Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Closing the Books on Crystalware

Crystalware was not the sort of company to let trademarks deter them, whether incorporating the Enterprise in their logo or marketing an unlicensed game called Imperial Walker.
A year ago, I'd never heard of Crystalware. Then, someone rediscovered their catalogue and uploaded all of its games to MobyGames and my year became in large part about the company. But let's face it: none of its games are really RPGs. They have some RPG "elements" in some of the inventory selections and random approach to combat, but there isn't a single one in which the character grows intrinsically from his experiences except for The Forgotten Island (1981), and that was a basic "power" statistic whose rapid growth made the game fundamentally too easy.
Most of Crystalware's games instead occupy a strange subgenre that we might call "iconographic adventure." Most adventure games are either all-text (Zork) or made up of graphically-composed scenes. Sometimes, the scenes offer a kind-of first-person perspective (Countdown, Timequest), and other times they feature the character in a kind of side-view perspective that I've taken to calling "studio view" (King's Quest, Leisure Suit Larry). I'm sure there are adventure games with axonometric perspectives, although none come to mind. But something about a top-down iconographic interface screens "RPG!" even though there's no reason adventure games couldn't feature the same perspective. That's really what Crystalware games are. They involve finding inventory items to solve puzzles and often escape a situation. Only a couple offer character attributes and none offer character development.
I've been gamely trying them anyway, but the last few have been giving me trouble, and I'm not going to continue wasting a bunch of effort for titles that aren't RPGs in the first place. I'm going to reject or "NP" the rest and suggest that MobyGames, which also cites character development as the primary mechanism for RPGs, remove the RPG designation although keep "RPG elements" under its gameplay elements.
Crystalware's catalog in late 1981.
As we've seen, Crystalware was a remarkably high-quantity (if not high-quality) company for its brief 1980-1982 existence. Within those three years, they developed and published the following titles, not all of which are even on MobyGames:
  • The House of Usher (1980)--also the name of the pop artist's inevitable reality show--is a Gothic adventure based on the Poe story of the same name. I reviewed it in June 2019.
  • Labyrinth of the Minotaur (1980): Set on Crete. I haven't been able to find much about the game, but it's attested in their 1982 catalogue.
  • Sumer 4000 BC (1980): A text simulator in which you're the King of Sumeria, trying to manage resources and make your empire survive another year.
  • Galactic Quest (1980): A space combat and trading simulator.
  • World War III (1980): A strategic wargame for two players, one fighting for Iran, the other Iraq.
  • Beneath the Pyramids (1980): An adventure game in which you explore some weird combination of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza for an artifact. I reviewed it in June 2019.
  • Waterloo II (1981): A two-player wargame in the Napoleonic Era.
  • CompuGolf (1981): A golf simulation.
  • Imperial Walker (1981): An unlicensed action game in which an imperial walker commander tries to shoot down rebel craft. (I think it really says something about the company that they conceived of such a game and made the imperial the protagonist.)
  • Laser Wars (1981): An action game in which you defend a city from alien attackers.
  • The Sands of Mars (1981): An adventure game in the style of Oregon Trail, in which you assemble a crew, purchase supplies, and try to make it to Mars and back. This one was categorized as an RPG. I tried to play it but couldn't get past a takeoff procedure that required the Apple II paddles. (Multiple sites say that AppleWin emulates paddles, but I'll be damned if I can figure out how.) The manual doesn't make it sound like it has RPG elements. It suggests that there are multiple phases of the game, each involving a different interface and style of gameplay.
As far as I can get in The Sands of Mars.
  • Forgotten Island (1981): An adventure game where you escape an island. It was renamed Escape from Vulcan's Island when re-issued by Epyx. I reviewed it in October 2019.
  • Oregon Trail (1981): Some version of the classic.
  • Quest for Power (1981): An adventure game in which you try to prove your right to inherit Camelot from King Arthur. It was re-issued by Epyx as King Arthur's Heir. I reviewed it in March 2020.
  • Protector (1981): An arcade game in which you fly a ship through caverns.
  • Fantasyland 2041 (1981): An epic multi-disk adventure game based on Fantasy Island. I reviewed it in October 2019.
  • The Bermuda Experience (1982): An adventure game in which you have to navigate a ship around the Atlantic Ocean in several time periods. It is also known as Bermuda Triangle.
  • Treasure Island (1982): An adventure game in which you explore the Caribbean for map pieces.
  • The Crypt (1982): An adventure in which you must survive the night in a cemetery. This was also designated an RPG by MobyGames, and I tried to play it but ran into a bug where neither you nor an enemy ever dies in combat. Instead, the game happily takes you into the negative hit points as you pound away at each other round after round. Thus, the first combat you get stuck in ends the game. It otherwise had the same characteristics as other titles that I reviewed that weren't really RPGs. It was re-released by Epyx as Crypt of the Undead.
Combat among crypts in The Crypt (1982).
  • Zardon (1982): An action game where you fly a ship, blow up enemy ships. This one was re-released by Avalon Hill after Crystalware folded.
  • The Haunted Palace (1982): An adventure game with RPG elements in which you try to solve a mystery. You can choose among characters who have RPG-like attributes but they never grow. It was re-released as The Nightmare by Epyx.
  • Clonus (1982): An adventure game in which you navigate the future as a clone with cyborg parts. A near-immediate Clonus II seems to be a re-release of the original rather than a true sequel.
They also released two compilations of simple games like Hangman and Tic-Tac-Toe for kids, a diet planner, a yoga instruction program, a garden simulator, and a program to help cat owners diagnose illnesses in their pets.

