Monday, May 25, 2015

Ultima VI: Unanswered Questions

I started a new job last week, and the resultant adjustments to my schedule (and the fact I'm abysmally slow at acclimating to changes in routine) have meant I haven't had as much opportunity as I'd like to keep plugging away at Ultima VI - but it doesn't mean I've set it aside completely! I had a couple hours to spare, which I spent running around the southern portions of the Britannian mainland, and though I suppose I didn't accomplish much as far as game progress goes, I still met some interesting characters and freed another two shrines.

Well, that was a bit messy.
The day's adventures began, as many of them have, in Lord British's castle, where I'd taken a moment to rest up and heal after freeing the Shrine of Sacrifice. Trinsic was a ways to the south past Paws, and Skara Brae was accessible just over a narrow channel to the west, both of which I'd need to visit at some point. I settled on the latter, partly because I'd already traversed part of the road leading to the city, and partly because freeing the Shrine of Spirituality would prove useful, at least as far as raising my party's abilities went. So after getting lost momentarily in Britain yet again (visibility at night is much better than it was in Ultima V, but I still haven't quite got my mental map of Ultima VI Britain straight yet), I followed the road westward, past the home of the brusque fighter I'd met earlier, and onward to the intersection between the road through the Deep Forest and that leading toward the city of Spirituality. As I neared the intersection, though, the sound of ringing steel announced an impending fight, and sure enough, we came across a group in fervent battle with a few mongbats, which we quickly joined in on - only to find the fighters turning on us once the creatures were dead. Compassion is not always paid in kind, it would seem. When the dust settled, we mourned the results of the incident, gathered what supplies we were able, and continued on our way. Blaine had managed to find enough arrows to make using the bow he'd obtained earlier viable, and so swapped it for his boomerang.

It didn't take much longer to reach Skara Brae, and our first stop was the Haunting Inn. Gideon, the innkeeper, was a friendly sort of fellow, quite willing to stop for a while and shoot the breeze. He spoke on a wide range of subjects, from his first meeting with his wife at the Shrine of Spirituality to the recent sighting of a ghost at the inn to memories of outings with his friends Yorl and Quenton. It was this last that led to a disturbing bit of local news, however - Quenton had recently been murdered. Rumor had it that the perpetrator had been a gargoyle, further evidence of the havoc they were wreaking across the kingdom. I knew I could not let myself be distracted from my larger task, but there was no way I could in good conscience I could simply let the matter lie, either. I resolved to at least investigate as best I could while I was in town.

Yep, definitely a ghost floating around here.
I next spoke with the mayor, Trenton Bell, who was a bit pompous but at least told me a few helpful things. He had his doubts about the gargoyle explanation for Quenton's death, citing the silence the night of the murder. Quenton had no time to scream, and not even a growl pierced the night air - according to Trenton's brother, who served as one of Lord British's guards, the noises a gargoyle makes while doing its work are not easily forgotten. In addition, asking him about the rune revealed that it had been in the possession of none other than Quenton himself, and he had not told anyone of its location before he was killed.

Several others among the townsfolk had their own thoughts on the matter. Dezana, the local healer, was more concerned about Quenton's ghost, and was certain questioning the spirit would be of no help, as he would not be able to communicate directly. Sure enough, when I had my own encounter with the apparition, the only responses I obtained from him were gestures and unusual winds. Stivius, the only witness, seemed unreliable at best in his story - he was certain it was gargoyles that he saw, but could not keep the number of them straight, first saying it was ten or even a dozen, then that it was probably closer to two or three. He claimed they were man-sized as well, or kneeling, or hunched over - there were too many discrepancies in his story to take it as reliable truth, though perhaps there were still grains of it in there somewhere. Yorl even remarked upon how he wished there had been a better witness than the winemaker, though seemed to take him at his word as far as gargoyles were concerned.

Ultimately, there just wasn't enough to say one way or another, much less definitive proof. Reluctantly, I accepted the fact the Justice was not likely to be delivered anytime soon, and I could not spend much more time looking into the matter without neglecting my larger goal. And so I sought out Quenton's daughter Marney, now orphaned, having lost her mother years before. Though justice would have to wait, at least I could offer a little compassion. She had nothing but good things to say of her father, clinging to the mementos he had left behind of both himself and her mother. It was evident just how much the now-broken family had loved each other, especially when, on a hunch after Marney read a poem her mother wrote for Quenton, we discovered that the rune's keeper had hidden it within his daughter's hope chest. She was more than willing to let me take it with me - it was the poem more than rune that meant much to her.

Words to remember, surely.
I had one last stop to make before leaving Skara Brae. The locals had mentioned Horance the wizard living on a small island just to the north, and Marney let me borrow the skiff at the docks to reach it. The man was an odd one, to be certain, speaking in nothing but rhyme, and his own thoughts on the murder were cryptic. He was, however, quite willing to offer me spells and reagents - though perusing his wares, I noted that his selection focused mainly on attack spells, and some part of me wondered what a man who already seemed a little out of sorts might do with such an array of magical firepower. Still, Horance seemed stable enough, and so I bought a few spells to bolster my own magical abilities, and then made for the Shrine of Spirituality. The Shrine itself had been left unguarded, which made using the rune and obtaining the moonstone that lay atop it a very simple matter. Once we had done so, we made for Britain once more, stocking up on ammunition at the fletcher's before turning south to head for Trinsic.

