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 quite 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.
          
Dick.
            
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.


Thursday, March 26, 2020

Planet's Edge: Two Seasons

The Moonbase commander congratulates us on retrieving one of the eight artifacts.
           
As several commenters have noted, Planet's Edge has shaped up to have a real Star Trek feel, with the quest titles obvious analogues for episode titles. In fact, it's safe to say that without budget constraints for things like costumes and special effects, Planet's Edge's scenarios are considerably more imaginative and innovative than the typical Star Trek episode (particularly the Original Series). Like their counterparts on Starflight II, the authors here clearly don't believe in convergent evolution. We've seen aliens based on birds and plants and lizards, some with no mouths, some with multiple arms, although all exhibiting fairly human-like personalities and flaws. I just wish the game had given us more portraits for these creatures; there's only so much you can tell from the icons.

I remarked last time that their stories were "a bit silly and trite," and I'll back off a bit now. At the time, I was thinking primarily of the princess looking to escape her arranged marriage, but the subsequent stories have been a little more interesting.

But while I concede that this game could be fun and interesting, I still don't like it. There's nothing in it that I particularly like about RPGs. A certain quality of narrative and variety of quests are important to me, yes, but only when accompanied by meaningful character development or tactical combat. Still, I think the thing that bothers me most about Planet's Edge is not what it lacks but rather a particular quirk unique to me: I don't like to know exactly how long something is going to last, or exactly how much time I have left. When I have to do a long, boring chore, I typically find a way to hide the amount of work I have to do or how much time I have remaining. For instance, when I decide to walk on the treadmill for two hours, I put a magazine over the display so I never know exactly how much time I have left. If I have to clean 200 data records, I'll write a process that feeds them to me one at a time without showing me my overall count. I prefer the unknown even when making it unknown makes a task longer or require more effort. If I have to drive somewhere, I'll often take a longer route with an unknown time rather than stick to the empirically shortest route. Yes, I know I have issues. Irene tells me all the time.
             
Planet Edge's sin was telling me that I had to recover exactly eight pieces, then giving me a map that shows the galaxy divided into eight roughly-equal sectors with similar numbers of stars, so that I know each part is going to require about the same amount of time--and that means a 40-hour game at least. I want to know I'm facing a 40-hour game at Hour 37, not Hour 10. This is why I always insists that quests that are about assembling n parts of something always vary the length and difficulty of finding each part. Some you should just be able to walk up and grab. Ultima VI did that particularly well.
           
I had to get rid of all my weapons just to get six cargo units on board.
         
My final complaint, though, is that I don't particularly enjoy blogging plot-heavy games. It's a bit exhausting. If I ran The Adventure Gamer, I probably would have given up already. There's always a question of how much I should include and how much I should summarize. Challenge of the Five Realms was a recent challenge; in blogging that game, I erred on the side of describing nearly every plot point. Other times, I've tried to summarize large sections of plot. My readers don't seem to have a strong preference either way. I'll try to take a middle path here.
               
When I left off last time, my crew was in Sector Algieba, where we managed to get ourselves appointed as emissaries from the Magin to President Ishtao. The president was on Ishtao station, orbiting Algieba, and I couldn't even scan the planet until I'd paid 6 cargo units to the orbiting platform. I had to go back to Moonbase, remove all weapons from my ship, and load up with cargo.

Upon my return, I donated the units and the crew was able to beam down to an episode titled "Inauguration Day."
          
On television, this would have been a two-parter.
        
It was the best scenario so far. The Algiebians are a reptilian race fond of extra-long "s" sounds in their speech, which would normally make them evil, but they don't seem to be here. They were in the midst of a celebration for the second inauguration of their president, Ishtao. The festivities had been infiltrated by the Geal A'nai, the Algiebian faction that had also tried to kill the princess in my previous session. They also plotted to cripple Ishtao's space yacht and drive it into the sun, killing all of the visitors to the inauguration, and using a body double of Ishtao to give the order. It was a complicated plot. There were signs that the Geal A'nai may not in fact be the "bad guys" of the scenario, and that Ishtao had been mercilessly persecuting them, but it wasn't fully explored.
         