Almost all of the company's games were written for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and TRS-80. The company principals, John and Patty Bell, contracted a team of programmers who sometimes wrote original games, sometimes spent their time porting games created by others. About half of them were created by the Bells themselves. Almost all the adventure games hinted at a deeper mystery beneath the surface of the game and offered a cash prize to whoever was the first to solve it.
By 1981, the company was putting out a quarterly newsletter.
With each game costing $39.95 and up, Crystalware must have been doing well even if they only sold modest amounts. But that's nothing compared to the company's plans. A company newsletter from late 1981 shows that future offerings would include Glamis Castle, a three-dimensional adventure game in which you could explore the famous Scottish landmark, an RPG based on Lord of the Rings called Wizard and Orcs, and an epic hub-and-module adventure called Galactic Expedition. Each module would sell for $29.95 and contain the ability to explore a different planet or moon.
Oh, but that isn't nearly all. The company was planning to release a series of home-schooling programs based on the "Crystal Theory of Alternative Education" (CTAE). They were working with Universal Pictures to provide realistic computer program "props" for an upcoming film called The Genius (it seems to have never been filmed, although the associated producer, David Sosna, is a real person). They were working on the first "videodisk fantasy" for the PR-7820-2 Videodisc Player from Discovision. They were starting a "lonely hearts club."
Best of all, Crystal Films was being born! They had a named producer, script supervisor, costume designer, and key grip on their masthead. They had three productions in the works: Haunted (a horror film), Fantasyland (based on the game), and Sarah, about the life of the eccentric Sarah Winchester, who built that sprawling monstrosity of a house in San Jose.
Apparently, Haunted was to be filmed in an actual haunted house, not just a set that they made appear haunted. I guess that's one way to save on special effects.
The newsletter, in short, feels like it was dictated by someone in the middle of a manic episode, and what happened to Crystalware next suggests that it all came crashing back to Earth. I haven't been able to find an official, comprehensive account of the company's last days, but we can piece it together from evidence. First, I have an anecdotal report from a reader who owned a computer store in the area at the time, saying that Crystalware's finances were essentially a giant house of cards and someone was destined to lose. To clarify, I don't think the Bells were deliberately scamming anyone. One programmer I spoke to, Henry Ruddle, said that the company always paid him well and on time. Another, Mike Potter, has posted online that Bell fired him when he questioned his royalties, but did pay him and also gave him back the rights to one of the games he'd developed. The issue is more that they seem to have been leveraged beyond a sustainable debt. 
We know that in 1982, Bell sold the rights to his games to Epyx, which re-published them, often under different names, with absurdly elaborate manuals. We see the company changing addresses several times in 1982 and finally abandoning "Crystalware" altogether and publishing the last few games under the name "U.F.O. Software." As we'll soon see, John Bell also seems to have (at least for a time) changed his own name.
Towards the end of its life, Crystalware briefly became U.F.O. Software.
John Bell is an enigmatic figure (although not as enigmatic as Patty, about whom I've been able to find nothing). He claims to have worked for Lockheed in 1966, which is hard to reconcile with the best candidate I can find, who was born in 1948. Even that candidate has used both "A" and "F" as his middle initial. Crystalware used several addresses in Morgan Hill and San Martin (both south along the 101 from San Jose) during its existence. I think the Bells first owned a computer store, Crystal Computers, in Sunnyvale or Gilroy, before they decided to get into software development and publishing. 
I corresponded earlier this month with Henry Ruddle, a programmer who did most of the TRS-80 adaptations of the game. I had hoped he would confirm my suspicions that Bell was something of a lunatic, but the best he would offer is that he was "charismatic, loud, and very eccentric." 
John was very creative and could not stop thinking . . . or talking. [He] would tell wild stories about getting high on amphetamines or cocaine and staying up for three days cleaning his bathroom with a toothbrush . . . He often talked about his wild ambitions [like] a plan to create a virtual reality booth with 360 degree views projected on the walls using "laser cameras."
Of Patty, Ruddle remembers that she was polite and very quiet, heavily into New Age philosophy and astrology.
There's a long period of silence after the collapse of the company, but in the late 1990s, Bell, now using the name "J. B. Michaels," started promising an upcoming game called Clonus 2049 A.D. It never materialized, but you can read about it--sort-of--on the Crystalware Defense and Nanotechnology Facebook page, where an "actress from Hollywood" has recorded the incomprehensible opening text. Yes, John Bell is still using the Crystalware name. His various LinkedIn profiles give him as the CEO of Crystalware, CrystalwareVR, Crystalware Defense and Nanotechnology, or just "CDN." The address is listed in Charleston, West Virginia. On the various pages associated with Bell and these companies, we learn that James Cameron's The Terminator was plagiarized from the original Clonus, that Bell had a heart attack in 2018, and that he's working on a virtual reality game called World of Twine.
I haven't rated any of Crystalware's games very high, and I was actively angry by the time I got to Quest for Power, but in retrospect I have to give the company credit for originality and a certain amount of sincerity. Most of Crystalware's titles show no dependence on any previous game or series. Instead of generic high-fantasy settings, they went with unique, specific settings based on history or literature. Adding a "mystery" and cash prize to each title (even if I never really understood what they were going for) was an interesting touch, and letters to their newsletter (if authentic) suggest that they did pay. The thorough documentation that each game received, the manuals full of backstories and lore and quotes, the newsletter with so many promises, all suggest that the company was mostly unaware that it was a sausage factory. This was in the "dark age," after all. Wizardry and Ultima were released in 1981 but hadn't really made an impact yet. From the testimonies above, it's easy to see John Bell as an Ed Woodish character, willing to wrap and print anything, in love with the process of creation that eclipsed his own abilities as a creator. But I suppose there are days when I'll take that over auteurs so obsessed with quality that you end up waiting a decade between titles. Every genre needs its pulp.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Black Gate: Making Britannia Great Again

This is taken out of context, but it amuses me to pretend it happened right after I said. "Hello, Lord British! It's good to see you again!"
I thought I remembered that The Black Gate's plot leads you around Britannia on a leash, and for the purposes of my second session, I was willing to follow. For role-playing reasons alone, I wanted to see Lord British as soon as possible and get his take on recent events. All the clues from the murder in Trinsic also pointed in that direction, including the fact that there was a similar murder there a few years ago and that the Trinsic murderers--a gargoyle and a man with a hook for a hand--had likely escaped on The Crown Jewel, bound for Britain.
It's a little unnerving that the Guardian approves of my choice of route.
A few years ago, I tried to calculate the "real world" size of Ultima IV. I came up with figures ranging from 4 square miles (if you go with 10 feet per square, which made sense in relation to houses and furniture) to around 75 square miles (if you go by in-game travel time) to 144 square miles (if you go by the practical average size of landscape features). Even at its most generous, Britannia is the size of a large town or a small county. That is (somewhat disappointingly) felt more keenly in this game, where the developers significantly expanded the ground size of the cities but not the size of the world. The Serpent Mountains are now basically the rear wall of Lord British's castle, with no open plain between the two. Paws is a twist in the road up from Trinsic, and Britain continues immediately from Paws. All of this is to say is that "a ship bound from Trinsic to Britain" is more than a little silly since the entirety of the ocean is about the size of a municipal reservoir, and the distance from the dock of Trinsic to the dock at Britain is maybe a dozen boat lengths. You could walk it before the ship's crew had a chance to finish hoisting the sails.
As I said, the village of Paws is a twist in the road north of Trinsic, and there's something at that twist in the road: a theater where three characters named Paul, Meryl, and Dustin perform a "passion play" about the Fellowship. We paid to see it. It was a bunch of melodramatic nonsense about how a man loses his wife but rises out of his despair through the inner strength he finds through the Fellowship. He pledges half his wealth to the Fellowship and somehow receives a bundle of gold in return, at which point he declares:

