From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima VII: The Black Gate

Ultima VII’s first ad didn’t have much to show. It was presented as a movie poster reflecting Garriott’s direction for the game to be more than just a CRPG. It also reflected the dark themes behind the game, even going so far as to be “voluntarily rated” MP-13 for “mature players”.

I was a late bloomer when it came to the Ultima series having spent much of my CRPG time with The Bard’s Tale, Wasteland, Dragon Wars, and a few of SSI’s classics. I had no idea of the kind of history that surrounded or how important Ultima was to the CRPG genre until many years later. Exploring it again through these articles has also taught me a lot of new things about the series.

Ultima VII was actually my first. It was also a huge pain in the butt thanks to the hoops I had to jump through with autoexec.bat and config.sys files on a lowly 386SX. I can also probably credit Ultima VII for teaching me more on how to configure DOS on a practical level than the actual MS-DOS manual. And they say games can’t teach you anything.

Garriott wanted to do something different, something a lot darker with the new Ultima, and I thought he succeeded pretty well while crushing system requirements in the process. This wasn’t just a story of one man triumphing over evil. The story of Ultima VII, involving sinister cultists, murder, and an insidious corruption of people from within, made this struggle feel a bit more different than other traditional CRPGs that I had played.

What can you do when the greatest enemy is that which lies within? The Avatar won his struggle in Ultima IV, saved the people from tyranny in Ultima V, and forged a new peace between two races in Ultima VI. Now, something else was winning the people over, taking his place. It didn’t like you much, either.

Ultima VII also had one of the best intros in gaming, a tradition that Origin graced a number of its titles with starting with simple title animations in the earliest Ultimas to the text-heavy cut welcoming players back in Ultima VI. But this one… I remember watching it over and over again, mocked by the villain staring back at me from the screen, right before it took me through the Moongate to Britannia.

And the theme music.

Dark, foreboding, and coldly sinister with heavy beats punctuated by grim bells tolling at the start. This wasn’t just a CRPG celebrating another gathering of ye olde party to stop a grand evil. Something bad awaited me on the other side of that mouse click.

Even the packaging promised that something wicked was on its way. It was entirely black save for the title, company logo, and the back which had a splash of color describing the game. On store shelves, these appeared like a series of mini-monoliths stacked up next to each other.

Inside, extras like the customary books were included — but now written by the Fellowship, a new movement that has become popular in Britannia. They’re the new do gooders of the land, expanding their reach in the two centuries following the Avatar’s last visit.

Time passes differently in Britannia’s part of the multiverse than it does on Earth. A few years may pass here while centuries do over there, so when the Avatar returns, things have changed quite a bit. Lord British, as long lived as he is as he is about as alien to Britannia as the Avatar, is a bit older along with the Avatar’s erstwhile friends who apparently have a sort of enchantment about them allowing them to be as long lived as they are.

Of course, players want to get on with the quest which is to find out just who belongs to the red face that glared at them through their computer screen back home. In the meantime, the Avatar and friends will get involved investigating the Fellowship who have largely supplanted the Eight Virtues with the Triad of Inner Strength. Batlin, the leader and one of the three founders of the Fellowship, is the author of the book that comes with the game…a particularly insidious piece of fiction in which he boasts support for the ideals of the Avatar and the Virtues while at the same time, subtly insinuating doubt.

Because living up to the Eight Virtues has also reminded the ordinary people of Britannia of their failures, the Fellowship’s Triad offers an alternative to succeeding in reaching those goals becoming quite popular among those that join it. Ideals such as Unity, Trust, and Worthiness have become the mantra of the order, a gathering that was even approved by Lord British himself under the idea that it would serve the people.

And from the outside, the Fellowship has been doing just that. No one suspects it, and Batlin, as servants of the very being that the Avatar seeks — the Guardian. After investigating a grisly murder and following threads of conspiracy through the Fellowship itself, the Avatar and their companions soon find themselves facing the Black Gate and a fitting climax.

Ultima VII was like Ultima VI from a visual sense, only with massive changes. This time, gameplay mechanics were largely mouse-driven as they were in a typical adventure game on the Macintosh or the SCUMM titles from Lucasarts like Maniac Mansion. The keyboard was also used, but players no longer had to memorize a laundry list of hot keys to manipulate the environment with or special words to use in conversation with NPCs. Topics were listed onscreen with clickable subjects instead.

The game also lived up to its voluntary rating in being for “mature players”. Well before “BioWarian romances” became a buzzword in the modern lexicon, games like Ultima VII pushed the boundaries in small ways on romance and sex. While not as extensive compared to what BioWare would do later, players could take their Avatar and engage in heterosexual trysts with a number of characters in the game depending on their choices.

In a logical progression of what came before, Britannia continued to be a place wide open to exploration — players could literally wander off the linear story and start poking around places where they didn’t belong which is what I almost immediately did. When I hit the capital of Britain, I spent hours walking around and trying to get into as many buildings as possible and reading the in-game books lying around. And, of course, relying on that old adventurer’s maxim of trying to pick up everything that wasn’t nailed down…without my companions or anyone else seeing just what I was doing.

