Saturday, September 12, 2015

Ultima VI: How the Other Side Lives

So apparently last week marked the second anniversary of Official Dragonship for me - my join date's listed as September 2, 2013. Funny, it still feels like it's only been a few months or so. But hey, what better way to celebrate than with another session of Ultima VI?

All this ash should come in handy.
When I last left off, I was gearing up for another trip, this time into the depths of Hythloth. I'd been informed by Sin'Vraal that his people dwelt on the other side of the world through the dungeon on the Isle of the Avatar, and there was no way I would be able to resolve anything between us if I didn't take the time to understand them.At the same time, this would not be a pleasant trek in the least - Hythloth was, after all, a cavern located on an island fraught with volcanic activity, all to lead me to a place where every resident likely despised me enough to desire my death.

Could I really do anything else in good conscience, though?

It seemed fitting that the closest to Hythloth the Orb of the Moons could take me as of yet was the Shrine of Humility. Carefully we wound our way through the explosive fumaroles still burbling on the island, then entered the caves. And sure enough, our path was perilous indeed. The ground shook on occasion, lava flowed profusely throughout the tunnels, the volatile nature of the fiery depths made manifest. Even worse were the beasts such an inferno was wont to attract - a few drakes here and there at first, but the deeper we went, we found ourselves fighting off the beguilements of demons, and the terrible might of dragons lurking amid the flame. I found myself leaning heavily on my magical abilities, and while the caverns proved a fine source of sulfurous ash (meaning I had little worry when it came to running low on reagents for Light spells), it was my dwindling stash of mandrake that I was truly worried about - I was burning through Great Heals like no tomorrow.

I wish learning new languages was this easy.
Yet eventually, battered, burned, and weary, we saw a sight we hardly expected to see here at the bottom of the world - a dwelling. Here was were Captain Johne now made his home - why he was content to settle here of all places eluded me, but it was good to see his friendly face. He too pleaded with me on behalf of the Gargoyles, having spent some time learning about their culture. He told me their lands, once as large as Britannia itself, were now reduced to a single city, their center of learning and government the only bastion of civilization left to them. We spoke a little of their society and their beliefs, but of most interest for the moment was their language. How was I to help and understand a people I could not communicate with? Johne provided me with a scroll of basic vocabulary, which I proceeded to pore over, and he also pointed me in the direction of Beh Lem, a Gargoyle child that had helped him learn the language himself. He stressed the importance of seeking him out, as the rest of the Gargoyles would likely attack me on sight without his presence in my company.

I found the youth just outside Hytholth's egress, just as the captain had said I would - they met at that particular spot rather regularly, at approximately that time of day. Beh Lem confirmed the fear his people had of me, but remarked it was not a fear either he or his father Valkadesh shared. Believeing his father, a respected scholar, might be able to help find a way to heal the rift between our respective peoples, he eagerly joined us and guided us around the mountains to his home - after, of course, I took a moment to outfit him properly, so that he wouldn't start exploding every few steps after an unprotected stroll through a swamp. He thought it best to avoid the heart of the city until we had a more concrete plan, and I saw no reason to dispute him.

Um... that's a problem.
Valkadesh did indeed prove helpful. He believed and believed strongly in the error of the Book of Prophecies and that I, the False Prophet it spoke of, could be reasoned with and in fact persuaded to help save his people rather than condemn them. It didn't take much for him to do so, as that had been my intent in coming, but the only thing he could think of as an alternative to sacrificing myself would be to return their most holy book, the Codex itself. He elaborated that 'sacrifice' could mean that of self, of others, or of valuables, and that perhaps Naxatilor, the wisest Gargoyle there was, might be able to help discern the nuances of the potential interpretations. But he warned me that it would be unsafe to wander the city without first surrendering myself to the Inquistor - to submit to the local authorities would be a way of demonstrating my goodwill toward them, thus making me less hated by the populace.

And so I made my way to the quarters of Draxinusom, who thundered about my audacity in coming, demanding to know what I was doing there and making it very clear that the presence of a Gargoyle child was the only reason he restrained himself from slaying me where I stood - Johne had been correct on that particular matter, it seemed. Though shaken a bit on the inside, I calmly informed the Inquisitor of my purpose - to surrender. Draxinusom was skeptical, but upon telling him I had been discussing with Valkadesh about how I could go about providing the needful sacrifice, he presented me with an amulet, telling me to don it as proof and demonstration of my submission. Dupre was uncomfortable with this, believing it to be a magical trap of some sort, but there was no other choice, the way I saw it. I removed my ankh and replaced it with the amulet, and that was that.

