Descending into the Abyss: A Storyteller explores the narrative accomplishments of Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.
by Corvus Elrod

As a semi-traditional storyteller with a strong improvisational focus, I approach video games with an eye toward how they communicate story. But this does not mean I focus on the dialog, the plot, or the back story. Instead, I am far more interested in how the rest of the video game — from gameplay to packaging — communicates story to the audience.

One game that continues to impress me, even more than a decade after its initial release, is Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (UW). UW was one of the first games I played on a x86 computer, and I’ve played it to completion more times than any other game in my collection. Despite its low-resolution texture maps, sprite-based character animation, and awkward control system, I find that UW has held up remarkably well due, in no small part, to the strong design decisions that make it an excellent example of storytelling in the video game medium.

UW was developed at Blue Sky Productions. Founded by Paul Neurath and Doug Wilke, who had worked together at Origin Systems, the studio began work on a revolutionary new approach to computer RPGs. At the suggestion of their publisher, Origin, they set the game within Richard Garriot’s popular Ultima franchise. The result was UW and Blue Sky Productions went on to become Looking Glass Studios, who produced the critically acclaimed System Shock and Thief series of games before closing their doors in 2000.

UW’s storytelling efforts begin with the first thing the player sees — the box art. The cover depicts a well-muscled human male, dressed in conventional barbarian style, descending a staircase with his sword at the ready and his shield held high. The area immediately behind him is well lit, but the rest of the image is shadowy blues and grays. There are no fewer than five monsters lurking in those shadows and another two sets of stairs ascends into the background. Everything about this box cover says, “Caution! Take it slowly!” When you begin playing UW, you find that this is excellent advice. UW is not a game to be played quickly or rashly.

The storytelling continues with the items found inside the box. There is a paper map of the titular Abyss’s first level and a paper-bound guide titled with a runic script. The guide, titled Memoirs of Sir Cabirus, is written from the perspective of the Stygian Abyss’s founder and contains world history, a bestiary, and a class guide. It also contains strong warnings about the inadvisability of descending into the Stygian Abyss. The remaining texts are standard video game documentation–an in-depth Player’s Guide that explains the game’s controls and screen elements, a quick reference card, and an install guide.

Players first playing UW in 1992 likely ended up paying a lot of attention to this install guide. UW’s system requirements were a bit higher than the popular games of the time. While many point to Wolfenstein 3D as the first 3D game, UW was released earlier and, unlike Wolfenstein, boasted a true 3D engine, allowing for environments with sloping floors and stairs, as well as the ability to jump and look up or down. The price of this advanced game technology was steep and involved, for me at least, writing custom system files to ensure there was enough memory free to play the game. UW’s system requirements made the game one everybody couldn’t just pick up and play.

UW certainly wouldn’t win any prizes for its graphics in today’s world of near-photorealistic game worlds. Although the Abyss is a fully-3D world, it is only seen through a small viewport that is wrapped in a larger UI with inventory and system messages visible at all times. The character sprites are highly pixelated and the on-screen text is obviously not anti-aliased and can, therefore, be hard on the eyes.

But despite these technical limitations, or perhaps because of them, the game’s look was carefully designed to clearly communicate a sense of space, mood, and function to the player. The textures on the walls and floor provide good contrast, allowing you to easily navigate the environment. There’s even a bit of camera bob as you move, giving you the sense of actually walking through a physical environment. The implementation of light source is impressive, giving the Abyss the illusion of impressive scale for what are, by today’s standards, small environments. Object sprites are well drawn so you invariably know what is worth picking up and what isn’t. I recently tried to replay the original Tomb Raider without the benefit of 3D acceleration and eventually gave up on the attempt, as the environments (seemingly trying to be as “realistic” as possible) were a smear of bland colors. But UW boasts quality art direction, which is in no small part responsible for its continued replayability.

The user interface (UI) itself is also very nicely done. Two dragons support a large scroll across the bottom of the screen. As text appears, their fingers twitch as they roll up the paper, causing the text to scroll upward. Switching between your inventory and character stat panels is done by “pulling” a chain, causing a portion of the UI to swing like a rotating door, revealing the new information on its opposite side. This is reminiscent of the hidden doors one expects to find in a dungeon crawl. There are many small touches like this throughout the UI — equipped light sources change states on the inventory panel to indicate whether they are lit or, in the case of torches, burnt out. The life and mana are represented by red and blue vials that bubble nicely as they empty and refill. Your red life vial turns green if you’re poisoned. A large gem in the lower left of the UI glows to let you know how powerful of a strike you’re about to deliver. The eyes of the gargoyle at the top of the screen flash green, yellow, and red to let you know how healthy your opponent is with each strike.