The voice came to me in a dream
'Twas mine 'inner' voice so fair
I now have a companion and provider
And a master about whom I care.
Are you fourteen or four?
If you'd been paying attention, you'd note that the terms "companion," "provider," and "master" are what the Guardian calls himself during the game's introduction, but in case you weren't paying attention, the game calls attention to it for you:
Why not just provide a flashback while you're at it?
So only a few hours into the game, not only is it clear that the Fellowship is rotten, but that there's some connection between them and the Guardian whose face keeps taunting you. Maybe that's okay, but I'm not sure that for storytelling reasons it was a good idea to show that many cards that quickly.
It's called "intelligence-gathering," Iolo. Look it up.
If the Fellowship's basic corruption isn't already obvious to the player, it becomes more so in Paws, where the organization runs a homeless shelter but only lets you stay there if you join. A couple of proud beggars panhandle in the north of town and refuse to join the Fellowship, speaking contemptuously of a fellow beggar who did the opposite and now recruits for them. One of the beggars is on crutches and the other has no legs below the knees.
I guess magical healing doesn't restore limbs.
(The beggar on crutches is either a peeping tom or the programmers didn't bother to restrict the opening-the-shutters-on-a-sunny-day animation to NPCs who actually own the structure in question.)
The shelter is run by a married couple, Feridwyn and Brita. They're skeptical that I'm the Avatar. Other than Merrick, the beggar, there's a widow named Alina staying there with her baby. Her husband, Weston, has recently been jailed in Britain for "stealing fruit from the Royal Orchards"--based on the testimony of a Fellowship member. She's hung up on the irony of being forced to join the organization that ratted on her husband, but I'm wondering how stealing fruit from the Royal Orchards could possibly be a crime, let alone one that carries a prison sentence. One more thing to talk to Lord British about.
Back in Trinsic, I had found some scroll from the "Britannian Purity League" demanding that someone "Keep Britannia clean -- send the gargoyles back!" I had suspected that there might be a connection with the Fellowship. Feridwyn and Brita had the same scroll prominently on a table in the shelter, right next to the Book of the Fellowship. I guess that removes all doubt. It's just weird to see an organization striving for legitimacy so open about their racism.
Send them back where? Isn't the other side of the world gone?
Feridwyn and Brita have a son named Garritt. They insist he's a master of the pan pipes and will one day study at the conservatory in Britain. The only other child in town is a boy named Tobias whose mother, Camile, runs a farm. The two don't like each other but are forced to hang out sometimes because of their age. Tobias hates the Fellowship. Feridwyn and Brita judge Camile for being a single mother. They hope that the behavior of their perfect son rubs off on Tobias.
The social commentary in this game is 30 years old but, depressingly, not out-of-date.
Camile was delighted when she saw me in the inn. She somehow recognized me immediately.
The source of her delight soon became apparent:
If George Washington ever steps out of a portal in my yard, I'm going to ask if he wouldn't mind cutting down some trees before he moves on.
In 200 years, the legend of the Man from Another World who shows up to Do Menial Errands and Solve Small Problems has clearly grown strong.
Meanwhile, the butcher, Morfin, is reporting that someone has recently stolen a quantity of serpent venom from him--serpent venom being an extract from silver serpents, a creature that has only appeared in one previous Ultima game, Exodus, where it was unique. [Edit: I guess I"m wrong. They were in Ultima VI; I just never met them.] According to Morfin, serpent venom causes increases in strength, endurance, and euphoria, skin necrosis after repetitive use, and fatality at high doses. The government is close to regulating sales of it. Morfin coyly reports that he "keeps a small stock" of it and occasionally sells it to "the apothecary in Britannia." (I assume he means "Britain.") The owner of the abattoir, Andrew, tells me that Morfin hides a key in his shop. I spend some time moving things around before I find it under a plant. It opens not the locked door in his shop but a chest in his home, where I find some gold but refuse to take it.
I identify a key under a plant.
But I do find a key in his house that opens the door in his shop. It opens a door to a small room with an unlocked chest. Here, I find several vials of silver serpent venom, five gold bars (indicating he's been making a lot from his side-business), and a ledger showing dozens of sales over the last year--clearly not just a "small supply" going to some apothecary. When I confront him with the ledger, he confesses that he sells the venom to the Britannian Mining Company, which uses it to make gargoyles work longer hours.
Pro-tip: Any time you argue that what you're doing isn't "technically" against the law, you've already lost the argument.
Anyway, you've probably already solved the mystery from what I've told you. Feridwyn and Brita are quick to blame Tobias--a blame that grows stronger when a vial of venom is found among Tobias's things. But Tobias says that Garritt was hanging around his place, supposedly "looking for a ball," and indeed I soon find a vial of venom among Garritt's belongings. Moreover, Garritt soon displays symptoms of using the venom. This revelation causes Feridwyn and Brita to realize their own arrogance and selfishness and to re-dedicate their lives to . . . Sorry, I can't even finish.
Paws has a few other things going on. The register at the only inn in town, the Salty Dog, shows that someone calling himself "The Avatar" has been there recently, as has Dupre. I buy some bread there for my party members' bottomless maws. The innkeeper, Polly, is the object of affection of the miller, Thurston, and I get the two crazy kids together after a couple of dialogue back-and-forths. Both refuse to join the Fellowship for their own reasons, which is as close to anything as a virtue test in this game.
The miller confesses his unrequited love to a complete stranger.
There's an antique dealer in town who sells a sextant for 20 gold pieces, a lot less than the guy in Trinsic wanted. When you use the sextant, it tells you your coordinates. But when you use the map while in possession of a sextant, it shows your position in the game world.
If only this could be called up with a single keypress.
I realized with a start that I'd lingered in Paws too long. An obviously-evil organization with a connection to an extra-dimensional demon is gaining power; the gargoyles, whose home we accidentally destroyed, are being exploited and denigrated; there's a booming drug trade; a serial murderer is at work; we just had an ominous earthquake; people are being jailed for stealing fruit; maimed farmers are begging in the streets; and someone said she's not even sure that the shrines are around anymore. Surely, Lord British must have something to say about all of this. It was time to head to the castle and get an explanation.
Okay, I'm guilty of a little selective screenshotting here. In truth, Lord British seems to realize--
You're not helping.
No, seriously. When pressed a little bit, Lord British admits that--
I think I'd advise you to take the Fifth from now on.
I really am somewhat kidding but, as we'll soon see, not entirely. The way Lord British is written in both VI and VII is curious. The character has never had a lot of depth, but for many games that was largely due to a sparseness of dialogue inherent in the limitations of the game engines. Here, as in Ultima VI, he has a lot of dialogue, just hardly any that conveys any of the things that we are repeatedly told about Lord British in the game materials. He shows little wisdom, little nobility. He seems bored, unengaged, uninterested. And of course he's just wrong about many things, including the Fellowship and its founder:
It's not like Batlin has been particularly crafty, either. Lord British just isn't paying attention. Now I'm all for having complex NPCs with flaws, and perhaps it is time to introduce some complexity into the tired trope that TVTropes calls "The Good King." It just still seems a bit weird that the owner of the company allowed his avatar to be treated this particular way. I'm trying to imagine the meeting at which this dialogue played out:
Developers: "We think Lord British needs some flaws to balance out his wisdom and nobility."
Garriott (thinks for a moment): "Make him well-meaning but wrong about everything."
Developers (nodding): "That's good."
Garriott (catching a glimpse of one of the custodians bending over to empty the trash): "Also, maybe he's boning the domestic help?"
Developers: "Ooh, even better."
Garriott: "Also, make sure you really put the screws to Electronic Arts again. It's not like we're about to sell them the company."
Everyone: [roars laughter]
I'll cover my full dialogue with Lord British (as well as his nighttime proclivities) next time. For now, a few notes about the small things that the developers programmed into the game:
  • Double-clicking on a sundial gives you the current time. 
Not very precise, but still . . .
  • Clouds pass overhead and temporarily darken what you can see on the ground. 
  • You have to be careful walking through or near swamps. The very second your character strays into the swampy terrain, he gets poisoned and glows green. I assume swamp boots prevent this condition.
A cloud passes overhead, rain falls, the swamp burbles.
  • If you double-click on a chair, the Avatar sits there while the entire party tries to find seating nearby. Sometimes it produces comical arrangements.
Wow, they are really mad that I made them watch that play.
  • Double-clicking on a cow causes all the party members to yell, "Moo!" at it. This reminds me of how every time we drive by a field of cows, I'm compelled to roll down the window and yell "Moo!"
Irene, meanwhile, is compelled to say, "Chet, can we please not this one ti---"
  • According to the ledger in Morfin's shop, the current Britannian year is 360. I can't remember if specific numbered years have ever come up before. I assume the numbering is from the re-creation of Sosaria into Britannia between Ultima III and IV.
  • The members of the Fellowship all use the exact same words to describe the organization and its philosophy. At first, I thought this was lazy re-use of dialogue, but now I'm thinking that it's deliberately meant to suggest that they're just parroting what they've been told.
It's not many games that allow you to get 2,500 words out of a couple of hours of walking and dialogue. I'm three entries into The Black Gate, and I've still yet to fight a single combat, level up, or do anything that you would expect from an RPG. And yet, the developers have managed to create an intense urgency upon the part of the player to get out there and fix this place. This desire is particularly acute to a repeat visitor--someone who is making the trip to Britannia for the fourth time. I imagine that players who came to the world for the first time in Ultima VII didn't feel that same angst. They might have enjoyed the game for its plot and mechanics, but lacked the sense that a place they loved was in serious danger.
Well, one thing at a time. Today, the Mystery of the Stolen Venom. Tomorrow, the world.
 Time so far: 5 hours

