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The Digital Antiquarian on Ultima VII

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The Digital Antiquarian on Ultima VII

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Fri 15 February 2019, 20:53:21

Tags: Origin Systems; Raymond Benson; Richard Garriott; The Digital Antiquarian; Ultima VII: The Black Gate

The Digital Antiquarian has finally published his long-awaited retrospective article on Ultima VII: The Black Gate, considered by many one of the finest RPGs of the golden era. Once again, coming two weeks after his previous article, it's extra long and can be divided into three parts. The first part is about the game's development, which happened at a time when Origin was rapidly expanding and Richard Garriott was becoming increasingly disconnected from day-to-day operations, the second part is about the game itself, and the third part is about its critical and commercial reception, which was more mixed than many people realize. To the Antiquarian, Ultima VII's saving grace and indeed what makes it a classic is primarily its writing, which directed by the playwright Raymond Benson, a man whose background was considerably more urbane than that of Origin's army of overworked young coders. His team's work still stands up today, and for its time it was virtually without peer.

I’ve never cared much one way or the other about Britannia as a setting, but darned if Ultima VII doesn’t shed a whole new light on the place. At its best, playing this game is… pleasant, a word not used much in regard to ludic aesthetics, but one that perhaps ought to crop up more frequently. The graphics are colorful, the music lovely, the company you keep more often than not charming. It’s disarmingly engaging just to wander around and talk to people.

Underneath the pleasantness, not so much undercutting it is as giving it more texture, is a note of melancholy. This adventure in Britannia takes place many years after the Avatar’s previous ones, and the old companions in adventure who make up his party are as enthusiastic as ever, but also a little grayer, a little more stooped. Meanwhile other old friends (and enemies) from the previous games are forever waiting in the wings for one last cameo. If a Britannia scoffer like me can feel a certain poignancy, it must be that much more pronounced for those who are more invested in the setting. Today, the valedictory feel to Ultima VII is that much affecting because we know for sure that this is indeed the end of the line for the classic incarnation of Britannia. The single-player series wouldn’t return there until Ultima IX, and that unloved game would alter the place’s personality almost beyond recognition. Ah, well… it’s hard to imagine a lovelier, more affectionate sendoff for old-school Britannia than the one it gets here.

Yet even as the game pays loving tribute to the Britannia of yore, there’s an aesthetic sophistication about it that belies the series’s teenage-dungeonmaster roots. It starts with the box, which, apart from the title, is a foreboding solid black. The very simplicity screams major statement, like the Beatles’ White Album or Prince’s Black Album. Certainly it’s a long way from the heaving bosoms and fire-breathing dragons of the typical CRPG cover art.

When you start the game, you’re first greeted with a title screen that evokes the iconic opening sequence to Ultima IV, all bright spring colors and music that smacks of Vivaldi. But then, in the first of many toyings with the fourth wall, the scene dissolves into static, to be replaced by the figure of the Guardian speaking directly to you.

As you wander through Britannia in the game proper, the Guardian will continue to speak to you from time to time — the only voice acting in the game. His ominous presence is constantly jarring you when you least expect it.

The video snippet below of a play within the play, as it were, that you encounter early in the game illustrates some more of the depth and nuance of Ultima VII‘s writing. (Needless to say, this scene in particular owes much to Raymond Benson’s theatrical background.)

This sequences offers a rather extraordinary layer cake of meanings, making it the equal of a sophisticated stage or film production. We have the deliberately, banally bad play put on by the Fellowship actors, with its “moon, June, spoon” rhyme sequences. Yet peaking through the banality, making it feel sinister rather than just inept, is a hint of cult-like menace. Meanwhile the asides of our companions tell us not only that the writers know the play is bad, but that said companions are smart enough to recognize it as well. We have Iolo’s witty near-breaking of the fourth wall with his comment about “visual effects.” And then we have Spark’s final verdict on the passion play, delivered as only a teenager can: “This is terrible!” (For some reason, that line makes me laugh every time.) No other game of 1992, with the possible exception only of the text adventure Shades of Gray, wove so many variegated threads of understanding into its writing. Nor is the scene above singular. The writing frequently displays the same wit and sophistication as what you see above. This is writing by and for adults.

For all of the cutting-edge programming that went into the game, it really is the writing that does the bulk of the heavy lifting in Ultima VII. And it’s here that this first million-dollar computer game stands out most from the many big-budget productions that would follow it. Origin poured a huge percentage of that budget not into graphics or sound but into content in its purest form. If not the broadest world yet created for a computer at the time of the game’s release, this incarnation of Britannia must be the deepest and most varied. Nothing here is rote; every character has a personality, every character has something all her own to say. The sheer scale of the project which Raymond Benson’s team tackled — this game definitely has more words in it than any computer game before it — is well-nigh flabbergasting.

Further, the writers have more on their minds than escapist fantasy. They use the setting of Britannia to ponder the allure of religious cults, the social divide between rich and poor, and even the representation of women in fantasy art, along with tax policy, environmental issues, and racism. The game is never preachy about such matters, but seamlessly works its little nuggets for thought into the high-fantasy setting. Ultima VII may lack the overriding moral message that had defined its three predecessors, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to say. Indeed, given the newfound nuance and depth of the writing, the series suddenly has more to say here than ever before.
Although the game was not a flop per se, the Antiquarian theorizes that Ultima VII's relatively underwhelming reception relative to its budget was the reason for the series' radical change of direction in Ultima VIII. Thankfully, Ultima VII Part Two was greenlit during its development and so we got one last good Ultima before that. For his next article however, the Antiquarian will be taking a closer look at the Fellowship, Ultima VII's antagonistic religious group, and its obvious real-life inspiration.

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