Rather than trying to minimize the visual appearance of these elements, the design actually highlights them. Current design trends would seem to indicate that obtrusive UI elements are undesirable, but these little visual touches actually serve to help unify the game mechanics with the visual style of the world. This integration serves to make the UI part of the world itself, rather than an artificial constraint of the game.

There are two final decisions made that I consider to be important elements of UW’s visual design. The first involves the ability to choose a gender. This choice changes nothing substantive about the game, but the ability to choose your avatar’s gender and appearance, which range from your typical big-boned blond hero, to avatars of color, to late 80’s pop star rejects, significantly adds to the audience’s ability to believe themselves a part for the game’s storyworld. The second decision regarding visual design is one I wish every game would use — the ability to pick your character’s handedness. The choice in no way affects gameplay, but as a southpaw myself, the simple visual of seeing the correct hand pop up on the screen with a sword makes the game that much more satisfying and believable.

The audio design of UW suffers under even heavier limitations than the visual design. Creative Labs was well on their way to turning their affordable Soundblaster line of audio cards into the industry audio standard, and in the absence of a unified programming API like DirectX, UW had to ship with native support for many different lines of audio cards — including Ad Lib, Soundblaster, Soundblaster Pro, and Roland MT. The sound quality across these cards varied dramatically.

Still, as with the visual design, Blue Sky made strong design decisions that raise the audio components of UW well above the technical limitations placed upon them. Each environmental effect is distinct from the others, and once you’ve figured out what sort of events cause what noises, they do help you navigate the Abyss. You learn to tell when there is a rot worm around the corner or a lurker in the nearby stream. If a door or portcullis swings shut behind you, you won’t have to turn around to know you’ve just been trapped.

The music of UW is epic in scale and reacts to the game environment, increasing in tempo to alert the player to danger and flourishing when a foe has been bested. Not only does this serve to provide the player with environmental cues, it creates a heroic soundtrack based upon the player’s actions.

UW is a perfect example of how to create excellence within the tight constraints of a medium. While nearly every technical aspect of the game appears to be the result of the platform limitation of computers in the early 90’s, all the elements appear to have been consciously designed to ensure that all aspects of the game consistently communicate their game world.

Where UW’s storytelling prowess really shines, however, is in the dynamic systems of the gameplay itself. In fact, I feel that the magic system in UW is a perfect example of the design philosophy underlying the entire game. Like the rest of the Ultima games, UW utilizes a runic magic system. Unlike the other Ultima games, UW does not transcribe complete spells into a book, allowing the player to cast them with a single click. Instead, the game requires the player to collect individual rune stones and assemble them into the spells before casting them.

Players familiar with the Nordic runes will be right at home with UW’s rune set. There are twenty four runes and each rune has a specific meaning–AN means negate, BET means small, CORP means death, and so on. Runes can be combined in twos or threes to form spells, which when read from left to right describe the effect of the spell. For example, combining IN (cause), MANI (life), and YLEM (matter) has the effect of creating food while combining IN (cause) and LOR (light) produces the magical equivalent of torch light. Adding a VAS (great) rune to the front of the light spell — VAS (great) IN (cause) LOR (light) — produces the magical equivalent of sunlight. This makes the spells easy to memorize or even puzzle out
through experimentation.

It is important to note that this is not a procedural magic system. The spell combinations are predetermined and most of them are listed in the player’s guide. A few spells, however, are only provided within the storyworld itself. Ultimately, the player can experiment and learn to reproduce the magical effect of every scroll, wand, and potion within the game. This approach provides the sense that the player is working with a magical system, rather than an arbitrary collection of predetermined spells. The effect this approach has on UW’s storytelling is crucial. By relying upon historic cultural symbols that most RPG geeks will have at least passing familiarity with, and by ensuring that the implementation of them is consistent, the design practically removes the designers from the equation, allowing the player to build a relationship directly with the system.

