My Life with Games (part 4)–Computer games

I debated if I wanted to include this category. After all, “my favorite gaming platform is a table and chairs”. But, if I’m going to be honest, there’s a slice of my gaming life that’s all about the electronic. And, given that I now work in IT, not giving a shout out to our little silicon buddies might just be hypocritical.
I’ve been around computers since kindergarten, when I was introduced to the TI99-4A and the two computer languages of BASIC and Logo. It was a school computer; we couldn’t afford such a thing until…well…until I bought my own in college.
What this means is that my connection to computers and computer games was tenuous. Kinda like a junkie’s connection to his drug is tenuous. Whenever I had the chance to play with a computer, I would. And, while I know that there must have been other games in the mix somewhere, the first ones that I remembering having an impact were the Telarium graphic adventures.
Remember those old text adventures that Parsely mimics? Well, the Telarium games were all based on SF novels. The ones I remember playing were Rendevous with Rama, Nine Princes in Amber, and Fahrenheit 451. My favorite of the series, Amazon, wasn’t actually based on a book, but it was still designed by Michael Crichton and bears a striking resemblance to his novel Congo.
Remember that I hadn’t read any of these novels at this point. For that matter, I hadn’t heard of Clarke, Bradbury, Crichton, or Zelaznu. These games werey gateway into their worlds.
So that’s how computer games introduced me to a some of my favorite SF authors.

We had a computer around, eventually. While we had an old CP/M machine that was a word processor, the significant machine was

an old Apple II+ that another family in the church gave us. This opened up a number of possibilities. Yeah, it permitted me to continue to pursue my computer game design ambitions, but more importantly it provided us the ability to play computer games! And play we did.
Remember how I said that my parents cut a deal with my brother and I about D&D? Well, their solution was to replace D&D with a copy of the computer game Bard’s Tale. This was a popular move with my brother and me. We spent hours mapping dungeons while fending off increasingly powerful foes. This led into Bard’s Tale II (which I recall being my favorite) and Bard’s Tale III, which is the only one of the three that I remember defeating, and even that was only with the help of a hint guide.
But my favorite computer RPG at the time was definitely Ultima V.
The same kid who introduced me to D&D also introduced me to the pretty cool world of Brittania in its Ultima V incarnation. So, once we owned a computer that could run Ultima, my brother and I pooled our resources and bought ourselves our very own copy. It was a thing of beauty. There was a gazeteer full of information on Brittania, as well as a cloth map, showing the mainlaid and the various islands of the realm (though, not all the islands!)
Ultima V was groundbreaking for me in so many ways. First, it was the first computer game world that felt like it might actually be able to exist in reality. Monsters didn’t become more difficult just because you were leveling up. Instead, they lived in their environment like it said in the gazeteer, and if you didn’t want to fight them, then maybe you should stay away from the areas where they live, you know? For that matter, you could actually see the monsters coming on the map. So, if you didn’t think that you could fight those ettins, then maybe you should go a different direction. Of course, you could move faster on the road or on horseback, while moving slower through the mountains….
Yeah, like that.
Also, there were no areas sealed off until “later in the game”. If you could arrange transportation, you could get anywhere you wanted to go. And when I say “arrange transportation”, I mean “fight pirates and take their ship”. I also mean “figure out how to use the moongate network”. And what are moongates? Well, Brittania has two moons with separate lunar cycles. Every night, the blue moongates appear, and you can travel by walking through them. Where do you go? Each moongate is associated with one of the phases of the moon, and so you will travel to the gate associated with the phase of the whichever moon is closest to being overhead. Essentially, each night you had the option of traveling to two different locations. And then, later in the game, when you discover how to move the moongates, you can arrange your own transportation network.
Also, Ultima V had no boss battle. This is something of a crazy concept, even in game design today. Instead, you had to complete three quests of artifact retrieval and destruction. You see, Brittania’s ruler, Lord British, has gone missing, and his replacement Blackthorn has been corrupted by the three Shadowlords. In order to rescue Lord British, you had to destroy the three Shadowlords by discovering their true names, locating their shard of a shattered magic crystal, taking the shard to the appropriate True Flame, calling the Shadowlord by using its true name, and then casting the shard onto the True Flame while the Shadowlord is standing in it. Yeah, three times.
So, one significant part of this is that you are never required to engage a Shadowlord in combat. In theory, you could go through the whole game without ever fighting one of these big bads.
Also, the three Shadowlords hook into the overarching mythos of Ultima. You see, in the previous game (which I never played), you become the Avatar, an exemplar of goodness by following the Three Principles (Love, Truth, and Courage) and the Eight Virtues which spring from these three principles (Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility). In Ultima V, these Principles and Virtues have been corrupted by Blackthorn and the Shadowlords (corresponding to Hatred, Falsehood, and Cowardice). Indeed, the corruption manifests itself as a heavy-handed legal code supposedly supporting the Eight Virtues, but instead based on fear of punishment. (e.g. for Honesty, “Thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt lose thy tongue.”)
This is pretty heady stuff, and the idea of a series of computer games that was actively engaging in something resembling serious ethical inquiry is still pretty awesome to me.
Finally, to be totally shallow, the combat system played out on a mini-map, where you could maneuver your characters, unlike the Bard’s Tale series, where combats were abstracted into “front rank” combatants, who could fight in melee, and “back rank” combatants, who had to use spells or missile weapons. The additional mini-game of combat was another mark of quality in this excellent game.
It’s also around this time that my nascent game designer urges began to emerge.
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