Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ultima IV: Closing Thoughts

The completion of Ultima IV means a lot of things for this little journey of mine through the Ultima series. For one thing, it means I've made my way through the first third of the collection, and the last game that I've actually completed before for quite a while - I won't be hitting that territory again until Ultima VII, which means the next five games (or the second third of the series, to put it another way) are mostly uncharted waters for me. There's a certain excitement in looking forward to games that I've played before but never seen through to completion, and there's a lot of things in the games to come that just ooze anticipation. I've never been through the underworld of Ultima V, the Gargoyle realm of Ultima VI, never met a Martian or used a dream machine or blundered into a Tyrannosaur.

On the other hand, it means leaving the familiar, and the memories associated with them, behind. Ultima IV wasn't just a turning point for the series, it was a turning point for me. It was the first RPG I'd ever played, let alone seen through to completion, and seeing the mechanics used, diving into the world of Britannia as the game laid it out for me, gathering clues and chasing down leads - Ultima IV taught me what games are able to do, the stories they're able to tell in ways that books or movies can't quite accomplish. So for me, there's something a little poignant in seeing the quest draw to a close once more. In a sense, this isn't just a time for me to reflect on the game and its place in the history of the series and gaming as a whole - it's a time for me to reflect on my own journey to this point.

On top of the world, lookin' down on creation...
Let me start with the game first, though. Ultima III left behind the sillier elements of the series, and the sci-fi/fantasy mishmash in order to tighten its focus, finally deciding what path it wants to take. Ultima IV took those steps and refined them even further, which I expect will be something of a common theme as I move forward (at least up to a certain point). Take the world, for instance. I remember Ultima II feeling very empty, a lot of interesting "geography" without much real actual point to it. Ultima III went about it a lot better, pretty much every corner of the map being used for something, even if it wasn't strictly necessary to see the game through to completion - but in doing so, it felt a little too tightly woven in some respects. It didn't take long at all to traverse the overworld, the journey between towns was simple and easy, and there wasn't much to impede my progress while traveling about. Ultima IV strikes the balance - there's plenty to see and do and explore, but it feels neither too spread-out nor too compact. Moongates make it easy to travel to and from cities, but you need to look outside of just the cities eventually. Ultima III's monster spawning and short distance between cities meant you could go quite a ways without actually being threatened by anything, but that's not the case in Ultima IV, and I like that. It's a nice balance that works well.

A few other issues I had with Ultima III were fixed to some degree or another in its sequel as well. The interface feels a bit more streamlined, in that inventory and food and gold are all communal now, and I no longer have to use a bunch of semi-tedious keystrokes to move necessary items from one party member to another. Not having to pass all that gold around really was nice, and made it easier to focus on what I needed to get done rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of who was holding what and who actually needed what.

Combat feels more varied, with battlefields like this.
In the same vein, combat feels improved, though still a little tedious at times, especially with a full party. But the game doesn't feel quite as grind-y as Ultima III did, and maybe that's in part due to the fact that the main character can build up experience via other means, and running around doing everything you need to do in-game will give you plenty of encounters so you don't have to go chasing them down, either. At the same time, combat screens are more interesting and varied than they were in Ultima III, with a bunch of different layouts and obstacles in the overworld and dungeon rooms being pretty unique more often than not. It meant you needed a little more planning than just arranging your party properly and then doing the 'Attack-direction' button mashing, although it did devolve into that a good deal in Ultima IV, too. At least the different layouts and the dungeon puzzles managed to keep it fresh beyond the barrage of missiles, though, and while it does feel somewhat repetitive after a while, at least it takes longer to get there.

As one of the Magincian ghosts said: The world went on without me.
Ultima IV takes further steps into developing an honest-to-goodness, breathing world, too. This is helped along immensely by the conversation and keyword system. Now instead of just simple one-liners, characters all have names, jobs, something to say. Sometimes it's something silly, like Short Round, or the rangers who seek a home where the deer and the antelope play, but it means the NPCs start to feel even more like characters. They're not just moving signposts now, they're characters proper, with a little bit of personality, even. They'll refer to other characters in other towns, give you advice on spells, even try and take action themselves only to fail (a lot of injured people at the various healers' are there as the result of failed dungeon explorations, after all). It speaks of a world that existed before you got there, of people with livelihoods going about their usual business, and that your path simply intersects with theirs. Sure, maybe the conversations you have with the populace are brief, but then again, considering the subject matter of the game, I think this sort of brevity suits it better - get too verbose and the game's liable to become a bit heavy-handed and preachy in places, as I feel may be part of the problem with Ultima IX (we'll see if I still think that by the time I play and finish it). So too do I enjoy the fact that you actually have to type in what you want to ask about, instead of simply choosing from a list - when there's a lot of keywords to use, the latter is admittedly much more useful and practical, but it feels more... I don't know, conversational to actually think about what it is you want to say, and maybe it's the linguist in me, but the fact that sometimes you have to figure out how to phrase things just right never really bothered me - quite the opposite, really, I kind of like it better that way.

I can't entirely move on from Ultima IV without some mention of its music, either. I didn't play with music this time around because I couldn't figure out how to get it to work properly without making the game zip at hyperspeed or else using a graphics path in conjunction with it, but I've done so in the past, and while I'm not overly fond of the overworld wandering tune, I love the rest of it. The town theme feels appropriately 'medieval domestic,' the dungeon theme is simple but ominous, a subtle reminder that danger could lurk around any corner. The music for the castles is bold and regal, the combat music just intense enough for a fight without being overbearing, and more triumphant than the minor-key bit used for Ultima III, to better reflect the honorable nature of it in this game. And the shrine music! Wispy and almost ethereal and reflective, just as it should be. None of it's terribly complex, but it's very well utilized.