Friday, April 3, 2020

What I Can Tell You About DragonBlade, GayBlade, and Citadel of the Dead

Where fortune and fame await the oold? What does that mean?
An awful lot of administrative work and emulator-fighting went into tracking down, sorting out, and running the three variants of this exceptionally mediocre game. This was not time well spent. When Dragon magazine, home of the modal five-star review, gives your game no stars and calls it the "worst dungeon-crawl, you-do-the-mapping, oops-you're-in-a-trap-and-your-torch-went-out, mindless click-the-'attack'-button game I've seen in a decade," you know you have a problem. This is an account of why I didn't get very far with these games and why, at least for now, I'm not interested in trying harder.
To judge by the manual and character creation process (the only part of the game I could really experience), DragonBlade, offers essentially nothing that Wizardry (1981) doesn't except for color graphics. But even worse is the re-skinned GayBlade, which bills itself as the first gay-and-lesbian-themed CRPG, which it probably was, but only in the most superficial way. If I were a gay CRPG Addict, neither game would satisfy my gayness nor my CRPG addiction. That GayBlade received so much press in its day goes to show how starved the genre really was for authentic gay representation in games.
The timeline is a little confused because a lot of sites give GayBlade as a 1992 game and DragonBlade as a "straight fantasy variant of GayBlade." In fact, the reverse is almost certainly true, particularly since the "About" screen for GayBlade is still titled, "About DragonBlade." There are a lot of sloppy bits like that in GayBlade. (That double-entendre is gayer than anything in the game.) Making things more confusing, author R. J. Best went on a Macintosh Garden forum last year and claimed he wrote GayBlade and released it for free in revenge for a distributor withholding royalties from Citadel of the Dead. But it's clear from both news accounts and magazine reviews that GayBlade was available in 1993 while Citadel didn't come out until 1994. Citadel, as far as I can tell, is just DragonBlade with a new title screen and a few bug fixes.

Let's talk about DragonBlade first. The manual offers the most generic backstory possible: Once peace reigned in the land, led by a community of knights and mages who followed "the gentle philosophy of DragonMagic." They were headquartered in the DragonKeep and ruled by High Wizard Alastor. But a demon army led by Lord Xygor invaded the land, lay waste to the keep, and imprisoned Alastor in a "dimension of frozen souls." A party must brave the now-monster-ridden keep to rescue Alastor.

