User review spotlight: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (DOS)

The World of Western RPGs

The birth of new era - late 90's to modern age

The mid-90's for RPGs is usually described as the crisis period. All the games released in that period are usually put aside as soulless hack-and-slashfests. This is not entirely accurate. While most of those games were successors of the Dungeon Master style, they had writing and contained fairly detailed stories. And even a pure hack-and-slash game is not soulless when it is done with love like the Might and Magic games.

The truth is that these games just did not inspire any interest (just think of how sick you got from seeing the same words "dungeon crawler" all the time, I know I got sick from writing them), and in general, there were fewer games developed than in the early nineties, where SSI released three games every year. So the lack of public interest and variety in games lead to people calling it the Dark Ages of RPGs.

This, as you may remember from the introduction section to the early to mid 90's, was actually a good thing, because it drove RPGs towards change. If they would have been successful, we would be in the same state as JRPGs where all of our games are perfect, but boring. Because of this lack of success, WRPGs decided to be about something more than killing monsters. Reviews show that it was BioWare who brought RPGs out of this darkness, completely ignoring the legacy of Ultima 4 and many other heroes. The new games seemingly introduced interesting elements such as detailed stories, mature themes, lesbian sex scenes, etc. – it is this "first there was Mario and then came Bioshock" view of gaming history. Only us sad people know the truth that stories, art and deep topics already existed in games from the 80's.

"Didn't you use the term 'sad people' earlier to describe people who stand against your ideal of RPGs, thus implying that you are somehow more awesome beyond belief than those people?"

Oh, shut up!

Anyway, RPGs found a new prosperity in the late 90's, where they popped up like mushrooms after rain. Mostly Diablo clones though. The late nineties also brought along a number of important updates in basic RPG design. So far, through games like Ravenloft or Diablo, they had just been repeating what previous games did, only better.

There is another reason why this is the birth of a new era. Unlike Japanese RPGs with their Yasunori Mitsudas and Nobuo Uematsus, their Western counterparts did not really shine with their soundtracks. In fact, they usually were quite horrible. There were exceptions – and I think I got most of those mentioned – but mostly it was pure honest midi crap. Now starting from 1997 Western RPGs had well directed soundtracks – with games like Fallout and Diablo. The soundscapes were mostly ambient, unlike their orchestral brothers of the East, but this new era also saw the rise of fame of the most popular Western RPG composer ever, Jeremy Soule.

Things to pay attention to:

  • the importance of Fallout and Torment to RPG design
  • the end of the three big RPG franchises (Might and Magic, Ultima and Wizardry)
  • the rise of BioWare.

Fallout I and IIOh my. Fallout. This game marked a whole new turn for RPG titles. While some previous games had branching dialogue and perhaps some choices, it was Fallout that really brought choice and consequence to the genre, with moral situations, an isometric view and branching, and witty dialogue that the public expects by default today (well they would if this sentence was accurate).

Fallout was of course not a blockbuster like Diablo, but it is one of the most important RPGs. Before Fallout, no developer actually dared to imagine a non-linear narrative. Yes, there were loose narratives with the Ultima and Elder Scrolls games, but in those the plot remained the same regardless of what the player did, while in Fallout the player affects everything around him. It is called choice and consequence, and Fallout invented it. Now you might get confused when I say choices and consequences and "player affecting the plot". You see, in most games where you have several different endings, the way to reach them actually depends on what secret items you discovered or how many munchkins you managed to kill – basically they depend on things that are outside the narrative. And so it was with all the RPGs preceding Fallout. In this game the player could affect the narrative from inside the narrative by making a conscious choice inside the game that affects the world around him. Still confused? Fallout = you play, you make choices, your choices affect the world around you, the changes in the world affect the narrative. Most games had a non-linear view = you play, you need to buy the special edition strategy guide to help you find all the magic munchkins so you can see the real ending or you need to finish the game first and then play it in a special mode to unlock more secrets..

Now a little about Fallout's setting. It is a game that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. This minor detail is very important, since the RPG genre was overpopulated with fantasy games. This was a much needed breath of fresh air. Its sequel added more sandbox design elements to it and also marked the beginning of one of the most beloved RPG development studios ever – Black Isle. Though why Black Isle is so loved I have no idea – it seems that it was loved more because of what it could do than what it did.

Fallout still is the apex of Western RPGs. So much that every game was compared to it and found lacking. While much of it is because of rose tinted spectacles, the truth is that we have not had a game as influential as Fallout in this post-Fallout world.


