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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on Ultima VII

Discussion in 'RPG News & Content' started by Infinitron, Feb 15, 2019.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    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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  2. Dorateen Arcane

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    I'll wager he's never touched the poignant prose of D.W. Bradley in 1992.
     
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  3. Bumvelcrow Bellator Sempervirens Patron

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    Codex 2013 Codex 2014 Make the Codex Great Again! Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    I was there (man) when it was released and I remember having extremely mixed feelings about the game. On the one hand, this was Britannia, but on the other hand this was a much more mundane and yet alive Britannia than anything seen before. Disregarding the non-existent combat (which was almost a deal-breaker), for me Ultima 7 was a game of spectacular moments, many of which stay with me to this day, than an overall satisfying game. I preferred Serpent Isle because it took that carefully crafted world and tightened it up and delivered an ever more interesting story. Still two (or two parts) of one of the very best games ever, but a frustrating example of what could have been the very best game ever if more attention had been paid to it as a game as well as just a great story well told.
     
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  4. Dragon Educated

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    Yeah, too bad for the combat (I always dreamt of a turn-based mod).

    I also replayed it (right to the end !) a few years back using the Exult engine with it's nice up-scaling algorithms, and it was a blast. The seamless world, where you can go where you want, with all these tiny details, and all these stories... Even Larian didn't manage to emulate it completely, but they came close with Divinity 2.
     
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  5. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Jimmy taking the contrarian view in the comments:

     
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  6. Country_Gravy Arcane Patron

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    The startup floppy for EMM was one of the vest parts of the game.
     
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  7. taxalot I request a spice shipment immediately. Patron

    taxalot
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    Codex 2013 PC RPG Website of the Year, 2015
    This is it. The game that probably has the most impacted me ; this one, Shenmue, and Civilization. Interestingly enough, all three are about world simulations of a different degree.

    I have spent _COUNTLESS_ hours just fooling around in this game and not caring about the main quest, talking to people, exploring ; it felt like the closest thing to an alternate reality that ever was. And it just kept fascinating me during all these hours ; this game to me felt a bit more than what it actually was. While Britannia was full of secrets to uncover, it was also evidence that computer "games" could be more than toys. They could be an actual new way to experience stories, just simply put, a different kind of media accomplishing things that were impossible otherwise.

    Extremely ironic is how LONG we had to wait for other games just to catch up ; on consoles, Shenmue did something similar yet different, proving that you could tell a pretty bland story in a way so unique, and with so many details that even a plot that would feel shameful on a 80s direct to video thing could feel interesting told this way.

    It's a storytelling direction (come on, nobody played U7 for its RPG mechanics) that appears to have been forgotten. And even now, the level of interactivity that is in this game hasn't been reached many times. Which games did it ? I've already named Shenmue but... Oblivion/Skyrim ? Yeah, no, they don't come close besides NPC Schedules and every item pickable. Witcher 3? It has a huge and empty world, with few possibilities except sidequests and killing stuff. GTA 5? That game got the sense of detail right, but is it even remotely comparable ?

    God damn it, I miss feeling like that in front of a game.
     
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  8. Country_Gravy Arcane Patron

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    Wasn't there a key ring to keep all your keys in one place?
     
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  9. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    A lot of that quality-of-life stuff was only added in Serpent Isle. Exult backported it to U7 so if you've been playing with that for years, you may have forgotten.
     
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  10. JDR13 Augur

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    Any chance Exult will actually get finished some day or has it been permanently abandoned?
     
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  11. Bumvelcrow Bellator Sempervirens Patron

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    Last commit to the Exult github repository was in Jan this year, so it's not dead, just moving slowly. As far as I remember the actual release versions were few and far between and always a long way behind the latest development snapshot.
     
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  12. JDR13 Augur

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    Thanks, I should check it out. It's been years since I've tried Exult. People complain that it's buggy, but I'm guessing it's a lot less buggy than DOSBox.

    Did they ever get the combat modes and stealing fixed in Exult? Iirc, they didn't work the same as the original. I also heard someone was actually trying to implemnet a turn-based mode?
     
