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.

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