Playing “Ultima 4” in 2012 (Pt. 1)

ultima 4

In an attempt to chart the ways in which video games have been dumbed down over the past few decades of evolution, Tom Harrison decided to play through Ultima 4: The Quest of the Avatar. What he unearthed was a hodgepodge of archaic languages and humbling confusion. This is his story.

Ultima 4: The Quest of the Avatar is a 1985 PC roleplaying game considered one of the crown jewels of the famed Ultima series. It was (and remains!) free on, and I like to be culturally knowledgeable, so why not, right? I’m always ready to open my mind and experience a classic. Will there be bumps in the road? Aw heck, of course, but with determination and imagination, I’ll find a way to enjoy the game free of my 2012 gaming prejudices. And I did! Article over.

Well, not really—what I found was a bafflingly unfamiliar experience, where none of the lessons learned in my twentyish years of gaming applied. Playing Ultima 4 was like playing a video game for the first time, providing a succinct expression of how far gaming has come and how pathetically it has degenerated. Let’s take a detour to illustrate.

So Begins The Journey To The Heart Of Unintuitive User Interfaces

Remember Middle English? The Franco-Germanic dialect Brits spoke back in the Plantagenet Era? Yeah, you know the one. Now, it’s easy to comprehend the idea that Middle English is a vastly different language than even the oft-complained-about Shakespearean English. That statement makes sense. So I don’t know how to explain why my brain utterly breaks down when I see shit like “As hit is stad and stoken/In stori stif and stronge, /With lel letteres loken,/In londe so hatz ben longe.”

I mean, yeah, I can get that it is certainly English, and that I’d get used to it after some study, but holy shit! Look at that load of fuck! It’s so unfathomably alien, with its inherent familiarity making it all the more discomfiting. Stad and stoken, indeed! HERE’S THE PART WHERE I COMPARE THAT SHIT I JUST SAID TO ULTIMA 4: ULTIMA 4 IS A LOT LIKE THAT THING I JUST SAID. Trust me, I’ll get to it. I’m doing something here.

I knew there were dense games, and this game is probably a breeze compared to, say, Dwarf Fortress. I got that, it made sense. The experience, though, is another story. To a schmo like myself, actually seeing Ultima 4 withhold even the flimsiest clue about how to play was veritably sinus-clearing. I imagine this must be what games are like for video game virgins who consider Mario Kart too hardcore—inscrutable, terrifying, impossible. I mean, is Ultima 4 even in the same genre I’m familiar with? What kind of video game is this? It’s like reading Middle English—what is this gibbering and why is it so close to what I love?

For perspective, the game I was playing simultaneously to Ultima 4 was Dishonored, in many ways the two-thousand-twelviest game around. Dishonored doesn’t actually deign to let your dumb ass play the game until after about ten minutes of exposition. You learn what’s going on and what the protagonist needs to do. If you don’t know how to do something, the game will stop and show you a pretty picture of what the Right Thing To Do looks like, with a little diagram of what buttons you ought to push. I have no idea what kind of catastrophes the game thinks are going to happen if you don’t know every facet of your character’s abilities, but I’ll be damned if Dishonored doesn’t do a thorough job of preventing them. And I’m not even raggin’ on the game! It’s good! I’m saying—this is the norm. This is the world I’m used to. And holy crap, Ultima 4 goes farther in the opposite direction than I imagined possible.

In Which I Fail At The Main Menu Because I’m Pro Gamer

The weirdness doesn’t wait to start: Ultima 4’s main menu offers me three options: Journey Onward, Initiate New Game, and Return to the View(?). A cursor highlights Journey Onward, so I hit S to move it down to the Initiate New Game option. Nothing happens. No matter! How silly of me to think this game would use the usual WASD controls so long before they became the standard. Clearly, arrow keys are where it’s at, so I press the down arrow. Except nothing happens. Again. Fuck. 2012 me sits on my shoulder in full devil regalia blaring “WAT DO? THIS GAME SUCKS WHERE’S MY TUTORIAL,” and appreciator-of-historically-significant-media me sits opposite, bedecked with robe and halo, screaming “WHAT’S THIS SHIT CAN’T EVEN START THE DAMN GAME FUCK.” And so I smash my hands on the keyboard to no avail and give up.

Days later, I figure out how to start the game, by typing J, I, or R for Journey Onward, Initiate New Game, and Return to the View, respectively—which, to be fair, what the hell. A cutscene begins of some normal guy finding a magical RenFaire (!!) and having a gypsy ask him a series of ethical questions (!!!) before plopping the player wide-eyed and unprepared as a fuckin’ newborn fuckin’ baby right into the meat of the game. Arrow keys (of course now they work) putter the little dude along one tile at a time, each movement paired with an adorable mid-80s ‘boop’ and a helpful “North!/South!/East!/West!” in the massive text box that dominates much of the screen. Next to your character’s name is a number and the letter “G.” Probably means it’s the amount of gold you have—except there’s another G with a number after it, and an F too. Wha? Normally I’d just mouse over the UI component and get an expanded explanation—but nope, no explanation exists, and the mouse isn’t even used. Because why the fuck not.

Ancillary material required for Ultima 4:

-Reference card for controls. Each of the 26 letter keys has a function, and keeping track of them all is tough. Case in point: the button for unlocking doors is J, because obviously.

-The game’s sketchy, imprecise, cartoon-ass map. Ultima 4’s game world is impressively huge, but you see so little at a time that it’s impossible to know your relative position. If you want to get somewhere, you have to fart along the overworld and check the map constantly to see if the pixelated terrain reminds you of anything. Oh, and you know that wacky ol’ cartographical convention of labeling important places? Ultima 4 knows about it, but figures you’d be more immersed in game lore if it used a FUCKING MADE UP ALPHABET.

-Your spellbook, which details all 26 spells (because EVERY LETTER KEY MUST BE UTILIZED) and the reagent recipe needed to craft them. What’s a reagent? A magical ingredient. How do I know? The spellbook tells me. The game certainly won’t—I played about three hours worth of Ultima 4 before I realized I could use/should be using magic. Also, the reagents needed for the best spells aren’t sold anywhere, but can only be found on like two tiles in the game and, straight up, the only way I found them was Google. I didn’t say they’re only found in two areas. Or two towns. Two tiles. Of which there are HUNDREDS. Did I mention they look IDENTICAL TO DOZENS OF OTHERS FUUUUUCCCCCCKKKK.

-The city/dungeon list, which names and quickly describes all the cities, towns and dungeons. Of course, it does not tell you where the dungeons and towns are. You get a bit of help with cities, as the map gives you a ballpark location and cryptic icons necessary to use a convoluted double-moon-based fast travel system. Some mandatory-to-visit towns aren’t on the map, though. If it weren’t for this manual, I wouldn’t know they existed. As for dungeons, well, good luck. I’m sure they’re somewhere.

-A journal to write down all the shit the game expects you to remember. Truly essential information will be flung into the ether without warning, and if you don’t write it down, it’s gone. It’s not even stuff like “Dodongo dislikes smoke,” it’s more like “This thing you need is invisible, but trust me, it’s at these coordinates, but only during a double new moon, and if you don’t have a sextant to find latitude and longitude, lord help you, you poor bastard.” Except it’s condensed into maybe seven impenetrably cryptic words.

Ancillary materials required for a game in 2012: