Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ultima IV: Towns and Dialog

Pressing (z)tats is one of the only ways to pause the game. I'm not obsessed with myself.

As I mentioned recently, I last played Ultima IV ten years ago. Despite this, I still remember all of the virtues, which classes are associated with which virtues, and which towns are associated with which classes. I also remember the towns' basic locations and which companion I can pick up in each one.

There is a lot I do not remember, however, such as the locations of shrines and dungeons, the mantras for each shrine, the locations of the runes needed to enter the shrines, the specific things I have to do to achieve each virtue, the layouts of the towns, and all the things I must collect before the endgame. I also have trouble distinguishing in my memory between features of Ultima IV and later Ultimas--particularly Ultima V. (Which has the magic carpet? And in which do secret doors appear as barely-perceptible breaks in walls?) This is a good balance between remembrance and forgetfulness, and I only wish I could forget this much about Baldur's Gate. Maybe by the time I reach it again, I will.

The basic gameplay of Ultima IV is nearly identical to Ultima III, featuring a top-down perspective; a "tile-based" world with different physical features like trees, grass, and water; keyboard commands to do everything from (a)ttack to (j)immy a lock to (t)alk. The (z)tats key shows you your character statistics, which are strength, dexterity, and intelligence (wisdom was apparently jettisoned after Ultima III, as there is no longer a distinction between priest and mage spells). I was wrong in my last posting that my character starts with no equipment: I have an axe and a suit of leather armor. Ultima IV continues Ultima III's conventions of experience, levels, and magic points. As a fighter, I have none of the latter.

Ultima IV: Stats of the Avatar

Since I have begun the game on an island, there isn't much to do but enter the nearby city, see what I can figure out, and hopefully buy some equipment. This is the city of Jhelom, home to fighters; the game starts you near the city that exemplifies the character class you chose.

I wander through the streets and begin my first dialogs with NPCs. This is where Ultima IV really stands out. In Ultima II and Ultima III, you could talk to dozens of NPCs but they only had one thing to say, like "DIG FOR EXOTICS" and "KILL MINAX WITH THE QUICKSWORD!" Just as often they'd say something useless like "UGH, ME TOUGH" and "PSST, WANT TO BUY A WATCH?" In Ultima IV, by contrast, NPCs have lots more to say, and almost all of it is useful. Furthermore, the way in which you communicate with NPCs is completely unique: you type the keywords you want to talk about. (Aside from Ultimas IV-VI, I know no other game that has this interface.)

My first conversation occurs a little way along the main street of Jhelom. I (t)alk to a fighter walking by, and the game tells me "you meet a valiant warrior. He says: I am Slithe," and then gives me a command prompt at which I may type key words to further our conversation. As I remember from previous experiences playing the game, NAME, HEALTH, and JOB are the three words that nearly everyone responds to. (I remember that Ultima VII has a bit of fun with this by staging a play that suggests these are the only words the Avatar ever spoke.) This is how my conversation with Slithe proceeds:

  • HEALTH: "Only minor wounds!"
  • JOB: "I fight battles!"
  • BATTLES: "True valor is seen not in the force of arms, but in the force of will! Art thou valiant?"
  • YES: "Then never flee unless the need is dire!"

A few other tries at conversation elicit the response, "That I cannot help thee with," so I end with a BYE. Granted, not the most verbose of conversations in a CRPG, but already he's given me more information than an entire town in Ultima III, and as much as almost all NPCs combined in Wizardry or The Bard's Tale. Most important, I've learned something about how to achieve the "valor" part of my avatarhood: never flee from battle.

As you can see, the NPC's own responses help determine what keywords to use. Here's another:

"You meet a ranger with a far away look."
  • NAME: "I am Luke."
  • HEALTH: "Quite well."
  • JOB: "I seek the inner light!"
  • LIGHT: "I come from Skara Brae and am on my way to Yew. Hast thou been to Skara Brae?"
  • NO: "'Tis a spiritual city!"
  • YEW: "'Tis a city based on the virtue of justice!"