In other magic systems, the design often feels artificially constrained, re-enforcing the realization that it is only a collection of game mechanics. Restrictive spell progression, only being able to cast ‘X’ number of spells a day, or having prepared spells take up “slots” all speak of a design that intends to slow the player down and keep them moving in a direction predetermined by the game’s designers. With an internally consistent and transparent magic system, like UW’s, the system seems to have natural limitations, and it is easy to accept those limitations as an integral part of the overall system itself.

Rather than pull you out of the game to examine spell tables, UW rewards exploration of the storyworld itself. The more invested in the the world you are, the more rewarding the experience is. This serves not only to pull the player in, but to make the world a more satisfying and believable place to be. More than any of the textual elements, it’s these game dynamics that turn UW from just another dungeon crawl into a rich and rewarding storytelling experience.

This drive to draw the player into the storyworld as fully as possible is reflected in nearly every single system within UW. For example, the game features an excellent automap. One of the first items the player finds in the game is a map. Opening the map reveals a series of screens that appear to be blank parchment. On the first screen, a small icon represents the player’s location. As the player wanders through the storyworld, the map is automatically generated for you, showing them the ground they have traversed. Interestingly, rather than automatically adding each room the player visits to the map, it is as if the player is a paintbrush and their exact path is all that is recorded. This means that a player wishing to explore and fully fill in their maps, must pace off the walls of each room, much as real cartographers must carefully measure to ensure accuracy.

This has an obvious benefit in that it keeps the player’s focus within the storyworld, minimizing the need to look away constantly to draw maps on graph paper. So, even when the player stops to check the map, they’re still controlling the actions of their avatar within the game, not pulling back and becoming forcibly aware of their own existence and surroundings. An added benefit is that this doesn’t penalize players that aren’t particularly artistic or good at determining the in-game spatial relations.

Additionally, not only does the map magically reveal the explored environment, it also allows the player to take notes directly on the map itself. Such a simple, even obvious, concept and yet to this day, UW remains one of the few videogames to allow such a thing. Again, the benefits of this are that the player doesn’t need to stop playing the game in order to keep track of important details. The location of items and characters, notes about significant events, or visions, can all be kept directly on the map within the storyworld itself.

Another system that draws the player into the storyworld is UW’s skill progression. When initially creating their character, the player is allowed to pick from a long list of professions, including bard, druid, fighter, mage, paladin, ranger, shepherd, and tinker. Each profession determines the avatar’s available starting skill set. In addition to several combat and magic skills, the player may chose from survival skills, including sneak, barter, charm, repair, and many more. As the player explores, fights monsters, and talks to the denizens of the Abyss, they acquire experience points. When they have acquired enough points, they are informed via the previous mentioned scroll that they have acquired a level.

This is where UW’s approach differs from most RPGs. Rather than pulling up a special stat screen and allocating skill points, the player must find a nearby Ankh Shrine and chant a mantra in order to gain new insight into their existing skills. The room housing the Ankh Shrine on the first level has three mantra engraved on its walls. The first helps the player improve their avatar’s martial skills, the second their magical skills, and the third their “other” skills. Chanting, literally clicking the Ankh Shrine and typing the mantra onto the scroll, one of the mantras randomly improves skills that fall into these categories. As the player explores the world, they find mantras that help improve specific skills. These mantras are found on scraps of paper, etched on plaques near shrines, and scrawled on the walls by previous explorers. Again, not only does UW place the leveling mechanic firmly into the fiction of the world, it is used as an incentive to explore and an invitation to become a part of the storyworld.

The impressive nature of UW’s design is evident in every single aspect of the storyworld environment. Musical instruments can be played using the number keys on the keyboard. Drinking too much alcohol causes the avatar’s vision to blur and consuming poisonous mushrooms turns the world psychedelic.  Spikes can be used to jam the locks of doors, so the avatar can rest uninterrupted. Useless debris and bones, all of which can be picked up and stored in inventory, clutter the halls. Discarded weapons, broken wands, and lost runes can be found near faded blood stains–testifying to the dangers that befell previous explorers. Armor and weapons degrade with use and can be repaired at an anvil if the avatar’s skill is sufficient – with a chance of botching the repair job and destroying the item. Throughout the game the player finds more gold coins and gems than they’ll never need within the game, which hints at a much larger economy outside the walls of the Abyss. As the player descends level by level, the signs of decay increase until entire hallways are collapsed in on themselves, the floors become uneven and portions of the Abyss are barely traversable.

