Gaming Made Me: Ultima VII

By Adam Smith on November 14th, 2011 at 3:29 pm.

The Guardian had some fine voice acting

I was only young when I played Ultima VII but I had already ventured to the depths of dungeons that dripped with dread, partaken in interstellar war and defended my home planet from invaders. Like Roy Batty and all people who grew up with games, I had seen and done so much. Between adventures in space, I’d rezone my commercial districts or build a new bus route, leaving room in the schedules for occasional postal service functions. Yes, I had lived a full life already, but I had never watched a man clad in the finest clothes in Britain eat an egg and then belch in the face of a barmaid, so who can say I had experienced anything worthwhile at all?

Gaming had certainly made me a busy boy, often alternating between saviour and mayor, but sometimes it was hard to shake the feeling that I was a busy boy working away in a collection of somnolent worlds. So often, no matter how much I enjoyed my progress through a game, I couldn’t help but feel I was moving through something static and linear. I didn’t (and still don’t) object to that but as the games I played began to increase in visual complexity, their crude borders only seemed more obvious than before and their inhabitants’ lack of life more acute.

That feeling isn’t a relic, it persists today. Stand in the middle of a junction in Liberty City and it’s possible to feel a connection with the place. Pedestrians, cars, overheard conversations, the dropped coffee and stumble of a jostled passerby. Turn to an empty street though, glance to the side, then back again. Often enough, rows of vehicles will have appeared, like flowers from a magician’s sleeve, a trick that garishly announces, ‘this is illusion’, demanding your attention because the player is not always a protagonist. Often, the player is the audience.

Congregating

I get it. I understand why. But sometimes I don’t want to be the audience, the centre around which the world revolves and at which events are directed. Sometimes I want to be a participant. That’s something that multiplayer games allow but they are rarely about exploration and existence, concentrating instead on competition and destruction. Online roleplaying games should be the perfect antidote but the structure of the majority reverts to treating each player as a hero in his own story. Quests and plots are usually directed at the player, to be activated at will, rather than being happenings in a wider context.

We’re going back to a time long before that was even a possibility though. Playing games with strangers in other countries? We were lucky if our modems didn’t squawk themselves into a death spiral whenever we connected to the local BBS to talk about games. The idea of actually playing them with someone who wasn’t located in the same building was more exciting than watching Flight of the Navigator for the seventieth time.

Ultima VII was the first game I played that made me feel I was part of a world that didn’t revolve around me and I believe it remains one of the best examples of its type. It’s an RPG that starts with a murder investigation rather than a dungeon crawl and that immediately marked it out. My first goal in Britannia was to talk to people, find out what made them tick and work out just what the heck was going on. While I was doing this, those people would work, eat and sleep. They were trying to get on with their lives and I was the irritating do-gooder poking my nose into their business.

Ban this sick filth, nobody cried out (that I can recall)

It was only when I headed north to the capital that I really became convinced I was experiencing something completely new though. Travelling through marshes and farms, I was attacked by wild animals and monsters. But it wasn’t a gambit designed to allow me to level up; these were hungry wolves out for the kill rather than piñatas full of experience points and loot. Sometimes, if they were badly injured, they would try to flee, leaving a trail of blood. Their mark on the world.

Arrival in Britain was like entering a metropolis for the first time. Shops, taverns, a museum, the castle, crowds of people in the streets and businesses. There was nothing else like it. Of course, I look back on it now and realise that there were about four streets, one of each type of shop and just enough people to fulfill basic functions. But that doesn’t matter because here are some of the awesome things that I did.

I visited a bakery to buy some fresh bread because I felt me and my companions had been living on stale rations too long, having slept on a bedroll for two nights in a row. It was time to treat the whole party to a bit of the high life. While we were there, I learned how to bake by watching the process carried out by an NPC. Flour from a sack, onto a counter top, water added, rolled into dough, placed in an oven, left to bake, removed, voila! I think that’s all the steps. I’m not going to look it up. The memory is too good as it stands.

When does that happen? When was the last time you played a game and inadvertently learned how to create a useful object in the world simply by watching a character perform the steps to craft it? In fact, there’s that term: ‘crafting’. Ultima VII didn’t claim to have ‘crafting’, it just figured that if you had all the right ingredients, why the heck wouldn’t you be able to bake a loaf of bread?

A lady with armour that covers all her flesh. Uncanny.

After learning to bake, I learned to make clothes. More crafting that wasn’t crafting, just interacting with the world. Ultima VII was like the Duke Nukem 3D of RPGs, except it wasn’t about taking a leak, turning out a light and then smashing everything in sight, it was about rearranging the books on a shelf or making a dress for one of your companions and gifting it to her, not in the hope that it would provide enough points to unlock a glass-eyed sexytime cutscene but because it felt like the right thing to do.

I also went to the pub a lot. The Blue Boar, specifically, which is still the finest drinking establishment in all gaming and I am willing to get into a barfight about that. With live music nightly, speedy service and an extensive menu of delicacies, there’s no better way to while away the hours.

In fact, it’s at The Blue Boar that everything came together. Not at the Black Gate or in some grotty underground cave; right there, sitting with my friends on either side and a drunk shopkeeper opposite. As the evening turns to night the place really fills up. There’s the baker, who I learned a new trade from earlier, he’s arrived just in time to grab a plate of meat and potatoes, and trade jokes with his mates. And there, over in the corner on his own, that’s the tailor, downing tankard after tankard. Business must be very good. Or very bad.

Drinking at 9AM is the best way to avoid crowds

I could sit in The Blue Boar for ages, making up stories for all the patrons, knowing that I’d be able to track them down the next day. They weren’t spawned at the doors, forced into existence so that the pub would feel like a pub and them snuffed out of existence as they left, they were the same people who would be walking the streets the next day and selling me goods.

And there was always at least one among them, could have been anyone, who would order an egg. It’d just arrive, plonked down in front of them unceremoniously, a massive plate with a single egg in the middle of it. Even though it didn’t matter that they were eating an egg, in that it wouldn’t have any effect on their social standing or health, it really did matter because it never failed to make me smile.

