As a fan of the original, I have been visiting here ever since news hit that Larian is developing the next Divine Divinity game.
But I’m a middle-aged man now with a job, wife, and kids and so following the development of a game is a bit unusual for me at this point as I hardly have even enough time to play games these days.
As a young teenager (approximately 500 million years ago) I was there when the first videogame consoles and early consumer priced home computers began hitting retail markets. So I grew up a gamer and to my very core – immersing myself into a worthy alternate universe – preferably a fantasy one – is still one of my favorite pass times.
Details about Divine Divinity: Original Sin that have been released to-date have me excited that there might be at least one more adventure to undertake that will have me thoroughly immersed in the same way that a very short list of computer games of the distant past managed to do.
Of particular notice is that Ultima VII is the creative spark behind this new game and that Larian is no longer shackled by the constraints of a publisher who might otherwise demand design decisions contradictory to the stated spiritual roots of this new game. I can’t overstate this enough – these two points are a rare occurrence – like spotting sasquatch or E.T. – and have me excited about this game in a way I haven’t felt since I was 17 years old. I feel young right now. Thank you Larian.
If you’re still reading you are probably wondering right about now if all these ramblings are leading to a point. They are so let me get to it. Since Ultima VII is the stated creative spark for DD:OS, I want to provide feedback to the developers about what made Ultima VII special to me and perhaps others who played the game back in 1992 when it first came out for the IBM PC. What made that game so ‘magical’ as to leave a permanent mark in my memory as the best computer game of all time?
Simulation: Ultima VII had a great deal of world simulation going on. Day & night cycles. NPC schedules. Interacting objects and other various object behaviors (doors open/close, lamps turn on/off things like that). Game spaces that change. Lunar cycles. Weather. Ultima VII had world simulation in spades and while modern games typically have some world simulation I can’t think of a single CRPG to-date that has nearly the amounts of world simulation Ultima VII had. But there is something else worth mentioning here that is very important to me which is that these world simulating features weren’t restricted to story-line purposes or plot development. They were simply part of the world. These features seemed to be available evenly for the sake of experiencing them, tinkering with them and yes, even for plot/quest progression. The big surprises came when you imagined you were just tinkering and then suddenly something special happened – that is when the ‘magic’ happened to me as the player. When I used the mallot on the parrot in Spark's house in Trinsic while playing Ultima VII I was hoping to simply hear the bird scream (or die) or belt out a profanity. What I got was map cooridinates for treasure somewhere in the game world. I didn't expect that - and it was very cool. This early on experience compelled me to experiment with many kinds of object interactions throughout my gameplay of U7. ~circa 1992, 20 years ago - I STILL remember that!
Story & Lore: The story of Ultima became particularly interesting with Ultima IV but arguably tapered off sharply beginning with Ultima 8 – at least in my view. But story aside, the lore of Ultima games was always interesting. I believe one of the big reasons for this was the printed materials that came with the games. Practically speaking, I’m fairly certain that the printed materials included with many of the earlier Ultima games was to provide the player a bridge to the game world for what couldn’t be technically represented by the game due to technological constraints of the time. But planned or not, the printed materials achieved something else. They connected the player personally to the game world in a very physical way. For me this was a powerful connection. Even today, the smell of freshly printed manuals instantly takes me back to the moment when I peeled away the shrink wrap and opened my newly purchased copy of Ultima IV. It isn’t the smell itself. It is the gaming experience I had that the smell reminds me of. And that experience included careful examination of all the printed materials and map before spending even one second in the actual game world. They were your only helping hand in an era of no internet and few available avenues to get help if you ever got stuck. Plenty of pages were devoted to describing various locales in the game but also took care to keep secret or vague things and places you would discover while playing. I especially enjoyed the written lore about the dungeons you would find. Each dungeon in the Ultima universe had its own personality. If you took the time to read the materials (and really, what Ultima fan back in 1992 did not read the manuals???) you would already have a fundamental vibe for a particular dungeon when you first would discover it in-game. When I discovered Hythloth for the first time in U4 I didn’t even bother going in. I knowingly understood that I wasn’t ready. Or prepared.
Freedom to Explore: Ultima games, including U7, were big on freedom. Go anywhere anytime. Revolutionary even compared with many modern games – but even more-so back in those days when videogame consoles were videogame consoles and not less expensive computers. There were some ‘devils in the details’ however. You could meander into a place and get ‘one-shotted’ by a Balron and face comparatively, by today’s standards, steep death consequences. But for me, that just added to the fun. Because being prepared mattered and you spent time making sure to be prepared for the unexpected. You also couldn’t traverse the seas without a ship and each Ultima game was designed to keep you from owning a ship until certain conditions were met. But other than these things, you could start your game and go merrily in whatever direction you chose – you just had to keep yourself alive.
