Saturday, October 31, 2015

Savage Empire: Into the Woods

I haven't gone particularly far in Savage Empire yet, but I'm finding myself with a decent amount to say already, so I'm just gonna run with it anyway.

If only learning languages were always this easy.
Starting up the game proper leads to me waking up in the the hut of Intanya, shaman of the Kurak tribe and my caretaker during the time I was unconscious. His treatment apparently had the side effect of granting me the ability to understand the dialect of the peoples in the valley, and to assure himself of my mental state and recuperation, he asked me a question. Answered to his satisfaction, he then proceeded to give me the rundown of the current state of affairs. He suggested finding Aiela, the kidnapped daughter of the chieftain, along with the two companions I had accidentally fallen into the valley with via the corrupted moonstone, Professor Rafkin and Jimmy Malone. According to Intanya, Jimmy was likely to be found with the Disquiqui tribe far to the south, while the professor with with the Yolaru tribe, some distance east. He also suggested I speak with Aloron, chieftain of the Kuraks and Aiela's father, if I wished to aid in the search for her, which I most certainly did - I had, after all, failed to rescue her the first time around (hence the unconsciousness), and felt a certain responsibility to see the job through to completion. Intanya had a few other things to say, such as a mention of the insectoid Myrmidex, fierce warriors and the enemies of most of the valley from what I gathered, and by the time we had finished speaking, I had a decent sense of the current situation, and what I should be doing for the immediate future, at least.

To aid in my tasks, Intanya sent his student Triolo to join me, who bore more than a passing resemblance to a certain bard I'd traveled with on several occasions previous. Talking with the apprentice shaman revealed that he too was not a native of the valley, though he could not remember his life previous to it. I let it rest - he seemed content with his position as it was, and I had other matters to attend to. After familiarizing myself with what exactly his shamanistic abilities could do, I left Intanya's hut and set about getting to know the locals while figuring out how best to outfit myself for the tasks ahead.

So many things for the taking...
I know the manual justifies it by a more communal mentality and larger proclivities to share resources and different stances on ownership and the like, but it still feels a little weird to be able to just... pick up anything lying around without fear of it being owned by anybody. After three games of having it drilled into me that it's not right to take anything that isn't expressly mine, it's... somewhat jarring to suddenly be able to just throw it out the window. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it, at least thematically speaking. It's a spinoff, I suppose, so it has more leeway to do its own thing, and at least the manual makes attempts to give reason for it in-universe, but at the same time, by tying it to the main series as it has, it feels a bit dissonant in some ways after thievery being so explicitly called out and penalized in previous games. Although it does set up an interesting position for the player coming off the Age of Enlightenment, in some respects - I mentioned way back in my second post for this blog that I consider the next few games an 'Age' of their own, tied together by means of the Avatar taking what he's learned in the Age of Enlightenment games and applying them to contexts outside of Britannia itself without the oversight of its authority figures, learning to stand on his own two feet, as it were. Setting things up like this in Savage Empire kind of puts the player in the same position. There's no real reason not to take whatever's lying around - but does that make it right? Can you still hold to the ethics the last few games have championed when there's no longer any visible or tangible reason to do so? It's an interesting thing to ponder, at the very least, even if I'm not sure I quite like it, per se.

Of course, it's something of a moot point to a degree, on account of the fact I'm already running into weight issues as far as my inventory goes. Not having really done any combat yet, I haven't got a good sense of what's a good 'load' to carry for my playstyle, and as a result I may be overcompensating a bit as far as what I'm carrying with me. Which made it all the more important to pick up a few extra party members ASAP, if only to have another packhorse or two, so to speak.

Well, I do need rations for the trip, after all.
Anyway, back to business. I chatted with the Kurak tribesmen to see what they could tell me about the surrounding area, and they were all concerned about Aiela, of course. I learned that the Urali, the tribe that had captured her, were rumored to live far to the southeast, though nobody but a man named Topuru knew exactly where, and he was thought to be mad. He was said to be near the Barako tribe, on an island to the north across the river canyon. I made a note to seek him out once I'd fleshed out my ranks a bit more. The tribesmen told me a bit about the rivalry with the Yolaru - though it seemed to be a friendly one, as they considered them noble warriors - and the Myrmidex, which they spoke of in quite the opposite manner. They were both hated and feared, made all the worse due to the fact they had a nest just to the west. I made a note to avoid that particular direction until I was better equipped. Aloron, the chief, told me much of the same information, corroborating a few rumors and giving me an idea of how I might go about finding the Urali and rescuing his daughter.