Now, if I didn't already know these things, this conversation would be quite helpful. In subsequent conversations, I learn of a red stone in the dungeon Destard, that I'll need to use that stone in an altar room to get "the third part of a key," and that I should stand my ground against non-evil creatures but try not to kill them. Throughout these conversations, there are a few chances to display or not display certain virtues. For instance, an enigmatic fighter named X asks me if I am the avatar. Since I am not, yet, I must say "no" or risk a blow to my honesty. Another character asks if I am "the most valiant of souls." To say "yes" would show a lack of humility.

Dialog is one of the most important features of Ultima IV.

Although most of the conversations in Ultima IV occur via prompts that you get from dialog, occasionally one character will tell you to ask another about a subject that you wouldn't have normally thought to ask about. For instance, at one point I meet a fighter named Hrothgar who tells me that another character named Aesop knows the mantra of valor. You would normally never get this from Aesop, a timid man hiding in the woods who questions his own bravery, but having been forewarned, you can mention MANTRA to him and find out that the mantra of Valor is "RA" and the shrine is on the next isle.

(One of the great things about playing Ultima IV with access to the Internet is I can find where some of these names come from. Aesop is obvious, but it turns out Hrothgar is an allusion to Beowulf (there's also a Hrothgar in Icewind Dale, I seem to recall). A fighter named Timrod could either be a play on the biblical Nimrod or an homage to American poet Henry Timrod. An essay written by the latter contains the line, referring to a man who has internalized his nation's character: "It is of no consequence, in his case, into what century, or what ultima thule, he may stray; he will still cary with him those characteristics which he imbibed from the national influences around him." A WikiPedia lookup on "ultima thule" reveals that it was a name used in medieval geographies for "any distant place located beyond the borders of the known world." Mind blown. )

For years, I have remembered Ultima IV's dialog system as a pinnacle of CRPG accomplishment, so I admit with some embarrassment that it doesn't quite live up to my memories. It's not in any way "bad," just not as good as I recalled. NPCs respond to such a limited selection of keywords that it really wouldn't have hurt the game if it had just given you those keywords (as games like Morrowind and Quest for Glory do). Moreover, typing words isn't quite the same thing as having dialog options, and Ultima IV doesn't really give you the latter. Except the ability to say "yes" or "no" to certain questions, you cannot have entire role-playing-driven conversations with NPCs the way you can in Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, or Neverwinter Nights. Nonetheless, this dialog system is very advanced for its time and makes the game a lot more interesting than any other CRPG of the era. You learn scads about the game world and your quest from your conversations.

My exploration of Jhelom is fairly swift. There are two people I cannot talk to because they're stuck behind locked doors--I'll have to get some keys to (j)immy them first. Presumably one of them is Geoffrey, who would join me if I wasn't already a fighter, as I don't see him anywhere else. With nothing left to do in town, I make my way out of the city. I'm in the process of wondering if I'm going to need to wait for a pirate ship to get off this island when suddenly a moongate (how could I have forgotten about those?) appears. I step in and find myself on another island, next to the city of Skara Brae. I still haven't had to fight anything yet. I suspect that's coming up.


  1. Regular reader here. I've been waiting for this game since Rogue. I hope you draw it out and write prodigiously about it.

  2. Thanks for sticking with me, Andrew. I'll do my best to be verbose about this game.

  3. This was a great post. One note about the conversations that I remember figuring out when I was a lad was that the NPCs only use the first four characters of what you type as their prompt. So instead of typing "health", you could just type "heal". I rapidly got in the habit of shortening everything I said to those folks. "I come from Skara Brae!" "Skar?" "It is a beautiful towne!" "Beau?"

    My character would probably be awful at parties ...

  4. I figured that out at some point, too, Tom, so I won't chide you for cluing me in over a month late.

    Someone ought to do a novelization of this game.


    Lord British sat wearily on his throne, half-watching the Jester Twins frolic in the corner of the room. He idly contemplated giving them keys to the jail to wear around their necks.

    Suddenly, the herald appeared. "My Lord! A stranger!" British perked up. Into the room strode a strangely-dressed young man, self-assured but slightly confused. Definitely, British thought, he definitely has a look of Earth about him. British rose in his throne.

