Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Ultima Underworld: Om Cah Vincit Omnia

I don't know if this is the first game to show toilets, but it is the first to depict them in a 3D engine.
           
Origin, I have long accepted your retcons of geography, history, and zoology from title to title, but could you at least not screw up the mantras? The one thing that has remained consistent for the past three games? I mean, you may or may not need a rune to chant them, and you may need to chant them one time or three times, but at least we all know what they are, right?

While exploring Level 1 of the Underworld, you come upon a room shaped like an ankh. And if that isn't enough to drive it home, in the middle of the room is a standing ankh. What you do, after you've gained a level or two, is speak to the ankh and chant a mantra, and the ankh will bestow upon you an increase to one or more of your skills based on the mantra.

Now, individual skills have their own mantras. I don't know what they are yet, because I haven't found them, but they exist. But you can increase several random skills within a class (magic, stealth, or combat) by chanting the mantras associated with truth, love, and courage, which plaques in the ankh room give, respectively, as MU AHM, OM CAH, and SUMM RA.
          
Using the mantras to improve skills.
        
How is SUMM RA the mantra of courage? Those are the mantras of honor and valor smashed together. Now, I admit there is some confusion on the subject of the mantra of courage. "Courage" isn't a virtue but rather a principle of virtue, and it's never explicitly assigned a mantra in previous games. It's likely that it has one, however, because all the gargoyle principles of virtue have them (UN, OR, US). Courage is, of course, assigned a syllable: COR, part of the three-part VERAMOCOR. If anything ought to be the mantra, that probably ought to be it. If not, I would accept something from The Book of Lost Mantras. There are at least four in there that aren't a virtue mantra, a gargoyle mantra, or something stupid like BANG or MEOW. BEM, maybe. Or NID, PEY, LIS, or MHO? No matter what, if you were going to create a "mantra of courage" by cramming together the mantras of the individual virtues, you need them all. It ought to have been SUMM CAH RA OM. Truth ought to be AHM BEH SUMM OM. How did "love" end up as the only one with the mantra of spirituality (OM) and somehow not get compassion (MU), which derives only from love? This was amateur hour, Origin. Did you not have any Venn diagrams left over from Ultima IV?

Aside from that, no complaints on the first level. It was a nice mix of combat, treasure upgrades, and NPCs, and overall an easy way to introduce the player to the game's conventions.

One of those conventions, and perhaps the one least familiar to players who grew up on the previous 10 years of RPGs, is the use of 3D space. The level is full of slopes, staircases, bridges, and drop-offs, essentially creating three "stories" within the single level, so you're constantly moving up and down. A river with several branches threads through the level's base, and some locations are accessible only by swimming, which is perilous because you take regular damage (I think it depends on the "Swimming" skill) and you can't fight while in water.
         
Trying to swim after falling off a platform.
       
On the plus side, except for a couple of bridges, spaces rarely overlap. This makes the automap easy to read; I thought I had remembered that it was an unholy mess, and I'm glad I was wrong. The automap is also extremely useful to identify locations with secret doors. You can see their outlines in a well-lit room, and when you click on the wall with the eye icon, it quite frankly tells you "secret door," but you still might miss a few if you don't look for obvious blank spaces in the map.
           
The map half filled-in. I can tell I'm missing a secret area in the southwest.
         
The jumping puzzles started sooner than I expected. I had forgotten how important jumping is to the game. In the southeast section of the level are two areas that you can only reach by jumping across platforms. One has the ankh cross that lets you level up, so it's pretty vital. It takes a little while to master the jumping mechanics. Jumping after running (with the "W" key) sends you farther than jumping after walking (with the "S" key), but either way you end up sailing farther than would seem humanly possible. You also bounce off any wall you hit on the other side, which can be inconvenient when trying to land on a particular platform. I spent a lot of time in the drink before I got comfortable with the controls.
           
Aim is everything.
          
It turns out that three non-hostile factions live on the first level: gray goblins, green goblins, and human exiles. Each of their areas was marked with ankh banners. Each had at least one NPC who imparted a bit of lore, and each had at least two willing to trade. I thought that I remembered that they were barely civilized, prone to turning hostile at the slightest bump, but it turned out they were authentically friendly.

The outcast humans were led by a guy named Bragit. The impression was that they'd all been cast into the Abyss by Baron Almric for various crimes. Bragit told me that Almric's soldiers had recently invaded the Abyss (presumably chasing Arial) but were defeated by the goblins. 
            
Bragit gives me some advice.
         
Bragit himself had recently been imprisoned by the gray goblins but managed to escape by pressing the cage release button with a pole. When I later visited the goblins, I found the cage, the pole, and a note that Bragit had left behind.
           
The scene as Bragit described it.
         
Most of the other outcasts had no names, but they offered some information about the Abyss and its inhabitants. They confirmed that a troll had recently been seen carrying a young woman through the level.

The gray and green goblins hate each other--the feud apparently predates their colonization of the Abyss--but I never saw them in combat with each other. The gray goblins' chief, Ketchaval, warned me of a giant spider named "Navrey Night-eyes," who I think I defeated. I didn't get an option to tell him that, though. He also said that Cabirus (the guy who founded the settlement) was a "fool" who killed himself when he realized his dream had failed.

Another gray goblin named Jaacar warned me not to wade around in the privies because one of them had a long drop, presumably to a lower level. Finally, the area had a locked door that said "Keep Out!" I did so in the interests of role-playing, but part of me worries there was something important behind there.
          
