The Black Gate: Wee Britain

From The CRPG Addict


More than once, in idle moments, I’ve gone through a sentence like this, seeing how it changes meaning depending on where you put the emphasis.

        

After speaking to Lord British, I had three items on my “to do” list for Britain–five if you include a quick trip back to Paws:
         
  • Find out if the Crown Jewel docked in Britain after leaving Trinsic.
  • Talk to the mayor about the murder from a few years ago.
  • Investigate, perhaps infiltrate, the fellowship.
  • Make sure Weston made it back to Alina in Paws after his release.
  • Buy some Mutton in Paws for Boots, the castle chef.
       
But before I did any of that, I wanted to experience some combat. It’s rare that I’m five entries into a game without being able to talk about combat. From watching a recent humor video, I had picked up the accidental knowledge that there were some bandits just west of Britain, on the way to Skara Brae. I thus walked past the city’s row houses and pumpkin patches (noting with satisfaction that one of the street names is “Avatar Avenue”) and made my way towards the bandit ambush.
      
…and then we’ll take it higher.
            
I arrived just in time to see some random knight finishing them off. Where did he come from? Britannia just has roaming police knights now? He wouldn’t speak to me, so I couldn’t even thank him. All I could do was loot the corpses of the bandits he’d killed, because he didn’t seem interested in doing that.
       

This guy came along and swordthwarted me!

            
I thus headed back to Britain to begin exploring the streets systematically. The first NPC I met was a woman named Millie who made it impossible not to conjure the phrase “silly bint.” She stands on the street all day recruiting for the Fellowship. She spouted the usual drivel about their philosophies. It’s from her that I first hear about the organization’s Meditation Retreat, where it’s supposedly possible through concentration to hear “the Voice,” which the members interpret as an “inner voice,” but which I suspect is actually the Guardian.
     
Moving on, we come to a farmer’s market run by spouses Kelly and Fred. Fred resells meat from Paws. I check his prices, and the best deal seems to be dried meat at 2 gold pieces per 10 portions. I buy 20 of them.
    
I then take about two and a half hours to organize my inventory. Like most things in Ultima VII, the inventory system is at once amazing and annoying. I believe it is the first game to offer a completely slotless inventory. Your items don’t exist in defined spaces; they exist in a jumble, like a real backpack. They overlap each other and often get mixed around in between times you open the same container (I honestly don’t know if this is a bug or a feature). You can nest containers in containers. Some behind-the-scenes statistics enforce logical limits (based on volume, weight, or both) that you can store in a single container, as you occasionally get messages stating “Won’t Fit!” when you try to drag something in.
        

If it had three half-finished packages of gum, it would be indistinguishable from Irene’s purse.

         
It all makes for impressive programming, but when you got to find something–especially something small, like a key–you start to remember fondly the days when inventories were just textual lists of items, and even better, when the party just shared one common inventory pool. Particularly annoying is how precise you have to be when you click on things; otherwise, you’ll click on the wrong thing or the container itself.

But given the way things are, you need to spend some time coming up with an organization scheme. One character carries the quest items, another the wealth of the party, another food, another exploration gear like torches. As you add more party members, you can better subdivide these responsibilities. It also makes sense to use nested containers, so that (for instance) all the food is in one bag and all the gold in another.

All your organization goes out the window when you buy 20 pieces of meat. They just get dumped into the backpack of the first character, spilling over to the second if you run out of room. Then you have to spend time dragging each piece of meat to its appropriate container. Based on my experience so far, I suspect that about 25% of the game is going to consist of dragging inventory items around, either trying to find something or trying to organize things.
     
The inventory system works well with the overall engine. It’s nice that NPCs can hide keys under potted plants or that the Avatar can stack crates to create a staircase. You take the good with the bad.
        
