Friday, February 21, 2014

Ultima VI: It Must Have Been Moonglow

The Avatar gets the Orb of Cheating

Ultima VI begins with the player receiving the Orb of the Moons, a handy artifact that allows instant travel to practically every key location in the game. The satirical Ultima IV, Part II (which I reviewed in September 2011) refers to it as the "Orb of Cheating," which isn't far from the truth. The Avatar activates the Orb by "using" it on the ground in any direction from his current position, up to two squares. This provides 24 possible locations (though two don't seem to be used). Using it two squares to the north opens a portal to Britain, for instance, while using it a knight's move to the west takes you to the Shrine of Spirituality. Every town and shrine has a position.

Testing these locations is a bit of a trial at first. At the beginning of the game, all shrines are occupied by hostile gargoyles, so accidentally blundering to one of them means an inevitable combat. Traveling to towns is less lethal, but unless you're intimately familiar with the geography or willing to look up spoilers, it can take some effort to find out what town you're actually in. You have to talk to random NPCs until one of them happens to say the town's name. I used the Orb this way to get the screenshots for Minoc and the edge of the world (via a boat in Jhelom) for the first post, but of course I reloaded afterwards.

As I eventually discovered, using it two places to the northwest takes me to Moonglow.

But after only a little testing, I found the pattern. The outer squares take you to Britannian destinations and the inner ones take you to gargoyle destinations (with the exception of one square north, which takes you to Lord British's castle). Starting in the northwest corner and proceeding clockwise, you visit each town in the standard virtue-based order (Moonglow, Britain, Jhelom, Yew, etc.) followed by its shrine.

Including the moonstone in the game, at least the way that it works, was in my opinion a bad decision. A careless player can wander into the gargoyle world (somehow, Shamino knows the names to their shrines) long before the player should actually be there. At worst, an early-game player who still thinks the gargoyles are "demons" could end up killing some key gargoyle NPCs and create a "walking dead" scenario very early in the game.

Have you been here before?

It's also kind of lame that the Orb works in the middle of combat, enabling instant escape--directly to Lord British's throne room for healing, if you want--when things get tough. I certainly don't mind cutting down on travel time, but I think the Avatar should have to visit the stone circles associated with each destination before the Orb will take him there. That's the way I'm going to play it.

It's left a bit of a mystery where the Orb actually came from. Lord British said it wasn't his. I guess the gargoyles used it to open the portal to Earth to fetch me for sacrifice, but that suggests the Orb works in a weird way: you place it on the ground, it opens a portal, and then it can be found on the ground on the other side of the portal. What would have happened if I hadn't entered the gate, or hadn't picked it up before I did? Some kid could have found it later and blundered into a pack of hostile gargoyles. I also don't quite know how Lord British knew where to open the moongate so that Shamino, Iolo, and Dupre could come save me from the gargoyle sacrifice.

I think this is the place where the gargoyles tried to kill me.

When I last blogged, I was leaving Britain on my way to Cove, so I could talk to the wounded soldiers about their bungled attempt to free the Shrine of Compassion (the gargoyles have taken over all the shrines). But the path to Cove made me walk through the Shrine of Compassion, so I ended up liberating it from the gargoyles before getting any useful intelligence from the soldiers.

I attack a winged gargoyle while my companions deal with the unwinged brutes off-screen.

The gargoyles had placed a moonstone over the shrine and covered it in a force field, but using the Rune of Compassion (which I had obtained back in Britain) and chanting the mantra removed the field, allowing me to take the stone. If I put the moonstone in the ground, it opens up the moongate that should be in Britain. Naturally, with the Orb of Moons, I don't need this extra method of transportation, and I have a vague recollection that I need to keep all the moonstones, so I resisted the urge to go plant it in its proper stone circle.

Liberating the shrine also gave me the ability to meditate at it, which in turn leveled me up and awarded me with 3 dexterity points. Even from this one experience, the pattern is pretty clear. I'm guessing the Shrine of Courage gives you 3 strength points, the Shrine of Honesty provides 3 Intelligence points, and the others provide the appropriate combinations. Importing my character from Ultima V had already started him at near-max (30) in all attributes, so the selection of shrines is really only important for my other characters. Of them, only Dupre needed to focus on dexterity right now, and he didn't have enough points to level up.

Meditating and leveling up at the shrine.

That I was able to defeat the shrine's three guardians so easily says something about the martial abilities of the native Britannians. Even though I no longer needed their information, I continued to Cove anyway. In this game, it's a small town, consisting only of a healer and a mage named Rudyom who sells reagents and spells. I found the wounded warriors recuperating at the healer. Two just moaned in pain when I tried to talk with them, but the third, Gertan, told me of the gargoyles at the shrine and the force field. I wish the game engine was sophisticated enough to alter dialogue based on changes in the game world, because it would have been fun to tell him that the shrine had been freed.

Gertan also had a little to say about Freitag.

Rudyom lived in a house with an annoying little drake who shot fireballs at me from the safety of a cage. I bought some reagents from him, but I didn't have enough cash to buy his spells.

