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Worlds of Ultima

Entry updated 11 January 2018. Tagged: Game.

Videogame series (from 1990). Origin Systems (OS).

The Worlds of Ultima series was launched as a spinoff from the Ultima sequence of Sword and Sorcery Computer Role Playing Games. The central conceit of Ultima is that the player is represented by the Avatar, an individual from our own world who enters the fantasy land of Britannia through a "dimensional portal", returning at intervals of many years to intervene at crucial points in that world's history. In Worlds of Ultima, the Avatar is sent elsewhere, to realities which are unrelated to their normal destination. In the two games that were released, those universes were science-fictional in nature. Interestingly, the Worlds of Ultima are also distinguished from Britannia by their lack of a strong moral compass; the main Ultima games' emphasis on ethical actions and the importance of pseudo-medieval "virtues" are largely absent from the spinoff series. As in other Ultima games of the time, the simulated world is displayed in a two-dimensional overhead view and is highly operable; almost any physical item can be used and manipulated, though characters are generally less responsive.

The Savage Empire (1990 OS, DOS; 1995 SNES) designed by Stephen Beeman, Richard Garriott, was the first Worlds of Ultima game to be released. Scripted by Aaron Allston, it is set in a Lost World much influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar, similar to those Allston designed for the Lands of Mystery supplement for Justice, Inc (1984) and the Hollow Earth he created for the Dungeons and Dragons world of Mystara (see Role Playing Games). The Savage Empire's land of Eodon is populated with the usual Dinosaurs, jungle princesses and savage tribes descended from lost Aztecs and Neanderthals, as well as less conventional giant ants, intelligent reptilians and shamans capable of effective magic. The gameplay is generally discursive, focusing on exploration of Eodon and performing diverse tasks with the eventual goal of unifying the various tribes against the threat presented by the giant ants; opportunities for conversation with other characters are rare.

Martian Dreams (1991 OS, DOS) designed by Jeff George, Richard Garriott, Warren Spector, the second entry in the series, is more interesting. The game is Steampunk, set in a secret history of our own world in which a Phlogiston fuelled cannon was used to send an expedition to Mars in 1893, in the manner of Jules Verne's De la terre à la lune ["From the Earth to the Moon"] (1865). The expedition's "bullet" has been launched early due to sabotage, trapping many eminent Victorians on Mars, including the inventor Thomas Alva Edison (see also Edisonade), the revolutionary Nikolai Lenin and the anarchist Emma Goldman; the Avatar joins a rescue mission led by Edison's rival, Nikola Tesla. The Mars presented in the game is cold and arid, inhabited by creatures combining the qualities of plant and animal. It is also the site of a unique alien civilization, now apparently extinct, whose members grew new individuals from seeds in a plot of land which combined the functions of cemetery and nursery, passing on racial memories absorbed into the soil from the decomposing bodies of the dead. These Martians were the possessors of an advanced technology based on gigantic underground factories, powered by steam and operated by "mechanical men" (see Robots). To return to Earth, the player characters must learn how to operate these forgotten machines, melting the polar ice caps with giant lenses that focus the heat of the sun to refill the Martian canal system and reactivating the abandoned power stations. Many other elements appear in a strongly imagined fiction, including Psionic powers gained by eating alien berries and the Martian dream machines, which have trapped many members of the first expedition in their own nightmares. Overall, Martian Dreams is perhaps the most interesting of the "Golden Age" science fiction Computer Role Playing Games, emphasizing exploration of its complex and original world over combat, and amply supplied with vividly drawn characters. [NT]

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