Ophidian Dragon blogs his way through the entire Ultima series, from beginning to end.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ultima IX, Days 5 and 6

First of all, let's start with a link:
Games as Art

I'm generally skeptical of the concept. Games, to be games, are necessarily entertainment, but I don't generally expect art to entertain me. On the other hand, sometimes it does, and much art is made for ulterior motives besides just desire to make art. All the games it discusses are relatively recent. Which reminds me, one thing I think of when I think of art is the concept of purposeful limitation--choosing to write a sonnet because the limitations of the form forces originality. But to my knowledge, game designers don't normally choose platforms that are limiting because of the limitations.

Back to the blog! I've combined these two days because, like the last two, I can't think of anything really exciting about the dungeons involved. There were two--Wrong and Shame. Actually, there were a lot of neat details in Shame. Wrong was also pretty creative, in that being touched by a guard in this prison (quickie backstory--Raven's falsely accused; you must rescue her) sends you back to a jail cell without your equipment. Fortunately for me and unfortunately for said guards, it was not hard to sneak up behind them and kill them pretty rapidly! Wrong is overall pretty small in size, but there's large numbers of doors between the discrete chunks of the dungeon, and it is maze-like despite the small size.

Escaping feels sort of exciting, because Wrong has a fortress surrounding its entrance, and a gigantic bridge separates you from he mountains nearby, so looking over the edge of the fortress walls seeing a bridge disappear in the mist is pretty cool.

Getting to and from Wrong is a bit of a nuisance, since there's a lot of mountains. On the way there I stopped and picked up the Quill of Justice (an odd sigil!) from a big static bird of some kind, who asked me some very dubious justice questions. The one that bothered me the most asked if it was just to hunt down a wolf who had killed a child; it claims the answer is no because it's unjust to kill a wolf merely for being a wolf. This seems incoherent, because since anything a human does is being human, it would seem that punishing someone for his crimes would also be unjust, for the same reasons. Moreover, if killing a wolf because it is dangerous is unjust, wouldn't it be even more unjust to kill, say, a corn stalk merely because you want some popcorn?

After cleansing the shrine of Justice (and clearing Raven's name, and handing off the gargoyle queen egg to Vasagralem), I hit the sea to Trinsic. The dungeon shame is one of the most fun in the game, but since it's all a series of puzzles (and lots of eyeballs with squishy eyeball noises), I don't think I'll go into much detail. The Trinsic quest proves to be probably the most compelling in the game--Blackthorn accosts you in Shame, and destroys the Sigil of Honor; however, you learn that the sigils themselves are irrelevent and merely embody the virtuous energy of the townsfolk. By risking his life to defend others, the cup of honor is re-grown. I have never much liked honor--it seems like it depends on the other virtues, such that something that is unvirtuous is necessarily dishonorable (I think U4 may agree with me here). But that is higher criticism! The way honor is used here is pretty good, though it would have been a bit more compelling had Dupre not shown up to explain everything in detail, like the guy at the end of a TV show who explains the moral of the episode.

Now, on to comments. I got some weird ones. Two people said that changing the name of the gargoyle city to something gargish instead of Ambrosia would be highly un-canonical. This I don't understand. Why would the gargoyles, acting out of racial pride, choose a name for their great city that has nothing to do with gargoyles? Mjs says that the blog was more fun to read before the U9 hate. I didn't think I was particularly hateful towards the game--in the last post I praised the music; in other places I said the dungeons were well designed. Most of U9's problems are based on the disjointedness of the quest (being rewritten at least twice definitely did not help matters here) and the fact that it's been dumbed-down to not intimidate new players.

If you discount the crashes and another annoyances, it's not a terrible game, it's just a dissapointing end to an otherwise (well, mostly) fine series. I don't "hate" the game, because it doesn't make sense to hate a video game.