The next step of my quest was to head to the Lycaeum, find Mariah, and see if she could translate the book I'd stolen from the gargoyles. I left Cove heading east. I soon found that the landscape of Ultima VI constrains you in more ways that the previous games, and going to the eastern end of the continent involved threading my way through a specific mountain pass and then on a path through the Fens of the Dead. As in the previous two games, stepping in swamp instantly poisons you unless you're wearing "swamp boots," and I only had one pair. Fortunately, the AI is smart enough to keep your companions from accidentally walking into swamps as long as the lead character doesn't.

I don't want to go south.

The Lycaeum is on an island on the far eastern edge of the map, so you can't just walk there. But I'd risked some karma loss by stealing a skiff back in Britain. Shamino was toting it on his back, taking up nearly all his available inventory weight. I figured I'd get to the eastern coast, drop the skiff in the water, and row to Verity Isle. Unfortunately, as I soon discovered, the game won't let you use a stolen skiff. You have to have a "deed" to it. Thus, I changed directions for Minoc, reasoning that as a port city, they'd have a place to sell skiffs.

Really? Who's enforcing that right now?

Ultima IV, in introducing the "tinker" profession, seemed to interpret them mostly as blacksmiths. I can't remember what the city looked like in Ultima V, but in this game, it's been reinvented as a kind-of artisans' village, with NPCs making instruments, baskets, clocks, glass, and ships.

You know, that's a good point.

I found Iolo's wife, Gwenno, living in the city temporarily, rendering classic Britannian songs into musical notation. Julia was crafting musical instruments. Both were willing to join my party, but I didn't want any more companions just yet, so I saved them for later. Although I was in town for a skiff, I took the time to ask Isabella, the mayor, about the Rune of Sacrifice, thinking I could liberate the Shrine of Sacrifice on the way to Verity Isle. She told me that Selganor, the head of the Craftsman's Guild, had it.

My least-favorite NPC so far.

Selganor would only give it to me if I was a guild member, which meant creating a set of panpipes and learning how to play "Stones." Gwenno readily gave me the numeric sequence for the song, but Julia said that to make panpipes, I'd need some fresh wood from Yew, so I guess this little quest will have to wait for later. It's not like I'm trying to save the world or anything, guys.

The skiff was cheaper than I feared, so in no time, I had a proper deed and Shamino had a new boat on his back. In a change from Ultima V, you can row a skiff into deep water with no penalty, so I'm not sure if there's any reason to ever buy one of the larger, non-portable ships.

With the skiff, I made the long journey around the eastern horn of Britannia and to Verity Isle. The trip was uneventful, and I eventually found my way to the Lycaeum and met Mariah. None of her dialogue suggested that she remembered me from our previous two games, and she wouldn't join me this time.

She did, however, have some insight into the gargish book. She had half a silver tablet that served as a Rosetta Stone between gargish and Britannian. With it, she determined that the book was called The Book of Prophecies and said something about the end of the world. She said she needed the other half of the tablet to translate the full thing. She had received the first half from some gypsies she met at a pub, so I guess my next step is to travel from city to city, visiting bars and looking for gypsies. That's my kind of quest.

I spent a little time in Moonglow but didn't accomplish much. The mayor said he gave the Rune to a guy named Beyvin, who was living with a mage named Penumbra. I couldn't find either of them, but it's possible that they live in this house, whose entryway is filled with force fields:

I don't have enough reagents to "dispel" my way through all of this. This is one of many areas that I've had to annotate for a later return. There have been force fields in other areas (the Lycaeum in particular), plus various magically-locked doors for which I don't yet have the spell or the money to buy the spell. Rather than continue half-visiting these various cities, I decided perhaps it was time to do a little grinding and earn some cash.

I simply must know what's inside this building.

Thus, as I end this post, I'm back in the dungeons beneath Lord British's castle, looking for hauls of treasure. So far, I've only found a few cyclopes, trolls, and headless, none of whom have had more than a few gold pieces, but I'm going to keep exploring.

No gold in the aftermath of this battle. I'm definitely not hauling all this stuff up to the surface for sale.

I fought a number of random combats in my explorations above, none of which were worth recounting. There were some trolls hanging around a bridge near Cove, rats off in the Fens, and snakes on Verity Isle. I'll have a longer posting about combat some time later.

Boy, did this troll like his throwing axes.

A few more notes before I wrap up now:

  • My party members are always "hearing something" in various directions, but at least half the time, when I head in those directions, there's nothing there.
  •  Some of the geography in the game is funny. We're supposed to believe that these mountains are snow-capped and uncrossable despite taking up less space than a house.

Shamino hears something on the other side of this unscalable peak.
  • Some of the inhabitants of Britannia are extremely lazy--especially the mage types. I've had to wait until noon for some of them to get out of bed. There's no in-game way to wake them up ahead of schedule.

Apparently, just shaking him awake will cause me to lose an eighth.

  • When cyclopes are nearby, their stomping around causes the screen to shake.
  • In the first post, I noted how Lord British clumsily asked me for information from the manual during our first dialogue, as part of the game's copy protection system. It turns out that other random characters do it, too.

That was smooth.

  • Michelle, a basket-weaver in Minoc, tells tales of her father making a basket large enough for eight people but says she doesn't have the plans. I suspect I'm going to be making a hot air balloon and gondola at some point in the future.

Today I learned that beehives are woven.