The game opens on a menu town with a "training yard" (character creation), tavern, general store, guild (for level advancement), magic shop, healer, and dungeon door. Classes are fighter, mage, priest, samurai (fighter/priest), wizard (fighter/mage), and master (fighter/priest/wizard). Races are orc (c. 10%), ogre (10%), elf (40%), gnome (20%), and dwarf (20%). When you roll a new character, his race is randomized along with his attributes: strength, wisdom, intelligence, constitution, dexterity, and hits. Each attribute is rolled from 1 to 15 (there are no racial modifications), and the aggregate determines your available classes. So far, with the exception of the monster races and no human race, things are identical to Wizardry.
Except for low hits (which prevents him from being a "master"), this character has some unusually high stats.
The manual doesn't tell you the prime requisites for each class, so I spent far more time than made sense noting the minimum scores every time an option came up and then figuring out the associated probabilities. First, there isn't an equal probability of each number between 1 and 15 appearing for each attribute. For some reason, 8 is heavily weighted, accounting for about 15% of values. The numbers 1 and 15 are weighted low, accounting for about 3% each. Everything else is in the 6-8% range. Priests require at least a 12 in wisdom and mages require at least a 12 in intelligence; each comes up as an option about 21% of the time. Samurai require 13 strength, 12 dexterity, and possibly smaller values for the other attributes. They come up only about 5 times in 1,000. Wizards require at least a 12 in wisdom and dexterity and a 13 in intelligence; they come up 6 times in 1,000. Masters have at least a minimum requirement of 12 or 13 in all attributes (I'm guessing a bit) and come up less than 1 time in every 10,000 rolls. I only ever got one once, and I forgot to click the "Master" option when selecting him, so I accidentally made him a fighter. That hurt.
Starting items in the store.
It turns out that much like Wizardry, it doesn't make a lot of sense to sweat through thousands of re-rolls for the perfect character anyway, since Level 1 characters might as well be wearing red Star Trek uniforms. This is particularly true for DragonBlade, where enemies attack the moment you enter the dungeon, before you can even light a torch, and never stop. Combat is also Wizardry standard. Each character can attack, parry, use an item, or cast a spell, although it executes the action immediately (more like Might and Magic) rather than running through the entire round at once.
Combat against giant rock ants.
The game uses Wizardry's "slot" system (e.g., a Level 6 priest gets 3 first-level spells, 2 second-level spells, one third-level spell), but there are only 11 spells for each spellcasting class. Mages get "Light Wound," "Evade," "Light," "Heavy Wound," "Invisibility On," "Invisibility Off," "Locate," "Lightning," "Fireballs," "Ice Storm," and "Castle" (as in, "return to"). Priests get "Disarm" (the only way to disarm, since there are no thieves), "Light Cure," "Compass," "Cure Poison," "Resist Fire," "Resist Ice," "Raise," "Heavy Cure," "Eye of Death," "Cure All," and "Restore."
Looking at spell options while facing an undead.
It soon become clear to me that the programmers had built DragonBlade to serve up a combat once every n clock cycles and hadn't accounted for faster models. (If I don't have that quite right technically, I'm sure someone will correct me.) Thus, the combats never end and you never get to explore the dungeon or even retreat out the back door. I tried Citadel of the Dead and ran into essentially the same problem. I could actually get a torch lit and occasionally move a step, but generally speaking I was trapped in an endless succession of combats from the moment I entered until they finally overwhelmed the party. Death is permanent in the game, although one weird feature is that enemies continue to attack slain party members in combat, slashing and bashing their helpless corpses. I guess that's good news for the survivors but still somewhat gruesome.
An inevitable message in my DragonBlade experiences.
The Basilisk emulator that I use for Mac games doesn't offer dynamic clock speed scaling the way that DOSBox does, and I was unable to find a Windows version of DragonBlade even though it existed. (I think Citadel was Mac-only.) I fiddled around with other models and settings in the Basilisk GUI, but I couldn't find anything that wasn't too fast. Thus, I tried GayBlade, for which I could only find a Windows version. This was my first experience emulating Windows 3.1, and it went about as smoothly as all my experiences with a new emulator, which means it took several frustrating hours to get it right (and would have taken longer if my commenter Lance hadn't given me a head start with his configuration).
There's no way it's the world's first. What about Leather Goddesses of Phobos? What about the game version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show?
GayBlade is a gay-themed game if by "gay-themed" you mean taking all the trappings of a typical computer role-playing game and replacing them with trappings of gay life. Not real gay life, but stereotypically flamboyant gay life, and not "replaced" in any thoughtful way but clumsily and senselessly. Let's start with the classes. In place of fighters, samurais, wizards, and priests, we get queers, drag queens, guppies, and lesbians. Mages and masters aren't even translated. Prime requisites are lowered significantly, and instead of default-naming every character "Dufus," this game picks names that begin with the character's class. You can only create four characters instead of being able to create up to 8 and only assign 4 to the party the way the other games work.
Assembling a gay party.
Then we get to inventory. Instead of useful items like armor and swords, we get aprons, mace (not the weapon, but the chemical spray), blow-dryers, press-on nails, and condoms. If the relative positions are any guide, purses are substituting for cloaks, tiaras for helms, press-on nails for gauntlets, and condoms for shields. Okay, I just got that last one. That's a little clever.

The ostensible goal of the game is to rescue someone named "Empress Nelda." But once you enter the dungeon, you're just in the same medieval dungeon as the straight versions. Some of the monsters are replaced with menaces to gay people, such as "FBI Probes," homophobic thugs who say "you fag" when they attack, televangelists, KKK grand dragons, and spineless politicos. You even have to face some external representations of inner demons such as suicidal tendencies and age spots. But there are also regular monsters carried over from DragonBlade, like giant insects and rats. The spells aren't "translated" at all. Drag queens get the priest spells.
The characters face an "FBI Probe" led for some reason by a naval officer.
I tried to last long enough to explore the first level. I'm pretty sure it's only 10 x 10. I didn't find any special encounters or navigation tricks. But my queers and lesbians and their mace and hairdryers were far less effective against enemies than the swords and armor of the fantasy versions. I hate the control system in all three games: they're mouse-buttons only, even for movement. I also hate the perspective, which insists you've hit a wall (not only subtracting a hit point but making you acknowledge a message) even though it looks like there's plenty of space.
Sure, it was "plainly marked." ONE SQUARE AHEAD of where I am.
I'll leave it to you, gay readers: what impressions do you get from this description? Are you happy to have any acknowledgement, even if the best it aspires to is high camp and doesn't really succeed even at that? This will be better served in a longer entry specifically on the topic, but milestones that I can remember for gay representation in RPGs are:
  • Ultima VI (1990): Earliest game that I can remember that allows same-sex sex, albeit with a gypsy prostitute.
  • Ultima VII (1992): Continues the tradition, albeit at a brothel.
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002): Made things equal-opportunity for creepy sex predators, as Crassius Curio will sexually harass males and females alike.
  • Jade Empire (2005): Introduced BioWare's from-then common theme of offering at least one same-sex partner, often a bisexual who could also be romanced from the other side. I remember accidentally falling into a gay relationship based on some tricky dialogue options.
  • Fallout: New Vegas (2010): In a game famous for not introducing "romance options" with its NPCs, the only exception (sort-of) is for lesbian characters.
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011): Introduced full equality. Any character who could be romanced, married, and bedded could be done by both men and women with no additional commentary. Unfortunately, all relationships were a bit boring and bloodless. 
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition (2015): Kicks up the complexity a notch with a wide cast of characters with a variety of racial and sexual preferences--plus mature attitudes (and a sense of humor) about sex and sexual situations.
I'm sure more experienced readers can think of more, but for 1993, I think you'd be better off playing a regular CRPG and just imagining the protagonist as gay rather than paying homage to this penis-lollipop take on gay themes. Even if you feel differently, I simply can't bring myself to fight rednecks with press-on nails and blow-dryers for 13 levels.