Also, I agree with Justin, who says the original Guardian-homeworld plot would have been good. I agree, but I don't think it would have been appropriate for the final game in the series. At that point, of course, it wasn't conceived as being the final game! I tend to think the famous Bob White plot is way, way too epic to possibly work and be believable. You would have been stuck on a linear course worse than anything in the present U9 or Serpent Isle. The present ending is pretty good--the Avatar makes the ultimate sacrifice for Britannians who have realized they must be self-sufficient, British finally admits he really needs to get out and do things, etc. There are a lot of things that disappointed me (Blackthorn proving that mercy is stupid, for example), but even with something like the present plot the game could have been good with proper execution, and had it not been restarted so often.


Jazar said...

I like posting this because it gives you a little glimpse of Ultima 9 from the lead developer on the game. There are a lot of issues that U9 had (mostly plot related & bugs) but there also is a lot of attention to detail which is very cool:

Quote from U9 lead Programmer:
"As I re-read my (now-famous) post regarding the shipping of Ascension, I think I came across as a little too ...disappointed... in the way it came out. One of the points I was trying to make was that Ascension didn't contain all the features we originally intended to put in; there just wasn't time. But, NO game contains all the features the team originally wants to put in.

When we had the 3D world up & running, the game really came alive. The possibilities of what we could do appeared to us, as if they had a will of their own. When I look at all the features we've put in, it's just amazing to me. This game contains so much more than we originally intended, in that respect.

Another surprise (not a pleasant one) for us, when we got the world up & running, was that the 3D environment and art increased everyones expectations about the world in general. The world was SO detailed that we constantly heard "You mean you can't do blah-blah?", describing some feature that NO 3D games have ever had. A classic example: the fact that some objects end up "floating" in air in the world, by moving & manipulating them. No 3D games allow you to manipulate objects in 3D the way we do! But, this extra ability in our game raised everyone's expectations; if you move it around, it should properly fall to the ground (not dragging your frame rate down, of course). This type of reaction also motivated us to pour effort into the world itself.

I believe that every Ultima dev team has its own way of breathing life into its world. The Ascension team went the 3D route, for better or for worse (we think it's better). This introduced challenges we hadn't foreseen, and made doing some of the more "traditional" 2D features practically impossible in the given time frame (NPC schedules, for instance). But we, as Richard desired, set out to create the most immersive Ultima yet; and we believe we succeeded.

I'd like to list some of the features that didn't take a huge amount of time to put in, but which were our own way of putting the Ultima flavor into this game. None of these were really necessary to make the world come to life; and none of them were even envisioned in the original design. But, programmers being who they are, these things just found their way into the game, in little moments here & there. Some of these may be features you take for granted; some may be features you don't even know about (yet). NONE of these features "bumped" NPC schedules or other past features, so don't view them from that point of view. Rather, view them as additions that could very well have not made it into the game either; and be grateful, as we are, that they did!

Take a look:

* The type of armor you wear determines your buoyancy in water
* The wind in the world has an intensity & direction; the amount that a sign swings is determined by the angle the wind hits it
* The wind sound is synchronized with the objects' responses to it
* The wind intensity (and sound) is determined by the weather
* Footstep sounds depend on the terrain type
* Footprints!
* Bloody footprints!!
* Sun glare
* The sun glare is occluded by objects that come between you & the sun
* The sun moves across the sky
* The sun changes color & intensity with the time of day
* Both moons move through the sky; they have halos, and their halo intensity depends on the phase they're in!
* The moons smoothly transition through their phases
* The sky perfectly transitions from day to sunset to night & back; the storm sky perfectly transitions with any of those states.
* Raindrops make little splashes.
* Rain (mostly) doesn't happen indoors
* Plate armor has specular highlights!
* Lightning draws in the world (not just a light flash)
* The thunder is delayed from the lightning, based on distance!
* The windmill turns to face the wind
* Torches & lanterns can be carried (yup, this was added about 2 weeks before we shipped)
* Torches & lanterns go out if you swim
* Torch flames & light intensity die down, and change color, as the torch dies out.
* Eye-blinking & mouth moving! We added this pretty late; never thought we'd get it in.
* NPCs turn their heads to look at you (and other things)
* Arrows attach to what they hit!
* Weapon motion & blood trails
* The weapon gets bloody after you use it
* Magical weapons & armor!
* Mixing potions!
* Having objects fall! Some objects end up still "floating" in midair, but this generally works pretty well--and it was a last-minute add.
* Flame arrows
* Smashing barrels & crates
* When you enter a cave, the lighting gets darker
* The 3D book. Richard wanted this in; the programmers didn't, and planned for a 2D book. But, we discovered it wasn't really too hard; so, the 3D book made it in.
* The lighting on the book actually is taken from the lighting in the world near the Avatar.
* Shadows! Didn't have them for a long time; figured out an easy way to do it, and they generally look pretty good.
* The "blurry" clipping plane. Thank you, Carnivores!
* Ocean waves!
* The Avatar moves up & down with the waves in the water, as does the camera!
* The underwater camera distortion effect
* Trees have shade! Not just shadows; they actually shade.
* Water get less translucent the further it is from you, making it look much more realistic
* Weapon & Armor bars
* The ship rocks; and you can walk around on it while it does so!
* The camera pulling way out when you drive the ship (originally it was much closer in)
* Support for multiple resolutions
* Support for S3TC textures
* Vultures swoop in & eat the remains of things you kill
* Conversations are accompanied by gestures & camera angles wherever possible, make them much more cinematic
* Sleeping in a bed passes time rapidly
* Sitting in chairs! A somewhat pointless but cool feature.

I'm sure there are more--but you get the idea. In terms of 3D world features, we're pretty over the top. Like I've said, the game isn't everything we originally intended; but in many ways, it's much much more. We have a great game--and the patch is close, very close. With the patch, you will get to enjoy the game without bugs, and with much, much better performance. "


Adam said...

Nice post from the U9 lead programmer... as I said, had they had another year to refine the 3D engine, we may have had a much better (and more stable) experience. Ah well...

On the Ambrosia thing, I never said it was uncanonical. Technically the Gargoyle settlement in Ultima VII has a name, Terfin. It's never clear, though, if it refers to the island or the city on it. (It translates to "The Last Place". I think it referred to the final home of the gargoyles, but it took on a new meaning in U9 as it's the last place you go in the game and in the single-player Ultima series.)

I wasn't that surprised that the fan dialogue patch renamed the city, I could see that coming since they'd been complaining about the name since release. It's just the name they chose that had me bewildered. I expected some Gargish word meaning paradise, reflecting a similar attitude to what Ambrosia would mean. (In modern retrospect, "Rapture" would be an appropriate name. Heh heh.)

Marsten said...

I'm not sure I agree that the main problem has been the disjointed nature of the quests. They all seem to allocate to one of the numerous virtues, and they're somewhat formulaic, but it's really no more disjointed than, say, U4.

Personally, I feel the biggest flaw with the game tends to rest more in terms of dialogue.

And for what it's worth, I think you've been very fair and even in your approach to it. Far more than others.

Bobby_C said...

jazar> while the details are cool, the explanation is pretty symptomatic of part of the frequent problems in game development, in this case adding new features rather than actually making sure the features that are already there and/or critical to gameplay work. Implementing rain drops instead of making sure your objects fall correctly is just silly.

Justin Alexander said...

Re: Bobby_C. Yeah. You nailed that one. And OCDing on details like raindrops instead of on the stuff that actually matters for telling the story of the game (which includes technical details like NPC schedules and also storytelling details like... the story) is fool-hardy. It's a trap lots of developers fall into, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing.

Re: Games as art. I think you've got some weird ideas about what constitutes art. ;)

When you say that you think "art is the concept of purposeful limitation", I'm wondering where you could possibly have gotten such an idea. I mean, it's true when it comes to poetry, but it has virtually no validity when applied to other artforms.

For example, the classical painters were constantly trying to improve the quality of their paint. (Much like modern game-designers try to improve the quality of their game engines.)

Shamus Young does a pretty excellent job of summing it up: http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=1090