Of course, the road there passed right through Paws, so we spent some time chatting with the locals. Most of them were craftsmen of some sort - millers, weavers, threadspinners, ropemakers... if we ever needed for food or supplies, Paws seemed to be one of the best places to obtain them. We also bumped into a few bards telling their stories in tavern owned by Dr. Cat, whose cats seemed to enjoy the music, bustling about the place just as busily as the clientele. Mandrake in particular was a very talented bard, though his views on the virtues (preferring to abide by ones based on the principles of wine, women and song) and his claim of having been captured by gargoyles once and held prisoner on the other side of the word seemed a little... much, in some respects.

Well that was nice and straightforward.
Though it made for a pleasant time, there was work to do, and we continued on our way to Trinsic. Our search for the Rune of Honor took no time at all, as it sat on a pedestal in the middle of the city - the mayor told us proudly they never worried about guarding it, as who in Trinsic would be so dishonorable as to steal it? It was a relief that obtaining this Rune was so simple, compared to some of the tasks we had undertaken to reclaim previous runes. Likewise, the battle at the Shrine of Honor, further down the road, was much simpler than some of the others, as we only had one winged gargoyle to deal with, and several new spells to make use of on top of it. I must admit there was a certain satisfaction to be had from being the one dealing out the paralyze spells I had been on the receiving end of on numerous occasions. The fireball and magic arrow spells I had also purchased made short work of the wingless gargoyles even as Shamino and Dupre charged at them, and it wasn't long before we claimed victory and the moonstone atop the Shrine.

From there we made our way back to Britain, purchasing a skiff at the shipwright's and planning our next course - likely Jhelom, with a pit stop at Serpent's Hold along the way. Three shrines remain under the hold of the gargoyles, but we do not intend to let them remain so for long.


I don't feel like I got that much further along in Ultima VI in this session, but there were certainly some memorable moments nonetheless during chats with NPCs, which, I think, is a good deal of the appeal of the Ultima games for me in the first place. I was particularly amused by Tobatha, the elderly healer of Trinsic, who was hard of hearing and I had to say 'bye' multiple times to before I was actually let out of the conversation tree, it made for a very nice touch. In terms of worldbuilding, each installment in the Age of Enlightenment games just upped the quality of the dialogue and the characterization of the NPCs, which makes for a world that feels more real, that things continue to go on in the background even without your presence - that these are characters with lives and personalities that aren't only extant so long as you, the hero, are in town. NPCs have opinions on their neighbors, and you can get a good sense of the town 'politics' wherever you go - you know which of the residents are friends and which can't stand each other. It's a good deal of what ultimately is little more than flavor text, and it's easy to lose track of the thread of a conversation with so many keywords to use, but it still hasn't ceased to make me grin.

I also broke my self-imposed rule of walking everywhere first before I use the Orb of the Moons to shortcut once today, using the Orb to get to the Shrine of Spirituality, partly because I'm not exactly sure how (or even if!) I can walk there first. My choice of this particular playstyle, however, coupled with Withstand the Fury Dragon's remark over on the Codex about the expedience-slash-greater safety of using the Orb to gate in and back out of the guarded shrines did get me thinking. In my past attempts at Ultima VI, I've used the safer method, whereas here, my personal "restrictions" have made me play the game a little differently - and to an extent, the way the story unfolds has been different as well, especially as far as the Gargoyles are concerned. Between the opening of the game and the moment the player enters the Gargoyle lands, the best glimpses - and therefore, characterization - of the Gargoyles are via the fights with them at the Shrines. The way I've gone about it, they're very much a presence and in some instances a very real threat. By choosing the frontal assault approach, the Gargoyles reveal themselves as formidable foes when one goes in against them unprepared, capable of potentially devastating magic when used appropriately, and strong in numbers. Though it can take them a while, they are in fact able to wear down a party in a prolonged fight (I've needed a fair few Great Heal spells to get through some of the bigger battles).

The more 'stealthy' approach, however, demonstrates the fact that for all their power on the front lines - it's all smoke and mirrors. Whether it's due to a lack of skill or a lack of resources or a lack of understanding their enemy or whatever, the Avatar - the chief antagonist in the Gargoyles' own eyes - can simply slip in, nab the moonstone, and slip out, without so much as a scratch on him. Not only that, once the Avatar's done so, they desert their post - apparently, they can't afford to expend the manpower or the resources necessary to retake the Shrines for themselves. Through this method, the Gargoyles are barely a threat at all - they don't strike out anywhere else through the course of the game, and are almost laughably easy to get past when using the Orb of the Moons. This way of playing the game paints the Gargoyles as more... desperate, than anything else, and what's more, incapable of saving themselves, as the one man they need to take down continues to slip out of their grasp with little effort at all.

Both approaches reveal a different facet of the Gargoyles' situation, and it even brings about a different sort of effect in the game's later "reveal" in the Gargoyle lands, when the player learns the Gargoyles are less trying to destroy the Britannian way of live as much as trying to save their own. If the player's taken the frontal assault approach, the reveal invites the player to consider whether it truly was necessary to fight their way through the Gargoyles they've encountered thus far, and as they pursue the path to a diplomatic resolution, amenable to both sides, it can lead to the player considering their actions at the Shrines in a different light - it's subtle, but the invitation is there. If the player has used the Orb to make it quick and easy, though, it's evidence that the Gargoyles, however much they've tried, are not going to be able to save themselves. They might be able to make one big push, but when it comes down to it, they can't maintain the effort. They need an outside party willing to give them aid, and that's exactly what the player does. Whichever approach one has taken, it leads to a different interpretation of the events of the games, and it's all based on a choice that a player isn't bludgeoned over the head with.

Of course, that could just be me reading far more into the thing than was really meant in the first place.

But the fact that I can muse on the effects of player choice and how it can change a story, by means of a simple mechanic that was probably implemented more for expedience than anything else?

I think that's proof that less really is more, sometimes.

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