But most importantly – the player is allowed near total freedom to explore all the levels of the Abyss, just as it were a real environment. Nothing about the systems of UW are dependent upon following the plot. Each system – from locked doors that can be lock-picked or bashed down, to weapons and armor that can enchanted – simply works. There are no sudden activations, or deactivations, of systems based upon learning the right piece of information from the right character. For example – burning incense before sleeping invokes a dream state in which important information is communicated to the player. On a lower level of the game, the player is informed of these special properties and their significance. However, much earlier in the game, the player had likely discovered, next to a bed roll, a small pouch containing a torch, incense, and ashes. Had the player decided to experiment, they conceivably could have experienced the vision well before they’d learned of its significance. This systemic freedom is the true beauty and strength of UW.

It is clear that great attention was paid to every detail of UW. Rather than build an environment to present a specific story, an environment was built and a plot set within it. This approach allows the player to control their own exploration of the designer’s story, to be the gatekeeper of their own plot progress. Alert players are rewarded for their efforts, as items found on the first level are needed much later in the game. Conversely, players used to the shallow stories of today’s games may be frustrated and find themselves wandering about, completely at a loss as to what needs doing next.

Of course, the exploration of a game’s ability to communicate story through its game mechanics doesn’t do much good if there isn’t an underlying plot to give the player purpose. Fortunately, the plot of UW works with the game design to compel the player to explore deeply into the ruined corridors of one man’s failed dream.
In the opening cinematic of the game, a narrator informs the player that they are asleep. A ghostly visitor appears, warning that Britannia is in grave danger. The Avatar (this being an Ultima game, the player’s avatar is literally an iconic hero called the Avatar) is immediately summoned to Britannia and arrives just in time to take the fall for kidnapping Baron Almric’s daughter. Baron Almric isn’t convinced that the Avatar is truly who they claim to be and tosses them into the Stygian Abyss, saying that return will only be possible if the Avatar frees his daughter. It’s ultimately not going to be quite that simple, of course–there’s that whole ‘Britannia is in danger’ issue to worry about as well.

The Stygian Abyss itself is a failed experiment. Sir Cabirus brought together all the races of Britannia in hopes of building a gated community based upon the Eight Virtues. Despite his foresight in fashioning an artifact of power for each virtue, for inspiration of course, his plans failed and the Abyss settled into a microcosmic example of the surface world’s politics and struggles. Distraught over the world’s refusal to conform to his vision, Cabirus did what any crackpot social architect would do–he took his own life by drinking a virulent poison (I’m probably reading a bit too deeply between the lines there). Life in the Abyss has only gone downhill since his death, the levels have fallen into disrepair and each race has segregated itself from the others, often through the liberal application of violence. This is the stage upon which your upcoming adventure is set.

UW allows the player to approach and speak with every sentient being in the game that is not outright hostile towards the Avatar. But the second most compelling thing about UW’s conversations is that most everyone the player meets is completely disinterested in the player’s goal. They’ll mention useful information in passing, but like the vain Goblin King Vernix, they are far too wrapped up in their own struggles to worry much about the Avatar. This gives the impression that this world was not built specifically for this one plot, but that it would exist even if the player wasn’t wandering its corridors. It also serves, like so many components of the game’s systems, to draw the player deeper into the storyworld as they learn about the politics and petty jealousies of the Abyss’s inhabitants. In order to follow the plot line, the player needs to pay attention to these people and their struggles. It’s only by helping them that the player will acquire the information they need to save the Baron’s daughter and all of Britannia.

The first most compelling thing about UW’s conversations is that at no time is the player forced into dialog with any of the characters. In fact, no cut scenes pull control away from the player until they sleep. While the Avatar sleeps, the ghostly apparition from the opening cinematic urges the player to talk to people, to explore, to make their way ever deeper into the Abyss. Ultimately, this ghost is the only character deeply invested in the plot. Even the primary villain of the game isn’t aware of the Avatar until the penultimate conflict. Again, there are no impervious doors waiting for you to talk to the right person. There are no rock slides mysteriously cleared once the player runs a number of errands. Rather than force the plot to unfold in a linear manner, the player is allowed to pick and choose whom they speak to and when. The player can even make their way to the lower levels of the Abyss, and if they manage to survive, talk to everyone in reverse order if they wish. In a subsequent playthrough, a player with good notes can avoid the vast majority of the conversations as only a few of them on the lower levels are absolutely required to complete the game.

