Ultima VII: The Black Gate and Serpent Isle
Now I’ve made this claim I suppose I have to back it up. The Black Gate was released in 1992 on PC (also on the SNES, but for the love of god do not play that version; it’s terrible) to enormous critical acclaim. Spanning seven 3.5” floppy disks and taking up an obscene 20 megabytes of hard disk space and requiring a minimum of a beastly 25mhz 386 processor on a machine, at least a whole megabyte of RAM and a frankly ludicrous 256 colour VGA display, The Black Gate was a pretty demanding game, power-wise. And you really wanted at least a 66mhz 486 with four megabytes of memory to play it properly. Oh, and it needed a mouse. And a sound card (remember those? Computers didn’t come with audio output once upon a time!) Sure, these requirements seem laughable now that we live in the distant future where tiny phones in our pockets are literally a thousand times more powerful than this, but at the time this was pretty incredible; a computer good enough to play it would probably set you back over £1200. But it was all justifiable, because The Black Gate is huge and absolutely full of detail.
Set in the realm of Britannia, the brain child of insane millionaire/astronaut/relic hunter/castle buildingRichard Garriott – then the head of the now-defunct Origin (later bought, gutted and killed off by EA, then reused their name for their shitty Steam-clone) – The Black Gate puts you into the role of the Avatar, a resident of Earth that periodically gets summoned to Britannia by Garriott’s alter-ego self-insert Lord British in order to save the world from evil wizards, diabolical machine-gods or, in the case of the brilliant Ultima IV, show up and teach people how to be a good person. Seriously. In the case of The Black Gate, it wasn’t British that sent for you; you’re busy playing Ultima VI and some big red guy calling himself the Guardian pops up on the screen and crashing your computer (not making this up, I swear) when a portal pops up in your back garden. You, of course, recklessly jump through it thinking your favourite fantasy realm is in trouble. When you get there, though, you arrive at a murder scene where the local blacksmith has been ritualistically slaughtered and the poor stable boy has been nailed to the wall with a pitchfork. It was pretty graphic at the time – remember that this is the era where the vast majority of games involved brightly coloured characters bouncing on baddies’ heads to make them vanish from the screen. Nobody seems to know why you’ve ended up in Britannia, and it turns out it’s been 200 years since you were last there as time progresses very differently than on Earth. You immediately get recruited into solving this murder mystery, which turns into multiple identical ritual killings, and end up investigating a new religion that has sprung up during your absence: The Fellowship – a not particularly subtle jab at Scientology. In particular, your attention is drawn to two high-ranking members of the church named Elizabeth and Abraham (E and A, get it?) that seem to be somehow connected to all the unpleasantness happening in Britannia. Following their trail you find more and more evidence that The Fellowship has got something to do with this Guardian fellow that ruined your gaming time earlier. But meanwhile, there’s a pretty sizable world to explore full of dungeons, easter eggs (including a great Wing Commander reference and an entire town where all the residents are eerily similar to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation) and believable people living out their lives.
Games “journalists” gushed when The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion finally introduced NPC schedules – that is, all the people in towns had the appearance of living lives and would sleep, get up, go to work, pop to the local tavern for a drink after work and then head home again where they would mysteriously sleep fully-clothed above the sheets while you merrily wander around their bedroom stealing their valuables, but Ultima VII did this better 14 years earlier. Not only did every single non-hostile NPC have routines, but they were more intricate: people went to work and actually worked – there’s a baker that makes bread and you can actually watch him as he works – including stealing the bread as soon as he puts it down to cool. Even more awesome is that you can do the exact same series of movements to make your own bread; it’s not a menu where you click the ‘Make Bread’ button, you have to mix flour and water, make the dough, put it in the oven and wait for it to bake. Then you can sell it, or hang on to it because you and your ever-growing party of comrades need to eat. Other people going about their business are believable; they go to church, they need to eat and sleep (underneath the covers, though still with their clothes on), they draw the curtains and light candles when it gets dark, blow them out before they sleep and then open the curtains when they wake up, they have friends and families and sordid affairs, they practise their fighting skills, they gossip, they go to see live music and actually comment on the band as they play… and so on. There really is a wealth of stuff happening that makes you feel like you’re part of a living, breathing world. A lot of it is pretty basic – you’ll hear the same comments in the inn and nobody has their own personal likes or dislikes when it comes to food and booze but hey: this is 1992 and it’s still beating the shit out of the immersion in every single modern RPG.
