Ultima IV is one of the classics of the RPG genre. Considered the first great entry in what once was the greatest RPG series in gaming, long before Japan showed up with its Dragon Warriors and Final Fantasies to show us how it’s done, Ultima IV pioneered gaming’s first true morality system, in which completion of the game required one to follow the Virtues, a series of moral axioms, becoming the Avatar thereof and bringing hope to the land of Britannia.
This is what we can all agree on. Unfortunately, there’s a dark secret to this classic game: it’s basically unplayable.
Of course, try to tell that to certain people, and they’ll call you illiterate. They’ll claim that modern gamers are spoiled by their quest compasses, their voice acting, their tutorials. They’ll claim that we cruelly dismiss a true classic for our hollow, hedonistic pleasures, with no difficulty or effort involved in the enjoyment.
This is, of course, completely false. Yet at the same time, it’s also true. But the fact that there’s truth to it isn’t, in fact, a harbinger for the end of intelligence in gamers or anything like that. It’s perfectly natural.
This week, I’m going to explain why a game can both be a classic and unplayable. More importantly, though, I’m going to explain why it’s okay for things to be that way.
You Can’t Escape, You Know
“The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.”
Let’s talk about agency.
The agency of the player is the key component of all interactive entertainment. However, agency is naturally a limited thing in video games. Since a computer program is, by its nature, deterministic, it can only allow and respond to a limited number of actions, assuming no outside device or program interferes. A game is further limited by the assets the programmer inserts into the program and intends to be seen.
The earliest games had extremely limited agency. Pong had the agency of moving the paddle either up or down - an amazing two whole directions! However, the desire for increased agency was quickly discovered, mostly in early mainframe RPGs. Since then, the trend has been toward more and more agency, be it agency of mechanics (ie, the gameplay) or agency of narrative. Usually, the level of agency is set early on, and the expectation is followed through the entire game, the contract between player and designer.
But what happens when agency is denied? And what does this increased agency mean for players?
(Warning: Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, L.A. Noire, and Portal after the jump.)