There is an argument many use to defend UA in spite of all inconsistencies and inaccuracies. It says:
“It’s just a game, and you don’t need to be able to explain everything. Artistic licence must be allowed.”
I’d like to take a stand on it.
Said argument consists of three points:
- Artistic licence is more important than consistency.
- You need not explain everything, there should still be secrets left.
- It’s just a game.
Although this discussion is not centered around UA only, it’s still mainly about this one game. I think I can honestly claim that the inconsistencies would not have bothered me if UA had stayed true to the Ultima spirit in general, which was not the case, though.
Yes, I would not have been overly annoyed by the fact that Empath Abbey is located at the other side of Britannia in UA, if I had found an interesting and rich quest about the role of the principle of Love in the 8 Virtues there, instead of a stupid ordinary “Light a candle for the 1000th time and jump around a bit” riddle.
However, as things turned to be, I just yawned, and all that remained as the impression that it had been the work of developers who had no clue about Ultima.
I didn’t experience the liberty taken by the developers as art, but rather as a very bad simplification of all things that I had loved about the Ultima series.
Especially Ultima 6 and Ultima 7 already had some inconsistencies. For example, the wingless Gargoyles could suddenly speak in Ultima 7. But those mistakes didn’t bother anyone. Why not? Because the Gargoyles’ integration into the Fellowship plot was done well nonetheless.
Another very important point to consider is certainly this one: UA simply had worse or bigger mistakes. For example, the entire moongate system being replaced by a new one would have been unthinkable in Ultima 4-7.
Likewise, the complete geographical upheaval of Britannia, explained by the half-hearted “It’s been the Columns” explanation, was clearly too much. In this case, the developers did not have artistic ideals in mind; they just wanted to make the game more simple and easier.
Inconsistencies, mistakes, and atmosphere
Atmosphere is an important part of every roleplaying game. I want to immerse in the world, lose the feeling of my own reality, and become part of the game’s world. All of this was brilliantly accomplished in Ultima 4-7. I’ve been the Avatar, I’ve been there, I’ve been in Britannia.
So why was the atmosphere in these games so good despite of the outdated graphics?
There were a number of reasons, and most of them have to do with freedom. You had moral and plot-wise freedom, as well as the freedom of interacting with the game world in any way you liked (to a certain degree). Though there was another reason: The game’s world appeared to be plausible, especially in Ultima 7. There was real policy in Britain, along with a corrupt mayor and the influence of a dangerous sect. There were brutal murders and dark schemes in the whole kingdom. This wasn’t made for 10- to 15-year-olds anymore; it was already targeted for an older age group. Ultima was mature; Britannia made sense and was realistic.
At this point, consistency in the storyline comes into play. As an experienced Ultima player, you knew what happened in the predecessors, and you were looking forward to see Britannia’s development in each new game. Inconsistencies involving the disregard of preceding games destroy this feeling of consistency, and neither do plot errors concerning the actual game serve plausibility well.
The bigger the inaccuracy, the more atmosphere is destroyed. In Ultima 4-8 (or 5-8 for that matter, since Ultima 4 didn’t have actual predecessors), these inconsistencies were minimal. OK, Buccaneer’s Den had suddenly grown in Ultima 7, and Seggallion had disappeared, but who cared? I could still wander to Yew across Serpent’s Spine and ask my companions what they had been up to in the meantime.
In Ultima IX, the inconsistencies overshoot the mark of tolerance. Each larger scene reminds you that it’s just a game by some big inconsistency. You are thrown out of the game’s world, so often that you can’t ever really stay in.
The game begins on Earth, you hear Hawkwind’s voice, and no word is said about the end of Ultima 8. And as soon as you think about Ultima 8 for precisely this reason and wonder what you missed, your mind is back in reality and not in the game.
Don’t explain everything
The dosage makes poison out of medicine and vice versa. Too many plot holes spoil a game, while finding an explanation for every oddness in the storyline would be hilarious, too. Explaining how the Codex ended up in the Ethereal Void, or how Gargoyles reproduce, is senseless. A good fantasy story depends on mysteries surrounded by legend.
Some plot elements are simply so good that you tolerate inconsistencies. For example, the sidequest with the Emps in Ultima 7 was so good that you gladly forgot about the fact that there had been no silverleaf trees in any preceding Ultima. Of course, this does not hold true for things like the complete disregard of Underworld 2 in Ascension. The inconsistency was necessary for the subquest in Ultima 7. Disregarding Underworld 2 in Ultima IX was not necessary.
So the question is: What parts of Ultima are worth being nitpicked? Which mistakes are bad enough to destroy a game’s atmosphere?
It’s the personal opinion of every fan. However, in my opinion, Ultima 4 to 8 were much better balanced between small plot holes and the complete explanation of all mysteries in the series than UA, which tends too far towards plot holes. I can back up my point of view with a statistic; just compare the number of UA nitpicks listed on this site with the number of nitpicks listed for all the older Ultimas combined.
Furthermore, I must add that many nitpicks aren’t meant to be as serious, at least not those of the older Ultimas. Most of them can be tolerated. This does not hold true for the majority of UA’s inaccuracies, though, for the reasons stated above.
It’s just a game
A final world on the usual “It’s just a game!” killer argument. Yes, Ultima is just a game, but since Ultima 4, and before UA, the series also had a literary, or even philosophic value. The Ultima series proved that computer games can very well be a serious art form. Thus, vets see big plot mistakes (which mainly appear in Ultima IX) like dirty graffiti on the Mona Lisa.
Nevertheless, I must partly agree to the "It’s just a game" statement. Having a fight about a computer game is as stupid as having a fight about any other art form. It’s important to me that nitpicking is mainly fun for you. Even when inaccuracies and plot holes destroy a game (which in my opinion is onlythe case in Ascension, due to the number and weight of the inaccuracies), I try to describe them with humor, and with a grain of salt. After all, it’s actually nitpicking itself which points out that we are dealing with nothing but fictional worlds on our computer screens and in our fantasies. Weird explanations for inaccuracies (and simple ones mostly too) are one of the least important parts of “Hacki’s Ultima Page”.