I wasn't planning to go splashing around a goblin's outhouse anyway, but it's nice to know there's a shortcut if I need it.
       
The green goblin chief was named Vernix. His bodyguard, Lanugo, warned me that I should bow and scrape when I spoke to him. Lanugo also gave me his personal recipe for rotworm stew.
         
And yet it still sounds better than Manhattan Clam Chowder.
         
Vernix had the most dialogue of all the NPCs once I stopped asking him things directly and started saying complimentary stuff about his clothes and decorations. He mentioned good relations with the mountain-folk and seers below (which makes sense as the way down is through his territory), and he warned me that while the lizardmen understand "the common tongue," they can't speak it. "Sseth" and "click" mean "yes" and "no," but he doesn't know which is which. He was also kinder in his remembrances of Cabirus, calling him "a born leader" who "had all of us working together so well." But while he'd heard of the eight talismans, he didn't know anything about them. 
         
As much as I want to know the information in options 2-4, I need to ask #1 to get him to keep talking.
        
Both goblin tribes had a few members willing to trade. Trading in the game is fairly straightforward: you highlight the items you want in the other character's inventory, highlight the ones you're willing to trade in your inventory, then make the offer. I mostly used it to get gold for some on of my surplus.
             
Offering gold for a shield.
          
Enemies on the level included rogue versions of the gray and green goblins, slimes, rotworms, bats, giant spiders, a skeleton, and a beast in the water called a "lurker" that I was unable to kill because it's hard to fight someone in the water.
            
Soon.
        
A couple of the bats got away because they can fly, and I lost track of one goblin when I knocked him off a bridge into the river. Overall, the combats were simple enough.
        
In other news that I don't want to talk about just yet, I downloaded Kingdom Come: Deliverance over the weekend and was amused at how similar the combat is to this 26-year-old game.
       
Special encounters and puzzles included:

  • A silver sapling growing out of the ground. A sign nearby encouraged me to plant its seed, and indeed when I messed with the sapling, it turned into a silver seed (anticipating the subtitle to the add-on to Ultima VII Part 2). I haven't figured out where to plant it yet.
  • The aforementioned ankh room. 
  • A room with four levers. I haven't solved this puzzle yet.
            
I didn't see any hints to help me with this puzzle, and I didn't feel like fiddling with it randomly.
         
  • A healing fountain behind a secret door.
           
A well-placed fountain of healing.
       
  • The first time I slept, I got a vision of the same guy who came to my dreams shouting "treachery and doom!" This time, he spoke of the importance of visiting the civilized races.
           
Mysteriously, all the important words are elided.
        
  • At the top of a long jumping puzzle, the gravestone of a man named Korianous, "the Master Builder," who labored to re-design the Abyss under Cabirus's direction.
        
Wouldn't this game had been better if instead of "Cabirus" and "Korianous," they'd drawn from NPCs actually in previous Ultimas?
       
  • An orb that showed me a vision of "bizarre creatures [floating] in space" and "a green path, flanked by a black void on either side." The vision concludes: "Somehow you know the path leads to Britannia."
  • Several jumping puzzles where I had to trust my automap and leap into the darkness, assuming there was something to land on on the other side.
             
I rose to Level 5 during the level and used my "meditation slots" to improve abilities of all three principles, particularly concentrating on mana. I had failed to note during the first entry, because I had nothing to cast yet, that I started with only 2 mana points. This wasn't enough to cast anything. Only once I had meditated for more mana could I start to cast spells, including "Light" (In Lor), which was vital because I ran out of torches and spent about an hour exploring with no light source. I have this vague recollection that there's a way to make more torches with sticks, and I've been carrying around two sticks for that purpose, but I don't remember how. Funny how this plagues me two games in a row. Anyway, I'm not sure I'll use any more torches because the "Light" spell does a much better job. 
           
The detritus after a battle with a skeleton.
          
As I end the level, I can't spare the weight for another inventory item. This is partly because I'd been carrying around a lot of junk hoping to sell it, but the individuals who would trade didn't have that much money, or indeed any items I wanted to trade for. I'm wearing a full suit of leather armor: cap, gloves, vest, boots, and leggings. I'm wielding an axe, which has become my weapon specialty and will likely remain so unless I find a magic something-else first. I have 29 gold pieces and a wooden shield. Among six containers, I have 2 loaves of bread, an apple, 3 day-old pieces of meat, 2 edible plants, 2 sticks, 2 ears of corn, a bottle of water, 2 badly worn shortswords, a hand axe, a cudgel, 7 sling stones (I sold the slings), a serviceable leather vest, a leather helmet, a buckler, badly worn leggings, 2 bottles of oil, a bone, a skull, 3 spools of strong thread (recovered from a giant spider's lair), 2 keys, a lock pick, 3 spikes (for keeping doors closed?), 5 candles, 2 rubies, a couple pieces of paper, a "resilient sphere," a bottle of ale, a bedroll, 2 clusters of leeches, a pole, and an "unblemished scepter." And I still left plenty on the dungeon floor.

I think this is the first time I've encountered spikes or a 10-foot pole in a CRPG, as much as they're staples of tabletop RPGs.

I'm headed down to Level 2, but I'm a bit concerned about the lever puzzle I'm leaving behind and also the fact that I didn't find any of the eight talismans. Fortunately, I can always return.
          
The next level beckons.
         
One persistent problem I'm having is the mysterious loss of hit points for no reason. I'll drink at the fountain and get restored to 50/50, then walk for about two minutes, and suddenly I only have 46/50. I don't know if I'm losing small numbers by walking into walls or something.
      