Oh, I will, but I'll be back again.
And finally, of course, the story. There's two things that immediately come to mind while reflecting on Ultima IV's narrative on its own, separate from its place in the series as a whole. The first is the fact that it's very much a personal journey. It's not a story to strike down a bad guy to save the village or the kingdom or the world, or stop some disaster from happening for the same purpose. Sure, the Quest of the Avatar is purportedly to give the people of the realm an example to follow, some direction, and in that sense it is very much a quest for the kingdom as a whole, but when it comes down to it, in execution, Ultima IV's story is all about the journey of one individual and their development. What shapes the story isn't the outside forces moving that the player fights against - instead, it's the decisions of the player and what they learn as they move along. It's a story that's shaped from the inside out, rather from the outside in - one that's built upon the lessons learned by the character, instead of their reactions to what is happening around them. It's a Hero's Journey not just for the character in the game, but for the player himself. The only other game I've come across that has such an intensely personal story is Planescape: Torment, and I suppose it's small wonder that I rank that pretty highly on my list of favorite games, too. This is the type of story that I find much more compelling, because they're not just stories of the characters in the game - they're as much a story about the player. They're the stories that make a player think about what choices they make, not for what it will get them in terms of reward (be that experience, equipment, or the like), but for their own merit, what it says about their character. It's less a matter of conquering some Big Boss or Cataclysm or the like, and more a matter of conquering one's own self - highlighted even more in Ultima IV by the lack of a final boss, instead leaving the dramatic final encounter to a series of questions about the game's virtue system, which works well.

The other thing that comes to mind is how very freeform the story's structure takes. Really, when it comes down to it, there's very little that has to occur in a set order in Ultima IV. There's a series of things you need to do, yes - gather the companions, find the eight stones, become an eight part avatar, get the three-part key, obtain the bell, book and candle - but what order you do all these in really has no bearing whatsoever, just so long as you have it all done before you dive into the Abyss. Stories of this freeform sort can be very hard to pull off properly without it feeling either forced or shallow, but I think it works in part because Ultima IV's story is so personal. I've nothing against linearity at all, I don't mind it in the slightest if it's the best way to tell the tale one intends to, but these two things coupled together, I think, make Ultima IV rather unique, and I honestly can't think of anything that pulls it off in quite the same manner.

In terms of the story of the series as a whole, Ultima IV stands in very stark contrast to his predecessors, and according to what I've read about Ultima IV's development, that's by design. We've moved from the Ages of Darkness into the Ages of Enlightenment, and as I said back in my second post for this blog, this is where we move from establishing the rules of the setting to establishing the heart of the setting. This is where we turn from the enemies, the squabbles, the fights, and start to move into the realm of the philosophical, trying to get inside the culture of the setting. This is, to my eyes, something that the series will cling to from this point on, each game (at least in the main series) able to be interpreted as an exploration of some aspect of virtue, whether that's the nature of virtue itself, its nuance, or what happens when one misinterprets it in varying manners. While it may be the fourth game in the series, Ultima IV is where it truly begins, in some respects, this being the first game to pose some of the bigger questions - not just the what, but the why. It's one of the things I love about the series as a whole, and this is where that particular facet has its beginnings.

And so we move back from the game's story to my story, and I think that's a good deal of what I love about the game - they're one and the same, in the end. My history as a gamer - and even a storyteller, to a degree - is inextricably linked to this game. Every time I fire it up again, some part of me is suddenly ten years old once more, wide-eyed as he explores not just the realm of Britannia, but what the medium is able to do, for the first time. Maybe it's just the nostalgia - I know the control scheme can be a bit cumbersome and clunky until you get used to it, the graphics aren't anything to look at, and I know there's some even among my own generation that just can't get past stumbling blocks like that. And small wonder, I guess - like I've said before, the game predates me by three years.

But in the end, I don't care. Ultima IV's story is undeniably a part of mine. And in the same manner that the Quest of the Avatar is forever, so too is there still a lot of my story yet to be written.

I suppose that's a good note to end on as I move into the next chapter, huh?

Well, that's why I took the screenshot.


  1. I think there is a way to play Ultima IV with music and all the crappy graphic using xu4.

    Run the game through xu4 and press c for configure. Turn off game enhancements.
    In video options set scale to about x3, mode to window and filter to point.
    Now game should run as close to the original as possible :)

    1. I second xu4. The game engine does a fantastic job of reproducing the logic of the original. I used this on my most recent play-through and though there were admittedly some minor differences/bugs (the balloon was more difficult to control for example), all the other improvements made for a very smooth run.

      I'm also not a fan of the arrangements of U4's music that were included in the U4 Upgrade. Hurin put together a package for Xu4 that provides improved arrangements recorded on the Roland Sound Canvas ( I also made some alternate arrangements recorded with the RealSound GS soundfont on the SB Live: (see xu4-voyd-music and u4up-voyd-music)

      Anyway, I'm slowly catching up with your latest posts. I'm really enjoying reading these!

    2. I remember using xu4 on a whim for a playthrough waaaaaaaay back, and I remember enjoying the enhancements it added to the game, but either it's been long enough since that I've forgotten or it's simply been updated in the (vast) intermittent time since I last gave it a whirl, as I'd forgotten about those particular aspects of it. I expect I'd have a similar experience with Exult - I played through Ultima VII and Serpent Isle using it, but that was... oh goodness, almost ten years ago by this point? I'm sure a lot's changed since then.

      I should really take the time to take a closer look at the both of them one of these days - I don't plan on using Exult for my runs for the blog, but hey, might be worth a post or two after I've made my way through the series. There's plenty of remakes and utilities and fangames to take a peek at even when the canonical games are over and done with, after all.