Monday, July 6, 2020

The Black Gate: Just Desserts

Part of the rather thin justification for the subtitle.
         
I strutted out of the Dungeon Destard feeling pretty flush. The party hopped the rug back to Britain and turned in their gems and nuggets and bars for a record 4,233 gold pieces. I thought those would last me the rest of the game, so imagine my surprise when I popped over to Cove, bought out Rudyom's spell inventory (he's doing well with the ether restored, by the way), and found myself knocked back to 1,700. Training would soon leave me with less than 1,000. Ah, the vagaries of fortune. I still have to buy spells from Nystul, Mariah, Penumbra, Nicodemus,  and Wis-Sur, so my need for gold isn't going to disappear anytime soon. It's a good thing I'm so devoted to checking out all the dungeons.
            
Here today, gone tomorrow.
          
Continuing in the order of virtues, my next cities are Yew, Trinsic (redux), Minoc, and Skara Brae. All of them are accessible from the continent. My commenters have waxed about the virtues of land travel and all the things you find serendipitously along the way. Persuaded, I leave my magic carpet at the castle and set out for Yew on land. We probably could get there faster by cutting northwest through the Serpent's Spine and the Great Forest, but I know that the road leading west from Britain eventually curves north along the west coast to arrive in Yew, so I take that. The road is no safer than the wilderness; we are attacked by headless, reapers (which look like fallen trees), and wolves along the way.
    
Long before reaching Yew, we find a two-story structure in the middle of the woods. A sign labels it as "Selwyn's Tower." There seems to be no way to get in--I try clicking all the walls looking for secret doors--but peering through a window, we can see a nice bed, a harp, and a Firedoom Staff just lying on the floor. Ultimately, we shrug and continue on.
             
No idea what this is about.
         
We make short work of some trolls guarding a bridge, cross, and soon come to a house belonging to a trainer named Bradman, named of course after the greatest cricket batsman of all time (apologies to Brian Lara, clearly the greatest of our time). His offer of two dexterity points and two combat points for two training points is a good deal--but it's essentially the same as what Sentri offers (1 combat and 1 dexterity for 1 training point), and Sentri is free. Plus, most of my characters need strength more than dexterity.
       
Up the road, we find what we're looking for with a trainer named Penni. She's the wife of Addom, the traveling trader that we met in Moonglow, and we have the opportunity to tell her that her husband is doing well. She trains 1 strength and 1 combat for 2 training points, which isn't a great deal, but I'm not sure you get a better one for strength alone. I'm not going to put off training forever in any event. Almost all the party members spend some time with Penni and at least equalize their strength and dexterity. Spark, who for some reason gets more training points per level than anyone else, goes from 13 strength to 22.
       
Spark is pretty buff after the last session.
          
Despite my constantly stuffing Iolo's backpack with every food item we come across, we've somehow run out, and the party members start mewling for food. Ultimately, I'm forced to cast:
            
Create Food (IN MANI YLEM, "Create Elements of Life"), Level 1. The spell creates one food item for every party member and scatters them on the ground. The created food is usually snack stuff like fruitcakes and cheese, rarely enough to shut anyone up for more than an hour or so. Besides that issue, I just hate spending reagents on it.
            
Iolo's place looks like a frat house.
          
Thus, I'm happy when we arrive at Iolo's place, which is a disaster--dust and garbage strewn everywhere. I don't know whether this is supposed to be a reflection of Iolo's character or the fact that he hasn't been around for a while. His wife, Gwenno, has left a note indicating that she left on an expedition to the fabled Serpent Isle. She wants Iolo to join her, but not until our current quest is done, which means she must not have left until after I arrived. The note mentions my character by name, and I always get a little tingle when the game actually incorporates your chosen character name. I don't know why my companions insist on calling me "Avatar." It's not programmatically hard to insert the character's name in dialogue.
          
Gwenno sets up the sequel.
        
Iolo's famous talking horse, Smith, hangs out in the stables behind the hut. Smith was always a likeable dolt--he is a horse, after all--in the previous games, but over the last 200 years, he's become an actual jerk. He responds to all my questions with sarcasm ("Job? Job? I'm a horse, what kind of job could I have? I can see it now: Smith--baker extraordinaire") and insults me every chance he gets. I have to actively threaten him ("will not make you glue") to get his CLUE, which is that the gargoyles are not evil and Rasputin is a "mean Martian." In both Ultima V and Ultima VI, Smith provided clues for winning the previous game--in Ultima VI only after a long treasure hunt instigated by Chuckles--and the running joke became somewhat funny. It's lost here, where Smith acts like such a jackass that you're more incensed about that then the uselessness of his clue.
          
You mean the money I don't keep when I'm unceremoniously sent home? Come to think of it, what does happen to that money?
          
Despite Smith's rudeness, I'm unprepared for what comes next. While looting the crates in the stables, I find several food items. Assuming that they belong to Iolo, and thus the party, I feed an egg to one of my starving party members. Immediately, Smith starts bucking and kicking and calling for the guards. Two pikemen show up despite the fact that we're in the middle of the woods and demand that I surrender for my theft. To avoid arrest, I have to bribe one of them with about half the gold I have remaining. This game is weird about ownership sometimes. 
          
Moving on, we next encounter a ranger on the road named Tseramed (avatar of lead programmer Ken Demarest). He's a strangely affable fellow, given to poetic orations on the area's flora and fauna. He spends a lot of time stalking and hunting giant bees, who live in a cave to the north, eating their honey, and making poison arrows out of their stingers. He asks me some detailed questions about how I prefer to fight, which makes me a bit uncomfortable. But he has some positive exchanges with both Spark and Iolo.
        
Maybe I should give the Rune of Justice to Spark.
       
He asks if we're members of the Fellowship, and I have to let him into the party to find out that he hates the Fellowship. His beloved, someone named "Lady M.," joined the organization. When she fell sick, Abraham refused to let her see a healer, and she died. Tseramed has sworn to bring Abraham to justice, but he can never quite seem to catch up with the Fellowship leader.
           