  • I thought my Avatar was a little ostentatious for strapping an ankh to his forehead. This NPC is even more dedicated:

With luck, by the next time I post, I'll have met those gypsies and I'll have a bead on the main quest.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ultima VI: Mis-Rule Britannia!

Gargoyles have invaded the surface. The shrines have been captured. The Avatar was nearly sacrificed on an altar. Lord British is spending his evenings reading stories to a mouse.

Over the years, I've been charitable to Lord British. Not Richard Garriott, but the in-game character. Ever since I was a kid and I picked up Ultima IV, I saw him as a larger-than-life, honorable, almost Arthurian figure, ruling Britannia with a combination of strength and benevolence.

But now I'm thinking, screw him.

Let's really scrutinize the character. On the plus side, he initiated the Quest of the Avatar and according to the Ultima V manual, brought democracy to Britannia in the form of a "monarchic republic." Gotcha. Check, check.

Now let's look at the other side of the ledger. Note that in creating his little utopia, he doesn't provide any mechanism for electing some other sovereign. Not only is Britannia a dictatorship, it's an eternal dictatorship, as Lord British is effectively immortal. In Ultima I and II, he makes you buy hit points from him despite sending you on a quest to literally save the world. He sits there and does nothing while you kill Gwenno and slaughter his entire castle full of guards. He has no faith in the people of the land he's come to rule and constantly sends back to his home world for anyone capable of fighting more than a gremlin. In Ultima V, he appoints some nobody by the name of "Blackthorn" to be his regent, blunders into underworld with an inadequate party, gets his ass tossed into jail, and hinges his rescue on the Avatar following some obscure clues to his "sandalwood box." Here's a hint, Brittni: next time you head off to the underworld, why don't you take your Orb of Instantly Returning to the Surface with you?

In Ultima VI, he completely misunderstands the gargoyle threat and utterly spazzes at the end of the game (spoilers--sorry) when you do your job and solve the quest. By Ultima VII, he's essentially a doddering old fool, completely oblivious to what the Fellowship is doing, and--if I remember correctly--sleeping with one of his maids. He basically hides in his room throughout Ultima Underworld II. I don't really have any idea what he does in VIII or IX since I haven't played them, but I assume he just sits around twiddling his thumbs while the Avatar--again--does all the work to bail him out of a situation he probably created.

Oh, you don't like being called "Mr. Nose," Mr. Nose? Does it bother you, Mr. Nose?

Honestly, if you were in charge of a company making a game series in which your alter-ego appeared as a major NPC, wouldn't you try harder to make him more regal? More worthy of all the praise his toadying subjects heap upon him? The in-game character of Lord British couldn't be more damaging to the actual Lord British if he was programmed by people who hated him.

Yes, I'm bitter.

This is why.

This woman is talking about her mother.

The Avatar held it together during this conversation. After all, Terri, the mint-worker, didn't know any better. She wasn't there. She just assumed her mother met the Avatar at the party. The Avatar said, "No, no, I don't remember her. But she sure sounds great! Have a nice day, Terri. I'll be back with those nuggets!"

Then he kept it together as he strolled outside. After a long pause, he turned around and faced his companions. The polite veneer dropped from his face to reveal an expression of cold fury. 
"Say 'Ask Shamino about that' again. I dare you. I double dare you. Say 'Ask Shamino about that' one more goddamned time."
Because to the best of my recollection, the moment--literally the moment--I recovered the Codex from the Stygian Abyss, Lord British unceremoniously booted my ass back to Earth without so much as a "thanks." Now I find out that the Britannians had a big shin-dig without me. Lord British probably took all the credit for the recovery of the Codex himself, then hit on Terri's mom. But he went to bed alone as always, because women don't really go for guys who spend their evenings reading children's books aloud to mice.

Did they have a party at the end of Ultima V, too? A big "Welcome Home, Lord British" fiesta? Were they drinking margarita shooters and dancing under the limbo stick while I was home discovering that all my possessions had been burgled?

The Avatar needed some alone time. He went to wander the forest and skip stones in a river while he wondered exactly what he was doing here. Have you ever stopped to think how badly it screws up his life to get repeatedly hauled into Britannia? You think it's easy to keep a job, let alone a career, when you disappear without warning for months at a time? Can you imagine what my family goes through? And it's not like any of the skills I pick up in Britannia are transferable to Earth. Yet every time that moongate appears, I stupidly walk through it. I face mortal peril on the other side, and when I've solved everyone's problems, do I get a sack of gold? A permanent seat on Lord British's inner council? A magic sword I could hawk for some serious do-re-mi at DragonCon? Do I even get to attend my own party? No. It's "don't let the moongate slice your ass on the way through" and pretty soon, I'm back in my house, losing an eighth with the lies I have to put on my c.v. to account for all the gaps in employment.

If only that paid my mortgage, Lynn.

If the game offered an "evil" option, I would take it, but it doesn't. So I have to rationalize why I'm continuing to help these ungrateful bastards. I suppose the best I can do is say that while Lord British might be a jerk, his people aren't. In fact, this is one of the few games in which you feel like a hero walking amidst the populace. Everyone recognizes me, either from a previous visit or because of some painting that I don't remember sitting for. They hail me, praise me, give me free stuff. It's not so bad. In fact, I think I'll stretch out this visit for as long as I can. I'm just not talking to Lord British anymore. If I need healing, I'll go to the oddly-redundant healer in Britain.