Unfortunately, UW is not a flawless game. In fact, its two primary flaws are enough to completely thwart a great many people’s attempts to enjoy it – both when it was released and today. While I personally feel that the highlights of the game are worth persevering through the flaws, I can also understand that they may be deal breakers for large portions of the game playing audience. The two primary flaws of UW are related to the control scheme and a major instance of problematic design.

I have heard that the control interface for UW was inspired by flight simulators. As such, it depends quite heavily on the mouse, which is used for movement, environmental interaction, combat actions, and spell casting – often simultaneously. It is important to realize that the now ubiquitous WASD keyboard controls for movement were not yet a control scheme standard. UW maps forward movement to the left mouse button, meaning that for most of the game the player is holding down a mouse button. After a time, this can lead to serious fatigue. The cursor’s position on the screen handles the speed with which the avatar moves, and how quickly they turn. The cursor itself changes appearance, intuitively communicating the type of movement the player is initiating.

The right mouse button is mapped contextually and initiates jumps, inspection of and interaction with the environment, conversation, spell casting, and combat. The player has three available attacks with every weapon – a stab, a sideways slash, and an overhead slash. Which attack is delivered is based upon the cursor position when the attack was initiated. Some weapons appear to be less effective at certain types of attacks (who stabs with a mace?), So, it’s important to choose the right attack type for the equipped weapon. Holding the attack for a moment before releasing it builds the attack strength and does more damage.

Some enemies fly at you and require the player to look up, while other enemies are low on the ground and require the player to look down. Still others float about, requiring the player to constantly reposition their perspective. This head movement is controlled via the keyboard. Additionally, the player may also move around while in combat, avoiding blows by putting distance between their avatar and the foe. Jumping during combat must be handled via the keyboard, as the right mouse button is busy handling attacks.

The end result of this system is that combat is a complicated affair and requires no small amount of manual dexterity. It’s a system that relies far too much on a single set of inputs, most of which are controlled via the mouse. Personally, I don’t dislike the control system, but I do know that there are many who are put off by it and I can’t fault them for that.

The second major flaw revolves around the freedom to pick a character class at the beginning of the game. There are many things to admire about UW’s character classes. Few games present viable class options like tinker or shepherd. Additionally, classes aren’t artificially restricted from performing actions not inherently part their class. For example, there is nothing that keeps fighters from casting spells providing they have enough mana and skill to do so, and nothing stops a Bard from donning plate mail armor, providing they are strong enough to carry it around. This approach allows the player to experiment and create a viable set of skills based upon their play preference. Potentially viable, that is, until they reach the seventh level of the Abyss.

If the player has chosen to build a character entirely dependent upon the use of magic to survive, as they are free to do, the seventh level holds a rather nasty shock for them. This level is home to hordes of goblins and trolls, powerful ghosts, massive spiders, and fire elementals with a nasty ranged fireball attack. It is also home to a wizard that has completely drained the area of magic. Upon entering the level, all of the player avatar’s mana is completely drained. This makes it next to impossible for players who have not improved their martial abilities to survive the level. The goblins can be talked to and barted with, but the spiders, fire elementals, and ghosts are immediately hostile and quite deadly.

This means that any player who has carefully created a purely magical character, relying exclusively on offensive and defensive spells to survive combat, is suddenly and completely neutered upon entering the level. It’s difficult to fault a player for allowing this level to sour their opinion of the game. For the designers to offer complete freedom to develop a character exactly as you wish and then, without warning, require the character to have at least some measure of combat prowess seems like an atypical design decision at best, and a cruel joke at worst.

These two potential show-stopping issues aside, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss has withstood the test of time and repeated playthroughs. Using every aspect of its visual and audio design to help establish mood and provide environmental clues to the player, UW managed to rise above technical limitations and even set the bar for studios such as id Software. Reportedly, when John Carmack saw a tech demo of UW, he thought, “I can do that so it renders faster.” He made good on that promise shortly thereafter with Wolfenstein 3D and launched the industy’s love affair with the first person shooter. By paying close attention to the design of every game system, Blue Sky created an action-RPG that pulled the player deeper into the storyworld with every interaction. UW is truly a marvel of design and engineering, an enduring classic that every aspiring game designer ought to study in depth. Perhaps most importantly, it also serves to remind me, when I despair at the endless FPS clones with near photorealistic graphics and shallow gameplay, that a video game can be technically advanced and focus on providing deep game systems that help tell a compelling story.