Maybe it's his obsequiousness that bothers me.
         
We trudge into the mountains with him, and sure enough the giant bees have made an enormous nest in the place. Strangely, in a side-cavern, we find a man and a woman, both naked around a fire. (The game notes that Spark gets an eyeful of the woman.) They refer to themselves as "Mama" and "Papa" and speak like cave-men, claiming that they were abandoned there as babies, although Tseramed insists it's an act. They say they co-exist peacefully with the bees, "make zug-zug" with each other, and sustain themselves on the bees' honey. They don't like Tseramed, who of course hunts the bees, and refuse to talk to us after a short conversation.
           
Even if they are, it's not like living naked in a cave is illegal.
       
There isn't much in the bees' cave except for stingers (which I give to Tseramed) and honeycombs, which I pick up, thinking we can eat them. The bees attack periodically, and we kill them when they do. No one is poisoned, which surprises me, but at one point I stop to count party members and realize we're one short. Tseramed died unnoticed in some side-passage. At this point, I realize I haven't saved the game in a dog's age--since back in Britain, likely. While I'm not willing to reload and play everything again, I can't just leave Tseramed dead in the cave, no matter how much I mistrust him. Fortunately, the Avatar is as strong as Hercules since the events of The Forge of Virtue and has no trouble carrying Tseramed in his off-hand until we find a healer.
         
The only shot I got of the bees is all bunched up in combat. Sorry.
        
Our first indication that we've finally arrived in Yew proper is a giant game board of 7 x 7 squares, with three game pieces lined up on each side, one set of knights and one set of winged gargoyles. A treasure chest sits in the center square. A plaque announces that this is THE GAME OF KNIGHTS BRIDGE. A book in Nicodemus's hut suggests rules for the game:
       
This is a board game for two players. Each player begins with three pieces. The object is to move thy three pieces in concert in order to force the treasure from the center of the board to thine own side. All the while, thine opponent shall be attempting to do the same. Each turn consists of a player either "moving" or "pushing" a piece followed by a similar action by the opposing player.
    
A legal "move" consists of placing one's piece in any adjacent, unoccupied black or white square. A legal "push" is performed when a player forces a piece, either an opponent's or the treasure, one space directly away from his piece. The exception to the latter rule, making a "push" illegal, occurs when a player wishes to "push" a piece into the space from which it just left in the preceding turn.
   
If any piece, excluding the treasure, is "pushed" onto a blue square or off the board, that piece is considered lost, and is removed from play. The treasure may not be "pushed" off the board. To win the game, a player must "push" the treasure to the back row of squares on his side of the board. 
            
We can move the pieces, but there's no one to play against. Just to see how it works, I try playing against myself. I can't tell from the description whether diagonal motion is allowed, nor whether you can "push" a piece into a square already occupied by another piece. I assume neither is allowed and play accordingly. Also, the only way the game makes sense is if when a piece is "pushed," the pushing piece then occupies the space from which the opponent piece was pushed; otherwise, the opponent can just move back again the next round.
         
In the midst of a game against myself.
         
To push the chest back to your own side, you have to maneuver one of your pieces around to the other side of the chest, while simultaneously blocking your opponent from doing so. I played a few rounds to try to get a sense of the strategy. A player who rushes a single piece to the center of the board to try to get the chest sooner has an advantage over an opponent who slowly moves multiple pieces forward, because he can start dribbling the chest back to his own side while his opponent is just getting out of the gate. But if both players rush single pieces forward, they end up shoving each other around to a stalemate until one of them can get a second piece up to help run interference. A lot depends on the first player. If he moves the same piece twice in a row, the second player should also concentrate on one piece until the treasure chest is temporarily safe. 
    
If both sides move conservatively, it becomes a real mess around the center of the board, and you have to watch out for your opponent double-teaming one of your pieces to shove it off the board completely. Once either side gets control of the chest from behind, it's hard to stop his momentum. You can shove him laterally away from it, but now you're on the wrong side of the chest and can't move it from your side until you get out of the way. In total, it's not a bad game. I just don't know why the game doesn't allow you to actually play it.
        
Don't use the passive voice. We repaired it!
            
Nicodemus is behind a magically-locked door nearby, and by the way he comes tearing out of his house the moment I unlock it, you'd think he'd been imprisoned. His mind is clear, but he surprisingly has nothing to contribute except spells and reagents. I guess he played a bigger role in previous games.
           
Unlock Magic (EX KAL, "Invoke Freedom"), Level 4. Unlocks magically-sealed doors. It and "Seance" are perhaps the only necessary spells in the game. Aside from a cannon, it's the only way to open most magical doors.
              
I soon come to the courthouse and its adjacent jail, which optimistically has only three jail cells. The high court official, Sir Jeff, is pompous but doesn't seem actively corrupt. The same cannot be said for the jailer, Goth, who makes me bribe him for information about the two prisoners as well as the jail key.
   
Why can I bake bread, paint, and forge weapons in this game, but I can't tell Lord British he needs to get his high court in line?
        
The prisoners are a troll and a pirate. The troll is named Gharl, and he's apparently in jail for extorting travelers on bridges. How he was subjected to the Britannian justice system instead of a sword is not explained. He complains that Goth hasn't been feeding him; we give him some food in exchange for a secret--that trolls have a "powerful ally" who "warns [them] in the head when trouble [is] around [the] corner." Sounds like the Guardian has been recruiting allies other than the Fellowship. The third cell has a skeleton in it. I think you wind up in there if you get arrested and don't have a chance to bribe the guards.
           
D'Rel almost gets it.
         
Between the pirate, D'Rel, and Sir Jeff's logbook, I stumble upon a major clue. The logbook lists "Hook," a pirate-turned-assassin, as the suspect in "at least fourteen murders in Britannia." Moreover, he's known to travel with a warrior gargoyle named Forskis and is rumored to have a hideout in or near Buccaneer's Den. D'Rel confirms what the book says. That's the first significant lead on the actual murderers since we left Trinsic.
        
