Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 3, 2014
Since it’s now for sale again after nearly twenty years via GOG.COM, when a friend told me he had never played Ultima 7, I made a gift of it to him. I was kinda excited to hear what he thought of it, but I was not immune to one noteworthy fear: What if he didn’t like it? Ultima 7 was different even in its day, in an era when RPGs were a bit different from how they are today.
He promises to do a little write-up in the future, but the bottom line is: He got lost, bored, and gave up. While I don’t believe he’s a fan of extensive hand-holding in games, he really felt like he could use a lot more direction in U7. And to be fair – even back in 1992, when I first played, I hit a point where I got lost and bored and put the game on the shelf for a few weeks. Then I came back with a vengeance, finished the rest of the game within a couple of days (including one full where I was stuck at home with a wrenched knee – yes, queue the old Skyrim meme jokes…) It was a mesmerizing, wonderful experience – so much so that only hours after finishing the game, I re-installed Ultima 4 and started playing it just so I could spend more time in Britannia.
This saddens me on a number of levels, because U7 still remains not just a milestone, but still an old favorite. I haven’t played it start-to-finish in a long time, but every time I do jump in – to grab a screenshot or just as a reminder – I find myself sucked in, talking to characters I only vaguely remember (if at all). It’s impossible to completely go back, as after a couple of sentences of dialog I find myself remembering a little bit more about the entire game and what’s supposed to happen next. So I can’t quite join my friend in giving it a clean-slate playthrough.
I think that the interface is a bit cumbersome by today’s standard (of course), but not quite so bad as its half-siblings of the era, the Ultima Underworld games. The mouse was still kind of a novel device in the games industry back in the day, only barely risen from the status of an optional peripheral. And of course, the screen resolution is tiny. But – after a little bit of practice – the game still seems to be amazingly playable and enjoyable.
What I want to share is really that feeling of playing it the first time, what it meant waaay back in the day. Ultima 7 was in many ways the pinnacle of Origin’s motto, “We create worlds,” although the trophy might belong to its immediate predecessor. It’s debatable which was a more complete “world simulation,” but it was not only a pretty impressive feat even today. But it was not a sandbox game. It was not even all that “open.” It presented you with an illusion of openness, and didn’t have too many artificial limits to your ability to roam around and explore, but the storyline progressed somewhat linearly. You weren’t led by your hand (or by your nose), but you still had to follow the clues to follow the story. You felt a little bit like a detective – which seems appropriate, as part 1 opens with a murder mystery.
Let’s say we were to remake Ultima 7 today – I don’t care if it’s 2D or 3D, but let’s say it largely runs from exactly the same scripts that ran the game in 1992. Let’s say we give it a new, more modern interface, with cleaner pathfinding and smoother movement and everything. Now let’s create two variants: One with the addition of modern conveniences like an automap / minimap (maybe with fast travel), a quest journal, and even a path or pointer to where the next “stage” of the quest can be found; and one without. Here’s my question – how would the two different versions of Ultima 7 feel? Would they really feel like different games? Would one be superior to the other?
My feeling is that the one with the hand-holding would definitely feel different, would probably be more popular, but perhaps less satisfying of a gaming experience. The reason is that the Ultima games – and particularly Ultima 7 – tended to have a little bit of the “adventure game” philosophy built into them… more so than modern games, at least. As in adventure games, figuring out what to do next is half the fun. But – admittedly – it’s also the main source of players getting stuck, lost, and giving up on the game.
Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 8 Comments to Read