I ended up on the yacht almost immediately after entering the palace, owing to my order of exploration, but I think the events could have been done in any order. The inhabitants of the yacht were obsessed with a card game called, probably, "Chasqua." I say "probably" because the natural speech of the Algiebians put a variable number of letters "a" and "s" in the name. It involves a group of five cards, each aspected to a particular color, which must be inserted into a number of slots in a defined order--specifically, red, yellow, green, orange, and blue. The problem is that there's no objective way of telling which card goes with which color. They all look the same to humans, I guess. You have to show the cards to other denizens in the station and get their opinions. They look at them and say things like, "I'm pretty sure this #2 card is blue," but they give no indication how they're coming up with that information. In any event, they're often wrong, so you have to take notes to whittle it down and go with the highest probability.
          
I'm going to get a second opinion.
         
In the midst of this exploration, a bomb went off on the ship, crippling the engines and the electrical system. The engineer explained that to fix the doors and teleporters, he needed a "gravity bar," which happens to be the prize for winning Chasqua. President Ishtao's doppelganger came over the P.A. and announced that he had ordered the yacht to plunge into the sun so that the Geal A'nai saboteurs would die, trusting everyone else would be willing to sacrifice themselves for such a noble end. The ship's captain, shaking his head at such an out-of-character moment for Ishtao, begged us to get the ship's engines back online and return with the command code so he could override the order. Meanwhile, the fake president demanded the command code for himself.

In due order, I figured out the Chasqua sequence, gave the gravity bar to the engineer, used the now-functioning teleporters to move around the otherwise-inaccessible parts of the yacht, and got the engines back online. Re-starting the engines involved inserting Chasqua cards in a particular sequence; one of the NPCs remarked that the game had been "designed by engineers as a mnemonic for complicated tasks."
       
Although a bit more of an adventure game than an RPG, at least Planet's Edge doesn't put you in a lot of "walking dead" moments. There's a lot of backtracking, sure, but I've found that if I simply stick to an exploration pattern, talk to everyone, and search everything, I'll eventually get what I need.
     
There were several battles with Geal A'nai during the exploration, and combat isn't any more exciting than it was last time. A lot depends on luck. So far, I haven't found a battle that wasn't easy enough to win by reloading. I've found a few weapon and armor upgrades, which I've been distributing according to skill. It also makes sense to keep a couple of different types of armor on you because certain armors defend better against certain weapons. Each item comes with a detailed item description, incidentally, which is something that few RPGs have done thusfar in my chronology.
          
A description of Reflec Armor.
          
Once I had the command codes, I tried both potential endings. If I gave them to the fake president, he continued the ship's course into the sun, rejoicing that, "News will soon reach Algieba IV that a ship full of innocents were killed and they will believe that Ishtao was responsible!" Giving the codes to the commander saved the ship. Either way, my party was allowed to escape in a pod. I decided to go with the "good" outcome (save the ship) because it's my natural tendency, but it occurred to me while writing this entry that 90% of players probably do that. Since I'm not really that excited about the game anyway, why not spice things up by taking the evil path? Maybe you'll see that reflected in the next entries.
           
The party gets the command codes after inserting more cards in those slots.
           
Anyway, the Geal A'nai weren't done. They had also infiltrated the kitchen staff and other key positions in the presidential palace and had plotted to kill Ishtao through a mechanism I completely didn't understand. It somehow just involved pulling a lever. I found a Geal A'nai in a prison cell, and when I showed him one of the amulets I'd looted from a corpse, he thought we were part of his faction and told us where we could find the "sixth key" in a crate in the kitchen. Using it on the lever somehow resulted in the president's death--which I tried, then reloaded.
            
The causal mechanism escapes me here.
          