Which poor bastard is on the eggs tonight, I’d think, watching as sweetmeats from every corner of the world were laid out in front of the gathering. And then, BAM, there it would be. Egg on a plate. No cress. No mayo. The purchaser wolfing it down, hoping no one had noticed, trying to hide their shame.

Then people would stand up, say their goodbyes and leave. Closing time. And time for me to find a bed for the night or, more likely, to trudge back into the wilds looking for some fresh adventure. I’d always be back though, to The Blue Boar, because it felt like a haven. I had friends there, and warmth and food, I was part of something. I was no longer the audience, I was an actor sharing a stage.

Not the Avatar, just a very naughty boy

Britannia wasn’t very large compared to more recent game worlds or the ludicrousness of Daggerfall but it did have variety and it felt like a place full of life. In a way that made me more eager to protect it but it also made me far more willing to become part of that life. I had to force myself to deliver the promise I held as the Avatar because I’d rather have been one of the ordinary folks. Hunting and drinking, dining and dancing. Ultima is all about the Virtues and one of the greatest virtues of this most excellent entry in the series was its ability to make being a hero so hard. Not because of high-powered enemies and ridiculous grind, but because it offered a world full of distractions instead of arrows pointing to the bad guys.

What other RPG could I write this much about without talking about stats, levelling, equipment and combat? I haven’t even talked about plot except in the vaguest terms. But I have talked about stories, and while they may not involve death knights and ancient artifacts, they’re the ones I remember best.

More than anything, Ultima VII was the game that first made me realise I preferred worlds that moved around me rather than worlds that I simply moved through. The way that worlds come alive for me can be in the history-changing sweep of a grand strategy game or something as simple as the addition of day-night cycles. It can be an attempt to simulate an ecosystem or something as simple as enemies actually dropping the equipment I can see they were carrying seconds before they crumpled to the ground. It all adds to the sense of existing in a world, which adds to my enjoyment of creating narrative in that world. And Ultima VII was one of the places that form of creativity first sparked for me.

Now, watch the intro movie and let’s all have a bloody good laugh together.

And…your…MASTER, huhuhahahahahahahaha… *casual drift back into screen, eyes closed*

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103 Comments »

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  1. pakoito says:

    I really wish I could play it, but even Exult, the remade-engine makes all animations and screen scroll look clunky and you have to have the game zoomed in to play on a netbook :(

    • RogB says:

      its probably more accurate that way. The game was made to be played at…. 320*200? with no graphic options.
      sometimes in exult thats apparent, as if you play it zoomed out sometimes you can see things you arent supposed to see (things triggering, hidden areas)

    • pakoito says:

      I’d still exchange accuracy for comfort.

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      The last two times I replayed it I used DOSBox.

      I don’t really like using Exult, I prefer to play it as it was.

  2. JackDandy says:

    Never played the Ultima games as a kid, so now I’m going through them all, starting from 4.
    I finished 4 and Underworld so far, and I’m in the middle of 5. They aged pretty well!

    I’ve heard 7 is one of the best in the Ultima series, so I can’t wait ’till I get to it!

    • Mopo says:

      In my opinion Ultima 7 was one of the best RPGs I have ever played. For me it is on the same level as BG2 and Planescape. Sure there were good FF games, but they are not on the same level. Never got into Elder Scroll’s except for Skyrim now.

    • Toberoth says:

      Your post made me genuinely smile, JackDandy. Hats off to you.

    • adonf says:

      It’s a shame no one ever seems to remember the World of Ultima games. They were based on the U6 engine but set in another universe (dinosaurs and savages meet explorers for the first one whose name icbbt look up, and 19th century Jules Vernes SF for Martian Dreams). They’re quite a bit shorter than U6 which is not necessarily a bad thing, and a lot of familiar faces are in them such as Iolo, Dupré and Warren Spector. Too bad they discontinued the series after these two games. Do not miss them if you’re playing the older Ultimas.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Horza says:

    Still one of the best game worlds (if not the best )around. The npc:s of Oblivion and Skyrim pale in comparison to those of U7.

    Though I never completed it because I misplaced an important key. Luckily Exult seems to have mods that bring key rings from Serpent Isle to the main game.

    Also, fished a boxed copy from ebay a few years ago so I can play it with a cloth map and a plastic fellowship token!

    • RogB says:

      i still use u7 as a benchmark for new RPG’s, all the time hoping for ‘the new Ultima 7′.
      The fact that NPC’s had schedules amazed me the most. Going back to talk to someone who for some reason wasnt there. Oh.. where have they gone? what time is it? Ah! they are at the pub, having dinner!

      Oblivion was supposed to be that, but I couldnt get into it that much. Havent tried Skyrim yet.. (the shame)

    • Dervish says:

      I’ve read that the Gothic games have good NPC scheduling. Haven’t played them though. Can anyone comment on that?

    • Vorrin says:

      Totally agree with Horza, the NPCs in Ultima 7 are a good part of what made the game (to me, by very far still the best rpg out there on any format), mostly cause of the way their dialogue sounded realistic given their individual situation, how they felt properly part of the world (ie. proud of being spartan-like Monitorians and despising the glamour and light-heartedness of Fawn, but each in its own way, sometimes even not caring about all that) .

      Indeed Skyrim, which I’ve been playing a bit of the last two days, pales in most comparisons (story, npcs and dialogue for one).

    • InternetBatman says:

      The series (except 3) has incredibly strong world building, and NPC schedules are a part of that, but not the main feature. NPCs go outside in the morning and to bed at night at the very least, but many of them walk around on the city talking to people, go out to hunt, brew potions, etc.

      I would recommend you try it out, it’s better than any other game I’ve ever played at making a living world, but I’m only two or so hours into U7 with Exult.