As for you, the Avatar, well you can do whatever you feel like doing. You need to eat and sleep from time to time, but other than that the world is your oyster. Other than a few particular plot points the game is largely non-linear – you have to join The Fellowship to find out what they’reup to, for example, you can’t just investigate as an outsider, and you have to take out the Guardian’s three main ‘generators’ (conveniently these are a cube, a sphere and a tetrahedron – which was EA’s logo at the time) to be able to beat him, but it’s entirely at your leisure and the order in which you do most things is entirely up to you. Hell, you could just forget about this murderous cult and just get a job as a baker or a pumpkin farmer, though you’ll probably go crazy with boredom after about half an hour of that. There’s some fun to be had interacting with the world in other ways, too: you can change a baby’s dirty nappy and keep the shit-covered one to wave at human enemies to make them flee in disgust, or get the alchemist to make you some sleeping potions that you can jam down a dragon’s throat so you can stab it to death when it’s passed out. Literally any item you can carry can technically be used as a weapon, though it won’t do any more damage than your normal unarmed attack so this is purely for comedy value (wielding a baby in each hand to pummel enemies to death is a personal favourite of mine, because I’m a terrible human being). You can also buy a horse and cart to transport your party around quicker on land and eventually you’ll need to get yourself a ship to get to various islands, though both of these are rendered completely obsolete by the awesome magic carpet you can find hidden near a dungeon you’ll never encounter if you only follow the plot.
This brings me on to the one real negative point of Ultima VII: the combat. It’s not very good. In a huge departure from previous Ultima games, the combat is real-time instead of turn based. You have little to no control over fights, you basically go into combat mode and the Avatar will walk towards the nearest enemy and hit them until they die. And your companions will do the same. You can change fighting styles a bit, but it’s not well implemented. For example: you can make a party member with good dexterity hang back and use a bow but, realistic as this might be, it can go wrong. A badly placed shot might hit you or one of your close combat guys and there’s nothing you can do about it. A companion that’s losing a fight can freak out and randomly drop their weapon and leg it, leaving you to hunt for that valuable weapon you gave them and possibly their corpse to drag to a healer to get them resurrected. You essentially pause the game by opening your inventory, allowing you to use potions and other items mid-fight, so it’s not completely devoid of strategy, but it’s pretty limited. Also, if you die, you wake up at the homeless shelter having conveniently been brought there by Elizabeth and Abraham, who conveniently found you in the wilderness. And despite the fact everyone knows you’re looking for them, not one person in your party thinks to, you know, stop them leaving immediately before you wake up. All that said, combat is usually confined to very brief interludes; the real meat of the game is exploring and talking to people as you unravel The Fellowship’s conspiracy.
The Black Gate also received an expansion pack (Forge of Virtue) that added a new island to the game (the Isle of Fire) which featured a series of quests revolving around interesting puzzles to prove your virtuousness. Completing the first three quests gives you a huge bonus to your stats and unlocks a fourth quest which involves you forging a sword of incredible power complete with an enslaved daemon to do your bidding. Forge of Virtue also gave the player a ship almost immediately in the game (though it’s a loooooong walk to get to it), which saved hunting for the magic carpet or grinding to get enough gold to buy a new ship.
I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of the wealth of side-quests and plot twists that The Black Gate has to offer, but trust me when I say it is a genuinely huge game full of things to discover; and I don’t mean just generic cookie-cutter dungeons (looking at you, Skyrim) but entire plot lines that are totally unrelated to the main quest and bizarre things to stumble upon when you’re out exploring. Ultima, from the fourth installment to the eighth, was never afraid to discuss quite adult themes – IV was about morality, ethics and conduct, V took everything from its predecessor and showed how it could be abused in the hands of a political tyrant, VI explored racism and reparation for the sins of our fathers and The Black Gate is uncompromising in its criticism of organised religion. VIII went on to discuss whether or not the ends truly justify the means by having you commit a series of truly heinous acts in order to save the lives of millions, and then IX took a steaming dump on everything and killed the series completely.
Serpent Isle came out the following year and made some remarkable improvements on The Black Gate but at the same time fell short in many ways. Richard Garriott commented that this was Ultima VII: Part Two rather than an eighth game because it was all based in the same engine, whereas traditionally every Ultima game had been completely new technology and often requiring bleeding-edge computers to play it on. Serpent Isle‘s world is much smaller than part one, yet it was so full of detail that it required an extra floppy disk. It’s much smaller in scope; you now normally have a party of four rather than up to eight like in The Black Gate, and you spend a significant chunk of the game by yourself. The plot takes place a year and a half later, where The Fellowship has been outlawed and its leader has fled to a distant realm (the titular isle) only accessible by sailing through two gigantic magical pillars in the sea (‘The Serpent Gate’). Lord British, complete with terrible voice acting by Richard Garriott, sends you after him. The wife of one of your party members also happened to have been going on an expedition there, and he’s had no contact from her so is keen to ensure her safety. Upon your arrival, you encounter a magical storm that (not so conveniently) strips you of all your awesome gear, essentially putting you back at square one in terms of character development. A cheap plot device, I guess, but it’d be boring to play this game as unbelievably strong as you can be by the end of The Black Gate.
