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System Shock

We approached games as immersive simulations. We wanted to build game environments that reacted to player’s decisions, that behaved in natural ways, and where players had more verbs than simply “shoot.” DOOM was not an influence on System Shock. We were trying something more difficult and nuanced, [although] we still had a lot of respect for the simplicity and focus of [the id] games. There was, to my recollection, a vague sense of fatalism about the parallel tracks the two companies were taking, since it was clear early on that id’s approach, which needed much less player education and which ran on adrenaline rather than planning and immersion, was more likely to be commercially successful. But we all believed very strongly in Looking Glass’s direction, and were proud that we were taking games to a more cerebral and story-rich place.

— Dorian Hart

We hope that our toiling now to make things work when it is still very hard to do effectively will mean that when it is easier to do, we can concentrate on the parts of the game that are less ephemeral than polygons per second, and distinguish ourselves by designing detailed and immersive environments which are about more than just the technology.

— Doug Church

In late 1992, two separate studios began working on two separate games whose descriptions sound weirdly identical to one another. Each was to make you the last human survivor on a besieged space station. You would roam its corridors in real time in an embodied first-person view; both studios prided themselves on their cutting-edge 3D graphics technology. As you explored, you would have to kill or be killed by the monsters swarming the complex. Yet wresting back control of the station would demand more than raw firepower: in the end, you would have to outwit the malevolent intelligence behind it all. Both games were envisioned as unprecedentedly rich interactive experiences, as a visceral new way of living through an interactive story.

But in the months that followed, these two projects that had started out so conceptually similar diverged dramatically. The team that was working on DOOM at id Software down in Dallas, Texas, decided that all of the elaborate plotting and puzzles were just getting in the way of the simpler, purer joys of blowing away demons with a shotgun. Lead programmer John Carmack summed up id’s attitude: “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” id discovered that they weren’t really interested in making an immersive virtual world; they were interested in making an exciting game, one whose “gameyness” they felt no shame in foregrounding.

Meanwhile the folks at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based studio Looking Glass Technologies stuck obstinately to their original vision. They made exactly the uncompromising experience they had first discussed, refusing to trade psychological horror in for cheaper thrills. System Shock would demand far more of its players than DOOM, but would prove in its way an even more rewarding game for those willing to follow it down the moody, disturbing path it unfolded.

It was in this moment, then, that the differences between id and Looking Glass, the yin and the yang of 1990s 3D-graphics pioneers, became abundantly clear.



Looking Glass arrived at their crossroads moment just as they were completing their second game, Ultima Underworld II. Both it and its predecessor were first-person fantasy dungeon crawls set in and around Britannia, the venerable world of the Ultima CRPG series to which their games served as spinoffs. And both were very successful, so much so that they almost overshadowed Ultima VII, the latest entry in the mainline series. Looking Glass’s publisher Origin Systems would have been happy to let them continue making games in this vein for as long as their customers kept buying them.

But Looking Glass, evincing the creative restlessness that would define them throughout their existence, was ready to move on to other challenges. In the months immediately after Ultima Underworld II was completed, the studio’s head Paul Neurath allowed his charges to start three wildly diverse projects on the back of the proceeds from the Underworld games, projects which were unified only by their heavy reliance on 3D graphics. One was a game of squad-level tactical combat called Terra Nova, another a civilian flight simulator called Flight Unlimited. And the third — actually, the first of the trio to be officially initiated — was System Shock.

Doug Church, the driving creative force behind Ultima Underworld, longed to create seamless interactive experiences, where you didn’t so much play a game as enter into its world. The Underworld games had been a big step in that direction within the constraints of the CRPG form, thanks to their first-person, free-scrolling perspective, their real-time gameplay, and, not least, the way they cast you in the role of a single embodied dungeon delver rather than that of the disembodied manager of a whole party of them. But Church believed that there was still too much that pulled you out of their worlds. Although the games were played entirely from a single screen, which itself put them far ahead of most CRPGs in terms of immediacy, you were still switching constantly from mode to mode within that screen. “I felt that Underworld was sort of [four] different games that you played in parallel,” says Church. “There was the stats-based game with the experience points, the inventory-collecting-and-managing game, the 3D-moving-around game, and there was the talking game — the conversation-branch game.” What had seemed so fresh and innovative a couple of years earlier now struck Church as clunky.

Ironically, much of what he was objecting to is inherent to the CRPG form itself. Aficionados of the genre find it endlessly enjoyable to pore over their characters’ statistics at level-up time, to min-max their equipment and skills. And this is fine: the genre is as legitimate as any other. Yet Church himself found its cool intellectual appeal, derived from its antecedents on the tabletop which had no choice but to reveal all of their numbers to their players, to be antithetical to the sort of game that he wanted to make next:

In Underworld, there was all this dice rolling going on off-screen basically, and I’ve always felt it was kind of silly. Dice were invented as a way to simulate swinging your sword to see if you hit or miss. So everyone builds computer games where you move around in 3D and swing your sword and hit or miss, and then if you hit you roll some dice to simulate swinging a sword to decide if you hit or miss. How is anyone supposed to understand unless you print the numbers? Which is why, I think, most of the games that really try to be hardcore RPGs actually print out, “You rolled a 17!” In [the tabletop game of] Warhammer when you get a five-percent increase and the next time you roll your attack you make it by three percent, you’re all excited because you know that five-percent increase is why you hit. In a computer game you have absolutely no idea. And so we really wanted to get rid of all that super opaque, “I have no idea what’s going on” stuff. We wanted to make it so you can watch and play and it’s all happening.

So, there would be no numbers in his next game — no character levels, no character statistics, not even quantifiable hit points. There would just be you, right there in the world, without any intervening layers of abstraction.

Over the course of extensive discussions involving Doug Church himself, Paul Neurath, Looking Glass designer and writer Austin Grossman, and their Origin Systems producer Warren Spector, it was decided to make a first-person science-fiction game with distinct cyberpunk overtones, pitting you against an insane computer known as SHODAN. Cyberpunk was anything but a novelty in the games of the 1990s, a time when authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson all occupied prominent places on the genre-fiction bestseller charts and the game developers who read their novels rushed to bring their visions to life on monitor screens. Still, cyberpunk would suit Looking Glass’s purposes unusually perfectly by presenting a credible explanation for the diegetic interface Church was envisioning. You would play a character with a neural implant that let you “see” a heads-up display sporting a life bar for yourself, an energy bar for your weapons and other hardware, etc. — all of it a part of the virtual world rather than external to it. When you switched between “modes,” such as when bringing up the auto-map or your inventory display, it would be the embodied you who did so in the virtual world, not that other you who sat in front of the computer telling a puppet what to do next.

System Shock‘s commitment to its diegetic presentation is complete. As you discover new software and gadgets, they’re added to the heads-up display provided by your in-world neural implant. This serves the same purpose that leveling up did in Ultima Underworld, but in a more natural, realistic way.

Dissatisfied with what he saw as the immersion-killing conversation trees of Ultima Underworld, Church decided to get rid of two-way conversation altogether. When the game began, there would be enticing signs that other humans were still alive somewhere on the space station, but you would be consistently too late to reach them; you would encounter them only as the zombies SHODAN turned them into after death. Of course, all of this too was highly derivative, and on multiple levels at that. Science-fiction fans had been watching their heroes take down out-of-control computers since the original Star Trek television series if not before; “I don’t think if you wrote the novel [of System Shock] it would fly off the shelves,” admits Church. Likewise, computer games had been contriving ways to place you in deserted worlds, or in worlds inhabited only by simple-minded creatures out for your blood, for as long as said games had existed, always in order to avoid the complications of character interaction; the stately isolation of the mega-hit adventure game Myst was only the most recent notable example of the longstanding tradition at the time System Shock was in development.

But often it’s not what you do in any form of media, it’s how well you do it. And System Shock does what it sets out to do very, very well indeed. It tells a story of considerable complexity and nuance through the artifacts you find lying about as you explore the station and the emails you receive from time to time, allowing you to piece it all together for yourself in nonlinear fashion. “We wanted to make the plot and story development of System Shock be an exploration as well,” says Church, “and that’s why it’s all in the logs and data, so then it’s very tied into movement through the spaces.”

Reading a log entry. The story is conveyed entirely through epistolary means like these, along with occasional direct addresses from SHODAN herself that come booming through the station’s public-address system.

Moving through said spaces, picking up bits and pieces of the horrible events which have unfolded there, quickly becomes highly unnerving. The sense of embodied realism that clings to every aspect of the game is key to the sense of genuine, oppressive fear it creates in its player. Tellingly, Looking Glass liked to call System Shock a “simulation,” even though it simulates nothing that has ever existed in the real world. The word is rather shorthand for its absolute commitment to the truth — fictional truth, yes, but truth nevertheless — of the world it drops you into.

Story is very important to System Shock — and yet, in marked contrast to works in the more traditionally narrative-oriented genre of the adventure game, its engine also offers heaps and heaps of emergent possibility as you move through the station discovering what has gone wrong here and, finally, how you might be able to fix it. “It wasn’t just, ‘Go do this sequence of four things,'” says Church. “It was, ‘Well, there are going to be twelve cameras here and you gotta take out eight of them. Figure it out.’ We [also] gave you the option [of saying], ‘I don’t want to fight that guy. Okay, maybe I can find another way…'”

Thus System Shock manages the neat trick of combining a compelling narrative with a completely coherent environment that never reduces you to choosing from a menu of options, one where just about any solution for any given problem that seems like it ought to work really does work. Just how did Looking Glass achieve this when so many others before and since have failed, or been so daunted by the challenges involved that they never even bothered to try? They did so by combining technical excellence with an aesthetic sophistication to which few of their peers could even imagine aspiring.

Just as the 3D engine that powers Ultima Underworld is more advanced than the pseudo-3D of id’s contemporaneous Wolfenstein 3D, the System Shock engine outdoes DOOM in a number of important respects. The enormous environments of System Shock curve over and under and around one another, complete with sloping floors everywhere; lighting is realistically simulated; you can jump and crouch and look up and down and lean around corners; you can take advantage of its surprisingly advanced level of physics simulation in countless ingenious ways. System Shock even boasts perspective-correct texture mapping, a huge advance over Ultima Underworld, and no easy thing to combine with the aforementioned slopes.

