42 - Dwarf Fortress

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.

Semi-Accurate Predictions

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.

[Thanks a lot crumb bum.]

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.

[Level 2 of the abyss is very different from Ultima 4...]

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.

[It may look goofy to you, but this was a tense fight!]

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).

[An annoying mini-game.]

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 Time

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.

--Backlog Killer