14 murders! That's like 25% of the population of Britannia. How are we just hearing about this?
        
The book mentions two other wanted criminals. The first is a thief named Kellin who goes by the aliases Tarvis, Kreg, and Hodge. "Tarvis" was one of the names in the register in Britain. The second is Sullivan the Trickster, who we learned about in Jhelom. He likes to claim he's the Avatar.
     
Kellin is hiding literally next door. He greets us as we enter Empath Abbey, using the "Kreg" nickname. He claims to be working on research for which he will need a Potion of Invisibility. We call him out on his lies immediately, and pretty soon there's a dead thief. Sir Jeff couldn't be less interested, even after we drop the body in his office.
             
You liked those odds, did you?
         
There aren't many monks left at Empath Abbey, and as with the other cities and strongholds, the place has forgotten its role as the seat of one of the principles of virtue. The remaining monks don't do anything religious at all--they just pursue their own arts and make wine. Perrin is an intelligence trainer. Taylor is a naturalist and Aimi raises flowers and paints. I buy a bouquet of flowers from Aimi for no particular reason. I also try using her painting supplies. If you double-click a paintbrush, then click on a palette of paint, then click on a blank canvas, an image takes shape. You have to do it about 10 times, and even then it's not clear what the image is. It looks a bit like a portrait of a guy with a beard facing left.
           
Oh, shut up.
          
Taylor is the only one who has any response to the keyword JULIUS--Nastassia's father--which is one of the key reasons I visited in the first place. He only knows that Julius is buried in the cemetery but has no idea why. Neither does the healer, Reyna, whose mother recently died. She takes my flowers because she has trouble finding the time to pick her own.
         
I was going to give those to Nastassia. Oh, well.
        
The cemetery. It's tended by a man named Tiery who has this ongoing joke where he misunderstands everything. If you ask him about BUDDIES he thinks you're asking about BODIES and vice versa. He has absolutely nothing important to convey.
                   
I'm dreading all those grave stones the way I've come to dread in-game books.
           
The graveyard has 72 headstones, all but one written in runic. I can read runic, but it's not like, instantaneous. And yet I feel like I have to read all of them to find the one about Julius in case it imparts any additional information. I swiftly ascertain that the stones are mostly in-jokes about the game's design team. I try Googling a couple, and it's clear that for all that's been written about Ultima VII, no one has taken the time to translate all 72 of the gravestones on one page. So here you go, along with my notes about the stones' likely meaning and significance. Scroll to the bottom if you don't care.
          
