Genre Hopping: Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992)

From The Adventure Gamer


Delivering Our Report

We offer our report to Finnegan, and he asks us various questions about the case. The simple point and click nature makes this quite obvious, there are only so many potential answers to each question, and it should be obvious which is the most appropriate answer each time. After he is satisfied with our progress so far, he gives us half the reward money (100 gold pieces), and tells us to continue to Britain. He also asks if we need the Password to leave the city, which of course we do. This requires us to look up information from the manual in order to pass some basic copy protection questions. Nowadays with the GOG.com version, the answers are handily collated into a single list to make it easy to get past.

Answering these questions correctly gets us the password: “Blackbird”. This allows us to raise the portcullis that prevent our exit from Trinsic, and means we can head out into the wider world. From here, you are actually able to travel almost anywhere on the map (although some areas are locked, or require a ship or other means of travel). The game very much wants you to travel north, to Britain, and really that’s the best option at this point. So far, we have completed one quest, and killed precisely zero humans or monsters.

I haven’t talked about the combat system, the equipment, or experience and levelling up. For large parts of the game, this is how it continues, although there is plenty of combat once you find yourself in the wilderness or perhaps exploring one of the many dungeons. The towns and other settlements are much more designed around you talking to the various inhabitants, finding out about their problems, and occasionally being able to solve them.

The key aspects of an adventure gaming are here, solving puzzles and problems through investigation, conversation and item management. This sort of RPG feels very much of a similar type to Quest For Glory, with the relative safety of the towns and villages giving you opportunity to talk to the residents and help with their problems, while the combat in the wilderness and dungeons is often more of a side quest than any particular focus.

For someone that grew up with Sierra adventure games amongst others, Quest for Glory was my introduction to RPGs. From there, the Ultima games seemed much more suited to my interests than the likes of Wizardry or Might and Magic. Of course many RPGs and other genres would expand their gameplay mechanics in similar ways, as seen in the likes of System Shock, Fallout and so on.

Perhaps in the future, when we reach the appropriate years, such interesting crossovers of genre could be written about. Let me know in the comments if you have a particular favourite!

Written by Andy Panthro

We talk often about what makes something an “Adventure Game”, much like any genre this one was very loosely codified but I’m sure most of us would know one when they see one. Certainly we have already covered games that stray in some ways from accepted adventure gaming norms, most notably the Quest for Glory series which uses the classic Sierra graphical adventure gaming engine to deliver a fantastic RPG series.

The Ultima series was one of the earliest commercial RPG series, and one of the most popular through the 1980s and 90s. As Origin Systems developed this and other series, they were always wanting to be at the forefront of new technology and game design. The increased graphical fidelity of the Ultima series allowed them to increase the amount of unique characters, items, interactive elements and mechanics. The peak for this was surely Ultima 7, in which you can bake bread from flour and water, weave cloth from wool, and in the expansion pack even craft your own sword.

What the game also allowed, which to an extent was already present in Ultima 6, was a point and click interface that can be used to move and manipulate items in the world. Items could be hidden beneath other items, such as a key beneath a plant pot, objects could be stored inside other objects. A huge number of unique characters each having their own dialogue and in many cases their own homes, with appropriate items to be found within.

This meant that quest design could be so very much more varied. In older RPGs, you may expect to be fighting monsters and finding quest items at the bottom of a dungeon. Ultima 7 on the other hand contains so many quests that would not be out of place in any popular adventure game of the time. To fully explain how, let’s take a look at what could be considered the prologue of Ultima 7.

Trouble in Trinsic

The opening cinematic is a curious one, for those that don’t already know, the main character of the Ultima series is a human from Earth, summoned to provide assistance to the land of Britannia (formerly Sosaria in earlier games). This summoning is often done by key characters and friends from the land of Britannia in their time of need. The opening of Ultima 7 on the other hand, has your character mocked and taunted by a mysterious Guardian, and a strange red moongate in the circle of stones behind your house. Knowing that Britannia must be in trouble, you walk through the moongate to find yourself in the city of Trinsic.

Here you are in the game proper, and you see two people in conversation, something awful has happened. Your arrival is a surprise, and yet you have managed to appear right next to an old friend. Iolo the bard is a companion that has followed you through several adventures, and amongst the information he tells you is that it has been 200 Britannian years since you were last here, and that last night there was a terrible murder in the stables.

This begins an entire section that is used as both an introduction to the world and mechanics of the game, and as a tutorial and copy protection (more on that later). What is very important in this opening section, and was both surprising and fascinating in 1992 as it is today, is that this introduction involves absolutely no combat at all. You instead are tasked by the Mayor of Trinsic to investigate the murder of Christopher the blacksmith. Whereas other games of this era and later would have you fight a basement full of rats, or throw you into the wilderness to face random combat encounters, Ultima 7 was confident enough to try something quite different. Indeed even in the previous entry in this series, the first actions you took upon starting a new game were to fight a combat encounter.

