Monday, April 23, 2018

Martian Dreams: Opening Thoughts

I think the best way to encapsulate my initial thoughts on Martian Dreams is via a remark from a conversation I had during the UDIC 25th Anniversary Bash. Unfortuantely I don't remember who said it, so I'm unable to attribute it properly, but it went something along the lines of "Just describing the premise of that game makes me happy."

That's a pretty fair assessment for me as well, all things considered.

Released in 1991, Martian Dreams was the third game to make use of the Ultima VI engine and the second entry in the Worlds of Ultima spin-off series. Or at least it ostensibly was, as the series itself had been renamed to the "Ultima Worlds of Adventure" series, putting the prestigious name of Ultima first. Not that it mattered all that much in the end, on account of the fact it was also the last entry in the series, much to my personal dismay. See, the planned third entry in the series was intended to take an Arthurian bent - how awesome would colliding Britannias have been? Iolo and Merlin swapping stories, Dupre and the Knights of the Round Table questing together, King Arthur and Lord British... so many great opportunities there. But alas, it never came to be.

Ahem, right. I was talking about Martian Dreams.

I like the fact the Avatar has a poster of Ultima VI on the wall.
Once again the game took the tack of throwing the Avatar into an adventure apart from Britannia, via the Orb of the Moons. While Savage Empire took him into a lost world, Martian Dreams sent him on a steampunk adventure on the Red Planet. Considering time travel is involved, it's a little difficult to properly decide where the story truly begins (or a least when), but perhaps the best way to approach it is the Avatar's own perspective - when Dr. Spector shows up on his doorstep one night, ostensibly at the Avatar's own bequest, the two are visited by a mysterious stranger with a package for them. This package contains a photograph of the two of them with several Victorian-era figures, a note signed by Nikola Tesla, and a book on time travel and the Orb of the Moons written by Dr. Spector himself - dated a century earlier. Following the instructions laid out in the book, the two venture to an abandoned laboratory in Colorado, use the Orb, and find themselves in the year 1895. They discover that two years prior, the astronomer Percival Lowell had developed a "space cannon" designed for a trip to Mars, unveiling the project at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Unfortunately, the cannon discharged a day early - with several prominent figures of the era on board for a tour. And so the Avatar and Dr. Spector join Tesla's rescue mission, for whatever adventures might await them on the next planet over.

Much like Savage Empire, I don't have a lot of previous experience with Martian Dreams. This was largely in part due to the interface issues I had with Ultima VI, which I've previously stated that I had several problems adjusting to at first. However, the premise reminiscent of a Jules Verne novel (adaptations of which I read voraciously as a kid) intrigued me far more than Savage Empire's, and so I was a bit more willing to stick it out just to see what the game had to offer. I've never managed to get very far in the game, but I loved its aesthetic and the ideas behind it. It's one of those games that I quite readily praise even if I'm not entirely sure it's one that ends up clicking with me personally. Although considering how I've managed to get over my initial problems with the Ultima VI interface back during my playthrough of that game, I suspect I'm going to have a much better time of it this attempt around. I'm excited to experience the story firsthand in its entirety, because from what I've seen of it in Let's Plays, it's going to be an excellent adventure.

Well if we knew, we wouldn't have a game, now would we?
But of course I can't get started without delving into the game manuals - yes that has to be plural, as Martian Dreams came with two! The first is Dr. Spector's treatise on time travel and the Orb of the Moons referenced in the game's intro. It does indeed explain how the Orb of the Moons can be used for such a thing, and they are indeed followed properly in the intro. It also features a few descriptions of the various people in the ill-fated 1893 journey, along with those taking part in the 1895 rescue expedition. The second manual describes more of the planet itself, from its geographical features to the wildlife encountered there to what they have managed to figure out of the Martian civilization. It's clear that the team put a fair amount of research into the historical figures they chose to include, there's even a "Further Reading" section for more material on these people. That sort of thing is something I highly appreciate in games that reference historical peoples and places - part of what I love about the Civilization series is trawling through the in-game Civilopedia to learn more about the people and nations I'm playing as. Being able to latch on to some little-known facet of history and having resources at hand to investigate further, provided to me by the game itself - that's the sort of infectious passion for a particular topic that I love to see infused into any form of media.

The manuals also help set the proper tone for the game to follow here. There's no such thing as a perfect reflection of reality when it comes to fiction - what matters is either being able to sufficiently distract the audience from those discrepancies, or putting them in a state of mind where those discrepancies and inaccuracies simply don't matter to them. Martian Dreams is of the latter type, I think. It definitely plays fast and loose with the science involved (when it doesn't outright defy it!), but the lighthearted tone of the manuals and intro sequence help put the player in the right mindset, that this isn't going to be a story about hard science and survival on Mars, but a jovial adventure that happens to be set there. Spector himself even points out some of the strange and extraordinary discrepancies between the modern understanding of Mars and the game's presentation of it! By presenting them in an almost jaunty sort of manner, it helps set the player's expectations of what's to come and make those nonsensical moments easier to accept and meet the game on its own terms.

Origin did "create worlds," after all.
Even the detail work in the manual and opening sequence makes me grin. The illustrations that supplement the descriptions of Martian "plantimals" really help bring the idea of plant-based fauna to life, and the added detail that it's George Washington Carver who does the research into Martian society and its life cycle makes just drives it home all the more - of course he would, he's the botanist! All in all the manuals go a long way to getting the player in the right mood for the game to come, which is exactly what they should be doing. The fact the Origin FX sequence at the beginning uses an image of Mars made me smile, too.

