Sunday, February 8, 2015

Ultima IV: A Bit Partial

...well, that's the last time I decide to move twice over the holiday season. I didn't make a whole lot of game progress in my last session, which means I don't have many screenshots, either, but I followed up on a few threads and managed to make my way a little further along. Let's dust off my notes and see what I've got here, shall we?

The last time I scribbled down a bit of these adventures, I mentioned that I was ready to gain partial Avatarhood in Honor, Justice, and Humility, and that my plan was to head off to garner the two partials I could gain on the mainland before heading for Magincia to find out what I needed to do the same for Humility. Which I was all excited about, because I absolutely adore Magincia in Ultima IV, but... alas, I'll have to wait for another day to gush about what I like about the ruined city, because as it is with nearly all plans, they were derailed somewhat, and I still haven't made my way there yet. I had a couple threads to follow up on in Paws, so I figured I'd walk to Trinsic and make a pit stop to do so. I asked Zair the Wise for help with the word of passage I'd need at the last gate of the Abyss, as I'd been told in Skara Brae, and he told me I'd also need a three part key, which was alluded to back in Jhelom in connection with the stones. As for the word, I was told I'd have to ask his brother, who lived in a village beyond Lock Lake.

I am officially an honorable man now.
Thanking him for his time and his help, I continued on to Trinsic, where I followed up on another lead before making for the shrine. I'd been told to ask about the whereabouts of the white stone at the pub there, since it was no longer in Hythloth. The barkeep had heard some gossip that Sloven, again near Lock Lake, could tell me where it currently was. I'm going to have to make it a point to visit that village as soon as I'm able, that's two important clues and one lead on a spell (a mage named Mentorian there is supposed to know of the gate travel spell) that's awaiting me there! While in town, I picked up a bow for my old friend Shamino, now in my party, then headed over to the shrine of Honor, picking my way over the treacherous swamps. There I sat, contemplating the nature of Honor and what I had learned over the course of my journeys thus far, and when I came to myself again, I was given a vision, a fragment of what lay before me.

Wisdom thus gained, I made my way back to the castle of Lord British, where I tasked myself with my now-standard process of healing up, donating blood at the healer's, and checking in with Hawkwind. To my surprise, he informed me that I was ready to achieve enlightenment proper in the virtue of Sacrifice as well! That modified my plans for Magincia slightly, since Minoc was a bit more easily accessible via moongate. Before I did that, though, I had another partial to gain. So I ducked through the moongate to Yew, and blundered around the forest for a while trying to find the shrine in the darkness. Many battles were fought in the process, and by the time I found the shrine and received another vision, Shamino was ready for a level gain and when I dropped by the castle to do so I also found out Valor was ready for advancement! All this adventuring is doing me some good, it seems.

That was about all the game progress that I managed to accomplish in this session - the battles came fast and often, and with my party getting fairly large, it can take some time to plow through all the enemies. It does give me opportunity to talk about one aspect of the game I'd nearly forgotten about through my numerous replays, though, because of how I'm going about it this time.

See, since I've played it so often, I know where everything is in Ultima IV. I snag the black stone on my first to Moonglow because it's right there in the moongate. I pick up the rune of Spirituality on my first visit to Lord British's Castle, I Blink into the space in Serpent's Spine where the white stone sits at my first opportunity, that sort of thing. But I'm not doing that this time around. I'm acting as if I'm not aware of the clues the game has to offer, so I can chase them all down, scribble down my notes and follow up on the all the leads the game has to offer. It gives me reason to explore the game more fully than I usually do, remind myself of conversations that I pretty much have no reason to go through in my normal playthroughs because they're not telling me something I don't already know.

In doing so, though, I've also reminded myself of one aspect of the game that I don't see as much in more modern games - and that's making the player act on their own initiative. Plying the townsfolk for information, going from place to place to follow up on leads, having to remember what leads I've got and how things were worded and getting directions and getting lost trying to follow them properly - this is what helps make the world feel lived in for me. It feels more organic, not simply having everything laid out for me point-blank. Some of these hints I can blink and miss - I know I didn't see a lot of them my first time through the game, and it was years before I realized Lord British actually has dialogue if you ask him for 'help.'