The "good" path involved getting to see Ishtao by pretending to be reporters (one of his minions assumed we were and gave us a press pass). He wanted proof that the Geal A'nai had infiltrated the palace, which we provided in the form of the amulet. He then wanted us to find the sixth key, which apparently isn't just a key, but the "holiest of relics from the ages of darkness!" Fortunately, we already had that. He rewarded us with an amulet that would grant us passage to the depository on Koo-She Prime.
           
The party enables the president's self-destructive war.
        
I had originally thought I would finally find the sector's quest item--Algiebian Crystals--at Koo-She Prime, but they actually turned up as the result of an innocuous side quest in the presidential palace. One of the rooms housed a museum of Algiebian history--each of the exhibits making that history sound all the more brutal. The curator hinted that she was thirsty, so we bribed her with a bottle of wine we'd received from a bartender. She wandered away from her post, allowing us to throw the switch that controlled the force fields over the exhibits. By now accustomed to searching everything, I searched each exhibit and serendipitously found the crystals in one of them. To solve this quest if you already knew where the crystals were, you'd just need to beam down, get into the palace, and kill the curator.
             
Search everything, kids.
              
Koo-She Prime kicked off an episode called "Solitaire." Shortly after we arrived--and got in with the presidential amulet--we tripped a trap that caused three of the party members to get beamed away and held in stasis. William had to solve the area by himself, some of which required referring to clues from random NPCs back on Algieba. There were a lot of traps, hostile beasts, and reloading. After puzzling his way through a series of caves, he arrived in a science facility, where he had to switch bodies with a four-armed creature to operate four levers at once. Ultimately, he released his friends and found some technical plans that allowed for better weapons and ship parts back at home.
  
Back at Moonbase, Commander Polk congratulated us for getting the Algiebian Crystals and suggested we explore Sector Kornephoros next. I was unhappy with being told where to go, so after I scrapped the Ulysses for an upgraded ship--which the game named Calypso--I headed for Sector Caroli for no other reason that it was clockwise from Algieba.
              
Outfitting my second ship.
          
Caroli had a lot more stars than Algieba, most with absolutely nothing to do, not even elements for my higher-capacity starship. One planet--Zavijava Prime--had an orbital platform occupied by those goons again, and it was here that I fought and (badly) lost my only attempt at ship combat this session.
          
I stumbled on the sector's quest at Alula IV, in an episode called "Desolation." It soon transpired that Alula IV was the agricultural planet of a species called the Eldarini. I never found a description of them, but the species apparently goes into hibernation for long periods of time and then awakens ravenous, killing and eating anything nearby if there's no other obvious source of food. Alula IV and its "Iozam" grain was supposed to be that food, but both the harvester and the transport ship had broken down. The place was also swarming with hostile carnivores that we had to kill.
             
The alien explains what's going on with his species.
        
We had to get the local boss, Agricol, to take us on as field hands before we could explore the place. This involved a puzzle where he put us in a room with seven items and said they could all easily fit into a pack, but I should select the one that he wouldn't want to take with him. They were an industrial badge, a levitator, a stone, an assault laser, a gold wire, ceramic armor, and a rifle. I chose the stone because it was the only item that had no real utility, and it turned out I was right. I'm just not sure I was right for that reason. As he welcomed us aboard, he gave us tickets for the "life gallery" on Merak I.
     
Solving the quest required us to go to two other planets--Denebola IV and TK--for the parts for both the vehicles. Denebola IV was the Eldarin homeworld, and its episode was titled "Forsake the Wind." Exploring the area, we had to be careful not to brush against sleeping Eldarins, or they would wake up and try to kill us. The surface of the planet was filled with hostile sandworms erupting from pools of lava. They occasioned enough reloading that we were definitely here a bit too early. Still, I pushed through.
          
These worms were no fun at all.
        
