I’ve postponed putting this up because, let’s face it, I’ve talked about video games a lot lately and the last thing I want is for this to become a pure gaming journal of any kind.
That said I became morbidly curious about a franchise after I started going through the videos Spoony had for the Ultima Series. His videos are here if you’re still wondering about this franchise after I’m done talking about it.
Now for some of you Ultima is the name of a badass spell in the Final Fantasy games and for those of you with a bit of memory, it’s the name of an MMO, one of the first big ones.
Yes, before World Of Warcraft and Everquest there was Ultima Online a game that had people getting married (in fact the first online gaming marriage occurred there), robbing each other, player vs. player combat, all that fun stuff. It’s actually the game that Scott Kurtz creator of Player Vs. Player, used as a springboard for his creative talent when he made comics on it and thus created the first webcomic purely about gaming.
So… point against.
But prior to Ultima Online, a game that’s STILL getting expansions, there’s the Ultima series. Nine core games (and a few spinoffs that actually sound kind of awesome) surrounding one hero from earth who’s teleported to the land of Sosaria, later named Brittania, who was constantly asked to save the world.
The entire idea was spawned by a man named Richard Garriott, a Dungeons and Dragons fan who programmed his first game in visual basic calling it Akalabeth: World of Doom. He was convinced to sell it and it actually became a commercial success. This game came out in 1979, by the way, during the stone age ASCII days of pc gaming.
As a side note, Garriott was also the first man to take a commercial flight into space. Yeah, he was that guy you heard about.
Garriott took to calling himself Lord British in the games (his high-school nickname) as there was an actual Lord British in his franchise that gave the player quests throughout the franchise. I can’t really criticize this design choice because lord knows I still use my university nickname of Jubei from time to time and given the chance I’d make a self-actualized avatar of myself in a game too.
Now you might be thinking that because Lord British is the incarnation of the lead developer and this series was made from 1981 to 1999 that the game’s Lord British is a over glorified sun-child who can do no wrong. Well that answer is surprisingly no. Lord British is a character that tries to do heroic deeds but often his actions have fairly obvious dire consequences that end up perpetuating a lot of the evil in the series from Ultima IV onwards. The man creates his own religion based on core ideals he believes are worthwhile (and in all fairness they are) banishes anyone who doesn’t agree with it to a parallel world, names the world after himself (Brittania), becomes supreme overlord only to find that his ideals are horribly distorted when he’s not around and cause massive racial tension between humans and monsters even when he is.
That gets points for self-awareness. And the odd thing is, this series was really ahead of it’s time. Over the course of the nine games events from the preceding games come back into play. I mean, can you imagine a series where your own heroic world-changing actions perpetuate horrid consequences from one game to another?
Okay, yes you can. Stop yelling at me.
But this isn’t now, this is the 80s and 90s people! This might be the very root of those ideas in gaming story and for their time and now, that’s pretty damn ambitious. Even now reviewers still mention Ultima under their breath when criticizing narrow gameplay options and unambitious design.
So let me see if I get this straight, in one decade (the 90s) we had Baulder’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, several Ultimas, Planescape: Torment and Fallout? What the hell happened to PC gaming? Seriously?
And that’s the part that has me a bit sad. The fact that, over time, content has lost to graphics in gaming. Even games that credited for a great story are getting smaller and smaller. The thing is, now, more then ever, that’s not necessary.
If you look at a lot of the popular titles online for PC they aren’t all the prettiest, they just simply offer the player more bang for their buck. Minecraft is the token example that everyone has to make but with the sudden resurgence in PC gaming and the growing acceptance that high-end graphics aren’t the be-all end-all of gaming a smart indie developer has the opportunity to crank out an amazing story without limits.
And that’s the other thing that the Ultima series reminds me of, stories with ambition. Once upon a time, not even the stars were the limits in sci-fi and fantasy. You could have a guy with a home nailed to asteroids in the middle of deep space, call it an “ethereal plane” in a fantasy series and that was accepted. Now there’s a heavy focus on more realistic storytelling and that works but it’s limiting.
Where is the drive to find distant worlds, ways of living, a boundless sense of adventure that first pioneered the genres? Are we too laced in scientific fact and realism to allow flights of fancy?
Well maybe some half-mad writer with a bit of free time might craft such a story. Give the hero’s mentor the name Jubei and have the ultimate evil be some kind of vampire attaining godhood…
Have an intricate skill tree with classic PC-RPG top-down graphics…
Make several continents and show how different cultures rely upon one another despite racial tension…
Throw in some pirates…
Excuse me, I have to find a pen… and paper…
So too does this work exist.