Gordon sells fish and chips at the northeast end of the farmer’s market. He’s the one that tells me about Buccaneer’s Den, which has become a kind-of themed amusement park. Apparently, the pirates learned that they could make more money selling a pirate-themed bacchanalia than actually pirating, which is one of the funnier developments of the last 200 years.
          
Moving up the road, Diane runs the stables and offers to sell me a carriage pulled by a pair of horses. It’s a nice idea, and I buy one just to see what driving is like before reloading, but it’s really impractical. The contraption really needs to stick to roads, and the party can’t always do that. You’re better off just walking.
      

Avatar and company race along the street in their new carriage. There’s no horse leg animation, so movement looks very awkward.

             
The shipwright (Clint) is across the street from the market and here we struck out on the Crown Jewel lead; he said that the ship hadn’t been in the port in months. I couldn’t find anything to contradict him. Clint builds and sells ships, and he had one going in dry-dock, but I still have Lord British’s flagship to pick up in Vesper.

Heading north from the shipwriight, I spoke to some shop-keepers. Sean, an arrogant Fellowship member, runs the jewelry store. It would be ripe for burglary if I did that sort of thing. He’ll buy gems for 30 gold pieces per gem. Grayson runs the arms and armor store and is also a Fellowship member.  I’m sorry to see that he doesn’t buy used arms and armor because I’ve been carrying some. I guess I’m thinking of other RPGs.

North of the armory, Iolo introduces me to his apprentice, Coop, who runs Iolo’s Bows in Iolo’s absence. Somehow, having Iolo in the party doesn’t entitle me to a free bow. Coop notes that Iolo recently opened a second location in Serpent’s Hold. If Iolo lives to be 800 years old, he might have a pretty good franchise going by then.

I like how NPCs interact with each other.

         
The clothier, Gaye, is another Fellowship member. She sells swamp boots, which I note for when I can afford them. Wilhelm is the baker, absolutely in love with his craft, partly because “the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach.” Right now, he’s juggling two women, Jeanette and Gaye. He thinks he’s too good for Jeanette, “a tavern wench,” and he’s not sure about Gaye because she’s a Fellowship member. So he’s a bit of a jerk but also he has good judgement. Wilhelm offers to hire me to bake bread and also says he’ll buy sacks of flour from me if I get them wholesale in Paws.
        

Learning breadmaking in Wilhelm’s kitchen.

         
The process of baking bread is a testament to this game engine’s flexibility but also a commentary on the limited utility of that flexibility. To make a loaf of bread, you must:
        

  • Double-click a sack of flour to open it.
  • Double-click the sack again and click a table to spread it out. 
  • Double-click a pail of water and use it on the flour to make dough.
  • Click and drag the dough to the oven to bake it.
  • Wait for the icon to change to bread.

        
Do this five times and Wilhelm will give you one gold piece for the bread. The problem is that water and flour run out fast, so you have to go buy more or dip the bucket in the well. If you were paid in the real world with real gold, I’m still not sure it would be a good hourly rate. Nevertheless, the Internet is full of people who swear that back in the day, they spent countless hours baking bread in Ultima VII–disgusting, unleavened bread, I might add, consisting of nothing but flour and water.
        
It’s getting dark as I leave the bakery, so I head to the Blue Boar for the night. The tavern is run by Lucy and staffed by a waitress named Jeanette. Their house band is called “The Avatars” and includes a moonlighting Coop. For the third or fourth time, I have the choice to introduce myself as “Gideon” or “Avatar.” I figure the latter signifies a lack of humility. Anyway, it turns out the Blue Boar is just a tavern, not an inn and tavern, so I head back to the castle to sleep.
      
The next morning, I pick up where I left off. I open the door to a random house and find Shamino in bed with a female “entertainer.” They both start yelling at me for entering the house uninvited. Shamino doesn’t seem at all surprised to see me. He reiterates that magic isn’t working and mages are going crazy, including Nickademus in the Great Forest. He gives me a pocketwatch that I apparently left the last time I was in Britannia. (It’s actually very helpful to know what time it is at any given moment.) The woman he was in bed with is an actress named Amber. Once he finds out about the murder in Trinsic, he agrees to join the party. He comes with a sword and shield, no armor, and a slice of ham. I give him some of the armor items I’d been expecting to sell.
            