We had to solve a variety of navigation puzzles not worth recounting to get the part for the harvester. Returning to Alula IV, we fixed the harvester, which promptly went out of control when we turned it on and bashed through a fence. This allowed us access to a new area and ultimately the station commander, who gave us the requisition form to take to Oortizam Labs on Cor-Caroli Prime.
          
The next episode.
         
Cor-Caroli Prime's episode was "A Small Matter." The core part of it involved the party being shrunk to microscopic size and having to navigate our way through the circuit board of some computer while battling hostile nannites. I either missed or didn't record the encounter text or NPC conversation that explained why or how this happened. We had to switch a couple of computer chips and pull a lever to get out. When we did, one of the items enlarged along with the party was the Gravitic Compressor, needed for the Centauri Device.
         
Navigating the circuit maze.
           
Eventually, we were able to get the requisition form notarized, at which point an engineer gave us the "ComNav" needed for the ship on Alula IV. We returned, got that ship repaired (thus saving the Eldarins from famine), and were given a note to give to the supervisor on Denebola IV. He in turn allowed us access to the "rare treasures room" and suggested he'd look the other way if anything went missing. The room held two more sets of technical plans.
           
Good. My newly-evil party is going to need better weapons.
          
Overall, Sector Caroli's quests were the first that didn't seem to have any "evil" or otherwise alternate options, except I suppose just killing everyone instead of actually solving the quests.
       
Before I ended this session, I was interested in checking out this "life gallery" on Merak I, also in the Caroli sector. But when I visited, I found it guarded by hostile blue aliens who killed me when I resisted, so we went back to Moonbase with our tail between our legs.
             
His assessment of our capabilities was, alas, accurate.
          
Expect a change in tone in future entries as my party loses patience with this increasingly hostile and irrational universe.
         
Time so far: 15 hours
 


        

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Game 363: Ultima VII: The Black Gate

A deceptively pleasant introductory screen.
             
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
United States
ORIGIN Systems (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS; 1994 for SNES
Forge of Virtue expansion released later in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 20 March 2020

I first played Ultima VII in 1999. I had just purchased my first Windows laptop after 7 years of Mac-exclusive ownership, and I was ready to catch up on a decade of RPGs. I had staved off my addiction while serving in the Army Reserves, going to college, meeting my eventual wife, and starting my career, and it was best for all of those endeavors that I did. But life had settled down by then, and I was ready to take the risk.

The first two "new" RPGs that I played were Might and Magic VI and Ultima VII. ("New" being post-1990, when my Commodore 64 had died. By then, Ultima VII was 7 years old, of course, but I still think of it on the "new" side of the dividing line between "old" games and "new" games.) I had a similar reaction to each of them: initial distaste, followed by growing admiration, followed by absolute awe.
          
This may be the first CRPG with an expansion pack that takes place within the main quest.
            
But I still remember the reasons behind my initial reaction, and a few of them remain valid criticisms. I bought it as part of an Ultima anthology, so I would have played it after hitting Ultima IV-VI in quick succession. Compared to the small, crisp icons of the previous games, the Ultima VII characters seemed impossibly lanky and awkward. The creators must have taken to heart the criticisms of the tiny Ultima VI game window because they made the entire screen the game window--but then they zoomed it in so much that you still only see a tiny area.

They removed the ability to choose a character portrait, and I hated--still hate, really--the long blond-haired jerk that I'm forced to play. The guy looks like he's about 50, which doesn't bother me as much today as it did then. The typed keyword-based dialogue that I absolutely cherished had been replaced by clicking on words spoon-fed to you by the game. And then there was all the clicking! For the first time, the Ultima interface wasn't using my beloved keyboard shortcuts but instead wanted me to click around on things. I hate that now and I hated it more then, when the mouse was still new and uncomfortable.
          
I still find everything about this screen annoying.
          
Finally, there was the plot. 200 years have passed?! And all my old companions are still alive?! Who is this Red Thanos taunting me through the computer screen? And what in Lord British's name have they done to Lord British?!