    • bo says:

      About Skyrim’s story:

      If you read some of the better books, it really adds to the world. Yesterday I stumbled upon a book that gave me a synopsis of the Great War between Elves and Men that occurred several decades ago. It gave me a ton more context for my adventure and made the world a more interesting place, seriously. I also found a book that was some Ulfric Stormcloak propaganda. Excellent. It usually feels like work, but its worth putting a few minutes into here and there. I readily admit though, that its possible they could have found a more engaging way to make this info available to us.

      As for the NPCs… yeah I haven’t found one that really grabbed me yet.

    • TheGameSquid says:

      @Dervish
      Yup, I can confirm. Gothic 1 has some of the best NPC scheduling ever because it makes sense. They will walk around, sit at a campfire, talk to some guys, go have dinner and eventually sleep at night., etc. Yet they all stay within a certain zone associated with them (there are exceptions). No matter where they are, you’ll always find them. In most games this is totally random, in Gothic (especially the first game) it feels totally natural. It’s one of the few games where the NPS scheduling really, really enhances the atmosphere (even if the conversations the NPCs have with each other are laughably random, it just makes it all a little more lighthearted).

    • BattleXer says:

      One of my most vivid memories from a game is from Gothic 2:

      I was adventuring outside of the first town as a relatively lowly character, not really feeling all that sure of myself yet, when I ran into a couple of poachers, which, after spotting me, attacked and chased me down the path and out of the woods. The remarkable thing however was that they stopped chasing me, as soon as I was out of their territory. They sheathed their weapons and started bantering about the idiot who strolled into their business, and casually walked back to take up whatever they were doing before I arrived… And left me to lick my wounds.

      It made me love that game sooo much!

    • Seboss says:

      The thing in Gothic that really made the characters and the world as a whole believable is that you cannot waltz in someone’s house and go rummaging through their things. When a character is home, you just cannot get into their house uninvited or touch anything without triggering a hostile reaction.
      Just like Ultima VII by the way.

      Games such as Oblivion on the other hand, despite its much publicized Radiant AI, completely fails on this matter. The fancy physics engine allows you to drag objects out of their owner’s view. As demonstrated by recent videos, you can put a pot on a NPC’s head to block their vision and steal them blind, literally. Some objects in the house are not properly marked as owned and can be stolen without any reaction, etc etc… so much for suspension of disbelief.

      Anyway, Oblivion and Skyrim NPC fall into the uncanny valley for me. In some regards, their behavior is much more complex than U7 NPCs, but for some reason, they just feel like mindless robots made to be pushed around by the player. As an example, try using the “wait” feature in a tavern. Watching the NPC scheduler struggling to catch up with the time lapse is a really painful (and messy) sight. NPCs are beamed all over the place, they all rush to the door because they’re supposed to be sleeping and not drinking at the tavern, or the opposite. Terrible.

      In U7 however, the little overhead pixel blobs really came to life, with a little push from player’s imagination as the article says. Somehow, it did much more with much less. Its world being much less complex than Oblivion’s, their inhabitants could interact with it in more various and meaningful ways. Modern games are getting there, slowly. But the emphasis on 3D, physics and shiny graphics instead of world interaction and credibility have really plagued the RPG genre for too long in my opinion.

  4. MadTinkerer says:

    I see someone’s using Exult. Good choice.

    Because Ultima Underworld II was the first ever computer RPG I ever played (other than a few action RPGs like Zelda that don’t count for this purpose due to lack of significant NPC interaction), I always saw it as the middle chapter to a sort of trilogy that started with The Black Gate and ended on Serpent Isle. UW2 starred a whole bunch of characters perfectly aware that they had just met you in U7, and despite Serpent Isle not referencing UW2 as much as it should have, it was the last time that many side characters were even mentioned.

    For example, in Ultima VII, the Big Bad is the Fellowship (not much of a spoiler, it’s fairly obvious really early on that they’re up to no good), and the Guardian himself talks to you but doesn’t appear until the end. In UW2, the Fellowship doesn’t exist as such but you get to see the effects of the Guardian’s agents across multiple worlds. In Serpent Isle, the Fellowship has been abandoned by the Guardian for a completely different scheme, and so they become minor supporting characters.

    Ultima VIII and IX completely ignored / forgot about seriously major events and many small details of the established plot in the Ultima VII era games (in fact, UW2 may as well not have happened as far as U9 is concerned). As far as I’m concerned, Serpent Isle is the end of the third Ultima trilogy and U8 and U9 are unrelated games, because they might as well be.

    I’ve never finished Ultima VII all the way through. I’ve used the teleports in the secret Blacksmith’s chimney to cheat my way to the end when it was obvious I’d never chase down the last generator because there’s money to be made on rat racing. Also, did you know that because serpent venom decreases your strength permanently after a time (“Don’t do drugs, kids!”), if you drink enough it permanently raises your strength to 255 because of how short integers work in the U7 engine? (This might not work in Exult.)

  5. Dr I am a Doctor says:

    Look at this sad person who played games before they were good

  6. juwiley says:

    One of my top 5 most enjoyable moments gaming was in Ultima 8. There was a set of cliffs, over which the next segment of the story would take place. The ‘only’ way to get there was to go through a cave with a maddening puzzle/jumping section that I could never get past. So I went around, collected chairs, dressers, etc from all the houses and built a giant furniture ladder up the side of the cliff, and climbed over.

    The avatar started running along the cliff, and quickly encountered the end of the universe, with all kinds of weird trippy effects as I went completely off the map. The promised land wasn’t over there, but I got to enjoy a sense of transcendence that was rarely possible in highly scripted RPGs and adventure games. Yes I found a bug. And that was great, I beat em!

    I think thats the true joy of this kind of game: the game works for you, you dont work for it. Everyone is so furious when there are game crushing bugs (of which there were many in Ultima 8), but if you’re goal is to interact with the world on *your* terms, instead of the developers you’re still having fun. Mindcraft is a good step in this direction.

    Thanks for bringing attention to a great, strange classic game.

