yells "THIS IS FUCKED UP! THESE ARE AMERICAN SOLDIERS!" Do you want to go on? Ok.
After countless battles and the eventual death his squad mates who slowly became unhinged along with him, Walker arrives at the penthouse where Konrad is based. He is dead, having shot himself several weeks earlier. The entire hero fantasy has fallen apart. All the radio communications, interactions, and admonishments of Konrad were a delusion. Walker's only orders were to find survivors and radio for backup. If he had stopped at the beginning and never entered Dubai, none of this would have happened. The 33rd battalion had been fighting Walker's squad under the impression that he was working with the CIA who were attempting to cover the whole embarrassment of Konrad's evacuation. A simple misunderstanding that we were dragged into along with the gung-ho heroism that is the center of all modern military shooters. Did I feel like a good person? No, I was the bad guy. Before disappearing, the imagined portrayal of Konrad asks Walker, asks ME, "Do you feel like a hero yet?"
We have arrived.
My critique and critique of the critics.
Spec Ops: The Line is not perfect, but it affected me so deeply that I had nightmares of failure and misplaced confidence in myself the night after finishing the game. Many players I have read reactions from feel betrayed that the game forced their hand to commit violent acts and then blamed them for it. Is this incorrect? Not if you judge it solely based on this game. You are playing and have no choice about the matter while interacting with the mechanics. What it DOES do is recontextualize all future interactions you have with video games. You DO have a choice as to what you want to play and do. Does using an attack helicopter to mow down infrared blips on a television make you feel like a big man? Go ahead, I probably won't. Do you want to unleash your heavy machine gun on a crowd of huddling innocents? I sure don't, but you can do what you want.
Spec Ops does NOT give any choices because we own it and the designers have made this the only way, but does that remove any culpability from us? Maybe it does, but having played through this experience I will certainly think more about all of my game choices. We only have the options to accomplish what the designers of games craft for us, but we also have the choice to never enter Dubai. We do not need to buy these games that upon closer examination are glorification of violence perpetrated by us through mechanics. I am not against violent video games. I am against engaging with them at the cost of forgetting what they mean. In a way, I am a paradox with respect to what Spec Ops is attempting to communicate. I do not buy military shooters, but I am very interested in using games' mechanics, narrative, and visuals to deliver a deeper meaning to the player. This is what art does. My only hope is that others who NEED to experience its message play the game.
The intentions of Spec Ops are not a resounding success, but they are closer than anyone has come so far. That gives me hope.
Press Package of Reviews:
Errant Signal's discussion.
(Errant Signal is one of my favorite game bloggers and meshes well with my ideas. Please subscribe to his YouTube channel.)
Yahtzee's (uncharacteristically glowing) Zero Punctuation Review
Something Awful Discussion Thread -- Hugely Impassioned opinions both for and against the game.
Tom Bissell's Review
[The gun or the wrench? Your choice.]
[Even two of these 'easy' enemies together can ruin your day when you start Dark Souls.]
After playing only five minutes of Ultima Underworld, I was already floored by its brilliance.
OK, that may sound a little dramatic, but I am extremely impressed with the quality of game design and imagination that has presented itself while playing Ultima Underworld. It plays like a modern action dungeon crawler that has been stuffed into a retro game wrapper. The clunky user interface and cumbersome controls cannot weigh down the innovative game play and feeling of immersion that shines through. Although this may sound gushing, and my tune may change in the future, I can certainly see why Ultima Underworld is held up as one of the greatest PC games of all time. It is a technological marvel for the time it came out and this experience will have a huge impact on my feeling about all similar games I have played and all those I will play in the future.
The background of Ultima Underworld.