Thus, I guess I'm rejecting the entire group on "notability" grounds, although I'll hold myself open for taking up one of the medieval versions if I can get Basilisk to slow it down. I'm done with it for now; the game has kept me too long from Ultima VII.
Note: The title of the gay version is perhaps a reference to Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981), which not enough people have seen. Ironically, the authors removed swords and daggers from the game so that the characters no longer have any blades.


I've put Planet's Edge on the back burner because it's clear that I'm going to have to start over. I'll pick it up again after a couple of games have gone by; this isn't going to be another Magic Candle III. I just hate doing the same things I've already done, and I needed some space in between.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Black Gate: The C.S.I. Effect

The Fellowship has managed to infiltrate Britannia with the closest thing this world has ever had to a church.
For a game that gets really good, Ultima VII does not start promising. Particularly disappointing was the character creation process. This is the first Ultima since II not to allow any importing of characters. Character creation had of course reached its peak in Ultima IV, where the gypsy's questions sorted you into one of eight classes and determined your starting attributes. Ultima V and VI lowered the number of classes to functionally three (fighter, bard, and mage, with the "Avatar" class a kind of synthesis of the three) but still let you go through the gypsy exercise, the specifics of which were retconned in VI. You could choose a female Avatar for the first time, and select from about half a dozen portraits whether male or female.

Ultima VII offers the fewest options of any of the games in the series. You can only type your name and select your sex, and there's only one character portrait for each sex. And they're both horrible--although the male Avatar does fit with the canonical portrait ORIGIN has been pushing on players since VI, including the two Worlds of Ultima spin-offs.

I briefly considered playing a female character, which I never do for the Ultima series, but I didn't feel like looking at her portrait for dozens of hours, either. Why did ORIGIN reduce character customization? Was it just a matter of not wanting to spend the programming time to vary the portrait that shows up in dialogue? That's a lazy approach for a company that did such a meticulous job with everything else.
The female Avatar has Evil Resting Face.
I sighed and chose the male portrait, naming him "Gideon"--my official alter-ego for any character I'm really invested in. 

The opening moments beyond character creation are as chaotic as anything, especially for a new player. We start with a street scene in what turns out to be Trinsic. Two characters, one of them white-haired, are standing outside a stable and trading laments over some horrid event. Suddenly, the red moongate appears and spits the Avatar onto a paved (or at least cobblestoned) street with gas lamps--the first sign that Britannia isn't the same Dark Age kingdom we last saw. 
Where were moongates that open inside the city in the last couple of games?!
The white-haired, bearded man turns out to be Iolo, who immediately recognizes the Avatar despite not having seen him in--as he quickly reveals--200 years. Iolo and Dupre and Lord British are still alive because they originally came from Earth. No explanation is given for the longevity of the rest of the Avatar's companions. The time jump isn't really necessary at all, except perhaps to explain why Britannia looks more Colonial than Medieval. I don't buy the rapidity at which the Avatar returns to his friendship with people who haven't seen him in two centuries. I had some good friends when I was in my 20s, but I doubt I'd recognize them if I lived to be 220, nor would I attach a lot of significance to our friendship given all the other people I would have met, and all the other things I would have done, in that intervening time.

I soon learn that "something ghastly" has happened in the stables. The other person is introduced as a stablehand named Petre. I am encouraged to go and look in the stables for myself, which sounds fine to me. All I really want to do at this point is turn off the damned music. But I don't have time to do even that, let alone enter the stables, because there's a sudden earthquake. Iolo pipes up and suggests that Lord British might know the reason behind it. The tremor, we later find out, is caused by the events of the Forge of Virtue expansion. But, damn--did it have to happen immediately? This is like modern Elder Scrolls and Fallout games where you buy the expansions and you get 8 pop-up messages the moment the game starts telling you where to go to start the DLC missions. Could they maybe be spaced out a little?

Recovering from that, I'm about to move when suddenly the mayor of Trinsic comes hustling in from stage left. Iolo introduces him as Finnigan. Finnigan is doubtful that I'm the Avatar at first, but he ultimately relents and asks me to solve the murder that has just occurred. At this point, all my Avatar wants is a quiet room and an Advil, but he gamely accepts the quest, which immediately prompts a dialogue with Petre. When can I finally turn off the @#$&ing music!? Not only do I find it repetitive and annoying, I suspect it's responsible for the fact that the dialogue keeps freezing.
It's a choice, but "no" just gets you trapped in town.
It becomes clear that in fact two people have been murdered: someone named Christopher and a gargoyle named Inamo. After some more dialogue that I miss because the game froze and implemented all my clicks when it un-froze, I finally have control. I turn off the music and save the game, and immediately things start to improve. The first thing I notice is that, with the music gone, there are background noises. I'm a big fan of games that use sound effectively to create a sense of immersion, and ambient sounds are a big part of that. We have a couple of different types of birds chirping in the distance and waves crashing on the shore to the east (Trinsic is a coastal city).

As we discussed last time, the interface has gone almost all-mouse, something I find maddening given that Ultima pioneered the efficient use of the keyboard. You right-click and hold to walk, with walking speed increasing the further you get from the Avatar. You left-click to do almost anything else. Single-left-clicking looks; double-left-clicking talks and uses; clicking and dragging moves and picks up.
The Avatar's attributes.
There are still a couple of useful keyboard shortcuts: "I" to open inventories, "C" to enter and exit combat mode, "S" to save and load, ESC to close windows, and the venerable "Z" to bring up character statistics. It's here that I found my Avatar has 18 in strength, dexterity, and intelligence. There's a "combat" statistics for the first time, and I've started the game at Level 3 with the ability to train 3 attributes. Iolo is also Level 3 and has about the same statistics.

The inventory has been much discussed. You get an image of your character with lines pointing to slots for left and right hands, legs, armor, boots, gauntlets, rings, helm, neck, missile weapon, cape, and backpack. Ultima VII: Part Two will turn this into a proper "paper doll" screen where the character image itself changes to reflect what's equipped. For now, you click and drag things in and out of those slots. The Avatar has started with leather boots, leather leggings, leather armor, a dagger, and a backpack.
The Avatar's inventory and pack.
It's the backpack where things get crazy. You can stuff a lot of things into it (as well as bags and other containers), and the little icons freely overlap. Finding a small object like a key in a backpack full of torches, reagents, documents, and other objects is at least as hard as it would be to find a real key in a real stuffed backpack. Even though it's been almost 15 years, I remember that the last time I played, I organized items strictly by character--the Avatar has all the quest items; Iolo has all the food, and so forth--so I wouldn't go crazy.
So far, it's not so bad. The Avatar has started with a map, three lockpicks, a torch, 10 gold pieces, a cup, an apple, a bottle of wine, and a bread roll. I don't think the cup serves any use at all; although a lot of items can be used together in this game, pouring the wine into the cup doesn't seem to be one of the options.
All right. Time to explore dialogue. I double-click on Iolo and get six options: NAME, JOB, TRINSIC, STABLES, LEAVE, and BYE. These still aren't really "dialogue options"; they're just keywords. And I frankly preferred it when I had to type them myself, then watch for the response to see what other keywords I might use. Now, the keywords just spawn automatically in response to the dialogue. When Iolo tells me that his JOB is adventuring with the Avatar, I get AVATAR as an option. Clicking my way through them all, I learn that Shamino has a girlfriend who works at the Royal Theater in Britain and Dupre, who was recently knighted, is probably in Jhelom. (Have I been knighted? If not, why the hell not?!) Britain has grown to encompass Paws and the castle and dominates the east coast. Lord British will probably want to see me. 
Dialogue options with Iolo.
Petre has wandered off somewhere, so I finally enter the stable. This is accomplished via a "remove the roof" interface that I believe was pioneered by Charles Dougherty in either Questron II or Legacy of the Ancients. (I wonder if ORIGIN licensed the "look and feel" of this game element from Dougherty.) The interesting thing about Ultima VII's approach is that entering one building removes the roofs of all buildings, so you can see items and people inside adjacent structures even when there's realistically no way your characters would see into those locations.

