Following on from what many consider to be the zenith of the Ultima Series at large, we come to what is possibly the most divisive game in the series proper; Ultima VI: The False Prophet.
The game has been the subject of much disagreement among the Ultima fraternity, with some lauding it as a step up from its predecessors, both in narrative and mechanic, whilst others deride it for its departure from the standard display and gameplay structures previously seen.
Whatever opinion a player has, it cannot be denied that Ultima VI was, to coin a tired cliché, a game changer. Visually the game bears little similarity to previous iterations, with most of the core components completely overhauled. It is around this aspect of the game that the vast majority of the controversy centred.
The biggest difference was the move away from a multi-layer environment system, where dungeons, towns and other areas were represented as an icon on the world map and entry into them would open up an expanded separate area to represent them. In the new format the game world was rendered in full scale, with all areas integrated into one another. Entry into a village or dungeon now proceeded as part of the standard world, with no separation of the two. This also removed the disparity in perspective and scale between the world map exploration and the dungeon delving. The whole game was now navigated from a single top-down, pseudo-isometric perspective, removing the first-person perspective used for dungeon segments previously. This, in principle gave the world a much more organic feel; giving more weight to the sense of a living, breathing game world than had ever been seen before. In addition, it can be seen as the first true example of a singular, sandbox game world for the Ultima series and set the trend for the future of the series. Along with this was the inclusion of action buttons along the bottom of the screen, which allowed greater accessibility for gameplay and was something of a precursor to the modern-day MMO button layouts of today. Think World of Warcraft set the standard for RPG HUD layout? Take some time to examine Ultima Online and the preceding Ultima titles for a few familiar sights. The False Prophet and its successors had a big hand in what you see today
The graphical display, too, was dramatically altered, with character models much more dynamically rendered, along with the introduction of character portraits, a more intuitively presented inventory system and even lighting dynamics. For the time this was something pretty special. At a very basic visual level, Ultima VI was much more colourful than any of the games in the series before it. While it undoubtedly looked far superior to previous titles, the garish and gaudy style was a bit too ostentatious for some.
However, the main issue that the game’s dissenters had was with the play window. While previous titles had used the vast majority of the screen for the game world, the same window in The False Prophet was considerably smaller in scale. This was exacerbated by the game designers’ decision to include the ‘fog of war’ around the edge of the game screen. A consequence of the new lighting dynamics, the darkness around the edge of the screen was to emphasise the effect of local light sources in the environment, but to work, the dark edges had to be present even in scenes of full daylight, meaning that the area of the play window that was serviceable from a visual perspective was further diminished. This led many players to complain of a claustrophobic feel to the game, like they were playing the game through a very small window. Indeed, while by no means crippling the game, it is easy to see how much the scale of the game, from an aesthetics standpoint at least, is affected by this design decision. At any point you can only see a small section of the game world, rendering much of the feeling of scale rather undermined.
However, where the narrative is concerned Ultima VI: The False Prophet stands on its own as the best game story I have ever come across. While in my previous article I may have asserted that Ultima V’s narrative was the best of the series, on reflection I feel I must retract. Taken as an overall story, while Warriors of Destiny was truly special, The False Prophet stands out as just that little bit better. I’ll be honest, it’s like picking your favourite child really, it’s virtually impossible.
I can’t cover all aspects of the story of The False Prophet in the space I have available here. Indeed, merely recounting it doesn’t come close to doing it the justice it deserves. To experience it first hand is to know narrative greatness and should be the first recourse for anyone who wants to know how gaming narrative can be done right.
The general premise finds the player, as the Avatar of previous games, called back to Britannia through a moongate. However, upon passing through the moongate, the player is tied to an alter by a mass of what appear to be large, crimson winged demons before they are rescued at the last minute by returning companions Iolo, Shamino and Dupre and make their escape through a closing moongate pursued by a number of the horde, all in the opening set up.
Quite an opening I think we can agree. From this point you appear in Lord British’s throne room and it is explained that a seismic shift has collapsed some the dungeons and the underworld, from which the demons (now shown to be a race of Gargoyles) have emerged and taken over the shrines of virtue, harassing the populace. As expected you are tasked with restoring the shrines and vanquishing the Gargoyle oppressors.
Now, in and of itself, when taken at face value that story alone makes for a heck of an adventure. A little hackneyed, perhaps, but a dramatic one none the less.
Ultima VI, however, has a little bit more up its sleeves. As the game proceeds, it starts to become apparent that the gargoyles are not the vicious monsters they initially appear to be. It eventually emerges that they are fleeing the collapse of their world, engendered by the same natural disasters wracking Britannia. Moreover, you discover that these disasters are the result of your actions in Ultima V when you took the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, their holy book; something foretold in their holy texts would be done by the eponymous False Prophet, who just so happens to be you. Thus begins a journey of discovery, as you learn of their religion, based on the values of Control, Passion and Diligence, represented by effigies of your old adversaries Mondain, Minax and Exodus. The Avatar comes to realise the solution to the proceeding cataclysm is to send the Codex into the ether and allow both societies to view it through specially crafted lenses, which is how the story ends.
What, on the face of it, promises to be a fairy standard fight against overwhelming odds rapidly becomes a commentary of prejudice, pre-conceptions and of the consequences of noble intentions. The concept of perspective is applied to previously heroic deeds and the player is forced to face the fact that the Avatar, while a hero in the true sense of the word for Britannia, is also the harbinger of doom for the Gargoyles, who are fully justified in hating him for his actions. The attitudes of the Britannia people and Lord British are shown to be resistant and prejudiced and the theme of unifying the two slighted peoples is also touched on.
While the next game in the series, Ultima VII: The Black Gate, is probably the most well-known and well regarded of the main Ultima series, Ultima VI: The False Prophet deserves to be remembered as a significant and monumental entry in not just the series, but RPGs and gaming as a whole. It started the trend toward grander scale worlds, ushered the genre towards the now-popular isometric third-person perspective and told a nuanced and engaging story to boot. Today, Bioshock: Infinite draws widespread plaudits for its story, not least from me, but Ultima VI’s narrative is every bit as good.
The False Prophet may not be the most fondly remembered of the Ultima games and may be criticised for its design choices, but the simple fact is that this much-maligned title is a damn sight better than most other titles out there. While the design may not be polished or the finished article, it set the basis from which The Black Gate, the most technically refined of the series, could build.
The true merit of Ultima VI: The False Prophet is in its transformation of standard, clichéd oppression storyline into an odyssey of self-discovery, introspection and evolution. It doesn’t overtly preach and it certainly doesn’t patronise; what it does is deliver a revelatory narrative in the most engaging way possible and for that I can describe it as nothing less than one of the best games I have ever had the fortune to experience.
Join me next time as I look back at the most well-known and popular of the main Ultima series; Ultima VII: The Black Gate.
Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org