To @Bhaal_Spawn, the world of Ultima VII became like a second home – one worth revisiting again and again, for its bonus magic and murder.
As a shy, 13-year-old in the mid-90s, exploring the fantasy realms of Ultima VII: The Black Gate wasn’t just like playing the hero in a story of mystery and adventure; it was an opportunity to be the type of person I didn’t have the confidence to be in real life.
Ultima VII was an open-world role-playing game viewed from above, but it had you playing as yourself.
The main character is you, in your home, at your computer and with your life, but with the tiny difference that in Ultima, you entered another world through a magical portal in your garden to become a hero of legend.
Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the game’s very premise invited you to imagine that a world of heroism and adventure was within your reach.
Scenes from a small school
Picture the scene: it was the early 90s, and for three years I’d been enjoying life as ‘the quiet one’ at an all-girl secondary school in the south of England. It would probably remind you of a baby Hogwarts given its dark wood panelling, Victorian servant buttons, old portraits and dusty book shelves. I mean, we ate lunch in a gallery, for crying out loud.
Developer / publisher
There were only 11 of us in my entire year, and so we were a close-knit team when at school itself; in truth, however, I rarely saw anyone outside of it. Rhythm may have been a dancer, and teen spirit may have had a noteworthy smell, but I was too busy juggling my books and pencils or floating upon the tides of my own thoughts in my parents’ garden to notice such things, or to socialise with those that did. But that was fine – being in such a small school, and despite our varied personalities, we all knew each other and got on well.
I was already a PC gaming fan by this time; there were one or two girls into console gaming, which was cool and all, but there was no one I could challenge to a death match to see who could free up the most conventional memory.
In my third year – 1993, when I was 14 – our school became mixed and expanded in size. A whole host of interesting and random berks were parachuted in from other schools, directly into my year. Naturally, my instinct was so avoid anyone new, but soon after the new arrangement, I remember idly noticing an inoffensive-looking boy in the library hiding behind a PC Review or White Dwarf, the Warhammer magazine.
In retrospect, the reason we’d end up getting on so well was because we had very similar personalities – so it probably also explains why we were apparently too afraid to talk to each other for weeks. Nevertheless, I’d eventually have someone I could share PC gaming with, learning of an all-new title that I just had to get at home.
A taste for more
When I first saw Ultima VII running on my new friend’s 486 SX, I practically spat out my orange juice. It didn’t seem like a computer game – it was a living, breathing world. A group of warriors stood in the middle of a forest. They weren’t moving – my friend was downstairs making me lunch – but around them it was the forest that seemed to move. A fox skittered past and insects buzzed in the corner of the screen. A deer appeared to bend its neck to sniff the ground. The warrior in red complained about being hungry or needing alcohol. Remember, this game was born in 1992.
After this taster experience, I badgered my dad to get the game for weeks. It would look down at me from the computer shop shelves, in a sleek, black box that absorbed light as much as it teased my eyes, until I could bear it no longer. I’m not saying I went on hunger strike, but I could sulk for England. I wasn’t usually like that, but this was important – desperate times called for desperate measures.
I remember sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car with my new prize weighing heavily on my lap. “Ultima VII: The Black Gate” was almost the only marking on the otherwise pitch-black box. With the sounds of traffic as a soundtrack and with the feel of the leather seats on my skin, I opened it with a creak to reveal its contents. There was a cloth map, a silver coin and a good, old-fashioned weighty tome of a manual. The box had that new-game smell and the manuals had that new-game-manual smell. Breathe it in through your mind; you know exactly what I mean.
When I first tried to play the game at home, the sound didn’t work. I tried everything. It was a simple IRQ problem, but I didn’t know about that sort of thing at the time, and my dad thought computers ran on hamster wheels powered by witchcraft, so he was useless. The PC went to the computer shop and when we went to pick it up, the guys there showed us the start of the intro to prove it worked. Butterflies and pleasant music played and was unceremoniously turned off.
