Friday, December 13, 2013

Akalabeth: Closing Remarks

And so my adventures in Akalabeth draw to a close. Despite the fact it's over thirty years old at this point, I find it's still an enjoyable little diversion. I had a better time this time around than I did when I first played it, too, now that I actually have some idea of what I'm doing - and the fact that pretty much everything I tried worked the first time helped, too, apparently sixteen really is my lucky number! I didn't even die once during my adventures this time. It's not particularly complicated once you understand how to work the system, but when it boils down to it, that's just it - that's pretty much all there is to it, figuring out how to work the system to your advantage. I suppose that's typical of games from that era, but it makes things either extremely difficult or extremely simple, depending on which side of the figuring you are.

As far as Akalabeth's story goes, I find it unique, in a manner of speaking. Rather than going off to slay the Big Evil, he's already been defeated - you're just there to help with the clean-up. Simplistic story, but fairly unorthodox for a game, and I appreciate it for that. Not terribly built up in the game itself, but then again, I rather like games that actually make use of the manual for things other than "here are the controls, here are some definitions." That's part of what I love about the Ultima series - the manuals don't just set the stage for the game itself, they help get a player into the proper immersive mindset. I rather miss that.

It's also easy to see how Akalabeth fits into the development of the Ultima series as a whole. There's a lot of Akalabeth that echo down far into the series - gremlins stealing food, the design of the 3D dungeons, the ladder-up ladder-down spells, the monsters, Lord British, Mondain... the list goes on. Some of the mechanics are perhaps a little unrefined (the fact the whole game can be broken by repeatedly turning into a lizardman comes to mind) but the seeds of Ultima are definitely here, and it's not hard to see them.

Fitting Akalabeth into the grand Ultima narrative, however, is a little difficult. There's not a whole lot to go off of, as far as the story goes, and I suppose it wasn't entirely meant to be a part of the Ultima series proper either, but still - it uses some of the same characters, and trying to match what we're told in Akalabeth's documentation to what the Ultima series present us can be a bit sketchy. Personally I tend to view it as a series of recurring dreams the Avatar-to-be has before his first adventure in Sosaria proper - after all, one does tend to die a lot and reply the same bits over and over and over in Akalabeth before finally getting the hang of it (I certainly did my first time playing!) Everything's nebulous and hazy and not necessarily matching up with reality, so this is how I reconcile it in my head.

Well, that closes out Akalabeth, I suppose. A fun jaunt, but I'm ready to dive into Ultima I. Into the First Age of Darkness!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Akalabeth: Be-Balroged, Bothered, and Beknighted

Tonight I finished up Akalabeth, and Avatar-to-be Aric is now Lord Aric, as can be seen in the handy-dandy screenshot up there. (Insert the usual joke about being told to report my feat to Lord British here.) Of course, it wasn't just a snap of the fingers that got Aric from his first visit to Lord British's castle to knighthood, so I suppose I have to back up a little

I'm a lot stronger now!
The first thing I did after getting my first quest was to pick up a magic amulet and start fiddling around with it to make myself into a lizard man and multiply my stats. Once again, sixteen proves to truly be my lucky number (at least as far as Akalabeth is concerned) as my first attempt to use a magic amulet succeeds properly. (It does help that I'm a mage and can therefore choose which spell to use rather than hope it's the one I want.) So I enter and exit the dungeon, making use of the amulet in between, until my stats are starting to push five digits.

Thus readied for battle, I delve into the dungeon to seek out a gremlin, and hope that I don't catch it on the wrong angle and deplete all my food resources after a few attacks. Luckily, I happen to catch one straight-on on the sixth floor of the dungeon, and it goes down in one hit. Y'know, it surprises me how a creature so small can manage to make off with half my food when I'm carrying several thousand units' worth of it. Exactly how big are one of these rations that I've got? And if they're small enough for a puny gremlin to make off with scads of them, how the heck do they keep me well fed?? I suppose that's why I go through them so quickly.