Okay, that's all long enough to sufficiently make up for the fact I haven't played more than 45 minutes since the first post. Let's get back to what little I can tell you about the game.

As I noted in the first post, I got a couple of clear directions on my quest while I was still in Lord British's throne room, but I decided to finish exploring the castle and Britain first. Between Ultima V and VI, the castle, Britain, and the three Brittanys merged into one large town (even Paws to the south is clearly part of the same metropolitan area). It was a decision that made sense, now that the game no longer requires a separate "entry" into castles and towns, although it does have the effect of making the game world seem a little smaller, as there's less wilderness area between the cities.

As usual, I've been keeping my relevant notes in Excel, including orb positions (more on that next time), NPCs, potion effects, and a "to do" list. I counted 27 NPCs in Britain (including the castle), which is far less than you'd imagine you'd find in a "real" city but about the same as you find in modern games like Skyrim. They also have about as much to say as in modern games, and once again I'm reminded that continuous improvement in all areas is not inevitable as the years pass.

It makes me wonder, whether we're talking about Britain or Whiterun, how you're supposed to view the extremely sparse populations. Are these named NPCs truly supposed to represent everyone who lives in the city, or are we supposed to pretend that there are hundreds of nameless commoners hovering invisibly in the background? By including lots of houses you couldn't enter and having random on-line villagers in the streets, the Infinity Engine games did a particularly good job making you feel like the cities were bigger than the couple of dozen people you could actually talk to. I suspect there are mods that do the same thing for the last couple Elder Scrolls titles.

As commenter RobertM pointed out, this game takes a strange but not unwelcome turn in its use of NPCs. It imbues them with personalities and quirks, and includes an awful lot of dialogue options that have absolutely no reference to the plot. Where an NPC in Ultima IV might say something like, "I MEDITATE ON HONOR!," his Ultima VI counterpart will give you a long story about how he used to be a solider but saw his friends die on the battlefield and can no longer enter combat with another person because he can't bear to watch his companions get hurt. Most of the time, none of this really leads to anything--no hints, no quests, no lore--but it still makes Britannia feel like more of a living place than the previous games. The thing is, I could imagine some players absolutely hating this.

The personalities in Britain alone could staff their own British sitcom. We have Finn, a homeless man who pretends to be Lord British in disguise. Nan, an instructor in the British conservatory and wife of Kenneth (the teacher of "Stones" in Ultima V), is a terrified of spiders and hallucinates them coming out of her lute.

Meth is a hell of a drug.

Maldric, a cook in the kitchens of the castle, used to be a boar hunter and hints that he longs for adventure again, but he gets flustered and cuts off conversation when I suggest he JOIN our party. Tholden von Bazillius, Lord British's chancellor, used to be an adventurer called "The Werecat of the Winecellar." Terri, the proprietor of the Royal Mint, took the position after the previous minter, her father, passed away. She shamelessly flirts with me, promising to show me "more than a few silly coins" the next time I visit.


They often have things to say about each other; Kenneth warns me not to ask Nan about SPIDERS, for instance, which of course I did immediately. Terri's best friend is Kytyn, the curator of the Royal Museum. Anya, a bartender at the Blue Boar Tavern, is the mother of a child named Ariana studying at the conservatory. She is also the wife of Matt, the tavern's cook, who is deaf and dumb. She asks if I can try to find a spell to restore his hearing, which I guess counts as a side quest.

More than a few of the NPCs are just silly. We already had a discussion thread on talking animals. Many of the names don't make any sense for NPCs from another world, and some of them have accents that are rather out-of-place in Britannia.

Mamma mia, that Codex! She's like a spicy meat-a ball-a!"

Your NPC party members, far from going mute the moment they join as they did in IV and V, occasionally interject in the dialogue and have their own dialogue trees. Notably, Iolo clarifies the pronunciation of his name ("Yo-low"), and Dupre establishes the wine-women-and-adventuring personality that he'll keep through the rest of the series.

Do not get me started on grails.

In addition to visiting the city and talking to the NPCs, I also explored a bit of the caverns beneath the castle. I don't know if these are supposed to be the same as the Hythloth dungeon from the previous games. Mostly, I found a bunch of rats and mice to kill, although I seem to remember if I keep going down, I eventually hit a series of caverns that go under the ocean to Buccaneer's Den. This means Britain's seas are unrealistically shallow.

And yet the little streams inside the dungeons are deep enough that I need a portable skiff to cross.

A bunch of miscellaneous comments and notes from my time in Britain:

  • Taking anything--even a loaf of bread--from a business or house results in the nearest NPC shouting "Stop, Thief!" and every other NPC in the area attacking. Stealing items outside the view of NPCs results in a "Stealing!" message but no other consequences that I can tell. I can't remember if this game even bothers to track karma as the previous two did.
  • Even though Iolo owns the shop, taking things from the bowyer's counts as "stealing!"
  • The castle contains a crystal ball that if you enter some coordinates, it will show you what's happening there currently. I'm not sure if this has any plot-related reason later on.