Fallout


Fallout 2



Lands of Lore II – IIIWestwood made a return to the RPG genre with the sequel to Lands of Lore. In the second game you step in the shoes of Luther, the son of Scotia who was the villain in the first game. The game essentially remains the same - a plot-driven dungeon crawler with an inspired character with whom you can look at objects like in an adventure game. Another thing of interest is that LoL 2 is one of the few RPGs to use FMV cut-scenes with live actors in it. There is much more interaction with the environment and you have control over the fate of your character; some of the decisions you can make nudge Luther towards the good or the evil path.

In many ways, the LoL series pioneered the visceral approach to RPGs of nowadays, because they are way more action-oriented, fluid and dynamic than the RPGs of their time. The last game in the series ditched the live-action actors in favor of CGI. It continues the kind of visceral gameplay of LoL 2 and the tradition of the LoL series to star only male characters as leads. This time you take the role of Copper LeGré, bastard son of Eric Legré, brother of King Richard and commander of the White Army. Naturally your father and brothers get killed and your soul is stolen, and you are left alone in the world where everyone suspects you of killing your father. You have to get your soul back.


Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny


Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny



Quest for Glory VThe final Quest for Glory game. For a while it was not certain if there ever would be a QfG 5. The story in QfG4 ended with a cliffhanger. Fortunately in this case there was a sequel, unlike so many other games that use this technique. QfG 5 is much more loose in its control of the plot than the predecessors. For example it uses that particular element of Wizardry 7 – the competitive NPCs who might do the thing before you if you tarry too much.

So basically, this time you are in Greece and The Great Evil has been vanquished. Now you have to carry on your life – what do you do next? You already are a hero, you have saved the world many times, but what to do with the rest of your life? So the tale of QfG 5 is actually a retirement story. Because of that it lacks the emotional intensity of the earlier games. Especially because the fantasy elements are downplayed this time, the focus of the story actually involves a political mystery. So it does feel kind of lacking somehow after the intensity of the previous games. Still, a retirement story is an awesome concept and QfG 5 delivers quite nicely.

This is also the first QfG game since the first one that tries to provide meaningful content to each class. The middle QfG games had a bit of trouble with that, since some classes like Paladin or Thief got more dramatic and cooler things to do than Fighters. QfG 5 also adapted Diablo's combat – click enemies until they die. Like all retirement stories, QfG 5 is a bitter sweet experience, cause it is time to say goodbye forever. All in all, as a whole, the QfG series are awesome beyond belief; in fact they are so awesome that I am going to salute them. I salute you QfG games!




Baldur's GateIn late 90's Interplay acquired the rights to the Dungeons and Dragons franchise. Previously SSI owned it and released story-oriented games throughout the 90's. When they lost the rights, SSI released a couple of non-D&D games and then faded into obscurity. They were no bad games by today's standards, but like adventure games, RPGs did not gain sufficient interest amongst the gaming public any more. Diablo was the first mainstream game for a long time. Fallout was not that popular in the beginning either, but gained respect through the years.

And then Interplay found one unknown Canadian studio called BioWare and hired them to develop a D&D game. It became popular. So popular that BioWare now still is a big, important studio while Interplay went into a coma and Black Isle died. It all began with Baldur's Gate. Some say it revolutionized the RPG genre. Though in what way? Compared to Fallout it did not bring anything new to the table. The plot was more in the background than in the center of the game, it did not feature any choices and consequences, the characters' background consisted of one-liners – basically it did everything worse than all its predecessors and yet it struck a chord. Why? Because it took the same kind of essential gameplay – monster-killing, looting, exploration – and made it simple and fun. People loved it. And like the Gold Box games, BioWare invented one of the most appealing combat systems - or rather they recycled it, since Darklands featured this real-time with pause mechanic earlier – and made their own improvements. This made the game successful. It was also very user-friendly, it is thanks to Baldur's Gate that things like journals (that cover everything that player has done) and autosaves are taken for granted in today's RPGs.

It also marks the return of the character transferring element of QfG, meaning that it is used in a meaningful way that also enhances the narrative effect of the game. The brightest example being that when you transfer your character from Baldur's Gate II to Throne of Bhaal, you can continue your romance with the loved character.




Might and Magic 6-9The Might and Magics also made a return in this era. The 6th has become the most popular Might and Magic game ever, though it did not do anything different from the previous Might and Magic games; it only delivered an updated engine and a more comfortable interface. Most likely it just hit the right time when the public's interest in RPGs was increasing. In a way, MM6 is the peak of Might and Magic games. It is also the last in the series to have that esoteric, mathematical equation feel to it.

