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My recent paper on Ultima 7 Part 2: The Serpent Isle

Recently, I was given the assignment of taking a favourite game, and deconstructing it. I did, and here it is. Hope you like it! Referenced materials are easy enough to find, but I will cite at the end of the paper itself.

Gord Cooper, Blogger

August 30, 2009

9 Min Read

                                                                                                            Gordon Cooper

                                                                                                          [email protected]  

Game Theory Analog: Game Analysis

Ultima 7 part 2: The Serpent Isle (“Serpent Isle”, going forward) is a title introduced by Richard Garriott at Origin Games in 1993.  The purpose of this paper is to explore the following questions:  Do I have a subjective like for the title?  What would be the classification of the title through use of Caillois’ methods, and the Paida/Ludus scale?  Which of Garneau’s ‘Fourteen Forms of Fun’ does the title employ, and how?  Through answering these questions, this paper will not only allow the reader greater understanding of these concepts, but perhaps a greater appreciation for a title that may not get as much recognition as many others. 

            Serpent Isle offers a role-playing experience that encourages the player use not only learned behaviors garnered through similar genre titles, but an emotional bond with the characters as well.  This is best illustrated through the series’ continuance of an overall story arc that chronicles the progression of the key player character, aptly referred to as ‘The Avatar’, and his stalwart companions.  Relationship management, problem-solving, a newly minted world for exploration, and technological advance on the part of the game engine itself, all lend to a feeling of evolution for the series, which calls it out as a hallmark in the Ultima franchise. 

As a young man, I enjoyed this title a great deal.  At the time, it was a marked difference from anything else I had experienced to that point.  Inasmuch as story content, world building, and introduction to new social structures within the Ultima universe, this title was the first to travel ‘beyond Britannia’ and give us a taste of what series creator Garriott was capable of as far as creative and philosophic license.  Garriott previously introduced a smaller ‘Underworld’ of Gargoyles in a previous title, which gave us a taste of the shift in focus that was to come with The Serpent Isle. 

Through the use of familiar characters, and interplay with them in previous series titles, the player is thrust into the discovery of a ‘new world’, separate from the original setting, and forced to adapt the life of the Avatar of Virtue to this world.  The title itself introduces a great part of the classic ‘hero’s journey’ through the use of conflict, loss and growth throughout the title.  Although this title is just a single chapter in an overarching saga, I believe it was one of the strongest in the series, and advanced the genre through use of not only technological advantage for the time (Ultima 7, the companion title introduced the new interface and utilization of current hardware to its’ fullest, in addition to an experimental and ultimately flawed memory management system), but enriching the player experience through interface, story, dialogue and writing as well.  Making a title that ensconced a more mature attitude and subject matter, Serpent Isle truly was a more story-driven experience than the average fare at the time, and created inroads for modern storytelling in the medium.  

That being said, for a title that places a great deal of emphasis upon playing the role of a character and interacting with the created world, Mimicry would be the best descriptor of the title under the Caillois classification.  Since the title involves the player taking on the role of the Avatar, and assuming ongoing relationships with series mainstay companions, relations are built, and the role of the Avatar is cemented firmly as that of the player themselves.  Through the assumption of role and inclusion of serious relationships and relationship choices, this title relies heavily on the concept of Mimicry to involve the player, and maintain their interest.

In regards to the Paida/Ludus scale, the title has a set of rules that you accept as the rules of the world, and which you then live by (rules of movement, combat, speaking to others, etc…).  In addition to that, the game takes control of scenarios in some spots to the degree that the character is controlled by the game to further the story (citing the trial of the Dupre in Fawn, for one).  In a world organized by these rules, and also adhering so closely to the story, one could conclude that the title lies ¾ of the way on the Ludus end of the scale. 

While there is room for exploration and ‘non-linear’ gameplay, the title as a whole is a vehicle for story.  In this, it becomes a very linear and regimented experience when the story is being told, which leads into not only following the rules of the game world itself as a character (an example being choosing a faction in Monitor, and living by the code of that faction), but allowing control of your character to be taken over by the system itself to further the storytelling.  This is a strong benefit to the title, however, as it adds to the immersion of the player in not only the role of the character, but the laws and cultures of this new world.