Other than that and the mantras, it's been a great game so far--much faster-paced than I remember, with much smoother and easier movement. It probably doesn't help that my primary memories are playing on a Mac with SoftPC running, having to do all "right-clicking" with a keyboard workaround because the Mac only had one mouse button.

I still don't love combat, but I can hardly complain since I've won all of my battles and the only deaths I've suffered have been from jumping, falling, and drowning. I assume that will change by the time I encounter golems and gazers.

Time so far: 5 hours

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Mindtrap: A Game That Could Have Been

           
Over two years ago, a reader named Keith alerted me to a bunch of Apple II games that weren't on my master list. One of them was Mindtrap: The Quest of the Seven Diamonds, which immediately set off alarm bells when Googling didn't produce a game of that name. Nonetheless, the disk images existed, and Keith e-mailed them to me. I wasn't able to get very far with them, so I cast about for some more information and ultimately found a new disk image with a readme file, which filled in some of the background.

Mindtrap was never a game, just a demonstration written by a talented programmer at Origin Systems in the late 1980s. The idea was to blend the graphical exploration and role-playing of the Ultima series with the "unlimited interactivity" provided (or at least theoretically provided) by text adventures like Zork. To do this, the creator programmed an interface unlike anything I've ever seen. To get around, you move with the UIO/JKL cluster--in hexes rather than squares--but when you want to do something more elaborate, you hit the ENTER key and type a more detailed set of commands at the parser. The plan was to recognize about 3,000 total words. Hitting ENTER again on a blank line returns to movement mode.

To play the game, you need one knight, one cleric, one mage, and one thief. For some reason, this group has been exiled to a planet called Yriearth, in a city called Belsaena, from which their first quest is to escape. Unfortunately, the text doesn't give any indication why the game is called Mindtrap or what seven diamonds has to do with anything.
        
Character creation. I don't believe I've ever seen "deftness" or "affinity" before.
            
The creator of the game was John Miles, who was at Origin in the late 1980s, with programming credits on titles like Ultima V, Ultima VI, and Martian Dreams. We'll see his later work on Eye of the Beholder III (1993) and Dark Sun (1993). In the readme file, Miles made up a pseudonym for the author and said he died "from complications arising from Bachman's Syndrome," referring to Stephen King's famous nom de plume. He also made up a backstory that related the game to the Ultima universe, with the four characters having been exiled to Yriearth for collaborating with Blackthorn, but in an e-mail exchange with me, Miles admitted that this had never been part of the original pitch. Ultimately, Origin rejected the approach, but Miles kept the disks in a drawer and sent the images to the Interactive Fiction Archive in the late 1990s, hoping some developer might be inspired by the interface.
                
Arriving in the game. The writing is solid.
          
I tried to play a bit, but I couldn't get far because the commands that work are undocumented, and using dialogue-based commands, which are pretty important, produces an error message. I would say that the concept needed a bit of work. There's a good reason that most iconographic games offer simple single-letter commands for common tasks like opening doors and talking to the NPC standing next to you. Having to stop and type OPEN CHEST every time would have become tiresome. Of course, it's possible that the final version could have found some shortcuts. I also don't like that you can't look at specific objects by indicating a direction. I don't know for sure what the icons are depicting half the time.
         
If I can't donate, I'm going to steal.
        
On the positive side, I love the detailed text descriptions of rooms as you enter them. (In classic Infocom style, you can toggle between "brief" and "verbose" to have those descriptions come up every time, or not.) Abstract iconography can only convey so much. There are very few games, even in the modern era of crystal-clear graphics, where it wouldn't be occasionally useful to have a textual description of what you're looking at.
         
Another example--so much more interesting  than just looking at icons bustling around.
           
I also like the idea of being able to use a text parser to engage in complex interactions with the environment, although a clever programmer can make a lot of things possible without going so far. Ultima V and Ultima VI are already extraordinarily interactive games without having to go beyond the 26 letter keys. Nonetheless, a text parser would definitely allow for more complex puzzles and would have fit well with Origin's tradition of free text for NPC dialogues.

If any developer out there wants to carry the idea forward, I can promise that I and John Miles will play it.


Monday, February 26, 2018

Game 282: MicroMud (1988)

This sounds like an exfoliating body wash.
          
MicroMud
United Kingdom
Independently developed; published by Virgin Games
Released in 1988 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 18 February 2018
Date Ended: 23 February 2018
Total hours: 12
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)

One thing that has never interested me is making other people part of my gaming experience. Not strangers, anyway. I guess it could be fun with a small group of intelligent, trustworthy friends, but I barely have five people in my life who will meet in a bar, let alone create Cyber1 accounts and join me for a rousing game of Oubliette. I have no interest in playing with strangers, either cooperatively or competitively. I don't want my success dependent on other people, or theirs dependent on me. I don't want to compete against 14-year-olds with 16 hours a day to devote to developing their expertise. I have no interest in hearing slurs about my intelligence, sexuality, or family. I play video games to get away from that sort of thing.

There must be a lot of players like me, which makes me all the more surprised that some of the big MMORPGs don't offer a single-player option. I think it would be enormous fun to experience a persistent game world in which things were always changing and there was new stuff to explore every few months. I just want to do it alone.