Thus prepared, I popped into the game to create my character proper, chatting with Sigmund Freud in order to define the Avatar's presence on Mars. Even this is a nice touch - who else would be the one to determine how the Avatar would be fleshed out on this particular adventure? Freud began by asking whether the Avatar was closer to his mother or father - I didn't realize this was the 'art thou male or female' question of the game when I first gave Martian Dreams a whirl, which caught me off guard when I answered honestly and ended up female once I fired up the game proper. Freud then stated he did not think the Avatar belonged with them on the trip, and asked how that made him feel. From there came a few more questions: were the Avatar a child again, what would he do when his mother calls him away from playing with his friends? Should they send one out as a scout or stick together as a group when they land on Mars? Were he an animal, would he rather be a fish or a bird? Once again it was interesting to see the traditional "virtue test" framed in a completely different context, and as always, I answered based on the Avatar's previous experiences as best I could.

All that remains now is to dive into the game proper and get to exploring the Martian landscape. Tally ho!


Friday, April 20, 2018

Savage Empire: Closing Thoughts

It's taken me some time to figure out how to pull all my thoughts on Savage Empire in something resemebling a cohesive manner. Some of that probably has to do with the fact my playthrough of the game has been rather... extended, compared to the rest of the series I've played thus far. The game isn't quite as fresh in my head as others when compiling these closing thoughts, especially the early parts of the game. But I think more of it stems from the fact I have very mixed feelings about Savage Empire in general, which is making it a little difficult to figure out how to approach a final post on the topic.

Figuring out where the heck I was - one of my favorite parts of the game
Maybe the best place to start is to say that I did enjoy the game a lot - considerably more than I was expecting to going in. I mentioned in my opening post that "Lost World" type things generally aren't my cup of tea, but even in spite of my lukewarm feelings toward the genre as a whole, I had a wonderful time roaming the valley of Eodon. Especially when I wasn't entirely sure of where I was! The memory of exploring where the teleporters all took me and trying to match that to the features of the game map is still my starkest of Savage Empire, and I honestly don't think I'll be able to replicate that feeling in many other games. Sure, games still come with maps, but I feel like the game worlds they depict are, at least these days, too large to properly capture the level of detail that allows me to pinpoint exactly where I am on it. Savage Empire allowed me to figure out where I was on the map based on geographic features like a particular confluence of rivers or a series of cliffs - all of which were replicated on the map. There was something enriching to me about being able to have that experience with material that wasn't necessarily inside the game itself. I'm hoping I can find similar moments when it comes to Martian Dreams - I know the general layout of Britannia a bit too well to expect the same out of Ultima VII!

Design-wise, I think it's interesting to see how Savage Empire iterated on Ultima VI. As the first entry in the series to re-use the same engine as another, there's a lot to be said on how it took existing material and improved upon it. For example, I think moving the conversation text to where the "game" window is, rather than keeping it where the command input appeared, was a good call. There's no need to be staring at the game world during a conversation, and the larger window helped follow the lengthier conversations a bit better. It was nice to see how other things were improved upon as well - character portraits, for example. The background on each of them changed based on locale and time of day, and even in other circumstances (such as Tuomaxx throwing a skin over the Avatar's head). Talking with Jimmy outside at twilight showed him against a background of a starry sky, while conversing with him in a cave showed him in front of stone. It was a lovely touch that brought a lot of life to the world. So too was the fact each tribe felt distinct - the villages, the character design, every visual aspect of the tribes helped distinguish it from the other tribes in the valley, helping to nail down just how varied they were.

It was nice I could make and use these, but the process was complex.
There was also an increased degree of interactivity with the world itself, it felt like, although part of me feels like it was perhaps too much in some circumstances. While it was nice to see more uses for objects, more ways of combining them, and multiple means of obtaining certain items, I think it might have been a little more than was strictly necessary in some cases. The makeshift rifles and bombs swiftly come to mind - there were so many steps in the process, made a bit more complicated by the limited amount of inventory space available to me, that it felt more like busy work than anything else. I ended up never making a homemade rifle simply on account of that fact. While nice in theory, I think making more complicated interactions between objects didn't work very well in practice.

Then, too, is the fact that the re-use of the engine made some problems even more stark in comparison. Ultima VI let me scroll through inventories, effectively letting me have infinite inventory slots on each individual character, so long as they had the strength to carry it all. Not so in Savage Empire, and I was sorely missing it. Bags and containers because all more precious not just because it helped keep everything organized, but because they effectively expanded the number of items I could carry. This was more a mild nuisance than a serious problem, but it was all the more noticeable because it was clear the engine was capable of handling it in Ultima VI.

The bear. Always the bear.
One other thing stands out to me in terms of mechanics as well, and that's how the game handled character progression. I've seen a few comments elsewhere about how the game feels more like an adventure game with light RPG elements rather than a true RPG. I don't call this a "criticism" because it's not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but for me personally, it did somewhat hamper my enjoyment of the game. Out of all the characters I took with me on my journey, only Jimmy felt like he ever really got better in terms of leveling and the lack. Most of the other characters were already as far advanced were likely to get over the course of the game without large amounts of dedicated grinding - the Avatar himself included. It never felt like this was a detriment to actually getting anywhere in the game itself, but I found myself missing that sense of my characters improving in their capabilities as the game went on. Even on those occasions when I did get to level up a character (and the rarer occasion when that character was someone other than Jimmy), it felt somewhat lackluster, on account of the fact I never picked anything to improve except strength. I was almost always in need of an increased carrying capacity, and the only way for me to cope with that was with more strength. It all felt rather one-dimensional to me - not that this is unusual territory for Ultima, really, intelligence was useless for practically everybody but the Avatar in Ultima VI for instance, and Ultima II's stat increases were entirely random. I think what stands out to me about Savage Empire in this respect, though, is that it was a choice that didn't really feel like one - sure I could improve dexterity or intelligence, but what point was there to either? (That's another thing,
too - I kept forgetting I even had the option of magic, on account of only one character having the capability, and it wasn't the Avatar.) Strength felt like the absolute right choice every time, and thus I didn't see the need to actually choose one of the three at all. And if I have no reason to choose any option except one, then why give me a choice at all?

