Dialogue in General
As we enter the game proper with tutorials completed and our quest direction in hand, we begin to encounter Ultima IX's dialogue in full. Britain, itself, acts as a good microcosm of Ultima IX's dialogue. The wording and phrasing is functional though often too simple and direct. The conversations generally have small dialogue trees that will at times include only a couple of options or steps. You will, however, find some NPCs with more involved dialogue structures with even a few that have notable conversations after a major plot point has been reached. Unfortunately, many of the npcs you will encounter only have one major change in their dialogue with little in the way of characterization or detail about the lives of these individuals. Side quests are usually rare for these npcs and in fact are rare in general.
Many of these issues are a direct result of the game's rewrites and deadline. A second factor, however, are issues related to the game engine itself: Space and Loading. The inclusion of full-voiced dialogue required both time (and money) and space. At this point, games were still released on CDs, which only held around 700 MBs. Ultima IX's speech files alone consumed 138.2 MBs, which would need to be added to the Ultima IX directory to provide at least some performance boost. Another aspect of the limitation issue is how the game handles global (quest) variables in savegames. Each variable was saved as a separate byte, so more variables entailed a larger save game file. These global variables are particularly important as this is the primary means by which game progress is tracked whether it is the cleansing of a shrine or checking if the Avatar knows a character's name. Any changes to the dialogue options available required a variable to check with few exceptions such as inventory or attribute checks. Thus, even if the developers have been given an extra half year, it is unlikely the dialogue would have been vastly increased in scale. Now they could have dealt with the savegame size issue by changing global data variables into bits; of course this would require time and attention and probably some additional rework of already written dialog code.
The Plot of Compassion
As we move into the city of Britain, the effect of the column becomes more apparent. A policy has recently been implemented by Mayor Aiden to move the non-working poor, the homeless, and the sick to the town of Paws. While encouraging the homeless and poor to go to homeless shelters, clinics, and welfare is certainly a good idea, the devil is in the details. Here Aiden has instituted a policy that supplants these individuals’ freedom without option for appeal or consideration of that person’s circumstances. There is even a tax that has been added to weed out those too poor to remain in the city. While the tax is only 10 gold pieces, this would still result in added hardship for the working poor. Another aspect of this tax is how similar it is to Blackthorn’s policies from Ultima V.
Adding to these issues is how the policy fails to help the poor being displaced. The people are being moved not to an established, well-run homeless shelter but to a slum area - a slum that is being swallowed by a swamp. More than likely, both the poor and the sick will find themselves contracting far worse diseases in such a location. This issue is made worse by the poor not receiving the promised food and medicine. In fact, the taxes are being collected and held by the government of Britain. Now this is clearly not the fault of the Mayor. Killigan is the one who is subverting the policy. As we can discover, Killigan is an agent of Blackthorn, so his attempts to undermine Aiden’s policy are certainly intentional.
How is it that the people are not complaining about this situation? Willful Ignorance. If one looks more closely at the situation, we see that this plot is acting as a mirror for own society. The people are leaving the government to take care of the issue of the poor and homeless, and probably feeling their taxes are contributing to a good cause. However, as in the real world, corruption and mismanagement are getting in the way. While this situation is more of a caricature, it presents an issue that is no less relevant. Even Aiden remains ignorant of the problems inherent in his policy, dismissing complaints about Killigan’s mismanagement and the conditions of the Paws. It is only when the policy comes back to affect him when his daughter is taken to Paws that he changes his position on the policy. It seems likely that Killigan was the one who ordered Meribeth (the mayor’s daughter) to be sent to Paws for her cough (a weak symptom for a seemingly minor illness).
