The creators of the immersive sim return to the Abyss
You can’t overstate the importance of Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.
A fully textured 3D firstperson game released in 1992, it brought the rich choice and consequence of 2D RPGs into a sprawling underground world of twisting passageways and dark chambers. Objects had physical attributes, so they’d fall and bounce when thrown. Doors could be broken, carefree experimentation with its spell system of verbs and nouns opened up multiple ways of tackling every situation, and once you’d learned their languages, you’d talk with your enemies as much as fight them. Open-ended, atmospheric and embodied, it was the game that launched Looking Glass Studios and the careers of developers Warren Spector, Doug Church, Paul Neurath and many others who went on to make waves in creating the body of games that followed – System Shock, Thief,
Deus Ex, Bioshock – a genre which became known as the immersive sim.
Now some of those same developers have returned to make a new Underworld game. Not an Ultima game, mind you. Paul Neurath, who led the design of the original and went on to found Floodgate Entertainment, which was later acquired by Zynga, spent 20 years negotiating with Ultima IP holder EA for its licence. He finally came away with a deal that only released the Underworld part, but
Underworld Ascendant is set in the Great Stygian Abyss, just as the first game is; you once again play as the Avatar; and it features some characters who appeared in the original.
Underworld’s Abyss is a network of underground caverns which borders the Underworld itself. Other than the undead which have wandered into its halls it should be lifeless, yet somehow it flourishes, with an ecology which draws energy from mana floating in the air. The raw rock and the ancient ruins that stand in it glow with colourful bioluminescent light, giving
Ascendant a very different look to the original. It was a challenge to direct Ascendant’s art, given that it’s based on games which were made for such nascent 3D technology. “To my mind, it’s to an extent reminiscent of the earlier games,” Spector tells us. “There’s a colourfulness that I find very appealing, and that’s part of the atmosphere of the original, in that its different locations looked different and it wasn’t a bleak world.”
“We’re trying to do something a little different to the common trend of hyperrealism in Game Of Thrones and Lord Of The Rings,” adds game director and writer
Joe Fielder, who was previously a writer and producer for Bioshock Infinite and the Medal
Of Honor series. ”We’re going for something more raw and roughly hewn. A lot of
inspiration has come from early D&D and miniatures. We’re calling it internally ‘pulp fantasy’; we’re really wanting to play with the mythic roots of the series.” If you remember the cover of The Stygian Abyss, of a warrior cautiously descending Escher-like steps towards a monster in the foreground, it captures some of that atmosphere.
When Neurath asked Spector to join Otherside, Spector had spent a couple of years teaching at the University Of Texas since the closure of his previous studio, Junction Point, and he jumped at the chance to make games again. “I’d started to get kind of antsy,” he says. He and Neurath went on the road to raise funds and gather a team. They took on Doug Church as an advisor; Tim Stellmach, who helped design System Shock, as lead designer; and Nate Wells, artist on Bioshock and The Last Of Us. Together they discussed how to update so venerable a game, deciding to not only follow up on Underworld but on the immersive sim as a whole. “We’re taking things further by going deeper on simulation and giving players even more control over the experience. That’s true of both Ultima
Ascendant and System Shock 3,” says Spector, whose main job at Otherside is not working on Ascendant but directing System Shock 3 at a second studio in Austin, his home town. “I’m not going to name names, but I will say that most of the games that have followed since Thief and Deus Ex are highly scripted and much more linear. They give players fewer opportunities to tell their own stories.”
Opening up more player choice, he says, is a matter of merging The Stygian Abyss’ original principles with modern world simulation and systems-driven design – things that were entirely impossible in the early 1990s. Thus, in Ascendant objects are imbued with physics and material properties, so that flammable things burn and heavy things fall with greater force. Today that’s hardly radical, but
Ascendant’s difference is giving players a high density of different objects and properties to play with, knowing that complexity will emerge from them. Glueballs, for example, are found as a seed pod on vicious rippers – hunched, tree-like plants with long claws. Pick one and throw it into the joint of a rotating blade trap to seize it up. Throw it on to a wall, and then throw a crate onto it, and you have the start of a bridge. Many of these little feats, as the game calls them, will earn the player faction reputation and other rewards to encourage creative play.
Ascendant’s magic system, which has you casting spells using phrases made from magical words (‘Slow Time’ or ‘Create Plant’), or with wands loaded with specific spells, further supports these material tricks. Gravitate is a spell which can pick up multiple objects and arrange them into configurations which might act as a ladder to ascend a wall or a barrier against assailants. Harm Wood will instantly destroy a door; Bind Spirit will freeze a marauding skeleton in its tracks. Or you can take a more agile approach, investing in skills such as Wall Run and Wall Jump.
And more than that, the chambers of the Abyss are designed to change over time. You might visit a location several times as you embark on quests from the game’s three factions, performing such tasks as locating some MacGuffin, mapping out an area or raising the water level, and each time it will be populated with different enemies, items and structures. “With our team size, we know that we’re not going to do hundreds of miles of environment,” says Fielder. “But those places become static over time, so while we have this constraint we can also make sure the environments grow and change with designer-curated variety.”
Over the course of the game, the threat will rise. Fielder describes Ascendant’s campaign as having a boardgame-style doom counter hanging over it. Creatures from the lower depths will rise, cleared areas will repopulate, and as you interact with the factions you’ll have to manage their differing goals. In aiming to re-school the immersive sim, Ascendant has pitched itself a stern challenge, but its solution, in exchanging sprawling open worlds for dynamic and deep ones, is tantalising.
“We can make sure the environments change with designer-curated variety”
Otherside Studios’ Warren Spector (top) and Joe Fielder
The quest hub is a Tangierlike city of packed together buildings. Here you’ll interact with NPCs from the three different factions