Contiguous World Space: This could be part of the World Simulation paragraph I wrote but I wanted to highlight this as its own point because even today many developers resist creating CRPGs in a contiguous world space. The individual cells found in modern games like Skyrim are jarring and immersion breaking. And when you think back to Origin and other early developers who were able to pull off contiguous virtual worlds as far back as 20+ years ago with far inferior technology, it’s a real head scratcher that many modern games (in an era when hard drive space is measured in terabytes, RAM is measured in gigabytes, and where GPU’s greatly relieve the CPU of many tasks) still do not present their games in contiguous world spaces. "BUT!" you protest, "Games today must render things in 3D and have fancier art, textures, lighting, and physics!" That's all true, but at the time U7 hit stores, it pushed hardware as far as it could go - including Origin writing their own memory manager (Voodoo) to get around memory restrictions imposed by the DOS operating system. If Origin could do it back then, modern developers can do it now - that's my position. I’m more forgiving when a game loads a new cell when entering a dungeon but for everything else, I find it a real head scratcher when a game must load up a new cell for the town you just entered, or the house you just entered and stuff like that. In U7, whether you were out in the wilderness, or walked into the city of Britain, or delved into the dungeon Hythloth, there were no loading screens and that made a huge difference with the whole experience playing U7 and I was totally immersed. Another thing worth mentioning here is the various vehicles. They too were implemented from the get-go to co-exist with a contiguous world. So if you came across a horse, a boat, or a flying carpet, you traversed the world just as you had on foot, but with whatever conveniences/abilities the vehicle provided. And oh yeah… you controlled the vehicle yourself – no silly cut scenes or fade-outs of the vehicle taking you from point A to point B (yes, I'm looking at you Silt Strider of Morrowind!).
The Need to be Prepared/Far & Away: When playing an Ultima game you always made sure your characters had plenty of food – which meant learning where you could acquire food and what kind of food had the most bang for the buck since there were many different kinds of foods available – each type satisfying a member of your party for a set amount of time. So if you were going to go off exploring somewhere away from towns and villages for a long time, in U7 you might want to have your bags packed with lots of mutton which satisfied characters for a long duration as opposed to bread which satisfied for a much shorter duration. You also needed plenty of reagents. This in itself meant learning where to buy them and where to find the rarer reagents which couldn’t be purchased (at least early on - yes, I’m looking at you nightshade). You might want to have plenty of lock picks in case you needed to pick your way through a door that was deep within a dungeon – it would stink to have to traverse back all the way out of a dungeon and get back to a town to buy some lock picks – better to be prepared and have them with you. And let’s not forget, lock picks weren’t exactly growing on trees – they weren’t the easiest things to come across, particularly early on as a young character. And then one moment of bad luck you could end up burning through a good number of lock picks without success. You could also learn the hard way that what you thought was ‘being prepared’ really wasn’t and you died horribly anyway. Or that you were well prepared but simply outclassed by creatures you stumbled upon. Death coupled with death consequences back in those days were not dirty concepts to be publically hanged and it’s a real shame those concepts are mostly seen that way today.
SIDEBAR: I partly blame Everquest 1 for diminishing consequences for dying in RPGs because in my view they went waaaaay too far with death consequences in a misguided attempt by Verant/Sony to slow character progression with the hopes of extending the time an account would remain billable - it enraged a whole generation of gamers, including myself, and ever since every developer has diminished the consequences of in-game character death. Might just be a coincidence but I don't think so. Back to our regularly scheduled program...
Particularly from Ultima IV through Ultima VII you didn’t venture out willy-nilly. You made sure to be prepared. And when you weren’t you took the risk of death and death consequences. It was thrilling to be sure. But also required patience and a methodical sense of planning which seems to be unpopular with younger gamers (as evidenced by the 'accessibility' trend). But why is any of this important? Well, for one it makes combat a lot more thrilling if you’re not prepared or when you beat a tough encounter because you are prepared and get to enjoy the satisfaction of that preparedness. But there’s more to this besides just being able to beat down enemies. To me, the requirement by a CRPG to be prepared, however that game defines preparedness, is a prerequisite for a game locations' ability to have that ‘far and away’ feeling to it. Because the more you radiate away from the safety of towns and villages, the more you need to rely on your preparedness. The further out you get, the more you burn through the resources you prepared, the more remote a location begins to feel. That, to me, is the experience that sticks – that some locations in a game world feel remote because you must rely totally on your character's abilities, what he brought with him, and what resources are remaining should the game present a challenging twist after you’ve burned through a good deal of what you had just to get to that moment. Most modern games don’t have locations that feel remote because there is so little danger of dying which means you don’t need to worry about being prepared all that much and even if you do die you just sort of continue where you left off – that kills any notion of ‘far and away.’ The first time I found myself in Ambrosia while playing Ultima 3 I immediately sensed that I found myself somewhere ‘far and away’ because it wasn’t anywhere on my map and I was utterly unprepared. I don’t remember what monsters I might have killed (or more likely, ran away from) or what monster inevitably ‘one-shotted’ me. What I do remember was that Ambrosia was a game location in Ultima 3 that was ‘far and away,’ full of mystery and oh so very cool. I better get prepared before I try to go there again. That was in 1983, 29 years ago - I STILL remember that.