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  13. Ladonna Magister

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    I think his take is spot on. Once I managed to work out how to tweak the config and autoexec enough to allow me to get a playable framerate, I thought the game was really good, but then I came across the combat....wtf were they thinking? I had found the combat in 6 to be inferior to 5, but 7 took that retardation to new levels. The worst thing about this was the rest of the game world was unbelievable. I don't think I have ever seen a game to really match it in many ways. The world simulation was fantastic, and the sheer amount of content across the map was incredible.

    I still remember the running joke about Origin back then; "We create worlds... that you can play on your next PC upgrade". They were shockers with requiring next gen hardware to get decent performance, probably from this game, and Underworld, onwards. And this happened right up to Ultima IX...
     
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  14. Neanderthal Arcane

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    I've never understood the complaints about the inventory. Folk keep saying bagception and all that shit, but bags wouldn't go in other bags if they were carrying a lot of stuff, only near empty ones which makes sense. And what's the problem with managing your inventory?

    Light a problem? Carry a fire sword, cast a spell, put a torch in your belt and loads of other solutions. This isn't difficult or an impediment.
     
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  15. Unkillable Cat Prestigious Gentleman LEST WE FORGET Patron

    Unkillable Cat
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    This is one of the highlights of my 32+ years of gaming. Despite having a top-of-the-line 386 at the time, I still struggled to get Ultima 7 (Part 2) running properly, and I still have the Ultimate Bootdisk for it lying around here somewhere.

    There is tons of content in this game, and it's hard to find newer games that match it on that front. There's a cache of gear hidden just outside Trinsic in the woods (swamp?) if you look carefully, you can expose the nudists in the Bee Cave with hilarious results, Laurel and Hardy make a lengthy cameo appearance in the Minoc mines, and there's even treasure to be found if you can find a way to communicate with the parrots.

    This is the only game I know of where players (supposedly) could get themselves into situations that the hintline operators didn't have any answers for (hearsay from many years ago).

    One of my friends took the Kricket approach to this game: He played it until he finally grasped just how big it is, said "Fuck this" and went on an (in-game) killing spree where every dead corpse was piled upon the nearest table. Fuck civility, fuck friendship, fuck the main questline, everything must die and become table decorations. He played it like this for hours.

    Every since U7's release I've kept my ear to the ground about similar games... but they haven't shown up yet. There have been a couple of close matches though, and I recall sitting with some teenagers a few years back as they shared amusing stories from playing Skyrim that made me think back to Ultima 7.

    As to whether I prefer The Black Gate or Serpent Isle - I can't decide. They're both good, but they both do some things better than the other. TBG is more free-form, while SI is much more linear. TBG doesn't gate the player, SI is a long-ass parade of gates to funnel the player through the game world like an amusement park ride. TBG never gets too bothersome about what specific actions need to be taken next, while SI gets pants-on-head retarded at least twice about which exact specific minute action will advance the main questline. SI has a more friendly UI than TBG, but Exult mostly cancels out that advantage.

    Finally for further monocled reading, there is Doug the Eagle's take on the game(s), if you've got an evening to kill and need a good laugh.
     
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  16. Neanderthal Arcane

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    Yeah a quarter century later and no rpg has yet simulated a world as well as Ultima, they've not even really tried. All this talk of innovation and improvement yet nothings come close, the decline exists and its fucking depressing.

    Some folk don't even want a well simulated setting, just a combat simulator, and argue that anything else is beyond developers. It's time we started asking for more, and stopped with the apologism and excuses.
     
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  17. IncendiaryDevice Self-Ejected Village Idiot

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    Why not just go play simulation games? Who ever asked for greater simulation? The whole point of RPGs is that they are abstracted. Ultima 7 was a derivation, just as romances are derivations. In Ultima 7's case it payed for its derivation at the expense of combat. If you want more simulation and less combat then why are you asking of that from RPGs, go badger survival horror games to be more simulationist… or, I dunno, Eurotruck Simulator...
     
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  18. Neanderthal Arcane

    Neanderthal
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    Because a well simulated world breeds role-playing opportunities, use for non combat skills and pleasant depth. I also want better combat that's not just harvesting xp and loot, don't care about frequency so long as it's good and fit for purpose of evoking danger.

    But yeah fuck romances, they're for blue haired freaks.

    And Elves.
     
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2019
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  19. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    [​IMG]
     
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  20. taxalot I request a spice shipment immediately. Patron

    taxalot
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    Not an actual romance and more of a cock tease.

    Frigidazzi, on the other hand...
     
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