For players like me, or for those without modems in 1988, came MicroMud, an offline version of the famous MUD ("multi-user dungeon") developed at the University of Essex in the late 1970s. The two-disk game simulates the MUD experience by drawing 10 AI characters from a pool of 100 to play along with the PC. They come and go from the various screens, offer insults and platitudes, and occasionally attack without provocation.
         
As the game begins, computer-controlled characters enter and speak.
         
These interactions happen within the context of a typical Zork-like text adventure spanning 400 locations. The ostensible goal is to reach 102,400 points by slaying other characters (which gives you one-twelfth their accumulated points), slaying monsters, solving puzzles, and finding treasures and dropping them in, of all places, the swamp. I gather that this basic approach is drawn directly from the online MUD.

The puzzles are adequate, but I can't say that it's a pleasant experience trying to solve them while dozens of messages cycle by about people entering and leaving, along with voices shouting in the distance (replicating the original MUD's ability to message everyone currently in the system). In fact, the experience makes me more confused than ever about how MUDs actually operated. I get the PLATO adventures that mostly focus on combat, but why would it enhance an adventure game experience to have a bunch of other people buzzing around? How did you ever manage to solve puzzles that required inventory items if other people were constantly picking them up?

Making things even harder here, since you've got 11 players running around, finding treasure, and tossing it into the swamp, the number of items depletes fast. The game thus resets every 40-60 minutes, which translates to 20-30 minutes with the modern emulator, because leaving it set at 100% is infuriatingly sluggish. When the game resets, you have to re-enter, and you find yourself back in the starting square, all of your items gone. You do get to keep your points between resets.
            
Character creation.
      
For character options, you only have name and sex. MUD allowed you to choose between a warrior path and a wizard path, but in this game you just have a generic adventurer with skills from both classes who gets more powerful with experience. The game automatically assigns your strength, dexterity, and stamina scores, noting that intelligence and charisma are up to you. Characteristics go up and down based on events in the game. You can save the character at any time with LOGOFF, and then back up the data disk if you want to cover your bases.
        
My character demonstrates a lack of both intelligence and charisma.
        
(Incidentally, because of the dynamic nature by which the game is run, with constant referencing of the data and program disks, emulator save states don't really work. You have to play this one honestly.)
          
The game world offered in the manual.
          
I spent several hours just mapping about 40 rooms, or about a tenth of the total number. The map, which I guess is based to some degree on MUD, is horribly convoluted. Every square can have up to 10 exits (including up and down) and almost all of them have at least six. Hardly ever is a path from one square to another reversible; you often leave one by going south and enter the next from the west, for instance. There are many one-way paths. There are many squares with the same name and a twisting maze of paths between them.
          
A very small part of the game world.
           
There are a lot of indoor areas, including a cave, a hut, a cottage, a mine, and a mausoleum. Most of the good stuff is there, but you need a light source to progress, and for more than half of my playing time, I couldn't get anything to work. The opening hints tell you to make a torch out of a stick and some fire. I found plenty of sticks and a roaring fire, but no set of commands I could think of would ignite that stick. It doesn't help that the book only gives you about a dozen of the supposed 200 commands and tells you to figure out the rest on your own. (One of the commands it does provide is COMMANDS, which supposedly "gives you a short list of commands." But if you actually try to use it in game, it says: "Well, if we told you them, it would spoil the game!") It was only late in my experience, after a fan e-mailed me instructions for finding a "firestone" in the dark, that I could start to explore the indoor areas.
              
Trying to light a stick on fire.
           
In some ways, whether you can progress through all the game's puzzles doesn't matter, because there's no way you would get it all done before the game resets. Even if you could, the movement of other players disrupts the locations of key puzzle items. Thus, after every reset, your goal is basically to get as much done as you can before the next reset. That might include winning combats or collecting treasures and taking them to the swamp. I managed to rise most of the way to 100,000 points just repeatedly collecting the treasures that don't require me to go into a dark area. These include a golden apple in a southern forest, an umbrella in the cottage foyer, and a crown sitting in the swamp itself. That latter one, at the end of a bit of a maze, is worth 2,000 experience points, so I could have "won" the game in 50 resets with that alone. In fact, I did use the SITE/RESITE spells (a "mark"/"recall" combination), which persist in between resets, to teleport myself to the crown at the beginning of each new game.
      
Almost 3% of the way there!
        
Combat is both simple and confusing. You can fight with fists but it takes forever and gives you the worst odds. Even a stick is about twice as effective. Deadly weapons like swords are only found in far-flung places that take most of a session to get to, and you have to defeat a dragon to get the deadliest weapon, a broadsword. A woodcutter's axe fairly close to the entry is probably the best option.

If you want to attack something, you type KILL RAT WITH STICK or whatever weapon you have. If you get attacked, you automatically retaliate, but I don't know with what since there's no "wield" command. Either way, the computer simply fights round after round without telling you specific attack rolls or how much damage you're doing to the enemy. Success seems extraordinarily variable. Sometimes I kill an enemy in one blow; other times it takes 10 rounds and leaves me with single-digit stamina.
           
Killing a snake in one round.
          
This zombie took a bit longer.
          
Magic is also a bit confusing. The manual lists a bunch of spells, some of which are unique to this game, such as WHERE, which will tell you the location or person carrying one of the game's objects; SUMMON, which automatically brings another player to your position; SNOOP, which allows you to see what another player is doing; and offensive spells called CRIPPLE, BLIND, and DEAFEN. What the manual doesn't tell you is that some of these spells require you to be at a certain level and some require you to have a certain object. If you try to cast a spell for which you don't have the right level or object, the game acts like it doesn't understand your words rather than telling you something useful like, "You need to be an enchanter to cast that."