Each of the ten “levels” of System Shock is really multiple levels in the physical sense, as the corridors often curve over and under one another. Just as in Ultima Underworld, you can annotate the auto-map for yourself. But even with this aid, just finding your way around in these huge, confusing spaces can be a challenge in itself.

That said, it’s also abundantly true that a more advanced engine doesn’t automatically make for a better game. Any such comparison must always carry an implied addendum: better for whom? Certainly DOOM succeeded beautifully in realizing its makers’ ambitions, even as its more streamlined engine could run well on many more of the typical computers of the mid-1990s than System Shock‘s could. By no means do the engines’ respective advantages all run one way: in addition to being much faster than the System Shock engine, the DOOM engine allows rooms of arbitrary sizes and non-orthogonal walls, neither of which is true of its counterpart from Looking Glass.

In the end, System Shock wants to be a very different experience than DOOM, catering to a different style of play, and its own engine is designed to allow it to realize its own ambitions. It demands a more careful approach from its player, where you must constantly use light and shadow, walls and obstacles, to aid you in your desperate struggle. For you are not a superhuman outer-space marine in System Shock; you’re just, well, you, scared and alone in a space station filled with rampaging monsters.

A fine example of the lengths to which Looking Glass’s technologists were willing to go in the service of immersion is provided by the mini-games you can play. Inspired by, of all things, the similarly plot-irrelevant mini-games found in the LucasArts graphic adventure Sam and Max Hit the Road, they contribute much more to the fiction in this case than in that other one. As with everything in System Shock, the mini-games are not external to the world of the main game. It’s rather you playing them through your neural implant right there in the world; it’s you who cowers in a safe corner somewhere, trying to soothe your soul with a quick session of Breakout or Missile Command. You get the chance to collect more and better games as you infiltrate the station’s computer network using the cyberspace jacks you find scattered about — a reward of sorts for a forlorn hacker trying to survive against an all-powerful entity and her horrifying minions.

Taking the edge off with a quick game of Pong (in the window at lower left).

Sean Barret, a programmer who came to Looking Glass and to the System Shock project well into the game’s development, implemented the most elaborate by far of the mini-games, a gentle satire of Origin Systems’s Wing Commander that goes under the name of Wing 0. The story of its creation is a classic tale of Looking Glass, a demonstration both of the employees’ technical brilliance and their insane levels of commitment to the premises of their games. Newly arrived on the team and wishing to make a good impression, Barrett saw a list of mini-game ideas on a whiteboard; a “Wing Commander clone” was among them. So, he set to work, and some days later presented his creation to his colleagues. They were as shocked as they were delighted; it turned out that the Wing Commander clone had been a joke rather than a serious proposal. In the end, however, System Shock got its very own Wing Commander after all.

Still, there were many other technically excellent and crazily dedicated games studios in the 1990s, just as there are today. What truly set Looking Glass apart was their interest in combining the one sort of intelligence with another kind that has not always been in quite so great a supply in the games industry.

As Looking Glass grew, Paul Neurath brought some very atypical characters into the fold. Already in late 1991, he placed an advertisement in the Boston Globe for a writer with an English degree. He eventually hired Austin Grossman, who would do a masterful job of scattering the puzzle pieces of Doug Church’s story outline around the System Shock space station. There soon followed another writer with an English degree, this one by the name of Dorian Hart, who would construct some of the station’s more devious internal spaces using the flair for drama which he had picked up from all of the books he had read. He was, as he puts it, “a liberal-arts nobody with no coding skills or direct industry experience, thrown onto arguably the most accomplished and leading-edge videogame production team ever assembled. It’s hard to explain how unlikely that was, and how fish-out-of-water I felt.” Nevertheless, there he was — and System Shock was all the better for his presence.

Another, even more unlikely set of game developers arrived in the persons of Greg LoPiccolo and Eric and Terri Brosius, all members of a popular Boston rock band known as Tribe, who had been signed to a major label amidst the Nirvana-fueled indie-rock boom of the early 1990s, only to see the two albums they recorded fail to duplicate their local success on a national scale. They were facing a decidedly uncertain future when Doug Church and Dan Schmidt — the latter being another Looking Glass programmer, designer, and writer — showed up in the audience at a Tribe show. They loved the band’s angular, foreboding songs and arrangements, they explained afterward, and wanted to know if they’d be interested in doing the music for a science-fiction computer game that would have much the same atmosphere. Three members of the band quickly agreed, despite knowing next to nothing about computers or the games they played. “Being young, not knowing what would happen next, that was part of the magic,” remembers Eric Brosius. “We were willing to learn because it was just an exciting time.”

Terri Brosius became the voice of SHODAN, a role that fell to her by default: artificial intelligences in science fiction typically spoke in a female voice, and she was the only woman to be found among the Looking Glass creative staff. But however she got the part, she most definitely made it her own. She laughs that “people tend to get freaked out” when they hear her speak today in real life. And small wonder: her glitchy voice ringing through the empty corridors of the station, dripping with sarcastic malice, is one of the indelible memories that every player of System Shock takes away with her. Simply put, SHODAN creeps you the hell out. “You had a recurring, consistent, palpable enemy who mattered to you,” notes Doug Church — all thanks to Austin Grossman’s SHODAN script and Terri Brosius’s unforgettable portrayal of her.


As I think about the combination of technical excellence and aesthetic sophistication that was Looking Glass, I find one metaphor all but unavoidable: that of Looking Glass as the Infocom of the 1990s. Certainly Infocom, their predecessors of the previous decade on the Boston-area game-development scene, evinced much the same combination — the same thoroughgoing commitment to excellence and innovation in all of their forms — during their own heyday. If the 3D-graphics engines of Looking Glass seem a long way from the text and parsers of Infocom, let that merely be a sign of just how much gaming itself had changed in a short span of time. Even when we turn to more plebeian matters, there are connections to be found beyond a shared zip code. Both studios were intimately bound up with MIT, sharing in the ideas, personnel, and, perhaps most of all, the culture of the university; both had their offices on the same block of CambridgePark Drive; two of Looking Glass’s programmers, Dan Schmidt and Sean Barrett, later wrote well-received textual interactive fictions of their own. The metaphor isn’t ironclad by any means; Legend Entertainment, founded as it was by former Infocom author Bob Bates and employing the talents of Steve Meretzky, is another, more traditionalist answer to the question of the Infocom of the 1990s. Still, the metaphor does do much to highlight the nature of Looking Glass’s achievements, and their importance to the emerging art form of interactive narrative. Few if any studios were as determined to advance that art form as these two were.

But Looking Glass’s ambitions could occasionally outrun even their impressive abilities to implement them, just as could Infocom’s at times. In System Shock, this overreach comes in the form of the sequences that begin when you utilize one of those aforementioned cyberspace jacks that you find scattered about the station. System Shock‘s cyberspace is an unattractive, unwelcoming place — and not in a good way. It’s plagued by clunky controls and graphics that manage to be both too minimalist and too garish, that are in fact almost impossible to make head or tail of. The whole thing is more frustrating than fun, not a patch on the cyberspace sequences to be found in Interplay’s much earlier computer-game adaption of William Gibson’s breakthrough novel Neuromancer. So, it turns out that even the collection of brilliant talent that was assembled at Looking Glass could have one idea too many. Doug Church:

We thought [that] it fit from a conceptual standpoint. You’re a hacker; shouldn’t you hack something? We thought it would be fun to throw in a different movement mode that was more free-form, more action. In retrospect, we probably should have either cut it or spent more time on it. There is some fun stuff in it, but it’s not as polished as it should be. But even so, it was nice because it at least reinforced the idea that you were the hacker, in a totally random, arcadey, broken kind of way. But at least it suggested that you’re something other than a guy with a gun. We were looking at ourselves and saying, “Oh, of course we should have cyberspace! We’re a cyberpunk game, we gotta have cyberspace! Well, what can we do without too much time? What if we do this crazy thing?” Off we went…

By way of compounding the problem, the final confrontation with SHODAN takes place… in cyberspace. This tortuously difficult and thoroughly unfun finale has proven to be too much for many a player, leaving her to walk away on the verge of victory with a terrible last taste of the game lingering in her mouth.

Cyberspace was a nice idea, but its implementation leaves much to be desired.

Luckily, it’s possible to work around even this weakness to a large extent, thanks to another of the generous affordances which Looking Glass built into the game. You can decide for yourself how complex and thus how difficult you wish the game to be along four different axes: Combat (the part of the game that is most like DOOM); Mission (the non-combat tasks you have to accomplish to free the station from SHODAN’s grip); Puzzle (the occasional spatial puzzles that crop up when you try to jigger a lock or the like); and Cyber (the cyberspace implementation). All of these can be set to a value between zero and three, allowing you to play System Shock as anything from a straight-up shooter where all you have to do is run and gun to an unusually immersive and emergent pure adventure game populated only by “feeble” enemies who “never attack first.” The default experience sees all of these values set at two, and this is indeed the optimal choice in my opinion for those who don’t have a complete aversion to any one of the game’s aspects — with one exception: I would recommend setting Cyber to one or even zero in order to save yourself at lot of pain, especially at the very end. (The ultimate challenge for System Shock veterans, on the other hand, comes by setting the Mission value to three; this imposes a time limit on the whole game of about seven hours.)

If you really, really want to play System Shock as a DOOM clone, that’s okay with Looking Glass.

System Shock was released in late 1994, almost two full years after Ultima Underworld II, Looking Glass’s last game. It sold acceptably but not spectacularly well for a studio that was already becoming well-acquainted with the financial worries that would continue to dog them for the rest of their existence. Reviews were quite positive, yet many of the authors of same seemed barely to have noticed the game’s subtler qualities, choosing to lump it in instead with the so-called “DOOM clones” that were beginning to flood the market by this point, almost a year after the original DOOM‘s release. (One advantage of id Software’s more limited ambitions for their game was the fact that it was finished much, much quicker than System Shock; in fact, a DOOM II was already on store shelves by the time System Shock made it there.)

