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.
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.
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 fulfil 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?
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.
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.
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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.
*casual drift back into screen, eyes closed*