What is more, the game engine is able to show you the entire grisly, ritualistic murder scene without having to have a text box explaining what has happened. You can see poor Christopher’s body, the blood, the candles, and even the bloody footprints of his attacker leaving the scene of the crime. Your job as Avatar of Virtue here in Britannia is to embody the virtue system, to save the land from peril, but in this game more than any previous, this task also involves solving the myriad and often serious problems that face the people of Britannia.

As with any good adventure game of this period, it’s often a good idea to have a notebook handy. There are many things you’ll want to make a log of, and there are so many little side quests and locations to keep track of. As you play, you’ll find yourself often crossing back and forth across the world and occasionally revisiting areas. For this first quest, I took note of the graphic and disturbing murder scene. In the centre of the stables lies a mutilated body of a man, besides which are four candles, a bucket of blood, and a key. Clicking and dragging the key on top of the Avatar puts it in his inventory. You can also move some of the other items, douse the candles and this provides me with an opportunity to discuss the rather interesting inventory system.

In early Ultima games, there were very few items, mostly either quest items, weapons, armour, and spell reagents. These might be displayed graphically in the world as simple tiles, but became merely a text list once you had them in your inventory or were browsing a shop. From Ultima 6, items were graphically represented both in the world and in the different character’s inventories. Ultima 7 continues this but with a greater graphical fidelity. Items in the world have different graphical sizes, but also have an assigned size and weight value. Containers have limits as to what size of items and how many items can fit within them. The positives for this are that it creates a much more immersive world, full of items you can pick up and interact with. Clicking and dragging to move items, double clicking to use items. It does also present some limitations, not least that your inventory can become very cluttered and it can be very easy to lose track of where items are (you must be especially careful with quest items). There are also some game-breaking bugs where items can disappear.

For the most part, this is an enjoyable and relatively intuitive system, rather than having to remember keyboard shortcuts. To open your backpack you can double-click on your character, then double click on your backpack (the keyboard shortcut to open your character sheet is “I”, pressing “I” multiple times will open the character sheets of each of your companions in succession). You can click and drag the key into your pack, along with any other items that you think might be useful. Double-clicking on a corpse opens a little coffin-shaped box with any items found within. Searching the rest of the stables will lead you to discover the body of a wingless gargoyle, impaled by a hay fork to the wall of his small room at the back of the stables. The gargoyle seems to have been murdered because of unfortunately being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The bloody footsteps lead out the back of the stables and then stop. The only way out is over a small set of steps over the fence, towards the eastern exit of this walled city.

Becoming the Detective

The next step is to talk to anyone and everyone that you can. The stables are run by a man named Petre, who lets us know that Christopher was the town blacksmith and he made shoes for the horses. The gargoyle’s name was Inamo, and he worked at the stables and lived in the back room. Since the murderer (or murderers!) seemed to escape to the east, it is worthwhile speaking with the guard at the east gate. The guard, Johnson, tells us that last night Gilberto was on guard, and he was found this morning lying wounded at his post. If you return to the Mayor at this point, he can give you an idea of where next to search. He first asks if you have searched the stables, and upon revealing that you found a key, he suggests asking Christopher’s son about it. He also recommends visiting Gilberto, who is recovering from a serious head injury at the local healer, as well as generally just asking every person in town about the murder.

He also reveals another piece of information, this is not the first time he has seen such a strange murder. The last time was four years ago, in the capital city of Britain. This will have to be our next stop, once our tasks here are complete. A quick visit to the healer lets us find Gilberto, who fills in some more of the details. He was struck just before dawn, and noticed that the ship “The Crown Jewel” had left in the ten minutes or so that he was unconscious. It is possible the killers took this ship, which was scheduled to leave for Britain. Another reason to travel to the Capital! He has little other information for us, so we head a little further down the street to the south, to visit Christopher’s place of work. There is nothing to use the key on here, but the place itself has been ransacked, and the laughter of the Guardian rings through our ears.

The Mayor said that Christopher’s son, Spark, lived with him in the North-west of the city, so perhaps he will be able to inform us about the key. Spark is a young man, fourteen years old (although his picture makes him look much younger), and although he is initially suspicious, he does agree to help. It is from Spark that we learn his father had recently joined the Fellowship, a new organisation that is unfamiliar to us, but seems to have spread across Britannia in recent years. There were troubles though, as Christopher had been arguing with the leader of the local Fellowship branch. Spark also lets us know that the key may unlock his father’s chest, found upstairs in his house. He also tells us that he might have seen the killers, a wingless gargoyle and a man with a hook for a hand. Finally, the boy asks to join our party to hunt for his father’s murderers. Bringing a teenager on a dangerous mission is perhaps not the best idea, but as Justice is one of the Eight Virtues, I accept his request and he joins the party.