  • I've found a number of colored potions. They seem to do the same thing as in Ultima V: red cures poison, black turns you invisible, yellow heals, and so forth.
  • My room in the castle contained a spell book and a sack of reagents. The book comes with a collection of starting spells, including "Help," which brings you back to Lord British's throne room. The game is a bit different than its two predecessors in that although you still need reagents to cast spells, they automatically deplete from your inventory. You don't have to pre-mix them.

  • Chuckles--very annoying as always--has sent me on a bit of a treasure hunt. He first told me to check the chest in Nystul's room. There, I found a note telling me to check under a plant in Serpent's Hold. I don't remember what this is about, but I strongly suspect it's a wild goose chase. I'm not going to go to Serpent's Hold specifically for this little quest.

I'm going to kill you.

  • Doors: locked wooden doors can be picked or knocked down. Some locked metal doors can be picked; others require a key. I guess if you take all the trouble to push a cannon around, they can deal with the metal doors, too.

Using a cannon in this manner accomplishes nothing.

  • Secret doors are identified by noticing their barely-visible outlines in the walls. I forgot to take a screen shot before I opened all the ones I found in Britain. I'll try to get it next time.
  • You can get drunk on bottles of alcohol. This causes you to move in a random direction every time you try to move. Curiously, if one character gets drunk, the entire party is drunk.

Now I'm going to go tell Lord British what I really think of him!

  • Although I like the option to split the party, you have to be careful because the game won't let you re-enter "party" mode until all party members are relatively close to each other. If you're in a dungeon and have lost a sense of direction, this can be difficult. 

Well, hell. Where did I leave them?

  • A crazy guy in the sewers named Daros gave me a rubber duck. It goes "Squeak!" when I USE it. I have no idea what that's about.
  • The game offers only one save position.
  • You can't sleep in beds (at least, using no method that I could determine), including the one assigned to you in the castle. The only way to sleep is to wander outside the confines of the city and REST. This causes each character to consume a unit of food, but it doesn't look like it matters who, specifically, is carrying the food. There doesn't seem to be any consequence to not having food except not gaining any hit points back from the rest.

  • The Royal Museum has some interesting artifacts: bones and an egg from a dragon named Freitag (a reference to The Caverns of Freitag from programmer Dr. Cat), the bones of an extremely early Britannian named "Zog"; a perpetual-motion machine; a constant discharge of electricity, a stone that continuously spews water, and a "monolith from Lord British's homeworld." I don't know what the latter thing is supposed to be. If it's something to do with Stonehenge, the ceiling in the museum must be a lot higher than it looks.

  • Kytyn also says that the museum is expecting a Klein bottle.
  • Also in the museum is a painting that turns out to be an English variant of Rene Magritte's La Trahison des Images. I always thought this was the dumbest theme ever explored in a famous work of art. "Ooh, it's not really a pipe; it's just an image of a pipe!" How extraordinarily meta. You just blew my tiny little brain there, Rene.

Not only is this not a pipe, it's not even an image of a pipe! It's a textual description of an image of a pipe! I must lie down.

  • If an NPC is standing in your way, you can MOVE him or her to the position of your choice. This feels a bit rude, but the NPCs never complain.
  • You can buy a horse and separate horseshoes from a blacksmith. As with the previous games, I can't see any potential use for horses, as the hassle of keeping track of them far outweighs the savings in travel time.
  • I re-remembered my favorite part of Ultima VI: powder kegs! When you light them, you have a few seconds to get away before there's a devastating blast. You can blow up doors and monsters with them, arrange them strategically like dominoes to cause a chain of explosions, and use them to shape the combat terrain. Unfortunately, they're very heavy to tote around.

I didn't steal them. I just looked at them longingly and vowed to return when I had more money.

  • It sounds like the chancellors of each city know the mantra for each shrine and the location of the rune. In Britain, Lord Tholden had given them to the bards at the conservatory, who had in turn entrusted the rune to a three-year-old child. I resisted the urge to just pry the thing from her stupid little hand and went through the indignity of asking her mother for permission to "borrow" it.

Good job keeping that safe, guys. It's not like the gargoyles would kill for it or anything.

  • A series of gravestones in Britain all belong to one woman named Beth and her five husbands. If you LOOK at the ground in front of a gravestone, you automatically exhume a body, which you can then loot.


  • I might be missing the mechanic, but it doesn't look like you can use items together. There's a fabric shop with a loom and a spinning wheel and a bale of wool, but I can't turn the wool into fabric. Similarly, there doesn't seem to be a way to turn flour and water into bread. This will have to wait for Ultima VII.
  • Out of force of habit, I asked the horse trader about "SMITH." I didn't realize until I left that his dialogue is only funny if you realize his name is "Wilbur."

I toyed with keeping Sherry the Mouse as a permanent companion, but I ultimately declined because she's too hard for me to see against the background (it's a matter of her size combined with my colorblindness). It wouldn't work for role-playing reasons anyway. I didn't find anyone else to join me in Britain, so I'm moving on with my original three companions--all of whom refuse to leave--for now.

