Playable Classics: A Selected Ultima

I have written in detail before about my obsession with the Ultima games. After much deliberation, Tea Leaves is designating one of the Ultima games as a Playable Classic. It joins the other classic games Fool’s Errand, Star Control II, and Escape Velocity as a shining exemplar of the best that videogaming has to offer.

The Contestants

First, a brief review of the idea of a Playable Classic. “Classic” is fairly obvious: a game that has stood the test of time, and that was innovative or genre-defining (or busting). “Playable” is where we really winnow the wheat from the chaff. A game is playable if it meets two conditions. First, that the game mechanics are still fun (and tolerable) given modern standards. To use an example, the original Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord is surely a classic, but the fact that it more or less requires you to make a map with pencil and paper in order to win disqualifies it from being a Playable Classic. Secondly, the game can be played on Windows and/or Mac by double- clicking a single executable. If someone distributes a wrapper for an emulator to achieve this for a specific game, that’s enough to pass this bar.

Arguments can be made for nearly any game in the Ultima series being “the best.” Certainly, many of the games introduced innovations that are in use today. Ultima II, for example, introduced “moongates” as a means of travel, and cemented the game world as involving an odd mixture of medieval and futuristic technology. Ultima III introduced the idea of a separate combat screen and calculating line-of-sight dynamically to determine what was displayed, as well as the “name? job?” conversation tree that was used through the next three games.

Most of the Ultima games, therefore, have a strong claim to being classics. There are, however, only two that could reasonably be considered Playable Classics, and so we’ll limit our discussion to those two games. They are Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar and Ultima VII: The Black Gate.

These two are eligible for consideration mostly because of the hard work of devoted amateur developers who created updated ports of these games for most modern operating systems. In the case of Ultima IV, that effort is called XU4. In the case of Ultima VII, the project is called Exult (links to both projects and other relevant downloads will appear at the end of this article, under “Additional Resources”). Both projects run on Windows and Mac (as well as other platforms). Both ports provide one-click launching.

I’ve been watching these projects grow for several years now, and I’m really excited by them. The very idea that there’s more than one ancient Ultima game that I can run on modern hardware is cool. With luck, other teams will work on resurrecting other cool games from the past, and they’ll make my job even harder.

But back to the issue at hand: from a usability standpoint, you can now play either of the two games on your modern box with ease. How can I decide which one to designate as a Playable Classic?

Ultima VII

Ultima VII

Ultima VII opens with a gruesome murder

The Exult team deserves extra credit for making their project work. Ultima VII was a DOS application that needed a ton of memory. Rather than use one of the already-available memory management schemes to accomplish this, Origin developed a memory manager called “Voodoo” that was extremely convenient from the point of view of the developer and absolutely, utterly, and didactically brain-dead from the point of view of the user. Many users had to reboot from a custom-made boot disk in order to play Ultima VII. The game was the paradigm of the hostile user experience. Or at least I found it to be.

Of the two, Ultima VII is surely more approachable for the player who doesn’t know what he is getting himself in to. The graphics in Ultima IV are tile-based, and primitive – more iconic than anything – and the world the game takes place in feels much less alive, and more game-like. I complain about the memory management in Ultima VII, but its existence has a lot to do with the ambition of the game. It’s easy to forget how primitive most other games were in 1992: this was before even Doom.

In 1992, most of us who bought Ultima VII experienced a buggy, crashy, and unless we had just bought a top-of-the-line computer, hideously slow (albeit attractive) game. Today, thanks to the Exult project, we can play the game as it was meant to be played. We see our avatar and the other characters in town wandering around, looking for all the world like small animated dolls. Non-player characters have routines and chores and habits. They work during the day, and they sleep at night. The occasional deer or squirrel will be found in the wilderness, minding its own business, and darting away if you get too close. The game world feels lush, verdant, and alive.

The plot of Ultima VII uses the framework of a detective story to drive the plot. You arrive in the world of Britannia after a horrific murder; the standard path through the plot is to chase two of the suspects from town to town. The plot is serious, and though preachy at times, is never intolerable. There are many optional activities and side-quests.

This is what Ultima VII brings to the table. A huge (and hugely detailed) world. The terrain does not seem at all tile-based. The environments are as richly varied as Diablo II, and the art is beautiful. The music is soft and textured, and the characterizations believable, at least within the confines of the medium. And Ultima VII is, quite simply, huge. It is the first of the series that I regularly got lost in. I think that’s pretty cool.

The game has drawbacks, however. It is hobbled by an almost obsessive- compulsive attention to detail. You can pick up practically every rock and trinket in the game, which means that you will spend most of the game wondering if you should have picked something up that you didn’t. There are also subtle rules about crime that don’t make a lot of sense. Sometimes, you can pick up bars of gold without penalty, and then at other times you might idly eat a grape that you find in a tavern and suddenly all the members of your party will try to kill you for thievery.

The game tried to integrate combat into the main game engine; rather than decamping to a separate combat screen, and having “turn based” combat, it proceeds in real time. It works something like this: you see someone you want to attack. You click the “dove” button, indicating that you don’t want to be peaceful anymore. The dove changes into a picture of a heart pierced by a flaming sword, which is of course the International Olympic Committee’s symbol for deadly combat. Then all of the characters in your party rush headlong at the enemy and hack at them without any kind of organization and you all die. Then you go play a different game.