Upstairs I do find a locked chest, which is opened with the key found next to Christopher’s body, and inside are three things: 100 gold pieces, a fellowship medallion, and a note saying “Thou hast received payment, make the delivery tonight”. What Christopher had made for these mysterious men, and why they killed him after receiving it, we will have to find out! Next step, interrogate Klog, the Fellowship leader, and see if he can shed any light on this matter. Klog resides with his wife Ellen, at the Fellowship branch in the centre of town. The building is quite large, and inside is reminiscent of a church, with pews facing towards a podium, where presumably sermons are delivered.

Trust Thy Brother

Klog himself greets us as the Avatar, it seems that word has spread quickly of our arrival. After the usual pleasantries, I enquire if he knows anything about the murders, and the first thing he mentions is that he has an alibi. Not suspicious at all, of course. Furthermore, he also gives us a Fellowship saying: “Worthiness Precedes Reward”, and suggests that Christopher must have done something wrong to have been murdered. So far this is giving me both a low opinion of Klog, and also his organisation. I decide to quiz him on the items I have found so far, but he denies any knowledge of any of them, save the medallion. He does mention that the argument was to do with Christopher wanting to leave the fellowship, and he accuses Christopher of “verbally assaulting” him.

As the Fellowship is an entirely new organisation since we were last in Britannia, I take the opportunity to ask about it. He tells me that the Fellowship is an organisation promoting a philosophy of “sanguine cognition”, based around the “Triad of Inner Strength”. This triad being, “Strive for Unity”, “Trust Thy Brother” and “Worthiness Precedes Reward”. He then asks me if I’d like to join, to which I reply “no”. He responds “Perhaps thou canst become enlightened another time”. If you reply “yes”, he tells you to visit Batlin in Britain to take a test to see if you can become a member. All roads lead to Britain, it seems. Speaking to his wife gives no further information, the only thing she talks about at any length is the Fellowship, repeating word-for-word the same speech as her husband. It does not take a genius to figure out that there may be something rotten at the heart of this organisation, and indeed the original game manual is in part written by Batlin of Britain, leader of the Fellowship, who gives his biased view on Britannia and the previous adventures of The Avatar. It is definitely worth reading the manual if you decide to play this game!

Our final stop before returning to the Mayor is to check in with the shipwright, to see if he has any information about the ship “The Crown Jewel”. The man’s name is Gargan, and he confirms that “The Crown Jewel” sailed for Britain early this morning. He is also initially dismissive of our descriptions of the potential murderers, before remembering that he did see two such people just before sunrise, providing confirmation of what Spark had seen. With no further questions or leads at this time, the Mayor will want our report. You can of course speak to several other people in the town, many of whom have interesting things to say, but for the sake of brevity it’s best for us to move on.

Delivering Our Report

We offer our report to Finnegan, and he asks us various questions about the case. The simple point and click nature makes this quite obvious, there are only so many potential answers to each question, and it should be obvious which is the most appropriate answer each time. After he is satisfied with our progress so far, he gives us half the reward money (100 gold pieces), and tells us to continue to Britain. He also asks if we need the Password to leave the city, which of course we do. This requires us to look up information from the manual in order to pass some basic copy protection questions. Nowadays with the GOG.com version, the answers are handily collated into a single list to make it easy to get past.

Answering these questions correctly gets us the password: “Blackbird”. This allows us to raise the portcullis that prevent our exit from Trinsic, and means we can head out into the wider world. From here, you are actually able to travel almost anywhere on the map (although some areas are locked, or require a ship or other means of travel). The game very much wants you to travel north, to Britain, and really that’s the best option at this point. So far, we have completed one quest, and killed precisely zero humans or monsters.

I haven’t talked about the combat system, the equipment, or experience and levelling up. For large parts of the game, this is how it continues, although there is plenty of combat once you find yourself in the wilderness or perhaps exploring one of the many dungeons. The towns and other settlements are much more designed around you talking to the various inhabitants, finding out about their problems, and occasionally being able to solve them.

The key aspects of an adventure gaming are here, solving puzzles and problems through investigation, conversation and item management. This sort of RPG feels very much of a similar type to Quest For Glory, with the relative safety of the towns and villages giving you opportunity to talk to the residents and help with their problems, while the combat in the wilderness and dungeons is often more of a side quest than any particular focus.

For someone that grew up with Sierra adventure games amongst others, Quest for Glory was my introduction to RPGs. From there, the Ultima games seemed much more suited to my interests than the likes of Wizardry or Might and Magic. Of course many RPGs and other genres would expand their gameplay mechanics in similar ways, as seen in the likes of System Shock, Fallout and so on.

Perhaps in the future, when we reach the appropriate years, such interesting crossovers of genre could be written about. Let me know in the comments if you have a particular favourite!



Original URL: https://advgamer.blogspot.com/2020/06/genre-hopping-ultima-vii-black-gate-1992.html