You don't hear much about Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss these days. Which is surprising, given that this early first-person role-playing game exercises such a huge influence on games today.
Released in 1992 by Origin, it allowed players to explore the dungeons of the fantasy Ultima world in first-person, moving through a 3D environment. At the time, this was something new. But with today's combat games taking on RPG elements, and with RPGs very often set in first- or third-person, it's clear that the game and its sequel were trailblazers.
And now it's coming back.
Paul Neurath was the original designer of the game, and the founder of Looking Glass (System Shock, Thief) which closed for business back in 2000. He and some other members of the Ultima Underworld team today launched a KickStarter for a new game, Underworld Ascendant. They are seeking a whopping $600K. But with $160K raised in the funding effort's first few hours, it's clear that this is a game with appeal.
Ultima creator Richard Garriott offered tribute to the game's enduring influence. "For those of us lifelong gamers that go back to the early days the Underworld franchise represents a watershed event on what an immersive 3D true role-playing game can be," he said.
Other designers such as Cliff Bleszinski, Chris Roberts and Ken Levine also added their praises, on the game's Kickstarter page.
Due to copyright ownership issues, this isn't officially an Ultima game, but it's close enough. Once again, the player takes on the role of "the Avatar" who travels to an underground fantasy world to encounter monsters, shamblers and creature factions. Players will be given wide-ranging freedom to create their own characters with its own attributes.
Opportunities will also arise to alter the game's environment. "Flood an arid plain to help the damp-loving shamblers expand their territory, gaining their favor," states the Kickstarter. "Changes you make can ripple across the game's reactive, ever-changing ecology, producing startlingly unpredictable results."
Neurath said he and his team are "not afraid to experiment" with ideas that a publisher might balk at using. The Kickstarter, he added, will allow the team to dust off some ideas that were warehoused when Looking Glass was broken up. Innovations planned for the game will be revealed every week during the month-long Kickstarter campaign.
In an interview with PC Gamer today, Neurath talked about his inspiration for the original game. "It really came out of a passion to try to create a much more immersive, you-are-there kind of dungeon exploration game," he said. "I wanted to get rid of all the abstractions, all the mechanics, and just say, what's the pure experience? Can we deliver in your mind's eye what it would really be like to be an adventurer in this fantasy underworld? And that informed pretty much everything we did. And I didn't have a clue if a bunch of people wanted that same experience, but that's how I approach things."
The game will offer political intrigue between rival factions as well as a host of "shrewd characters with their own motivations and agendas." As in the original game, progression puzzles will reward players who improvise, using the environment to their advantage.
One of the big design choices he wants to make is avoiding the usual hack-and-slash grind of combat role-players. "You have a pile of dead monsters when you play one of these games through," he said. "I get it, it's a grindy kind of thing, there's nothing wrong with it, but that's not the Underworld. The Underworld has combat, you can fight monsters, that's perfectly fine and a lot of players like that, but there's almost always non-violent solutions, ways to outsmart the monster, or outwit them, or dispatch them without just swinging swords at them or casting fireballs at them."