I didn’t play Ultima VII until 2012, but it came out back in 1992, and it’s important to understand the game in the context of its time of release. There were no contemporary standards yet for some of the things it tried. It was the first Ultima game to expect that the player had a mouse with their computer, and it struggles a little with the concept. There’s a laborious amount of dragging involved, and hiccups with which tiles objects will snap to when you let go of them.
It was also the first Ultima with “conversation trees”, which are overly verbose, messy, and usually single-option prompts to continue a linear series of expositional paragraphs. Little if anything is self-explanatory, as players were probably expected to read some physical paper object called a “manual”, and the game will make critical objects invisible and lie to the player outright at times.
Ultima VII was also ahead of its time in implementing a tedious hunger system.
We can see a clear difference between the video games of 1992 and now, respect Richard Garriott’s work as a pioneer, and feel proud of the leaps we’ve taken forward in user-friendliness and general fun since then. There are so many invisible and intuitive things that players only notice in their absence, and they’re certainly absent in Ultima VII.
But what we of the future should feel ashamed about is what was already mentioned in the Skyrim review: that Ultima VII simulated most of the same systems all the way back then, and while we’ve polished our simulations, we haven’t deepened them at all. It’s hard to swallow, but Ultima VII’s NPCs go to their beds at night, detect players in their shops, and call the guards if those players steal where they can see. An optimist in the early ‘90s might have expected an Ultima VIII where people remembered the things they owned and could reason out who might have taken something based on a small memory of how many people had been in their store that day. We have a lot to answer for.
Of course few of these features were implemented in a way that was always pleasing. There’s no interface icon to tell you when you’re detected. NPC schedules mean it’s impossible to find the person in town you’re looking for. The spatial consistency of Ultima VII’s maps, where houses are never bigger on the inside, allows for some cool things, but also means that things in town are spaced farther apart and it’s easier to get lost. Predictably, there’s no cool infographic menu for remembering details about the different NPCs like in Xenoblade Chronicles or Disgaea Infinite, so players are pretty much on their own. But that the game was able to get made at all with so many new and untested ideas is a real testament to the creativity and talent over at Origin Systems at the time.
There’s also simulation of physics. If a crate is removed from beneath another, the one on top is readjusted down in height level, which is more than Morrowind was able to say. The ability to drag objects around leads to ridiculous exploits in building staircases out of what’s lying around. I lamented the lack of freedom in Skyrim to drag a cannon around and use it as I pleased, but that’s trivial in Ultima VII. You can put the cannon on your flying carpet and go nuts. You can stack crates on a boat and sail around, and as the boat moves and switches directions, everything on it will move and turn with it, as if this were a simple matter. The crates on the boat will have all their sprites changed to represent the new angle in the oblique graphical projection the assets are drawn in. The potential power of this is crazy. You can’t push or carry a loaded container around in any Elder Scrolls game, unless you count your followers, who are only marginally smarter than crates.
There’s little point in nitpicking the lame story and poor action-RPG combat mechanics, or anything else that no developers knew how to do properly at the time. Respect what the game managed to pull off, and ask for more freedoms and sophisticated systems in the massive-budget games that are in development today. Currently, we’re not even keeping up with games of old.