In which Sahree sums up the plot.
Since it's my own particular point of interest, and at least part of the point of this blog in the first place, I can't get away from Savage Empire without discussing its story, and I have mixed feelings on that particular subject too. Structurally speaking, it's pretty much the same as the rest of the series up to this: there are a set number of tasks you need to accomplish before you're allowed to enter the endgame, and so long as you accomplish them all, how you go about it doesn't matter. Ultima IV doesn't care if you gather the stones of virtue before achieving Partial Avatarhood in Humility, for instance, so long as it's all done before you dive into the Abyss. Ultima V didn't care when you got the Shard of Falsehood or the Crown of Lord British first, so long as it all happened before you went into Dungeon Doom. Similarly, Savage Empire doesn't care if you help the Disquiqui before the Sakkhra, or the Nahuatla before the Pindiro, so long as you've united all the tribes. And on paper, it's an interesting plot - finding ways to convince each individual tribe to join an alliance, each in their own way, finding a means to meet each tribe on its own terms.

In practice, however... well, it falls into the same problem I have with Mass Effect 2. By making "getting X character to join your team" into not just a significant part of the game's story arc, but the bulk of it, it feels too much like reducing the characters to plot coupons, and that doesn't sit well with me in terms of video games. It's the sort of story I feel works better in a book or movie, and I still can't quite put my finger on why. In whatever medium, it does make the characters in question into a plot device, but somehow that feels more... reductive to me when it happens in a video game. Maybe that's because since I'm actively a part of the story of a video game, it makes me more aware of mechanics and function, and thus easier for my brain to perceive characters used in such a manner as a "mechanic" themselves. Or maybe that's because it feels more like the game is telling me how I'm supposed to think about these people rather than letting me come to my own conclusions, made all the more stark on account of the fact I have a more direct role in the story and the main character as a player of a video game. I don't know - I've mused on it a lot and I still don't have a concrete conclusion.

Even though this made some sense, it felt too easy.
I would have also liked to see a bit more interaction between the tribes. There are some very clear rivalries in the valley, but all the resolution between them happens off screen. It would have been nice, for instance, to see members of other tribes appearing in the villages as you united more of them. Some of the tribal quests felt a bit phoned in, too - one just joins right off, without having to even do anything! I understood the sentiment behind it, as far as the chieftain's motivations went, but even so, it would have felt a bit more fulfilling if she had instead required me to, say, convince half the tribes in the valley to join, just as evidence of my ability or commitment to doing so. Everybody else needed some proof that their needs would be seen to, as is understandable from a leader of a tribe. Why not her, then? I could have done with a little more backstory in a few more places, too. The pacing of a story as open as this is a hard thing to balance when you can't be sure what a player is going to go after when, but having done the Nahuatla quest last, where the bulk of the history of the Valley can be found, a lot of that information was something I would have liked to see hinted at a bit more directly. There were touches of this with the Sakkhra tribe, but practically zilch elsewhere, and I definitely felt its lack when I finally made my way into the underground city of the Kotl and learned just how much went into the background of Eodon and the Myrmidex. Of course, some of these complaints are probably the result of a game world that does feel like it truly breathes, and thus makes minor things like this stand out a little more in contrast - it wasn't a bad story by any means, and those parts of it I enjoyed made me all the more starved for those extra bits of polish.

It's good to see these lessons of virtue framed in a different context.
As far as how the game fits into the story of Ultima as a whole, that's another complicated question. I've heard it said that the game might have received better - indeed, might have been a better game, period - if it didn't try to tie itself to the Ultima series. I can understand the reasoning behind such a statement, and in truth I'm not entirely sure whether I even disagree with it. But I'd like to turn that idea the other way around - would Ultima's story have been better without Savage Empire? I'm inclined to say no. Thematically, this is a chance to see how the Avatar has learned the lessons of virtue Britannia, how he applies them outside the purview of the land that taught these lessons to him. It has the potential to touch upon the idea that the quest of the Avatar really is forever, and the lightly mentioned theme at the end of Ultima V that it's not just Britannia that has a need for an example of virtue. Does Savage Empire accomplish such a thing? I think the case can be made for it, when viewed from the right angle. There aren't really dilemmas of virtue in the same way the Age of Enlightment trilogy presented, but there are moments - the questions during character creation, how the Avatar deals with figures like Darden and Spector, how the player feels in the aftermath, even if there's no direct choice involved. It's not something addressed clearly in the game itself, but I said back during my playthrough of Ultima IV that that particular game is as much the player's story as the Avatar's. In that sense, this is their first chance in the series to explore the lessons of virtue in a context that doesn't necessarily care about those lessons one way or another - is it something that they've taken to heart so well that they hold to them even when they don't see a concrete need to? Maybe it's just me, but I think that, at least from the story of the player, it's an interesting direction to take, and I'm glad the series has something like Savage Empire to do that.