I'm off now to Cove, a bit east of Britain, to ask the wounded soldiers about their attempt to capture the Shrine of Compassion. After that, my journeys will take me further east to the Lycaeum, where I'll ask Mariah about the gargish book. My apologies if my posts continue to be spaced out for the next few weeks; work got very busy again.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Game 139: Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990)

Note: this post has a lot more full-game spoilers than the typical first post for a game. Read with caution if you don't already know the story of Ultima VI.
Ultima VI: The False Prophet
United States
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 DOS; 1991 for Commodore 64, FM Towns, PC-98; 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, Sharp X68000; 1993 for Super NES
Date Started: 8 February 2014
Origin System's motto was "we create worlds." It was a fitting motto for a company so dedicated to detailed back story and lore. Britannia is the most obvious example, but even the company's minor titles, like Times of Lore or Knights of Legend, have rich game manuals and complex histories. For years, I've thought of Origin as the paramount example of what became the first category in my GIMLET index: "game world."

Richard Garriott created the Ultima series in a time when hardly any games were paying attention to good stories--and even if they did, the technology of the times wasn't sufficient to justify much of the prose. In this era, Ultima IV comes along like a revelation, with a manual outlining Britannia's history, detailed descriptions of every town, monster, and item, a fully constructed virtue system--and, most importantly, a game that made full use of all the manual's lore. It's one of the few games of the era in which the manual and game seem like partners in the gameplay experience. It is, in fact, one of the few games of the era in which the manual and game feel like they were written by the same people.

But perhaps as notable as the effort and detail put into Britannia's history is how poorly Origin maintained it. The Ultima series is rightfully famous for re-inventing the game engine and magic system between numbered titles, but it also re-invented its stories, too. Hardly any aspect of the world holds up to scrutiny between any two games. IV and V are the closest, but in general, the game manuals engage in a rampage of retconning between titles. To take a few of a million examples:

  • To excuse nothing more than a desire to create a bigger, more geographically complex game world, the games suggest that the destruction of Exodous at the end of III created earthquakes and tsunamis and other geological upheavals, transforming Sosaria to Britannia. I'm pretty sure that global catastrophes capable of so re-shaping continents would also kill every living thing.

When you think about what had to happen to turn the map to the left into the map to the right, you wonder if it wouldn't have been a better idea just to learn to live with Exodus.

  • Starting in the Ultima VI manual, the Avatar is explicitly named as the same hero who won the first three Ultima games, never mind that III had four characters, and any of the characters in the first three games could be of non-human races.
  • Minax is given in the manual as having threatened "Sosaria," despite the game taking place on Earth.
  • Exodus is manifestly a computer in III but becomes a demonic entity in later depictions.
  • Lord British is said to come from Earth, as are Iolo and Dupre. This supposedly accounts for their long lives. But Iolo and Dupre never really talk about Earth, and Gwenno and Shamino, both Britannians, are similarly long-lived.
  • The enemies in VI are the "gargoyles," despite gargoyles having existed as separate creatures in V and gargoyles having been called "daemons" in previous games.
  • Ultima IV and V took place on a three-dimensional world that wrapped around on itself. Suddenly in VI, it's possible to reach the "edge" of the world and see the void of space beyond. The gargoyles apparently live on the other side of the world, and the "underworld" from Ultima V is now the space in between the two. This suggests that there's some point in the underworld where gravity flips around, I guess, but I suppose if we're talking about a world shaped like a cereal box, considerations of things like gravity, hydrology, and atmosphere are already pretty absurd.

I'm afraid getting here so early in the game, just so I could take this screenshot, involved a bit of homicide.

There have been all kinds of attempts to explain or hand-wave these inconsistencies, both in canon and fanon, and I don't doubt my message board will be full of them. That's fine. Discuss away. Tortured explanations for inconsistencies in fiction are usually fun, as are fan theories. (Here's my pet one, which I never heard anyone else talk about: what evidence do we really have that "the machines" are the enemy in the Terminator franchise? Just the beliefs of a bunch of terrified, depopulated technological throwbacks, but you could easily see this belief growing out of their incomprehension that any organic mind could cause such death and destruction. Since the series has never convincingly argued for the developments in AI necessary for a computer to become "self-aware," commandeer machinery, and create replicas of itself, it seems overwhelmingly likely to me that there's an organic intelligence behind them, either human or alien.) But the important thing is not to confuse something mildly plausible that someone pulled out of the air with a carefully-constructed game world.

What's particularly startling about many of these retcons is that they're utterly unnecessary. Who in the world came up with "gargoyles" as the best name for this other civilization? The word carries all kinds of baggage in existing lore, and it's always been tied to creatures who spent at least part of their time as stone. That's how Ultima V had them. Why create all kinds of confusion between gargoyles and daemons? A bolder choice would be to just leave them as daemons but, through this game, show that they're a lot more complex than the "always chaotic evil" creatures of the previous games. It would have allowed the game to explore themes of absolute good and absolute evil so common in CRPGs.

Then there's the Avatar. Not only is it unnecessary to make him the hero of the first three games, as if the Sosarians and Britannians are so inept they always need outside help to solve their problems, but I honestly think the series should have abandoned the concept after Ultima IV. In that game, it worked perfectly. The creators were making a meta-commentary on the very nature of playing role-playing games. The Avatar was clearly meant to be the player himself or herself, warped into the land through the "moongate" of his or her computer screen, represented as a literal avatar in the game window. Ultima IV was a game that invited the player to act in a way that was more courageous, more virtuous, more adventurous than in the real world. At the end of the game, when you're manifestly returned to your real life, you're invited to "live as an example to thine own people"--to apply the lesson of the seven virtues to the real world. It was brilliant. They should have left it alone.