Back at home, and with the full experience finally in front of us, my friend and I sat watching the intro again. Eager as little beavers, we watched the butterflies, the pleasant music and then silence. The screen went fuzzy… a giant red muppet face loomed out of the monitor, and the game’s antagonist boomed my character’s name and directly threatened us from my speakers. I squeaked and spilled my drink over my shoulder. I’d like to say this led to a moment of shared hilarity… but it was a new top and I was livid. Right then, I wanted to smack my friend in his silly laughing face.
Welcome to Britannia
The game opened with you, still reeling from the taunting from your monitor, being summoned to the spooky red gate in your garden and materialising in the centre of a town in the land of Britannia. The townsfolk widened their eyes at both your sudden arrival and at your character’s 90s fantasy-hero good looks.
You were greeted by your old friend Iolo and learned that although only a few years had passed on Earth, in this world, 200 years had passed since the events of Ultima VI. People had forgotten you, magic in the world was dying and a horrific killing had taken place in a nearby barn.
The town mayor didn’t believe you were the hero of Britannian legend, but asked for your help. Wondering if this is why you were there, you donned the deerstalker hat and pipe.
This was perfect for me, really. When I was at primary school, I was in a club comprising a whopping three of us, which we called the Detective Team. It was rubbish; all we would do is plant little clues, usually about whomever it was at school we liked the most, and then take it in turns to do the treasure hunt and solve the answer. My day job now isn’t too far removed from the investigations scene either, so unsurprisingly, the murder mystery story of Ultima VII really appealed.
Nowadays, the sight of this ritualistic bloody dismemberment brings nostalgic joy to my heart. Bless! But at the time? Oh wow – gosh… I felt kinda sick. I mean, what was the age rating on this game?
Surrounding the body was a bucket of blood, candles, and a key. Bloody footsteps led out the back. Your first task was to find a lead for the murderer. Those were your clues and that was the trail you had to follow.
A living world
Ultima VII was no ordinary role-playing game. You moved your characters within an open world with no loading screens; there was a free, frolicking flow between towns, cities, forests, deserts and oceans. Once you left the locale of the opening town, almost everywhere was available to explore, even across the sea, assuming you could find enough money to purchase a ship! Similarly, there was no user interface to speak of – no icons or other commands you needed to use. It was simple: you navigated using the mouse, double clicked to use objects or interact with people, and you dragged and dropped items into your inventory.
The game world was supremely detailed, too. Game worlds in most games, even ones from 2018, are a lesson in illusion. If you look down a street in Grand Theft Auto V, for example, you’ll see a lot of expertly animated people going about their business. It looks alive – but it is really just skin deep. Following someone will lead nowhere, and they’re no different to crowd members in a game like FIFA – part of the scenery, like the pretend doors that inhabit so many games.
It was the NPCs that made the world of Ultima VII come alive. Each of them had a job they trudged off to at certain times of the day. They each had a place to sleep, somewhere to eat and people to meet. Several times I struggled to find a particular person I needed to speak to – potentially a negative point in any other game – only to find that they enjoyed a walk by the shrine at noon, or were having an affair with another NPC and sleep in the wrong bed. The same can also be said of the animals of the world, who can be both inquisitive forest-dwellers as well as reclusively delicious.
Dinner times were therefore quite a convenient time to find people. The local pub became a hive of activity at meal times. I remember sitting in my dad’s office one evening with my friend looking for a gargoyle that I needed to find for a quest.
“What are you doing, guys?”
My dad had appeared behind me with his own friend. I explained.
He had no interest in, or knowledge of, computer games besides knowing that it was something I enjoyed, but he could instantly see what was happening on screen.
He chuckled. “Everyone is in the pub, Dave.”
“Sounds like a good idea!” His friend replied, before they moved off. We rolled our eyes and went back to the game. I went to get some supplies from the kitchen… we had more important concerns than real life!
In a Britannian pub, people came and went, they sat and ate. They would shout for food, which would then be placed in front of them, then they’d consume it with a burp. Amusingly, if you ate the food directly off their plate, the locals considered it so rude, the entire place would erupt into a murderous bloodbath.