Gotta say, wasn't in a hurry to see this again.
As I made my way to Naxatilor's, the populace did indeed seem to relax slightly once they caught sight of the amulet around my neck. I made a note to see what I could learn from them after my meeting with the wisest of Gargoyles. Naxatilor confirmed that I was indeed fated to destroy their world, though he said that he found this surprising, as he could tell that I was truly a being of honor. We spent some time in discussion of what sacrifice truly meant, and he echoed what Valkadesh had told me - that in their language, it could mean sacrifice of the self, of others, or of items of value. Sacrifice of my self was something I had come to avoid, and it would hardly have been virtuous of me to resort to the sacrifice of one of my companions, and so that left items of value. The only thing of true value to both peoples was the Codex itself, and Naxatilor agreed that the only clear options were to give up my own life, or else return the Codex. It turned out that he was the one who drew the Codex out of the Void in the first place, and directed me to the Hall of Knowledge and the Book of Rituals to learn more about how that had been done and what might be needed to reverse the process - as well as retrieve the lens that lay within one of the chambers. As for the Codex's current location, he told me to speak with Captain Bolesh, recuperating at the healer's just to the north of his residence. He had just returned from the Shrine of the Codex, and could perhaps tell me more about how circumstances there lay.

Well that's depressing.
Having made several pilgrimages to the Shrine of the Codex on the previous adventure, it was perhaps not strictly necessary to pay Bolesh a visit, but I felt it would be at least a gesture of goodwill and faith to demonstrate a bit of concern for the well-being of Gargoyle captains. Much of what the recovering captain told me was indeed knowledge I already had - that there was a force surrounding the Shrine that prevented anyone but those on a sacred quest from approaching, that perhaps I could obtain a sacred quest from the Shrine of Singularity here in the realm of the Gargoyles, but that I would need to fly in order to reach it. I left Bolesh to rest and took some time to explore the rest of the city. I found the very slab I had been lashed to during the Gargoyles' initial attempt to sacrifice me, along with numerous graves, of the honored sacrifices and of those with no names, and a tomb where they laid their monarchs to rest - I chose to let them be. I spoke with some of the shopkeepers, none of which had names save that of their profession - the Foodmaker shared some of the local specialty with me (which turned out to be horsemeat!), the Weaponsmith spoke of the catacombs that housed shrines to the Gargoyle principles, the Goodscrafter blamed me for his depression and crisis of faith after the loss of his family in the wake of the cataclysms brought by the theft of the Codex. I spoke with two farmers who had very different ideas of how the wingless in their employ and care should be treated. But at the same time, I didn't want to overstay my welcome, and so I headed for Minoc, remembering mention somewhere in my travels that they knew the secrets of flight.

A brief conversation with Lady Isabella pointed me in Selganor's direction once more, and he in turn told me that the inventor of the balloon (though considering I had flown one many years prior, I personally thought it was more likely he was its re-inventor) had headed to Sutek's island, east of Serpent's Hold, something about a job he had there. And so I set sail once more, navigating the channels through the islands until I reached the one I remembered as the wizard Sutek's.

Uhhh... I'll just see myself to the exit.
I made landing at his dock, and took note of the abundance of rabbits near the entrance of his abode. I thought little of them - until they began to attack, with sharper teeth than expected! It turned out the island was full of creatures that were not all that they appeared, the results of mad experiments - dual-headed creatures seemed to be the favorite, including alligators, cows, and those cursed giant ants I'd fended off earlier in the desert. Clearly Sutek had changed over the years. It took some careful searching and well-aimed spells (including Telekinesis just to lower his front gate!) to navigate his once-simple home. Energy fields, secret doors, levers, pull-chains... Sutek made use of all of them, and they were guarded by his frenzied experiments. It all culminated in another hydra, guarding the only passageway to both Sutek himself and the chambers beneath the structure. I tried speaking with the mad wizard, but he was of little help, only cackling when I asked about the balloonist, and telling me he was deep in the catacombs beneath his home. So down I plunged, fending off the most gigantic serpents I'd ever seen and wrestling with the riddles of a two-headed horse known as the Pushme-Pullyu. I feared the worst for the poor balloonist, but I did find one still-living friendly face beneath Sutek's. Gorn, a barbarian with a rather thick accent, lamented his lack of traveling companions, and so we invited him to join with us. The last I'd seen of him was in the depths of Blackthorn's dungeons - he seemed a tad simple, but well-meaning, and we were glad to have him along.

Our fears for the balloonist proved well-founded, as he lay dead in a corner of the deepest part of the catacombs. He did, however, carry the plans for his balloon on him, listing rope, a cauldron, a large silk bag, and a basket large enough to hold several people as the necessary materials. He also made mention of an anchor as excellent ballast should it prove necessary. And so it was off to the craftsmen of Britannia to gather what items I would need to construct the balloon. After a pit stop in Moonglow to once again restock reagents, I headed for Paws, where I bought rope, and Marissa confirmed she could make a bag out of silk, if I would procure it for her. Arbeth just down the road spun a good portion of my spider silk into thread, and in New Magincia, Charlotte wove the thread into a bolt of cloth. Then it was back to Minoc, where Michelle happily put her skills to the test and wove a basket large enough to fit all of us comfortably. Then it was back to Paws once more to get Marissa to sew the bag itself. Once she had finished, I followed the plans to put everything together, and voila! I was in the possession of my very own lighter-than-air device.