Already in Ultima V, though, they were weakening the concept. In that game, the Avatar is clearly not you, but some guy who lives alone in his single-family house of a precise layout. But fine, you rationalize, all that is just a metaphor for where you actually do live. By Ultima VI, you have some weird picture of a pole-dancing centaur girl on your wall, you're inescapably a white male with long brown hair.

"To be looking like a hippie. To be rectifying this."

By Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire, the game has fleshed out a whole Earth bio for your character, including his associates. It was when I read the manual for that game and found the Avatar talking to one of these associates, saying "I told you that I occasionally do favors for a foreign dignitary who goes by the name Lord British," that I decided not to play the game. By the end of Ultima VII, when you find yourself remaining permanently in Britannia, the game has abandoned all pretense that the player is the Avatar.

It's not just the Avatar that's the problem. As the game world starts to lose its iconographic abstraction to take advantage of the latest graphics and sound technologies, to become more "realistic," the world begins to feel a little sophomoric. With the eight major cities, each "founded on a virtue," each featuring one major profession that exemplifies that virtue, each with a nearby dungeon named after an antonym to the virtue, all ruled by a benevolent, immortal sovereign, Britannia has always been a little too tidy. This was fine when it was as much of an abstraction as your little CGA icon, but Ultima VI begins the era in which the series wants to have it both ways--gritty realism coupled with a goofy master-planned fantasy kingdom

Although it's not quite a retcon so much as an expansion, Ultima VI also goes beyond the originals by giving specific portraits and personalities to your NPC companions. Geoffrey becomes a bit of a drill sergeant, Dupre a womanizing, boozing adventurer; Julia a bleating woman with calloused hands who looks more than a little like Julie Brown. I honestly don't remember my reaction to these personalities the first time I played the game back in 1990 or 1991. I generally find them welcome now, though if you'd spent a lot of time imagining your own personalities for the NPCs in the previous games, you might not like the contrast.

I went through more effort getting to Minoc to take this screenshot than was worth it. And I'm not sure how rumors got there ahead of me, since I used the moonstone.

If I have misgivings about the game world, though, I have none about the gameplay experience. The interface for the Ultima series has always been state-of-the-art (at least when it comes to a top-down view). Ultima V had one of the best game engines I've ever played, and yet Ultima VI manages to improve upon it. The game uses both a mouse and keyboard, but in a comfortably redundant way so you can choose what works best for you. The world is still tile-based, but movement around it is quick enough that it feels fluid (having the characters face the direction they're moving helps with this illusion). The paper-doll inventory is extremely easy to use. You can LOOK at any object or person to get more information, and interact with a lot of the objects. The multiple keyboard commands from the previous games have been consolidated into about a dozen (LOOK does both looking and searching; USE handles opening, jimmying, and other actions).

I loved how you could interact with the Ultima V game world by moving things around, locking doors, playing a harpsichord, and so on. VI continues and expands on this tradition in a hundred ways. There are books to read (not as verbose as those in The Elder Scrolls, but still good), paintings to look at, and dozens of objects of furniture to move around (which might reveal hidden items beneath them). You can shatter mirrors by attacking them, look at clocks and sundials to get the time, pull decorative swords, paintings and torches from the walls, break doors and chests with a weapon, rob graves, play a variety of instruments, and douse fires. There are a billion little items--bouquets of flowers, knives, spatulas, rolling pins, cooking sheets, pitchers, mugs, bottles, gavels, pliers--most of which do nothing but add some flavor to the game world in a way that all those inkwells and embalming tools do to Skyrim. The game offers one of the first "sandbox" worlds that we have seen in RPGs.

Moving a bouquet of flowers isn't a great example of this, but I haven't gotten far into the game yet.

The game preserves the dialogue system of the previous two Ultimas while allowing an option that highlights keywords so you don't have to try absolutely everything (purists can easily turn this off). It also preserves the day/night cycle of V, with NPCs going to work, bed, and places in between at appointed times. V and VI remain the only games that do this in my chronology (before you say The Magic Candle, it's not quite the same; those NPCs just disappeared and appeared at certain times; they didn't move around).

Starting with this game, you no longer "enter" cities, keeps, and such; they're integrated into the game world. Dungeons are now top-down instead of first-person, and there's a lot more to see, do, and find within them. There's also no real separation between regular exploration and combat, and since it takes place on the regular screen, you can establish yourself in helpful terrain ahead of time, even altering the terrain with objects.

Perhaps the best part is the ability to take control of a single party member at any time. Different party members can be in different places accomplishing different things, and indeed many of the puzzles rely on this. For combat, you can decide whether you want to control the individual actions of party members or have them fight on their own with predetermined scripts (attack forward, attack the flank, attack the rear, etc.).

In total, I think it's one of the best interfaces ever designed for a CRPG. If it lacks some of the graphic sophistication of more modern games, it more than makes up for it with the ability to interact with objects and NPCs in ways that we no longer see. My only real complaints are that the game window is just a little too small, which makes it all the more infuriating when night falls. This is one of the few games in which trying to accomplish something in darkness is about as realistic as it is in real life, and the game mechanic actually encourages you to just go to bed.