  • BETH. DIED BY GARRIOT. (Despite the lack of a final "T," this clearly refers to Richard Garriott. No "Beth" is listed in the game credits, although a Mary Beth Miller is one of the writers.)
  • JACK. EATEN BY DINGOS. (Possibly a reference to writer Jack Herman.)
  • RAYMOND. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. (Likely a reference to lead writer and composer Raymond Benson. The James Bond movie of the same name did not come out until 1999, but Benson was known for his work on James Bond games and novels, and I believe "The World Is Not Enough" is stated as the Bond family motto in some early Bond books.)
  • NENAD. THE MUSIC MAKER. (A reference to sound artist Nenad Vugrinec.)
  • ANN. A DELICATE FLOWER.
  • ERIC. UNAWARE THE GAME WAS LOADED. (Possibly a reference to programmer Eric Brown.)
  • HERE LIES MARC AND WHY NOT. (There are Marks on the design team but no "Marcs" that I can see.)
  • BRUCE A. WE KILLED HIM. (There's a graphic artist on the game named Bruce Lemons, but no "Bruce A." that I can find.)
  • HERE LIES MYSTRAL. SHINED LIKE A CRYSTAL. (This one is likely not an in-joke. The stone is duplicated in the cave on Dagger Isle.)
  • TARG. A WORTHY OPPONENT. (Likely not an in-joke. This headstone is duplicated in the cave on Dagger Isle.)
  • JAKE. THE PARTY IS OVER. (Possibly a reference to graphic artist Jake Rodgers.)
  • LOUBET. HIS LAST BREATH. (Reference to graphic artist Denis Loubet, whose in-game avatar appears in Ultima V.)
  • HERE LIES JOHN. HIS WORK WAS NEVER DONE. (The design team had a John Watson, and one of the programmers was John Taylor.)
  • GARY W. MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES. (Likely a reference to graphic artist Gary Washington.)
  • KARL. A PORTRAIT OF TALENT. (Likely a reference to graphic artist Karl Dolgener.)
  • CHRIS D. AN EXPLOSIVE CHARACTER. (Likely a reference to graphic artist Chris Douglas.)
  • HERE LIES DONNA. SHE IS A GONNA.
  • BOB. HE MAKES THE GRASS GREENER. (Possibly a reference to graphic artist Bob Cook.)
  • DANNY. DEARLY DEPAINTED. (Possibly a reference to graphic artist Daniel Bourbonnais.)
  • BILL B. WE THOUGHT HE WAS ONLY WINGED. (Likely a reference to programmer Bill Baldwin.)
  • WITHIN THESE WALLS LIES MASTER RICHARD. (Possibly a reference to Origin founder Richard Garriott, AKA Lord British. Oddly, this sign is found outside a tomb with a magically-locked door. The plaque actually in the tomb is the next one.)
  • B. ADAMS. SPAINED A PERFECT RECORD. (This plaque appears in the tomb with the sign above but also on a second stone in the same cemetery. Brian Adams and Bruce Adams are both listed among the design team. I don't know what is meant by spained, but it's not my typo.)
  • CHARLES C. GUEST VICTIM. (Likely a reference to programmer Charles Cafrelli.)
  • A. H. DIED HONORABLY. (Possibly a reference to quality assurance team member Andrew Hoffmann.)
  • THE BEAST. IT WAS A FULL LIFE.
  • NINA. MAY HER SPIRIT SOAR.
  • MICAEL P. LONG TIME COMING. GONE FOR GOOD. (A reference to graphic artist Micael Priest.)
  • BRUCE L. HAD A FANTASTIC ENDING. (Likely a reference to graphic designer Bruce Lemons.)
  • JEFF W. DANGER RADIATION. (Likely a reference to programmer Jeff Wilson.)
  • GLEN. WENT WITH A SMILE. (Possibly a reference to graphic artist Glen Johnson.)
  • PHIL S. A VICTIM OF VENOMOUS FATE. (Likely a reference to programmer Philip H. Sulak.)
  • HERE LIES JOHN DOE. BURIED WHERE HE DIED.
  • PAUL. ODD HOW AWAKE SLEEP MADE HIM. (Possibly a reference to programmer Paul Meyer.)
  • MR. MIKE. LOST EARLY FROM A BOUT WITH GUMPS. (Possibly a reference to programmer Mike McShaffry. "Gumps" is a reference to Graphical User Menu Pop-Ups, the driving interface of the game.)
  • WILL. HE WAS A REBEL AND A RUNNER. (Possibly a reference to programmer Will McBurnett.)
  • TONY B. A CREDIT TO HIS NAME. (Likely a reference to programmer Tony Bratton.)
  • PHILIP. SPELLS MASTERED HIM. (Possibly a reference to programmer Philip Brogden.)
  • CHUCKLES. LAUGHED TILL THE END. (Chuckles is the jester in Lord British's castle and the in-game avatar of programmer Chuck Bueche.)
  • MARTIN. THE NOTES WERE TOO SHARP. (Likely a reference to sound lead Martin Galway.)
  • JEFF D. DIED WITH A PENCIL IN HAND. (Likely a reference to art director Jeff Dee.)
  • HERE LIES KEN. KILLED BY A PEN. (Probably a reference to lead programmer Ken Demarest, whose avatar appears in-game as Tseramed.)
  • TONY Z. A GOOD SOURCE FOR GUMPS. (Likely a reference to programmer Tony Zurovec.)
  • ZACK. HE DEMANDED ATOMIC DEATH. (Possibly a reference to programmer Zachary Booth Simpson.)
  • JIM G. HE WAS A WONDER TO US ALL. (Likely a reference to programmer Jim Greer.)
  • ART D. BIT THE RUMP OF A BIG BAD GUMP. (Likely a reference to programmer Arthur DiBianca.)
  • ALAN. LOOKED GREAT IN PINK. (Possibly a reference to associate producer Alan Gardner.)
  • DALLAS. WENT DOWN WITH THE SHIP. (Reference to executive producer Dallas Snell and probably something to do with the Electronic Arts takeover of Origin.)
  • LADY M. YOUTH IS HERS FOREVER. (One of the few stones that is clearly based on someone in-game. "Lady M." was the beloved of Tseramed the ranger. She joined the Fellowship and died when she fell ill and a Fellowship leader refused to let her see a healer. She's also the author of the in-game book A Guide to Childcare for the Rich and Famous. Her stone is the only one in the graveyard not written in runic.)
  • SCOTT H. GONE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW. (Likely a reference to designer Scott Hazle.)
  • MICHELLE. HUNG FOR POISONING LOVER. (A Michelle Caddel was on the design team.)
  • GARTH. SORRY ABOUT THY THUMB.
  • JULIUS. MAY HIS SPIRIT REST FOREVER. (This is the father of Nastassia from Cove; the reason I cataloged all these epitaphs in the first place.)
  • MALC. HIS WORDS REMAIN WITH US.
  • IN LOVING MEMORY OF MAMA. (This grave is offset from the rest in its own plot outlined with stone. It is probably the mother of the town healer, Reyna, who discusses her recently-lost parent with the Avatar.)
         
The only grave marker in gold.
             
  • ANDREW M. NEVER GOT CLUED IN. (Likely a reference to writer Andrew P. Morris.)
  • ROBIN. SHE GAVE SUNSHINE TO US ALL.
  • SHERRY C. MANAGED UNTIL THE END. (Likely a reference to quality assurance team member Sherry Cain.)
  • KAREN. QUALITY WAS JOB ONE. (Likely a reference to quality assurance team member Karen Conroe.)
  • MARCO. UNDERFED, UNDER GUN, UNDERGROUND.
  • HERE LIES BEN. ALL TESTED OUT. (Likely a reference to quality assurance team member Ben Potter.)
  • LYNN. SHE HAD THE GRACE OF A SWAN. (Likely not an in-joke. This one is duplicated in the cave on Dagger Isle.)
  • SCOTT. BURIED AN AXE IN HIS HEAD. (Possibly a reference to test supervisor Scott Shelton.)
  • JAMES N. LAST WORDS: I DRANK WHAT? (Likely a reference to quality assurance team member James L. Nance.)
  • NATHAN. BLOWN AWAY BY GROGS FIREBALL.
  • DUKE. VENI, VIDI, EXII. (Whoever he was, he came, he saw, he left.)
  • CHENAULT. ME PUERGO CANUS MEUS URIT. (Likely a reference to quality assurance lead Michael Chenault. I can't figure out exactly what the epitaph is supposed to mean. Something like "Save me from gray hair and burns.")
  • DAREK. HIS DAYS WERE NUMBERED.
  • BRIAN. SWALLOWED BY THE MONSTER. (The design team had both a Brian Adams and a Brian Martin.)
  • J. CRIPPEN. TO DIZZY AND TC COCOPUFF. (No idea on the epitaph, but this is a reference to quality assurance team member Jarrett Crippen.)
  • TIM. THE UNKNOWN TOMBSTONE. (Possibly a reference to quality assurance team member Timothy Hardy.)
  • J. SHELTON. HERE I LIE BUT STILL I ROAM. (A reference to quality assurance director Jeff J. Shelton.)
  • MIKE H. EVERYTHING FIT TO PRINT. (Likely a reference to manual and package designer Mike Harrison.)
           