I wonder who that could be!
I headed back to the Gargoyle lands, and after boarding the balloon, I soared around the area for a while, looking for a place to pass over the mountains. The magic fan that had been among Hawkins' treasure proved a treasure indeed, as it made directing the balloon a good deal easier than if I'd had to subject myself to the whims of the weather, and didn't cost me any reagents. Eventually I found the Shrine of Singularity. I was uncertain as to whether the Shrine would bestow a sacred quest upon one not of the Gargoyles, but upon approaching the Shrine, a voice resonated in my head, asking me for whom I truly sought the Codex. A moment's consideration, and I gave the Shrine my reply - for everyone, both human and Gargoyle. The voice replied that my answer had been wise, but how could I work for the good of a race I did not truly understand? I was told to seek out the three Shrines of the Gargoyle principles - Control to the west, Passion to the east, Diligence to the south - where I would find a being exemplifying each principle. I was to return when I had done so.

I think this one's gonna need a rewrite.
I left the Shrine with a new sense of purpose, but there was one more thing left to do in the city. I hadn't yet paid a visit to the Hall of Knowledge, and Naxatilor had told me there was information (and an item) that I would need. The Caretaker of the Hall told me a bit about what lay within - one room held books of import to the Gargoyles, another relics of my own realm, and a third the lens I sought, along with the pedestal where something called the Vortex Cube once sat. Apparently it had been stolen some time ago, and rumor had it that it was taken to Stonegate. I made a note to drop by there when I had opportunity. In the meantime, I picked up the remains of the shattered lens, and learned of the retrieval of the Codex from the Void, of the relationships between winged and wingless Gargoyles, and a glimpse into what the Gargoyles interpreted of Britannia. Still musing over everything I just read, I took the lens to the Gargoyle Lensmaker, who repaired the one I had in my possession. Naxatilor was pleased when I showed it to him, and informed me I would need a second, made by a human lensmaker, which would also need to be concave.

That left me with much to do, but also much to sift through. So I decided to call it a day there, and give myself opportunity to let everything I had discovered about the Gargoyles sink in.


Let's take a moment to talk about contrast.

It's a powerful device in any sort of narrative. In fact, one could argue that it's just about necessary in order to give one a good sense of stakes. Why should one care about how things have changed, or might change if something isn't done, if one doesn't have a baseline to compare it to? But more than that, contrast is great fodder for conflict, for development, for friction and, eventually, the learning of lessons in a story. It's boring to read about two characters who are so similar that they agree on practically everything. There's nothing to move anything forward in that sort of situation - it's contrast that drives them to discuss and deliberate, to consider, to take action. Even if it's not strictly conflicting contrast, it's important to give a good sense of both sides of the story.

This session was practically all about the contrast. The Gargoyle Realm stands in pretty stark physical contrast to Britannia - sloping, pyramidal structures as opposed to the rectangularity of Britannian buildings, triangular signage with weird letters, holes of pure void that need to be skirted. The rocky, rough terrain of the city as opposed to the wide open spaces and clear roads of Britannia. The floating, tri-colored lights, the glowing heat sources, the mats the Gargoyles sleep on - practically everything in visual design and structure stands to distinguish Gargoyle society in stark contrast to Britannia, from nearly every angle.

But it's not just contrast in the sense of the visual, either. Even several of the residents serve as evident contrast to others. Farmer Krill is all business, believing the wingless under him need to be strong-armed and kept on tight metaphorical leashes, whereas Farmer Nash does less well, partly because he feels he should give the wingless more freedom to make their own decisions. The Weaponsmith is disgusted with the Goodscrafter, both having lost someone close to them in the cataclysms, yet the Weaponsmith clings tight to his beliefs and principles, finding solace in them, whereas the Goodscrafter falls into despair and depression, casting them aside. The willingness of Valkadesh compared to the thundering anger of Draxinusom, the fact half the town's residents don't even have names beyond their job - there are so many ways to stand the Gargoyles in contrast to each other, and yet this has the effect not of distinguishing them from Britannians, but portraying them as similar. Though representing two very different societies, these are all the sorts of problems humans face as well as the Gargoyles, and here, contrast isn't just used to differentiate, but to make the Gargoyles relatable. It's wonderfully utilized here, and as wildly dissimilar as the two worlds are meant to be, it's these little touches that reinforce what the player is trying to do - give both sides an opportunity to understand the other.

I also don't want to let this session go without mentioning how much I love the fact the balloon-building focuses on the craftsmen. The first part of the game involves hobnobbing with the uppity-ups, the ones in power - Lord British, his trusted advisors, the mayors. But the latter part of the game, it's all about the lower classes, and while pirates and thieves would probably be enough to demonstrate that, the game goes one step further, utilizing the more virtuous and good-natured lower classes in the form of the craftsmen scattered around Britannia. Great use of contrast once more, and I wish this sort of thing was done in more games. I mean come on - look at how excited Michelle is to help out in an endeavor like this!


I can't quite move on from a post in which I explore Gargish society without going into the language, but that's more fitting for a separate post. I've got a heck of a lot to say about that particular topic, considering that sort of thing is my bread and butter. But hopefully it'll be ready to get out there soon, and then I can gather the last few pieces I need to finish up Ultima VI - the end is in sight, folks!

No comments:

Post a Comment