Levels go something like warrior, superhero, champion, enchanter, necromancer, legend, and wizard. I might have missed a couple. With every level-up, you get a bump in attributes, up to 100. Moreover, your point level itself acts like a "power" level and increases your effectiveness in combat and spellcasting. Some areas are only accessible to higher levels, with messages that only they can read showing them the way through dangerous areas.

MicroMud is underwhelming as an RPG, but it performs relatively well as a text adventure, and I almost wish I could have played it as a straight adventure, without the distractions of NPCs and the constant threat of resets. I didn't solve anywhere near all the puzzles, partly because I didn't figure some of them out, and partly because other NPCs kept wandering off with keys and other items I needed to progress. The text is well-written and the individual areas are well-designed and evocative--particularly the mines in the northeast that slowly open up into a huge underground dwarven empire. Other areas include a dark cave network full of goblins, the surprisingly spacious basement of a cottage, an enchanted forest, and an island across a stormy sea. There are quite a few areas that lead to instant death, but this just kicks you out of the current game. If you're killed by another character, on the other hand, you're gone for good.
         
One of many instant and amusing deaths.
      
Most of the puzzles involve the creative use of inventory items, such as using a torch to burn an evil dryad, opening an umbrella to slow one's descent after jumping off a cliff, or using an axe to chop down a Yew tree and finding a cave beneath it. There are numerous doors locked by keys. There are at least two gratings that you need two characters to open; NPCs were always wandering into my square asking for help opening the portcullis.
            
Don't try this in real life.
         
My favorite puzzles were a set of word puzzles inside a mausoleum. Each word opened a different door and led to a different treasure. I got them all, but I am obliged to note that Irene helped and I guessed on one. Two of the clues have typos that make them harder to solve, but I've written them below as they actually appear. See how many you can get.
          
  • Reetirr stalanio xebor luntaw
  • Ruyers seexe nollwarc arolfid
  • Zn+xt=tz  zv+zr=zjr  z+z = ?
  • What has no wings but often flies; has legs but cannot walk; is two of something that can never exist alone?
  • Czech for MUD
  • Republican = onehundredandeight democrat = ?
          
Finally frustrated at getting deep into the dwarven mines only to be yanked back by a reset, or unable to explore the western half of the map because someone stole the umbrella before I could get to it, I "won" by settling into a pattern of grabbing the crown, going to the mausoleum, yelling each of the answers, looting all the tombs, taking the resulting load to the swamp, and dropping it. Then I'd walk one square away and kill NPCs who came along with their own loot. It took around 20 resets, but I ultimately made it to "wizard."
      
Crossing the threshold.
        
When you reach the highest rank, you become a kind of moderator, with some administrative privileges that make the game a breeze. You can kill anyone instantly with "Finger of Death" (FOD), cast a GO spell to take you to any room in the game (if you know its number), and visit a special moderator's room east of the starting square.
       
A GO command instantly takes me to the most lucrative treasure chamber in the game.
       
Based on my limited experience, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed MUD. I don't get the value of making an adventure game a multi-user game, even though I understand the tradition goes back to some of the first text adventures, like Colossal Cave Adventure and the Dungeon game that became Zork. I understand the multiplayer rationale in a game like Moria, where you need a party to stay alive, or any game that prizes tactical PvP combat. But to run around the same map iteration after iteration, trying to solve the same puzzles only to find that someone got there first, strikes me as boring and frustrating. Put another way, Moria and Oubliette feel empty without other players, but without other players, MicroMud would feel like a perfectly adequate and less-annoying text adventure. Perhaps I'm missing some aspects that original MUD players can clarify.
           
The game resets just as I'm starting to make some progress.
            
The best I can do on a GIMLET is 19. It does worst (0s) in story and setting and economy for having neither. I came close to giving a 0 in graphics, sound, and interface. Entering commands is maddeningly sluggish, and it alternately fails to recognize half your keystrokes while reading others as doubles or triples. It does best in overall gameplay (4) for being nonlinear and replayable, and in encounters (4) for its reasonably-challenging puzzles.

I found one favorable review in Advanced Computer Entertainment, which praised the NPC AI, noted the problems with the sluggishness of the interface, and concluded that it was "definitely worth checking out by anyone not totally addicted to pretty pixels." I get the impression that it sold poorly, though, as most all-text games would have by the late 1980s.
          
        
MicroMud was written by Jon Stuart and Paul McCraken. They would later establish Manic Media Productions, based in Oxfordshire, and enjoy success with a series of racing games titled SuperKarts (1995), Manic Karts (1995), and Formula Karts (1997). I lose track of them after that, but it doesn't appear that they worked on any other adventure games or RPGs.
          
MUD was written by University of Essex students Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle between 1978 and 1980. In 1980, Essex hooked up with ARPANet and MUD went global. It was enjoyed by avid players until 1987, when Bartle licensed it to CompuServe, who insisted on shutting down the free version. (Though apparently a variant called MIST remained up and running until 1991.) By the mid-1980s, MUD had become a generic term for the many available games that we would later call MMORPGs. If I ever get caught up on the backlog, maybe you'll get to hear about my experience with a MMORPG as a special topic.