Julius's stone gave me nothing at all, so the whole exercise was mostly a waste of time. We wait around the graveyard until midnight, hoping for a ghost on which to use my "Seance" spell, but that doesn't work, either. I leave town feeling like I've let Nastassia down.

As we walk away, a couple of things occur to me. First, everyone referred to the town as "Empath Abbey." I'm not sure a single line of dialogue had the word "Yew" in it. Is Yew just gone? Or is "Yew" the collection of huts in the woods, stretching nearly down to Britain, spaced (game) miles apart from each other?

Second, nobody really embodied the spirit of justice--except perhaps for Tseramed, who's looking to get justice for his lost love. We haul his body back to Lord British, get him resurrected, stick the Rune of Justice in his pocket, and send him home. I don't know exactly why I don't keep him. Something seems "off" about him to me. There's nothing wrong with him, exactly, but he's not really one of us.
       
Lord British restores Sentri.
           
The Shrine of Justice is pretty far east of Yew and the Dungeon Wrong is even farther. From Britain, we march north through the Serpent's Spine and keep going through the Great Forest. We come across a troll encampment in the woods, and my party members start shouting at me when I eat the slain troll's slabs of meat. This game is weird about food ownership.
 
For all the talk of most of the shrines being overgrown and neglected, most of our visits have found them in pretty good shape. The Shrine of Justice is no exception. Except for a single gremlin--which leaves a bunch of grapes when it dies--the place is in fine shape, with a gavel on the altar. We meditate on justice and continue east.
          
Nothing amiss at the Shrine of Justice.
          
On the way to the Dungeon Wrong, in the thick of the forest, we start seeing blue trees. Some of them have tree-houses in them, and some of those have little furry critters scuttling around. These are the Emps, making their first and only appearance in the Ultima series, although there is a fan theory that the Emps are the "Fuzzies" of Ultima III. Vegetarians, they are horrified at the thought of meat, but they are particularly fond of honey, and it just so happens that I have plenty of it from the bee caves, having only recently realized that the party can't eat it.

I meet four Emps: Tavenor, Trellek, Trellek's wife Saralek, and the elder Salamon. "Julius" is surprisingly an option when talking to Trellek, and he reveals that Julius died saving an Emp family from a fire, and that the Emps brought him to Empath Abbey for burial. I'm glad I stumbled upon the Emps, then, but you'd think that there would be some hint in Yew about visiting them.
         
It was ever thus.
           
The Emps are concerned because humans are cutting down their Silverleaf trees. Salamon wants me to do something about it and, for some reason, take Trellek with me. She hands me a contract. At this point, I determine that I have some scroll in my backpack that causes the game to crash to DOS when I try to read it. I haven't saved since my last trip to Britain, when Lord British resurrected Tseramed, so I spend some time identifying the scroll that causes the problem, discarding it (I hope it wasn't important), and then walking back to the Emp village.
          
Salamon's document isn't so much a "contract" as a "cease and desist" letter.
         
I don't know where I went wrong, but I can't get Trellek into the party. When I ask him to join, he wants me to get Saralek's permission. She wants me to get Salamon's permission, even though Salamon suggested it in the first place. Then, after I have Salamon's permission, the dialogue options for Trellek to join disappear. Meanwhile, Salamon's contract is just made out to a generic "woodsman"; I have no idea where he lives. I'll deliver it if I see him, but I guess I really didn't want an Emp in the party anyway, so I leave without Trellek. If there's a good reason to come back for him, I will. (It occurs to me later that I may have misunderstood some dialogue, and that getting the woodsman to back off may have been a prerequisite for Salamon's permission to let Trellek go.) I hope I haven't otherwise found an eighth party member by then. Imagine telling any one of these people that you have to let them go so a fuzzy little monkey--who abhors killing--can join in his stead.

In a mountain range to the northeast of the village, I find the Dungeon Wrong. There are actually three separate small dungeons, in three separate clusters of mountains, but each looks relatively similar on the inside. As in Ultima VI, the dungeon is man-made, and laid out in a series of cells, as if it had once served as a prison for criminals convicted in Yew. An awful lot of them have skeletons in them, which doesn't say a lot for Britannia's justice system lately. Neither does the mass grave or the torture chamber.
      
This must have smelled great back in the day.
This guy not only died in his cell but somehow got charred.

True justice sometimes requires a guillotine, but rarely a rack or an iron maiden.
          
The administrators' offices look to have been abandoned for decades, but there is one active guard patrolling the northernmost dungeon. He'll speak to you if you double-click on him, but he just has the generic rude guard dialogue. The other denizens are all hostile--ghosts, skeletons, spiders, rats, headless, trolls, and slugs. There's even a lich in the northernmost dungeon. He killed Sentri and I had to take him back to Lord British for resurrection.
      
Is someone still paying you?
A lich schemes behind a locked door protected by fire fields.
      
There are a couple of traps that generate fire or poison fields across the corridor, and it reminds me that I hate this spell:
      
Destroy Field (AN GRAV, "Negate Energy"), Level 5. Destroys fire, energy, and poison fields. Of these, energy fields are the most important because you can't walk through them. The spell is very literal and only destroys one square's worth of "field," and the field is usually made up of multiple squares. Since you have no way of directing the party through the one square you've destroyed, you either have to destroy them all or walk the party through active fire or poison fields regardless.
      
We leave the dungeon with a few extra gold nuggets, a new magic sword for Sentri, and a few more reagents and supplies. Nothing like the treasure haul that was Destard. But Spark somehow loses his magic axe in the process, so it's almost a wash.

As I said, the "dungeon" is actually three separate small dungeons, none any longer connecting to Covetous like it did in Ultima VI. Although all three are close together, the Lost River cuts between the second and third, requiring the party to walk south practically to Cove to cross the river and go back north to the dungeon. I use this opportunity to visit Cove and to tell Nastassia about her father. She is grateful and emotional for the news, shouting to the heavens:
        
Didst thou hear that, mother? Thine husband was only trying to provide for his family! And he died a hero! He was not a vagabond! Dost thou hear! Thou canst rest thy tortured soul now. Please, mother. Forgive him. Do so, so that I can now forgive thee.
      
