From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima VI: The False Prophet

The illustration for Ultima VI aimed to pique everyone’s curiosity with both the title and the image of the goody two-shoes Avatar, light shining down from above, stepping his way over the body of a gargoyle. If you had gotten the feeling that something wasn’t quite right about how holier-than-thou this felt, that was probably the goal. The illustration was also used for the Japanese release.

It’s 1990 and things continued to change for gaming at what seemed like a breakneck pace. Consoles continued to experience a renaissance thanks largely to Nintendo and Sega, PC hardware was improving by leaps and bounds in terms of sound and graphics which were no longer beyond the reach of normal consumers, and games were taking full advantage of everything the new innovations of the day continued to offer.

It was also the year celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Ultima series making the release of Ultima VI especially important, though its design and approach to gamers in general would divide longtime fans. Gamers still holding onto their Apple IIs would also be disappointed. Ultima V was the last time that Garriott’s Avatar would play in Cupertino’s playground.

It was also the first Ultima developed on the IBM PC. Garriott had also made this a big team effort — where he had done the coding and art for the previous Ultimas with only a bit of help from others, Ultima VI presented new challenges thanks to the new technology being used and the possibilities it offered up.

Denis Loubet, whose art graced the packaging and manuals for the series, worked on creating the 2,000+ tiles to be used in the game. Tools, drawing comparisons to EA’s Adventure Construction Set, were developed first to lay down the foundations of the world. A new internal language was coded to create the conversation system fleshing out the NPCs. Even the GUI was redesigned to streamline the controls, adding in a point-and-click interface with icon driven commands. The parser was still a part of the gameplay, however, allowing players to grill NPCs through deeper conversation trees versus those in Ultima V.

As Warren Spector notes in Shay Addams’ book, “The Official Book of Ultima” from 1990, Garriott worked backwards — tools first, and then conceptualizing what the actual story was going to be. He, Garriott, and an individual called Dr. Cat worked on fleshing out a story once the tech was squared away, recording everything in “the notebook” that would provide the backbone to the narrative. What came out of those conversations was a story that was typically Garriott — a story involving shades of grey leading to things that weren’t always what they seemed.

In the latest adventure, a huge introductory cinematic literally throws players right into the middle of the action. The Avatar, the ultimate good guy who had saved Britannia, returns through the moongate from Earth (where he lives as an ordinary person). The problem is that he ends up as a near sacrifice at the hands of a new race, the Gargoyles, who have boiled up from the underworld and have taken over the Shrines of Virtue scattered across the land. Fortunately, your old friends come to your rescue (one of whom looks just like Richard Garriott) and Lord British fills you in one what has happened in your absence.

The gypsy is back to guide players through the questions determining the stats for their Avatar — an all-in-one character who can fight and cast magic — or players can opt to transfer one from Ultima IV or V if they’ve played through either one. The days of picking a class seemed to end with Ultima IV which introduced the gypsy who turned your character into something of a jack-of-all-trades, though players could still pick a gender and now, a portrait from a collection of pics, to represent what they looked like.

Ultima VI had also merged both the overworld and its dungeons into one, seamless map. First-person is no longer used for the dungeons — everything is seen in a top viewed, tile-based perspective. Your party of friends are also individually seen on the map instead of only appearing during combat. Graphically, it was also a huge departure from the previous games.

Gone was the long alphabet list of key commands that veterans were used to with some simplification inspired by Chris Roberts’ Times of Lore in 1986. A mouse driven-pointer allowed players to pick through icons and onscreen objects though the keyboard can still be used to trigger commands. Garriott had wanted as much of the world to be usable — that what you saw could be manipulated in some way, a technique that might sound familiar years later to fans of 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem. If people wanted to fiddle with clocks or bake bread, they technically were able to although it wasn’t completely necessary to. Much of it was cosmetic, but it added a layer of realism to Ultima VI’s world that would carry on through the series such as in 1992’s Ultima Underworld and the next sequel, Ultima VII, which came out that same year.