All in all, I think I've come out of this game with a newfound appreciation for it. It's still not going to rank up there with my favorites in the series, I'm not going to be as eager for a reply of it as I am the Age of Enlightenment games. But I think there's something quintessentially Ultima about it. One of the hallmarks of the series, in my mind, is its willingness to experiment, to try new things and go in different directions. It doesn't just take what worked and make more of it - it tries to iterate, find new things that work, ways to improve on what's already working. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it does, at the very least, end up interesting, and that's part of what's enjoyable about the series for me. And that's exactly what Savage Empire did - it took something that worked, it built on it, it went a different direction, and it tried new things. Some of it I enjoyed, some of it I didn't. And I'm expecting all of that will be improved and experimented on and taken in new directions come Martian Dreams. I have a feeling I'm going to end up seeing Savage Empire the same way I see Ultima II - a transitionary stage, between a spark that served as its source material and the eventual refinement of those ideas to a fine point. There's bound to be some awkward growing pains in the transition - Savage Empire certainly has them. But like Ultima II, despite its flaws, I have a great appreciation for its part in the development of the series as a whole, and an even greater one now that I've played it to completion. Whatever else, I think that's my biggest takeaway, and I'm all the more eager to see how Martian Dreams goes as a result.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Savage Empire: The Bugs in the System

When last I left off, I'd just taken my first steps into the underground domain of the original inhabitants of Eodon Valley, the Kotl. And I'm beginning to sense something of a trend here. First it was Ambrosia in Ultima III, then retrieving the Codex from the Abyss in Ultima IV, which was followed by the Underworld of Ultima V, then the Gargoyle lands of Ultima VI, and now the Kotl city in Savage Empire. The Avatar seems to have a certain fondness for hurling himself headfirst to explore vast, dangerous underground territory in search of something necessary to save the world. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised if there was another game down the line that ended up being entirely underground!

...oh right. Ahem. Moving right along!

Ever feel like you might be overlooking something important?
Having descended into the depths of the ancient city proper, my first order of business was to track down Katalkotl. Knowledge is power, after all, and Yunapotli had told me that Katalkotl knew many things about the city I was about to explore. I thought it best to see what I could learn from him before pushing too deep into the city. Consequently, when I came across the teleporters just inside the entrance, I skirted past them, unwilling to fling myself even further into the unknown without arming myself properly. There was a ghostly-looking something near the teleporters, but I figured it for a statue or a weird lantern or something. But I would definitely be coming back to that later.

In the meantime, though, I poked around what remained of the city nearby. And it wasn't long - barely a few steps past the teleporters! - before I was attacked by what residents were left, in the form of robotic dinosaurs. The fights I found myself having in the Kotl city were not particularly numerous, at least in most parts of the city, but the ones I did have were brutal. Spears and arrows and swords and a fire axe were more than able to take down the metallic creatures, but whenever any of them landed a blow, it hurt. So it was with caution that we made our way through the winding corridors of the city, trying to get a feel for its layout and what we might find in its depths.

We did find a good deal of use, too. A lot of bones and corpses, which was... eerie, to say the least, but so too did we find shields, weaponry, and canisters that we quickly gathered and distributed amongst the group, sure they would be of great aid when we finally took the fight to the Myrmidex. And considering the design and nature of the technology of what we were finding, I found myself having vague thoughts of Ultimas I and II, what with all the blasters and light swords and the like. That particular blend of only-vaguely-defined high-tech weaponry coupled with the fact that I was wandering about with a shaman who could bring about a fair few magical effects - it was very reminiscent of those early wanderings of mine, if only in spirit.

Clearly something unpleasant went down here...
It wasn't just items that caught our interest, however. The city itself was full of peculiar sights - a room where the ground was simply dirt rather than the tiled flooring we'd been walking over in the rest of the city, gratings that revealed lava flows beneath it. And that whatcha-ma-call-it back near the entrance of the city, come to think of it. Katalkotl was supposed to be near the entrance, and I'd explored a fair distance in by this point. I headed back the way I'd come to see if I'd missed anything, and lo and behold, there he was - the very thingamabobber I'd dismissed as decor earlier. D'oh!

Reflecting on my latest lesson in humility (it is one of the Virtues of the Avatar, after all, shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, unless it's Smith I suppose), we spent some time chatting with the last of the Kotl. Or, as he explained to us, the memory of him, for that was what he was. It was from this memory that we finally learned the history of the valley proper. The Kotl came from reptilian ancestors, and possessed a large black stone. Eventually their mystics learned how to draw power from the stone, and used it to build a thriving city and the advanced technology we were seeing the remnants of. They had also created the Myrmidex to act as servants for them, when they realized they could not power enough automatons to do what work they wanted them to do - this explained the dirt-filled room I'd come across before, it was likely the old "servant's quarters," so to speak. They had hoped that the industrious nature of the ants they were bred from would make them ideal for the task. Unfortunately for the Kotl, they also took on the warlike tendencies of the ants and rebelled, taking with them the black stone from which the city drew its power. So the Kotl went out to find new servants. These were the ancestors of the tribes that now dotted the Valley of Eodon - it seemed that they too had grown weary of their role as servants at some point, and headed to the surface.

And then the Myrmidex returned. The city fell, and the Kotl were no more, save in what little the Sakkhra remembered of them.

It was a tragic tale, to be sure, though perhaps a situation the Kotl had brought upon themselves. There was little time to reflect upon this, however, for Katalkotl informed us of something else: Spector was currently in the city! After obtaining directions to the generator room (though the Myrmidex still possessed the black stone that served as their power source, the generators could still function off its power even from a distance), we set off in search of the crazed academic, marveling at the giant crystals and taking a moment to mourn at the evident battle sites we passed along the way. I even caught sight of a wisp at one point.