Now, having offered such a variety in game design examples, the following will describe for the reader which of Garneau’s ‘Fourteen Forms of Fun’ the title utilizes, and how. 

Immersion – in a series so entrenched in story, the immersion factor plays a key role in the title.  In the case of Serpent Isle, the immersion is directly tied to your exploration of the world, through characters that have been set over the years as series mainstays, and true companions to the Avatar.  It is this blend of exploration and familiarity that helps to engross the player in the characters and the world itself seamlessly.

Intellectual Problem Solving – the title employs a series of problems that the player must circumvent.  The series often prides itself on challenging intellectual puzzles (Garriott being an intellectual himself, and appreciating the challenge).  However, not all of these are completely laid out as ‘puzzles’, per se.  A portion of the problem solving in Serpent Isle has to do with managing relationships between parties, and solving the mysteries surrounding the Serpent Isle and its unknown past.  This provides an example of more complex, high-order problem solving presented to the player.  The title also encourages the player to learn two new languages presented in the land, with not only a cipher manuscript to practice from in the product box, but books, maps and other sundries scattered throughout the land to add more flavour and adventure to the player willing to take the time to unlock this cipher.

Love – however singular from overall series experience this title may be, it does maintain the string of story and relationship with characters that have become the true companions of the Avatar.  In this, the point at which the player is faced with the death of one of the companions is a difficult one, and some players may feel great conflict being witness to the death, as the character in question dies as proxy for the player.  In my own experience, I can remember not only the regret I felt, but the serious emotional ties still shared with the remaining two members.  In addition to this, the emotional reaction captured by the characters in-game felt a strange resonance with my own reaction as a player, which was a melancholy experience, but an enlightening lesson in design. 

Discovery – Overall, the title encourages the Avatar to leave the comfort of Britannia and discover the ‘new world’ of the Serpent Isle that the characters have been led to on this chase.  A land where the Avatar of Virtue is not a venerated hero, but instead, with a different set of values and cultural norms, maybe just another person.  The journey that the player has gone through thus far with the Avatar is now introduced to the ‘change’ phase, which includes discovery not just of the geographical type, but internally and philosophically as well. 

The setup of the Eight Virtues in Britannia is replaced now by the universal concept of order, chaos and balance, and the subset values within that structure.  In opposition to the system of virtues, this becomes less a journey of personal growth, and has advanced to one of universal reach.  Also interesting to note here is that Garriott alters not only the core game world, but the value system along with it.  This displays an analog for our own global community, and addresses the ‘one true god’ mentality of many organized faiths in a way that allows the player to investigate and understand both sides from a very objective seat as observer, while the character fulfills the role of literal avatar for investigation of the concept within the game space.

            As a game, Serpent Isle delivered in an extremely classic way – hero meets challenges, hero makes hard decisions, hero solves challenges.  As a medium through which to further an ongoing story, it delivered in a way very atypical in present-day storytelling, but very indicative of its’ time – the world of computer RPG’s was dominated by a very grassroots attitude, and it permeated the story through familiar tips of the hat, dealing with the player in a mature manner, and stealthy ‘in-jokes’ (one even referencing the situation wherein Origin software was being purchased by Electronic Arts at the time of the titles’ release). 

To whit, let the reader of this paper be challenged to (re)discover this title, and become immersed in a work of love, eccentric intellectuals, and stimulating problems.  A world that mirrors and mimics our own, in a way not as dissimilar as one would think.

Terminology - 

Caillois' Methods (4 Base Classifications & Paidia/Ludus Scale) - http://ocw.mit.edu/NR/rdonlyres/Comparative-Media-Studies/CMS-600Fall-2007/D0341629-32E5-4500-83D1-D266983A8E70/0/w1.pdf

Garneau's 'Fourteen Forms of Fun' - http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20011012/garneau_01.htm

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