A precursor of the “paper doll” system that Ultima VII would use later was used with slots reserved for armor, inventory items, and other pieces of gear when viewing a character’s profile. Weight also tempered how much characters could cram onto their backs. Statistics were also distilled down into a familiar few (Strength, Intelligence, and Dexterity) and, as with the last few Ultimas, the game continued to distance itself from the familiar fantasy creatures (such as orcs and elves) used elsewhere, building up its own Britannian ecology of beasts. For example, everyone on Britannia is human — bobbits and elves were nowhere to be seen at this point because Garriott did not want race to be a focus on what a person was capable of doing.

Combat-wise, battles were more detailed and players could actually see what was coming to attack them versus something randomly hitting them two steps outside of town. Overworld encounters were actually very few compared to what lay below in the dungeons, or around the Shrines, reflecting the relative peace and order that existed elsewhere in Britannia as a whole with the occasional animal crossing your path.

The twist towards the end was that the gargoyles attacking Britannia and its Shrines weren’t doing so out of evil intentions — they were doing it because of what the Avatar had done to them first. The Avatar was prophesied by their people as the False Prophet, a being that would destroy their world. But that’s exactly what kind of happened. What the Avatar and Britannia had no inkling of in Ultima IV was that when the Codex was recovered, it started the slow collapse of the Underworld where the gargoyles lived. Needless to say, the gargoyles were more than a little upset and by the time Ultima VI came around, attacked out of desperation.

It became a quest for peace and understanding at that point which was reached when the Codex was ultimately sent to a place called the Void and with two magic lenses, one to Lord British and another to the king of the gargoyles, could use to view it, ending the conflict and ushering in a new peace between the Britannians and their former foes. As horrible as the gargoyles appeared, they were very much like the Britannians with their own language and system of virtues.

The game was ported over to the Amiga, the Atari ST, to the FM-Towns in Japan (where it was given full voice acting in English and Japanese because it was on CD), and even the SNES. It can be picked up as part of a three-pack on Good Old Games along with 4 and 5. The disk version for the IBM PC also came with instructions on how to create eight floppies for playing the game on if you didn’t have a hard drive (back then, hard drives were pricey and not everyone had them). It only took up 4MB of space if you did and it was recommended to install the game on it which also made it easier to manage multiple characters (which required multiple disks). Like Ultima V, a free remake has been released using the Dungeon Siege engine as a base (so you have to have it first). Another, using Exult, is currently being worked on.

Ultima VI was hugely successful although older fans of the original series could be surprised by how different the game looked and played. Richard Garriott was always looking for ways to enhance the experience and make the game that he wanted to play, but at the same time, open things up to other players. Despite his series’ rivalry with Sir-Tech’s Wizardry, Ultima proved to be very popular largely because of how standalone many of the games felt. Wizardry made no secret of focusing on the hardcore with each sequel appealing to that “subset” of the hardcore that liked the challenges it offered. Ultima was, in Garriott’s view, a bit more inclusive as demonstrated by the changes he made.

The sixth chapter also brought a close to another successful trilogy and paved the way forward for an unprecedented third. A select few of the special 10th Anniversary editions of the game also included metal runes instead of a small, Orb of the Moons, replica. If you were one of the lucky finders, you could end up in Ultima VII.

In many ways, Ultima VI was the beginning and an end to a number of things in the series. It was the precursor to everything that would make it into Ultima VII and a demonstration of the amazing attention to detail that Richard Garriott felt was needed for the world of Britannia to exist as more than a big map. It also signaled an end to the vast multiplatform conversions that the series usually performed for other systems. Ultima VII would turn out to be available only on DOS machines with a SNES version following afterward.

But the interactive environments, detailed NPCs, party members with their own comments, the ability to set combat behaviors for said party members, and the ethical arguments underlying the narrative, made it not only one of the best Ultima titles but a remarkably sophisticated CRPG in an increasingly crowded field. Though it had its flaws — combat could still be a drag and not everyone was happy with the streamlined stats — the next game would build on what it did well. Ultima’s story wasn’t over yet. To more than a few fans and outsiders, the best was yet to come.

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2 responses to “From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima VI: The False Prophet

  1. Pingback: From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima IX: Ascension | World 1-1·

  2. Pingback: From the ads of the past, games of yesteryear – Dark Sun: Shattered Lands | World 1-1·

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