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

Friday, September 12, 2008


Holy guacamole, I thought I posted my last one in August sometime, but evidently it was way back in July! Man, time is zipping by. So, I'm going to spontaneously write about Ultima IV without having though about it much in advance. Here we go!

Ultima IV is commonly considered one of, or sometimes the, best RPG video games ever made. The argument usually goes that instead of trying to kill Foozle, you are trying to improve yourself and become something greater. I always found this a little bit misleading. It's true, there's a basic theme to the game of being nice to people and not stealing their gold (a necessary tactic in the previous games!), but in terms of quests, the game is pretty much one long scavenger hunt, and although you don't kill any Foozle, you do kill an enormous quantity of orcs, dragons, ghosts, gremlins, zorns (or is the plural zorn?), brigands and so on. I'd go so far as to say that perhaps as much as 90% of the human population of Britannia consists of brigands, evil wizards, and other bad guy types. So in terms of actual gameplay, I don't think the thematic shift from killing lots of things to becoming a paragon of virtue while killing lots of things is a very big shift.

Instead, what makes the game work are the incremental shifts forward, which continue until Ultima VII, in two areas of immersive gaming experience. First, the sense that the world you are gaming in can exist without you. Second, the sense that your presence in the world has an impact. The first item is brought to mind by some of my favorite features of the game--the moons which, albeit comically fast in changing, guide your travels, and the new conversation system such that most characters spout off several lines, and you are forced to interact with them. For me this is a gigantic difference from Ultima III, where an NPC is just a signpost; here, the options for talk are limited but the fact that I am forced to treat them in a more human-like manner makes the game immersive; I don't particularly enjoy lying to them. In some ways I think the future version of this, where you pick a topic from a list instead of typing it, is an improvement, because I see insulting or cruel responses I COULD make, but which I actually feel kind of crappy making, even though I realize I'm talking to a few blocks of text in a computer program.

As a side note, I am a big fan of the style of conversation in this game. Everything you do in Ultima IV has a sense of importance attached to it, and the sparse, direct dialog add to that. The goofiness is limited to skeletons in the woods and the occasional ghost; everyone else is relentlessly serious.

The virtue system is the primary mechanism for the improvement in the second area of immersion. Although almost none of your actions in the game have a permanent impact (slaughter a town and they're all back when you return) on the game world, they *do* prove to be a significant impediment to your progress in the game. In short, the choices you make in the game, tied to a particular ethical system, matter. I guess in Ultima III, they mattered too--but in a more crass way. In Ultima III, you killed guards to improve your experience score, while in Ultima IV you give to beggars to improve your compassion score. On the surface these are pretty much the same--actions with consequences to your stats. However, I think the former is a huge breach of immersion because you can't take the game seriously when you are hacking guards to death by the hundreds. Giving gold to beggars, though, forces you to treat the in-game characters as more "alive" than those burly guards, and therefore your choices seem to impact them (even if they never cease begging). In the end you can take more pride (ironically, since you are supposed to be humble) in your actions in Ultima IV than in Ultima III, and it makes the game a more memorable and immersing experience.

The above paragraph is a bit meandering, mostly becuase the "you have an impact on the game world" only really becomes significant later in the series--Serpent Isle being the best, albeit flawed (and enormously depressing!) example. But...baby steps!

Well, what else can I say about Ultima IV? My favorite version is always the PC version for the improved colorfulness of its graphics (I'm talking the old graphics from the original PC release--same bitmap as the Apple II version, as far as I can tell, but with added colors). I especially like that the background remains black, which is key to the atmosphere of all the original Apple II versions of these games. The music patch also does a pretty good job--I say pretty good because at the time I played the game again, the best version of the music patch is tied to an annoying (to me) graphics upgrade, and I had to revert to an older, slower, slightly glitchy version to avoid the graphics upgrade. So anyway, when anyone plays this game I advise the PC version with music patch, as it gives you the "best of both worlds." I don't understand Garriott's faithfulness to the Apple II platform after Ultima IV...But I guess I still have a 5 1/4 floppy drive on my present PC, so maybe I can't criticize.

I really enjoy the music from Ultima IV, and in fact all the games until Ultima VIII where it mostly became "mood" music that did nothing for me. My favorites from Ultima IV are the castle theme and the outdoor wandering theme.

As always, I've reserved my final thoughts for the most memorable moments of the game, or the most "moving" elements, even if I feel odd using that word in the context of a video game. Probably topping the list is that strange moment just before the end of the game where you meet and slaughter a mirror image of your own party, except of course that the mirror Shamino immediately flees! Of course, the anticlimactic ending is pretty impressive, where you answer questions from a booming voice, see some nice line art, and are tossed back into Earth. I guess most of my favorite moments are centered around the abyss, aren't they? It's understandable...that IS the final quest, after all--and entry into the Abyss also appeals to me; some stolen ritual with the bell, book and candle (where was this from originally?) and tossing the skull of Mondain into the volcano. Wow!

What about some notable scenes outside the abyss? I guess since the game is mostly, as I mentioned, a scavenger hunt, there's not many plot events (or even much of a plot) to take note of. I would mention that speaking to the water in Lord British's castle is kind of surreal, and the grove in Empath Abbey comes to mind. Maybe the Ankh in the midst of the mountains? I remember being rather puzzled the first time I played this game and viewed a gem and saw a strange random dot hidden in the peaks...I'm also fond of the ruins of Magincia and the curious disparity between attitudes of the ghosts--some angry, some sarcastic...and help coming from the oddest places; a daemon and a snake who attacks you after you converse. Strange.

I think that's enough on this game, though I could probably go on (I barely touched on combat and I ignored character creation, which was shockingly different from the usual procedure we'd come to expect). In short, I think Ultima IV deserves its lofty reputation. I think playing it is still quite an experience, even if it's less fun now than it would have been in the past--I think this is because its ideas were expanded upon so much in later games in and out of the series; I see it basically as a gigantic milestone in video game, particularly as a game that can be taken seriously as a creative enterprise (e.g., art) rather than simple entertainment