You guys need to work on your terms of endearment.

         
West of Lord British’s castle is a playground where the kids from the nursery go when they’re not in the nursery. The park features a sword-in-a-stone, but I can’t seem to pull it out despite doing well on the park’s “strength test.” Southwest of that, I meet my first trainer–a young man named Zella who specializes in hand-to-hand combat. I actually have gained a level since the game began, and I have 6 training points, but we’ll cover training and leveling later.
          

This faux Early Modern English is getting out of hand.

          
South of him is another trainer, Sentri, who offers to join the party. Sentri has been around since Ultima II, which took place on Earth, so I guess that explains his long life, although I must point out that he’s fallen from baron of Serpent’s Hold (Ultima IV) to a sword trainer in Britain. I let him back in the party, though it’s getting pretty big now. Sentri comes with both a one-handed and two-handed sword, a bow with one arrow, and a side of ribs. I was about to complain about him having no armor, but it turns out he has a full set of plat armor behind a locked door, the key found in his dresser. I distributed the pieces.
          

It’s about time someone brought something to this party besides a grumbling stomach.

          
Kessler the Apothecary has been working for Lord British, studying increasing addiction to silver snake venom. He’ll pay me 50 gold pieces for every vial I can bring him. (I know where I could get eight if I was willing to steal.) Csil the healer has independently developed germ theory and is working on a microscope to see the germs he hypothesizes; he’s not a fan of the Fellowship and their disbelief in actual medicine. Greg runs the adventuring equipment shop and happens to mention that he recently sold equipment to the Avatar–probably the same guy who signed his name at the Salty Dog.
             

Ultima VII becomes the third RPG to feature venereal diseases.

                
I find the Wayfarer’s Inn, which I had been looking for last night, just a block from the tavern. The innkeeper, James, hates his job but feels he has to keep doing it for the sake of his wife, Cynthia. He worries that because she works at the mint, she’ll begin to covet money and expect him to make more and more, then leave him when he can’t. I wonder if this is a phenomenon that befouls the marriages of bank tellers. I’ve never known one. I later meet Judith at the Mint, and she tells me to relate to James that she still loves him. (I do, and he becomes happier.) I can bring her gold bars or nuggets to convert to gold coins. There’s also a famous way to kill her, steal her key, loot the mint, and get Lord British to resurrect her, but I won’t be doing that.
       
At Town Hall–which has no other employees despite several offices–I meet Patterson the Mayor. He’s also President of the Britannian Tax Council. (I guess I was wrong in my last entry about never meeting them.) He brags that he won an overwhelming victory over his last opponent, Brownie–naturally because he had the support of the Fellowship. He denies that Britain has a class system but keeps betraying it with his own words. He says his marriage to Judith, a teacher at the Music Hall, is wonderful.
        

Just keep digging, buddy.

        
When asked about the murder, he relates that the victim was a man named Finster, a politician who wanted more power for the Great Council and wanted to disband the Fellowship. His mutilated, beheaded body was found in an abandoned building near the castle which has since been demolished. Honestly, the Fellowship has been so obviously evil since the beginning that it might have been a better twist if they had turned out to be a bunch of well-meaning-but-clueless people.
     
Judith runs the Music Hall and contrary to her husband thinks her marriage is in trouble. She doesn’t like the growing power of the Fellowship, and she says that Patterson sometimes stays out all night.

