39 - Ultima Underworld

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.

[A space station is awesome for a cyberpunk horror/adventure/rpg.]

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.

[The UI is a little obtrusive, but it also allowed faster rendering of the 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.

--Backlog Killer