Tacticular Cancer: We'll have your balls

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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on Ultima VI

Discussion in 'RPG News & Content' started by Infinitron, Apr 7, 2017.

  1. Make America Great Again Infinitron Trade Master Patron

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    Tags: Origin Systems; Richard Garriott; The Digital Antiquarian; Ultima VI: The False Prophet; Warren Spector

    The Digital Antiquarian continues his foray into the RPGs of the early 1990s. The topic of this week's article is Origin's Ultima VI: The False Prophet. Ultima VI was a revolutionary game in many ways, abandoning the venerable Apple II in favor of the IBM PC as primary development platform and switching from the classic dual-scaled tile-based style of the earlier Ultimas to the seamless world that would go on to inspire titles such as the Elder Scrolls series. It was also the game that introduced Warren Spector to the computer gaming world. He would play an important role in shaping the game's story and go on to lead the development on several Ultima spinoff titles before becoming firmly associated with the first person immersive sim genre later in the decade. Ultima VI was an important game then, but like many revolutionary games, rough around the edges. The Antiquarian concludes that it was a "transitional work", a conclusion that I fully agree with:

    Ultima VI shipped on time in March of 1990, two years almost to the day after Ultima V, and Richard Garriott’s fears (and stomach cramps) were soon put to rest; it became yet another 200,000-plus-selling hit. Reviews were uniformly favorable if not always ecstatic; it would take Ultima fans, traditionalists that so many of them were, a while to come to terms with the radically overhauled interface that made this Ultima look so different from the Ultimas of yore. Not helping things were the welter of bugs, some of them of the potentially showstopping variety, that the game shipped with (in years to come Origin would become almost as famous for their bugs as for their ambitious virtual world-building). In time, most if not all old-school Ultima fans were comforted as they settled in and realized that at bottom you tackled this one pretty much like all the others, trekking around Britannia talking to people and writing down the clues they revealed until you put together all the pieces of the puzzle. Meanwhile Origin gradually fixed the worst of the bugs through a series of patch disks which they shipped to retailers to pass on to their customers, or to said customers directly if they asked for them. Still, both processes did take some time, and the reaction to this latest Ultima was undeniably a bit muted — a bit conflicted, one might even say — in comparison to the last few games. It perhaps wasn’t quite clear yet where or if the Ultima series fit on these newer computers in this new decade.

    Both the muted critical reaction and that sense of uncertainty surrounding the game have to some extent persisted to this day. Firmly ensconced though it apparently is in the middle of the classic run of Ultimas, from Ultima IV through Ultima VII, that form the bedrock of the series’s legacy, Ultima VI is the least cherished of that cherished group today, the least likely to be named as the favorite of any random fan. It lacks the pithy justification for its existence that all of the others can boast. Ultima IV was the great leap forward, the game that dared to posit that a CRPG could be about more than leveling up and collecting loot. Ultima V was the necessary response to its predecessor’s unfettered idealism; the two games together can be seen to form a dialog on ethics in the public and private spheres. And, later, Ultima VII would be the pinnacle of the series in terms not only of technology but also, and even more importantly, in terms of narrative and thematic sophistication. But where does Ultima VI stand in this group? Its plea for understanding rather than extermination is as important and well-taken today as it’s ever been, yet its theme doesn’t follow as naturally from Ultima V as that game’s had from Ultima IV, nor is it executed with the same sophistication we would see in Ultima VII. Where Ultima VI stands, then, would seem to be on a somewhat uncertain no man’s land.

    Indeed, it’s hard not to see Ultima VI first and foremost as a transitional work. On the surface, that’s a distinction without a difference; every Ultima, being part of a series that was perhaps more than any other in the history of gaming always in the process of becoming, is a bridge between what had come before and what would come next. Yet in the case of Ultima VI the tautology feels somehow uniquely true. The graphical interface, huge leap though it is over the old alphabet soup, isn’t quite there yet in terms of usability. It still lacks a drag-and-drop capability, for instance, to make inventory management and many other tasks truly intuitive, while the cluttered onscreen display combines vestiges of the old, such as a scrolling textual “command console,” with this still imperfect implementation of the new. The prettier, more detailed window on the world is welcome, but winds up giving such a zoomed-in view in the half of a screen allocated to it that it’s hard to orient yourself. The highlighted keywords in the conversation engine are also welcome, but are constantly scrolling off the screen, forcing you to either lawnmower through the same conversations again and again to be sure not to miss any of them or to jot them down on paper as they appear. There’s vastly more text in Ultima VI than in any of its predecessors, but perhaps the kindest thing to be said about Dr. Cat as a writer is that he’s a pretty good programmer. All of these things would be fixed in Ultima VII, a game — or rather games; there were actually two of them, for reasons we’ll get to when the time comes — that succeeded in becoming everything Ultima VI had wanted to be. To use the old playground insult, everything Ultima VI can do Ultima VII can do better. One thing I can say, however, is that the place the series was going would prove so extraordinary that it feels more than acceptable to me to have used Ultima VI as a way station en route.
    An interesting claim made by the article is that Ultima VI's user interface and inventory system were directly inspired by the classic dungeon crawler Dungeon Master. That's something I'd never considered before, but it makes sense in retrospect.
     