    • LintMan says:

      IIRC, Ultima VIII was the one everyone was calling “Super Mario Avatar” because of all the jumping puzzles. I think U8 was basically the first product of EA’s influence on Origin.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Since the Guardian began as an allegory for EA (no, really), in retrospect I’m not surprised that U8 was as bad as it was.

    • InternetBatman says:

      That kind of reminds me of Gothic, when I broke out of the barrier. The whole place is surrounded with this barrier that will shock the hell out of the player if they get too close. I beat it by turning into a dinosaur (they fall over instead of being thrown), and running like hell. They actually had a few fields and stuff outside the barrier. It was pretty cool.

    • Urthman says:

      Ultima 9 was one of the greatest games for exploiting engine glitches.

      For instance, if you picked up every possible item in the first open area of Britannia and stacked them in a crazy bridge (the physics engine would let you stack a quarterstaff on top of a gold piece on top of a fireball scroll on top of a potion on top of a loaf of bread …) you could climb and jump your way to several of the continents that were supposed to be closed off until much later in the game.

      [EDIT]: as documented in this crazy guide to completing the game backwards:

      http://www.it-he.org/u9_otwab.htm

      (part of this comprehensive survey of crazy U9 glitches)
      http://www.it-he.org/ultima9.htm

    • Wulf says:

      Hey, that’s Tapewolf’s site! That needs to be linked more often, really. He’s a master of game-breaking.

    • Melf_Himself says:

      “not surprised that U8 was as bad as it was”

      Is this the general consensus?? U8 is actually one of my favourite games of all time. I’ve never played any others in the series, but…

      I staked out a house for myself in the town, and I kind of shepherded the NPC’s who lived there until I was able to lock them out. Then I dragged a bunch of furniture cherry-picked from all over town and decorated it to my liking. Then I filled it with chests stuffed with food, all my treasure and various accessories. Coming back there after each adventure and adding a new rare trinket was just…. awesome. I didn’t know the word “sandbox” at the time, but that definitely felt like one.

  7. VIVIsectVI says:

    Good article. I started with Ultima 6 and completely lost my summer vacation to Ultima 7 back in 1993 or so. My favorite part of Ultima 7 was Skara Brae. In Ultima 6 it was just another town, but in Ultima 7 it was destroyed and ruled by a lich.

    I miss this series and I wish they would revisit it at one point. Ultima IX (which I personally enjoyed), Ultima Online, and “Lords of Ultima” (a joke) aren’t good choices for an ending to the series.

    • Caleb367 says:

      Was Skara Brae that town focused on grape-growin’ and wine-makin’? Easily my favorite place in all Ultima and several other game worlds too.

      Now that I think about it, wasn’t there a Skara Brae at the center of Bard’s Tale 3 too?

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Funny you should mention Skara Brae and Ultima 9. I was looking forward to finding out what happened to the town after U7, presuming that it had been partly resettled by the living but not abandoned by the dead, and then the Guardian nukes it in a cutscene. Because, no, the obvious idea would have made too much sense and been too interesting. Thanks, Richard.

    • Wizardry says:

      @Caleb367: Skara Brae was in both the first and third Bard’s Tale games. What’s interesting is that a town called Skara Brae (in real-life an ancient settlement in Orkney) was featured in both The Bard’s Tale and the Ultima series for the first time in 1985. I’m not sure if there was any copying going on or if it was purely a coincidence.

    • nanowired says:

      Actually, Garriot had little to do with what happened with IX.

      To quote a source from the official Ultima wiki,

      “Only two of the developers were still old school: Richard Garriott and Herman Miller; the rest consisted of new develepors who didn’t even know the history of Ultima and had different ideas about Ultima in general. Richard Garriott was lead designer, of course, but at that time, he was rather involved in company policy issues than the actual design of the game. So it’s actually no surprise how little of the “Ultima spirit” was left in the game.”

  8. LintMan says:

    I still have remaining bitterness for U7 – I was playing a magic-oriented character, and the game refused to let me access the 7th level spells (the highest level) despite me having done the quest to get them. The quest giver refused to acknowledge I did them, despite my having repeatedly done it over and over again. I was eventually forced to limp through the end game without any of the powerful spells.

    Later, I discovered that the refusal to grant the 7th level spells was a known bug in the game. Grrrr.

    • gritz says:

      There’s no quest to get level 7 spells in U7. You just buy them from spell vendors and can cast them whenever you hit level 7. Also, 8 is the highest level of spells (9 in Serpent Isle).

    • MadTinkerer says:

      I think he’s referring to the fact that one of the Generators restricts the max spell level you can use until you disable it, but in his version it didn’t work. It was fixed in a later patch, and I think Exult just ignores whether the generator is working or not, but you still need to deal with it for the main quest.

  9. Cunzy1 1 says:

    Great article and I wholeheartedly agree with the comments about games revolving around you. It can be nice, it sure helps in programming the behavior of the world but I like to be just a small part of the world. It’s why MW3 story and Uncharted 3 have left me a bit sad too. The world revolves so much around me that when I stop for a second the world stops too. Everyone take 5! He’s stopped for ten minutes..

    UPDATE TAKE TEN IN FACT!

  10. Drake Sigar says:

    Best. RPG. Ever.

    • Vorrin says:

      indeed, in my opinion, possibly best game ever, too.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Pretty much this. In fact, my only caveat is “don’t forget about UW2!”.

    • Mortegro says:

      Want to know how big of an impact Ultima 7 had on my gaming life growing up?

      I point you no farther than my user name.

      Mortegro was an NPC from Ultima 7. He shows back up in the Serpent Isle. I always wondered where he was teleported to after he was stuck again.

      Poof guy.

  11. KingJason13 says:

    Ultima 7 is tied with Baldur’s Gate 2 for my favourite RPG of ALL-TIME!!!

    I hope GoG brings it to modern pcs…

  12. gritz says:

    Excellent article. Ultima 7 is definitely the game that “made me”, and to this day there still hasn’t been another to come along and put me in a world that felt so complete.