That's a dead robo-dino, by the way, he's not just dreaming of electric meat.
Spector turned out to be holed up in the generator room itself, both himself and the generators protected by the same force field we'd witnessed about him earlier. It took a while to catch sight of him proper, considering that my sight was limited in the underground city and the narrow path over the lava to where he was standing was blocked by a robotic tyrannosaur that I'd just so happened to kill on that path. Once I'd managed to get a grasp on things, the mad doctor and I had ourselves a little chat. He theorized that the moonstones that had brought us all into the Valley in the first place were pieces of the black stone the Myrmidex now held, and that one of the side effects of drawing power from that stone were odd changes in the flow of time. We knew we had to throw a monkey wrench into his plans somehow, but what could we do when both he and the generators that would power his plot were protected by force fields?

Mess with the controls, of course! Those were still within reach, and we soon managed to shut down the power in the city. The glow faded from around Spector, and he found himself in his right mind once more. The automatons froze as they shut down (Yunapotli included, sadly), and the city went dark. There was no chance to reflect on what this meant for the legacy of the Kotl, however, as the shut-off instigated a collapse of the city, and we found ourselves fleeing for our lives as the ground shook (complete with shakes on-screen, a nice touch). We managed to escape just in the nick of time, and as we stopped to catch our collective breath, Spector told us what needed to be done to deal with the Myrmidex threat once and for all. He told us there were too many for a single band to deal with, but with the tribes of the valley united, they could be defeated. Their queen would need to be destroyed, lest she spawn another brood and trouble the Valley all over again. So too would the black stone need to be destroyed - Spector wondered whether it was what was keeping us trapped in the Valley, but regardless, he feared what the Myrmidex might do if they figured out how to tap its power the same way the Kotl had. It was what had driven him mad in the first place - what might it do to the Myrmidex? It was too dangerous to ignore.

But... don't I have an admirable face, too?
Our course clear, we made our way back to Tichticatl to ensure that Huitlipacti the Usurper was properly dealt with. We arrived to find Moctapotl restored to his rightful place as ruler of the Nahuatl, the people having killed Huitlipacti as soon as the glow that protected him had disappeared as a result of our actions in the ancient city. They readily agreed to a unification of the tribes, and were the final tribe in the Valley to do so. It was time to head to Drum Hill and summon them for the last stand against the Myrmidex. There we found a man named Tuomaxx, who made and played the drums there on Drum Hill. To summon all the tribes, he would need a large enough drum to be heard in all corners of the Valley. He would need a hide in order to craft such an instrument. So we headed back to the Kurak village to rest up for the battle ahead and picked one up while we were there, Intanya was more than willing to donate the one in his home for a good cause. Tuomaxx made short work of crafting the drum, and so were the tribes called together to bring the fight to the Myrmidex.

Together, the peoples of Eodon charged the Myrmidex caverns. While the tribes drew the attention of the bulk of the swarms, I readied my own little band of warriors for the coming fight. It fell it us to track down the queen herself, and we armed ourselves with every trick in the book we could think of. The technology we had found in the old city would surely be of great use to us. Aric the Avatar, Aiela, and Dokray were all armed with the black staves we had uncovered there - as well as Jimmy, as I felt he deserved one after how much he'd developed as a warrior in the Valley. They proved extremely effective weapons - they were crushing the Myrmidex at a single blow, and from a distance even! We made short work of the stragglers we came across, traversing the caverns with a mixture of View spells (courtesy of Triolo) and a device picked up from the Kotl city. She chattered and clacked and called for our destruction, we braced ourselves for a fight, and... well, she died just about as quickly as the rest of them, really. Kind of a bit of an anticlimax, but at least it was an easy problem to solve once we'd found her.

For once, the Avatar's actually present for the victory party!
The queen kept the corrupted stone in her own chamber, and after hitting it with everything we had, it shattered, its hold over the Valley broken. And not only had the Myrmidex been defeated, we had accomplished it by helping the tribes to overcome their squabbles with each other. The Valley was truly at peace once more - and so, as it always is for the Avatar once his task is accomplished, it was time to depart. Rafkin stayed behind for further research into the Valley and its peoples, while Fritz, Spector, and good ol' Jimmy joined in for the trip back home.