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  2. I'm With Her SausageInYourFace for prison Arcane Patron

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    I am having a bit of trouble with this statement as the problem of the story it not so much the theme itself, as how it is presented; mainly that for 90% of the game you are just doing the Ultima McGuffin routine and the actual point of it all is only introduced at the very end. It was probably intended as some kind of plot twist but it doesn't really work since for most of the game you don't really know what you are doing and why and then you are hit on the head with a theme at the very end which should have been the center of the game. Ultima 5 - as well as Ultima 7 - have these thematic threads running much more consistently throughout the whole game, which makes their stories much more powerful.

    If he complains about that the theme of U6 doesn't follow as logically from U5 as U4 to U5 did, I'd like to hear his idea what would have been a more thematically fitting plot. It seems like a very strange point to make.
     
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  3. Grauken Prophet Patron

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    U6 is probably my favorite in the series, though I agree that the story wasn't handled all that well, at the end I would have preferred something more conventional like gargoyle extermination campaign. But overall, I had def. more fun with this than with U7, despite the sequels more critical success
     
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  4. Make America Great Again Infinitron Trade Master Patron

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    Very true. There's this group of contrarians in the fan community who like saying that Ultima VI's story was better than Ultima VII's, because it "shattered tropes" while U7 was a "simple murder mystery and chase story". Even if you agree with that description, who cares when U7's story, world and themes are so much better executed?
     
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  5. Invictus Arcane The Real Fanboy

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    I also prefer Ultima 6 to 7, it felt simply more coherent in its plotline for presenting something totally different for the series... I mean accidentally beign "the bad guy" and almost causing the extinction of the gargoyles felt like a step in the whole Avatar concept of videogame actions having consequences
    Yeah the graphics were not so great especially compared to U7 but the combat was better and overall its design felt like perhaps the last "old school dungeon crawler" for the series
    I still remember fondly putting together the map for the island, cleaning up the dungeons beneath Lord British's castle or battling the silver snakes on the gargoyle realm
     
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    [​IMG]

    Combat was just as un-tactical as U7s was, it was just a TB clusterfuck instead of a RT clusterfuck, which made it slower and more tedious, which made it worse - particularly for a game as focused on exploration.

    U6s combat was better than U5s though. (Go ahead, fight me :smug:)
     
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  7. Make America Great Again Infinitron Trade Master Patron

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    Only combat that was anywhere near good in the Ultima games was the dungeon rooms in Ultima IV & V, because they could actually have a degree of encounter design.

    Actual combat systems were always extremely rudimentary. I wonder if Garriott ever even considered adding some sort of action or movement point system that would let you move more than one square per turn. It's mindboggling.
     
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  8. Country_Gravy Arcane Patron

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  9. I'm With Her Severian Silk for prison Arcane

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    I've only played Martian Dreams. How much dialogue does a typical Ultima game actually have? I am kind of a story fag.
     
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  10. Bumvelcrow Bellator Sempervirens Patron

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    You will like Ultima 7 and Serpent Isle very much. The others, not so much.
     
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  11. Aildrik Educated

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    I fondly remember how amazing the graphics for U6 were on release. I had been playing U5 on a clunky IBM PC w/ CGA graphics. By the time U6 came out, we had a generic whitebox 386 PC with a whopping 1mb of RAM and SVGA graphics!

    U6 had a lot of great out of the way things to do and find. I remember finding some pirate lady underground somewhere near Lord British's castle that was armed with a glass sword. The ant mounds were pretty neat too.
     
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  12. Grauken Prophet Patron

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    I wonder if the Digital Anti played the game on release, or if he is doing his articles entirely based on other people's memories, as some of the so-called established narratives around games these days often feel completely different compared to how games were actually perceived when they came out.
     
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  13. Country_Gravy Arcane Patron

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    I really liked U6. It was a great bridge from U4&5 to U7. And it had a talking mouse, so there's that.
     
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  14. Junmarko Arcane Patron

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    Yeah U7>U6, no question.

    Putting in The Fellowship was just an original way to leave bread crumbs, plus, a cavalier mockery of religious behaviour - as Scientology were made tax-exempt during that period. Dropping a caricature, to piggy back the coming of The Guardian, was priceless :lol:

    [​IMG]
     
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  15. Wonderdog Neckbeard Shitlord's alt

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    This guy is truly terrible, like a more longwinded, even more leftist and clueless version of CPRGAddict.
     
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