Wizardry vs Ultima

Wizardry and Ultima were the two big names of early CRPGs. I haven’t hit all of Wizardry yet, but I’ve already played through the entire Ultima series, including some of its offshoots like Ultima Underworld, Runes of Virtue, Martian Dreams and Savage Empire. (There’s one Wizardry offshoot on the Stack; we’ll get to it in time.) I’ve noted before that the two series became emblematic of two different presentations of the gameworld: Wizardry-style games were ones with a grid-based first-person view, like The Bard’s Tale or Pool of Radiance, while Ultima-style ones were third-person 2D on a grid map, like Final Fantasy or The Magic Candle. In fact, Ultima itself used both presentations, third-person overland and first-person in the dungeons, but dungeons were never the emphasis of the series, and nowhere near as sophisticated as the ones in Wizardry. By Ultima III, they were dropping back to a third-person tile grid for combat, and by Ultima VI, they abandoned the first-person view entirely.

But now that I’m spending an extended amount of time in the Wizardry series, I’m thinking that the real contrast is one of tone. It’s sort of a Wonderland vs Oz vibe, with Wizardry as Wonderland: the darker and more nightmarish of the pair, a world without the comfort of consistent internal logic. As in the Oz stories, nothing permanently bad ever happens to the heroes in an Ultima game; Wizardry is not only eager to kill your guys, it drags the process out by dangling the possibility of resurrection and then frequently snatching it away. (It’s worth noting here that the Virtues system established in Ultima IV and used in most subsequent games in the series was, by its author’s account, partially inspired by The Wizard of Oz.)

Moreover, the Ultima games put a lot of emphasis on providing an entire world for you to interact with, with cheery ren-faire characters and jobs you can do for pocket change and side-quests and sub-plots. And sure, Ultima I‘s world-building was kind of sketchy, but nowhere near as sketchy as in any of the Wizardry games I’ve played. Wizardry doesn’t have a world, it has a dungeon. The entire world outside the dungeon is reduced to a smallish set of menus containing nothing that isn’t directly related to getting back to work in the dungeon.

And “work” is really the key word there. It reminds me of nothing so much as the most dismal view of life, where you live to work rather than work to live. Past a certain point, you don’t even do it for the money — I’ve accumulated gold pieces in the millions, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing to spend it on. Your ostensible motivations, restoring the town’s defenses in Wizardry II and stopping disasters in Wizardry III, are blatantly tacked-on in a way that makes them feel like lies, pretexts to keep you working. The ultimate goal in Wizardry I is canonically meaningless. But when you make it out of the dungeon alive, what do you do? You just go right back in again, because that’s all there is.

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