****

I want to play the German Nippon (1988), which seems like an authentic RPG, but I'm having trouble with the controls. I really need a manual. If any of my German readers knows where to obtain one, I'd appreciate it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Game 281: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992)

             
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
United States
Blue Sky Productions (developer); Origin Systems (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS; 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98; 1997 for PlayStation
Date Started: 15 February 2018

You almost had to be there to understand what Ultima Underworld accomplished for the RPG genre. To fire it up after more than a decade of Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and Might and Magic is to witness--instantly, not in increments--the death of abstraction as the primary paradigm of gameplay. Tiled movement is replaced with continuous movement. Fixed views in only four directions are replaced with angular views and the ability to look up and down. Artificially even and uniform "levels" are replaced with slopes and true three-dimensional spaces. Binary lighting is replaced with dynamic (and realistically dim) lighting. Simple textures are replaced with hand-crafted scenes. All objects, monsters, and NPCs with whom you can interact actually appear in the environment; there's no more stumbling into a seemingly-empty square and having it trigger a textual encounter.

Unrealistically large mobs of varied enemies are replaced with manageable numbers of unique individuals, living in spaces large enough to accommodate them. They have beds and bathrooms. They have clear sources of food, water, and lighting. You creep, run, swim, and jump through their world, your explorations punctuated with moments of both fear and awe.
        
Note the ramp sloping downward, right in the opening room. Also, note that my view is angled downwards.
          
Underworld was not developed by Origin, but rather by Blue Sky Productions, founded by former Origin employee Paul Neurath. An article on the now-defunct Computer and Video Games web site (retrievable via Archive.org's Wayback Machine) goes extensively into the game's background, with quotes by Neurath. He conceived of Underworld while working on Space Rogue for Origin, which as you may recall featured real-time, first-person space combat. He reasoned that the same approach could be applied to an indoor environment. Dungeon Master's puzzles and real-time combat system were also inspirations. He started working on Underworld as an independent game, only later inserting it into the Ultima series after signing a production contract with Origin.

Some cursory research into the game's history suggest that some of its mechanics, including inclined surfaces, looking up and down, and jumping, appear for the first time in any indoor first-person game, not just an RPG. (We'll test these claims and fill in the background as we go along.) To some extent, these features were inevitable as computers grew more powerful and programmers grew more skilled, and their first appearance could easily have been in an unplayable curio--a game notable for its technological achievements but otherwise unremarkable. Fortunately, these "firsts" came from the hands of programmers and producers already experienced with creative, immersive RPGs, and thus the engine is only one aspect of the game's quality. Underworld is equally notable for its NPC dialogue options, its inventory system, its magic system, its character development, and (aside from aspects of the backstory) its plot.

Nonetheless, Ultima Underworld is not a perfect game, and players of 1992 could be forgiven for seeing it as a step backwards, or perhaps sideways, rather than forward. Dynamic graphics meant a general reduction in graphic quality, for instance. The sound is synthesized and low-quality. The real-time combat system depends too much on player reflexes and too little on tactics. The control scheme, which does not benefit from decades of hindsight, has some odd and uncomfortable inputs, such as dragging with the right mouse button, or using the 1 and 3 keys to look up and down. And, man, the game is dark. You absolutely can't play it with a dirty monitor or next to a window during the day.
            
The backstory benefits from Origin's typically high production quality.
          
In my opinion, its biggest flaws are pushed in your face at the outset. Even the most forgiving Ultima fan, accustomed to absurd retcons in every new title, has trouble swallowing the backstory presented in the game manual. Supposedly set 10 years after the events of Ultima VI, a lord named Cabirus has decided to establish a Town of Virtue on the Isle of the Avatar. Not on the surface, of course, which would make sense--but within the multi-leveled Stygian Abyss itself. His dream is to gather various "societies" of Britannia and have them live in harmony according to the eight virtues. In a dungeon. These societies include several races and factions making an appearance in Britannia for the first time, including goblins, lizardmen, and "mountain-folk," or dwarves ("though they detest this name"), suddenly re-appearing for the first time since Ultima III. To them are added trolls, some mages from Moonglow called "seers," and a faction from Jhelom called the Knights of the Crux Ansata. The process of settling the island is commanded by a Baron Almric, and if that title isn't making an appearance for the first time, it certainly wasn't common before.

Cabirus had gathered a set of eight artifacts representing the eight virtues (e.g., Book of Truth, Shield of Valor) and planned to distribute them among the factions, but he died before he could accomplish this. After his death, the predictable results of gathering men and monsters in a dungeon ensued, and contact was lost with the colony for 50 years. (Note that if you're taking this seriously as an Ultima game, it's the first indication that a large amount of time has passed in Britannia since Ultima VI. Such will soften the shock when we get to Ultima VII.) It probably didn't help that Baron Almric sealed the entrance to the Abyss with a locked iron door.

That brings us to the present day, in which a confusing series of events is relayed in an animated introduction using voiced dialogue. Players who encountered this game for the first time in 1992 will have to report on whether the sheer novelty of a fully-voiced, animated introduction managed to eclipse the crimes against humanity committed by what the manual laughably calls the "voice talent." Astonishingly, these individuals (apart from Richard Garriott, voicing Baron Almric) aren't credited as anything other than voice actors, meaning that they're not programmers pressed into last-minute service but rather people hired specifically for this job. You have to watch it to believe it. Perhaps the one saving grace is that the "actors'" attempts at dialogue are occasionally drowned out by obnoxiously blaring music that you have no way to adjust.
           
I hope whoever voiced this guy's dialogue found later work as a mime.
         