The 7th and 8th lose the esoteric part of it. They cut the new age inspiration and went for a more straightforward fantasy meets sci-fi approach. The seventh title added a good and evil path and starting from the eighth game the series faded into obscurity. The ninth and final game was the last nail into the coffin, because by 2002, different things were expected from RPGs rather than the kind of 80's gameplay M&M dearly protected.


Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven


Might and Magic VIII: Day of the Destroyer



Planescape: TormentRemember when I said Fallout was one of the most important games in the history of RPGs? Well, that is not exactly accurate since Torment is in some ways even more important. Design-wise it is the direct father to games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect.

"What do you mean?" First, we have to take into consideration that Torment is a game made by the Fallout 2 team that got inspiration from Final Fantasy 7. And while nowadays there are games like Jade Empire that are pretty much undistinguishable from JRPGs, Torment is the first one to act as a sort of a bridge between these two worlds.

"I wanna go home."

While in FF7 the player was mostly a passive observer, in Torment you actually take control of your character's mind - through the branching dialogue you are actually given control over the character's intentions. You are partaking in a linear story, but you have been given a certain freedom on how you want to play this character during this linear journey. It is the good and evil choices I am hinting at. But they are not just choices based on good and evil, because the dialogue provided gives you an opportunity to choose between different personalities that all suit the character. Depending on what personality you have taken control of, different situations get different meanings and outcomes.

Fallout introduced the world to the mystery of choices and consequences, Torment defined it.

As said, this is exactly the same design that BioWare has made their own with games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect (minus the personality part). This is why Torment is important, because it introduced the way how to tell a great story with interactivity to RPGs. Now that we have gotten the importance of Torment in design dealt with, I feel safe to mention that most people who played Torment will not really have noticed anything aside from the writing. Yeah, it is amazing. Hate it or love it – it is still amazing. Torment is also pretty much of an author project, since everything that made this game good is associated with the name of Chris Avellone, the lead designer and writer (in Black Isle tradition the designers actually are the writers but since other developers give writers and designers separate credits I decided to put this in the spotlights).

Here's proof by Chris McComb: "Avellone had at least a broad outline of the entire game from start to finish, with all of the major characters sketched out, by the time I’d joined the team. The rest of the design team added minor characters, stuff not exactly crucial to the main quest, and other fun stuff, and fleshed out the stuff he couldn’t get to... I hate to say it again, but Chris did the major work on the game. I would estimate that although he had seven designers on his team, he did about 50% of the work on the project."

Now what makes Torment's writing so great? I don't know. It is just special. No, it is not just the setting. The setting of Planescape was not even that special before Torment, so that was not it. It was unique but it is disappointing to read the setting's rulebooks after Torment. Perhaps Chris Avellone is divinity in the flesh as some people would have us believe. No, he is not of course. He is very talented though. But be as talented as you want, when your team or producer tells you to fuck off, then you go. Truth is that there is just so many different factors contributing to the magic of Torment that I have no choice but to call it an act of God.

It just happened and it is pure magic.

"One time you awoke obsessed with the idea that *I* was your skull and chased me around the Spire trying to shatter and devour me. Luckily, you were crushed by a passing cart in the street."






Ultima 9The end of one the biggest and most innovative franchises if its time. Sadly it was a pathetic end. Rather than improving on Ultima's 5-7 simulated world design, something that they did so well that no one has yet matched it, the ninth game removed almost anything that made Ultima 7 good – living NPCs with detailed schedules, each NPC being an individual, subtle social commentaries, depressing human situations – and they replaced it with a sunny happy-go-round old-school tale about a guy who has to kill the bad guy on a tropical isle, featuring banal, awful, preachy morality (Stealing is Wrong!) and awful writing. Indeed it was much more like a bad attempt to copy Zelda: Ocarina of Time than to be an Ultima.

It does have a sex scene in it though.



And a very appealing feel and look.





Okay, the reason why Ultima 9 sucked is because of the fans. Starting from Ultima 7, ORIGIN had this cool plot in mind involving a simple human against an interdimensional evil. Simple, but built through many games and layered with human drama. This plot would span many different games – U7, Ultima Underworld 2, Serpent Isle, U8 and finally U9. Unfortunately, many fans had not played an Ultima game since the 6th and thus they had no idea of this awesome plot that was going on. And they cried foul. They wanted Britannia and Dupre back, even though Dupre was dead. They were not impressed by this bizarre astral thingy that ORIGIN was doing. So they decided to bring Britannia back.