    I love the way you’ve articulated how the U7 “crafting” system isn’t really a crafting system as modern games approach it, but just a logical expression of a game world that is built entirely around interactivity. It’s a great point and not one that I’d considered very often.

    Ultima 7 is the perfect expression of Origin’s motto: We Create Worlds. In the back and forth struggle between worldbuilding and gaminess, worldbuilding won out entirely (which is part of why Ultima 8 was so disappointing). U7 came out at a time when “Virtual Reality” was a major media buzzword. While other companies set about building games around horrible pre-rendered 3d clips and Full Motion Video, Origin made a virtual space based around believable rules and real interactivity.

  13. RogB says:

    nvm, might be having a memory fail

  14. Wizardry says:

    It’s nice to see a DOS RPG getting some attention here on RPS. It’s usually all about the Windows era of Fallout/Baldur’s Gate/Torment and later.

    While I love Ultima VII as much as the rest of the people here, it’s basically that one game that undoes everything I say about old RPGs. The combat is real-time and plays itself (it really does), there are literally 3 independent stats that don’t have much effect on the game, and most of the game is about hunting for clues and exploring new places in an adventure game style. I use it as an example of a well done fantasy world that feels truly alive. I bring up its NPC schedules, the individuality of the characters, the environmental interaction and the character of the locations as high points in the genre, but it falls short in the fundamentals such as character building. Even Skyrim and Dragon Age 2 are more complex RPGs.

    So, to everyone reading this who perhaps haven’t played an Ultima game before, this is one of the pinnacles of gaming. It really is. It’s a fantastic game that is unrivalled even today in many respects. It is not, however, the pinnacle of DOS era RPGs, and it definitely shouldn’t be the only RPG from that pre-Fallout era to check out if you want an accurate picture of the genre. Ultima VII is a game that sits right on the edge of a genre. It’s utterly unique in what it does and, as a result, isn’t representative of anything other than the Ultima series itself.

    To simplify: Blah blah blah where’s Wizardry? Blah blah blah where’s Pool of Radiance? Blah blah blah where’s Realms of Arkania?

    • gritz says:

      But don’t you think that complex statistical abstractions would undermine the verisimilitude of the world building?

      The thin layer of stats and the simplistic automated combat are part of what keeps you in the world, not standing outside of it trying to optimize some kind of meta-game.

    • Wizardry says:

      But the game has no real play styles. Everyone plays it the same way. There are no different character builds. There’s almost nothing there to differentiate playthroughs.

      If, as you say, the stats get in the way of experiencing the game world, then we can only assume the game would be better without stats at all. If that’s the case, Ultima VII becomes an action adventure game and not an RPG.

      My point is that Ultima VII is a fantastic game. It really is. It does so much right. It’s just not at all representative of old-school RPGs, which is something I feel I need to mention in case anyone gets the impression that it is.

    • JackDandy says:

      What would you say is the best DOS-era RPG, then? I’m currently filling my Dosbox folder with stuff I missed out on.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      But don’t you think that complex statistical abstractions would undermine the verisimilitude of the world building?

      Quite the opposite, I think. Look at Darklands – skills like Speak Latin were essential to creating a medieval world that felt like it had some depth.

      Like anything, having lots of numbers is something that you can do well and excite players, or do poorly and frustrate them. I get beautiful ideas in my head when I look at a long list of skills in a P&P RPG book, because they’re more ways to interact with the world.

    • gritz says:

      I disagree completely. Having a stat-based abstraction to represent different languages unnecessarily breaks the fourth wall, and pales in effectiveness compared to, say, Ultima’s magic words, Gargish syntax and runic alphabets.

      I understand the satisfaction of statistical representation and incremental advancement, and I don’t want to create another belabored “What is an RPG, really?” argument, I just think that the addition of stats would detract from the kind of thing Ultima 7 was trying to be.

      With Ultima 7, Origin was only nominally making a “game”. Far more important to them was that they make a world. If gameness threatened to get in the way of realizing that world, it was discarded.

    • gritz says:

      I also want to say that it’s pretty preposterous to assume that simplistic statistics makes every playthrough of Ultima 7 identical. I’ve played through the game dozens of times, and found something new to try in each iteration.

    • Wizardry says:

      Finding something you missed previously does not mean that each playthrough is different. It just means you weren’t thorough the first time through.

    • gritz says:

      It means both, actually.

    • InternetBatman says:

      On the other hand, think about how you can abuse skills in D&D. Skills like animal husbandry:
      http://www.nuklearpower.com/2008/09/02/episode-1032-damn-yankees/

    • Premium User Badge

      Oozo says:

      @jackdandy
      Since Wizardry already mentioned them: The Realms of Arcadia-games (especially the first two) are, to me, the pinnacle of DOS-era RPGs. Which might come down to the fact that I’m living closer to Germany, thus them (and the Might&Magic-series) being the first PC-based RPGs I encountered and truly lost myself in.

      But much of what Adam describes here is true for those games as well – even though, in some ways, they are pretty close to text adventures, since almost all of the exposition is done in text. On the other hand, this gave the games a degree of freedom to model dizzingly detailed systems that were rarely, if ever, bested. Everything in those games has importance, from the shoes you’re wearing (I literally lost one of my characters once because his boots broke in the middle of a tour through the mountains, and I hadn’t thought of brining along a spare pair) to the stats your characters have (a multitude both of positive and negative ones).

      Those are rich games with rich worlds, and if you can get over the presentation, there’s as much to explore as there is in the Elder Scrolls-games, I’d say.

      PS Project lead Guido Henkel also worked for a while as a producer on Planscape: Torment, for what it’s worth.

    • Dave Mongoose says:

      I disagree completely. Having a stat-based abstraction to represent different languages unnecessarily breaks the fourth wall, and pales in effectiveness compared to, say, Ultima’s magic words, Gargish syntax and runic alphabets.