As we find out talking to the townsfolk, the column is exerting his influence on the people causing them behave very differently. However, this brings us to what some have called a plot-hole wherein not everyone is being affected by the column. Talking to Aleena, the Museum Curator, we can quickly tell that she is not under the influence of the column. In fact, it seems that those who have been negatively affected by the column, such as Mayor Aiden with his daughter and Aleena with her husband also ending up in Paws, become so shocked by the incident that they begin to think more clearly and logically. There is another explanation as well and that is that the column’s influence acts as a mental fog on people’s minds. Both Aleena and Sarah (the shrine keeper) speak of the column’s influence as a fog plaguing the city. It is therefore no stretch to see that the people could fight off the column’s influence.
Speaking of the columns, at this point we have encountered Blackthorn, Shadowlord statues, and even policies similar to Lord Blackthorn’s in Ultima V. It is thus little stretch to see that the subversion of the people’s will by the columns is based on the same type of effect that we saw with the Shadowlords - only more subtle. Since the companions could resist this effect in Ultima V when around the Shadowlords, it is plausible that some individuals could resist the columns. When the Avatar then cleanses the shrine, this dark influence is removed and the people revert to how they were before the columns. The people are simply regaining their free will.
This brings us to the cleansing of the shrines. This action entails three attributes. First, there is the glyph, which acts as both a power source (or perhaps control mechanism) for the column and a means to connect the column and the shrine together. This is the part that must be cleansed. The second component is the sigil, which is a symbol of the virtue and its retrieval generally entails an act(s) of virtue. Finally, there is the mantra, which the Avatar uses to concentrate on the virtue and shrine. There is even the possibility that the Avatar’s own power contributes to the cleansing. This highly magical ritual is used only to disable the column’s dark influence on the people; not to make everyone in the area good. In fact, often multiple people in each town begin behaving more virtuously before the shrine is even cleansed thanks to the Avatar's efforts and example.
The City of Britain
Next, we will explore the city of Britain. While definitely a large and well-developed town, it is quite small in size for a capital. A number of the noteworthy buildings from prior Ultimas are no longer here and the size of the town is quite reduced compared to previous incarnations. While there has been a timespan of some two centuries since the beginning of Ultima 7 SI, there is little in the way of explanation for the major change in the scale of the city. Even so, the city is still quite full of places to visit. There is the Museum and the newly built Cathedral of Love. The city also possesses a wide range of shops, and while the number of buildings is smaller, most homes have been added to various buildings as a second floor. One oddity of the city is the merging of farms into the cityscape with numerous farmers (unique or generic) having no home or bed.
Of course, there are some real world reasons for this small size. With the engine limitations and the deadline, the size of the world had to kept small. The poor engine performance and processing and lack of time to improve the pathfinding system resulted in the loss of NPC schedules, so it was no longer necessary for every NPC to have a home and bed. Also since the game world is all on one large map for non-dungeon areas, the overall map had been limited in size due to memory constraints. Thus, towns could not be too large since there would need to be some wilderness between each area. Given the time required to properly worldbuild each area; an ever approaching deadline necessitated certain restrictions.
The Bayou of Paws
Now for the bayou swamptown of Paws. It is implied that the town itself was swallowed by the Fens of the Dead when the cataclysm occurred. Thus the town is partially submerged in a bog. With no area nearby to rebuild Paws, it is easy to see why the town remains a swamp-infested ruin. In addition, it seems that Paws is now a slum area for city of Britain. With Aiden’s policy and being largely cutoff from much of Britannia, it makes sense why people are forced to remain living around the swamp. From a worldbuilding perspective, the unlivability of the area is intended as part of the design of the town.
Another element of the town commonly criticized is the watermill. However, the water being drawn would actually be deeper groundwater and not the swamp water. In fact, this groundwater is the water from the swamp, which has been filtered naturally by the sand, dirt and sediment. Therefore, the water would be drinkable and safe at least from the perspective of a fantasy medieval town. The “blue dye” descriptor is clearly just an oversight by the worldbuilder who needed a water-like object to be placed here, but he neglected to change the name of the object.
Before we move onto the next segment of the game, there are two more aspects that need to be discussed. So for the next two installments, we will discuss the economy of the game and then dive into the first dungeon and the NPCs that we encounter within this dungeon.