Pesky little thing...
I hop over two paces to tell Lord British I slew a gremlin, and he sends me back in to slay a mimic, a daemon, and a balrog, in order. After reloading on amulets (to make use of the ladder spells properly) and food (just in case I bump into more gremlins), I pop back into the dungeon to kill things, finding a mimic on the ninth floor (and several more on my way back up, hence the 'bothered' part of the title), getting some food swiped by a gremlin, and also bumping into a daemon that I zip back down to kill once I've told Lord British I did away with a mimic.

From there it was a simple matter of dealing with the daemon, telling LB I did so, then running back to about floor twelve (well, floor ten and then falling down to floor twelve) to kill a mighty balrog for my final quest... which dies in one hit. I am lizardman, hear me... screech?

So I let the king know of my accomplishment (how does he know I'm telling the truth, by the way? Did I bring some trophy back of my kills?) and as a reward he knighted me!

Akalabeth's a short little game, but it's a fun diversion while it lasts. I'll toss up another post with some final thoughts, and then it's off to Ultima I!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Akalabeth: Foolish Mortal...

I can't quite get over just how many opportunities Akalabeth takes to call me a foolish mortal... the title screen, the intro, the manual... I mean really, I'm trying to become a knight and help defend the realm here, no need to belittle me while I do so. What, you want me to become disheartened and stop killing monsters?
And so my adventure begins.

Anyway, I choose my lucky number of 16 (because it's one of my favorite numbers), and apparently it is indeed my lucky number as my first stat roll seems pretty decent, and I decide to accept it. When given the choice between fighter or mage, I go with mage (so as to make better use of the magic amulets, and besides I have a certain fondness for Ultima mages, so might as well go all out, eh?) and I'm unceremoniously dropped into Akalabeth.

My first order of business is to figure out where the heck everything is in this iteration of the World of Doom, so I cringe slightly over the use of "stat's" before I pick myself up an axe for a weapon, forgo an amulet from the get-go and blow the rest of my budget on food for my explorations. This latter proves to potentially be slightly overkill. I head west to see what I can see, and lo and behold, I'm apparently right up against the western edge of the map. All right, says I, let's see what we can see in the other directions. I head north, and after a few paces, once again I hit a wall of mountains. So it appears I'm wedged in the northwest corner of the map.

Look, I know I'm no noble, but no need to be condescending about it.
After I flesh out this portion of my map, I start heading east, and come across nothing for a little while until I stumble into a couple towns - and Lord British's castle immediately afterward! There's a dungeon literally two steps away from the castle, and a town right next to that. And all of this is about a dozen paces away from my starting position, and I didn't even waste all that much food to get there! Sixteen apparently really is my lucky number, last time I played through Akalabeth Lord British's castle was way on the other end of the map from me, and the closest dungeon another dozen steps away or so. This will really help me conserve food!

I decide to poke about the top level of the nearby dungeon to see if there's any convenient treasure, and end up falling into a pit - which has two convenient treasure chests right there. One of which is right by a ladder back up to the first floor. I fight off a couple thieves, who swipe the weapons I got from the chests and the axe I'm using right out of my hands, but I've got enough pluck to punch them to death and pick up a few coins for my trouble. Back out of the dungeon, I introduce myself to Lord British and he gives me a quest to kill a gremlin and raises my stats by one each.

I hardly ever name characters after myself when I play RPGs, and for this blog, I chose to name my peasant-slash-Stranger-slash-Avatar Aric. (I have a certain fondness for A-names, apparently, and according to my name book, "Aric" has a meaning along the lines of noble leader/commander, which seems appropriate for the Avatar).

See? Convenient! (There's a town on the other side of the dungeon, too.)
This is where I stopped for the day, dipping my toe into the water, so to speak. Most of my time was spent messing with the emulator and trying to figure out what buttons did what, how I took screenshots, whether and how I could make use of savestates and all that good stuff. So too did I break in my Official Ultima Journal, for all my maps and notes, and I had a grand time color-coding my world map of Akalabeth, which mostly turned out to be unnecessary but enjoyable all the same (and also confusing at some points - mapping out a lot of blank space when all you can see is a 3x3 square at a time gets disorienting real fast). Now that I actually know what I'm doing in the emulator, time to go slay me some monsters and name myself Sir Aric of Akalabeth.