During its development, Origin were in the process of being completely absorbed by EA (who had previously been their publisher), and it really shows in a lot of places. This is a rushed product. It features a few show-stopping bugs (if you wander to a burned-down building filled with ghosts, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO TALK TO THEM!) and some clearly unfinished plot threads. It’s also far less open-ended than its predecessor; Serpent Isle is very linear and features little in the way of side quests, but the plot itself is spectacular. We soon learn that the magical storms are a result of an imbalance between the forces of Order and Chaos – a war that has been happening since the beginning of time. Order is all about the cold, calculating rationality that values logic and reason above all but forgets the important parts of Chaos that make us human such as love and enthusiasm. Throughout the very intricate storyline the Avatar meets a wealth of fascinating characters with more detail in their lives than the most complex of characters in The Black Gate. Here on the Serpent Isle, though, many generations have grown up knowing the virtuous Lord British as nothing but a cruel monster, and he and his subjects are hated passionately. So thrust into this strange world, you have to learn all of its customs and even its language; many signs are written in a bizarre script of characters that all look like variations on an ‘s’, that you have to translate yourself by referencing the manual or by using the handy ‘translate’ spell in the game.
The game engine is pretty much the same as The Black Gate, but has some improvements such as more detailed ‘paper dolls’ on your inventory screen that show your character wearing the gear you equip them with, digitally rendered photographs of people for character portraits instead of the pixel-art before and some truly fantastic scripted events driving the plot forward. The plot is also much tighter; you’re not just following some ever-elusive bad guy (well, you are, but he’s one step ahead of you for logical reasons rather than just being seemingly omnipresent like Elizabeth and Abraham were) and the deeds you commit feel like they have a weighty impact on the world. I really mean that part… because of your actions, a whole lot of people are going to end up dead, even though it’s not really your fault. Serpent Isle also features what might be the first notable sex scene in a game that wasn’t just for laughs like Leisure Suit Larry. The whole game is a lot darker than any previous Ultima, too… everything feels so alien and unpleasant and there really isn’t any comic relief to ease the tone. There are some truly heart-warming parts, though; the early plot centres around a young girl that wants to be a knight just like her deceased father, and you help a severely deformed man express his love for a local botanist who, while reciprocating his feelings, is unable to see him due to his banishment from town. It’s a fantastic story that is sadly let down by being rushed out the door due to EA’s time constraints and has some absolutely marvellous programming behind it to stretch out Ultima VII‘s engine to its limits. Serpent Isle also got an expansion pack called The Silver Seed, which goes a long way to explaining the back story behind the war between Order and
Chaos, though it too suffers from being rushed and doesn’t really finish its story properly and is rather disconnected from the rest of the game.
Both games, like all Ultima games, were a labour of love from Origin. I have almost all of them on a shelf in my house – they’re proper big box games with thick manuals that are all written from the point of view of in-game characters and are chock-full of backstory, there are cloth maps and coins and trinkets representing things from the Ultima universe. It feels like Origin really wanted you to be fully immersed in their fictional world – Richard Garriott first released his games on floppy disks in zip-lock bags with a photocopied instruction leaflet but upon gaining fame with the very first Ultima refused to do business with any publisher that wasn’t willing to include all these little extras – something that is now limited to disgustingly overpriced ‘Collectors’ editions of games. Seriously, when was the last time you even got a manual with a game, let alone one that is the length of a novella filled with world-building content?
I first played these games as a kid, but I can safely say that my affection for them is not purely nostalgia; I play through both of them to their completion once every year and each time I discover something I either hadn’t noticed or really appreciated before. It might be hard to get into them playing them for the first time now, because graphically they have aged ungracefully; the view is a weird sort-of-top-down-but-slightly-angled one that was ground-breaking at the time but has been completely superseded by decent isometric views like in Diablo and its sequels. The movement animations are all simple two-frames per direction sprites that look slightly awkward now and the once impressive MIDI score is rather grating to the ears of today’s gamers. Still, Ultima VII has such a solid fan base that there is a project called Exult (http://exult.sourceforge.net) going on that has faithfully ported the game to a new improved engine using all the original graphics and sounds with some improvements (it implements all the upgrades in Serpent Isle to the Black Gate, for example, and has a handy ‘keyring’ function that automatically uses the correct key for a door to save you hunting through your backpack for the right one) and even has additional downloads to convert the old sound and music to be a little more palatable.
A little note on the SNES version of The Black Gate (which was also released on PSP): it really does suck. A tonne of detail is missing, as they only had a single megabyte to work with (so yeah, one twentieth of the PC version), so the maps are much smaller and far less detailed – almost all of the world is a repeated single tile of grass, there’s no party and it feels more like a bad clone of an old Legend of Zelda game than an RPG. Also due to Nintendo’s family-friendly censorship policy at the time, there are no murders… the victims are kidnapped. But you never rescue them, because the plot remained largely the same and they’re actually dead.
If you consider yourself an avid RPG player and you haven’t played Ultima VII, you really should. It set the groundwork for everything in modern western RPGs and still comes up trumps on most of them in terms of story and immersion even though it’s 22 years old. Also GOG.com has both games and both expansion packs and works just fine on modern systems thanks to a custom DOSBox installation (seriously, getting it to run on anything post Windows 95 is an impossibility otherwise – you really need to use Exult otherwise), and it’s not much more than the price of a pint.
I’m so confident that Ultima VII is the best game ever that I’m going to do a RTG first: the first three people to comment on this article with their email address will get a free copy of the GOG version.