And boy oh boy, would Jimmy have a story to tell.

~~~

So ended my own adventures in the world of Eodon. And even as I played through this last session,
right up until the end of the game, I found myself smiling at all the detail work. During the conversation with Tuomaxx, for instance, he throws the hide over the Avatar's head in order to admire it - and the little window that normally shows the portrait of the character you're talking to goes black, since you presumably can't see anything with a hide over your head! The entire game is full of these little touches, and it adds so much to its charm.

But I hesitate to say too much on that particular topic, as I still have one more post to lay out my final thoughts on the game. Stay tuned!

Farewell to Eodon

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Linguistic Asides: Reflections on the UDIC 25th Anniversary Bash

It's been a while since I last did anything over here - judging by the date of my last post, over a year at this point. I think it's high time that I did something about that. My last session of Savage Empire has already been played out, long enough ago that I'm glad I cut my teeth on games that expected me to take notes in order to get anything done in them. If it weren't for the notes I have from that session, I might be in a bit of a bind right now! I'm in the process of pulling together a post to wrap up the game proper, but in the meantime I thought maybe to help me get back into the groove, I'd do something else I've been meaning to do - scribble down some thoughts on something else Ultima-related that happened approximately a year ago.

That's right, the UDIC's 25th Anniversary Bash in Disneyland.

It's been on my mind a lot in recent days, in large part because I was actually in Disneyland again at the end of February, on vacation with my parents. I even made sure to bring along the anniversary T-shirt, and wore it on the anniversary of the first day of the bash. There's a lot of fun memories from that weekend, but I think the best place for me to start is before the bash itself.

See, I wasn't entirely sure I was even going to be able to go in the first place. Gallara had done a fantastic job of getting the word out well in advance of the event, and I was very much hoping to go. The thing was, I'd wasn't sure whether I'd be in a position to do so. It was... June or July or something along those lines when Gallara reached out to see if I would be willing to give a lesson in Gargish at the bash, and so I had to make a decision. I'd been unemployed for a long while and thus didn't have much in the way of savings, and I was working a temp job at the time without anything concrete lined up afterward - I had opportunities, but nothing solid yet. I sat down, worked out how much I had, how much I was still going to make over the course of my temp job, and calculated how the trip would cost me. When all was said and done, my budget was going to be tight, but even if I didn't make anything beyond when my temp job was up in August, I'd just barely be able to make it to February and still have enough to afford attending.

So I told Gallara that I'd be happy to give a lesson.

I did end up landing another job on a more permanent basis, which removed that particular worry, but even if I hadn't, I still would have been there. I was excited about the prospect of meeting other Dragons, and even moreso when I found out Lord British and other Origin folk were planning on being there as well. At the same time, part of me was a little nervous. And not just about the lesson - I wondered if I'd get along half as well with Dragonly folk offline as I did online. I simply didn't have the same experience as I knew a lot of Dragons did when it came to the UDIC itself. I knew a lot of folks had been part of the Dragon community considerably longer than I had. I'd known about the Dragons well before I ever joined, and by the time the Bash rolled around, I'd been one myself for a little over three years. I still considered myself a hatchling by Dragon standards. I didn't grow up with the series like many of the Dragons had. I've said before that I'm as old as Ultima V, and by the time I actually discovered the series and played one of the games, Ultima VIII had already been out for a few years. I didn't even have the tech background a lot of Dragons seemed to have. As excited as I was, I wondered if I wouldn't feel a bit like a fish out of water.

That notion was dispelled the moment I walked into the Fellowship Hall that first day.

I'm still not entirely sure what it was that did it. Maybe it was the big hug Gallara gave me when we finally got to see each other in person. Maybe it was seeing Blu3vib3, aka Angelic-Demonic (or was it Demonic-Angelic?) Dragon, all decked out in Serpent attire and realizing that whatever else we might have been, just about everyone there loved the Ultima games just as much as I did. Maybe it was how jovial and personable Richard Garriott, Lord British himself, was when I finally worked up the courage to say hi. Maybe it was finding out just how far some Dragons had come to attend, or reading through the event book, hitting home that yes, we Dragons really did come from all sorts of walks of life.

But whatever it was, I had a grand time - even despite the fact I was sick the whole time I was there and was popping coughdrops like they were going out of style. (If you were there and got sick afterward, I'm so sorry, it was probably my fault.) I got to meet Dragons I knew from online, but never yet met in person, Gallara and Sorceress and Goldenflame. I got to meet Dragons like Shadow of Light, who I knew by name and by their work (I have stark memories of tearing through Shadow of Light's Ultima-related writings when I was in college) but never had a chance to put face to name. I got to experience the reverse, too - I can't tell you how many times I had someone tell me "oh, so you're Linguistic Dragon!" and it still caught me by surprise every time. I got to sit back and indulge in one of my favorite pastimes - origami - with Doctor Cat. I was there when Dominus helped christen Lord British as Splut Dragon, I chatted with Dennis Loubet about the poster he designed for the event while he signed mine, I got to play a bit of Goldenflame's The Dark Unknown with him right there to chat about its development. My Gargish lesson was small but glorious, soon turning into a discussion on what Gargish oratory tradition might be like. I exchanged favorite (and frustrating!) moments while playing the games over lunch. I joked about how riding the California Screamin' roller coaster in the rain must certainly have earned me some valor points. There was laughter, there was joy, there was exuberance, and there was Ultima.

As much as those particular memories make me smile, though, I think what stood out to me the most wasn't what I made of the event, but what my parents did.

See, neither of my parents are Dragons, nor have they ever played an Ultima - they don't play video games much at all, except mobile versions of board or card games they're already familiar with and the occasional family Mario Kart session. When I told them I'd been asked to give a lesson in Gargish, they asked (once we'd taken a moment so I could explain what that was in the first place) if I'd mind if they came along so they could be there for it too. I was more than happy to have them along for the ride, though I wondered whether they'd feel out of place themselves, on account of they don't have the Ultima context the rest of us did.

In the weeks leading up to our departure, I gave them a bit of an introduction to the series proper. I sat down and ran through Ultima IV's opening (and the virtue quiz!) with them, playing a bit of the early game, explaining what was going on and what I was doing and the basic run-down of the story of some of the other entries in the series - I remember my mom's looks of consternation as she deliberated over a few of the virtue questions and which way she'd answer, she really liked that aspect of the game. By the time we arrived, they had at least a vague idea of what Ultima was all about and why I liked it so much, why I wanted to hang out with this wacky group of people who called themselves Dragons for a few days.

And the thing is, even though neither one of them knew and loved the games the same way I and my fellow Dragons did, at the end of the day, that didn't matter. I remember my dad chatting excitedly with Lord British about his time in space, my mom having a lively conversation with Auora about knitting, the two of them talking with Dennis Loubet and Gold Dragon over dinner as they were all sitting at the same table. They listened with rapt interest during the Origin developers' panel, and told me how impressed they were that they didn't hold themselves apart - they were friendly and personable and were right there enjoying everything with us. And when we left the Fellowship Hall that first day to head back to our hotel room, I remember my mom telling me, "I can see why you wanted to come. They're good people." Neither of them had the context or experience with the games the rest of us had, but they were still right there laughing and enjoying themselves. It's an event all three of us have good memories about. My dad still asks how Shroud of the Avatar's development is going, even though I doubt he'll ever play it himself, just because he was so interested in what Lord British had to say about it.

One of the things the three of us talked about on our way home was just how impressive it was that the UDIC had been around for a solid 25 years, even though there hadn't even been a game released in the series it was formed around since 1999. I'd long thought that myself, but being there with my parents, I think it clicked exactly why.

We may have come together over our mutual love of a video game series - but that isn't what defines the Dragons as a community. My parents are proof enough of that - they've never played an Ultima themselves, but it was pretty obvious to me that they felt welcomed and enjoyed themselves anyway. And that, I think, is what's ensured the Dragons have stuck around this long. Sometimes fan communities can be ostracizing in their love for what it is they're fans of - not so, with the Dragons. They may have needed me to explain some of the in-jokes, but for that weekend, my parents were just as much a part of the community as any Dragon was. And it drove home that while it's Ultima that brought us together in the first place, it's not the only thing that ties us together. Word nerd, knitter, ham radio operator - the three of us found ways to connect with Dragons over all those things while at the bash.