Well, one of them. Because before I left the village, I met his other daughter. I bumped into Tristia.

It ain't just beauty I go for, ya know.
And in so doing, bumped into one of the reasons I had less options when it came to choosing specifics about my character. Savage Empire is the first Ultima game to feature something of a romance subplot, and again, I'm... not entirely certain how I feel about that. Again, it makes sense in the context of the game in and of itself, as it does feel like something that's very much a part of the genre that Savage Empire is paying homage to. But it feels a little abrupt and forced. I'm not really one who needs romances in games to begin with (there's far more to explore as far as character relationships go than just the romantic, after all, and more often than not I find other sorts more interesting), having only seen two 'romance paths' to completion in all of my gaming that I can think of. It's just... never really been something the series has spent much time focusing on. Sure, a fair number of Britannians flirt with the Avatar in Ultima VI, and one can even have a little one-night fling with a gypsy, but the focus has been more on the heroism and the teamwork than the romance. Again, I do give the genre shift some credit, but with the potential to do so right off the bat (Tristia's quick about it and is right there in the starting village, after all), it's just way too quick. You've got to ease into these things to make it feel right, or if not that at least introduce circumstances that make it reasonable to accelerate such a thing - I imagine I won't be quite so jarred when I finally do rescue Aiela.

But back to Tristia. She was a haughty, proud sort, considering work beneath her and her status as a daughter of the chieftain. Aloron took her in after her parents died in a fire, though she didn't seem to particularly care much about it, and claimed to be the favorite. She quite evidently didn't think much of Aiela at all, thinking Darden a fitting mate for her and the Urali tribe a better place for her adoptive sister. And then, somewhat out of the blue, asked if I loved her. She... did not take my answer well, to say the least. I figured it best to hurry on my way after that particular experience.

Oh you do, do you?
Just outside the village I bumped into a woman named Sahree, who was the daughter of the Yolaru shaman and a good friend of Aiela's. She expressed her concern for her friend, mentioned a few of the antics they liked to get up to, and most intriguingly, a plan to strike down the Myrmidex, involving uniting the various tribes of the valley. The insectoids were far too numerous and powerful for any one tribe to stand against them, but Sahree and Aiela had reasoned that, like the story of the valley's legendary figure Oloro that Sahree related to me, if the various tribes could band together, led by one who had done a great feat for each of them, perhaps it would be enough to push back their common enemy. It's certainly worth thinking about, once I get the band back together and rescue Aiela.

I passed a few parrots on my way to the Yolaru village, and neither Apaton the chief nor Mosagann the shaman had much new to tell me, only confirming much that the Kuraks had already told me - when they told me anything at all, as Mosagann seemed in a hurry to finish our conversation as soon as possible. I did learn from the tribesmen, however, that Rafkin was indeed around, as they all referred to him as their 'schweitzer,' and sure enough, I found the professor himself not long afterward. He stressed the importance of finding Jimmy and Aiela as well, and thought it would also be worthwhile to find the remains of his lab that had also traveled through the moongate, thinking there might be useful supplies there. He was fairly sure that it was close to the Kurak village, and also told me he had some thoughts as far as crafting makeshift weaponry went, specifically bombs and rifles. I made a note to ask him about that later, introduced him to Triolo, and the three of us sat down to make further plans.