Night falls as the party tries to navigate around some buildings.

Ultima VI begins with a partly-animated sequence in which the Avatar is sitting at his home on Earth, "five seasons" after the events of Ultima V. He's got that famous pole-dancing centaur woman (with zebra legs, to make it odder) on his wall, and he's mindlessly flipping through TV channels. The animation here is fun, showing commercials for some digestive medicine and a razor, a news report that alters between a plane crash and something to do with the Soviet Union, a rock video, and a televangelist who gets struck by lightning while soliciting donations. The Avatar is missing his friends and adventures in Britannia.

The number at the bottom of the screen is Origin's.

Suddenly, there's a storm outside and lightning strikes the ground in the midst of the circle of stones where the moongate has appeared in the past. The Avatar heads outside to investigate and finds a small obsidian stone--the same type of thing that Lord British used to banish Blackthorn in the previous game. Then, a red moongate appears. The Avatar is hesitant because the moongate has always been blue in the past, but when it starts to disappear, he decides screw it, and runs on through, his long hair flopping along behind him.

He emerges on a "desolate plain" next to a "rune-struck altar." Before he can react, a bunch of gargoyles surround him, chanting. They bind him to the altar stone and one of them whips out a sacrificial dagger. Just as he's about to plunge it into his heart, another moongate appears and Shamino, Dupre, and Iolo pop out, nailing the gargoyle leader between the eyes with a crossbow bolt as they enter the plain.

They cut the Avatar's bonds, hand him a sword, and haul him back through the moongate to Lord British's throne room. Unfortunately, some of the gargoyles follow through the portal, so the gameplay itself begins in the middle of a battle.

Characters can be created anew or imported from Ultima IV or V. If you create a new character, you go through the whole gypsy virtue test again, answering a series of hypothetical questions to identify your overall bent, which affects your starting attributes. The questions are different from the previous games, and I somehow ended up prioritizing "spirituality," which would have made me a ranger in Ultima IV, but it has less of an impact here since there are only three NPC professions (fighter, bard, and mage) and the PC is always just an "Avatar."

You can also choose your sex during character creation, and assign a portrait that includes among its selections one black PC, so perhaps what I said above about the PC being a long-haired white male isn't quite true; he's just portrayed that way in the game introduction. I guess they had to choose something as the default, but I don't see why they couldn't have done the intro from a first-person POV without actually showing the PC.

Against all odds, I still had my save game files from Ultima V, and I found that transferring the character gave me significantly higher strength (28 vs. 21), dexterity (28 vs. 22), and intelligence (29 vs. 19), as well as a higher magic point total (58 vs. 38), though some of these differences may have been due to different choices with the gypsy. The transfer process reduced me from Level 7 to Level 3, but on the plus side, I was able to change my name to my new preferred PC name, and I was still able to select my own character portrait.

The available character portraits. I had to go with the black guy as having the only respectable hairstyle. You also have to admire how he just straps that ankh to his forehead. No doubts about who's the avatar in this room.

The beginning of the game, in which you have to defeat the gargoyles who followed you into Lord British's throne room, is not its finest hour. The player is just getting used to the controls, and he already has gargoyles whaling on him. Lord British, Nystul the Mage, and Geoffrey the Fighter (now promoted to Lord British's guard captain) just stand there and watch. You'd think Lord British could help quell an invasion of his own throne room, given that he's effectively immortal.

The opening scene.

When you first talk to Lord British, he greets you by name, but then immediately runs through a copy protection exercise in which you have to answer questions from the manual, all under the guise of "I must make sure it is thee."

After this slight fumble in the opening, though, the game immediately starts being fun. Lord British relates how the underworld has collapsed and the gargoyles (he uses the term right away) have started to invade Britannia through the dungeons. They've captured all the shrines to the eight virtues.

Lord British tells me that he's set aside some quarters in the castle for me, along with some equipment, and he--at last!--gives me free reign to take anything else from his castle that I might find useful. He's come a long way from the guy who used to make me buy hit points. He also notes that the obsidian stone I found is a portal stone, and if I experiment with various placements around me, I can fast travel to various locations in the game world. More on that next time.

I get a couple of quests almost immediately. Geoffrey recounts a failed attempt to liberate the Shrine of Compassion and suggests I speak to the wounded survivors of the battle, who are recuperating in Cove. I guess Geoffrey had more important things to do than to stay with them. Nystul the mage (named after RPG developer and onetime Origin employee Mike Nystul) has a look at the book I recovered from the gargoyle leader and suggests I take it to Mariah in the Lycaeum for translation. Since Cove is comfortably on the way from the castle to the Lycaeum, my initial route is clear, but I need to finish exploring the castle and Britain (now essentially one big city) first.

I didn't get very far into the gameplay in this posting, but I wanted to get my misgivings about the world and the Avatar out of the way first, so I can just ignore them and enjoy it from here. I've won the game two or three times before, the last time in (I think) 1999. Those 15 years put me in the sweet spot of having forgotten most of the game's details (particularly its puzzles), but still remembering enough to know that I'll enjoy it.