Although everyone at Looking Glass took the high road when asked about the DOOM connection, the press and public’s tendency to diminish their own accomplishment in 3D virtual-world-building had to rankle at some level; former employees insist to this day that DOOM had no influence whatsoever on their own creation, that System Shock would have turned out the same even had DOOM never existed. The fact is, Looking Glass’s own claim to the title of 3D-graphics pioneers is every bit as valid as that of id, and their System Shock engine actually was, as we’ve seen, more advanced than that of DOOM in a number of ways. No games studio in history has ever deserved less to be treated as imitators rather than innovators.

Alas, mainstream appreciation would be tough to come by throughout the remaining years of Looking Glass’s existence, just as it had sometimes been for Infocom before them. A market that favored the direct, visceral pleasures of id’s DOOM and, soon, Quake didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Looking Glass’s more nuanced 3D worlds. And so, yet again as with Infocom, it would not be until after Looking Glass was no more that the world of gaming would come to fully appreciate everything they had achieved. When asked pointedly about the sales charts which his games so consistently failed to top, Doug Church showed wisdom beyond his years in insisting that the important thing was just to earn enough back to make the next game.

id did a great job with [DOOM]. And more power to them. I think you want to do things that connect with the market and you want to do things that people like and you want to do things that get seen. But you also want to do things you actually believe in and you personally want to do. Hey, if you’re going to work twenty hours a day and not get paid much money, you might as well do something you like. We were building the games we were interested in; we had that luxury. We didn’t have spectacular success and a huge win, but we had enough success that we got to do some more. And at some level, at least for me, sure, I’d love to have huge, huge success. But if I get to do another game, that’s pretty hard to complain about.

Today, free of the vicissitudes of an inhospitable marketplace, System Shock more than speaks for itself. Few games, past or present, combine so many diverse ideas into such a worthy whole, and few demonstrate such uncompromising commitment to their premise and their fiction. In a catalog filled with remarkable achievements, System Shock still stands out as one of Looking Glass’s most remarkable games of all, an example of what magical things can happen when technical wizardry is placed in the service of real aesthetic sophistication. By all means, go play it now if you haven’t already. Or, perhaps better said, go live it now.

(Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice, second edition, by Richard Rouse III and System Shock: Strategies and Secrets by Bernie Yee; Origin’s official System Shock hint book; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from June 3 1994, November 23 1994, January 13 1995, February 10 1995, March 14 1995, and May 5 1995; Electronic Entertainment of December 1994; Computer Gaming World of December 1994; Next Generation of February 1995; Game Developer of April/May 1995. Online sources include “Ahead of Its Time: The History of Looking Glass” and “From Looking Glass to Harmonix: The Tribe,” both by Mike Mahardy of Polygon. Most of all, huge thanks to Dorian Hart, Sean Barrett, and Dan Schmidt for talking with me about their time at Looking Glass.

System Shock is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 
 

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Life Off the Grid, Part 2: Playing Ultima Underworld

I rarely play or even see current games; the demands of this historical project of mine simply don’t allow for it. Thankfully, though, being a virtual time traveler does have its advantages. Just when I’m starting to feel a little sorry for myself, having heard about some cool new release I just don’t have time for, I get to experience a game like Ultima Underworld the way a player from its own time would have seen it, and suddenly living in my bubble is worth it.

It really is difficult to convey to non-time travelers just how amazing Ultima Underworld was back in March of 1992. To be able to move freely through a realistically rendered 3D space; to be able to walk up and down inclines, to jump over or into chasms, even to swim in underground streams… no one had ever seen anything like it before. At a stroke, it transformed the hoary old CRPG formula from a cerebral exercise in systems and numbers into an organic, embodied virtual reality. In time, it would prove itself to have been the starting point of a 3D Revolution in gaming writ large, one that would transform the hobby almost beyond recognition by the end of the 1990s. We live now in a gaming future very different from the merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood which was foreseen by the conventional wisdom of 1992. Today, embodied first-person productions, focusing on emergent experience at least as much as scripted content, dominate across a huge swathe of the gaming landscape. And the urtext of this 3D Future through which we are living is Ultima Underworld.

Given what an enormous technological leap it represented in its day, it feels almost unfair to expect too much more than that out of Ultima Underworld as a game. After all, Blue Sky Productions was working here with a whole new set of affordances, trying to figure out how to put them together in a compelling way. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect that the craftspeople of game design, at Blue Sky and elsewhere, would need a few iterations to start turning all this great new technology into great games.

But it’s in fact here that Ultima Underworld astounds perhaps most of all. This very first example of a free-scrolling 3D dungeon crawl is an absolute corker of a game design; indeed, it’s arguably never been comprehensively bettered within its chosen sub-genre. In almost every one of the many places where they were faced with a whole array of unprecedented design choices, Blue Sky chose the right one. Ultima Underworld is a game, in other words, of far more than mere historical interest. It remains well worth learning to overlook the occasional graphical infelicities of its fairly primitive 3D engine in order to enjoy the wonderful experience that still awaits underneath them.

Needless to say, this isn’t quite the norm among such radically pioneering games. Yet it is a trait which Ultima Underworld shares with the two great earlier pioneers in the art of the dungeon crawl, Wizardry and Dungeon Master. Those games too emerged so immaculately conceived that the imitators which followed them could find little to improve upon beyond their audiovisuals. Just what is it about this particular style of game that yields such success right out of the gate? Your guess is as good as mine.

Regardless, we really should take the time to look at Ultima Underworld‘s gameplay still more closely than we have up to this point. So, today, I’d like to take you on a little tour of the most groundbreaking game of 1992.


Ultima Underworld puts its most conventional foot forward first. After the conventionally horrid introductory movie, it asks us to create a character, choosing from the usual collection of classes, abilities, and skills. The only thing here that might bring a raised eyebrow to the jaded CRPG player is the demand that we specify our character’s handedness — the first clear indication that this is going to be a much different, more embodied experience than the norm.

As soon as we begin the game proper, however, all bets are off. This looks and feels like no CRPG before it. The grid has disappeared from its dungeon; we can move smoothly and freely in real time, just as if we were really inside its world.

Which isn’t to say that Blue Sky didn’t have to make compromises to bring this free-scrolling 3D environment to life using 1992-vintage hardware. I already discussed one of the compromises in my previous article: the use of affine texture mapping rather than a more rigorous algorithm. This allows the game to render its graphics much faster than it would otherwise be able to, at the expense of a slight wonkiness that afflicts the rendering engine in some situations much more than in others. The second compromise is even more obvious: the actual first-person view fills less than half of the total screen real estate. Simply put, fewer pixels to render means that the rendering can happen that much faster.

Wolfenstein 3D

Of course, virtually every game ever made is at bottom a collection of compromises with the ideal in a designer’s head. Blue Sky made these two specific ones because they weren’t willing to compromise in other areas. Two months after Ultima Underworld was released, id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, the other great 3D pioneer of 1992. It features a first-person view that fills much more of the screen than that of Ultima Underworld, and with a considerably faster frame rate on identical hardware to boot. But its world is far less interactive. Its levels are all just that — entirely flat — and it won’t even let you look up or down. These were compromises which Blue Sky wasn’t willing to make. A commitment to verisimilitudinous simulation is the dominant theme of Ultima Underworld‘s design. It would go on to become the attribute that, more than any other, distinguishes the games of their later incarnation, Looking Glass Technologies, from the “just run and shoot” approach of id.


In light of the ubiquity of first-person 3D games in the decades since Ultima Underworld, it’s worth examining Blue Sky’s approach to controlling such a game, formulated well before any norms for same had been set in stone. Unlike what followed it, Ultima Underworld‘s preferred approach uses the mouse for everything; this was very much in line with the conventional wisdom of its era, which privileged the relatively new and friendly affordance of the mouse over the keyboard to such an extent that most games used the latter, if they used it at all, only for optional shortcuts. Thus in Ultima Underworld, you move around the world by moving the mouse into the view area and clicking as the cursor changes shape to indicate the direction of travel or rotation.

Blue Sky’s control scheme is a little different from what we may be used to, but it’s not necessarily worse. In fact, the use of the mouse in lieu of the more typical “WASD” keyboard controls for movement has at least one rather lovely advantage: moving the mouse pointer further in a given direction causes you to move faster. The WASD setup, in which each key can only be on or off at any given time, allows for no such sliding scale of movement speed, forcing clumsier solutions like another binary toggle on the keyboard for “run.”

If you just can’t deal with Ultima Underworld‘s preferred movement scheme, however, there are alternatives — always a sign of a careful, thought-through design. You can click directly on the little gray movement buttons down there below the view window. Or, in what was something of a last-minute addition, you can actually using the keyboard in a way very similar to what you may be used to from more recent games. Here, though, the WASD scheme is replaced with SADX, with the “W” key serving as the run toggle. The difference drives some modern players crazy, but it really needn’t do so. Try to get used to moving using only the mouse; you might be surprised at how well it works. (It’s worth noting as well that even id wouldn’t arrive at the WASD standard for quite some time after Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D. As late as 1993’s Doom, they would still be mapping the arrow keys to movement by default.)

While left-clicking in the view window lets you move around, right-clicking allows you to manipulate the environment. The vertical row of icons to the left of the view window lets you choose a verb: “talk,” “take,” “examine,” “fight,” or “use,” with the topmost icon leading to the utility menu. If no icon is explicitly selected at a given point, the game intuits a default action when we right-click something in the environment. The end of the short video snippet above shows how elegantly this works in practice. We notice a message scrawled on the wall, and simply right-click it to do the most reasonable thing: to read it.


The video above gives a further taste of the interface in action. Note the ability, so conspicuously absent in id’s contemporaneous games, to look up and down as we move through the world and interact with it. This is accomplished via an exception to the mouse-centric approach. It’s only a little awkward: the “3” key shifts the view upward, “2” centers it vertically, and “1” shifts it downward. It would be at least a couple of years after Ultima Underworld‘s release before any other 3D engine would offer this capability.

