1992 was one of those years in video games, where certain titles came along that helped to redefine the medium. 1993 turned out to be even better with really big titles making their way to the home console/computer market. The Underworld series, beginning with Stygian Abyss in 1992, is one that made me fall in love with video games. I would not experience it until a few years after its release but its effect resonated with me, and apparently many others for decades to come.
The Legacy of Stygian Abyss
So what is the Ultima Underworld series? Here’s the scene: March, 1992. A whole new immersive experience in video gaming arrives. Blue Sky Productions (later known as Looking Glass Studios) and Origin Systems introduced the world to a truly 3D dungeon crawler (or simulation as some coined it) that allowed for player choice to take precedent, down to influencing the music that played dynamically — thanks to George Sanger’s and Dave Govett’s soundtrack. It helped to transition the world of RPGs from the text-based paradigm that had been the standard to a fully realized third dimension. The series took what worked in CRPGs like Wizardry and Dungeon Master and brought that concept further than it had ever gone.
Underworld gave players a means to craft their own adventures in ways heretofore unseen. The sandbox of the Stygian Abyss let players experience an actual world where they had agency, a means to influence it. The legacy of the game and its lone sequel, Ultima Underworld 2: Labyrinth of Worlds, is immense. Developers from Cliffy B to Ken Levine have waxed poetic about gaming’s first true 3D dungeon simulation, citing the game as a big part of what helped them make their own contributions to the landscape. The short of it? The Underworld games were a huge milestone for gaming.
Underworld Ascendant: The Long Overdue Sequel
Aside from a brief period where a PocketPC port of the first installment was available, and a much later reissue on GOG.com in 2011, both games have been in a dungeon of their own, relegated to mere reference in many term papers on video game design . Underworld‘s creator Paul Neurath (along with direction from Lord British himself, Richard Garriott) has decided it is time for the CRPG renaissance (seriously, 2014 was a good year for them) to take the next step: Underworld Ascendant. Otherside Games, made up of former Looking Glass Studios staff (System Shock, Thief series) along with veterans who contributed to titles like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite.
Once again the player will assume the role of The Avatar (the protagonist of the original Ultima games), dropped into the expansive Stygian Abyss at a time when three factions are on the brink of war: the Dark Elves, the Dwarves, and the Shamblers. The player’s choices will ultimately serve to either unite these disparate groups or drive them further apart. The game’s Improvisation Engine, described as “player-authored gameplay taken to a whole new level”, is said to provide players “an array of tools to think up [their] own ingenious solutions to challenges.” An example cited on the page involves the problem of getting across a river. Does the player ford it only to be gobbled up by a lurker? Could s/he distract it with a rotworm and then safely cross? Or, maybe charm a nearby giant cave spider to carry her/him across and avoid the water entirely? Situations will call for differing approaches all governed by player choice.
The core ideas of Underworld still exist here with some other design concepts, long since swept under the rug due to the original studio shuttering back in 2000, and the rights to the series laying dormant for so long. The new studio, Otherside Games, will be headed by original series creator Paul Neurath to resurrect one of the most influential RPGs in history during a time of gaming innovation. The Kickstarter’s goal is set at $600,000 right now — with 27 days left as of this article going live, they already have $215K. There is a definite want out there for the return of the Underworld series.
Stretch Goals for the project include Mac & Linux ports of the game, mini-companions, and cooperative play that can be done online and, if your adventuring companion is offline, a means to bring their character into your offline experience controlled by AI. Everything that was old is new again when it comes to the gaming scene these days, but a truly great CRPG is always a welcome sight. Let’s hope Richard Neurath and Otherside Games get the chance to bring the Stygian Abyss back to an entirely new generation of gamers.
If you would like to find out more about the project, visit the Underworld Ascendant Kickstarter page. Are there other projects that need to be featured on the APGNation’s Kickstarter Spotlight? Let us know in a comment below or talk to us on Twitter @APGNation.