LTTP: Ultima Underworld the Stygian Abyss

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As I continue through an absolutely massive backlog of unplayed games, this fall I finally decided to arrive at the very beginning of one of today’s most popular genres in video games. For a game I only found out existed maybe two years ago, Ultima Underworld comes off as a forgotten nexus of 3D game design fundamentals from a lost era of innovation.

I may have noted it before, but the 1992 Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss is the reason we have games like BioShock and Elder Scrolls. Even Demon’s Souls might owe its existence to this game. It’s credited with basically inventing the 3D first person RPG hybrid genre… except it was created around the same time first person shooters were really getting started.

When I first checked this game out I assumed it would use a whole lot of 2D trickery to approximate what you would see in Skyrim 19 years later. What I got was what looked like a full-fledged RPG running on the original DOOM’s graphics. I like playing old school DOOM partly because I have a thing for ultra-simplistic 3D graphics, and Underworld let’s me explore a whole world of secrets, characters, and open-ended tactics with that kind of visual style. What’s amazing about this is that it came out a few months before Wolfenstein 3D, and about a year before DOOM popularized first person games.

The game has players cast into a massive failed underground society filled with opposing factions, bartering with each faction in order to explore the levels and eventually track down a missing girl — BioShock 15 years before BioShock basically. The eight levels of the Stygian Abyss are the forerunners to the districts of Rapture and the decks of Dead Space’s USG Ishimura.

The deal with Underworld though is that it’s actually an incredibly dynamic game, even by modern standards. Most NPCs can be bargained with, doors can be broken down, and as soon as you start the game there are already multiple directions in which you can travel. Bits of information strewn about the environment inform you on how you can deal with certain characters to gain their favor in a dynamic conversation system (including learning a fictional language). Underworld feels every bit as systemic and complex as Fallout 3 and Skyrim do today, with most of the fundamental mechanics of those games in-place.

A crucial difference though is that Underworld gives you virtually none of the information that game designers today probably consider critical. No objective markers, no reminders, no hint popups, no damage indicators, no tutorial (except the manual), etc. All the game gives you is an auto map… with no icons. What you DO get though is the ability to type down notes on top of the map. The game expects YOU to manually record every single piece of information you get.

So what you have here is proof of how little 3D role-playing games have actually advanced in the last 21 years. I would say the main difference between then and now is interface, because I can’t ignore here how archaic Underworld’s controls feel. It’s a game from before the era of mouse-look and standard FPS controls, so it has its own weird system for moving around. Interacting with everything requires different “modes” to be clicked on and so forth. The whole thing was a learning experience I spent a day reading manuals just to figure out. It makes the pace of this game much slower than its descendants. This is the only reason I’d suggest caution before buying Underworld on GoodOldGames if you’re a purely modern gamer.

The thing is though, I end up liking a lot of old school games despite certain aged aspects because they tend to have other qualities modern games might lack. They might feel simpler, more intuitive, or just plain better-designed than today’s hand-holding experiences. This is certainly true if you compare Underworld to BioShock for instance, but I’m not sure if this game is better than Arx Fatalis in a 1:1 comparison.

I haven’t played Arx in about a year, but thinking back it feels like a legit polishing of Underworld’s design with more modern interface trappings. Arx was basically supposed to be Underworld 3 (even one of Underworld’s original designers worked on it), just without the license, and it definitely feels like Underworld but running on Halo Combat Evolved graphics instead of DOOM graphics. All I’m saying is, if you want the kind of experience Underworld offers but can’t get past how ancient the game looks and feels, Arx is the closest modern equivalent. If even that feels too old, then I don’t know man. Dark Souls maybe?

What get’s to me is how DOOM ended up becoming the game that got all the fame for popularizing first person games when Underworld was far more complex and beat DOOM to the market by a year. Maybe it’s in fact because of the complexity — maybe the mass audience just wanted a simple shooter to deal with the jump to 3D. It’s probably because DOOM was shareware for two years and the Underworld developers didn’t get a deal for a Windows version (the GOG version runs on DOSBOX).

BULLETS:

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2 thoughts on “LTTP: Ultima Underworld the Stygian Abyss

  1. […] way to each objective. In the tradition of today’s Fallout or yesteryear’s Ultima Underworld (which I covered previously), Thief creates environments based on working systems and not based on linear […]

  2. […] short of confirmation that King’s Field was inspired by Ultima Underworld. If you haven’t read my earlier post about that game, Ultima Underworld is basically the 3D dungeon-crawler that led to games like Elder […]

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