"Just some changes here and there, and we still could have a worthy continuation for this awesome plot."
"No one would notice."
"Yeah, let's make this interdimensional force of abstract evil avatar's brother!
"Yeah!

No. Okay so it was not the fault of the fans alone. But it started there. The biggest fault of Ultima 9 is that it did not deliver the climax that the previous games prepared for.


Diablo IISequel to Diablo. Much bigger and badder, but is it better? Well, yes, from then on you could run in the game that does wonders to one's sanity. Also it has more CGI cut-scenes, flashier combat moves and the same quality voice-acting, but in essence it is pretty much the same.






Baldur's Gate continuedWhile Baldur's Gate gained enough popularity to earn a name for BioWare, it was actually Baldur's Gate II that featured everything that we now expect from BioWare games – party members with personality and their own mind, choices between good and evil, romances, loads of sidequests, emotionally-involving main quest with plot twists and much more.

Baldur's Gate II is pretty much a milestone in RPG history. Not only does it have an involving narrative that is a far cry from chosen ones who tried, it also has a really good sense of non-linearity and exploration. It slightly follows Betrayal at Krondor in that aspect, since the way it provides non-linearity is similar; there are certain goals you must achieve in the chapter but you have many ways of reaching them. The "two factions to choose from, one of them being utterly evil" design from later BioWare games also makes its first appearance in Baldur's Gate II. While this two factions thing is not exactly positive, the amount of content in BG II makes the game by far the "grayest" of BioWare games.

Basically Baldur's Gate II is a great adventure to experience. It does wonders with its setting (Forgotten Realms is really a horrible setting), it gives almost each class unique content, it has wonderful characters in it, wonderful quests, a wonderful sense of history, wonderful combat – it is the best RPG to give that feel of "being on an adventure" in history.


Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn


Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn



Deus Ex

"Wtf dude!? This ain't an RPG."

You're right, it isn't... or rather it wasn't, since it is about to become one. The thing is, there are certain key RPGs of the future in the making that force me to include Deus Ex in the article. Not that I am complaining, because Deus Ex is awesome and it is a pleasure to talk about it.

Deus Ex was helmed by Warren Spector, a name that I have constantly brought up in this article. Warren Spector was closely involved with the Texas gaming scene – Looking Glass Studios, ORIGIN and Ion Storm (technically Looking Glass Studios is from Massachusetts but shut up, I am creating a story here). The Texas gaming scene in those times created games that were way ahead of their time. They created games for people that were not born yet.

Deus Ex is a game of the future, a new take on RPGs that was not legitimate at the time of release, but is about to become one. Just like Joan of Arc was considered the spawn of Satan and a dirty whore in her time, she is now considered a saint and a great woman.

What Warren tried to do was to create a new way to tell stories in games. What he succeeded in was a brilliant design that took four years to be adapted by other RPGs. That game was Bloodlines and since it was made by Troika, for many the "real fathers" of RPG, the Deus Ex design was already long on its way to achieve the legitimate status as a true RPG. Deus Ex was anything but what the world had experienced before. It somehow managed to be brilliant in every way – a sum of of minor elements that make up a great whole. But if we look at it these times – it is pretty much what makes up the new RPGs today. In fact, it is just like Kotor or Bloodlines; a brilliant simplified approach to the RPG genre. As with many revolutions, it is just not as great "today" as it was in its own time. Fortunately, Deus Ex it has something else to offer beside the "revolutionary approach to gameplay". Warren is kind of a guy who knows that aside from great design, it needs to have something to say to make it everlasting. Great design can always be improved upon, but it is the writing part that makes the game worthwhile for future generations.

The heirs of Interplay – BioWare, Troika, Obsidian (and in some illegitimate way CD Projekt) now dominate our decade in RPGs. But it is a heir of ORIGIN that started this decade with a bang.


GothicWhile Ultima 9 destroyed a lot of lives, some Germans looked at it and saw the potential. Luckily they had one guy who was brave enough to mention that removing anything remotely resembling Zelda was a good idea. And thus the Gothic series was born.