That's what counts.
           
Afterwards, she invites me to spend my life with her if I ever "become weary of adventuring." That's a sweet offer, but I don't know if I'm quite there yet, having only spoken to her for about 15 minutes. Not to mention, there's still plenty of adventuring to do. The question now is whether I stick to my previous plan or head directly to Buccaneer's Den to look for Hook.

Time so far: 51 hours

63 comments:

  1. Huh. "I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said: "I drank what?"" is a quote from the movie Real Genius. Probably the joke predates the film. I would expect to be able to dig that grave up and get a vial of poison, in a different game.

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  2. You can meet Selwyn in one of the dungeons. I don't think it's ever explained why Yew is now a forest instead of a city (and in the sequel, it becomes a city again...) "Papa" and "Mama" ner sebz lrj naq ner uvqvat gb nibvq cnlvat gnkrf. And yes, you do end up in that prison cell if arrested, and it's predictably easy to get out of.

    "The music maker" is likely a reference to the poem by O'Shaughnessy.

    And yes, there is a hint about where the Emps live, but it's probably given later (when the plot requires that you visit them).

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  3. "[Unlock Magic] and "Seance" are perhaps the only necessary spells in the game."

    If not strictly necessary, Telekinesis and Dispel Field are pretty close.

    Because of the training boost, Spark gets pretty good after a while. I figure it was their way of showing him growing up from boy to man, and it also makes it easier to keep an important story character around. Tseramed is also an above average joinable NPC, but by no means necessary.

    Like with Penumbra, a lot of the confusion you encountered here is from doing things out of the expected order. I think it will work out fine and you'll be directed to return here once you trigger other story events.

    "The third cell has a skeleton in it. I think you wind up in there if you get arrested and don't have a chance to bribe the guards."

    Yes, and it's a little interesting that they give you multiple ways to escape, both displaying terrible security protocols: Lbh pna svaq zbarl ba gur pbecfr sbe n oevor, be n uvqqra yrire sbe n frperg rfpncr qbbe.

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    Replies
    1. I feel bad for that skeleton, dying in the jail cell mere feet from a secret escape lever.

      Delete
    2. Maybe the thing that really sets the Avatar apart from mere mortals is a top-down viewpoint. I bet that guy would have lived if he could see the entire screen.

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    3. All he had to do is use his bucket once.

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    4. Perhaps he was stabbed in a struggle then thrown in the cell and died during the night from his wounds, meaning he never got the chance to use the bucket (rather, he 'kicked the bucket').

      What concerns me is that the jail staff would just leave a pile of bones in a cell.

      Delete
    5. What about before the bones? "Hey Cell 3 is starting to stink a bit""He's probably staging a dirty protest, won't be bringing him food while he keeps that up!"..Couple months later, they think he has stopped his protest to find his skeleton. "Hmm, makes a good ornament, gives it that real dungeony look, lets keep it"

      Delete
  4. It may just be in the hint guide, but the reason Yew isn't around is that the people of Yew scattered through the woods to avoid tax collectors and live at peace with nature once again. This lead to the jail being relocated to Empath Abbey as well.

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    Replies
    1. To avoid tax collectors, they broke up an entire town and physically moved their houses? That's some Free State Project-level dedication.

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    2. Indeed! I think it was to illustrate just how bad the wealth disparity in Britannia has gotten.

      Britain and Trinsic are huge and wealthy and well kept, while all the other cities and towns are destitute and rife with issues no one is solving.

      Delete
  5. Does Michael Cranford have a website or contact details? I was going to ask him the meaning/source of a quote in Bard's Tale 1 ("Lie with passion and be forever damned")

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    Replies
    1. My guess is that this is an oblique reference to some passage from the Bible (maybe James 1:14? Not clear) - Cranford put a lot of them in BT1 / BT2.

      Delete
  6. There's something about a cute sweet-loving forest-dwelling race that strikes me as particularly emblematic of the early 90's. A little earlier and they might not be so loveable and technicolor; a little later and they would have been replaced with an edgy, hardcore "resistance" of some kind. It's one of the things I miss about earlier fantasy; to be marketable now, you have to have a bunch of burly dudes hacking eachother's limbs off and getting PTSD every other week. The occasional bit of goofiness and levity is something I miss a lot in modern fantasy. If the Hobbit were written today, it probably wouldn't have hobbits in it at all.

    I was quite proud of myself for figuring out the trick to Selwyn's Tower. For a minor hint, the answer lies in orvat noyr gb ybbx guebhtu gur jvaqbj.

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    Replies
    1. I believe you can see in that screenshot what you need to do, and recent purchases should surely have given him the means. Probably doesn't need ROT13, as it's a little optional area.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, I temporarily forgot that "Telekenesis" works through walls. I keep thinking you need to have a line-of-sight with the thing you're manipulating.

      Delete
  7. Amazing! Only at the CRPG can you get the English translation of all 72 runic headstones!

    Enjoying the Ultima VII series immensely!

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  8. PetrusOctavianusJuly 6, 2020 at 3:34 PM

    "These are the Emps, making their first and only appearance in the Ultima series,"

    They also appeared in The Ultima 6 Project. I guess some fans really liked them.

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  9. I did not expect to see a cricket reference here!

    There are at least two ways into Selwyn's tower:
    (1) Lbh jvyy zrrg Fryjla ng bar cbvag naq gung rapbhagre jvyy tvir lbh gur zrnaf gb npprff gur gbjre.
    (2) Be lbh pna creuncf svaq n jnl gb syvc gur yrire lbh pna frr va lbhe fperrafubg.

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    Replies
    1. I spent so much time in Trinidad and Tobago between 2007 and 2012 that I think I can say I "lived" there. If you spend any time at all in Trinidad, you learn cricket very fast. I never came to love the sport, but I have good memories of long matches on hot nights with many local friends, so I keep up with it. Man, I really miss those people. And their food. Trinidad isn't the sort of place that you just visit casually, so barring another contract down there, I'm not sure I'll ever get to go back.

