32 - Back From Vacation

Someone once wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and this vacation certainly fits that bill. Although there were a few hang-ups and accidents during (and after) the trip, I have come back more relaxed than ever and had a great time. Not only is my mood calmed, but I have returned absolutely enamored with Ultima 4. This bodes very well for the blog, my own attitude, and the chances of FINALLY getting this thing done!

From the Start… Again

If you follow my tweets at @backlogkiller, you may have seen that I decided to follow through with the previous post and restart Ultima 4. I was worried it would be a disaster and lead to repeating bad habits of getting frustrated and starting over and over. As indicated above, this is not the case and I am having a blast playing through again, leaving my previous level of progress in the dust.

[The first screen of the intro to the game.]

The game begins with the player, actually you (the REAL you), sitting beneath a tree relaxing and thinking about life when a mysterious portal opens depositing several books and an ankh. These books are The History of Britania and the spell book listing the reagents needed to cast the various spells in the game. What was really cool about older games is the physical copies of these books were actually provided and are not included in the game as a codex. Digital PDFs are included with the GoG release of the game, but it’s just not the same a pulling the cloth maps and books from a box with the torn shrink wrap still laying beside it…

[A similar kit came with my copy of Ultima 6]

Anyway, after reading the books, a Renaissance Fair appears over the hill, seemingly out of thin air. After investigating, you are drawn to a fortune teller’s wagon to begin an interesting character generation process.

Instead of being treated to a matrix of numbers and stats to dump them in, the game provides situations in which the player must answer moral dilemmas to determine which class is the best fit. Since each class is associated with one virtue (e.g. Mage is Honesty and Paladin is Honor) it is easy to game the system, but I am sick of doing that and decided to follow my own morals and just take whatever is dealt to me. Here are the questions that were asked and a little reasoning about my choice, just for the heck of it.

The creation process begins with a tarot card reading in which two cards are placed on the table representing two virtues. A situation is posed and you must choose which virtue to honor. It works by narrowing down the original eight choices. The first round is four questions including all eight virtues, after which the ones you chose are pitted against each other, then the final choice in which you choose your highest valued virtue and, as a result, class. Here we go.

Honesty vs. Spirituality
This question was easy for me. Even though I have hope for people, when it’s my reputation on the line I will never endorse someone that I am unsure about. Sort of like a job reference. An easy choice for HONESTY.

Compassion vs. Sacrifice
This question was a little tougher since it’s a loss either way, but I was going off the assumption that no matter what happens I’m going to get slaughtered because the army has been routed. If I stay to help an injured comrade or just stop to face a charging army I’m going down. I’d be no match for the whole attacking force, so I chose COMPASSION to see if I could save one life since it is very unlikely I would be able to save them all as one man versus an entire army.

Honor vs. Humility
I’m a pretty humble guy, myself; I don’t like making a scene. This choice was easy, though. It’s essentially ‘Will you make a difference in the world or will you just sit around and be content?’ Even though I try to be comfortable with where I am, I don’t simply want to settle. I chose HONOR.

Valor vs. Justice
Once again, an easy choice. I am charged with securing an important treaty that could save lives. Of course it makes me mad to be insulted, but not only will the treaty serve a greater good, but it is also my job to get it no matter what. I chose VALOR.

Honesty vs. Compassion
Once again, this is an easy choice. The money is not mine and I am given a job to do. I would rather give to the beggar from my own wallet than cheat somebody else out of their money they trusted me with. HONESTY.

Valor vs. Honor
This question was a little tougher. I did think about going to join the comrades, but thought that if the lord or king dies during battle any future engagements will be devoid of morale. I chose HONOR and stayed on guard to make sure I do my entrusted job.

Honesty vs. Honor
Finally, this last choice will determine if my Avatar will be a Mage (Honesty) or a Paladin (Honor). This one was super easy to me. Given the corruption and evil in the world today, I would never stand up for a criminal who I know to be wrong. I chose HONESTY with no hesitation placing me…

…just outside the magicians' city of Moonglow, ready to begin the quest of the Avatar.

When introduced to the game for the first time, your goals are a mystery. Simply exploring and wandering around the world will reveal the plot naturally, but I already know all that stuff. We need to master the eight virtues and enter the Stygian Abyss to retrieve and read the Codex of Infinite Wisdom. This involves several steps: exhibit the prescribed virtues through actions, find the key rune allowing entrance to the shrine built to honor each one, learn the mantra for each virtue, and meditation using this mantra. This sounds like a lot of work, but is actually not too bad.

The shrines themselves are visible on the map and easy to identify (save one). Each Shrine has a nearby town dedicated to that virtue where the inhabitants will aid you by hinting at the rune’s whereabouts and the mantra needed to meditate. It is nice to have a set plan when entering each town, that being talk to every character and ask about the ‘rune’, ‘mantra’, and ‘shrine’. This is accomplished through what was, at the time, a clever text parser.

[Chatting with Lord British.]