Well that's just rude.
I called it there, as it felt like a good deal to sift through already. I know that one of the series' trademarks was to use a new engine for each successive entry, but there's something to be said for the games that re-used and refined previous engines, too - I really, really like the look and feel of Savage Empire. It's vibrant, it sets the tone well, it's clear and clean, and the decision to move conversations into the much larger game world panel is very much welcome, albeit it means I have fewer screenshots of the pretty landscape as a result. I'll admit I miss a bit of character depth, as there's a lot of generics hanging around with the same thing to say as all the rest, and even the unique characters don't always have much to say, making them somewhat less memorable than Ultima VI's cast, but there's still moments that shine through even now (I found myself rather liking Sahree a lot, for instance). There's a lot of little bits of interactivity that I'm enjoying, too - from using a knife to get meat off an animal corpse I found and leaving bones behind to getting into conversations with the parrots (and being called an 'Ingrate!' when I broke it off). I'm hoping I won't have quite the inventory problems I'm having now once I get into a few fights and figure out what all I really need to have on hand, but all in all I'm enjoying myself, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else the game has in store for me.

Now, should I go track down Jimmy, or will he be able to wait a little longer while I seek out what's left of Rafkin's lab...

Yes, yes, I know, I know!!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Savage Empire: Opening Thoughts

And now for something a little different.

One of the trademarks of the Ultima series is the fact it uses a new engine for each main entry in the series. Some are less visibly dramatic than others (compare the difference in look and feel between Ultimas IV and V, as opposed to those between V and VI), but every numbered entry used a new engine and pushed it to its limits. That didn't keep those engines from being reused, however - Ultima VII's was re-used for Serpent Isle, and Ultima VIII's would be refined and reused for Crusader. The practice of using an existing engine to power an entirely new game started here, though, with Savage Empire's use of Ultima VI's engine to weave a pulp fiction tale of a lost valley.

The opening credit scroll is very nicely done.
Released in 1990, mere months after Ultima VI itself, Savage Empire was the first in a sadly short-lived spin-off series, giving the Avatar further adventures outside of Britannia. While having little to do with the main series, being only tangentially related at best, they're referenced enough by other games that it's fair to accept them as canonical. This first entry transplants the Avatar from the medieval-esque world of Britannia into the Lost World-style Valley of Eodon, populated with numerous and varied tribes, prehistoric beasts, and dinosaurs.

My previous experience with Savage Empire isn't particularly extensive. I've mentioned before the problems that I've had in the past with Ultima VI's engine, and the fact Savage Empire is basically that with a new coat of paint didn't help with my enjoyment. In addition, while it's neat to see the series' take on other genres, I'm not overly fond with the lost world-type stories. I mean sure, I had something of an interest in dinosaurs when I was a kid, but as a genre... eh. I'm not sure why it's never really clicked that well with me - and that's not to say that I don't enjoy a well-told story in that style either - but that coupled with the fact that steampunk very much is a genre I like, and, well, I always found myself favoring Martian Dreams over Savage Empire when I got the hankering to give the Worlds of Ultima games a whirl. But while the game itself hasn't held as much interest for me as compared to its subsequent entry - the manual. 

Oh man, the manual.

Virtue test time! Again!
Savage Empire's manual probably stands rather high on the list of utterly unique approaches for a game manual, if not topping it outright. Rather than simply lay out the facts, not only does the manual follow the grand Ultima tradition of doing so in an in-universe fashion, it does so by means of presenting it as a pulp adventure magazine that wouldn't be out of place in the era the game is attempting to evoke. And while the stars of the show are the introduction of the backstory as the first part of a serial penned by the Avatar himself (which incidentally is the source for my personal headcanon that the Avatar makes his living between adventures by publishing tales of them), and Dr. Rafkin's descriptions of Eodon's people, flora, and fauna, it's in the detail work that the manual really shines. From hints cleverly disguised in the Letters to the Editor to throwing the developers into a rather amusingly written expedition to advertisements for Jimmy Malone's notebooks and Savage Empire T-shirts (the latter of which actually existed), the manual, as any good manual should, sets the tone and mood of the game excellently. I pored over it gleefully as I prepared to fire up the game, suppressing squeals of glee at the little linguistic tidbits Rafkin delivers on the language of Eodon and the dialects of the varying tribes. (Because of course I would.) And I can't help but bring attention to the copyright information right on the table of contents page: "Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited, and punishable by sending a Tyrannosaurus Rex to eat your mother... do people really read this fine print?"