    "Stranger! At long last, thou hast come! A new age is upon Britannia. The great evil lords are gone, but our people lack direction and purpose in their lives. A champion of virtue is called for. How may I help thee?"

    Lord British waited expectantly as the champion digested his words. At long last, the stranger opened his mouth.

    "NAME!" he bellowed.

    " name is Lord British, sovereign of Britannia," British offered, momentarily taken aback.

    "JOB!" shouted the stranger.

    British contemplated the man for a moment with a narrowed brow. "It's not so much a 'job' as a position," he said slowly, "but I rule all Britannia. I am seeking someone to complete the Quest of the Avatar."

    "AVAT!" the stranger barked.

    "The Quest of the AvaTAR," British corrected. "It's about being virtuous rather than just struggling for possessions and gold."


    British sighed. Carefully he explained about the eight virtues, ending with humility.

    Abruptly the stranger turned on his heels and strode out of the throne room. British shook his head as he watched him depart.

    "I'll take that as a BYE," he said. "Fare the well."

    The herald approached the throne. "Not the promised champion, after all, I take it," he said.

    British considered. "Oh, he may be that," he said at last, "But I fear he's also something much worse."

    The herald raised his eyebrows.

    British explained: "An American."

  5. Do more of this.

    Few people can write. Fewer still can write a good joke. Rarest of all are those who see a good joke as just the beginning of all that follows.

  6. Great review, even greater comment!

    One comment on dialogue options:
    I am currently trying to finish Baldur's Gate 1 ( totally my 4th attempt over the years, apparently i hate this game )
    and i find most of dialogues extremely shallow.

    In Ultimas IV,V etc. there was no "promise" of dialogue options that really mattered.

    In BG1 however there is a delusion of dialogues having a great impact and shaping out the game.

    Unfortunately what i really see is:
    - "NPC says something"
    ---Player Dialogue Options---
    A - I am evil and/or rude and i will ignore/fight you.
    B - I am good and/or weak and i will submit to your requests.
    C - I am an xp hunter and i'll take any silly quest you give me.

    I really hate that.
    I personally prefer no dialogue options to really shallow/simplistic ones.

    Fortunately in other games (Planescape:Torment) the dialogue options are much better.

  7. I see what you're saying, but I just don't feel the same way. Even if the dialog options are obvious, having them actually lets you role-play the various encounters. Some games obviously do them better than others, but I always appreciate having them at all.

  8. Conceding that yes, sometimes the writing style leaves much to be desired, I think what made NWN's conversations stand out to me is more due to the NPCs' reactions than to the PC's dialogue options.

    I can always (and usually do) make up my own lines in my mind, but to actually see an NPC react accordingly to the style of answer you'd have given is what clicks for me.

  9. Duh, that's when the killin' started it all and such. You never met them goblins down by duh square knot in duh bollows. Maybe you should wait uh bit for duh priest. He likes all those with shiny eyes. They sparkle better when duh nite began...

  10. Well, that's easily the most surreal comment I've had on this blog.

  11. *blink blink* Man, your blog gets the restringing spam. Mine just gets porn, pirated stuff and counterfeit stuff.

  12. Furthermore, the way in which you communicate with NPCs is completely unique: you type the keywords you want to talk about. (Aside from Ultimas IV-VI, I know no other game that has this interface.

    Wiz 7 has a similar way of communicating with NPCs.

  13. I think they were trying to make something like this in Fallout 1&2. You could input a keyword or ask a NPC something "other" than the normal conversations. I didn't find anything useful though, so it could be just something they left out. Must install Fallout and ask everybody NAME! HEALT! JOB!

    I must skip the rest of ultima posts, so I can enjoy them fullest.

  14. The only other CRPG which I know that a text parser is an important part of the game is Quest for Glory 1 and 2.

    For example QFG2 has a puzzle based around a conversation that if you don't pick the correct word to ask about, the dialog will just keep looping.

    Although it all depends if you think these games fall in the same category as Ultima IV!

    (On a side note Quest of Glory did have gems such as typing "pick nose", "Success! You now have an open nose")

  15. Keywords are an important part of conversation in Wizardry 6 and 7, at least!

  16. And V, I'm finding out. It doesn't have the same number of NPCs as the Ultima series, but it's still a welcome addition.