This is all to say that I'm glad I'm not playing Ultima VII for the first time. This is a game that vastly benefits in a replay, at a point where I've accepted its weaknesses but also have a full understanding of its strengths. In fact, the position that I'm in right now--knowing that I'm in for a good game but not remembering much of it because I haven't played it in maybe 13 years--is just about perfect.

So let's back up and note all the things that the game does right, starting with the animated, voiced introduction, perfectly scored. The game opens on a pleasant scene of Britannia. A butterfly dances around a grassy hillside at the edge of a forest. There's a lilting tune with a timbre suggesting an organ but a melody suggesting more of a flute.
                
The first appearance of the Guardian.
           
But after a few seconds, the music fades and is replaced with an ominous, themeless tune in a low register. Black and blue static fill the screen. A red face with glowing yellow eyes and teeth like rocks pushes through the screen to address the player directly:
               
Avatar! Know that Britannia has entered into a new age of enlightenment. Know that the time has finally come for the one true Lord of Britannia to take his place at the head of his people. Under my guidance, Britannia will flourish, and all the people shall rejoice and pay homage to their new Guardian! Know that you, too, shall kneel before me, Avatar. You, too, shall soon acknowledge my authority, for I shall be your companion, your provider, and your master!
            
I would note that in contrast to the comically awful narrations at the beginning of both Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII: Part Two, the Guardian's voice is reasonably well-acted by Arthur DiBianca, who I gather was just a programmer who happened to have a nice bass voice. [Edit: I was wrong. The Guardian was voiced by a professional actor, Bill Johnson, who remained with the character for the rest of the series. He also played Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.] The voice immediately gives us a paradox because the Guardian looks like an ape, an orc, a monster, yet his voice is clear, his speech intelligent and articulated. Just what kind of foe are we facing? One who knows who we are, who has the ability to push through into our world.

(Incidentally, having never played Ultima VIII or Ultima IX, I still don't really know the answers to the questions about the Guardian's origin and motivations. I know it'll be tough, but I'd appreciate if no one spoils it.)
            
As the screen fades, the camera pulls back to show that the player is somehow playing Ultima VII on his computer, with a map of Britannia and a Moonstone sitting beside it. No, it doesn't make sense. Don't think about it.
          
I can't not think about it. How is my character playing Ultima VII? Does he have his own character? How far down does it go?
           
"It has been a long time since your last visit to Britannia," the title screen says, two years constituting "a long time" back in those heady days of annual releases. The character picks up his moonstone and heads out to the circle of stones in his back yard--only to find a moongate already there. Without hesitation, he plunges through to the title screen, which features not the triumphant, adventurous introductory music of most RPGs but rather a dark, dreadful march in 2/4 time. Something awful is coming, it says.
                
I'm not sure this ever gets answered.
         
Before we get into character creation and the opening moments of the game, let's diverge to the manual, which is perhaps the most brilliant game manual of all time--a superlative unlikely to ever be broken now that game manuals no longer exist. It manages to educate the player on the basics of Britannia and the past Ultima games while perfectly serving the plot of the current game. It is the only manual that I know that was written by the game's villain. I realize that's a bit of a spoiler, but you'd have to be a particularly dense player to not realize that something is at least a little fishy with "Batlin of Britain," and a veteran player of the Ultima series reads it with an escalating horror.

The manual is called The Book of Fellowship, and it describes the history, geography, and society of Britannia in the context of the growth of a quasi-religious/philosophical order called the Fellowship. Jimmy Maher has a particularly excellent article examining the parallels between the Fellowship and the Church of Scientology. (Garriott had apparently read a 1991 Time magazine exposé of the Church while the game was in its planning phase.) But I also see a lot of the (then-) growing "prosperity gospel" in the Fellowship, and Batlin strikes me as much of a Joel Osteen (although no one at ORIGIN would have been aware of him in 1992) as an L. Ron Hubbard. One particular analogue with prosperity theology (and not Scientology) is the organization's "layered" approach to scripture. The Fellowship does not reject the Eight Virtues of the Avatar any more than prosperity theology rejects the Bible. It simply adds its own new layer of interpretation (simplification) on top of them, encouraging its followers to hold true to the past without really focusing on it. The emphasis is all on the new material--in the case of the Fellowship, their Triad of Inner Strength.