Inventory was a more literal affair. Things could end up scattered all over the inside of your pack (which could be moved around the screen along with the paper doll display of the Avatar) making you physically move stuff around to find what you were looking for. This was especially aggravating for the multitude of keys collected over the course of the game along with the reagents for spells. Food, that long held Ultima standard, was still needed to keep everyone happy though the Avatar’s companions had the annoying tendency to whine about being hungry a bit too often. But in being able to go out into the wilderness, hunt for food, or even make bread in an oven provided you had the right ingredients, players could literally create their own solution.

Doors opened with a click of the mouse, enemies were visible and could be avoided if players didn’t want to mix it up, and attack behaviors could also be set for each companion though I usually had to try and lead monsters around to get them into attack range. Players could also smash open doors and chests. This was a game that let the player literally do anything that they wanted to in a sandbox world where they could be a baker, a hunter, or an explorer in a lush and detailed setting.

That was what appealed to me the most, that Britannia came across as this living land that seemed so complete with detailed NPCs following their own schedules within a day and night cycle, dialogue and commentary, and side quests that could be discovered. If a building had a door, it could be entered. None of this painted “door on the wall” stuff.

It was also amazingly buggy at the time. Ultima VII’s wide open world, engaging quest, and click-and-go combat were overshadowed by a number of early problems that crept up on the player. The game was playable, but the longer I would play, the more it would come apart. Tilesets would disappear, revealing the guts of a building before I had entered it. Performance would slow to a crawl. It was still playable, but waiting for something to disappear or simply render strangely became commonplace. To their credit, Origin quickly reacted and issued a patch that players could get on their BBS or mail out for.

Forge of Virtue was essentially a cheat disk with quests, but it was fun for what it was. It also added in a valuable key chain and a few patches which was one of the ways anyone could update their game back in the day.

Despite the problems, I managed to finish the quest and found myself wanting more. The Forge of Virtue expansion (which boasted itself as the first “add-in” disk) added the Isle of Fire to the game where the Avatar could attain a powerful weapon (and a few extras like a keyring) and return to Britannia ready to take on the devious machinations of the Guardian’s minions. It was also where the Avatar could max out their stats (they could find trainers in Britannia to upgrade stats piecemeal, but Forge’s shrines completely buff the Avatar). Essentially, Forge was a cheat disk. You didn’t really need it to finish Black Gate, but it did make it fun to go through again replacing my Hoe of Destruction with a talking sword that wrecked everything in my way.

Ultima VII was also a game that divided players. Personally, I liked the game a lot though was surprised at how little actual “crunch” there was in terms of statistics or character development in comparison to other titles like Interplay’s Wasteland or Wizardry V. It was apparently something that a few players, especially veterans of the older titles like Ultimas IV and V, missed.

A few had also voiced a little disappointment in how simplified the mechanics were despite praising the maturity and bouts of dark grit within the story or the vast openness and details of the world. To a few, it was essentially like Chris Roberts’ action heavy and beginner friendly, Times of Lore in 1988. This was a game that, once you could get past the Voodoo memory manager and run decently well, anyone could really jump into even if they had no previous Ultima experience. And it was probably the goal that Garriott was aiming for, something that he had earnestly made a point of design with Ultima VI in 1990.

IBM PCs running MS-DOS were the only PCs to get the game on six 3.5″ floppies. The Super Nintendo had even gotten a version of it, though the eight member party was left out along with quite a few other things that didn’t survive Nintendo’s censors making it a pale copy of the original. Today, players can snag it along with Part II and the two extra add-ons at Good Old Games. The Exult project has also made it possible to run Ultima VII on modern PCs and even mod it.

It would also mark the last Ultima that Origin Systems would release prior to their acquisition by EA later in the same year. One of the requirements for the deal was to give up all rights to Ultima (and Wing Commander, among others) to EA who were apparently interested more in the properties than the people. I found out much later that the initials of Elizabeth and Abraham (Batlin’s friends and the other two, “friendly” co-founders of the Fellowship) spelled out EA. The three key objects you needed to destroy in the game to stop the Guardian were the square, sphere, and tetrahedron — shapes that were incidentally the same was those in EA’s logo at the time. It’s still something of a mystery whether the draconian terms EA laid down for Origin played a part in these subtle jabs worked into the game by Garriott and his team.

In the end, however, Ultima VII was a CRPG that I had really enjoyed. I liked the story, the grisly themes woven through it, the insidiousness of the Fellowship (which has drawn comparisons to a few real-life contemporaries out there), and the vast detail of its presentation raising the benchmark for other CRPGs to match in terms of world building. Playing through it more than once was still great fun, though I also found out how easy it was to jump around the story by going to places that I was supposed to be told about earlier. Yet getting to the end and saving the world in Ultima VII once again was, at the time, always as sweet.

4 responses to “From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima VII: The Black Gate

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