One of the things I’ve been doing while I take a break from writing is playing early releases of Shroud of the Avatar. For those who don’t know, SotA is a crowdfunded MMORPG run by Richard Garriott (a.k.a Lord British) and Starr Long. It is a direct descendant of the Ultima games of my teens. I was an early supporter of the game and so I have access to the monthly releases that they do. They are currently on R23, but until now, I haven’t played much because my free time was consumed by writing.
I think I was in 7th or 8th grade when I first encountered an Ultima game. It was probably Ultima IV: The Quest of the Avatar. The game came out in 1985, and I remember being fascinated by it. For one thing, it was very much like a Dungeons & Dragons game. For another, it was the first game I ever encountered where your moral and ethical behavior within the game mattered, and had an impact on the outcome. I loved playing the game, and when I finally completed it, it felt like a real triumph. I went on to play Ultima V, and Ultima VI. Year later, after college, I played Ultima IX, which by then, had become a first-person perspective game.
Part of what fascinates me about games like Ultima, and Shroud of the Avatar is the complexity of the game. Part of it is the mechanics. As a software developer, I have a keen interest in knowing how things work. Car enthusiasts know about engines. I am fascinated by the internal mechanics of a game as complex as Shroud of the Avatar. That is a big part of why I am so impressed by the open development they are doing. The game is still in pre-Alpha, but backers get monthly updates like clockwork. Backers become the QA for the game. The community appears to be strong, and opinionated, but that gets the job done. The folks at Portalarium–Richard Garriott’s company that is making the game–are just opinionated and just as quick at providing fixes and patches to issues as the community is to report them.
The forums and posts made my the development team provide a fascinating insight into the process of how the game is made. In one forum, the notes from the daily standing meetings are posted. You can see who is working on what part of the game, what, if anything, is blocking them. The video chats they do are insightful, and provide a glimpse of just how complex the game is under the hood. For someone like me, this is like candy on Halloween.
Playing the game has been fun, too. While I really like the top-down game view of the old Ultima IV and Ultima V, the sense of immersion you get from the dazzling graphics and animation of Shroud of the Avatar makes it seem more real than any game I’ve played before it. The conscientiousness that has gone into each aspect of the look and feel of the game comes through strongly. Things like the way water behaves in the game–a seemingly small detail–adds an exponential level of realism to the game.
The quality of light that is used, the reflection of light in water, even the textures of the mountains in the distance make it appears as through you really there in the imagined world:
My playing partner
I’ve been playing Shroud of the Avatar with the Little Man. I remember how much I loved Ultima when I was younger, and I thought he might enjoy it, too. Of course, he is younger than I was when I played, but I didn’t have a guide to help explain things. So we have been playing together and it has been fun. What’s fascinating to me is how much he gets into the game, and how much he understands of the mechanics of the game. And he remembers everything, although sometimes, incorrectly. For instance, at one point we were attached by thugs–they were called thugs in the game, anyway. A day or two later, we were talking about the game and the Little Man proposed a strategy.
“Daddy,” he said, “next time we encounter the snugs, I think we should…”
Snugs? He meant “thugs” of course, but now we both call them snugs, because it was too funny not to.
After completing one of the early quests over the weekend, we had enough gold to improve some of our skills. So we began developing skills in the “Subterfuge” skill tree. I explained to the Little Man what “subterfuge” meant, and he understood. For the rest of the day, it seemed, I’d hear him say to Kelly, “Mom, do you know subterfuge is? Well, we have a skill that will allow us to…”
He will no doubt impress his friends, and quite possibly his teacher, with his new-found vocabulary.
One thing that is great about the Ultima games, and Shroud of the Avatar is no exception, is that the avatars moral character is a big part of the game. In the original game, there were three principles–truth, love, and courage–that are made up of eight virtues: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. These virtues carry through to Shroud of the Avatar. That means that game isn’t just about fighting monsters and getting gold. There are moral situations in which the decisions you make affect your (moral) character and that in turn affects the outcome of the game. It provides a very large gray area where it isn’t always clear what the right thing to do is, and in those situations (only one or two of which we have encountered so far) I’ll turn to the Little Man and we’ll discuss what we think the best option is, and why.
The first beta versions of the game aren’t scheduled to be released until sometime next year. For now, we are just trying to learn the intricacies of the game. Combat, magic, skill sets, crafting, property ownership, interacting with NPCs and other players, weather, experience, the maps of the world, and much more.
I have a glimmer of where games like these are going. Looking at the graphics and visual effects, it is not hard to see that the game is looking more and more like a deeply interactive movie. I imagine that the ultimate effect is for the game not to feel game-like at all, but instead, to be immersed in a virtual world that looks like a real world. There have been places where we paused to watch, for instance, and amazing sunrise over the ocean. It looked just as real as any sunrise I’ve ever seen. Walking through the woods at night with mist hanging low in the trees, you can almost feel the cold air, despite the comfortable temperatures within the house.
Interactive fiction is nothing new, but the folks at Portalarium are taking it to new heights. Shroud of the Avatar has a strong story backbone, to say nothing of the legacy of all of the games that came before it. I am looking forward to continuing to follow its development.
Driving home from a hike in the woods yesterday, the Little Man asked, “Daddy, when the game comes out, do we have to buy it or do we already have it.”
I explained, “Well, as early backers, we’ve already paid for the game, so when the final release comes out, we’ll get it and be able to play it together.”
He seemed very happy about this.