Underworld Ascendant is a first person action RPG and acts as the sequel to Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss and Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds. Titles that don’t really sound familiar to some of you? Well, Underworld II was released in 1993, so I can’t say I blame you. Even I am only vaguely familiar with the Ultima series. Underworld Ascendant promises an in depth RPG that prides itself on letting players tackle the world and its problems in any way they see fit, rewarding creativity and letting a player craft their character in whatever way their heart desires.
For a little more information, we sat down with the legendary Warren Spector, producer of the original Underworld games and director/adviser on Ascendant, as well as two members of the OtherSide Entertainment crew, producer Paul Neurath and director Joe Fielder.
Player Attack [PA]: So. First and biggest question. The original Ultima games were just a teensy bit before my time. How easy will it be to jump right into Underworld Ascendant?
[JOE]: Underworld Ascendant has plenty of ties back into the original games, which inspired the likes of System Shock, BioShock, and more, but players who have never experienced them can immediately dive right in and enjoy it. If you like game series like BioShock, Dishonored, and Fallout, you should feel immediately at home, but you’ll quickly see we have our own unique take on the immersive sim, as well.
[PA]: How hard is it to bring a game from the early 90s into the modern era? What kind of challenges have you faced?
[WARREN]: There are several challenges, some of them design-related, others content-related and still others audience-related. All are driven by changed player expectations.
The first problem I wrestle with in working on a game that attempts to bring a 90s game into the modern era is simply deciding how closely to adhere to the original’s gameplay and, even more important, the original’s narrative. I mean, there are some fans of the original out there who expect a direct sequel – to a game that was released over 20 years ago! But if you do that, how do you engage a newer (and, frankly, larger) audience of people who’ve never even heard of the original. Big issue for me…
Also, back in the 90s, graphics clearly took a backseat to gameplay – we did the best we could, but to a great extent, the tech was so primitive and the hardware so, well, weak, there were incredible limitations on what we could do. Today, engines like Unity and hardware like modern PCs allow us to do so much more it’s not even funny. Ditto for audio. Sound is one of the most powerful tools for immersion, but we couldn’t do nearly as much with it as we can today simply because of the hardware and software available to us. Player expectations of graphical quality and polish are way up.
From a design standpoint, players expect more polish, too, and in immersive sims, they want deeper simulation, more choice, more empowerment. And they for sure want an interface that doesn’t use every key on the keyboard! Today, it’s critical that players be able to craft their own custom experience quickly and easily, rather than being on rails and having to fight the UI. At least that’s true for games like Underworld Ascendant – there are certainly lots of successful movie-inspired games on rails. That’s just not what OtherSide is all about. Our goal is that no two players end the game having had the same experience.
[PA]: Gaming has changed a lot since the original Ultima titles, and even your own titles like System Shock and Deus Ex. Do you ever look at current technology and think about how it could have worked in your older titles?
[WARREN]: Of course I do. I think everyone who was in game development back in the days when we were making stuff up as we went along thinks about that. But it’s funny though, if we’d had all the current tech we probably wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I mean, we really WERE making things up. Without meaning to sound too high-falutin’ we were creating a medium from scratch and each of us stood on the shoulders of those who came before.
You can’t overstate the importance of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (the creators of Dungeons & Dragons) to the work of people like Richard Garriott (Ultima) and Paul Neurath (Space Rogue and others)… Folks like me and Doug Church came along later and built on what they created. And I think (okay, hope) the next generation built on some of the stuff that we did. I don’t think tech would have made much of a difference because design was still in its infancy.
[PA]: One of the biggest selling points of the game is the “Improvisation Engine”. Does that mean everything in the story, from the biggest to the smallest choices and scenarios, will have various ways of being accomplished?
[JOE]: The Stygian Abyss is an dangerous environment where only the smart and brave survive. Those who have thrived there discovered a magical means to capture memories – called Memora. They trade memories of tactics and skills of great heroes of the past for Memora of your clever experimentations using the many game systems within our immersive sim world. So, by using the Improvisation Engine to mix combat, stealth, and magic to come up with clever solutions to challenges, you unlock new skills and abilities to experiment and have fun with.
A lot of this comes from the teams’ earlier innovations with the Immersive Sim, with games that gave the player goals, but allowed them to come up with the solution. Our lead designer Tim Stellmach, who was the lead designer on the original Thief, mentioned a story about how when they first strategy guide for that game arrived, he looked up its authoratively-written description of how to beat a level he worked on. His reaction after reading it was, “Oh! You can do that?”
That’s what the Improvisation Engine does for Underworld Ascendant. We give you interesting challenges and a wide array of abilities in an interactive world. The solution is up to you and the game rewards you for creativity.
[PA]:Speaking of the Improvisation Engine, I can imagine there’s a lot of fun to be had there. What’s the most interesting scenario you’ve encountered?
[JOE]: I’m a fan of using the Gravitate spell to levitate a bunch of wooden objects like baskets and crates, moving them to a torch to light them on fire, and then blasting them at or dropping them on enemies. Or using breakable objects in the environment to distract enemies to step into traps or spells to convince them to fight each other. Every time I play a mission in the game, I try to combine opportunities in different ways. There’s always a new surprise!
[PA]: The game draws lore regarding the underworld from myths and religions all over the world. Is it hard not to focus too much on any given story at any time?
[JOE]: The Stygian Abyss is a liminal space that borders on the actual Underworld, which is a netherworld that all cultures base their myths upon. That allows for a pretty rich background to draw from. One of the central elements is how Typhon, an early nemesis of Zeus who is charmingly referred to as “the Father of all Monsters,” is trapped below The Stygian Abyss and striving to break free. He’s scary as hell and I think players are going to find overcoming him an interesting challenge.
[PAUL]: We’ve selectively picked mythic elements from a range of sources, mostly derived from ancient western European cultures, mixed in with some high-fantasy sources, then filtered through the lens of the original Ultima Underworld games. The story itself is based on the events that take place in the Abyss as the player enters the fictional world from our earth (much as in the original Ultima Underworld games), which helps make it feel cohesive.
[PA]: The Ultima games were inspirations for generations of developers to come. So, making this, it makes sense to ask: Did you take any inspiration from other games when thinking about Underworld Ascendant?
[JOE]: I, myself, take a lot of inspiration from modern board games, which have been incredibly innovative in regards to replayable narrative and designer-curated variety. (And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I learned much about game narrative while working on the BioShock series.) But I’d say much of our inspiration came from features we’d like to see more in games, such as a constantly evolving world state and inspiring the player to experiment more.
[PA]: Last question. Probably the most important: Do you ever miss working with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?
[WARREN]: <Laughs> I miss working with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit every single day. I mean that seriously. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t think about the little guy. He’s such a great character and I’m so proud of the work my team at Junction Point did to help bring him back. I hope Disney does something more with him in the future than just use him as a way to sell merchandise at the theme parks. He deserves his own cartoons. And, yeah, more merch to lighten my wallet. And games. Of course, games!
Underworld Ascendant launches November 15 on Steam, iOS and Linux.