Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Welcome to the Fellowship

Flutes play, a beautiful garden scene greets you, a butterfly flits about the screen. A lovely title in spring colors rests in the leaves of the surrounding trees, the most uplifting opening sequence of the series, truth be told. You feel like a bright, loving new age is upon you.

Then static.

The screen changes to a swirling blue. In the center something forces its way through. It's a face, a red face of seeming stone with malevolent yellow eyes. It gazes at you, then bellows,


Ah, Ultima 7.

What brings on this little burst of nostalgia? Today I will receive my first new PC in a couple of years. I didn't buy it for practical reasons. I bought a gamer machine, cuz I wanna play games.

Now, I don't go much in for action games. In fact, when I used to play Doom or Wolfenstein 3D, I'd just play it in god mode so I could get all the baddies out of the way and find all the secret doors and easter eggs. Saving the game and trying to kill the same monster fifteen different times is completely inane to me. I like the story and the puzzles, that's all.

In preparation for receiving this beautiful device, I went out on a little software spending spree and bought a few games, like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.

That will be cool. Really.

Yet I don't believe anyone will ever match the magic that was Ultima 7. Now, you'd have to be bit of a roleplaying geek to appreciate that, and you'd really have to be one of the ones who bought the first run of Ultima 7, opened it up, found the usual cloth map and the black moonstone and the little black book entitled "Fellowship," and said to yourself, "What the hell?"

While there are many wonderful games out that capture a sense of adventure, mystery, and mayhem, I don't think you can just recreate the sense of unsettled foreboding good-hearted Avatars felt upon opening that book.

For those of you not in the know, the Ultima series was the first PC RPG to put story above sword-wielding, and moreso, the entire goal of Ultima 4 (another incredible classic) was to become a virtuous "Avatar" by following the moral code of Britannia, the Eight Virtues. This became the basic code of behavior for episodes 5 and 6, though the story lines were different.

Anyway, unlike most product manuals, you aren't given a bit of background to the current story. You're only told that a couple hundred years have passed since your last "visit" to Britannia, and that things had changed a bit. The virtues were found wanting these days, and a new organization called The Fellowship had given people renewed hope and purpose through their Triad of Inner Strength. It's presented as the new moral code for Britannia. Yet you're left feeling uneasy, like something's not quite right.

Of course, something is NOT quite right, and that uneasy feeling gives way to outright panic (gamewise, anyway. I'd hate to think players actually panicked!) as the true nature of things becomes known.

Nowadays games have incredible graphics, and amazing capacity for depth and development, just by virtue of massive storage capabilities. Yet Origin Systems (may she rest in peace) accomplished this back when a 120MB (MB, not GB) drive was huge and the 386-33 was still a pretty fast machine.

They didn't put their heart and soul into the programming. They put it into the story. That brilliant story was crafted cleverly and with great attention to each detail, so that your realization was gradual, and you had moment after moment of "A-HA!" The graphics were good for their day, but very clunky by today's standards. Yet that didn't matter.

I love roleplaying games, and I love 'em on the PC. I enjoyed Baldur's Gate, and Elder Scrolls III, and so on.

But I doubt I'll ever get to experience that wondrous sense of immersion, that small pit of foreboding, that excellent balance of story, character, and action, all topped off with a blazing finish, that was Ultima 7.

Long live Lord British, wherever he is.


It's about me, dummy!!!


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