What you can gather from this introduction is that the Avatar is awakened one night by a ghostly apparition screaming: "Treachery and doom! My brother will unleash a great evil! Britannia is in peril!" Somehow the ghost transports the Avatar to Britannia, into a bedchamber at Almric's castle, from which Almric's daughter Princess Arial has just been kidnapped. The Avatar arrives just in time to see a shadowy figure apparate out of the chamber, remarking that "thou shalt serve to draw the hounds from the scent." Looking out the window, the Avatar sees a troll heading into the woods with Arial slung over his shoulder in a sack.

Guards soon burst into the room and, using the worst accents ever, blame the Avatar for the kidnapping. Dragged before Almric, who must be awfully old to have a young daughter, the Avatar learns that the soldiers pursued the kidnapper to the Stygian Abyss, where goblins and other monsters ambushed them and foiled the rescue. Almric is skeptical at the Avatar's story, and he commands him to rescue Arial from the Abyss. A guard escorts the Avatar to the doors and locks them behind him.
           
The baron passes judgment.
            
The fun begins at this moment, so I won't ruin it by complaining more about how poorly the backstory, physical setting, magic system, method of arrival, and so forth fit within the rest of Ultima canon, or how senseless it is that the Avatar is yet again the hero instead of just some random Britannian, perhaps one of Almric's soldiers. (Seriously, are these people capable of doing nothing for themselves?) That it was originally developed as Underworld (without the Ultima) seems clear to me, although I don't know how far the game had come when the producers made the decision to merge it with the Ultima mythos.

(Aside: I first played this game back in 1994 or 1995, and I would have sworn that the introduction was completely different, depicting the Avatar arriving through a moongate, at night, in the middle of a rainstorm, and pounding at the door of Almric's keep. Am I remembering some other game, or did the intro differ across releases?)

Character creation is more extensive here than most Ultima titles. You can choose a male or female Avatar, your "handedness" (which only affects where you put things on the paper doll, not your actual controls), and your class. The full set of character classes from Ultima IV has returned here--fighter, mage, bard, tinker, druid, paladin, ranger, and shepherd--though with some adjustments, such as no weapon and armor restrictions (by class) and every class being capable of magic. Attributes are strength, dexterity, intelligence, and vitality. Strength controls carry weight as well as combat power. Intelligence controls the number of spell points.

I experimented a bit with the different classes. Every time you try a new character, you get 60 points distributed among strength, dexterity, and intelligence, so there's no point in re-rolling incessantly to try to get high values in all three. (Oddly, the shepherd only gets 56 points.) I decided to favor strength, since I tend to be a hoarder and get annoyed quickly with messages saying I have to drop things. I found a pretty good balance with a tinker and went with that.

Underworld adds a twist to the Ultima character template by including a set of skills for each character and a numeric score assigned to them. You get a few skills when you select your class, and then you can pick two more. My tinker got attack, defense, and repair and could select from among unarmed, sword, axe, mace, and missile for his first round and picklock, traps, search, appraise, and repair for his second. Other skills include acrobat, casting, lore, sneak, swimming, and track. I'm not 100% sure how you add new skills after character creation, but I presume it can be done. Normally, I would tend to favor exploration and interaction skills (e.g., search, track, lore) over combat skills, as I'm more concerned about missing content than making combat easier. (I just re-started Fallout: New Vegas on my console, and despite a pledge to do things differently this time, I ended up with 8 intelligence, 8 charisma, and a skill focus on science, lockpick, and speech.) I wonder if it's better to specialize in a weapon or just use the best weapon available and pour your skill points into the generic "attack." In any event, I went with axe and picklock.

The next choice is the character portrait. It would be interesting to hear from various people about how they make their selections. When I (rarely) play a female character, since I'm not female myself, all bets are off and I mostly go for someone who's going to be interesting to look at for 50 hours. I guess I have a bias for red hair. When I play a male character, I gravitate a little towards someone who looks like me. This translates into a slight bias towards white characters, but I have a much stronger bias about hair. Specifically, I don't want a dude with facial hair (I could put up with an unobtrusive goatee, but not a full shaggy beard or a 1970s porn star mustache) or a dude with long hair. Thus, black guy it is.
          
The top guy isn't so bad, but what is he trying to prove with that stupid curl?
           
The final decision is whether to play on "standard" or "easy" difficulty, which I typically interpret as "are you a real man or some kind of tofu-eater?" and select accordingly.

The character starts unarmed, unarmored, carrying nothing, in the dark, with the iron door shut and locked behind him. An inscription on the wall nearby recounts the doom of some other party, led by a guy named "Elsmore," which was unable to escape. (One wonders how the troll got out and back in with Arial.) A sack on the floor nearby offers a badly worn dagger, a torch, some food items, and a map that serves as the game's automap. Some bones litter the ground and some weeds grow up through the dirt floor.
             
Looking at an inscription on the wall.
         
My first 20 minutes were spent just getting used to the game's controls. You can do everything with the mouse, theoretically. Left-clicking in the main window and moving the mouse allows you to look, turn, and move forward, but so do the WAXD keys, and I generally find it easier to move with the keys and use the mouse for actions. Because left-clicking is for movement, you need to right-click on objects in the environment. The actions performed by right-clicking depend on the icon selected on the left (game options, talk, pick up, look, fight, pick lock); if no icon is selected, the game does the thing that contextually makes the most sense, and it's generally pretty good about it. If you just right-click on an object, for instance, it treats it as "look"; if you right-click and drag, it treats it as "pick up."

