Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ultima IV: Opening Thoughts

I've been looking forward to this one.

Every gamer has "that one game." The game they return to time and time again, that's been replayed more times than can be counted. The game they know the best, forwards and backwards and upside down and inside out. The game where every inch, every facet, every nuance is recognizable and familiar and understood completely. The game that can be breezed through in a single sitting, because the player knows every trick in the book - and a few that aren't in the book, either. The one game that, regardless of whether they champion it as their favorite or not, is the one that, for whatever reason, the gamer knows most intimately.

For me, that game is Ultima IV.

Released in 1985, which makes my "that one game" a full three years older than me, Ultima IV took the series in a completely different direction, and never looked back. Spurred by letters with concerns over what the player had to do in order to win previous games, Ultima IV went the philosophical route, taking the player on a quest of personal development rather than one of defeating the Bad Guy through any means necessary. Killing innocents, going on thieving sprees - these were still possible, but the game would deliver consequences for this sort of thing. Since then, much has been done with the game - there's xu4, an open source engine for the game that does for Ultima IV what Exult does for Ultima VII, in essence, there's two Neverwinter Nights modules based around the game (which some part of me is hoping to mess around with post-Ultima IX), there was the now-closed modern reboot that was Ultima Forever, which I'm still rather disappointed that I never got to play around with. It's a game that left its mark on gaming history, and even now, nearly thirty years later, it's one of the most unique RPGs - and indeed, games, period - out there.

I was first introduced to Ultima IV when I was about ten, by a cousin of mine. It was also my introduction to the Ultima series as a whole, which probably explains why it's my favorite of the series, or at least goes a long way toward doing so. Not only was it my first Ultima, it was probably my first "true" computer game that I played. Up until this point, most of the games I played were edutainment - Carmen Sandiego, the Super Solvers games, and the like. I'd tried things like the Crystal Caves and Commander Keen games before, but never really got into them as much, mostly because my reflexes were bad and that just frustrated me as a kid. With Ultima IV's more turn-based combat system, though, I could slow down and make my moves at my pace, which made it a lot easier to get into.

I remember spending weeks on the game, running around the game world frantically searching for clues, emailing my cousin back and forth for hints and tips about the game, getting all excited when something finally clicked in my elementary-school brain that allowed me to solve a puzzle. I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I made my way down to the bottom of the Stygian Abyss for the first time, the sense of awe I felt as I watched the symbol of the Codex form as I answered the game's final questions. It was like nothing I'd ever seen in a game before, and I really felt a sense of progression, of development, of things actually happening in a game.

Even now, I return to Ultima IV often. On a long trip, sometimes I'll fire it up on my computer to see just how far I can power through the game before I reach my stop. When I've had a bad day, I'll load up my last save, run around, and pound monsters. When I write, I occasionally run my characters through the virtue quiz, just to wrap my head around what certain aspects of virtue they're liable to hold more important than others. I crack jokes over losing an Eighth, which leaves most of the people I know eyeing me quizzically except for the rare few who blink in astonishment - because they know.

When it comes down to it, Ultima IV isn't just what introduced me to the Ultima series. It's what introduced me to what games are really capable of - it showed me the stories that could be told through them, the themes they could explore, the feelings they could evoke.

It's the game that truly made me a gamer.

So I'm (hopefully) understandably excited to get to blog my way through it. But before I do, there's one last order of business to discuss - the manuals! After all, the game documentation is as much a part of the Ultima experience as the games themselves. Ultima IV even recommends in-game that you read at least the Book of History! And it's well worth it - as always, Ultima IV's manuals are excellently written. The Book of History feels scholarly and sets the stage brilliantly - from the descriptions of past events that's both informative and just a touch tinged with the color of distance and artistic license, to the lay of the land and the quiet references to the less important events of Britannian history (I really want to know more about the battles that gave the Bloody Plains their name) to the descriptions of daily life and professions. The book of magic feels appropriately esoteric and mysterious, the illustrations beautiful and reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript, the spell descriptions evocative. The word "immersive" is one that I feel tends to be a bit overused these days when it comes to games, but it's one that fits the manuals very well - they really get you involved in the world itself before you even enter the game. I especially love that the lay of the land is included in this one - it's fun to wander the mountains north of Lord British's castle and remember the Serpent's Spine in the manual, realize that's exactly where you are. Moments like that... I miss manuals that really give a good sense of that.

I could go on about the character creation process here too, but I think I'll save that for a post of its own. Partly because I still can't figure out how to approach it this time around. So I shall leave that for later, and gear up for diving into the Quest of the Avatar!


  1. Ultima IV is "that game" for me as well and I look forwards to seeing it through your eyes.

  2. For me Ultima IV was the only game from the series I've actually played and never finished (probalby never will... those dungeons are just too overwhelming for me and I want to have a life ;)) and being one of the oldest game I've played on PC (quite recently so no nostalgia involved) I was supprised how much it sucked me ito its world! Yeah, I had to used faq before start playing it, because some of game mechanics was to "retro" for me I've enjoyed every minute of it. I was happy when someone has to say more than name or job and send me for a "quest" to find someone else who knows something :) Simple but brilliant.
    I've enjoyed your blog very much so far but now I can finally be fully involved itno it :) and since I'm trying to play Ultima V just now I think I will join your voyage for quite some time! Happy dragon hunting!