Inside the stables is perhaps the most gruesome scene in any RPG so far in my chronology. (Well, no. I forgot about the two Elvira games.) The aforementioned Christopher is lying spread-eagle on the floor, each limb tied to an unspecified "light source," his body hacked beyond recognition. A nearby bucket is filled with his blood. The gargoyle Inamo is in a back room, pinned to the wall with a pitchfork.
It's cool that we've reached the point that such complex scenes can be graphically depicted.
Several tools are strewn around the stables, including a rake, a shovel, another pitchfork, and a pair of tongs. A key lies next to Christopher's body, and near Inamo is a sack with some bread, a torch, and a few gold pieces. Footprints are all over the dirt floor and head out the rear door. As my character investigates, I'm conscious of how much authentic role-playing I'm now doing. I mean, I already know basically where the plot is going, but I still take the time to go over everything in the stables. I move objects to makes sure nothing is underneath them. I click on things I'm not sure about to get their names. I investigate, realizing as I do so that this is one of the few RPGs up until this point to offer a level of graphical complexity and object interactivity detailed enough to make such an "investigation" possible. This is the future of role-playing in RPGs, I think. Sure, it's not bad to have dialogue and encounter "options" that let you maintain a consistent characterization or morality, but when the very interface of the game allows you to make decisions consistent with your character, you have something special. Unfortunately, Ultima VII will not only be one of the first games to support this kind of gameplay but also one of the last.

Petre the stablehand wanders in said rear door. He says he's the one who discovered the bodies. Inamo was apparently his assistant, and lived in the little back room. (Wingless gargoyles, I recall, are less intelligent than their winged brethren and used mostly for manual labor.) Christopher was a blacksmith who made shoes for the horses. Petre assumes the murderer was after Christopher (a logical guess given that his body was the one posed) and that Inamo was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We follow the footsteps out back and around the corner, where we soon come to the city gate. The gate is down and a guard patrols the room with the winch. His name is Johnson, and he says when he arrived for his shift, he found the previous guard, Gilberto, unconscious on the ground. This suggests the murderer made his escape through this gate, knocking out poor Gilberto on the way. I'd like to leave the same way and scout the outskirts, but apparently I need a password to leave the city (the manual alludes to this) and I don't have it. He suggests I ask Finnigan. I do climb up to the city walls and see the docks just beyond the gate. I have to wonder if the murderer didn't flee via boat or ship.
No clues this way.
Finnigan has taken off, so I settle in for a systematic exploration of Trinsic's streets, starting by heading right out of the stables. I note that double-clicking on the street signs gives me street names, and I'm pleased to find that I can still read the runic writing without a guide. The stable is on Strand. Slightly to the west, we come to (in non-runic writing) the Avenue of the Fellowship and, right in front of us, the Fellowship hall. Might as well get it out of the way. I take a deep breath and enter.
I'm a little concerned, on a role-playing level, that the Avatar technically hasn't been exposed to the Book of the Fellowship and thus has no reason to be cautious in his exploration of their hall. This concern is lifted when I find a Book of the Fellowship on a table right in the entryway. I imagine the Avatar reading it, asking Iolo, "What the hell?", and getting a shrug. 

The only person in the hall is a woman named Ellen, who says she runs the branch with her husband, Klog. She goes through the Fellowship philosophy and suggests that I see Batlin at the Fellowship headquarters in Britain to join. She claims to know nothing of the murder, having been home with Klog all night. I resist the urge to ransack the Fellowship hall and move on.
Hand-feeding my characters out of the backpack.
The Avatar complains about being hungry as we leave, so I feed him some bread. This is one of the legendary annoyances of the game. Characters have to be hand-fed throughout the game even though it's trivially easy to find food--one of several examples of a game element created for want of a true purpose.  