  17. Also, in the original Fallout and (I think) Fallout 2 you could both pick responses from a list and type your own, but it was limited to 'important' NPCs.

  18. Keywords questions were also in wasteland and veil of darkness.

  19. There was an old game called "Pathways into Darkness" that had a very similar keyword interface when talking to dead soldiers with the yellow crystal.

  20. The shareware Exile games from Spiderweb Software had a similar keyword interface. (I think the Avernum remake series changed it so you just clicked on the words instead of entering them, but I'm not completely sure I'm remembering that right.)

    There's also a shareware Adventure Creation Kit with the same system implemented.

    Both of these were clearly inspired by the original Ultimas, though.

    1. Whoops... remembered the rule about linking to commercial entities and was going to go back and edit my post to remove the links (an argument could be made that the games in question are "directly relevant to the material in the blog posting", but it's iffy), but apparently there's no way to edit it. Feel free to remove the links if you feel it necessary. Sorry about that.

    2. It's related enough. I instituted the rule because people were linking to Kickstarter projects and GOG games in practically every posting.

    3. I played Exile quite some time before I played Ultima 4. Those games were pretty cool. In fact, they must have been the first RPGs I ever played, because in the beginning all I played was Shareware (first commercial RPG must have been M&M6). Of course, I could never finish any of them, since I didn't buy the full games. I probably still have the dialog notes somewhere...

  21. Curiously the original Everquest MMO used the same method for obtaining quests. If you paid attention to the speech of the NPC you could find out huge amounts of the background lore. Also some of the epic quests introduced later in the game required you to know some of the lore so that you could prompt the correct NPC with right questions.

    I remember playing it through and thinking back to Ultima IV and its dialog options at the time.

  22. Dialogue: NES unfortunately continues the trend of NPCs only having a single thing to say. The SMS version however seems to keep the entire script in place with the exception that keywords are unlocked by conversation (with the same or other characters) rather than having the option to ask about the virtues, mantras, runes, or stones right away. Basically if someone in the PC version says go ask Pepper about the rune, you could start a new game, go straight to Pepper, type rune, and get the info. In the SMS, you'd have to first learn that Pepper knows about the rune, then you'd have the keyword ready when you speak to her. Standard keywords (job, name, look, health) are always unlocked.

    Strange, when you said 'YES' to that ranger, it gave you a response as if you said 'YEW'.

    1. I did say YEW. That was a four-year-old typo that no one else had alerted me to. Thanks!

      And thanks for commenting on all of these platform differences. It's interesting to hear about the other side.

  23. I'm surprised no one mentioned Tibia until now. When I first played this game about 2004, it was the first (and maybe the only) time I had this type of dialog system. You had to input what you want to know to any NPC on the game as well, starting the conversation with a "hi". The problem was the game is a MMO, and any player could talk with a NPC before you do, locking him to everybody else. The stores were all crumpling with players spamming "hi" until the NPCs was locked, and then would hold it on purpose for as long they wanted, just to no one talk to him.
    It was a mess and eventually they changed that to a particular thread for every player, so you could talk to an NPC and see his response just on your screen, giving the opportunity to another player do the same.
    Don't know how Tibia is handling that now, so many years after I played it.

  24. This post by you made me look at Ultima games in a new light. Come to think of it, the system of keywords IS a bit lacking in richness; yet, while playing for the first time, you never notice it because every word you know CAN be a keyword - you simply don't know it yet! And it, by itself, creates a feeling of "there is more!" in EVERY conversation - and, well, in some conversations, there IS!
    And, most intriguing of all - this system creates a distinct "detective novel"-like feeling, making you a bit of a Private Investigator like Sherlock Holmes, coming back to question the people he already questioned after getting some new clues.

    So... it even makes me wonder: how much fun would be a true detective novel game based on such an engine, where the keywords would be based on actual clues and little facts that you uncover one by one? =) True, there have been many "Interactive Fiction" games in history, and they had the parser interface from the beginning - yet, somehow, Ultima style - where only the dialogue is parsed, and everything else is graphical - seems very distinct and different from Interactive Fiction.


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