Next to the Music Hall is the Royal Theater, which has a lot of the town’s humor. The director, Raymundo (an in-game avatar of lead writer Raymond Benson), is staging a 100-hour play called The Trials of the Avatar. An old actor named Jesse is playing the Avatar. He’s struggling to remember his most important lines: “Name!,” “Job!,” and “Bye!” No one else is happy with his role, including the self-proclaimed greatest actor in the world, Laurence, who is playing Iolo, and Shamino’s squeeze, Amber, who is playing Sherry the Mouse. Laurence is also practicing his lines, including: “This is the Dungeon Despise!,” “Ready the bow to use it!,” and “I hear something to the east!”
          

The actors practice their respective lines.

       
Raymundo suggests that I understudy for the Avatar, first by purchasing an “Avatar costume” at Gaye’s shop. It costs 30 gold pieces, which is a lot of money just to see a joke to the end. Upon returning, I read my lines and Raymundo says that I’m unconvincing as the Avatar.
         

“Thou must taste like the Avatar!”

        
The Royal Museum houses the Runes of Virtue, the Stones of Virtue, the Avatar’s old swamp boots, the Vortex Cube, the silver horn used by the gargoyles to summon silver snakes, statues of Lord British and the Avatar, the Avatar’s ankh, and . . . the Britannian and gargoyle lenses! What are they doing here?! Wasn’t the whole point of the last game creating these lenses so that the two respective rulers could use them to consult the Codex?
        

I remember when we literally had to walk through fire for these.

        
The curator, Candice, is no help. A Fellowship member, she almost immediately lets it slip that she’s sleeping with Patterson. (When I confront Patterson later, he just sputters, and there’s no option to say anything to his wife.) Iolo suggests that we steal the Stones of Virtue because they can still be used to cast “Mark” and “Recall” spells. I honestly don’t remember doing that in any previous game. I mean, between the Magic Carpet and the Orb of Moons, it’s not like the party is hurting for modes of transportation.

As evening falls, I make a quick run down to Paws. Alina is still in the shelter, but she has received word from Weston that he’s free and working temporarily for Lord British so that he may return to her with some money in his pocket. Morfin sells me mutton for 3 gold pieces each; boots agreed to pay me 5. I buy 10 pieces to bring her.
            

I guess Weston didn’t bother to write about my involvement.

         
One thing that I’m noticing is that a lot of events slow the game to a stutter. It’s usually when there’s too much animation on the screen. If the party is walking past a few other walking people at the same time a storm cloud passes overhead, forget it. I can deal with the problem by just hitting CTRL-F12 and increasing the number of cycles in DOSBox, but it must have been maddening on an era PC.
     
Interactivity notes:

  • Move any furniture that it would be reasonable for a single person to lift.
  • Open and close shutters.
  • Turn gas lamps on and off.

         

Wasn’t Shadowlands doing this the same year and bragging? Ultima VII did dynamic lighting as an incidental part of gameplay.

              

  • Fill a bucket from a well.
  • Light and douse torches in wall sconces.
  • Double-click a bale of wool and use it on a spinning wheel to create yarn. Use the yarn on a loom to create fabric. Use a pair of shears on the fabric to make bandages.

            

The Avatar works a loom–without dropping his sword.

         

  • Sit down at a harp or harpsichord and double-click on it to play it. (Unfortunately, you can’t really play them by pressing keys for notes the way you could in V.) Instruments don’t seem to interrupt the game music (if you have it on); they just show a series of graphic notes.
  1. Double-click the winches next to the castle portcullis to raise and lower them. There’s one on both sides, which somewhat defeats the purpose.

           
I end this session standing in front of the Fellowship Hall, contemplating whether I really want to try to infiltrate the organization by joining, or whether I’d rather proclaim my animosity from the start. Granted, I don’t have many leads if I don’t join (it may even be necessary), but I wonder if it wouldn’t make a more interesting (and less traditional) game if I stopped following the official path here and tried to piece together the mystery without the duplicity. Next time, we’ll see what I decided.
         
Time so far: 10 hours
        



Original URL: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2020/04/the-black-gate-wee-britain.html