Up the road is the shipwright, Gargan, who offers deeds and sextants, neither of which I can afford. The notepad comes out and the "to do" list begins. Gargan has nothing to offer on the murder.
I was going to object to the name of the ship, but apparently some eels have scales.
I note that his house is filled with chests and containers. This is going to be true of a lot of houses in the game. Ultima VI was the first game in which the Avatar had an incentive to steal liberally from such containers, but this game is the first with no karma consequences. Instead of waiting until I have 80 gold pieces to buy a sextant, I can just remove one--and a gold bar besides!--from the pack in Gargan's bedroom. You can steal things right in front of the occupants--clean out entire stores while the owners stand mute in the center of the room--with no consequences. Well--almost none. Eventually, Iolo starts making some alarmed remarks.
Stop complaining about how hungry you are, and I won't have to steal a roast.
Heck, even the damned Guardian has something to say about it:
Really? Burglary is where you draw the line?
And I think maybe Iolo and your other companions leave you if you steal enough. The neat thing is that there's a real incentive to steal. You start the game broke, and the nature of your mission doesn't leave a lot of time for extensive wealth-gathering. But I'm going to stick to my tradition of taking my role as the Avatar seriously. I'll do it the hard way. The sextant and gold bar stay in Gargan's case.
I think you get the idea, so we'll speed things up from here:
  • A young woman named Caroline is on the streets recruiting for the Fellowship. She says that they have their meetings at 21:00. It turns out that Christopher was a Fellowship member.
  • There's a two-story house on the west side of town with a parrot on the first floor. No one tells me that it's Christopher's house, but the key we found with his body opens a locked chest on the second floor. The chest has a Fellowship medallion, 100 gold pieces, and a terse note that says, "Thou hast received payment. Make the delivery tonight." I take the gold and note.
  • Markus the trainer runs a store south of Christopher's house. He offers to train in combat skill. I decline, not having enough money, and forgetting how training works in this game. I'll revisit it later.
  • A guy named Dell runs an armory in the southwest part of town. We do find a secret lever that opens a back room stuffed with weapons and armor, but again I decline to steal. I spend 50 gold pieces on a sword to replace my dagger.
  • In the far southwest part of town, we find the healer. Gilberto is lurking around his shop with a bandage on his head. He didn't see his attacker, but he did note that The Crown Jewel was at the dock at the beginning of his shift and gone when he woke up from his concussion. He believes it was sailing for Britain.
Everything seems to be channeling me towards Britain.
  • The healer has a copy of The Apothecary's Desk Reference, which reminds me of the standard Ultima potion colors. Black is invisibility, blue is sleep, orange awakens, purple conveys magic protection, white is light, yellow heals, green poisons, and red cures poison. I think I already had that memorized.
Visitors from the NetHack universe are suspicious.
  • The pub and inn is called the Honorable Hound. The owner and server, Apollonia, openly flirts with me. I buy a bunch of loaves of bread. The inn's register shows that four people have stayed there recently: Walter of Britain, Jaffe of Yew, Jaana, and Atans of Serpent's Hold. I suppose the murderers probably didn't register, but you never know. We spend a night in the inn at the end of all of this.
There are so few role-playing moments in which "murder" and "flirt" are equally valid dialogue options.
  • I find Finnigan at City Hall in the center of town. He relates that he's been mayor for three years. The Rune of Honor, which used to sit on a pedestal in the center of town, was stolen years ago by someone claiming to be the Avatar. It somehow found its way to the Royal Museum in Britain. Finnigan thinks this is symbolic somehow. The most important information from Finnigan is that he was present in Britain four years ago for a ritualistic murder with similar characteristics.
  • Finnigan's office is hidden behind a couple of secret doors. I find them but don't find anything incriminating in the office.
This game is a bit odd in that it doesn't hide secret areas; it just hides the means to access them.
At 21:00, I peek in on the Fellowship meeting. It consists of Klug shouting the elements of the Triad of Inner Strength while the members shout things like "I believe!" and "I am worthy!" In between, Klug runs around lighting candles and occasionally genuflecting to the Fellowship icon behind the lectern.
Spark is unmoved by the testimony of Fellowship members.
The Guardian's face appears to taunt me as I enter Christopher's workshop on the south end of town. A boy named Spark--Christopher's son, which no one bothered to mention--is clutching a sling and running around frantically. He's supposedly fourteen, but his portrait makes him look about six. Spark tell us that his mother died a long time ago, so now he's an orphan. The Fellowship had been harassing his father lately, and a week ago Christopher and Klog had gotten into an argument. Christopher had been making something for the Fellowship--something probably stored somewhere in the smithy. Either Christopher was a bit disorganized, or someone has recently tossed the smithy.
Now that I know Christopher had a son, I feel bad about looting the gold. But Spark offers to give it to me for investigating his father's murder. He says that he woke up from a nightmare the previous night and went looking for his father, and saw a wingless gargoyle (not Inamo) and a man with a hook for a hand hanging around the stables. He begs to join the party, and I agree. He comes with leather armor and a sling. Honestly, how were the first words out of Iolo's or Petre's mouths not, "Christopher has a kid. We'd better go see if he's okay"?
I don't know when Iolo started calling me "milord," but I confess I don't hate it.
Where Christopher is dead and his son is part of the party, I don't mind taking things from the smithy. We loot about a dozen gold pieces and some clothing items. I try to make a sword by putting a sword blank on the firepit and operating the bellows, but I can't get the sequence right. I think it's possible. I don't find whatever Christopher was making for the Fellowship, unless it was pants or sword blanks.
Spark, you must have seen your dad do this before.
My time in Trinsic closes with a return visit to Finnigan, who questions me on all I've learned and pays me 100 gold for what I've uncovered so far. He puts me through a copy protection exercise before giving me the password to the gates of Trinsic: BLACKBIRD. All signs point to visiting Britain next. We head outside. I find nothing at the docks except the fact (which I'd forgotten) that the developers managed to animate waves crashing on the shore for the first time in an RPG.
Another first for the Ultima series.
Continuing a theme started in Ultima V, the developers do a good job making Trinsic feel like a real place. Each resident keeps a schedule, including going to work in the morning, eating or stopping by the Honorable Hound for an evening meal, going to the Fellowship meeting (if a member), and tucking into bed at night. Every NPC has a house with personal belongings. When it gets dark, they light candles in their houses. During the day, they open shutters with comments to themselves like "Too nice a day for these to be closed!" They have brief conversations when they encounter each other. A dog and a cat roam the streets.

This is all admirable, but the problem of course is that this simulation has come so far that we can no longer regard the NPCs and buildings we see as a representative sample of the real number of NPCs in town. They're clearly the entire population. The fabled city of Trinsic houses 10 people. By modeling daily life in such a realistic way, the developers call attention to the lack of realism inherent in population size. We notice the same problem even in modern games.
Finnigan won't let me leave town until I relate what I've learned.
I'm hard-wired to create typologies out of everything, and this is something that needs a typology. Very few games in the 2000s adopt the "old school" model of towns-as-abstractions, which is most obvious in "menu towns" but also exists in games like Ultima II, where the geography of each city is just the broadest lines with the most important places (e.g., shops but no houses). BioWare has adopted what we might call the "matte background" model where the parts of the game that you can explore are just the most important parts, but the graphics suggest unending blocks of additional houses and buildings in the background. They populate the streets with a dozen generic NPCs to every important NPC, cleverly annotating the difference with sharpness of color and other indicators.
Another model for which we need a name is the Assassin's Creed/Grand Theft Auto approach where there is a realistic number of buildings throughout the geography, including houses. You just can't go into most of them; it would take far too much programming time to give them all interiors. The streets are also teeming with generic NPCs with basic AI. It's far more realistic than, say, one of the cities in Skyrim, but also a little disappointing when there are so many doors you can't open.
The Elder Scrolls follows the Ultima VII model. The developers' philosophy is that you should not only be able to enter every building that you see but also find clothes in the closets and forks on the table. This comes with Ultima VII's drawbacks. Which model do you prefer, and can you think of a better approach (or one I didn't mention at all)?

Time so far: 3 hours


Potential bad news on Planet's Edge. I'm running into a bug where if I try to beam down to Rana Prime, the game not only freezes but somehow corrupts the files so that I have to fully reinstall the game, start it, create a new save, and then load an old saved game to get my former party back. But then it corrupts again the moment I try to visit Rana Prime. No one else seems to be reporting the same issue, so I'm not sure what to make of it. Rana Prime does seem necessary to finish the game. I'll keep playing with it; ideas appreciated.