The manual begins with Batlin of Britain's introduction of himself. He presents himself with false humility as just a regular man, a fellow "traveller" through life, who has happened to stumble upon a bit of wisdom that he wants to share. Throughout his biography, he brags-without-bragging that he has served in all eight of the classical Ultima roles: Born and raised by druids in Yew, a first career as a fighter in Jhelom, then as a bard in Britain; trained by a mage from Moonglow; serving for a while among a company of paladins in Trinsic and as a tinker in Minoc; and finally spending a sojourn with the rangers of Skara Brae before ending up as a humble shepherd in New Magincia. His series of portraits through these sessions show a square-jawed, hale, charismatic figure, and it's no surprise when we actually meet him in-game to find a fatter, oilier version than is presented in the official portraits.
            
What kind of pretentious jackass divides his own biography into sections called "part the first" and "part the second"?
             
During his description of overcoming some wounds in Minoc, Batlin says:
              
A healer there told me that without the proper treatments (for which he charged outrageous prices) I would most probably die! I angrily sent him away. After a time I did mend. I had learned that the healing process takes place mostly in one's mind and have since placed no trust in healers who greedily prey upon the afflicted.
               
Here is our first actual contradiction with the world as we've come to know it as an Avatar. It manages to parallel Scientology's rejection of traditional psychology, sure, but also the Christian Science rejection of traditional medicine and perhaps "New Age" medicine in general.

He describes in his history how he met his two co-founders of the Fellowship, Elizabeth and Abraham (the "E.A." being an intended swipe at Electronic Arts, which would have the last laugh by purchasing ORIGIN the same year), and how his experiences led him to develop the Triad of Inner Strength. If the casual reader is not yet convinced of Batlin's villainy, it should become apparent in the section where he discusses the "ratification" of the Fellowship by Lord British. Though calling him "wise" and paying him obsequious homage, Batlin manages to paint the king as a capricious, dismissive sovereign, uninterested in the Fellowship until Batlin managed to "prove" himself with a display of confidence that manages to reflect the Fellowship's own philosophies. The section brilliantly manages to associate Batlin with the king and the king's favor (for those who still admire the king) while also planting a seed of doubt about Lord British's fitness to rule.

What he does to the Avatar is less subtle but far more damaging. Batlin knows that if his Fellowship is going to replace the Eight Virtues as Britannia's predominant theology, and if he himself is going to replace the Avatar as the spiritual figurehead, he must undo the Avatar. But the memory of the Avatar is too popular, his friends too influential, for Batlin to use a direct attack. Thus, he snipes and undermines and saps from all angles while pretending to admire the Avatar himself. "The Fellowship fully supports the Eight Virtues of the Avatar," he says, but that "it is impossible to perfectly live up to them. Even the Avatar was unable to do so continuously and consistently." Thus pretending to support the Eight Virtues while rejecting them, he introduces the Fellowship's Triad of Inner Strength:
            
  1. Strive for Unity: Work together to achieve common goals.
  2. Trust Thy Brother: Don't live your life full of suspicion and doubt.
  3. Worthiness Precedes Reward: Do good for its own sake before expecting compensation.
 
Maher's article points out how these three principles are not only kindergarten-level theology, but how easy it is to twist them towards evil ends. "Work together, don't question, don't ask anything in return" could be the motto of a fascist organization as easily as a charitable one.

Most of the slights against the Avatar occur during the second half of the manual, ominously titled "A Reinterpretation of the History of Britannia." Batlin walks through the events of Ultima I through VI much as the previous game manuals did, but with the occasional anti-Avatar salvo disguised as support. For instance, after describing the events of Ultima II, he says:
          
While there have been speculations as to the motivations of the Avatar, there is insufficient evidence to show that the Avatar was driven to violence by jealously over Mondain's romantic involvement with Minax. That being said, such theories are hereby denounced and should not be given consideration.
           
