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.


  1. I love the idea of the story being flipped from the crumbling world of the Gargoyles as a prequel to U6. My first thought of who the protagonist would be: The gargoyle priest that gets shot in the U6 intro. I could see that gargoyle having basically risen up among his peers, and to be the one who harbors them to their perceived safety.

    - Ocho Dragon

    1. He does seem rather ideal - heading up a ceremony like that, he must have quite the track record among his people, chosen to save his people from the False Prophet in such a manner. What better way to prove himself than making it all possible in the first place?

      And it would bring about some further contrast/circularity into a story brimming with it, an almost passing-of-the-torch moment from the intended savior of the Gargoyles to the individual who would prove to be their true rescuer.

      Huh. I kinda like that, really...