Instead of receiving information dumps from each NPC, the player must read their responses and pick up on certain key words that the NPC will respond to when asked about. This system was made easier in Ultima 6 when these keywords were actually highlighted in red. Using these cues, the player can progress through various subjects and take notes to ask other NPCs in other towns all over the world. One thing I discovered is that, in addition to mastering each virtue, I will also need to find a colored stone for each one that is buried in a dungeon titled the opposite of that virtue. (e.g. The stone of Honor is in the dungeon Deceit, the stone of Humility is in the dungeon Pride, and c.) I had not realized this in earlier playthroughs and have added the keyword ‘stone’ to my round of interrogation in each town.

After visiting Castle Britain, discussing my quest with Lord British, and travelling around the world, I am happy to say I am doing very well. If you have been following my tweets, you will see that not only have I ascended in two virtues (Honor & Justice), but I am also ready to meditate on three others. This puts me almost at the halfway point when I am able to become a partial Avatar having mastered all eight virtues. The process of preparing for these virtues is a little more complicated, though.

As every virtue must be enacted by the player, these all have in game metrics that are constantly being monitored. Some are obvious and easy to achieve. I ascended in honor and justice because they are naturally exercised. Honor is gained by finding quest-related items such as runes, being honest to the blind shopkeeper when buying reagents, and giving money to beggars. Justice is achieved by not attacking evil creatures and being honest to the shop keepers. Others I am ready to ascend in are valor (gained by killing evil creatures), spirituality (meditating and talking to Hawkwind who informs you of your progress), and honesty (simply telling the truth in conversations). I am afraid that compassion and sacrifice will be tough to grind up as the only ways I can see to gain virtue in them is to repeatedly give money to beggars and donate blood to the healer. Although not terrible, these actions do not occur in normal game play and can be annoying to artificially build. (Edit: At the time of editing this draft I have just ascended in Sacrifice by donating what is probably five times my body's complete volume of blood. Thanks for the free healing, Lord British! --BK)

[They just keep on coming!]

To round everything up, I have visited every city on the main continent and will begin using the moongates near towns to travel to other islands. These moongates are not the easiest tools to use as their destinations vary depending on moon phases, but are essential in the absence of a boat. Finding pirates floating near the mainland would be fortuitous. Other than that, it’s just visits to other towns I’ve yet to see to get the rest of the runes while grinding up virtues. Towns I need to see include Magincia (Humility), Jhelom (Valor), Buccaneer’s Den, and Skara Brae (Spirituality). As I said earlier, the CRPG Addict does an admirable job detailing his visits to these towns and I will stand on his giant shoulders once again. The entire journey is very interesting and definitely worth a read.

Looking beneath the hood.

I am more excited about playing Ultima 4 and what I have achieved in it than in any other game I remember playing in the last few months. After doing a little live tweeting about my progress, I went to bed with actual images of the game running on the screens of my closed eyelids. It was like I was eight years old; like being a kid barely able to get to sleep just to wake up at 6:30 am to start playing again. I was so thrilled with the feeling of being excited about games that it must have taken me thirty minutes or so to fall asleep.

I planned my moves for the next play session. I was planning on heading east to Minoc to find the rune there, maybe grind up the virtues mentioned above, ascend in those virtues, then start moongate hopping all over the world. It was glorious. No longer did this feel like playing for the blog or playing for the sake of the game itself, but rather playing for me. How old is this game again? Twenty-seven years old?!

What is really amazing to me is how UN-annoying this game is. Some of the systems have not aged well and the sound design is atrocious. Having the speaker blare white noise each time you take a step while poisoned is not a great design choice, but the entire system working in concert is quite smooth and has left me missing an hour or so when I meant to play for fifteen minutes. The very nature of being excited to get back into the game because I am having FUN puts a stark light on my situation a few years ago. I felt compelled to finish it because I would not be beaten. This, in turn, transformed into frustration and further anxiety about the game itself. It was madness and I am so happy I can experience the game as it was meant to have been.

Something that is so cruel about those darker times was that the hobby I loved the most, video games, actually piled MORE pressure on me. I felt like my failures in anything, including interactive entertainment, reflected on me poorly with regard to my intelligence and ability. This evil voice in your head is something that is tough to shake and disguises itself masterfully. Every day I can sense it trying to sneak in and whisper into my ear that I'm just not good enough, not worth much, a failure. Being able to tell that bozo to buzz off is one of the most satisfying things in the world. Even as I type this, I can hear it telling me that this writing is lazy and puerile... well you know what? I don't care.

I'm going to play Ultima 4 and complete it not because I have to prove that I can or am smart enough, but because I am really enjoying playing. That is all that games are for at their core. I love to dig in and interpret what they mean to me. I may be wrong in a broad sense regarding authorial intent, but art is a medium that interfaces between the observer and the artist. Besides, it's fun to do, even if it is a bit silly.

---Backlog Killer

P.S. You may have noticed that I named my character Hal. This is not my name and comes from a book I'm currently reading. If you think you know which book, leave a comment and I may just have a special prize waiting for you...