Ultima VII: The Land of Sub-optimal Paths

Corvus at Man Bytes Blog has posted a brief article that examines how games use “sub-optimal paths for narrative purposes”, with Ultima VII: The Black Gate as the primary example.

Britannia, the realm in which the Ultima games are set, contains more than ten cities and a great many tiny islands. Every city has a story taking place within its borders. The Avatar herself is a reflection of the virtues upon which the Britannian cities were founded and the struggles of the citizens reflect the decay of those virtues. By diverging from the central plotline, which takes you to all of the cities at one point or another, the player learns about the culture of the world and her character’s own role in the creation of that culture. Additionally, the little simulated lives you touch bring greater purpose to your grand goals. No longer are you merely saving the world simply because you’re a hero, but because you want to save all of the individuals you’ve met along the way.

Not only does the sub-optimal path in U7 provide a deeper and more meaningful look at the Avatar’s relationship with Britannia’s cities and history, but it’s valuable to the gameplay as well both directly and indirectly. In a direct sense solving all of the secondary quests gives you experience points you can use to increase the power and skills of the Avatar and her companions (she can have up to seven companions in the party). It also gives the player access to better weapons, more gold, and more opportunities for combat, which also provides experience points. Experience points are applied, not via a character menu, but by visiting trainers scattered about the islands. Each trainer has a different skill set and can teach the Avatar and her companions different things. Visiting each island and actively participating in its trials and tribulations makes it easier to remember each city as a distinct place and easier to remember which trainer resides in which city and what skills each one teaches. This is a definite secondary benefit for people like me who never remember to stop and take good notes mid-game.

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