Yes, author of said fine print. Some people do, and they are amused.

Last order of business was character creation, and I'll admit it was nice to take another virtue quiz of sorts, albeit much abbreviated and modified slightly to stick with the theme. Only three questions this time around, and they're phrased to feel more 'tribal' than medieval, but it's good to see that the game continues the tradition of basing initial parameters for the player character by a series of moral dilemmas. Presented as a dream sequence that may not actually be dream, Intanya says he is working to heal you, but needs to know your spirit in order to do so. He asks three questions - in Aric's case, he first asked whether he would disobey a chief's directive to fight alongside his companions, and he most certainly would. Next he asked about a warrior who borrowed another's spear, then did not return it. Upon finding said warrior's own misplaced spear, Aric chose to give it to the one owed the spear. And when forced to decide whether to uphold an oath and protect his chief or break it and honestly reveal him as a murderer, he chose the latter option.

So was Aric (and I with him) dropped into the Valley of Eodon, and so does a new adventure begin...

Friday, October 2, 2015

Linguistic Asides: The State of the Blog

With ten games in the main series, plus the two Worlds of Ultima games, plus the two Ultima Underworlds, and Akalabeth, that's fifteen games total. I've now made my way through seven, and though that's technically shy of halfway, finishing Ultima VI does feel like something of a turning point, as its completion marks the beginning of a detour, the Avatar's adventures apart from Britannia and the watchful eye of Lord British. As such, it feels like a good point to pause for a moment and reflect a bit on this wacky little adventure of mine.

This definitely isn't my first time attempting to play my way through the Ultima series in its entirety, and it isn't even my first time attempting to blog about the experience while doing so. I think the first time I tried to blog about it, I barely made it through Akalabeth, and was so dissatisfied with how it was shaping up that I scrapped the whole thing. And even this time around, it was something of rough going in the beginning - I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe part of it was because I still hadn't quite figured out my 'groove,' the particular style I wanted to approach the project, and maybe part of it was because there just didn't feel like there was a lot to say about the early Ultima games. That was a good portion of the reason I came to a screeching halt partway through Ultima I, in addition to my life getting busier than I'd planned on right about then. I felt like I didn't really have anything to say that wasn't just reiterating what happened in-game, and so I set it aside for a time until I could figure out what to do with it.

The hankering to play Ultima again came before I really figured that out, though, and it didn't feel right doing so without starting up the blog again. So I did - I still had my old save file kicking around, so I threw out a brief 'I'm back' sort of post, fired off a quick email to the Ultima Codex about much the same, and played.

I think that's about when things shifted.

Thanks to WtF and the Codex, I found myself with something of an audience. And that helped - knowing someone was actually paying attention gave me a bit more motivation to keep things up. I think I hit my stride somewhere around Ultima II, or at least I felt like I had a better grip on how to approach things. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact there were a fair few things about Ultima II that didn't quite sit right with me, which gave me fodder for things to talk about besides simply my exploits in the game. The further along I've got, the more verbose I feel I've become, partly because the games have gotten larger and more complicated, and partly because I feel more confident in both my scrutiny and my expression of what conclusions I draw.

And that's what it comes down to, really. I find I play the games differently than I used to, partly because I know I'm going to be blogging about it later, so I consciously look for moments that would be worth examining further, expanding upon. I read books differently now that I'm a writer, I watch movies differently ever since I spent a month in Rome with a film study program, and now, thanks to this blog, I find I play games differently, too. And it's kind of neat to look at something I've enjoyed for so long through different eyes, actually taking the time to peek past the veil and figure out what makes them tick as a narrative experience, poke and prod at them and figure out what works and what doesn't.