The 1 and 3 keys let you look up and down; 2 reverts you to a normal view. Since so many objects are on the floor, however, I find that I spent most of my time walking around with the view slightly angled downward.

Down the hallway, I decline to pick up a broken axe. (I don't know if broken weapons can be repaired at all.) A pull chain opens an otherwise-locked door and leads to a room strewn with bones. Another sack holds some candles, a mushroom, and a worn cudgel, which replaces my dagger. Since you only have 8 inventory slots, sacks and other containers are clearly going to be necessary to keep things organized.
       
A Dungeon Master puzzle already!
          
There are two locked doors in the room, and while I have a lockpick skill, I don't yet have a pick. You can bash locked doors with weapons, but it damages the weapons, and I suspect it doesn't work with metal doors anyway. I make a note on my automap and move on.
          
Yes, the automap allows custom notes.
          
A little further down the hall--and the hallway is dark enough, even with the torch, that I have to careen from side to side to make sure I'm not missing anything--I find two spell runes, Ort and Jux. A little beyond that, amidst bones and bloodstains, is an adventurer's pack containing a key, four more runes (Bet, In, Lor, and Sanct), and a love note from "Sandra" to "Alfred." The implication is that Alfred was exiled to the Abyss by the Baron for some kind of crime and died there.

A full discussion of the magic system will have to await a later entry. For now, suffice to say that to cast a spell, you need runes and a rune bag. Once you have them, you click on the runes to line them up on the "rune shelf" (to the right of the compass) then click on the shelf to cast the spell. Casting depletes mana. Spells are organized into eight "circles," or levels, and half your character level, rounded up, must equal the spell level. With the runes I have, I can cast In Lor ("Light"), Bet In Sanct ("Resist Blows"), or Ort Jux ("Magic Arrow"), all in the first circle. I'll need to find a Hur stone to cast Sanct Hur ("Stealth") and both Mani and Ylem runes to cast In Mani Ylem ("Create Food"). I need no new runes to cast Bet Sanct Lor ("Conceal") or Sanct Jux ("Strengthen Door"), but as they're third-circle spells, I'll need to hit Level 5 first.
           
Stringing together the runes for a "Light" spell.
          
The system is similar to that in Ultima V, where you had to string together syllables, but is unique in requiring runes rather than reagents. The backstory hand-waves the inconsistency with some nonsense about magic behaving differently in the Abyss than on the surface. I don't know if there are "hidden" spells that you can find yourself with logical combinations of runes. There are some spells here that have existed in no previous Ultima, including "Fly," "Levitate," and "Telekinesis."

My first combat is with a rat. To fight, you activate the combat icon, then right-click on the screen and hold down the right mouse button. Where you click determines the nature of the attack, from an overhead bash (top third of the screen), sideways slash (middle), or thrust (bottom third). The longer you hold down the right mouse button before releasing (up to a point), the more power. I can already tell that I'm going to frequently forget a) where you click on the screen, not the enemy, matters; and b) you just need to right-click and hold down, not move the mouse. It's also going to take some time to get a feel for where the enemy needs to be relative to the center of the screen for the blow to hit. I killed the rat, but only after whiffing an attack and accidentally picking up one of my bags in the process.
          
Great. Another game that requires mouse acumen.
          
I'm having two persistent annoyances, one the game's fault, one not. The one that's the game's fault has to do with sound. As you walk, there's a constant "bing-bong" sound effect, sounding nothing like footsteps, to accompany your stride. In general, sound is a lot poorer in the game than I remembered. There haven't been any atmospheric or ambient sounds so far, and the attack sounds are only a few lines of code removed from beeps and boops. If it's supposed to sound better, let me know. I'm using the configuration supplied by GOG, and it looks all right to me.

The second issue has to do with tabbing out of the game widow to write notes for my blog entries. This causes the cursor in the game window to go crazy, flying back and forth even when I return to the window to play. I can generally make it stop by leaving the window and re-entering a few more times, but it's annoying. Turning off cursor capture solves the issue but creates new problems.
          
"Wow, that's pretty--hey, do you feel something?"
        
This entry is getting pretty long, so I'll save a full account of Level 1, including NPC dialogue and inventory interactions, for next time. For now, suffice to say that within a few more minutes, the cavernlike nature of the dungeon changed when I emerged onto a platform and saw a river roaring several stories below. This must have been awesome in 1992. I was so caught up in admiring the view that I failed to note a goblin hurling sling stones at my head. That happens to me routinely in games like Skyrim these days, but here it's definitely a first.

Time so far: 2 hours

******

Bob's Dragon Hunt is going to be the first 1992 game to fall to the axe. When I researched, I thought it was an RPG, but instead it's one of at least three games produced by Neurosport, an independent Texas developer, to showcase their "VirtualDungeon" technology. The other three were Majik Adventure, which I've been unable to find, AntKill, and Crystal Deception.
              
             
The technology allows for quasi-continuous movement and action combat in a three-dimensional game, which is noteworthy given that we're praising Ultima Underworld for the same thing. The problem is that Neurosport's technology hasn't aged well, if it ever worked right at all. The vector graphics draw at molasses speeds, even when the CPU is cranked, and any movement sends the character into an endless spin.

Even if it worked, there's no character development. Instead, every new character is assigned a random class, level, and inventory (justified by the backstory in which the character has found a magic ring that turns him into a different legendary hero every time he puts it on). The goal is simply to kill as many dragons and score as many points as possible. It's an interesting curio of its age but not a full RPG. It and AntKill disappear from my 1992 list.