Whoever you are, you're welcome among the UDIC. I saw that clear as day while I was at the bash, and I remember feeling, when it was all over, that I was proud to be among their number.

Still am, really.

Let's not wait another 25 years to do it all again, okay?


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Savage Empire: Courting Trouble

When last I left our intrepid heroes (ages ago - I suppose this really is a valley stuck in time, isn't it?) I was preparing for a trip to Tichticatl, the grand capital city of the Nahuatla. There, I would find a way to restore a king to his rightful place, clinching the support of the most advanced tribe in the valley, and guaranteeing their aid in the efforts against the Myrmidex.

But first, I stopped to talk to a lizard.


See, I ended my last session in the Sakkhra caves, and on my way out, I bumped into one that I had somehow missed talking to in my previous visits to the lizardfolk. Ksssindra was once a warrior, but having aged past her golden years, she now served as a teacher in the tribe. And outside as well, as she eagerly told me of Sakkhra legends and of a city beneath the ground near the great mesa. According to legend, she said, the Sakkhra once lived there, though the city had been since lost. She seemed glad for a listening ear, and after a pleasant exchange, we said our goodbyes and my little band made their way toward the city of Tichticatl.

One of my first tasks that I set myself upon arrival was to track down a few more obsidian swords. The Yolaru had asked me for ten of them to arm their warriors, after all, and I was only carrying a few. Scrounging around on the outskirts of town turned up another one or two, though the area seemed fairly deserted. Wondering where everyone might be, I strolled into the city proper to see what information I could get from the locals - or whether I could even find any locals. The situation in the city might have been more dire than I had first expected.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the first person I spoke to turned out to be Atlipacta, the town weaponcrafter! She excitedly told me of her work and her craft, and was more than willing to show me her wares and offer them in trade for emeralds. She showed me the armor and shields she crafted, while Triolo examined the bows and arrows in her stock. It was her blades, however, that truly drew my eye, passing straight over her knives and instead negotiating for the purchase of her swords. I walked out of her shop a few emeralds lighter, but with four more obsidian swords weighing down our packs - enough to bring my total to eleven, ten for the Yolaru and one spare left over for Aiela to use.

Naturally, I promptly abandoned the city in order to beeline it straight to the Yolaru and give the swords to their chieftain. Hey, those things were heavy and I was in sore need of space in my inventory!

Well that's not suspicious at all.
Packs now significantly lighter, we made our way back to the city, only to stumble upon an allosaurus blocking the way. We made short work of him, Aiela acquitting herself well with her new weapon, then returned to our exploration of Tichticatl proper. We quickly came to realize that this was a city on edge - most of them men we came across decried us as intruders and made to attack. The women were considerably more open, but even they were uneasy. They were more than willing to point us to the weaver and the weaponmaker, should we have need of any of their services, but when it came to the state of things at court, they were decidedly unsettled. Many of them denied even knowing the name of Moctapotl, their proper king. Some further questioning uncovered the fact that Huitlapacti had claimed the throne for his own and decreed that nobody may utter the name of the previous one. The sense of fear in the city was palpable.

Methinks something's rotten, a lot closer than Denmark.
Of course, the best way to get a sense of the state of court was to visit, so after chatting with Paxaptamac for a bit (who told us of flax, and took some feathers off our hands in exchange for emeralds), it was off to the palace. Right away we could tell something was not right in Tichticatl - from a parrot, of all things. There was one flapping about the throne room, repeating things that didn't quite make sense to us out of context. The names Fritz and Spector came up on occasion, as well as mentions of the Kotl city, and plans to conquer the world! Affairs among the Nahuatla were indeed more dire than first glance suggested.

Remembering how much the townsfolk seemed to fear Huitlipacti, I opted for avoiding the man himself and instead talking to his shaman, a man named Zipactriotl. Or more accurately, Johann Spector - he was known to Professor Rafkin, being an archaeologist himself. At one point, at least, as he had currently declared himself shaman, and, as he himself put it, the "savoir of Earth, the bringer of peace and paradise." He spoke of stones like the moonstone, and energy similar to that which came from them in the Myrmidex caves and the Kotl city, and of his grand plans to harness that energy reactivate the Kotl's automatons, use them to get the stone in the Myrmidex caves, and promptly use both to conquer the world itself! Yes, these were dire circumstances indeed. He openly bragged of deposing Moctapotl and disposing of the previous shaman, Oaxtepac, as both of them were in the way of putting his plans into motion. He seemed intent on doing the same to me, as further questions merely provoked him into calling the guards on us!

Yeah, that's sending up half a dozen warning signals.
We scrambled through the palace halls, eventually finding refuge in a room that turned out to be the Queen's own chambers. Fortunately, she seemed to sympathize with us. Tlapatla was the wife of Huitlipacti and cousin to Moctapotl. She was a bit haughty, but told a bit of the strange blue glow that surrounded both the usurper and his mad shaman - Zipactriotl (or rather, Spector) had given him a belt which surrounded him with a glow that protected him with a glow no weapon could pierce, brought back from the hidden city.

Needing allies, I sought out the prison, to see if I could find the previous shaman. Spector had implied that he was merely imprisoned, not dead, and after some effort I did manage to find Oaxtepac. He gave us clues to both the history and the location of the hidden city Tlapatla had mentioned - according to him, the ancestors of the tribes of Eodon were brought to the valley by the denizens of that city to be servants. Eventually, though, their ancestors rebelled, slaying their masters and abandoning the city. Who their captors were, legends could not agree. Some called them spirits, some likened them to the Sakkhra. Whatever the case, it was clear the key to bringing down Huitlipacti and Zipactriotl lay in the city. Supposedly the previous residents, when they abandoned the city, left a key in case they ever decided to come back. To find the city, one needed to find a device on the great mesa, and fit a large gem into it. At a certain hour, the light hitting the gem would reveal the location of the city. This gem had apparently been stolen by the Urali - but Aiela reminded me that Darden had given it to her as a present!

Precisely what I was thinking, Jimmy m'boy.
Oaxtepac told us, however, that there was one more obstacle in our way - a man made of solid gold guarded the entrance to the city, and was currently missing its head. Oaxtepac had found it on a Barrab man, and after telling Spector's assistant Fritz, was now in the possession of the crazed shaman. Fritz himself was driven off by the madness of his former master, but I remembered hearing his name among the Pindiro. Thanking Oaxtepac, we went on our way, only to have another prisoner, bragging of the crimes he had committed, demand we break him out. When we refused, he called for the guards, and once again we were fighting and fleeing for our lives.

A quick sneak back to the palace revealed the golden head in the palace treasury, but we still felt it best to track down Fritz for his side of the story before proceeding further. The Pindiro told us Fritz was currently residing in a cave west of the great lake, so after fending off a few deinonychuses (deinonychi?), we found the man in question. He told us it was his fault that Spector had gone mad, but had tried to make up for it by stealing the crystal brain Spector had taken from the Kotl city. Whatever he may have ended up doing while working for the madman, it was more than evident that that Fritz was doing his best to make amends. So when he offered us the crystal brain to aid us in our effort, we readily accepted.

From there it was off to the Great Mesa, where we placed the gem into its setting (after thanking my lucky stars that I'd thought to save just before I did - I tried to (M)ove it rather than (U)se it at first, which shattered the gem. Reload ahoy!!) At noon, the light refracting off the gem converged on the plain to the north, and heading over there revealed a hidden entrance, right near the teleporter plaza! Descending into the depths, we came across the headless golden statue we were told would likely be there. Reattaching the head, the statue sprang to life, welcoming us to the city of the Kotl, though apologizing for not remembering much. He did remember his name, Yunapotli, and said he would remember more with his brain. We handed over the crystal brain, and in return he told us of devices the Kotl developed to combat the Myrmidex - black staves, canisters full of a gas harmful to the Myrmidex, shields. We would have to keep an eye out for them as we explored the city. He also told us that Katalkotl would know many things about the Kotl and their city. We could find him in the center of the city, he was unable to move from his spot there. After some further discussion, Yunapotli agreed to join with us and opened the door to the city proper.

And so that was where I called it a day - in the same place where I began it, in a sense. I'd started by talking to a Sakkhra about the lost city, and now I was standing in it. All that was left was to explore it - and find a way to deal with the glow about the Nahuatla usurper in the process.