Incidentally, I find it extremely fortuitous that I didn't spend a good fifteen/twenty minutes dying repeatedly on account of bad rolls and/or failing to find Lord British's castle, like I did last time I played (and nearly every other time I've played, for that matter). I'm hoping that's a good sign for how things are going to go for me. It's an auspicious start!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Akalabeth: Opening Thoughts

A prologue to a story is meant to set the stage for what is to come. It's not necessarily connected to the main story as a whole, but is a good way to catch a reader's interest and give them a sense of what to expect from the rest of the tale.

I feel that Akalabeth is, in essence, the gaming equivalent of a prologue for the Ultima series - not necessarily connected to the Grand Overarching Story, but setting the stage for it rather well.

Akalabeth was released in 1980, and is affectionately referred to by the Ultima community as 'Ultima 0,' so I would be rather amiss to leave it out of my little adventure here. While it's only tenuously connected to the Ultima series proper - Lord British makes an appearance, of course, and Mondain is mentioned in the manual - it's clear there's a lot of ideas here that would be expanded on and developed further in what would become Ultima I. It's clear that the roots of the series are here, and so when one begins a journey through the Ultima series, one needs to start with Akalabeth.

I've played through Akalabeth once before about a year ago, and I remember it the same way as Ultima I: slow and somewhat frustrating to get started, but once a certain point is hit, a fun little dungeon jaunt that makes for a pleasant afternoon. As I recall, the trick to Akalabeth is recognizing the patterns - when amulets pull off the good results, where everything is, finding the quickest way to get there, and so on and so forth. I also remember getting through it in a single afternoon, so chances are this will be rather short!

The best way to start any Ultima game is with the manual, and Akalabeth is no exception. It's a rather short one, but provide a simple little framing story and a brief explanation of game mechanics. As mentioned earlier, this is the first mention of Mondain, though he's not the Grand Evil Immortal Wizard here as he is in Ultima I. Instead, he's the second son of a great king, and jealous of his brother's inheritance, does Generic Evil upon the land of Akalabeth - digging dungeons, releasing monsters in said dungeons and unleashing pestilence upon the landscape. Lord British, in his first appearance as well, drives Mondain from Akalabeth, but his monsters still roam the land, which is where the player comes in.

So, onward into the World of Doom! Time for me to see if I can become a knight in the realm of Akalabeth.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Ultima Story

The main reason I love the Ultima series is its approach to the game's story. It's a ten game series (plus a prologue of sorts, as far as Akalabeth is concerned, and a few spinoffs, with varying degrees of direct connection to the main series) and yet does its darndest to maintain a coherent narrative throughout the whole thing (with mixed results). It does its best to make sure every facet of the game contributes to the story as well - the sidequests, the documentation, the mechanics, all that sort of thing. Being a writer, I love examining how different media (books, movies, games, etc.) approach storytelling, and as I expect to be bringing up this topic a lot in this blog, I think it might be a good idea to lay out my initial thoughts on the subject of the Ultima story.

The Ultima games are generally laid out into three ages - a trilogy of trilogies, consisting of I-III, IV-VI, and VII-IX - the Age of Darkness trilogy, the Age of Enlightenment trilogy, and the Age of Armageddon (or the Guardian) trilogy. The spinoffs are wedged in as appropriate, with the Worlds of Ultima games and the first Underworld game being tacked on to the end of the Age of Enlightenment, and the second Underworld game being spliced in to the Age of Armageddon.

Now, this works, to an extent, but after pondering the tale of Ultima, both its development and its narrative, I find myself splitting up the game's chronology a little differently. I've come to think of Ultima in five "ages," and although some of them are a little short when it comes to in-universe time, thematically, I think it fits a little better.

The Age of Struggles: Ultimas I, II and III
The first three games of the Ultima series, storywise, are very simple, which was rather typical of the era. They basically consist of 'here is the bad guy, you are the hero, now figure out how to go and defeat them.' The games consist of the struggle to build yourself up to the point where you're well-equipped enough to go fight the Big Baddie and win. This is also where the series flails a bit trying to find its footing, essentially struggling to figure out exactly what it is it wants to be as well (the disjointedness of Ultima II comes swiftly to mind). These are the games that establish the setting and its rules, that start to root the series and its tone as it progresses further. These are the games that give the Stranger/Avatar-to-be his first taste of adventure, and his first lessons of a life lived for the fight against evil.