      Have you played Darklands? It has very little in common with the Ultima series, but it’s worth a look because it’s a very impressive open-world RPG with a fairly novel setting (Germany in the 1400s). The language knowledge is used passively when dealing with religious scholars and universities (their usual attitude is that if you can’t speak Latin you’re obviously not intelligent/educated enough to be worth their time), but you never use it for translation so a runic system wouldn’t work.

      I think so long as your world has depth and consistency, it can be immersive. If stats and skills require too much micromanagement or don’t ‘make sense’, that’s where the fourth wall breaks down.

  15. Eldiran says:

    I love Ultima VII (The Black Gate specifically). Even though there’s basically no combat, or strategy, or character customization, or any of the things that I absolutely require in other RPGs to enjoy them. I really hope some day another game captures what it had. Or maybe I don’t because some day I plan on making a game that does.

  16. pzumo says:

    Name.
    Job.
    Bye.

  17. ResonanceCascade says:

    It’s a bummer, but I find the fonts so eye-murdering that I can’t really play this game any more. Gives me a headache.

  18. RogB says:

    I loved the way you could get around Iolo getting in a ‘holier than thou’ strop whenever you stole something, by just dropping it into HIS posession first.

    Oh, nothing to say now eh?, you smarmy shit.

  19. jamesm says:

    Is there a good way to get hold of Ultima VII legitimately, apart from buying second hand CD collections of yesteryear?

    I hope parts one and two will turn up on GOG soon, ideally with the expansions, but the lack of Wing Commander expansions makes me fear otherwise. I won’t download ‘abandonware’ if someone somewhere is making it available to buy (e.g. more than happy to pay for Darklands and Might and Magic even though I’m sure none of the money goes to the original creators), but I really wish EA would realise they’re not just competing with free when it comes to persuading people to do the right thing, but also completeness…

  20. bfandreas says:

    I had played U6 start to finish.
    I crafted a 386 as the voices directed me.
    I got U7.
    My mind was blown…it never recovered.

    At that time that game(once you got it up and running, no thanks to VooDoo) was the bee’s belly and the beaver’s knees. You started it up and your screen felt like a 19″ monstrosity growing and growing until it swallowed you up.

    There was no on-screen menu at all. Ever. Unlike U6 which you watched like a very tiny peephole you got this. Graphics were of course nearly photorealistic(or so we thought), sound was bombastic 7.1(well, close enough) and the immersion was absolute to a life swallowing level of unimagined proportions. I want the months back I sacrificed to being lost in Daggerfall due to this outlandish and short-lived 3D nonsense so I could have wasted it on this. And of course Serpent’s Gate.
    Whatever you may think, if you think you’ve played enough Ultima then you are clearly wrong. And quite, quite insane.

  21. penetraitor says:

    My friend found the hoe of destruction in that game. I have never seen such glee on someone’s face as when they showed me the house they had where about 95% of the bodies of every npc in the game was stowed.

  22. arioch says:

    Ultima VII is still my favourite RPG of all time, and possibly my favourite game!

    I had previously completed Ultima VI (mostly because invisibility rings were rather good in that game!) and I remember firing up U7 on my 486 SX10 (lol) for the first time and being awed by it, and then promptly losing 6 months of my life to finishing the game… (I probably did most of it 4 or 5 times dude to getting stuck due to bugs and having to restart! – Its funny the shit we used to put up with..!)

    I also remember U7 having its own set of startup files ready to be renamed in my root directory because for some reason it was the only game I had that needed the alternative mode of EMM386 to be enabled… ahh MSDOS EDIT.EXE… Getting U7 to run and having enough base memory left to have my soundblaster drivers installed was half the challenge of the game! :]

    Great article – mentioning Skara Brae brought me back to memories of the awesome questline there.. . Serpent Isle was also one of the best expansions for any game ever…

  23. Jengaman says:

    I completely agree, i wish more games put you as a part of the world, rather than the all powerful chosen one destined to save the world.
    All those “destiny” and “chosen one” plots make me roll my eyes into my brain.
    I just want to scream out “NO IM NOT THAT SPECIAL! Stop it jerks! I dont want to be THE dragon born. I want be a guy, who happens to be a wearwolf…”
    Skyrim is the first TES game i played and i really wanted an actor role out of it…guess I was naive.

    To be honest the game that most makes me feel like a small part in a huge story is the My Player mode in nba2k12 lol. There i feel like im carving out my own story, not the destiny laid before me.

    • Vorrin says:

      Hah, I agree about Skyrim, damn, come on, I was faring well in this world, trying to feel like some random Joe luckily escaping decapitation, and then, no, after a couple of brawls, I somehow manage to KILL A FRIGGING DRAGON (yeh, what’s the big deal about those, 2 people will easily enough down one) .

      In its defence, in Ultima too you were THE AVATAR, so something kinda fancy… I just suppose the way you were dipped into it was much nicer, from the fact that already, ‘the avatar’ for what is your avatar in the game-world is an exquisite wordplay, to the fact you are a sort of walking half legend half nursery tale which people often recognize from old paintings… aw, it was all so damn nice.

      Also, how come people are mentioning Deus Ex so much in relation to this? I can agree considering the old, first one… but this third one uhm, I tried it a bit, and it felt much more the son of this generation of altogether lighter gaming, than anything to go by Ultima 7 (ie. Bioshock(new) vs System Shock(old))

  24. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    A few resources for those that are interested…

    Firstly, the best (in my opinion) Ultima fan website with all the latest news on the series and the fan projects, mods and so forth for it: http://www.ultimaaiera.com/

    Secondly, the brilliant Let’s Play of the Ultima games (you should really start with Ultima IV to get all the jokes that grow with each instalment): U4-6: http://lparchive.org/Ultima-4-5-and-6/ Martian Dreams: http://lparchive.org/Martian-Dreams/ U7: http://lparchive.org/Ultima-VII-The-Black-Gate/ SI: http://lparchive.org/Ultima-VII-Part-2-Serpent-Isle/

    Thirdly, keep an eye on this fella: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/ since he’s working his way through every PC cRPG ever made. He’s already covered some of the Ultima games (up to Ultima V), but it’ll be a while before he gets to Ultima VII since the amount of games he needs to get through is getting ridiculous.

