Six Damn Fine Degrees #22: Ultima VIII

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Imagine a game that set you loose to roam a mediaeval world under the influence of a shadowy religious cult, that let you discover how to bake bread or milk cows while trying to save the world just because you could, a game that was dead serious yet could look upon itself with the wryest of smiles, a game that was shot through with a sense of familiarity and wonder in equal measure.

Now imagine a game that has none of that at all.

Ultima VIII: Pagan was the ninth game in the Ultima series (not counting spin-offs and a ludicrous butchering of Ultima VII published on the Super Nintendo that was essentially an Ultima game in name only), and the second Ultima game I played as a kid back in the mid-’90s. Even as a kid, I knew there was something about U8 that was slightly fucked up outside of the dark and dour tone; it hadn’t needed several arcane rituals to make it work on my dad’s PC, for starters. (Poor me would soon discover that this would be more than made up by the act of playing the game itself.)

But let’s back up a sec. To understand part of the appeal of PC gaming back in the ’90s, one must understand that it wasn’t as simple as slotting a CD or floppy disc into the PC and just booting up the game. To be a kid in the ’90s playing PC games was to understand the esoteric ways of the revered CONFIG.SYS file, to meditate on the manner of the Upper Memory Block, and to play a puzzle game called ‘freeing up enough conventional memory’: a Tower of Hanoi-like exercise played via loading and unloading such variously unnecessary things as mouse drivers, video drivers, and other memory management programs. All without the help of the internet as we know it.

Ultima VII required that you not use EMM386, an expanded memory manager, to run. U8 was okay if you had it, as long as you told it not to do what it was supposed to, which was give you expanded memory (the game needed extended memory, you see). And if you wanted to play another game, like Ultima Underworld? You needed EMM386 loaded. Each of these required you to edit config.sys, reboot your system, then hope to god you had enough conventional memory and/or extended or expanded memory for each game. And then there was the bit where you needed to set your sound card variable to let DOS know how to use it (like so: SET BLASTER=A220 I7 D1 T3), or else you wouldn’t get any sound or music. Simple! As the image on the left says, if you didn’t know, RTFM. But we persevered, and we got the game running.

You see, as a kid in the ’90s the reward was, more oft than not, something mindblowing. Six axial degrees of freedom in Descent; the Star Wars theme just before you got into the cockpit of a TIE Fighter; discovering the ludicrous carnage of a BFG shot in Doom; having an entire world of characters move around you as day turned to night, and bakers and seamstresses went home, all while you were standing on the road in flickering torchlight as dusk slowly fell in Ultima VII: The Black Gate.

And U7 was quite the reward. It had you contend with a malevolent outside force known as The Guardian, who was bent on taking over Britannia, the parallel world you’re the champion of in the Ultima games. In U7, he did this by insinuating discord and mistrust through a religious cult called The Fellowship, which was also tasked with facilitating his arrival into Britannia. One of the game’s most clever touches is that its manual is written by Batlin of Britain, the leader of said cult. It chronicles the history of Britannia as a summary of the previous games in the series, but at the same time it contains numerous stories and asides from Batlin that appear genuine but are also skewed towards co-opting the eight Virtues that your character is a champion of — your character, the Avatar, revered by the populace as a symbol of good. This is a masterstroke, as it builds a low-key sense of unease that not all is right with this ‘Fellowship’. The game itself then has you travel the length and breadth of Britannia to discover what has happened in the hundreds of years since you left, reinstate the virtues, uncover a conspiracy, deal with the Fellowship, get laid, and foil the Guardian. (Not necessarily in that order.)

U8, in contrast, follows up on the concluding events of The Black Gate and Serpent Isle (U7‘s immediate sequel) by plucking you out of the ethereal plane and chucking you into The Guardian’s homeworld, a planet called Pagan.

U8 was not mindblowing, after all the work of setting it up to run. It was, actually, my first experience of the emotion of mild disappointment in gaming, because I had just finished the previous game a few months before; this had instilled an absurd amount of hype in me for the sequel.

Pagan is a world with a tumultuous history between titanic forces that ended with the planet being stuck in eternal twilight. A good analogy for the entire experience: it is a game set exclusively in a twilit city and massive, grey subterranean dungeons, where everything explodes in your face, everyone is terrible, and worst of all, so are you.

It is probably a statement of intent that the game opens with a beheading. A man loses his life because he spoke out against the queen, and so his head rolls off the docks and into the waters beneath. It’s a grisly opening, and even worse is the fate of the widow, whose son tries to resurrect his father but realises it cannot be done because the body was dumped in the water, leading his soul to be claimed by the titan of water called The Lurker. In his grief, the son commits suicide, leaving his mother completely alone in the world.

So the story is grim; and what you have to do is grimmer. As no one in Pagan knows who The Avatar is, you need to find ways of enlisting help to return to Britannia before the Guardian destroys it, and that involves conquering the titans, but of course. In a normal Ultima game, this would mean finding people to help you while holding onto an ethical code that ensures the virtues are upheld – as this is what holds everyone together in the end.

Pagan, however, is different. It needs you to be an accomplice to a murder, betray people, and summon the devil in your quest to get back to Britannia; in other words, it begs the question of whether you, the player and The Avatar, are virtuous only when it is convenient to do so. Since Pagan has no knowledge of The Avatar, does that mean The Avatar has no need of the virtues? It’s a thorny question, because all of this is being done to return to another world that needs saving. But Pagan does not question you. You’re never confronted with the results of your actions, or indeed even given a choice. And that is, intentionally or unintentionally, a damning message to everyone playing the game: your Avatar is not a hero.

The rest of Ultima VIII is a litany of bad design choices – from making you a blonde male character by default with no option to change it in stark contrast to character creation options from before, to copy-paste dungeon design, to the worst platforming in the history of video gaming. You see, U8 wasn’t really finished when it shipped; massive swathes of it were cut to release on time, and even mechanically, it was far from complete. This results in everyone’s favourite most hated memory of the game’s jumping puzzles: dying approximately five bajillion times by bouncing off a floating rock and into the drink because you were off by a pixel or two. (This was subsequently fixed in a patch that a lot of us never got, because remember, this was pre-internet.)

And that’s not counting dying five kazillion times from being exploded: through the traps in every single chest in the game, or stepping on the hundreds of red mushrooms in the maps, or having a sorcerer named Beren summoned to exact punishment on you for trying to steal from or attack a member of the populace.

In the end, I mostly remember Ultima VIII as one of the first games to teach me that the work involved in getting a game to run did not guarantee a good time in the running. A good lesson, if a painful one; valuable all the same.

And how does this relate to our previous Six Degrees post? The name of the town you find yourself in after the execution is, of course, Tenebrae.

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