Exploration & Discovery: Discovery was to Ultima what tactical combat was to Baldur’s Gate. If you enjoy tactical combat, you play games like Baldur’s gate (though up until U7 tactical combat was decent in Ultima games though nowhere on par with games like Baldur’s Gate). If you like the idea of exploration & discovery, you play Ultima. I think what excited me the most about each new Ultima game was that at a very basic level they promised the same kind of thrill you had as a kid during an Easter egg hunt - exploring and that thrill of discovery. There are many differences between a game like Ultima VII and say, The Legend of Zelda (I have enjoyed both series over the years). But one difference that I always noticed was that after reading a Legend of Zelda game manual you could be certain that you weren’t going to find anything outside the scope of what was covered in the manual. Richard Garriot and his writers did a great job of informing the player just enough to get them started, but always seemed to assume that players were smart enough to figure out how to accomplish things even without specifically addressing each and every little thing. And this opened the door to a great deal of in-game discovery. The first time I discovered that I could bake bread in an Ultima game it opened the door to, ‘well if I can bake bread, what other items can I combine.’ Before that discovery, I didn’t even realize the UI could be used in that way. It was discussed in the lore that there were bakers in Britannia but no mention that I could bake too. So it was a thrilling discovery that led to a lot of trial and error – much of which had nothing to do with plot progression but was still a lot of fun. I remember in U6 finding this location that was barred by a blue magical force field. It took me a lot of game-time before I managed to get passed that force field and the thrill of discovery what was inside. I came back to that location many times throughout my game trying different things on that force field to get past it. That was a lot of fun and very exciting when I finally did get past it.
Complexity: The Ultima games weren’t afraid to be complicated and even cryptic at times. I say ‘cryptic’ because, say for example, with Ultima 4 with 26 commands available, sometimes solving a puzzle or quest meant creative employment of one or more of those commands. Upon discovering that in order to solve one step of a quest I needed to use a pickaxe on a rock with a carefully placed bucket adjacent to it in order to it to get the ‘blood’ I needed when playing U7’s expansion ‘The Forge of Virtue’ I remember thinking to myself, ‘why did it take me so long to figure this out?’ While not the most brainy quest ever designed, it was yet another lesson of how the player needed to carefully consider the use of objects in the game and how to interact with them. I remember an interview with Richard Garriot bragging how U4 uses all 26 letters of the alphabet – each letter assigned to some specific task or action in-game. Today I’m sure most developers would consider such a control scheme a death sentence for a modern game and I’m not necessarily advocating that such a numerous amount of controls is ‘good.’ Garriot even admits that back then some of his design goals were based on unsound logic. He admitted to including outer-space content in some of the earlier Ultimas simply because there was still more room for data on the discs and that was a way to fill them up. On the keyboard, he admits that he simply desired to utilize as much of the computer hardware as possible and hence his motivation for 26 commands, one command assigned to each letter of the alphabet. Clearly, filling up discs completely or using every key on the keyboard because those keys are there do not form the basis of sound design decisions. Nonetheless, back in those days ‘complex’ or even the idea that there were 26 different commands in U4 wasn’t a bad thing. When U4 was the CRPG of the day, computer games were in their infancy compared with the burgeoning console industry. I actually welcomed the idea that computer games were going to be more complex and involving than what videogames of the day involved. I wanted them to be complicated. I wanted them to be a bit cryptic and really push me to think and be creative. In some ways I think history is repeating itself today. Mainstreaming has brought us the unyielding drumbeat of ‘Accessibility’ for so long now that I think a lot of gamers out there are really craving for some complex gameplay that challenges them intellectually - whether that be gameplay mechanics, control schemes, number of controls, number of attributes to track, creative use of in-game commands or whatever. Perhaps the timing of DD:OS is good if it will risk allowing itself to be a little complicated, a touch cryptic with just a dash of counter-intuitiveness designed in the spirit of fun not frustration.
In this writing I have tried to capture and articulate why Ultima VII holds such a magical place in my gaming history. I hope that I was able to convey these reasons in a way that might be useful for the developers or at least be a fun read for fans of the Ultima series in anticipation of DD:OS.
Edited by DebateMe (08/18/12 06:00 PM)
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