Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Video Game History - Ultima VIII: Pagan

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990s on this blog. In honor of Turkey Day, here's one of the biggest turkeys in gaming history - Ultima VIII: Pagan.

The golden age of computer RPGs from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s had gone hand-in-hand with Origin's Ultima series. Starting from Ultima III in 1983, each successive Ultima raised the bar for the series, the genre, and video games overall. Ultima VIII: Pagan was no exception – unfortunately, it represented the sudden and disastrous end to the PC RPG golden age.
The RPG collapse of the mid-1990s was certainly not Pagan's fault, but many aspects of the game parallel the problems of the genre overall. The first and most important problem was time. Pagan was rushed out the door in an incomplete state. This was a more and more common occurrence as the industry grew bigger in the CD-ROM era. Origin Systems had been purchased by Electronic Arts, a company famous for applying pressure on their developers to reach release dates. Pagan was buggy and unpolished from the start, and everything about it felt smaller and less interesting than previous Ultima games.

It went against previous games in the series by changing worlds and focus. Although Ultima VII: Serpent Isle took place outside of the normal setting of Britannia, it still had strong connections to the homeland, with several characters traveling to and from the different lands. Pagan had virtually no connection, other than the Guardian as a villain and the ever-silent Avatar. This included the loss of the Avatar's companions, most of whom had worked with you for several different games. The move towards a single character instead of a party of characters wasn't obvious at the time, but as the decade progressed, it became a clear trend, with many of the most famous and best games of the late 1990s being based primarily around a single player character (Daggerfall, Diablo, and Fallout, to name a few).

Pagan also totally upended the Ultima series' commitment to an ethical system. The Avatar of Pagan is trapped in a dying world, and desperate to return to Britannia in order to prevent the Guardian from conquering it. So the game forces you to try to return home by any means necessary. This turns the Avatar from a righteous hero into a murderous psychopath, who essentially destroys one world in order to try to save another. 

Yet Ultima VIII: Pagan could have survived all these flaws if it had been a good game. It had good ideas, like a magic system which had different kinds of spells and rituals, which gave spellcasting a more procedural, satisfying feel. Its game engine was one of the very first fully three-dimensional games, using polygonal constructs instead of sprites.

But it wasn't a good game. Somewhere along the line, the designers decided to introduce platformer-style jumping puzzles, with floating and moving platforms. This was a huge mistake. First of all, RPG fans of that era were used to their genre expanding into other genres, not the other way around. Moreover, the divide between PC gamers and console gamers was arguably at its peak at this point. Console games were still a few years away from respectability, and some genres, like platform action games, were almost exclusively reserved for consoles. 

It must be said that it wasn't very good platforming. The mouse control combined with an otherwise fairly slow-paced RPG made it an exercise in frustration. A later patch eliminated the moving platforms and simplified the interface, but the damage had been done. Now the incredibly frustrating jumping puzzles were replaced by incredibly pointless hanging platforms which provide you with no challenge, but must be navigated nonetheless. 

There were more problems. Combat was equally frustrating, as you spent most of your fights hoping that you wouldn't be knocked down, which triggered a too-long getting up animation, during which the Avatar was defenseless and could easily be knocked down again. The graphics lacked the personality and charm of Ultima VI & VII. Likewise, the music, so excellent in previous Ultimas, was almost a non-entity here. It seemed like nothing went right with Ultima VIII, and for the next few years, like nothing went right for the PC RPG genre.

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