This video also illustrates the game’s “paper doll” interface in action, as we pick up objects from the environment and move them into our inventory. The paper doll itself wasn’t new to Ultima Underworld; it had been pioneered by Dungeon Master and long since picked up by the main-line Ultima engines among others. This implementation of it, however, does Dungeon Master one better by living entirely on the main gameplay screen. Indeed, the game has no other screens, with just one exception which we’ll get to momentarily; its commitment to a mode-less interface is even more complete than was Dungeon Master‘s. This, one might even say, is the hidden benefit of that constrained view window. Everything that surrounds it is necessary; the view window might be small, but there is no wasted space anywhere else on the screen. Even what might seem, judging only from the videos above, to be small areas with no purpose actually aren’t, as further playing will reveal. The gray area to the left of the compass will tell us what magical status effects are active; the shelf to the right of the compass is where we will build spells using runes; the crystal at far left, just below the icon bar, shows our current attack strength, and is thus vital for combat. The fact that you aren’t constantly moving between screens does much to enhance the all-pervasive sense that you are there in the dungeon.

Equally important for this effect is a general disinterest in using numbers to represent the current status of your character — or, perhaps better said in light of the game’s commitment to embodiment, your status. While numbers do appear in places — especially if you go looking for them — they’re nowhere near as prevalent as they are in most contemporaneous CRPGs. Your health and mana levels, for instance, are represented graphically by the red and blue vials on the bottom right of the screen — this being another part of the screen you might have initially assumed to be decoration, but which is actually vital.

Later in the video above, we fire up a torch, shedding some welcome light on our surroundings and showing off the game’s advanced lighting model. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I must say, yet again, that no other game of Ultima Underworld’s era or for some time thereafter could match the latter.

Finally, we see something of the game’s physics model in action, as we toss a (useless) skull against the wall. Such kinetic, tactile responsiveness is a far cry from most CRPGs, even as the strength of your character’s throw is indeed affected by his statistics. Dungeon Master, that critical way station beyond Wizardry and Ultima Underworld, pioneered some of this more kinetic approach, but the free-scrolling environment here allows the game to use it that much more effectively.

In addition to the torch, we found in that first sack the game’s auto-map. Even as its presence as a physical object in the world emphasizes the game’s ongoing commitment to embodiment, this is actually the only place where the game’s commitment to its mode-less interface falters — but what a spectacular exception it is! I’ve cheated a bit with the screenshot above, choosing a point from much deeper in the game in order to show the auto-map in its full glory. It’s a feature that simply has to be here; the rest of the game, remarkable as it is, would fall apart without it. Cartography — making your own maps on reams of graph paper — had been a standard part of the dungeon-crawl experience prior to Ultima Underworld. Even real-time dungeon crawls like Dungeon Master had left mapping to the player. By removing the discrete grid, however, Ultima Underworld made this style of mapping, if not utterly impossible, at least far too difficult to be any fun even for the dedicated graph-paper-and-pencil crowd. An auto-map was as fundamental to its design as anything in the game.

But if an auto-map of some sort was essential, it certainly wasn’t necessary for its implementation to be this absurdly fantastic. Dan Schmidt, one of the Ultima Underworld developers, has said on several occasions that he considers the seemingly plebeian affordance of the auto-map to be the most impressive single thing in a game that’s bursting at the seams with unprecedented features. There are days when I find myself agreeing.

Whilst ditching the need for graph paper and pencil, Ultima Underworld preserves the foremost pleasure of CRPG cartography: that of seeing all of the blank spaces on your map filled in, enjoying the gradual transformation of the chaotic unknown into the orderly known. The map of each level is lovely to look at as it takes shape. You want to visit every nook and cranny on each one of the levels just to make it as pristine and complete as possible. You’ll even swim the length of the underground streams and lakes, if that’s what it takes to get them completely documented on parchment.

And there’s one final thing the auto-map does which few games — few games ever, mind you — can match: you can make your own notes on the thing, wherever and whenever you want to. Did you notice all of the text on the map above? I did that, not the game. Needless to say, the programming needed to accommodate this — which, incidentally, had already been completed by Doug Church and J.D. Arnold before the rest of the Blue Sky programming team even arrived — couldn’t have been easy. In terms of both design and implementation, Ultima Underworld‘s auto-map really is nothing short of spectacular.


In the video above, we move down the corridor from the game’s starting point. Notice again how we can move slower or faster merely by shifting the position of the mouse within the view window.

We find our first door at the end of the corridor. This door can be opened by a pull chain just beside it, but we rather perversely elect to close it again and then bash it open. Our ability to do so serves as a further illustration of Blue Sky’s commitment to simulation and emergence. The main-line Ultima games as well have doors of variable strength, but, as any dedicated player of those games quickly realizes, Origin Systems had a tendency to cheat in order to fill the needs of a plot that got steadily more complex from installment to installment: many doors — the plot-important doors — are indestructible. You need the correct key to open them, whose acquisition ensures that certain bits of plot are seen before other bits. (As Ron Gilbert once put it, heavily narrative-focused game design ultimately all tends to come down to locks and keys of a literal or metaphorical stripe.)

But Blue Sky, who don’t have the same sort of elaborate pre-crafted plot full of important story beats to worry about, never cheats. Any given door may indeed have a key which you can find, but, if you haven’t found the key, it is at least theoretically possible to pick its lock, to open it using a magic spell, or to simply bash it down. Mind you, doing the last may not do your weapon any favors; keen sword blades were not made to chop through wood. Here we have yet another example of the game’s focus on simulation, albeit one that may feel somewhat less welcome in practical terms than it does in the abstract when your poor misused sword breaks at an inopportune moment — like, say, in the midst of a desperate combat.


The game’s magic system is marked by the same sense of embodied physicality as everything else. Before you can cast spells at all, you’ll need to find a rune bag helpfully left behind by one of the dungeon’s unfortunate earlier explorers. For a long time to come, you’ll be collecting runes to put in it. You combine these runes into “recipes” — most of which are found in the manual — in order to cast spells. In the video above, we place two recently discovered runes into our rune bag and then cast a light spell which can serve as a handy replacement for a torch. (Note that it takes a couple of tries to successfully cast the spell, a sign of our character’s inexperience.) All character classes can use magic to a greater or lesser degree. Even an otherwise “pure” fighter will probably find simple spells that obviate the need to cart around torches or food to be very useful indeed. Thanks to magic, there’s no time limit on the game in the form of depleting resources; by the time you’ve scarfed up all the food in the dungeon, you’ll have long since mastered the “create food” spell.

The rune-based magic system is another aspect of Ultima Underworld that smacks of Dungeon Master (as is, for that matter, the flexible character-development system in which any character can learn to do anything with enough time and effort). But the Blue Sky team has denied looking closely to the older game for inspiration, and we have no reason to doubt their word. So, we’ll have to chalk the similarities up to nothing more than the proverbial great minds thinking alike. If anything, Ultima Underworld‘s magic system is even more elegant than its predecessor’s. Because you’re collecting physical runes, rather than mere spell recipes in the form of scrolls as in Dungeon Master, the sense that everything that matters to the game is an embodied thing in the world is that much more pronounced here.


It should come as no surprise by this point that Ultima Underworld‘s combat system is built along the same lines of embodied physicality. That is to say, you physically swing (or shoot, or throw) your weapon against monsters that are embodied in the same space as you. The video above gives a taste of this, in the form of a battle against a giant rat guarding some choice booty. (Ultima Underworld may be a breathtakingly original design, but some things in the world of CRPGs are timeless. Meeting giant rats as your first opponents is among these.)

Later battles will see you using the environment in all sorts of creative ways: shooting down upon monsters from ledges, blasting them with magic and then running away to recharge your batteries behind a closed door. You can also try to sneak past monsters you’d rather not fight, using not only your character’s innate stealth ability but your own skill at maneuvering through light and shadow. In fact, a sufficiently dedicated pacifist could finish Ultima Underworld while doing surprisingly little killing at all. One of the advantages of the simulation-first approach is that it really does let you play the game your way — possibly even in ways that the game’s designers never thought of.

But Ultima Underworld isn’t all emergent simulation. It does have a plot of sorts, albeit one that you can approach in your own way, at your own speed, and in your own order. You learn soon after arriving in the dungeon that you need to assemble a collection of magic objects. Doing so will occupy your attention for the bulk of the game.

This scavenger-hunt structure may be less innovative than most of the game, but it’s executed with considerable verve. Each level has its own personality and its own inhabitants, living in what feel like credible communities. Importantly, you don’t — or shouldn’t, anyway — indiscriminately slaughter your way through the levels. You need to talk to others, an element that’s notably missing from Wizardry and Dungeon Master. The dungeon’s inhabitants actually remember your treatment of them. An early example of the game’s relationship model, if you will, is provided on the very first level. Two tribes of goblins who hate one another live there in an uneasy symbiosis. Will you ally yourself with one or the other? Or will you try to thread the needle between friend and foe with both, or for that matter go to war with both? The choice is up to you. But choose carefully, for such choices in this game have consequences which you will be living with for a long time to come.

Regular readers of this blog are doubtless aware that I place a high premium on fairness and solubility in games. I’ve gone on record many times saying that a game which is realistically soluble only through a walkthrough cannot by definition be a good game, no matter what other things it does well. In this context, everything would seem to be working against Ultima Underworld. A bunch of MIT whiz kids, all freelancing without recourse to any central design authority, working in an insular environment without recourse to outside play testers… it doesn’t give one much hope for fair puzzles.

Yet, here as in so many other places, Ultima Underworld defies my prejudices and expectations alike. There are perhaps two or three places where the clues could stand to be a little more explicit — certainly no one should feel ashamed to peek at a walkthrough when playing — but there are no egregious howlers here. Take careful notes, take your time, and follow up diligently on all of the clues, and there’s no reason that you can’t solve this one for yourself. Sure, by modern standards it’s an absurdly difficult game. There is no quest log to keep everything neat and tidy for you, and, as a byproduct of its ethos of respecting and empowering its player at every turn, the game will happily let you toss essential quest items into a river, never to be seen again, without saying a word about it. At the same time, though, the utter lack of guardrails can be bracing. If you solve this one, you’ve really accomplished something. And, unlike so many of the games I’ve complained about on this blog, Ultima Underworld never feels like it’s trying to screw you over. It just won’t prevent you from doing so if you decide to screw yourself over.