Things taken from Ultima 9:
  • pre-defined male protagonist
  • simplified RPG mechanics
  • exploration
  • combat
Things removed:
  • banality
  • awful writing
  • restrictiveness
  • the "find, eat, remove, destroy seven pieces of ancient loot" plot device.
The first Gothic introduced us to world of men... and men. You see, you are a prisoner and the game world is the jail. And while there is no rape involved, the main theme of the game is survival in harsh situations. Also, unlike Ultima 9, this one has choices that branch the plot.




ArcanumArcanum started the life of a company that is very typical of WRPG development – no money, no respect, war with the publishers, lots of ambition, idealistic about the genre, and a horrible early death. This studio was known as Troika. They did great games that no one played, but many loved. Troika was founded by the three creative leads behind the original Fallout, and Arcanum pretty much follows Fallouts approach to RPGs. It tried to give the player the chance to play the game in any way he wants and it is designed so that no matter what the player does (like killing important characters before the important plot situation) he still would be able to finish the game.

In some ways it actually makes the game feel shallow, but as the first step to the ultimate RPG design, Arcanum is a game that must be studied by every RPG designer. It tried to offer something to every kind of RPG player, no matter if their ideal RPG was a Diablo clone, Japanese RPGs, free-form RPGs, falloutian choices and consequences, or tormentian writing. And before I forget, Arcanum is also interesting because of its steampunk setting that wonderfully creates a 19th century fantasy world.






Icewind Dale seriesThe Icewind Dales were made by Black Isle Studios and they form half of their games they worked on. That is the reason why I expressed some suprise to the fact that they are so loved, since the Icewind Dales are really nothing more that old-school dungeon crawlers using an isometric view. They do have some interesting prose in writing and tend to have a more implied approach to things (a difference even now between BioWare and Obsidian, the new Black Isle Studio). Anyway, this is the game that made Jeremy Soule popular in the game soundtracks scene. And it is true – they sport enchanting and beautiful music in a Nordic style.

The sequel was designed and written by Josh Sawyer, who later worked as the lead designer on a lot of cancelled projects, most importantly Baldur's Gate 3 and Fallout 3 (not to be confused with Bethesda's game). I know, I know. This is rather trivial, but it is a good thing to speak about when surrounded by an angry mob of RPG nerds. You see, since Black Isle was so loved, its death with those cancelled projects produced a lot of hurt and wounds in the WRPG community, similar to the death of Sierra in the adventure community. While fate might have treated Josh and Black Isle unfairly cruel, it is time for us to leave Icewind Dale behind.


Icewind Dale


Icewind Dale II



AnachronoxAnachronox is a unique game that shows us what happens when JRPG meets WRPG. It is a beautiful over-the-top game (you even have a planet as a party member... and a democratic one to boot) that is done in a tongue-in-cheek way and has managed to seduce all players who played it. Unfortunately, very few played it. The setting is a futuristic one in where you play Sly, a down on his luck private investigator who gets stuck into one of those save-the-world plots. The witty and moving writing makes this game unique. When it comes to gameplay one just has to mention Final Fantasy VII to say it all.

It really is like a Japanese RPG. But... how shall I describe it. Well, there are b-movies and there are Quentin Tarantino homages to b-movies. See the difference? Anachronox is a homage to all JRPGs, but instead of Tarantino we have Tom Hall to thank for it, the guy who previously did some arcade games called Commander Keen. And as of now, Anachronox is probably the only game in where the interface of the game is a character with a tragic past involving a love story with the protagonist.






Wizardry 8Wizardry 8, the successor of the game that was one of the forefathers of the genre, has the honor of ending this era. It is the last, real old-school game. With Wizardry 8, Sir-tech managed to finish its franchise in a better way than ORIGIN or New World. It is the last chapter in the Cosmic Dark Savant trilogy. And today it remains the last game where you have to possess patience and esoteric knowledge of mathematics to complete the game. One random fight can literally last for hours. Again you create your entire party from a bunch of furry characters who are all voiced with personalities and they often make comments on things.

So basically, it is Wizardry game like a Wizardry game should be. The series pretty much reached perfection here, but unlike the previous games, the fate of Wizardry 8 is bittersweet because very few cared about this gem. Its time was over, but the swan song was its greatest performance. There is this one thing that I have to mention: Wizardry 8 features the most sophisticated text-parser ever. In this game you still have to type some keywords to interact with the characters, but the amount of keywords that the characters respond to is monumental. A text-parser is not really a popular feature, but Wizardry 8 really polished it to near perfection.






Continued: Modern Age - 2002-2007

Table of Contents: The World of Western RPGs