Soon afterwards, he "formally disagrees" with "those who say the Avatar should have handled [the events of Exodus] differently." He casts aspersions--no, sorry, alludes to other people casting aspersions--on the Avatar's motives in the Quest of the Avatar. As for Ultima VI: "Those who say that this terrible and destructive war could have been prevented had the Avatar not appropriated the Codex from its true owners are merely dissidents who are grossly misinformed." Leaving aside the fact that the Avatar wasn't the one who took the Codex, Batlin commits here the slimy politician's trick of introducing a slur while simultaneously denying it, thus seeding doubt while trying to remain above it. I've learned the hard way to at least try to keep politics out of my blog, but it's literally impossible not to think of Donald ("many people are saying") Trump when reviewing this aspect of the Batlin character or indeed the Batlin character as a whole. If I didn't say it here, someone would have filled in the blank in the comments as they did in the Maher article.

Aside from the undermining of the Eight Virtues, Lord British, and the Avatar, the manual is notable for numerous asides that make the veteran player eager to jump in and start swinging his sword. In his description of his time as a fighter, Batlin talks about "unruly lords wag[ing] war against each other . . . over Lord British's objections." Clearly, peace has broken down, but why? We later hear that Skara Brae is for some reason a "desolate ruin" (remind me to come back to another Batlin quote when I actually visit Skara Brae). Lock Lake near the city of Cove has become polluted. The town of Paws is said to be languishing in poverty. Some mysterious figure called the "Sultan of Spektran" has set up his own government on the island previously occupied by Sutek. The gargoyles have their own city, called Terfin, but there's a suggestion that local mines might be exploiting them for labor. Runic writing has fallen out of favor. There have been recent droughts. And worst of all, magic has been breaking down and its practitioners going insane.

Perhaps the biggest shock is that it has been 200 years since the Avatar last visited Britannia. This is presumably since his last visit in Ultima VI, not Ultima Underworld. The manual makes no acknowledgement at all of the events of Underworld; no mention is made of a colony on the Isle of the Avatar, nor its destruction in a volcanic eruption.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar still has the best quest of the series, in my opinion, but Ultima VII may have the best plot. This isn't the first time that a CRPG has featured writing and plotting worthy of a novel (I would probably give that award to Starflight), but it's still rare in the era. I understand that we owe this depth of narrative to lead writer Raymond Benson, who would later go on to take over the James Bond novel series. Benson was a playwright and composer who had previously worked on computer adaptations of Stephen King's The Mist (1985) and the James Bond games A View to a Kill (1985) and Goldfinger (1985). He was recruited by ORIGIN in 1991 and wrote some dialogue for Martian Dreams before beginning Ultima VII.

Someone like Benson was exactly what ORIGIN needed. The company may have "created worlds," but they always did so in a way that was both a little sloppy and a little too tidy, with poor respect for their own canon. I have discussed at length my disappointment over the way the game treated the concept of "the Avatar" after Ultima IV. Well, here, in the opening documentation of Ultima VII, we have an in-game character who personifies that lack of respect, who manages to take the confusion over ORIGIN's retcons--was the Avatar really the same hero who defeated Mondain?--and twist it to his own ends. When I finished the manual in 1999, I was never more eager to leap into a world and start putting things right. I am only slightly less eager now.

Note: To avoid loading transitions and other throwbacks to an earlier age, the developers of Ultima VII changed the way DOS allocates memory. Their solution required players to boot from a special disk. I remember that this created all kinds of problems when I originally tried to play the game in the late 1990s. Also, processors had gotten so much faster that the characters moved at lightning speed, and I had to use a special program called Mo'Slo to slow things down. I don't think I ever got the sound working properly back then. The emulation era and the folks at GOG sure make this much easier.