I'm not the only person who thinks Ultima VII (1992) was a fantastic role-playing game. I may be the only person who likes it for the reasons that I do, though, as (you may have noticed) I am very weird. Maybe not, though. Let's see what you think!
Ultima VII was famously the game where you could go buy sacks of grain from a farmer, put them into a mill and grind them into flour, which you could then take into a bakery and put on a table, add water from a bucket (that you filled from a well), and bake into bread, which you could then feed to your extremely whiny party members to get them to stop saying things like, "I could use some food" over and over. It was also the game where you could watch as every single individual townsperson walked around town according to their daily schedule, working, eating at the tavern, maybe going to their "Fellowship" meeting, and going to bed. You could sit at the tavern and watch all the townspeople gather and make chit-chat with each other. At the time, and even to a large extent today, the game seemed absurdly detailed and lifelike.
You could do practically anything you wanted - go anywhere, kill anybody (although your party members might leave you in disgust). When I first played the game, it took me a while to make the huge mental shift into its world. The game starts outside of a stable housing a gory murder victim. Naturally, this being a video game, I immediately walked into the stables and started stuffing absolutely everything into my backpack - horseshoes, brooms, hay, a bucket of blood from the murder scene - because, hey, it's not nailed down, is it? It nearly caused my fifth-grade brain to melt out of my ears when I realized that none of this stuff existed for me - the horseshoe wasn't an item or an upgrade or the solution to a puzzle. There was a horseshoe because I was in a stable and there are horseshoes in a stable. I could pick it up and take it with me because... why not?
Ultima VII was perhaps the first game I ever played where it seemed clear that the world did not exist merely to serve me as a game player. The store owners did NOT keep their stores open 24 hours a day for my benefit. If they were at dinner or asleep, I was out of luck. If I invaded someone's house, they yelled at me. If I broke all their jars and looted the (mostly useless) stuff inside of them, the jars did not respawn when I left the house and came back in - they were broken for the rest of the game. It felt real in a strange way. Goofy as it may sound, it's like there was a world I was visiting.
Ultima VII gets a lot of credit for this, and rightly so. However, lots of other games that followed have accomplished at least that much, and I haven't enjoyed them nearly as much. But Ultima VII I still love. Whereas Skyrim - a far more elaborate and advanced (and easier to play) game - is a pleasant diversion for a few hours, even now Ultima VII can draw me eagerly back to the computer to explore some more. What's the difference?
I think the answer is that Ultima VII follows the "Pirates of the Caribbean Principle." The game is all about extremes - the characters and stories are loud, colorful, and instantly accessible. The amazing thing about Ultima VII is not just that there's a lot of detail, but that so much of the detail is actually interesting. Any developer with enough budget and time can fill a world with "lore" and lifelike mechanics and details. It takes a real storyteller, however, to make an entire world that's actually worth exploring.
Virtually every townsperson in Ultima VII has a well-defined and colorful personality, including shopkeepers. The barmaid in Trinsic is over-flirtatious, the barmaid in Jhelom is enormous and can beat you in arm wrestling, the barmaid in Skara Brae is unaware she's dead, etc. They all have a brightly drawn, distinctive character portrait and a unique voice. More significantly, they all have an opinion and frequently an agenda. It may have to do with the main quest of the game (the mysterious quasi-religious organization known as "the Fellowship"), or maybe with the story going on in that particular town, but hardly anybody exists merely to sell you arrows or to fill out the population. Ultima as a series was not necessarily known for being a story-driven game, but Ultima VII is a brilliant exercise in basic storytelling principles - keep conflict on the rise, use bold colors and strong characterizations, eliminate extraneous details.
That last one may come as a surprise, because to a lot of people Ultima VII is all about the extraneous details - the villager's daily schedules, the working blacksmith equipment, etc. But I think if you'll look closely, you'll see that as "sprawling" as the game might appear, it's actually extremely TIGHT. City populations are actually very small (And why is 95% of the population of Britannia single? That can't last...), and the world itself is actually not that large size-wise. Most of the towns are really quite close to each other (a fact that is obscured by the limited top-down viewpoint of the game). Like Ocarina of Time, the world isn't big so much as full, which is to be preferred. Each character in each town has a little role to play in either the larger quest or that town's mini-story. And no, there aren't hundreds of unrelated miniquests to do. Usually, each town has one main story and maybe a couple of tiny side stories to explore, but very few (if any) of these qualify as "side quests" in the traditional RPG sense. No one asks you to "kill ten bears" or to go get a staff from a dungeon halfway around the world unless it's relevant to the main, single-threaded storyline. What's more, there are secrets and treasures to find everywhere. One of the great design principles of Miyamoto (designer of Mario, Zelda, and other Nintendo titles) is rewarding exploration, and Ultima VII follows suit. The game's world might not really be "for me," in the same way that King's Quest or Final Fantasy was, but there was still a whole lot of treasure at the end of just about any given dungeon.
I should probably note that when I say Ultima VII is a brilliant storytelling game, that I don't mean that there's a whole lot of plot or cutscenes in the game. In fact, apart from the brief beginning and end, there are NO cutscenes. Due to the nature of the game, you are constantly arriving to a town just after story has occurred - a grisly, ritualistic murder was committed, a wussy little man was challenged to a duel to the death by a warrior's guild, etc. So even though you uncover clues to the story after the fact, there is still a story being told. What's more, a story is being told in the very interactions and agendas of the characters you interact with. "Plot" might be sparse in Ultima VII, but "story" is not. (I should also mention how fantastically grateful I am that every book in Ultima VII contains only a blurb of text!)
What's frustrating to me is that I seldom hear game developers or game reviewers expound on these principles (screenwriters, musical theater writers, theme park attraction designers do though), even though they seem critically important to me. It's possible I'm one of only a few who values them in application to the games world, although back in the 90's it seemed like they were just understood. Given that the games that I do love are loved by many others, however, suggests that I'm not alone in valuing these things - or, at least, I hope I'm not.
Maybe one day we can have another Ultima VII. Until then, I guess I'll just have to settle for the somewhat duller, emptier world of Skyrim.
Nah, I'm gonna play Ultima VII again.