But at the end of the night, those who visited would head off back to their beds, while others would return to plotting in the local religious hall, finishing a ship or having a night-time stroll in the woods.
Each had their own schedule, and their own life.
Even more than met the eye
The world of Ultima VII had a certain solidity to it. There was a basic physics engine and a real three-dimensional quality to it. Objects could be moved about and even stacked.
As well as being functional, the objects prevalent throughout the world added to the feeling of realism. Dusty books watched you from high upon shelves (and could be read), while cutlery and plates waited with anticipation upon tables. Candles gazed out into dark areas and cupboards were stuffed with clothes.
You could craft in Ultima VII, too, but there were no tutorials – you learned by watching the people work, or by working for them. For example, by mixing water with flour to make dough and putting it into the oven, you could bake bread; you just had to stand in the baker’s shop and watch as it is done to learn the trade and earn a wage.
It worked because the game was created to be a huge sandbox. I liked to commandeer a house for myself, picking a non-essential NPC to murder (“Sorry!”) and then stealing their home. Once the house was mine, I picked up pretty trinkets along my travels and brought my favourite things or trophies back home. As for the former occupant, hopefully the local guard wouldn’t look under the bridge down the road. Or… in the bank vault, where I stashed the body of the bank manager.
It’s all completely normal.
In any case, and like more recent games such as Skyrim, the game was detailed enough that you could almost live there, earning a wage collecting eggs and spending your money on new equipment or in the pub.
Meet the new world, same as your own world
The plot to Ultima VII wasn’t straightforward, but it hit impressively close to home on a few fronts, exploring themes such as organised religion, class division and the inevitable death of old beliefs. And smacking huge dragons in the face with pointy weapons.
As well as slumming it in dungeons, forests and deserts, you got to meet time lords, crazed wizards and a host of other interesting weirdoes.
The problems in this land were not obvious. With magic on a big downer and the Avatar (you) having been absent for 200 years, people turned to religion: the Fellowship, to be exact. Although there was nothing immediately evil about these people, it soon became clear that all was not as it first appeared. Murders aside, chaos stalked the land and was clouded by a seductive veil of progress and normality.
I was passionate to get further into the game as early as possible – and with the sun almost set I reached the capital city. I can still remember seeing its lights shimmering in front of me. I had been travelling north and by the time I’d reached its perimeter, it was night time. Rain was pouring from the sky and lightning flashed above me.
Unfortunately, although Ultima VII did have a day and night cycle alongside complex weather systems, the storm in question was in the real world, the capital city was London and I was in the back seat of my mum and dad’s car. We were on our way north from our home in Kent to visit family in Derbyshire. It was dark, and I was depressed. I looked up through the rain-splattered glass and watched the motorway lights gliding through the night overhead, sparkling orange in the rain drops on the window panes and sending shadows sweeping through the car interior. The weather was awful, and for reasons I don’t remember, we’d left far too late in the day.
I’d been forced to end my game just when I was about to arrive in the Britannian capital city, so I was in a bad mood. I laid on the back seat of the car against my brother and thought of the new world I had just discovered back home. The game’s manual was on my lap but, frustratingly, it was too dark to read. I could only make out a few words every few seconds as they were illuminated briefly with each passing sweep of an overhead motorway light.
We only made it to the M25 before my dad broke the “bad” news: it was too late, the weather was too poor and we had to turn back home. The party up north was a failed mission – I remember feeling so happy.
Gaming at the back, House Party at the front
When we returned home, my brother sat down in front of Noel’s House Party and I went into the back room and settled into the chair at my dad’s PC. Even better than the cup of hot chocolate and my dad’s warm fireplace – and above and beyond the joy of my narrow escape from forced, awkward small talk with people who shared my genes – was the music and light spilling from the door of the Britannian Inn on screen. It promised the most welcome digital hug.