Only occasionally does the commitment to simulation get in the way of friendly, fair design. To wit: after talking to a character once, trying to elicit the same information again often results only in some variation on “I already told you that!” Dan Schmidt, who was responsible for pulling all of the dialog together, told me that he believed at the time that this was only fair, another way of committing to verisimilitude in all things. Nowadays, I (and he) are more likely to categorize it under that heading of design failures known as “the designer being a jerk just because he can.” Given what a masterpiece Ultima Underworld is on the whole, it’s almost comforting to know that Blue Sky still had a few things to learn about good design.

On the other hand, I really love the way the design uses the game’s virtual space. There are a considerable number of quests and puzzles that span multiple levels in the dungeon, forcing you to retrace your steps and revisit “finished” levels. Another of Ultima Underworld‘s more unique design decisions in comparison with the dungeon-crawl tradition, this does much to give the game a holistic feel, making its dungeon feel like a living place rather than just a series of levels to be solved one after another.

The puzzles themselves are as mode-less as the basic interface. None of them pull you out of the game’s world: no riddles, no mini-games. Instead they work brilliantly within it. There are some wonderfully rewarding puzzles here, such that I hate to spoil them by saying too much about them. Following up on the clues you’re given, you’ll do things that seem like they couldn’t possibly work — surely the game engine can’t be that granularly responsive! — and be shocked and delighted when they actually do. In one fine example, you’ll have to literally learn a new language — okay, a limited subset of it anyway — via clues scattered around the environment. Sometimes challenging and often complex but never unfair, the puzzles will richly reward the effort you put into them.

Perhaps the best example of how the puzzles of Ultima Underworld are integrated into its environment is Garamon, a mysterious personage who often visits your dreams when you sleep. He at first seems like nothing more than a contrived adventure-game clue dispenser, but you gradually realize that he is a real — albeit deceased! — character in the story of the Abyss, and that he has something very personal he wants you to do for him: to give his body a proper burial so he can find peace. When you discover a certain empty tomb, and connect it with the figure from your dreams, the flash of insight is downright moving.

I could go on with yet more praise for Ultima Underworld — praise for, by way of example, its marvelous context-sensitive music, provided by the prolific game composers George “The Fat Man” Sanger and Dave Govett (also the composers of the Wing Commander score among many, many others). Yet I hesitate to cause what may already seem like an overly effusive review to read still more so. I can only hope that my reputation as a critic not overly prone to hyperbole will precede me here when I say that this game truly is a sublime achievement.

Ultima Underworld II

I have less — and far less that is positive — to say about the second and final Ultima Underworld game, which bears the subtitle Labyrinth of Worlds. In contrast to its groundbreaking predecessor, it’s a fairly typical sequel, offering as its only mechanical or technical innovation a somewhat larger view window on the 3D environment. Otherwise, it’s more of the same, only much bigger, and not executed quite as well.

The new entity that was known as Looking Glass Technologies — the product of the merger between Blue Sky Productions and Lerner Research — became a much more integral part of the Origin Systems family after the first Ultima Underworld‘s release and commercial success. The result was a plot for the new game that was also better integrated into the Ultima timeline, falling between the two games made by Origin themselves with their own Ultima VII engine in terms of both plot and release chronology. The new interest in set-piece plotting and Ultima lore does the sequel few favors; it rather straitjackets the sense of free-form exploration and discovery that marks the original. Instead of being confined to a single contiguous environment, Ultima Underworld II sends you hopscotching back and forth through its titular “labyrinth of worlds.” The approach feels scattershot, and the game is far less soluble than its predecessor — yet another proof of a theorem which the games industry could never seem to grasp: that a bigger game is not necessarily a better game.

The sequel was created from start to finish in less than nine months, nearly killing the team responsible for it. Origin and Looking Glass’s desire to get a second game out the door is understandable on the face of it; they had a hit on their hands, and wanted to strike while the iron was hot. This they certainly did, but the sequel reportedly sold less than half as many copies as its predecessor — although it should also be noted that even those numbers were enough to qualify it as a major hit by contemporary standards. Still, Paul Neurath, the head of Blue Sky and co-head of Looking Glass, has expressed regret that he didn’t give his people permission and time to make something more formally ambitious. In the future, Looking Glass would generally avoid these sorts of quickie sequels.

While the second game is probably best reserved for the CRPG hardcore and those who just can’t get enough of the experience provided by the first one, the original Ultima Underworld is a must-play. Without a doubt one of the very best CRPGs ever made, it’s even more important for the example it set for gaming in general, showing what heights of flexibility and player-responsiveness could be scaled through the emerging medium of 3D graphics. The pity is that more developers — even many of those who eventually went 3D — didn’t heed the entirety of its example. Countless later games would improve on Ultima Underworld‘s sometimes wonky visuals by throwing out its simplistic affine texture mapping in favor of better techniques, and by blowing up its view window to fill the whole screen. Very few of them, however, would demonstrate the same commitment to what Blue Sky/Looking Glass saw as the real potential of 3D graphics: that of simulating an intuitively emergent world and placing you, the player, inside it. Whether judged in terms of historical importance or by the more basic metric of how much fun it still is to play, Ultima Underworld is and will always remain seminal.

(Ultima Underworld I and II can be purchased from GOG.com.)

 
 

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The Worlds of Ultima

Proud papa Warren Spector with a copy of Worlds of Ultima II: Martian Dreams.

In the very early days of Ultima, Richard Garriott made a public promise which would eventually come back to haunt him. Looking for a way to differentiate his CRPG series from its arch-rival, Wizardry, he said that he would never reuse an Ultima engine. Before every new installment of his series, he would tear everything down to its component parts and rebuild it all, bigger and better than ever before. For quite some time, this policy served Garriott very well indeed. When the first Ultima had appeared in 1981, it had lagged well behind the first Wizardry in terms of sales and respect, but by the time Ultima III dropped in 1983 Garriott’s series had snatched a lead which it would never come close to relinquishing. While the first five Wizardry installments remained largely indistinguishable from one another to the casual fan, Ultima made major, obvious leaps with each new release. Yes, games like The Bard’s Tale and Pool of Radiance racked up some very impressive sales of their own as the 1980s wore on, but Ultima… well, Ultima was simply Ultima, the most respected name of all in CRPGs.

And yet by 1990 the promise which had served Richard Garriott so well was starting to become a real problem for his company Origin Systems. To build each new entry in the series from the ground up was one thing when doing so entailed Garriott disappearing alone into a small room containing only his Apple II for six months or a year, then emerging, blurry-eyed and exhausted, with floppy disks in hand. It was quite another thing in the case of a game like 1990’s Ultima VI, the first Ultima to be developed for MS-DOS machines with VGA graphics and hard drives, a project involving four programmers and five artists, plus a bureaucracy of others that included everything from producers to play-testers. Making a new Ultima from the ground up had by this point come to entail much more than just writing a game engine; it required a whole new technical infrastructure of editors and other software tools that let the design team, to paraphrase Origin’s favorite marketing tagline, create their latest world.

But, while development costs thus skyrocketed, sales weren’t increasing to match. Each new entry in the series since Ultima IV had continued to sell a consistent 200,000 to 250,000 copies. These were very good numbers for the genre and the times, but it seemed that Origin had long ago hit a sales ceiling for games of this type. The more practical voices at the company, such as the hard-nosed head of product development Dallas Snell, said that Origin simply had to start following the example of their rivals, who reused their engines many times as a matter of course. If they wished to survive, Origin too had to stop throwing away their technology after only using it once; they had to renege at last on Richard Garriott’s longstanding promise. Others, most notably the original promise-maker himself, were none too happy with the idea.

Origin’s recently arrived producer and designer Warren Spector was as practical as he was creative, and thus could relate to the concerns of both a Dallas Snell and a Richard Garriott. He proposed a compromise. What if a separate team used the last Ultima engine to create some “spin-off” games while Garriott and his team were busy inventing their latest wheel for the next “numbered” game in the series?

It wasn’t actually an unprecedented idea. As far back as Ultima II, in the days before Origin even existed, a rumor had briefly surfaced that Sierra, Garriott’s publisher at the time, might release an expansion disk to connect a few more of the many pointlessly spinning gears in that game’s rather sloppy design. Later, after spending some two years making Ultima IV all by himself, Garriott himself had floated the idea of an Ultima IV Part 2 to squeeze a little more mileage out of the engine, only to abandon it to the excitement of building a new engine of unprecedented sophistication for Ultima V. But now, with the Ultima VI engine, it seemed like an idea whose time had truly come at last.

The spin-off games would be somewhat smaller in scope than the core Ultimas, and this, combined with the reuse of a game engine and other assets from their big brothers, should allow each of them to be made in something close to six months, as opposed to the two years that were generally required for a traditional Ultima. They would give Origin more product to sell to those 200,000 to 250,000 hardcore fans who bought each new mainline installment; this would certainly please Dallas Snell. And, as long as the marketing message was carefully crafted, they should succeed in doing so without too badly damaging the Ultima brand’s reputation for always surfing the bleeding edge of CRPG design and technology; this would please Richard Garriott.

But most of all it was Warren Spector who had good reason to be pleased with the compromise he had fashioned. The Ultima sub-series that was born of it, dubbed Worlds of Ultima, would run for only two games, but would nevertheless afford him his first chance at Origin to fully exercise his creative muscles; both games would be at bottom his babies, taking place in settings created by him and enacting stories outlined by him. These projects would be, as Spector happily admits today, “B” projects at Origin, playing second fiddle in terms of internal resources and marketing priority alike to the mainline Ultima games and to Wing Commander. Yet, as many a Hollywood director will tell you, smaller budgets and the reduced scrutiny that goes along with them are often anything but a bad thing; they often lend themselves to better, more daring creative work. “I actually liked being a ‘B’ guy,” remembers Spector. “The guys spending tons of money have all the pressure. I was spending so little [that] no one really paid much attention to what I was doing, so I got to try all sorts of crazy things.”