  25. Premium User Badge

    VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    Still one of my favourite games ever. There was so much to do in the world, and so much to see.

    I recently bought a boxed copy on eBay, which came on six floppy disks. That this game, compressed, is just eight and a half megabytes is quite incredible. Apparently this boxed copy was produced after Origin was taken over by EA, and has an EA pamphlet inside, and an EA logo sticker on the back. This is highly ironic.

    Watching the intro above again, I have to laugh. The original box was a big black rectangle. So when the game opens with trees, and flowers, and butterflies, and rainbow-coloured text, the developers are obviously trolling the players.

    • nanowired says:

      Actually EA had owned Origin since Ultima 4. If you pay attention, a lot of the plot points in 5, 6, and 7 are attacks on EA. For example, the Pirates in Ultima 6 are named after board members of EA.

      All the Generators in Ultima 7 are part of the old EA symbol.

    • Premium User Badge

      VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      No, they did not buy Origin until September 1992.

      Edit: My boxed copy alone is proof enough of the timeframe. The box, disks, and manual all have only the Origin logo printed on them. Meanwhile the EA logo is only on a sticker on the back of the box, and added into the box are an EA catalogue, and a pamphlet announcing “Electronic Arts & Origin Systems have recently joined forces!”

    • nanowired says:

      Actually I think the reason that stuff is in there is because EA was publishing it and they had a rocky relationship. Than EA Bought them

    • Wizardry says:

      @nanowired: No. Origin Systems were a publisher and published their own games. The original Ultima VII was published by themselves, Origin Systems, and not EA. EA bought them later in the year 1992. EA had little to do with Origin Systems before that. I’m not sure where you’re getting your information from.

    • nanowired says:

      From conjecture based on various things in ultima 4, 5, 6, and 7, I guess.
      from http://codex.ultimaaiera.com/wiki/Real-Life_references_and_Easter_Eggs:

      Ultima V:
      If any NPCs are sworn at during a conversation, they will scold the player. The list of recognized swear words is comprehensive and can be found by hex-editing the Ultima V data files: in the DOS version, it is located in the file DATA.OVL. Notably, the final phrase to appear in the profanity list is “ELECTRONIC ARTS.”

      Ultima VI:

      By 1990, Richard Garriott had a caustic relationship with Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts. Garriott felt that EA’s practices were bad for Origin. This caused him to name Captain Hawkins—the murdered bloodthirsty pirate who stole the Silver Tablet—after him.
      This joke at EA’s expense went even further; a number of the Ten Pirates of Hawkins are modeled after senior employees of EA. They include:
      Alastor Gordon: Bing Gordon
      Bonn: Steward Bonn
      Old Ybarra: Joe Ybarra

    • nanowired says:

      Ah, here is why there is a connection:

      In 1984, Origin was in need of a distributor for the upcoming Ultima IV, since it was beyond their abilities to do all the work themselves. So they signed a deal with EA, that they would do the distribution in the USA, while in Europe, Mindscape was the contractor.

    • Wizardry says:

      @nanowired: What does any of that have to do with EA owning Origin? You said EA had owned Origin since Ultima IV.

    • nanowired says:

      I was wrong about them owning it, Oh well. There WAS a connection to EA since 1984 though.
      I contributed more than people just saying “Herp no.”

    • Wizardry says:

      @nanowired: Fair enough. I didn’t really get the impression that you knew you were mistaken. I thought you still believed that EA owned Origin back in ’85.

      At least we understand each other now!

  26. nanowired says:

    The first game I ever played on a PC(Note: I DID own an Atari Personal computer before, but that doesn’t count) was Ultima 6. BLEW MY MIND.

    When I finally got ultima 7 working(My 33mhz machine required me to disable EMS, I couldn’t figure out how at 13, but I finally did.) I cried tears of Joy. by that time though I had lost the documentation, so all I got to do was roam around the first town. But then I sent a letter in to EA/Origin, and they sent me the ENTIRE packet of documentation. <3 Garriott.

  27. MonolithicTentacledAbomination says:

    I’ve never played an Ultima aside from a few minutes of whatever the SNES one was, but the camera angle FREAKS ME OUT, MAN.

    • Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

      I mean yeah, right???
      I really want to try at least one of these games sometime – U7 seems like the best candidate. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to get into something this old and clunky.

  28. RyuRanX says:

    Ultima VII: The Black Gate together with Serpent Isle is my favorite game of all time. Too bad this kind of game isn’t made anymore. I really miss it.

    • Vorrin says:

      +1 for that. Unbelievable how in the last 15 or so years no one has picked up that line in the same manner.

      If any developer is doing anything seriously similar and as genial as these two games, lemme know, I’ll give you all my money (once proven it’s really that level of awesome (no fancy graphics needed) ) !

  29. something says:

    It was absolutely the best game ever and remains the benchmark for world building and story telling, and particularly for the love shown to it’s NPCs. There’s a castle in the game that’s a spoof of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the ensemble spirit of those shows was clearly an influence on the writing. Every character has a back story and sub-plots that relate them to other characters, giving the feel of a living society. It is the antithesis of id’s sociopathic, sensationalist approach to gaming that has established itself as the mainstream.

    I take issue with this statement though:

    “Ultima VII was the first game I played that made me feel I was part of a world that didn’t revolve around me”

    Not that I can contest your own memory of what you played but while Ultima 7 is certainly the best example, there was a real desire in games of the eighties and early nineties to use advances in technology to create believable worlds. Perhaps the most famous product of that is Elite, the Archimedes version of which in particular featured all manner of activity completely independent of the player including mining operations, police patrols and fights between merchants and pirates. It’s a scale of ambition that rapidly faded after the enormous success of Doom.