The Age of Philosophy: Ultimas IV, V and VI
The next three games was where the story of the series began to take off. These games drifted away from defeating a big baddie and began examining the value system that would define the setting. They examine the Virtues themselves, how they can be twisted, and what happens when they clash with a different set of values. These are the games with a philosophical bent, the ones that shape the Stranger into the Avatar. These are the games that teach the Avatar the values he will champion, and test his understanding of them when the situations he faces are not quite so clear cut as theory would have it. If Ultima I through III established and defined the setting, then Ultimas IV through VI establish and define the culture - its mindset, its values, and its method of thought. It's the Renaissance to the Dark Ages of the first games.

The Age of Adventure: Worlds of Ultima and Ultima Underworld I
These three spinoff games tend to be tacked on to the end of the second trilogy, but I think thematically, they best stand on their own. This is the point where the Avatar begins to have adventures without the aid of Lord British and his usual companions - this is where he can demonstrate the application of the lessons he's learned in Britannia. While it's not really explored all that much in the Worlds of Ultima games, and only tangentially in Stygian Abyss as I understand it, I like to think of this as the point where the Avatar starts to extrapolate the lessons in virtue he's had in Ultimas IV-VI and apply them to his life beyond Britannia. This is where the Avatar can really stand on his own two feet and prove he's learned the lessons of the philosophical age - there's no Lord British to help guide him along in any of these games, and they're a good way for the Avatar to figure out how he can apply the Eight Virtues no matter what situation he's in. If Ultimas IV through VI are the lessons of morality, then the spinoffs are proof of how well they've been learned.

The Age of the Adversary: Ultima VII, Ultima Underworld II, and Serpent Isle
Now that we've established our hero and the world he lives in, given him the lessons he's needed to learn, and a chance to demonstrate how well he's learned them, these three games familiarize us with the series' main antagonist - the Guardian. These are the games where we learn how he thinks, how he operates, his approach and his methods and his viewpoint. This is where we're introduced to the villain proper, and we get a good sense for the stakes involved. It harkens back to the 'big baddie' formula of the early games, but fleshes it out more now that there's the ability to do so. By thwarting a single scheme of the antagonist rather than outright killing him, too, there's more room for character and story development - we get to know the Guardian and his myriad schemes and approaches very well by the end of these three games, which sets the stage very well for the final confrontations that happen in the end of the series.

The Age of Endings: Ultima VIII and IX
Let me start this bit by saying that no, I don't hate Ultima VIII and IX. I don't like them quite as much as other games in the series, but I don't consider them heinous travesties to the series either. I think they tried to do something different - which was a trademark for the series, in my opinion - and that they had a lot of potential, they just failed to pay off in the same way the others did. I'll leave any more detail than that to when I actually get to those games. Now, back to narrative bits: I think these two games works better thematically separated from the other Guardian games for the simple fact that these games feel like they more definitively bring things to a close. The three games before these are, at their heart, a fight to return things to the status quo - a return to ordinary daily life without the Fellowship, an escape from the Blackrock Dome, restoring Balance. These games, however, bring about drastic and irrevocable change as a result of their ending - Pagan is forever changed by the defeat of the Titans, and Britannia now needs to learn how to function without the Avatar. These games are less about restoration and more about preparing a world to face an upcoming change. Ultima IX arguably has some of the restoration theme in it as well, but in the end, the Avatar needs to help Britannia move on from their reliance on him - this is the big change that I would argue the game revolves around (again, I'll do so in more detail when I get there).

So, there's a glimpse into my thoughts on the Overarching Ultima Narrative. Chances are this will get tailored a bit as I make my way through the games themselves, but this is how I see things right from the get-go.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Greetings, Traveler!

Good morning to thee, gentle friend and traveller! No matter what time of day it might be... I say good morning to thee because this very moment brings to thee the coming of the dawn... I call thee "traveller" no matter if thou hast never left thy home town, no matter if thou wilst never again leave thy room, because all of us are travellers. I call thee traveller for truly all of us--

Wait, hold up a second. Something tells me this may not be the most auspicious way to start this thing out. Let me start again.