Those crazy things could only have come from this particular Origin employee. Spector was almost, as he liked to put it, the proud holder of a PhD in film studies. Over thirty years old in a company full of twenty-somethings, he came to Origin with a far more varied cultural palette than was the norm there, and worked gently but persistently to separate his peers from their own exclusive diets of epic fantasy and space opera. He had a special love for the adventure fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and this love came to inform Worlds of Ultima to as great a degree as Lord of the Rings did the mainline Ultima games or Stars Wars did Wing Commander. Spector’s favored inspirations even had the additional advantage of being out of copyright, meaning he could plunder as much as he wanted without worrying about any lawyers coming to call.

The Savage Empire, the first Worlds of Ultima, is thus cribbed liberally from The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1912 adventure novel about a remote region of South America where dinosaurs have survived extinction. The novel’s narrator, an opportunistic journalist named Edward Malone, becomes Jimmy Malone in the game, a companion of yours who bends his journalistic talents to the task of becoming a sort of walking, talking quest log. As in the book, your ultimate goal in the game is to unite the feuding native tribes who live in the lost valley in order to defeat a threat to them all — said threat being a race of ape-men in the book, a race of giant insects in the game. (The closest thing to the ape-men in the game is a tribe of Neanderthals who actually fight on your side.) And yes, as in the book, there are dinosaurs in The Savage Empire — dinosaurs of all types, from harmless herbivores to the huge, ferocious, and deadly tyrannosaurus rex. Along with the insect race, who are known as the Myrmidex, they’re your primary enemies when it comes to combat.

The Savage Empire does add to the book’s plot the additional complication of a mad scientist who has already arrived in the Valley of Eodon. He isn’t bad by nature, but has been driven to his current insanity by a mysterious stone found there. Now, he plots to use the stone to take over the world. In an affectionate tribute to their guiding light, he was named by the development team Dr. Johann Spector, with a dead ringer of a portrait to match.

Evil Warren… err, Johann Spector.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an enthusiastic proponent of much of the flawed pseudo-science of his day, from eugenics to phrenology and craniometry to, late in his life, the spiritualist movement. He was likewise afflicted with most of the prejudices of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It’s thus not hard to imagine how The Savage Empire could have gone horribly off the rails, what with the leather-bikini-clad princess who serves as your romantic interest and the many “savage” dark-skinned tribes — each modeled on (stereotypes of) an example of same from real-world history — waiting for your party of white men to swoop in and save the day. One might feel especially worried upon learning that Warren Spector wasn’t even around very much to oversee his young charges. After laying out the setting, characters, and basic plot in the form of a twenty-page outline, he moved on to act as producer on the first Wing Commander game, leaving The Savage Empire in the hands of its producer Jeff Johanningman — the source of Dr. Spector’s first name — its designer Aaron Allston, and its “director” Stephen Beeman. [1]Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times.

The Savage Empire‘s cover art marks a major departure from Richard Garriott’s noble policy of refusing to fill his Ultima covers with the buxom women in chainmail bikinis that dominated among the series’s peers. The Avatar’s companion here isn’t dressed in chainmail, but the leather bikini she is wearing is positively straining to keep her naughty bits under wraps. On the other hand, the cover art is right in keeping with the pulpy adventure stories the game evokes, so we can perhaps forgive it.
 
Note also that “Lord British” takes first-writer credit for a game he had nothing to do with. Cheeky fellow, isn’t he? Royalty evidently did have its privileges. Meanwhile the contributions of poor Warren Spector, whose 20-page treatment got the whole project started, went completely unacknowledged, not only on the box but in the credits list found in the manual.

But I’m happy to say that Johanningman, Allston, Beeman, and the others on their team did a surprisingly good job of skirting a fine line. The Savage Empire is definitely pulpy — it was always intended to be — but it never spills over into the offensive. Origin paid a dedicated researcher named Karen E. Bell, holder of a completed PhD, to help them get the feeling of the times right. The various tribes are handled, if not quite with nuance — this just isn’t a very nuanced game — with a degree of respect. At the same time, the game manages to absolutely nail the homage it was aiming for. The manual, for instance, takes the form of an issue of Ultimate Adventures magazine, and can stand proudly alongside the best feelies of Infocom. Clearly the development team embraced Spector’s vision with plenty of passion of their own.

The worst failing of the fiction — a failing which this game shares with its sequel — is the attempt to integrate the pulpy narrative with that of Britannia in the mainline Ultima games; Origin was still operating under the needless stipulation that the hero of every successive Ultima, going all the way back to the first, was the same “Avatar.” For The Savage Empire, this means among other things that the game has to take place in our time rather than in that of Arthur Conan Doyle — albeit a version of our time full of weird anachronisms, like the big box camera with the big magnesium flash that’s carried around by Jimmy Malone.

Origin may have hired a PhD to help with their research, but they don’t take their commitment to anthropology too seriously. I don’t think any real native people had a Larry, Moe, and Curly of their own.

The game design proper, on the other hand, is impressively nonlinear in the best Ultima tradition. Once you’ve figured out that your mission is to convince all of the eleven tribes to make common cause against the Myrmidex, you can begin negotiating with whichever of them you please. Naturally, the negotiations will always boil down to your needing to accomplish some task for the tribe in question. These quests are interesting and entertaining to see through, forcing you to employ a variety of approaches — and often, for that matter, admitting themselves of multiple approaches — and giving you good motivation for traipsing through the entirety of the Valley of Eodon.

The Savage Empire stands out for the superb use it makes of the “living world” concept which had been coming more and more to the fore with every iteration of the mainline Ultima series. Indeed, it does even more with the concept than Ultima VI, the game whose engine it borrowed. The Savage Empire is a game where you can make charcoal by pulling a branch from a tree and burning it in a native village’s fire pit. Then make a potassium-nitrate powder by collecting special crystals from a cave and grinding them down with a mortar and pestle. Then get some sulfur by sifting it out of a pit with a wire screen. Combine it all together, and, voila, gunpowder! But, you ask, what can you actually do with the gunpowder? Well, you can start by borrowing a digging stick from the villagers, taking it down to a riverbank, and pulling up some fresh clay. Fire the clay in the village kiln to make yourself a pot. Put your gunpowder in the pot, then cut a strip off your clothing using some handy scissors you brought along and dip it in the local tar pit to make a fuse. Stuff the cloth into the top of the pot, and you’ve got yourself a grenade; just add fire — luckily, you also brought along some matches — at the appropriate time. This is just one example of the many intriguing science experiments you can indulge in. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Yet for all its strengths, and enjoyable as it is in its own right, The Savage Empire is just the warm-up act for Martian Dreams, the real jewel of the Worlds of Ultima series. This time around, Spector got to do more than just write an outline of the game: he was in charge of this project from beginning to end, thus making Martian Dreams the first game published by Origin — and, for that matter, the first computer game period — that was a Warren Spector joint from beginning to end.

Martian Dreams‘s version of Ultima‘s gypsy is none other than Sigmund Freud. It’s evidently been a hard life so far for Sigmund, who would have turned 39 years old the year the game begins. More seriously, my cursory research would indicate that about 90 percent of players misread the intent of his initial question. He’s not really asking you which parent you felt closer to; he’s trying to find out what gender you are. Many a player, myself included, has gone through the character-creation process trying to answer the questions honestly, only to be confused by arriving in the game as the opposite gender. Call it all those distant fathers’ revenge…

Martian Dreams‘s premise is certainly unique in the annals of CRPGs. In fact, it’s kind of batshit insane. Are you ready for this? Okay, here goes…

Our story begins with the historical character Percival Lowell, the amateur astronomer who popularized the idea of “canals” on Mars, and along with them the fantasy of a populated Mars whose people had built the canals in an effort to recover water from the icecaps of a doomed planet slowly dying of drought. It’s 1893, and Lowell has built a “space cannon” capable of traveling to Mars. He’s showing it off at the Chicago World’s Fair to many of the “leaders of the Victorian era” when a saboteur ignites the cannon’s propellant, sending the whole gang rocketing off to Mars. In addition to Lowell himself, the unwilling crew includes names like Sarah Bernhardt, Calamity Jane, Andrew Carnegie, Marie Curie, Wyatt Earp, Thomas Edison, William Randolph Hearst, Robert Peary, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Fast-forward two years. Signals from Mars indicate to the folks back on Earth that the gang survived the trip and landed safely. Now you’re to try to rescue them in a second space cannonball, accompanied by — because why not? — Nellie Bly, Sigmund FreudNikola Tesla, and a dodgy doctor named C.L. Blood (the most obscure historical figure of the lot but one of the most interesting). Also along for the ride is your old friend Dr. Johann Spector, now freed from the insanity that led to megalomania in The Savage Empire and happy just to be your genial boon companion in adventure.

The good Johann Spector.

Upon arriving on the red planet, you find that the air is breathable, if a bit thin, and that sentient — and often deadly — plants roam the surface. You soon begin to make contact with the previous ship’s crew, who are now scattered all over the planet, and the game coalesces around the interrelated goals of learning about the Martian civilization that once existed here and figuring out a way to get your own lot back to Earth; in what can only be described as a grave oversight on your part, it seems that you neglected to devise a means of returning when you set off on your “rescue” mission.

Your reaction to Martian Dreams will hinge on your willingness to get behind a premise as crazy as this one. If the idea of getting fired out of a cannon and winding up on Mars doesn’t put you off, the million smaller holes you can poke in the story very well might; suffice to say that the fact that you boarded a cannonball headed for Mars without any semblance of a return plan is neither the only nor even perhaps the most grievous of the plot holes. Chet Bolingbroke, better known to his readers as The CRPG Addict and a critic whose opinion I respect within his favorite genre, dismisses the game’s whole premise with one word: “stupid.”

