31 - Ultimate Ultima

Since I am taking time during my working hours to pound out a cheeky entry, I hope that it will be up to par with the rest. As I announced last time, the next game up for killing is the first game I want to finish in the Ultima series: Ultima 4. (A free to play download if you are interested.) I have begun and have been playing quite a bit and am feeling good about it, although there are some obstacles to surmount. Many of these are being smoothed out as I go on and will become less trouble as I progress.

Why Ultima?

Ultima 6 was one of the first games I got for my computer as a child. My dad bought it for me at a used book store just after getting our brand new 486/33 PC around 1992 or so. I spent a lot of time playing the game, exploring it, and goofing off, but I never got a clear idea of what was going on. The game, just as the others in the series I was not familiar with at that point, was open-ended and granted almost infinite agency to the player. I eventually got bored since I could make neither heads nor tails of it at the age of eight or so.

After growing up a little and thinking about it, I became very interested in the story of Richard Garriott (aka Lord British) who is the mastermind behind the series. A success story that shames me to no end, Lord British sold his first game – Akalabeth – while still in high school and was able to make around $160,000 dollars just doing something he loved. Using this experience and money, he went on to design the entire series with every game being more successful and interesting than the last. (At least up to Ultima 8, that is.) Ultima 4 was his first real stab at a complete world with authorial intent. It lives on to this day as a touchstone for RPG games and a groundbreaking entry in what was once simply a substitution for tabletop Dungeons & Dragon sessions.

The first three Ultimas involved a stranger, the player, showing up to the virtual world to destroy the ultimate evil. The problem with these games is that the players’ own actions ended up being much more evil than ANY of those perpetrated by the “villains”. Players would steal, murder, lie, and cheat to get all of the most powerful items to destroy the enemy. In the first Ultima (which I HAVE finished), it is even required to murder a clown to get an item. After complaints of bad influences and immorality from players and parents alike, Richard decided to take a different direction for his new game.

[A scene prior to the murderous rampage about to occur.]

Ultima 4 is a brave experiment that could have gone very badly. The game has no villain. Although there are monsters in the world, they are not out of control or trying to destroy civilization. The only point of the game is to be as good of a person as the player can be. It sounds ridiculous, but is a brilliant way to inspire role playing, storytelling, synergy with the narrative, and to get those complainers off of his back. As Lord British says (Richard Garriott puts his nick name-sake in each game as the king of Brittania), the people need someone to look up to.  Your only objective is to become immersed in all of the virtues (Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, Humility) and the principles formed by them (Truth, Love, and Courage). Once this is accomplished, the player is to descend into the Stygian Abyss, retrieve the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, and serve as a paragon of morality. That’s it.

Now, even though this can be accomplished in many ways, the game forces the player to exemplify these virtues. There are ‘gamey’ mechanics behind them since you can cheat the system (e.g. Buy 99 of each spell reagent for 1 gold and then rebuild the deficit by buying many items for well over the asking price), but the theme remains. This went on to be considered a game-changer for the genre and has a legacy that endures to this day.

What does this game mean to me?

Now we’re getting into the thick of it. I have a little bit of a sordid history that may seem contrary to the cheeriness demonstrated above. During some of my darkest days of depression, I latched onto Ultima 4 because of its intricate systems, vast world to explore, and, crassly, its thoroughly nostalgic look. I not only wanted to escape the problems I couldn't parse in my life, but also had a weird habit of choosing brutally complex or difficult games to do it with. Ultima 4 fit the bill, but was also infinitely frustrating because of all the moving parts.

The game is meant to be played as a flowing adventure where exploration, gradual discovery, and slow excavation of mechanics would naturally lead to everything coming together. When looking at all the moving parts individually, it is much like examining the guts of an expensive sports car that is currently running. There are so many things to keep track of and examine that a mind that feels compelled to have EVERYTHING under control will rebel. I eventually shook the game off as “too frustrating” because going back to get all of the proper equipment, power gaming the shops, and grinding up virtues was too much trouble. Ironic that the game I was using to escape life ended up reminding me just as much of my inability to cope with anything remotely stressful. I left it in the dust to never be finished. Even up until it was rolled for the next game, I had Ultima 6 listed as the next game I would play in the series.

My recent life has been very rewarding, despite my constant complaining about how busy it is. My job is steady, I am healthy physically, I have good friends, and I am going on vacation for six days this weekend. Other, more personal, things have been changing for the better. Not so much turning proverbial corners as they are rounding long meandering mountain curves, but I am given so much hope that everything seems brighter these days. Even friction that occurs in life and family seem like temporary woes that I am becoming more comfortable handling. I am even able to take a more supportive role which is amazing to me. Basically, I’m in a much better space and wanted to give it another go as Ultima 4 is one of the most important games in RPG history and its design still appeals to me greatly.

I now return to it feeling much more ready to roll with punches and take a more balanced attitude toward the game. I am already quite spoiled on it, so instead of pretending like I am completely ignorant, I am consulting old notes I have as needed. I am also not completely against checking FAQs as the game does have some rough edges that can be tough to smooth over, but I have not done so yet. I can already see the light at the end of this game’s tunnel, even if it is just a pinpoint.

[Show me the way you legendary and successful nerd.]

And finally…

I’ll reveal more about actually playing the game in the next post. It won’t go up for at least a week, so just hang on three people that check regularly for updates. I have probably put three to five hours into the game and would estimate myself to be about 30% finished, but am actually thinking of starting over to go through more smoothly as I may have made some mistakes. Maybe I’m falling into old habits? Who knows? What I do know is that if the player knows what he or she is doing, the game can most likely be finished in less than ten hours. I can get back to where I am now in about one hour of game play.

Another extremely popular blog, the CRPG Addict, has done a thorough and masterful examination of the mechanics and story of the game. I suggest you check that out as a companion piece if you are interested. My play through, although game related, will most likely be tangential and have threads attached to other subjects. I am really enjoying this style of posting and want to experiment with it. If you have any comments or feedback about the nature of more personal postings or style, please let me know. Also feel free to leave feedback about the game itself or any tips and tricks you may have.

Follow @backlogkiller on Twitter for my thoughts. I see these vacation days may roll over to next year so, even though that will go into the bank for a Christmas visit in the US, I may indulge myself with one to just go on a live tweet rampage and try to finish this dang thing. Thanks for reading and I hope you all are well.

--Backlog Killer