Ultima Underworld does not have much of a story, admittedly. I mentioned that the original design was hastily shoved into the Ultima canon in the last post and it shows. The introduction starts with the player being pulled into the world of Britania, much like in the other games, except this time through sleep instead of a moon gate. The player appears in the bedroom of Baron Uldrich’s daughter only to see a cloaked form kidnap her and toss her to a lumbering troll waiting below her window. As she is carried off into the woods, castle guards burst into the room and assume that I am responsible for the kidnapping. Even though I claim to be the Avatar, the savior of Britania, they do not believe me and tossed me into the Stygian Abyss to rescue the young girl. This ridiculous theme of not recognizing the most famous hero in all of Britania’s history occurs in almost every Ultima game and is often used as a cover for copy protection to make sure “thou art truly the Avatar”. To prove my worth and innocence I am thrown into the Stygian Abyss dressed only in what I can assume are my pajamas and given meager rations and a torch. It seems like they would have given me more resources if they wanted to ensure my success in the rescue of the Baron’s daughter.
I have no intention of lambasting the story of Ultima Underworld since it was added so late and was never intended to be there in the first place. The real star of the show here is the simulation of dungeon exploration and the discovery of exciting places and scary creatures. It does well enough to set up a simple plot and motivation for exploration which is more than I need. The real story emerges as the player explores the dungeon and deals with its dangers.
Exploring the Underworld
Ultima Underworld fits squarely into a family of games that I like to describe as ‘respectfully difficult’. Not that I want to be punished all the time, but I appreciate when the designers of a game give the player enough information and tools to get started while also trusting him or her to be clever enough to head off on their own. Many games I have loved do this including STALKER, Deus Ex, and Dark Souls.
This game begins the minute you step into the dungeon from the outside. Lighting up a torch, I found a bag containing several useful tools including a dagger. The wall also bore etchings describing a previous attack by a group of dungeon denizens that evidently went poorly, thus removing any hope that I can escape the way I came in. I continued down the hallway toward whatever dangers awaited me.
Exploring the dungeon is both tense and exciting. Every corner reveals new secrets and possible treasures. Trash scattered on the ground can be examined to find useful equipment and items. In true Ultima fashion, almost all of the objects littering the dungeon can be picked up or moved around. Just around the corner from the entrance I found two magical runes that can be arranged to cast spells. I found more runes and a rune bag on the corpse of a previous adventurer so that I could begin experimenting with magic, although I have not had the chance to yet. It is already evident that I need a keen eye to make sure I check every item to give me the best equipment and chance of survival. I also found a silver seed that I can plant and remove on any patch of dirt so that I may be resurrected from the sprouting silver tree. It operates like the VitaChambers in Bioshock, but encourages some strategy because it must be moved to safe places so that the player may regroup and continue after each death.
The twists and turns of dungeon passages guarantee that no player will follow a set path through. It is more than likely no two players will explore the space the same way giving very different experiences each time. I found myself getting lost on several occasions, even though there is a highly functional automap system in the game. Not only does it display hallways and natural features, but also allows the player to write notes on the map to remind him or her of any notable locations. I plan on using this feature liberally.
The coolest thing I have found on the first level of the dungeon is an entire river running from East to West. I was glad to find it is not an instant death trap when I fell into it and swam up the river for quite some time discovering secret alcoves and item caches. The scope of the map blew me away. I was expecting a quick start to the game as it is only the first level, but the designers had other ideas. Not only do the mysteries of the river interest me, but I also ran into an NPC who informed me that the world was much bigger than I had ever imagined. He had wandered from an entire colony of humans living INSIDE the dungeon and warned me about warring factions of goblins that infest other parts of the level. I ran into a few green goblins and am not looking forward to the more dangerous grey breed he described. I have yet to find the human base and am just bumbling about trying doors, exploring nooks, and fighting small animals.
Combat in Ultima Underworld is very simplistic so far. All that is required is to enter combat mode by clicking the icon in the UI (or pressing the F5 key) and holding down the attack button until the gem glows green indicating the character’s wind-up is complete. Upon releasing the mouse button, the character will swing/thrust the weapon hitting any enemy the player is facing. So far I have only fought weak cave dwellers such as slugs, bats, rot worms, and a spider. I also ran into a green goblin that pelted me with rocks from a sling but went down without much trouble. I picked up the sling but haven’t tried ranged combat yet. A major problem is that the small window and slowness of looking up and down make awareness of monsters difficult. On several occasions I did not realize I was being attacked until I noticed my health indicator (the read vial) dwindling to almost nothing. Luckily, the game includes dynamic music that changes in the presence of monsters making this occur less often as I learn the game. I was able to heal myself by taking a nap using a bedroll I found, but I forgot to extinguish my torch. When I awoke it was completely burned out forcing me to light my only remaining torch. I need to remember this is a simulation and there is no ‘easy mode’ here. I love it.