      Delete
    2. I too was surprised to see a cricket reference, and more detailed than a simple passing comment!

      Lara was a phenomenal batsman, and despite being an Australian, the West Indies have long been my team!

      Delete
    3. The Windies were the strongest team in the world for two decades, their tours of Australia were massive events, and there has never been a more compelling lineup of players.

      You gotta go for em', it's tradition!

      Delete
  10. Of course Spark gets more training points than anyone else. When you're a child, you're much quicker to learn nrw things than when you're a grown adult!

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  11. "We make short work of some trolls guarding a bridge, cross, and soon come to a house belonging to a trainer named Bradman, named of course after the greatest cricket batsman of all time (apologies to Brian Lara, clearly the greatest of our time)."

    Sachin Tendulkar would like a word with you.

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    Replies
    1. Sachin Tendulkar can have a word when he scores a 502.

      Delete
    2. Do you rate a batsman on their greatest performances, or consistency over a long period of time? Lara easily wins the former, but I'd give Tendulkar the edge on the latter, having played more games and coming out with a higher batting average than Lara overall.

      But hey, they were both great, and Lara at his best was probably better. Sachin's in that conversation though.

      Delete
    3. I don't actually have any strong opinion about it. I like Brian Lara because of my association with Trinidad and because I used to get my aloo pie every morning from a vendor on the Brian Lara Promenade in Port of Spain. I'm sure there are many equally good cricket players in other nations depending on what metrics you use.

      Delete
    4. I'm more of a Lara fan myself, having decided at a very young age that the West Indies were my cricket team of choice (probably because they had a bowler nicknamed Big Bird). I couldn't resist a quibble though!

      I was a big cricket fan in the 90s and early 2000s, but I've drifted away from it. The game was a lot more fun when it was heavily populated by fat guys with moustaches.

      Delete
    5. PetrusOctavianusJuly 7, 2020 at 5:34 AM

      But can you get to second base in Cricket?

      Delete
    6. I'm a massive fan of cricket and have seen the Tendulkar vs Lara debate played out hundreds of times, but I must admit this blog was the last place I thought it would come up!

      Delete
    7. No, but you can bowl a maiden over.

      Delete
  12. Do I remember correctly that you can double click the Iron Maiden and the Avatar will go into it and take damage?

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    Replies
    1. I tried to get that to work, but I couldn't use any of the torture equipment. I think maybe that was just in Ultima V.

      Delete
    2. I think you have to stand in it and close it on yourself. It's hilarious.

      Delete
    3. Not sure about U7, but it works in Serpent Isle.

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    4. The speedrun for Serpent Isle uses the iron maiden as a method of death-warping. The Avatar totes it around just for that purpose.

      Delete
  13. "Scroll to the bottom if you don't care."

    Given I feel the same way when discovering a pile of headstones in RPGS...

    (Just wait til you get to the gold-text NPCs in Pillars of Eternity, flagged for having backer stories which have no real relevance to anything in-game)

    My dad was a good cricketer, so I grew up playing it. I used to follow it assiduously. You're obviously right about Bradman and while not everyone would agree on Lara he's certainly not a controversial choice, and he was wonderful to watch. I'd love to see a live game in the West Indies one day.

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    Replies
    1. I really enjoy the fluff, but the gold NPCs in Pillars of Eternity were too much for me. I enjoyed the game much more after ignoring them

      Delete
    2. Agreed! The idea was interesting, but there were far too many of them.

      Delete
    3. There's some mods that make them less noticeable and disables their dialog, and installing them made the game far less annoying.

      If your writing isn't good, then at least don't provide so *much* of it!

      Delete
    4. It also took me waaaaay too long to realize that *none* of them would ever have anything relevant to the gameplay. They really should have had an option to turn them all off at start or something.

      Delete
    5. I eventually looked it up when I got more and more confused by them in game. I was so pissed off that it was a dumb Kickstarter thing that I quit playing and never looked back.

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    6. I had to Google to make sure that they weren't relevant to the plot.

      That's one clear example on how not to do Kickstarter backers' rewards.

      When I find a bunch of tombstones in an RPG I feel the same dread as when finding a stack of books.

      My mild OCD compels me to read them, and I feel I SHOULD read them to fully experience the lore. But boy, it is SO boring.

      So I end up sampling/skimming through them and call it a day.

      Delete
    7. It's great that Kickstarter gave life to so many projects that would have never been published by a major studio, but it sure sucks that the lack of professionalism makes them do stupid crap like Pillars of Eternity. I remember one game where the manual was a Kickstarter exclusive. That's right, the manual. Well, you're just supposed to play and figure things out. Ecchh...no no no.

      Delete
    8. It could have been executed much better. I imagine 10 to 20 backer NPCs in the whole game wouldn't have been so bad.

      Delete
    9. There's a reason why these days most Kickstarters tend to numerically limit reward tiers where backers get to contribute content. You can plan for integrating a dozen backer NPCs meaningfully into the world. You can't when there's 50 or even 100 of them.

      Generally, backer contributions should either be indistinguishable from the normal content (like backer photos as a base for NPC portraits - the NPC would have gotten a portrait anyway) or actually offer something of interest to the player. Tides of Numenera did it very well, I immediately spotted the backer item contributed by RPG Codex (The Face That Never Remembered) but to anyone unfamiliar with Codex lore, it will just look like a regular weird artifact. I probably picked up a dozen backer items in that game without noticing they were backer items.

      Delete
    10. Not sure it’s far to say PoE lacked ‘professionalism’ - It’s a pretty strong RPG entry.

      @Jarl - I definitely thought ‘wtf is this’ when I came across Codex’s addition to Wasteland 2.

      Delete
    11. Divinity Original Sin also had a pretty funny (and pretty big) Codex contribution. Dunno how obvious this one was to outsiders. A bunch of imps based on Codex admins, iirc. And then there's Dead State where the RPG Codex is a small RPG store with a bunch of rabid zombies in the basement.