It's reminding me of some ways that more recent games do things differently, and some of the potential side-effects that can have. Journals and quest logs, for one. Personally I've got nothing against them, per se - they're handy things to have in a large, sprawling game where it's hard to keep track of details and plot threads because there's just so dang many of them. It's nice to have a place to keep all of that organized, and also a very convenient perk that you don't have to halt the action to scribble them down yourself. At the same time, though, it's making me wonder if it doesn't oversimplify things sometimes. Quest logs make it very clear what's important to a certain story thread and what isn't, and that can lead to losing a bit of nuance. It also means one doesn't really have to pay much attention when a quest is given, either, because what's needed is all right there in the quest log anyway. It can even lead the writing to suffer a bit, because what does it matter if the quest-giving dialogue is unclear or not? It's all there in the quest log. I know this sort of thing doesn't matter to everyone, some people just want to move things along and don't pay much attention to story or motivation for doing things, but it's easier to gloss over that sort of thing when one has a quest log to lay it all down for you. And I wish more games would allow a player to add their own notes as well - Baldur's Gate had an option for doing so, if I recall right, and I like it. Scribbling my own for the Ultimas I've played - IV in particular, since the importance of doing so ramps up - has been very satisfying, leafing through what I've done and yet to do, wondering if something I wrote down will turn out to be important or not, making those decisions for myself. With what games can do these days, I kind of wish more gave a player more freedom as to how go about the in-game method of keeping track of everything. Is it really so bad to let us have the option of doing that ourselves?

To the Shrine of Justice!
And then there's quest markers. While there's a fair few reasons for it, this is probably the single biggest reason I favor Morrowind over Oblivion and even Skyrim. Quest markers have their usefulness, yes, especially in particular types of games. It's helpful to have something pointing out which way you need to go in order to accomplish what you've set out to do, and helps mitigate the time running around lost and frustrated. But at the same time - you lose so much that way, and once again, you run the risk of letting your writing suffer because of it. Again it's a matter of eliminating the need for clarity and understanding in the quest dialogue, and it also has the effect of no longer needing a lot of little details that are, ultimately, what help bring a game world to life. A quest in Oblivion or Skyrim will tell me "Go to these ruins, I think what you're looking for is in there," and there it will be on my map, along with a helpful arrow on my game screen pointing me to the location in question. And this is all well and good and expedient. But a Morrowind quest will tell me, "I think what you're looking for are in these ruins - they're out of town to the west, follow the foyada until you see two stone pillars and it should be on your left. If you hit the lake you've gone too far. What's a foyada? Oh, that's what we call those big canyons left by lava flows." And not only am I told where I'm going, I'm told how to get there, how it fits in relation to where I am, gives me a bit of world-building detail, and makes me think on my own when I'm heading out that way. Sure, it gets frustrating sometimes when directions are unclear or you miss a landmark or whatever. But it makes me lean on my own wits more, necessitates more nuanced writing, and gives me a better sense that these characters I'm interacting with exist in a world, not just a setting.

And this is what all I'm getting in Ultima IV - the series as a whole, really, and it's awesome to see how that develops as the series goes on. Plot threads that make me search for their continuations on my own merit. A map to chart my course with and a way to figure out which way I'm going when I'm told where things are. Little details to the world that I'm running about in. All because I as a player am trusted to poke about on my own and figure things out for myself - I'm not being lead. I don't mind a little hand-holding, goodness knows I need it every now and again, but that sense of discovery, that 'aha!' moment when a puzzle finally clicks, finding something new even a dozen playthroughs later, the little additions to a story that make it come alive - that's what I thrive on. That's the type of storytelling that I go to games for. And that's what Ultima is absolutely full of.

Is it any wonder I love the series as much as I do?

...well, that was a bit of a tangent, I'll admit, but hey, that's half my reason for doing this, I guess. Gives myself reason to really examine these games I've come to love and figure out why I appreciate them, and what all contributes to the Tale of Ultima. I think my game plan for my next session will be to follow up on a lead about Mondain's Skull in Buccaneer's Den, then head for Minoc and gain a Sacrifice partial while I stock up on guild items in Vesper. Gives me opportunity to become more honest (by stocking up on reagents), compassionate (lot of beggars in Minoc!) and spiritual, which are the three virtues Hawkwind tells me still needs some work. So we'll see how far I get next time!

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