I hope to complete the first level before the next update. My current plan is to explore the rest of the river and use a silver key I found to unlock a door marked with a skull that I had to bypass earlier. After that, I will search for the group of humans I was told about so that I can trade for more items. I am running low on torches and food and do not feel comfortable going too far until I get more. I have found pieces of armor here and there, but it is mostly leather and will need to be upgraded before I face more difficult enemies. Wish me luck on that front.
As for other news, I have been playing a few other games when I have shorter periods of time available. The Binding of Isaac is an action roguelike that has been eating lots of my fifteen to twenty minute gaps and I recommend it highly. It plays a little like The Legend of Zelda with top down dungeon exploration and items, but it is much more difficult. The challenge is refreshing and the strategy of finding and using certain items is very deep. The imagery is also haunting. Most of the art draws on the themes of mental illness, psychosis, and religion to produce a very disturbing game world consisting of deformed monsters, feces, and other darker corners of the mind. I recommend you check it out because the game is very good, but certainly not for the faint of heart.
In addition to The Binding of Isaac, I have also started replaying one of my favorite games: Dark Souls. This is in anticipation of the new show friends of the blog Kole Ross and Gary Butterfield are releasing later this month titled The Bonfireside Chat. The show is a podcast about any and everything Dark Souls. Each episode will be dedicated to certain areas of the game discussing their lore, monsters, and strategies. Given how deep and opaque these are in Dark Souls, I am anticipating a very stimulating conversation. Be sure to check it out and join the Facebook group to give them some support. As always, I highly recommend you check out the other shows on Duckfeed.tv as well.
Join me next time when I will (hopefully) be finished with the first floor of the Stygian Abyss and ready to dive deeper into its mysteries. Also, follow me on Twitter (@backlogkiller) to get real time updates to my progress!
Ultima Underworld (along with the rest of the Ultima series) is one of the major reasons I started this blog. Despite my broad experience with games, I still have major blind spots I was seeking to fill during my spending binges by buying classic games as they came out on modern distribution platforms. Ultima Underworld was one of the major games I was unable to play when it was released because of availability or insufficient PC power. Now is my chance to finally leap into what many PC gamers consider to be one of the best (and earliest) first person adventures in gaming history.
History of Ultima Underworld
Released in 1992, Ultima Underworld is a three dimensional dungeon exploration simulator developed by Blue Sky Productions and published by Origin Systems. If Blue Sky Productions does not sound familiar, it is probably because it became more famous after a merger when it changed its name to Looking Glass Studios. Looking Glass developed many other classic games such as Thief 1 and 2 as well as System Shock 1 and 2. The influence of Ultima Underworld can easily be seen in these projects as they all set out to simulate their environments with maximum interactivity and innovative concepts. The original System Shock was even developed as a direct response to Ultima Underworld. A dungeon in space.
Despite its many advances, Ultima Underworld was still very much a product of its time with obvious similarities to other three dimensional dungeon crawlers such as Wizardry and Might & Magic. What it did differently was attempt to remove any abstraction from game play by allowing as many actions as possible. Players were able to look up and down (this wasn't even possible in Doom), pick up or move any object, move freely without a grid system, and interact with systems in the dungeon such as fishing and traps. The game engine even featured fully texture mapped architecture and creature sprites moving around in real time! These concepts and design decisions have lived on to this very day as evidenced by the recent blockbuster Skyrim. Heck, it even did slopes and I don't remember that really happening until the Build engine.
The innovations did not come without any growing pains. Even at the time, the interface of Ultima Underworld was clunky and unwieldy, encouraging the player to use the mouse for movement, spells, and combat. When compared to the use of hotkeys and buttons on the user interface, this seemed to be a bit of a step back in terms of efficiency. But who had ever done anything like this before? The developers and players were still trying to find their legs in this new type of game. I remember playing System Shock which uses a similar user interface and only being mildly annoyed. I would do anything and fight any system to simply walk around and marvel the beautiful, interactive 3D environment.