      I don't even know if there was a Codex reference in PoE because I quickly learned to ignore the backer content there. Too many of those golden NPCs, and all of them had huge walls of text that didn't have anything to do with the rest of the game. Wasteland 2's backer content was more interesting because it had small locations to explore. Just some dude who tells you his novel-sized life story but nothing of what he tells you is connected to a location or quest in the game is just boring.

      Delete
    12. Pillars of Eternity wasn't that bad with the backer NPCs. Most of the NPCs were front-loaded into Gilded Vale and Defiance Bay. I don't recall there being that many in Act II and Act III locations, though there were likely a few.

      There's also a loading screen that cautions you about clicking on the NPCs if you value your immersion, as well as another screen regarding the gravestones and memorial plaques.

      Granted, on a NVMe drive the loading screens last about one second.

      Delete
    13. Yeah once you get by Defiance Bay it's not as bad in PoE. The front loading really didn't help. The RPG Codex easter egg in PoE was one of the better implemented ones for that game as a little optional side area with some silly items you can buy. Part of what makes the White March sooo much better than the base game is how little distraction/clutter from things like Kickstarter NPCs there is.

      Delete
  14. If I recall correctly, you're right that you need to deal with the logger before the emp will join you. No reason to worry about it being a bug.

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    Replies
    1. That's right, but the game shouldn't even be offering this option yet as it makes no sense for the Emps to consider joining you at this point. It's the Penumbra out of sequence issue again, and so it's best to just leave it until the story directs you back here.

      Delete
  15. I just don't know why the game doesn't allow you to actually play it.

    Wouldn't surprise me to find out that was cut content. I keep comparing U7 to my first Ultima experience, Ultima Online, which did allow multiplayer checkers, chess, dice, and I think backgammon.

    The game was quite an experience in 1998, when I started playing. Pity EA bloated it with expansions, though Everquest fared worse in that regard.

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    Replies
    1. I don't think the U7 engine allows NPCs to move items around, including chess pieces... and without that, the engine was already pushing the limits of contemporary hardware.

      Delete
    2. That's a good point. They can open shutters, but that seems to be the limit of their interactivity with the world.

      Delete
  16. Are you appreciating the graphics/storytelling advancements from game to game more or less now compared to when you started? I imagine Wizardry I to Gold Box is just a tremendous amount of progress, but Gold Box to Ultima 7 is less overwhelming.

    How much do you think it depends on your perception of current gen games, if at all? Like, I recently saw some screenshots from Metal Gear Solid and couldn't believe how awful it looked; I remember it looking indistinguishable from a James Bond or Mission Impossible movie. In retrospect, the graphics are pretty primitive, almost the minimal step from Metal Gear to a 3d environment. But it all seems pretty relative. Or do you feel like your opinions are more objective than that?

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    Replies
    1. I feel like Metal Gear Solid is still a fine-looking game. The composition, color choices, shot framing, environment design, visual language and animation techniques are all on point throughout the entire game. The only thing lacking is the tech level. A game can have high-tech graphics and still be ugly as sin.

      While I think Addict undervalues visual appeal, I do agree with him that "primitive = bad" is a shallow way of looking at it.

      Delete
    2. I basically think of graphics as following into four categories:

      1. FUNCTIONAL. These are the wireframes and crisp iconographies of the original Wizardry and Ultima. They sketch out the broad lines of what the character is experiencing but require you to fill in a lot of detail. Still, there's a certain art to them, and I vastly prefer them to #2, which is:

      2. BAD ATTEMPTS AT "GOOD" GRAPHICS. This mostly characterizes the late 1980s and much of the 1990s. The technology was there for "better" graphics than the "functional" era, but it still wasn't good enough to be really "good." The graphics are grainy, the textures repetitive and boring. Animation is barely animated. If there's full-motion video, it's live-acted and looks somewhat ridiculous. I consider these worse than the first category.

      3. "Good." The graphics retain their functionality of the early era (category 1) but with some nice touches. The world becomes slightly more interesting because of them. They sometimes add to the interface.

      4. Immersive: the graphics are so good that they pull you into the story and become an inseparable part of the overall interface.

      In my opinion, Ultima has always played it smart. They never entered Category 2. Through U5, the developers were at the high end of Category 1. For U6, they manage to leap across Category 2 and just make it into Category 3. U7 is solidly within Category 3, while Underworld begins to explore Category 4.

      Even if you agree with me about the categories, your personal application of them--particularly the dividing line between 3 and 4--is going to differ from mine based on how old you are and when you got into gaming. For me, the Infinity Engine games enter Category 4 from the top down. For first-person games, we've reached Category 4 by Morrowind. That doesn't mean I don't recognize the improvements beyond those titles; it just means they don't fundamentally improve the game experience for me. Once I'm "into" the game, I'm into it, and I don't spend a lot of time analyzing whether one game's animations use too fewer sprites than another.

      I do have the same experience as you where I remember games looking better than they actually do, but if I keep at them, it doesn't take time for me to become re-habituated to them.

      Then again, now that I'm doing this comprehensively, moving slowly from year to year, it might change how I perceive the graphics of later games. Perhaps my attitudes will become a lot more nuanced as we move forward. We'll see.

      Delete
    3. If humans are being animated in a 3D engine, there’s a certain minimum tech/competence level required for it not to be unpleasant (ymmv).

      I think one of the first humans characters to get a passing grade was 2004’s Alex from HL2. As opposed to say, all of the characters in 2004’s VtM: Bloodlines.

      Delete
  17. The "Create Food" spell only making snacks and candy is kind of amusing. I guess you need a higher level in Foodomancy to get the better spells like "Summon Sugar-Free Soda" or "Make Healthy Vegetables"

    ReplyDelete
  18. There are also a couple of Rush references on the tombstones. "A victim of venomous fate" from "Freewill", and "a rebel and a runner" from "New World Man".

    ReplyDelete

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