Ultima IV

A good choice for a different game, it turns out, is Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

Ultima IV

Ultima IV in XU4 (with updated graphics)

Originally published in 1985, Ultima IV stands out as the apotheosis of the series in terms of what may be the most underrated aspect of games: pacing. The game strikes just the right balance of aimless but interesting wandering, frantic combat, and determined searching. There are plenty of macguffins to search for, and a huge number of subquests. There’s also quite a bit of dialogue, although the interface to engage in it is be a bit primitive (for years after Ultima IV it was a running joke within the series that the Avatar’s main characteristic was that he walked around talking to every single person he met saying “Name? Job?”)

From a narrative perspective, one of the most refreshing things about the game is its self-awareness of the clichÈs of the genre. All three of the previous games had been what are sometimes referred to by game geeks as “kill foozle” quests, meaning the only “point” to the game is “Bad guy over there. Go kill him.” The overarching goal in Ultima IV is, not to put too fine a point on it, to become a messiah by exemplifying the eight virtues. All together now, people, let’s recite them: Compassion, Honor, Justice, Valor, Honesty, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Humility. (It gets more complex when you consider that each of the virtues are meant to represent one combination of “the three principles” of truth, love, and courage. More or less, my presumption is that Richard Garriott was reading about Buddha’s Eightfold Path one night while he was really really baked, and decided to build a game around it. Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, and…Right 6502 Assembler Coding?)

It would have been terribly easy for a game whose entire point was “one should be virtuous” to have crossed the line into preachiness. Ultima IV never ventures into the saccharine. The Bioware games Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic are great counterexamples. These games let you play as the bad guy but come across as preachier than Ultima IV. Part of this has to do with the eightfold path of morality in Ultima: the conflict, more often than not, is not “good versus bad” but “upholding one valued principle versus a different valued principle.” The particular one that always messed me up was Humility. Characters in the game would constantly ask me “Are you humble?” And I’d sit there, for 2 minutes, not sure what I should say. “Yes! My ability to be humble kicks ass! I am the best at being humble in the world!”

So sometimes one can have multiple goals that are in total conflict. It turns out that even though I’m not saving the world, those are the sorts of decisions that I find difficult in real life.

There’s another aspect of Ultima IV that I like, and that has to do with the nature of sequels. In each of the first four Ultima games, the locale changed. Ultima I took place on a nameless world with four continents. Ultima II took place on Earth. Ultima III took place on “Sosaria.” Ultima IV takes place on “Britannia.” By the time Ultima VII rolled around, the mythology of the world had been calcified and enshrined into canon. When Ultima IV was released, this hadn’t happened yet. The game, therefore, goes out of its way to explain more about the world and what has come before. This makes it a bit more approachable to someone who hasn’t played any other of the games in the series. Ultima IV is “just” a sequel. Whereas by the time of Ultima VII, the series had become an institution. As such, the latter game had to perform contortions to not contradict earlier tradition and upset rabid fans.

Ultima IV doesn’t quite make combat optional, but you can advance very, very far without engaging in many battles, which is to my taste. If you prefer, you can try to kill anything that moves. Elements from the earlier Ultima games, such as moongates, are still present, and the game’s tile- based nature will be familiar and understandable to anyone who has played Rogue.

The Decision

It’s a close call. Both games, as I said above, have much to recommend them. If you have the time to play both, you should. But if you only have time to play one, then play Ultima IV.

The reasons are pretty simple.

Ultima VII is a fantastically ambitious game. As such, it does many things fairly well. It has multiple user interfaces for many different actions and behaviors. It represents a beautiful, richly detailed world, most of which you will never have the time or inclination to see. At times, it seems more like a primitive version of The Sims than a role-playing game. Ultima IV by contrast, focuses the same narrative ambition on far fewer game mechanics. There is less you can do, conceptually, in Ultima IV, but those things are easier (from a UI perspective) to actually accomplish. Ultima IV only does (comparatively) few things, but it does them very well.

In other words: Ultima IV is a smaller game, but it’s more of a game.

Ultima IV

Ultima IV in XU4 (with original graphics)

The lack of realistic graphics doesn’t hurt the game, any more than the iconic pieces in chess damage that game. I like the little icons waving swords. I like the little waiflike children that are depicted with what seems like only 10 pixels. I like the subtle way secret doors require you to actually notice a shift in the brick patterns of a wall. And, damn it to hell, I like walking up to random people and pestering them with “Name? Job?” over and over again.

And, lastly, for all of the seriousness of both of the games, Ultima IV has a worldview, a compassion, and an optimism that is I just didn’t find in the later game. Both games exist in an intellectual grey area. Both strove to be morally and ethically complex, and they only succeeded to a very limited extent. Both throw tricky ethical situations at you, and, being imperfect, can be “gamed.” Despite this, there is an ethos expressed in Ultima IV that striving to be a good person is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. And I think that’s an attitude that should be respected, and honored. Ultima VII, from start to finish, batters you with murders, and poverty, and drug use, and questions of privilege. The moral ambiguity of pretenders to virtue is a worthwhile theme, but it’s one that isn’t played true in Ultima VII. The earlier, simpler theme – even if naive – strikes purer notes.

And sometimes, a simple tune is all one needs to have a good day.

Additional Resources