~~~

I just can't resist wordplay.
I have some thoughts about the plot of the game as a result of this update, but I think I'll reserve those for the game's culmination proper. For now I'll just say that an open world can lead to some pacing issues when it comes to game story, and I think that came into play a bit during this session. It's nice to finally get some backstory and a sense of the larger scheme of things, but the fact I waited this long to get to the Nahuatla city meant that I didn't get that particular piece of the plot until much later, and I think it would have helped having it earlier.

That's not to say that I think it's necessarily bad, but-- well. Again, I think that's something to be saved for my eventual wrap-up post.

I did have one other thought while putting this together, though, and that's an inexplicable aversion to calling my merry band of adventurers a "party." I've consciously avoided using the word while composing the narrative of my travels through Britannia and beyond, and I still can't figure out exactly why. At first I thought it was simply a term that sounded too "game-ish" to my ear, and I've made an effort to make these posts, at least the bits describing my gameplay, to feel a bit more story-like. But then I remembered that I've had no hesitation about including things like leveling up, which is very much a game mechanic aspect that I haven't had any compunction about throwing about willy-nilly.

So why this aversion to calling them my party a "party?"

Maybe it's because I feel there's a bit of a disconnect in the term. When used in a game context, it feels somewhat... well, "impersonal" is the word I'm looking for, I think. To me, it describes a group chosen solely for function and capability rather than a proper gang of characters that's developing together. And as I've tried to do the latter more than the former in this series, "party" doesn't feel much like an appropriate word to use. I mean, bare bones as it is at times, I like to think of these guys as proper characters, rather than just what use I can get out of them in a combat situation. And the connotations my brain gives "party" just doesn't fit the image I have of them.

Of course, there's another explanation, and that's simply, "language be weird, yo."

...and I think the fact I just typed that sentence is an indication that it's time to draw this post to a close. If you'll excuse me, I've got an ancient city to explore!

Right under my nose, this whole time!