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Ultima Codex Interview: Ultima VII Lead Writer Raymond Benson

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Ultima Codex Interview: Ultima VII Lead Writer Raymond Benson

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Fri 29 March 2013, 16:04:26

Tags: Origin Systems; Ultima VII: The Black Gate

Back in the early 90s, three CRPGs reached what I feel was the pinnacle of writing quality for the genre at that time. One of them, which we won't be discussing here, was Neal Hallford's Betrayal at Krondor. The other two were a pair of games in the Ultima series - Ultima VII: The Black Gate and its followup, Serpent Isle.

With its huge cast of detailed and humanized NPCs, from the lowliest beggar to Lord British himself, Ultima VII was a game like no other. Yet sadly, after the release of U7 and its successor, the quality of the series' writing mysteriously plummeted. Indeed, the RPG genre as a whole would enter into decline and would not recover until the appearance of Black Isle's games in the late 90s.

I've always wondered just what the heck happened to the Ultima series, which is why I was very excited when Kenneth of the Ultima Codex informed me that he was about to conduct an interview with Ultima VII's lead writer, Raymond Benson. With the help of the Ultima fan community, including myself and several other Codexers, Kenneth put together a massive interview, which Raymond graciously replied to in its entirety in record time. While he doesn't always remember as much as I'd hoped, it's still a fascinating glimpse into the glories of the past.

Here are a few choice morsels from the interview:

UC: You were the lead writer on Ultima 7, which is considered by many to be one of the best episodes of the series. How did you end up with the role? Could you tell us a bit about what your work consisted of, and how you worked with Richard Garriott and other team members?

RB: First of all, Richard Garriott is a genius. I had the greatest respect for him and still do. When he and I, or when the head guys from the various disciplines — programming and art, mainly — had brainstorming sessions, it was great fun and very inspiring. I was hired for the very reason that I was older (I was a few years older than Richard!), had experience in theatre, and because I already had some design credits under my belt. They knew I’d be placed as the head writer of either Ultima VII or Wing Commander II — and I landed on Ultima. The writing team was staffed with other writer-types who wanted to ultimately design. If I remember correctly, I had four people on my team. My task was to come up with the main storyline, the overall game arc that was the plot. Richard had the idea for the very beginning, the cut scene that is animated, with the Guardian first appearing and talking to the Avatar. So I knew I had to start the game with the Avatar going to Britannia to fight the Guardian. I knew he was the villain. Richard also had the idea of having a quasi-religious group in Britannia called The Fellowship, and they were really minions of the Guardian. That was what we had to start with. So I came up with the murder-mystery plot, in which the Avatar has to solve that murder in the barn at the beginning of the game…which leads to the ultimate quest of taking down The Fellowship (the Guardian would be spared for future titles). In many ways, it’s a formulaic James Bond plot! The Avatar has to use cunning and skill to investigate the mysterious organization, uncover its devious plot, travel to the main hideout, and confront the leader. I wrote a big script that outlined the various milestones in the game that the player had to achieve. Then, my writing team was assigned the “mini-plots” or “town plots” that took place in each individual town. Each person on the team was responsible for one or two towns. I oversaw the entire writing process and made sure everything held together — and it was a massive undertaking. Then, we had to write all the conversations for every character in the game.​

By the way, the writing team consisted of Jack Herman, Mary Beth Miller, John Watson, and Andrew P. Morris, and I valued all of their work.​

UC: Ultima 7 took great care to make Britannia seem real. The game had tons of NPCs that you could talk to that, rather than being interesting for being out of ordinary, or picaresque, or just different, felt like plain, simple, real folk. Additionally, the game managed to give every NPC character and personality, so that talking with them was fun rather than a chore. How difficult was it to achieve this? Do you feel the cost of making such a character cast in a modern game would be too expensive?

RB: In many ways, The Black Gate was one of the very first SIMS! That was the genius behind the engine that was created by Richard and Ken Demarest (lead programmer) and his team. That was the idea — to create a world you could run around in and live in. The other writers and I took great care to make each individual NPC a whole person, as much as we could. And yes, a “cast of thousands” in a modern game would indeed be very expensive.​

UC: Also, not only did the game make mundane NPCs fun to talk to, but it also managed to use this mundane side, together with non mundane elements, a great part of the exploration. I mean, each NPC had his own schedule. Pay attention to it, and you might learn things about them you might not otherwise. Each NPC also has a house, and if you are the curious kind, you can learn a little by going through their stuff. How difficult is it to make this kind of approach work with storytelling? Did you guys worry the player might just miss the point because he didn’t get a clue for something you made? Do you feel this approach has any important advantages for storytelling in games?

RB: Again, all of that was intentional. By creating the separate “town plots,” each writer could focus on the various characters within his/her own particular storyline and fully develop them. Yes, they all had schedules. If I remember correctly, one guy was cheating on his wife and would sneak off to see his mistress at certain times. It was my little joke to allow the Avatar to audition for a play at the Royal Theatre — in the role of the Avatar — only to be rejected. We even had NPC babies! The whole enterprise really was innovative and exciting. As for the player missing a clue or something — we wanted the game to last forever, so the exploration was a big part of the experience. If the player missed something, he just had to go back and replay stuff until he got it. It was easy for the player to get sidetracked from the main plot and go chasing something else, and we purposefully designed it that way to be devious.​

Raymond has more to say about Ultima VII's theme, writing and design in the full interview. He also has a few things to say about his involvement with Serpent Isle (or lack thereof) and his career in general. While the ultimate origin of Ultima VII's core concepts remains elusive, I feel that we're that much closer to discovering the truth about this game.

You can expect more developer interviews from the Ultima Codex in the future.

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