  30. MD says:

    Excellent article, Adam. Nothing to add really, just wanted to express my appreciation.

  31. Premium User Badge

    jrodman says:

    There must be something wrong with me.

    My high school friend showed me this when I stayed over his house. He showed me that you could stack random objects, combine objects, follow people around, watch people making stuff..

    My reaction was: what’s the point of any of that?

    It all seemed quite tedious, distracting, overcomplicated, and — most damning — clunky as heck. The game was far more ambitious than its ability to place and manipulate objects could extremely well support.

    I loved Ultima 4 with all the puzzle of the world — figuring out what to do and exploring, unlocking things bit by bit on my own time. Ultima struck me as an unruly disordered playpen without focus or polish.

    Then again, it might have just been too late for me. I was probably 17 by the time I saw and the magic of youth may have worn off.

  32. Premium User Badge

    Morlock says:

    If you are a fan of the Ultimas, you have to, HAVE TO, read Nakar’s Let’s Plays of Ultima 4, 5, 6 and the 7s.

    http://lparchive.org/Ultima-4-5-and-6/

    They get better with time. If you want to jump straight to the fantastic humor, jump straight to 5 or even 6. Believe me when I say that I laughed tears while reading this.

  33. razorblade79 says:

    Thank you for writing about the best game ever made! I love reading about Ultimas, especially 7.

    It’s funny and sad how every once in a while a developer comes around and says: “I am going to make a game like Ultima 7″ and he sees “oh it has npc schedules” and then “oh it’s an open world” and also “oh it’s about exploration” and then calls it, like, Oblivion and thinks that’s a game like Ultima 7.

    I’m not sure if U7 was just that genious or if developers just don’t get it or if it’s simply a question of money.

    In any case, the other best game ever made (Deus Ex, obviously!) has found a worthy successor. So I am confident that at some point someone (probably not Richard Garriot) will make one for this as well.

    • Gary W says:

      In addition to the exploration, schedules and open worlds, Ultima 7, Serpent Isle and Deus Ex had some decent writing and characters. There were also tons of books and papers scattered about that were genuinely funny or interesting and not full of clunky “lore”. You got the impression that the designers had read widely and had a wry sense of humour.

      These days, the po-faced fantasy epic where you are the “chosen one” makes me roll my eyes. Instead, a well-designed fantasy/sci-fi game should operate perfectly well without the player character’s presence (and not take itself too seriously).

    • gritz says:

      The key thing missing in almost all of those games is the interactivity of the environments.

  34. adonf says:

    Speaking of NPC schedules: I spent more than an hour last night following Aela the Huntress in Skyrim. After completing the Silver Hand quest she stays in the last room and tells the played to go on some quest. So I headed to the entrance but I didn’t exit the dungeon immediately and after a while I saw her run to the door ; I followed her outside and she kept running in the countryside. We made a bid detour and finally headed back to Whiterun. She didn’t acknowledge me or wait for me, only stopping to fight monsters and baddies if she met any.

    That was an awesome moment in gaming. Even though I didn’t do much except running and trying not to lose track of her (I was sure that she’d teleport away if she got out of sight) I really felt part of a living world. It almost made it up for the shitty, right-handed-only UI. Sorry for the OOT, just wanted to share.

  35. Vorrin says:

    Hey, back off, Serpent Isle was part two, no puny expansion, was every bit as amazing as The Black Gate (part 1 in fact). Hah, just nerdy-kidding :)

    Ah the memories of EMM386, it was the most challenging (and one of the first) games I had to make run on DOS, totally agree with you getting it to run (or to run with audio, or with mouse, or even, with both on at the same time) was half of the challenge!

    • Premium User Badge

      jrodman says:

      Dost not remindeth us of the terroreth of memorie managerth VOODOO.

  36. BoZo says:

    Really good article, it could just as well have been me who had written it. Best game ever without a doubt. I remember gathering all the crates and planks in the world and building my own house filled with stuff…

  37. Loque says:

    It looks like this article was grabbed from my head and put on (virtual) paper… Amazing. That said, I did not find a single rpg game able to grab my attention and interest as much as Ultima VI and Ultima VII. What about Skyrim? Well, it’s a very close competitor, yes. I love it, so far,

    • Vorrin says:

      Nah come on, skyrim is nice, it’s possibly the best Bethesda did yet…. but dunno, to me it’s still a million miles from making me feel part of a real world, the dialogues are all somewhat bland, and although most people have something particular to say this time around, everything still seems sort of mechanic and detached to me… so yeh, after playing it for 3 days quite heavily, I really don’t feel much like delving into it again.

  38. Mitch says:

    Ah Ultima 7 my favourite game of all times… I really have to agree with everything Adam Smith says about the game.
    The only problem I had was that I never saw the end of the game cause I had some key missing for the final fight or whatever was about to come.

    But: I likes U7 II even more, it had a better UI and a whole new world to explore. Which was a good thing, after I explored Britannia in U6 and U7.

  39. pilouuuu says:

    This makes Skyrim more sad. I wish if Bethesda ever does DLC that is not just more locations, that they make the places more believable. The bars are really dull in Skyrim! And the cities don’t look like real cities. It’s still much better than Oblivion, but I want something like what’s described here.

    Also, why is everything solved by violence in Skyrim? Why can’t we talk to solve conflicts?

    Even better, Bethesda could make a new Ultima game!

  40. Enkinan says:

    Wasteland ‘Made Me’, but damn is this a great game. Really Ultima’s 5, 6, and 7 all were so awesome, but VII just seemed like it made this huge leap in immersion compared to everything else out at the time. I tried to play recently and just can’t deal with it anymore (Tried Ultima IV and Planescape too, I just can’t do it), but I dropped an insane amount of time playing this game.

  41. Mortegro says:

    I wish that there would be anther game set in this world.. something true. I know you “can’t go home again.” and my memories are far better than they deserve to be… but I want to feel that excited again.. experience that sense of wonder in the world.

    Maybe some day.