Other players felt the same way, too. The game sold well enough to warrant a sequel that was released the following year, even though it is not spoken about as fondly. Another interesting fact is that the dungeon simulation was being developed on its own with no association with the Ultima brand. Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series and then CEO of Origin, thought it would be a good idea to attach it to the series and the rest is history. Despite difficulties in production, implementation, and the risk of it not even being released, Ultima Underworld came out and was a hit. It truly was a "Change the world project" as Warren Spector stated as shown by the success of similar games like the Elder Scrolls series. Ultima Underworld may truly be one of the most important games ever made.
What is my history?
I have no history with Ultima Underworld. It is probably one of my largest blind spots in gaming history and will most likely color many of my opinions regarding games I've already played and will play in the future. I came to know Origin Systems through the demo for System Shock which appeared on a PC Gamer demo CD that I got along with a magazine from the grocery store. My friends and I played it endlessly, enamored by the seemingly infinite possibilities the engine and systems provided. I did end up finding the full version of System Shock, but Ultima Underworld went completely under my radar since we bought our PC around 1994 or 1995.
Incidentally, System Shock has been worked on tirelessly by modders to get it working on modern systems. It is freely available and can fit on a thumb drive to move to different computers. I highly recommend you try it!
Even though I have only performed minor play tests with Ultima Underworld to ensure its functionality, I can already see many yarns being pulled and attached to other gaming experiences. It is early in the evolution of first person action RPGs, but contains all of the required systems that make them fun: combat, NPC interaction, mapping, dangerous traps and tricks, and other goodies I will discuss as they come up. I am looking forward to stepping into the dungeon and seeing how long I can survive.
It is also apparent that the game was hastily brought into the Ultima canon and is tangential at best. I will include it with the games, but will also try to avoid any slams that relate to the game not adhering to the Ultima stories with regard to the Avatar et. all.
I look forward to seeing you next time when I finally enter the Stygian Abyss in 2013, twenty years after Ultima Underworld’s release.
If you are interested in the story of Looking Glass Studios, you simply MUST listen to the Looking Glass Podcast in which former employees of the development team talk about their projects, the culture of the studio, and tell tons of other interesting stories. The development of Ultima Underworld is frequently discussed and some of the interviews include well known names such as Ken Levine. I listened to the whole series last year and enjoyed every minute. The podcast series has finished so you can listen at your leisure.
Feel free to leave any comments or hints you have for beginning my journey, but please try to avoid spoilers. I also hope you will follow me on Twitter @backlogkiller. I like to live tweet games I am playing as well as updates about the blog. I hope you all are having a wonderful new year and I can't wait to see where it goes.
I have really come to appreciate games in a different way than I used to and enjoy weighing their pros, cons, and meaning to me in a constructive manner. I never thought I would be writing about The Nameless One representing capitulation with your past or Psychonauts being a metaphor for mental illnesses, but there it is. I have also gotten used to using a more editorial voice to add a personal touch to the blog instead of the standard "I did this then that" play through. It has helped me personally and it feels therapeutic to be as open with all of you as I can.
I am afraid I won't be able to leave a message tomorrow (Christmas ticks over in 4 hours here), so I wanted to be sure to get it up here.
Thank you so much for reading, for your contributions, and for your interest. I really appreciate it and look forward to even more fun in the new year!
Here's the problem: STALKER crashes almost every time I die and the map needs to reload, I switch to another map, or other reasons I can't seem to determine. Seeing as dying happens a lot and has already caused serious frustration, I don't want to put undue pressure on myself. This game is going to the bottom of the pile until I get a better computer.
As a younger gamer, I used to be obsessed with keeping up with the latest technology and having everything run perfectly at maximum graphics settings, but now I just can't seem to get myself to care that much. I want to enjoy the game rather than fighting with it to get it working. I realize this is a major part of PC gaming and I learned a lot about computers by dealing with conflicts and boot orders, but I don't have time for it anymore.
I am going to take a few days to figure out where I will go next, whether it be picking another random game or doing another Player's Choice. Thanks for your patience, everyone.