And ultimately, I think that's the biggest thing I've pulled out of this blog. I enjoy this sort of thing. Yes, I'm a writer, and I love crafting stories, planning them, spinning them, weaving them, but more than that, I love talking shop, as it were. Examining, analyzing, teasing out the tricks of the trade and recognizing when techniques work and when they fall flat - and not just the what and the how, but the why. There's dozens of things I could talk about outside of Ultima in that vein. What the movie War Horse taught me about the uses of negative space in a story. How powering my way through Planescape: Torment in a couple days helped me cope with the death of my grandmother. How I managed to pinpoint the killer in an episode of Castle from his first appearance on screen, before I even really knew who the character was, based entirely on how they chose to frame the shot. The longest 150-page book I ever read that was so tedious and obnoxious I wanted to throw it out the window multiple times, the way a character's voice actor managed to make me seriously feel terrible about a small action in The Wolf Among Us, scads of other moments like these that I simply view differently than I might have once due to the time I've spent digging through the world of stories in all their forms. And it's nice to have a platform to muse on these sorts of things, maybe even spark a little conversation in the process - I know I've enjoyed the ones I've had as a part of Spam Spam Spam Humbug (another something that I might never have actually done if I hadn't started this crazy venture in the first place).

So that's where my brain is at, now that I've made it sort-of halfway through the series. I figured I'd just make it through the canonical games, maybe poke through Lazarus or the Ultima 6 Project or one of the Neverwinter Nights remakes of Ultima IV when that was done, and call it good. Chalk it up as a fun little experiment and let that be that. But now I find myself wondering if it might be worth... expanding, down the road. There's a lot of other stories out there I'd like to experience and examine, whether for the first time or for the twentieth, from books to movies to TV to games. Maybe it's worth considering continuing in this vein once Ultima's done with.

I'm coming to discover this is something I love, after all. And being a guy who's currently between jobs, uncertain of exactly what sort of career I do want to have - well. Maybe having an outlet for something I've discovered to be a passion of mine is a good thing right about now.

Only time will tell, right? It's certainly inspired me in other ways - I've wanted to read through the Hugo/Nebula winners, watch the Best Picture winners... and for some reason I've had the germs of an idea for a fanfiction-y novelization of Ultima I bouncing around in my head lately. Maybe I'll spend NaNoWriMo hacking away at it?

In any case, I've learned a lot from this venture, and I look forward to seeing what more I learn going forward. And thanks for stopping by my little corner of the Internet - it's always easier to say your piece when you know someone's listening. Who knows - maybe at some point down the road, it'll be a little larger.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Ultima VI: Closing Thoughts

Well that was a bit unexpected.

My side analysis of Gargish phonology wasn't even up a week before it became one of the most viewed posts I've tossed out there. Withstand the Fury Dragon's attempting to rope me into doing a segment based on it for the Ultima Codex's podcast sometime, which I'm more than willing to do - I mean c'mon, blather on about how TWO subjects I have a deep love for intertwine? (Although hold your horses, it's gonna be some time before I'm in a position to actually do so.) I, uh. I'm a little floored, to tell the truth - I wasn't anticipating that much interest at all, on account of the fact it was basically just me nerding out on a topic in my field, that happened to tie into Ultima VI. I'm half wondering if I can squint at Gargish hard enough to draw out enough for a follow-up at some point, now. There's a lot more I could go into as far as vowel quality goes (I never did touch on dipthongs), there's the point to make about why there are W's present in transcriptions of Gargish despite the fact there's no letter for it in the alphabet, and I haven't even attempted to see if I can figure anything out about Gargish prosody.

But we'll see what happens. For now, let's talk Ultima VI.

I was a bit worried going into the game, on account of the problems I've had getting used to the interface and the fact I'm going to have to deal with it for no less than three games on my list. But thankfully, I finally seem to have got over whatever hump had been there, and though a couple things still managed to trip me up (it took me way too long to figure out how to get the balloon to do what I wanted, and I can't tell you how many times I hit H to <H>ole up and Camp instead of R to <R>est) they weren't as debilitating as previous attempts at Ultima VI have been.

I didn't feel adequately prepared for encounters like this.
I enjoyed the game a lot more than I expected to as a result, though it still hasn't surpassed Ultima IV as my favorite (sorry, WtF). Frankly, I'm still undecided if it overtakes Ultima V, either. And I can't quite put my finger on why, either. i think some of it has to do with the combat curve in the game. Combat's a constant, regular presence in Ultima IV and Ultima V, giving the player ample opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the system before throwing them to the wolves in the tougher fights, and though this doesn't necessarily make the early fights less dangerous (and potentially frustrating), these early fights don't really set you back terribly much if you fall in battle while you're still getting the hang of the system. Maybe it means a trek back to where you were, a loss of experience or hard-earned gold or food, but it's not debilitating enough to necessarily demand a full-on reset.