*deep breath*

Welp, here goes nothing.

I am the relatively-newly christened Linguistic Dragon, and this is the record of my attempt to play my way through the Ultima series of computer games. I've been meaning to do this for quite some time, and in the grand tradition of other Ultima Dragons, I've decided to blog my efforts in the process.

I'm something on the young side for an Ultima fan, and I came into the game rather late, so to speak. I'm about as old as Ultima V, and by the time I actually was introduced to the series, all but Ultima IX had been released (though I didn't realize anything past IV existed until I was in college). I was about ten when my cousin first introduced me to Ultima IV (and Ultimas I-III, but they didn't stick with me the way IV did). It was the first game I really got into besides the 'edutainment' games that I played at the time, and was what introduced me to the RPG genre as a whole - and I've never looked back.

So, a bit of laying out the groundwork here in my first post:

What games do I intend to play? My intent is to play the fifteen "core" Ultima games - Akalabeth, the ten main series games, the Worlds of Ultima games, and the Underworlds. I'd also like to give a few of the remakes a playthrough (specifically the two Neverwinter Nights remakes of Ultima IV, Ultima V: Lazarus, and the Ultima 6 Project) to see how they compare to the originals, but I'm not going to commit myself to those juuuust yet. We'll see how I'm feeling once Ultima IX's over and done with. I don't intend to play Mt. Drash or the Runes of Virtue games (although I may give the Runes of Virtue games a runthrough eventually) as part of this Grand Adventure.

What versions will I play? Apple II version of Akalabeth, PC versions of everything else (i.e. the versions available via I'll probably patch the graphics for II and III (the original four-color scheme grates on me), and patch in the music as well (because what's an Ultima game without the music?) but I'll be going as vanilla as possible on these. This means I don't intend on using Exult for Ultima VII or Serpent Isle - though I did the first time I went through both of those games, and I highly recommend it, I want this time around to be as close to 'original' as I can get.

How many have I played before? Well, depends on how you define that. I've played all fifteen games to some degree, some considerably more than others, but I've only actually finished a third of them - Akalabeth; Ultimas I, IV and VII; and Serpent Isle. I came close to finishing Ultima VIII too, but then I discovered Morrowind and never got back to it. That's part of why I'm giving this wacky project a shot - I want to actually finish up the other ten! I'll be playing them as if it's my first time, though - so I won't be going after plot points unless I've been told about them in-game. I expect this will only come into play in Ultima IV, as I've played and replayed it so often I know it backwards and forwards - no grabbing the wheel and bell as soon as I get a ship!

How will this blog work? How I'm picturing this going isn't necessarily how it's going to go, but I'll probably have an introductory post for each game with my pre-playthrough thoughts, followed my gameplaying, with a wrap-up post with my final thoughts on each game. I'll also probably sprinkle a few posts of my thoughts on other Ultima-related topics - the music, the runes, Gargish, that sort of thing - here and there as they become relevant.

This has been done before, you know. Yes yes yes, I know, didn't you see my links up above? Ophidian and Sergorn Dragon's blogs on the subject are great reading (as is the CRPG Addict's thoughts on Ultimas I-V), and I've read through their adventures several times myself. Me, I'm a writer and storyteller first and foremost, so I expect my thoughts will be a bit more focused on the narrative, both of each individual game and the series as a whole. Hopefully I'll have something interesting to add to the discussions their blogs have already started!

Why Ultima Journeys? I'm a writer, and I see story as a journey. (Not necessarily The Hero's Journey, though it's a concept I've studied extensively.) When it comes to games, I feel that each game tells the tale of three journeys - the journey of the game/series itself as it makes its way through development, the journey of the characters in the game as the game's narrative proceeds, and the journey of the player himself as he makes his way through the game. With this blog, I'm hoping to weave all three of those journeys during my own adventures through Britannia and beyond into at least somewhat interesting reading!

 I suppose that covers it for now. I'll be doing a more in-depth post on why I enjoy the Ultima series and its story, and then it's off to the races for me! I hope you'll join me on this grand adventure through the Moongate.