My characters had travelled from the town I first arrived in to the capital, and now I finally had the chance to enter its bustling inn and greet the raucous denizens of this night-time metropolis. A rest and some music was just what the doctor ordered, and I leant back, my hot chocolate warming my hands. I liked to role-play these sorts of situations, so I had each of my party members drink about six bottles of wine in celebration. Just like real life!
The first task in Ultima VII’s big city was to learn about what ailed the land – Lord British, Britannia’s ruler, asked that you mingled, worked, settled down, broke bread and got to know the people.
New world disorder
The task – and story – picked up pace quickly. As you picked up the trail of the murderer, you slowly uncovered details of a conspiracy to brainwash the populous and unleash evil into the land. What’s more, it was happening right under the noses, and with the unwitting complicity, of the people who were there to protect the people. With more murders and revelations taking place along your travels, you were soon infiltrating the Fellowship, releasing demons and chatting to magical creatures.
The majority of the game revolved around uncovering the sinister truth behind the new religion on this world and the true, unspeakable purpose of what they wanted to achieve.
It wasn’t too complex to follow, but I must admit I spent quite a few evenings lying with the phone on my bed like a ridiculous teen cliché though with the key difference being that I wasn’t discussing who was going out with who but interrogating my friend about where the ritualistic killers would dismember someone next.
“Oh, hi!” He said. “Are you calling about this weekend? I thought we could-”
“Where is the Demon Sword?!” I demanded.
“Tilly, get off the phone!” It was my dad.
“Dad, I just need to find out who is going to be murdered next.”
“OK, well… – wait, what?”
Along the way, there were plenty of battles to be had. Now, I think it’s fair to say that the combat was Ultima VII’s weakest aspect. Manual combat was nigh-on impossible, despite being an option, so you were forced to turn on auto combat. With the switch flicked on, and with enemies nearby, you only had to hit the C key and your party would scatter, charging this way and that, arrows flying and swords swinging at anything hostile. If enemies reached a critical health value, they would flee with a cry of ‘Mercy!’ or ‘Take pity!’, shedding weapons and armour as they ran from your compatriots. Dropping their weapons made sense, but I’ve still never quite understood why a heavily armoured warrior would drop his trousers as they made their escape. But they did.
It was completely chaotic, and you had zero control over anything until you pressed the C key again and your friends returned to you, swords dripping with blood. I thought it was hilarious fun.
It must have taken me a year, on and off, to complete the game. With my appetite being utterly insatiable, I immediately moved on to the excellent semi-sequel (Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle – yes really, it’s that big it came in two parts) and then Ultima Underworld 1 and 2, the first-person Ultima games. I probably spent half of my GCSE and A-Level years playing these games, and the rest of the time talking about them with my school friend.
Several years later, it was time to go to university and my friend from school moved away, as did I. I spent much of my first year of uni with my books and hardly left my room, until, after an overheard conversation across the dinner table, I was adopted by a small group of slightly awkward PC gaming guys from another block. Soon, they would ring and invite me over to their block to play Worms United or to join them at the local karaoke bar, student night or another potential source of embarrassment. Later on, when we shared a house and a network, I would quite frankly own them on Unreal Tournament. Despite that, most remain among my best friends to this day.
Eventually, my mum came to pick me up after my first term of university. I’d just started seeing the guys I would later know well and, with renewed optimism, I listened to a midi version of the Ultima VII song Stones on my PC, the last thing I’d pack up and take home.
From that term, and until my more sociable days, I remained a world-class introvert and found university quite an isolating place in those first few months. During that time I found comfort in the familiarity and sheer character of Ultima VII. Playing the game made me feel comforted and at home. I felt like a 13-year-old in my dad’s study again – the worries would melt away – and, like that familiar magical door leading to another world, I could step through to my childhood, and more carefree times.
- A detail-rich world
- Incredible plot and characters
- Truly ground-breaking night and day and NPC schedules
- Combat is quite chaotic
- There is no journal or quest list – so get a pen and paper!
Ultima VII is the seminal role-playing game – an open world of sandbox adventure with real character and a life of its own, and a title that simply wasn’t afraid of tackling grown-up themes.