Ultima VI's curve, however, is a bit more... erratic when it comes to its fights. I spent most of the first act of the game starved for combat, only brushing up against the occasional small band of brigands or unusually feisty rats along the roads of Britannia, apart from the battles to retake the Shrines. Though part of the reason I actually took the time to fight the Gargoyles at the Shrines was for narrative purposes (the reveal that comes with translating the tablet feels more poignant to me if there's actually been confrontations where death is on the line), I can't deny a good portion of it was also just for the experience. The majority of the fights I had up until seeking out the pirate map were with Gargoyles at the Shrines, or at least it certainly felt like it. And though they were no cakewalk, I don't feel they quite prepared me for the resource management that I needed to deal with when it came to the dungeons. I can only imagine how much moreso I would have felt if I hadn't transferred my character over, with the boosted stats and experience that came with the action. Maybe this was by design - the game is about resolving matters peacefully, after all, and admittedly, the fact that there's only one fight that I can think of that's strictly necessary (the hydra blocking the secret door in Sutek's castle) is a point in the game's favor in my mind. Still, the learning curve feels a bit sharp in this respect, and skewed a bit.

It's nice to know just what my magical resources mean.
Despite what problems in the past with the interface and some of the difficulties I had with the pacing of combat encounters, though, there's a lot about the design and engine of Ultima VI that I rather enjoyed. Streamlining the magic system a degree - making it so I didn't have to mix reagents and could easily see how many times I could cast any given spell with my current resources - made it a bit easier to use, and therefore a tool that I was more apt to use, and indeed used profusely. I've made my appreciation for the design of the Gargoyle realm rather obvious by this point, I think, though I haven't given enough credit to the design of the Gargish shrines yet - whether it's the numerous levers that control the gates at the Shrine of Control, the fires of the Shrine of Passion, or the meticulous scouring of a space for a secret door at the Shrine of Diligence, each shrine is very much a reflection of the principle it's designed to embody.

Inventory management became a bit cumbersome here and there, but there were some facets of it that I truly enjoyed - most notably the fact that gold coins actually had weight that had to be accounted for. Granted, it's probably easier on the player and less obnoxious to simply take money out of the equation when it comes to the decisions including weight as a game mechanic lead a player to make, but it works rather well here in Ultima VI. Including their weight in player carrying capacity forces a player to make decisions about their budget, more than just 'how much do I need to save before I can buy this really cool item.' The economic system in place in Ultima VI is balanced well enough to make such a thing possible without becoming too headache-inducing, and I really like it for some reason. Seems rather more reasonable to me than carrying around thousands and thousands and thousands of metallic coins - I hauled around enough boxes of coin when I worked at a credit union to know those things get dang heavy.

Little moments like this add so much flavor to the characters.
And Ultima VI's NPCs are the most memorable yet, and not just due to their unique portraits. Each and every one of them has a personality, even those who don't really have much to contribute to the plot, or even much to say at all. Blind, mute, injured, drunk, helpful, abrasive, energetic, lethargic - Ultima VI's cast runs the gamut, and every piece of dialogue they have to say color them further. And this includes their 'I don't know about that' responses when they're asked about something they don't have a response for - they're all unique, and they serve to give each character that much more flavor. Some ignore the question, some don't hear it, some dismiss it as unimportant, some apologize for not being of more help, but whatever they do, it's a telling portion of their character that future games in the series just can't really capture, on account of having switched over to the keyword system by them.

As always, though, I've got to get to the story sooner or later. And while I normally separate my discussion of the game's story into the story on its own and the story as it relates and fits into the story of the series as a whole, I'm not so sure I can make that separation as cleanly this time around. So much of Ultima VI's story leans on themes and ideas from previous games, after all. And perhaps partly because of that - the fact that it built upon the foundation the previous five games left for it - it's an extremely strong and well-woven story. In fact, despite my love for Ultima IV, I'm going to go as far as to say that Ultima VI is the pinnacle of storytelling in the entirety of the series.