In defense of the game, I will note that this is very much a period piece, and that within that context some of the stupider aspects of the overarching concept may begin to seem slightly less so. Jules Verne, a writer who always strove for scientific accuracy according to the lights of his time, published in 1865 From the Earth to the Moon, in which a trio of Victorian astronauts flies to the Moon rather than Mars using the technique described in Martian Dreams. The same technique then cropped up again in Georges Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. (Méliès, a French illusionist who became the father of cinematic special effects through that film and others, is another of the historical figures who make it into Martian Dreams.) And then, too, the question of whether there might be an oxygen atmosphere and an alien civilization to breathe it on Mars was by no means settled until well after the turn of the twentieth century; Percival Lowell went to his deathbed in 1916 still a devout believer in his Martian canals, and he was by no means alone in his belief.

Other incongruities may be more difficult to dismiss with a hand-wave to the nineteenth century, but the fact remains that vanishingly few CRPGs have ever made much sense as coherent fictions. Players who love running around inside fantasy worlds in the character of dwarves and elves, casting spells at dragons, might want to be just a little careful when throwing around adjectives like “stupid.” After all, what do all those monsters in all those dungeons actually eat when there aren’t any adventurers to hand? And wouldn’t the citizens of all these assorted fantasy worlds do better to put together a civil-defense force instead of forever relying on a “chosen one” to kill their evil wizards? Martian Dreams‘s premise, I would submit, isn’t really all that much stupider than the CRPG norm. It’s merely stupid in a very unique way which highlights incongruities that long exposure has taught us to overlook in the likes of Dungeons & Dragons. One might say that just about all CRPG stories are pretty stupid at bottom; we forgive them an awful lot because they make for a fun game.

If we can see our way clear to bestowing the same courtesy upon Martian Dreams, there’s a hell of a lot to like about its premise. Certainly the historical period it evokes is a fascinating one. Much of what we think of as modern life has its origins in the 1800s, not least the dizzying pace of progress in all its forms. For the first time in human history, the pace of technological change meant that the average person could expect to die in a very different world from the one she had been born into. Many of the changes she could expect to witness in between must have felt like magic. The invention of the railroad transformed concepts of distance almost overnight, turning what had been arduous journeys, requiring a week or more of carriage changes and nights spent in inns, into day trips; just like that, a country like England became a small place rather than a big one. And if the railroad didn’t shrink the world enough for you, telegraph cables — aptly described by historian Tom Standage as the “Victorian Internet” — were being strung up around the world, making it possible to send a message to someone thousands of miles away in seconds.

Much of modern entertainment as well has its roots in the nineteenth century, with the genre literatures arriving to greet a new mass audience of readers. While the mystery novel was being invented by Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, science fiction was being invented by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (the latter of whom we meet on our trip to Mars). Meanwhile the soap opera was being invented by Charles Dickens and his contemporaries, who published monthly installments of their novels for a fan base who gathered around the nineteenth century’s version of the office water cooler, obsessing over what would happen next to Little Nell or Oliver Twist. Celebrity too as we know it today has its origins in this period. When Dickens would give public readings of his novels, his female fans would scream and swoon in the throes of a sort of proto-Beatlemania, while Buffalo Bill Cody’s globe-trotting Wild West Show made his face by some accounts the most recognizable in the world by the turn of the century. (Buffalo Bill too is to be found on Mars.) And modern consumer culture begins here, with the first shopping malls opening in Paris and then spreading around the world. I could go on forever, but you get the point.

Martian Dreams proves adept at capturing the spirit of the age, conveying the boundless optimism that surrounded all of this progress in a period before the world wars and the invention of the atomic bomb revealed the darker sides of modernity. The Ultima VI engine’s look has been reworked into something appropriately steampunky, and a period-perfect music-hall soundtrack accompanies your wanderings. The writing too does its job with aplomb. To expect deep characterizations of each of the couple of dozen historical figures stranded on Mars along with you would be to ask far, far too much of it. Still, the game often does manage to deftly burrow underneath the surface of their achievements in ways that let you know that Spector and his team extended their research further than encyclopedia entries.

Theodore Roosevelt is portrayed as an awkwardly self-conscious mix of bravado and insecurity rather than the heroic Rough Rider and Trust Buster of grade-school history textbooks. Martian Dreams‘s take on the man seems to hew rather close to that of Gore Vidal, who in one of his more hilarious essays labelled Roosevelt “an American sissy.”

Martian Dreams‘s portrayal of Vladimir Lenin manages in a single sentence of dialog to foreshadow everything that would go wrong with Karl Marx’s noble dream of communism as soon as it took concrete form in the Soviet Union.

Some of the more obscure historical figures have the most amazing and, dare I say it, inspiring stories of all to share. Do you know about Nellie Bly, the young woman who checked herself into a psychiatric hospital to report first-hand the abuses suffered there by patients? Do you know about George Washington Carver, a black man who was born into slavery and became the foremost expert of his era on the techniques of sustainable farming, publishing research that has saved literally millions of lives? Even the travelers who wind up being the antagonists of the group — Grigori Rasputin, the infamous “mad monk” of late Czarist Russia, and Emma Goldman, an American anarchist activist and occasional terrorist — have intriguing things to say.

Thanks to some technology left behind by the Martians, you’ll eventually get a chance to visit many of these people inside their dreams — or nightmares. These sequences, the source of the game’s name, illuminate their personalities and life stories still further. In the case of Mark Twain, for instance, you’ll find yourself riding down a river on a paddle wheeler, trying to collect the pieces of his latest manuscript and get them to the publisher before the money runs out — about as perfect an evocation of the life the real Twain lived, writing works of genius in order to remain always one step ahead of the creditors dogging his heels, as can be imagined.

A Gallery of Eminent Victorians


A Gallery of Eminent Victorians


The purely fictional story of the apparently dead Martian civilization is crafted with equal love. Over the course of the game, you’ll slowly revive the technology the Martians left behind, restoring power to the planet and getting the water flowing once again through Percival Lowell’s beloved canals. In the process, you’ll learn that some of the Martians still live on, at least after a fashion. I won’t say more than that so as to preserve for you the pleasure I got out of Martian Dreams. I approached the game completely cold, and found myself highly motivated to make the next discovery and thereby set into place the next piece of a mystery I found genuinely tantalizing. The story that gradually emerges fits right in with the classic lore of the red planet, with echoes of Lowell’s pseudo-science, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales of John Carter on Mars. By the time of Martian Dreams, Origin was at long last beginning to hire dedicated people for the role of writer, instead of handing the task to whatever programmer or artist happened to not have much else going on at the moment. Games like this one were the happy result. Notably, Martian Dreams is the first Origin game to credit one Raymond Benson, a veteran of musical theater who would go on to make a profound impact as the head writer on Ultima VII, the next entry in the mainline series.

The worst aspect of the storytelling is, once again, Origin’s insistence that Martian Dreams fit into the overall story of Ultima‘s Avatar. With this Worlds of Ultima installment being explicitly rather than implicitly set in the past of our own Earth, the contortions the writing must go through to set up the game are even more absurd than those of The Savage Empire. This game whose premise already had the potential to strain many gamers’ credibility past the breaking point was forced to introduce a layer of time travel in order to send the Avatar and his companion Dr. Spector back to 1895, then to engage in yet more hand-waving to explain why our historians haven’t recorded trips to Mars in the 1890s. It’s all thoroughly unnecessary and, once again, best ignored. The game works best as alternate history with no connection to any other Ultima except perhaps The Savage Empire.

The dust storms evidently did one hell of a number on Mars…

I prefer Martian Dreams to The Savage Empire largely thanks to better writing and a richer theme; it doesn’t play all that radically different from its predecessor. It makes somewhat less use of the Ultima VI engine’s crafting potential — there’s nothing here close to the complexity of making grenades in The Savage Empire — but it is a longer game. Thanks to its more developed story, it can’t avoid being a bit more linear than its predecessor over the course of that length, but it never feels unduly railroaded. In my book, then, The Savage Empire is a very good game, while Martian Dreams is a great one.

I must admit that I enjoy both of these games more than any of the mainline Ultima games that preceded them. The latter by the dawn of the 1990s had accumulated a lot of cruft in the form of fan service that just had to be in each new installment. These games, by contrast, were able to start with clean slates — aside from the dodgy attempts to insert the Avatar into them, that is — and the results are tighter, more focused designs. And what a relief it is to escape for a little while from Renaissance Fair fantasy and all that excruciating faux-Elizabethan English! In an uncharacteristic fit of bravado, Warren Spector a few years after Martian Dreams‘s release called it “the best Ultima game ever.” On some days, I’m sorely tempted to agree. Only Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII — both released after Martian Dreams — make the debate at all complicated for me.

The biggest single improvement Worlds of Ultima made to the Ultima VI engine was to move conversations from the corner of the screen, as show above…

…and into the main display.

Still, it wouldn’t do just to praise these two games that I like so very much without pointing out some significant weaknesses. I wasn’t overly kind to the Ultima VI engine in my review of that game, and most of the criticisms I levied there apply to one degree or another here as well. The Worlds of Ultima teams did take some steps to improve the engine, most notably by moving the text that accompanies conversations into the main window instead of cramming it into a tiny space in the corner of the screen. At bottom, however, the Ultima VI engine remains caught out in an uncertain no man’s land between the keyboard-based “alphabet soup” interface of the earlier Ultima games and the entirely mouse-driven interfaces that were yet to come. Some things are much easier to do with the keyboard, some with the mouse — an awkward arrangement that’s only made more frustrating by the way that the divisions between the two categories are so arbitrary. You can get used to it after an hour or two, but nobody would ever accuse the interface of being elegant or intuitive. I’m sure that plenty of players over the years have found it so bafflingly opaque that they’ve given up in disgust without ever getting a whiff of the real joy of the game hidden underneath it.

The Ultima VI engine has a peculiar problem conveying depth. What looks like a stair step here is actually meant to represent an unscaleable cliff. As it is, it looks like we’ve joined the long tradition of videogame characters who can walk and run hundreds of miles but can’t hop up two feet.