Yes, I did really just make that claim.

The reason I say this is because Ultima VI's themes permeate the entirety of the game, from the overt to the subtle. Not only does it establish its own themes, but it builds upon the themes from the previous entries in the Age of Enlightenment while setting up others for further development later in the series. It's well-paced, even with the occasional potential short-circuiting from possibly asking characters such as Sin'Vraal and Naxatilor about certain topics too soon. Goals are clear and spaced well throughout the course of the story, and uses every tool at its disposal to reinforce its ideas and themes. I've already mentioned Ultima VI's use of contrast to display both the differences and the similarities between humans and Gargoyles, but there's far more to discuss when it comes to just how well-executed Ultima VI's story is.

I've mentioned before that the three games of the Age of Enlightenment establish the heart of the setting that Ultimas I-III introduced and refined. They're the games that explore the philosophy and way of life of the people of Britannia, and that's all culminated here in Ultima VI. Ultima IV introduced the virtues in the first place, a set of ideals that established a personal code of living. And that was the Quest of the Avatar was, at its core - a personal exploration of virtue, and an emphasis on the individual. From a certain perspective, it could even be argued that the Britannian system of virtues almost emphasize the individual - introspection, self-betterment, and the boundless infinity of wisdom to be gained from walking that path.

Ultima V took these virtues and examined the flipside of them, the way they could turn dark when twisted to become something they weren't. The game took a look at what happened when virtue became mandate and law rather than something willfully chosen and followed, and suggested a need for nuance and care when it came to application of the virtues. In a sense, this also reinforced the individualistic nature of the path of the Avatar - forced application on a larger scale led Britannia not into a golden age of development, but a dark period of tyranny, and it was the corruption of virtue in one man, Blackthorn, that cascaded down into an oppressive regime that held the kingdom in an iron grip.

Virtue is personal - but we can't forget those around us, either.
Ultima VI takes both of these central themes and turns them on their head, by way of its own central premise. If Ultima IV was about personal virtue, and Ultima V was about the dangers of mandating it by law, then Ultima VI is ultimately about virtue colliding with virtue. It's a story of culture clash, of what happens when differing viewpoints run up against each other, of the friction that can come out of it and of the fact that reconciliation can happen. Ultima IV established personal virtue, culminating in the precept of Infinity, the countless potential that flows out of personal application of the virtues, but Ultima VI brought in a system that culminated in Singularity, the upholding of unity and cooperation - and by means of its ending, recognizes both the importance of the individual and of a society. Ultima V explored the other side of the coin and revealed it to be dark and unpleasant, but Ultima VI proved that sometimes the other side is simply a different sort of virtue, that sometimes, both sides can be in the right, and that one side of a situation being good and reasonable does not always preclude the other side from being so as well. It introduces other virtues, suggests more nuance to the virtues of Ultima IV, and in so doing sets the stage for the theme of balance that permeates Serpent Isle. And it didn't always bludgeon a player upside the head with these, either - there's a lot of little hints at them from conversations the player may not even necessarily have. It's a tight narrative, it's unique in both theme and execution, and it's brilliant.

There's aspects of Ultima VI that I'd love to see expanded - a fan-made game from the Gargoyles' perspective would be utterly intriguing, if you ask me, running around the collapsing Gargoyle Realm to find an Orb of the Moons, figure out how it works, capture the Britannian Shrines, and ultimately figure out how to draw out the False Prophet - but there's no more and no less there than necessary to tell the story successfully, and that's what makes it work. It's ever-present, even in the detail work, and it doesn't drown you in the unnecessary. It's wonderful, and I'm glad that I've finally seen it through to the end.

It's been a journey well worth taking.


And now it's time to pull out my pith helmet and machete as I get ready to plunge into Savage Empire! I may have a few more general things to blather on about before I get started there, and in any case I've got a manual to read before playing, but Eodon is calling my name and I'm raring to answer the call.