In light of this reality, I’ve often seen the Worlds of Ultima games called, in reviews both from their own day and from ours, good games trapped inside a bad game engine. It’s a pithy formulation, but I don’t feel like it quite gives the whole picture. The fact is that some of the problems that dog these games have little or nothing to do with their engine. The most pernicious design issue is the fact that there just isn’t quite enough content for the games’ geographies. It’s here that one fancies one can really start to feel their status as “B” projects at Origin. The Savage Empire sports an absolutely massive abandoned underground city — as big as the entire jungle valley above it — that’s for all intents and purposes empty, excepting only a couple of key locations. I don’t know the full story behind it, but it certainly seems like a map that’s still waiting for the development team to come back and fill it up with stuff. Martian Dreams has nothing quite this egregious, but points of interest on the vast surface of Mars can nevertheless feel few and far between. Coupled with a strange lack of the alternative modes of transport that are so typical in other Ultima games — one teleportation mechanism does eventually arise, but even it’s very limited in its possible destinations — it means that you’ll spend a major percentage of your time in Martian Dreams trekking hither and yon in response to a plot that demands that you visit — and then revisit, sometimes multiple times — locations scattered willy-nilly all over the planet. Warren Spector himself put his finger on what he cogently described as “too much damn walking around” as the biggest single design issue in this game of which he was otherwise so proud.

Mars is mostly just a whole lot of nothing.

Another description that’s frequently applied to these games — sometimes dismissively, sometimes merely descriptively — is that they aren’t really CRPGs at all, but rather adventure games with, as Computer Gaming World‘s adventure critic Scorpia once put it, “a thin veneer of CRPG.” Once again, I don’t entirely agree, yet I do find the issues raised by such a description worthy of discussion.

Proponents of this point of view note that combat is neither terribly important nor terribly interesting in Worlds of Ultima, that magic has been reduced to a handful of voodoo-like spells in The Savage Empire and removed altogether from Martian Dreams, and that character development in the form of leveling-up is neither all that frequent nor all that important. All of which is true enough, but does it really mean these games aren’t CRPGs at all? Where do we draw the lines?

The Savage Empire‘s limited graphics and uninspiring combat manages to make the idea of encountering dinosaurs — dinosaurs, for Pete’s sake! — feel kind of ho-hum.

A long time ago, when I was going through a taxonomical phase, I tried to codify the differences between the adventure game and the CRPG. The formulation I arrived at didn’t involve combat, magic, or experience levels, but rather differing philosophical approaches. Adventure games, I decided, offered a deterministic, bespoke experience, while CRPGs left heaps of room for emergent, partially randomized behavior. Or, to put it more shortly: the adventure game is an elaborate puzzle, while the CRPG is a simulation. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether it’s possible to write a walkthrough listing every single action a player should take in a game, knowing the game will always respond in the same way every time and that said walkthrough will thus be guaranteed to get the player to the winning screen. If you can, you certainly have an adventure game. If you can’t, you may very well be looking at a CRPG.

When I first made my little attempt at taxonomy, I was thinking of early text adventures and the earliest primitive CRPGs. Yet the distinctions I identified, far from fading over time, had become even more pronounced by the time of Worlds of Ultima. Early text adventures had a fair number of logistical challenges — limited light sources, inventory limits, occasional wandering creatures, even occasional randomized combat — which were steadily filed away concurrent with the slow transition from text to graphics, until the genre arrived at 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, perhaps the most iconic exemplar of the classic point-and-click graphic adventure. CRPGs, meanwhile, remained much more simulation-oriented, emergent experiences.

So, where does this leave us with the Worlds of Ultima? Well, these definitely aren’t games that can be played by rote from a walkthrough. They sport monsters and people wandering of their own free will, a day-to-night cycle, character attributes which have a significant effect on game play, emergent logistical concerns in the form of food (The Savage Empire), oxygen rocks which allow you to breathe more easily (Martian Dreams), and ammunition (both). Many of the problems you encounter can be dealt with in multiple ways, most or all of which arise organically from the simulation. All of these qualities hew to the simulational focus of the CRPG. Sometimes they can be a bit annoying, but in general I find that they enhance the experience, making these games feel like… well, like real adventures, even if they aren’t the sorts of things that are generally found in adventure games.

Yet I do agree that these games aren’t quite CRPGs in the old-school 1980s sense either. Layered on top of the foundation of emergent simulation is a deterministic layer of narrative, dialog, and even set-piece puzzles. The closest philosophical sibling I can find among their contemporaries is Sierra’s Quest for Glory series, although the latter games have radically different looks and interfaces and were generally purchased, one senses, by a different audience.

Some of the infelicities that can arise in the course of playing the Worlds of Ultima games have at their root a failure of the two layers to account for one another properly. When I played The Savage Empire, I broke the narrative completely by exploiting the simulation layer in a way that the game’s developers apparently never anticipated. Well into the game, after recruiting eight of the eleven tribes onto my team, I got confused about what my next goal should be in a way that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say that, instead of uniting the rest of the tribes and leading them in a coordinated attack on the Myrmidex lair, I went after the murderous insects on my own, accompanied only by an indestructible robot I’d befriended. I devised a strategy for hiding behind the robot when the insects attacked, and thereby made it at last to the heart of the nest, destroying the mystical stone that was the source of the Myrmidex’s power (and of Dr. Spector’s insanity). Just like that, and much to my shock, the finale started to play; I had thought I was just solving another quest. In its way, this anecdote is an impressive testament to the emergent possibilities of the game engine — although it would have been even more impressive had the narrative layer recognized what had happened and accounted for my, shall we say, alternative solution to the problem of the Myrmidex. As it was, I saw an endgame movie that assumed I’d done a whole bunch of stuff I hadn’t done, and thus made no sense whatsoever.

Exterminating bugs with the help of my trusty (and indestructible) robot pal.

Whatever else you can say about it, it’s hard to imagine something like this happening in The Secret of Monkey Island. As CRPGs in general received ever more complex stories in the years that followed the Worlds of Ultima games, they took on more and more of the traditional attributes of adventure games, without abandoning their dedication to emergent simulation. Sometimes, as in Worlds of Ultima, the layers chafe against one another in these more modern games, but often the results are very enjoyable indeed. Largely forgotten by gaming history though they have been, the Worlds of Ultima games can thus be read as harbingers of games to come. In their day, these games really were the road not taken — in terms of adventure games or CRPGs, take your pick. Indeed, I’m kind of blown away by what they managed to achieve, and not even bothered unduly by my rather unsatisfying final experience in The Savage Empire; somehow the fact that I was able to break the narrative so badly and still come out okay in the end counts for more than a final movie that didn’t make much sense.

Unfortunately, gamers of the early 1990s were rather less blown away. Released in October of 1990, The Savage Empire was greeted with a collective shrug which encompassed nonplussed reviews — Computer Gaming World‘s reviewer bizarrely labeled it a “caricature” of Ultima — and lousy sales. With the release of Martian Dreams in May of 1991, Origin re-branded the series Ultima Worlds of Adventure — not that that was an improvement in anything other than word count — but the results were the same. CRPG fans’ huge preference for epic fantasy was well-established by this point; pulpy tales of adventure and Victorian steampunk just didn’t seem to be on the radar of Origin’s fan base. A pity, especially considering that in terms of genre too these games can be read as harbingers of trends to come. In the realm of tabletop RPGs, “pulp” games similar in spirit to The Savage Empire have become a welcome alternative to fantasy and science fiction since that game’s release. Steampunk, meanwhile, was just coming to the fore as a literary sub-genre of its own at the time that Martian Dreams was published; the hugely popular steampunk novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was published less than a year before the game.

For all that the games were thus ahead of their time in more ways than one, Worlds of Ultima provided a sobering lesson for Origin’s marketers and accountants by becoming the first games they’d ever released with the Ultima name on the box which didn’t become major hits. The name alone, it seemed, wasn’t — or was no longer — enough; the first chink in the series’s armor had been opened up. One could of course argue that these games should never have been released as Ultimas at all, that we should have been spared all the plot contortions around the Avatar and that they should have been allowed simply to stand on their own. Yet it’s hard to believe that such a move would have improved sales any. There just wasn’t really a place in the games industry of the early 1990s for these strange beasts that weren’t quite adventure games and weren’t quite CRPGs as most people thought of them. Players of the two genres had sorted themselves into fairly distinct groups by this point, and Origin dropped Worlds of Ultima smack dab into the void in between them. Nor did the lack of audiovisual flash help; while both games do a nice job of conveying the desired atmosphere with the tools at their disposal, they were hardly audiovisual standouts even in their day. At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1991, Martian Dreams shared Origin’s booth with Wing Commander II and early previews of Ultima VII and Strike Commander. It’s hard to imagine it not getting lost in that crowd in the bling-obsessed early 1990s.

So, Origin wrote off their Worlds of Ultima series as a failed experiment. They elected to stop, as Spector puts it, “going to weird places that Warren wants to do games about.” A projected third game, which was to have taken place in Arthurian England, was cancelled early in pre-production. The setting may sound like a more natural one for Ultima fans, but, in light of the way that Arthurian games have disappointed their publishers time and time again, one has to doubt whether the commercial results would have been much better.

The Worlds of Ultima games will occasionally reward major achievements with a lovely graphic like the one above, but it’s clear that their audiovisual budgets were limited.

I’m a little sheepish to admit that I very nearly overlooked these games myself. In light of the awkward engine that powers them, I was totally prepared to dismiss them in a passing paragraph or two, but several commenters urged me to give them a closer look after I published my article on Ultima VI. I’m grateful to them for doing so. And I have a final bit of wonderful news to share: both The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams have been officially re-released as free downloads on GOG.com. Whether you’re a fan of Ultima and/or old-school CRPGs in general or not, I can only suggest as strongly as I know how that you give these games the chance they were denied in their own time, promising yourself beforehand that you’ll make a good solid effort to get used to the interface before you drag them back over to the trashcan of history that’s sitting there on your computer’s desktop. You might just find that your perseverance is amply rewarded.

(Sources: the book Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show: An American Legend by R.L. Wilson; New York Review of Books of August 13, 1981; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of May 17 1991, June 21 1991, and August 7 1991; Computer Gaming World of March/April 1983, March 1986, March 1991 and September 1991; Questbusters of August 1990, January 1991, and August 1991. Online sources include an interview with Warren Spector published in the fanzine Game Bytes in 1993 and republished on The Wing Commander Combat Information Center; RPG Codex‘s 2013 interview with Spector.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times.
 
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Posted by on February 23, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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