WtF Dragon, Gradilla Dragon, and Chlorthos Dragon discuss the generic nature of Ultima's Britannia as compared to other, more fleshed-out RPG settings.
Intro: Ultima VI Gates of Creation by OC ReMix
Podcast Topics: We are joined this evening by Chlorthos Dragon — and we learn how to pronounce that, actually — to discuss a topic of his suggestion: the generic nature and “feel” of Britannia versus the more fleshed-out settings of other RPGs.
[Chlorthos] I listen to Mission Log, a Star Trek podcast. In one episode, they discussed how Star Trek's setting is very basic - a heroic captain on a starship, aliens that can be interesting but overall human at the end of the day. Especially the old series had such low production values compared to today. It was the integrity of the stories and their execution that made Star Trek enjoyable and interesting. It wasn't just the phasers and foam props.
This got me to thinking about Britannia. We love Britannia so much that if we found a circle of stones with an active moongate somewhere, many of us would just up and go through it, regardless of whether we would be able to get back to earth.
But, when compared to other fantasy settings, some think of Britannia as being rather bland. Others, meanwhile, argue that it is the settings with dwarves, elves, etc. that have become bland (Middle Earth, Tamriel, etc.). Regardless of which view one takes, I would posit that it is not necessarily Britannia itself that is so appealing, but rather how that world has been used in the Ultima games: in a realistic and well-structured way.
My second-favorite Ultima is 7, especially because of how real the world feels. When put to paper, it maybe doesn't sound like an incredible place, but the ability to play in Britannia in the way U7 allows you to makes it somehow transcendent.
I would further argue that adaptations of Ultima to other mediums (novels, movies, etc.) have not been able to communicate the same sense of reality that the games have. The only Ultima that might really make an interesting film would be Ultima 5, but that is primarily because of its plot and the development of its characters.
[Thoughts from Linguistic] Speaking as a writer, there's a lot of ways to approach world building. Settings like Tamriel of the Elder Scrolls games or Tolkien's Middle Earth have a rather hefty volume of detail and background lore, even if not all of it is strictly relevant to the story itself. It provides a good deal of flavor for those interested in the world, and working from a solid, well-developed corpus of background information can help a storyteller, no matter his medium, get a better sense of the bigger picture — what's gone on before the story starts, what's liable to happen when it ends, and everything entailed in that, whether it's characters' mindsets, the reasons for tensions between groups, or whatever else might or might not end up having some impact on the story he's trying to tell. It's also evidence to the reader/player that there is far more to the world than just the bits they're experiencing, and can serve to draw them further in.
There's more than one way to construct a setting, though. Sometimes less is more, and a world doesn't need to cross every t and dot every i to be compelling.
I actually find less-developed settings, when done right, can be the more intriguing ones. Narnia resonated far more strongly with me than Middle Earth did when I was a kid, even though it's a considerably less detailed setting that isn't even entirely self-consistent. Britannia's in much the same situation. And I think a good part of that is because it leaves so many gaps — it doesn't always answer the questions a player might have, leaves large spaces of history undocumented. It invites the player to form their own conclusions, imagine their own possibilities, and if that's an invitation the player actually responds to, allows the player a degree of freedom to make the setting their own. And when the player himself is involved in fleshing out the game's story and setting, it's inevitably going to be more memorable.
Less-detailed settings like Britannia only give as many details of the world as are necessary for the story it's trying to tell, and it's not above tweaking them as necessary — there's a reason retcons both minor and major are so ubiquitous in them. And while a setting playing loose with its own canon can be jarring and immersion-shattering when done wrong, when done right, it, again, serves more as an invitation to the player to figure out their own explanations, rather than laying out all the answers right there. Personally, I find a setting that isn't entirely self-consistent to feel more believable than one that is — what's to say everything is remembered correctly, recorded infallibly, passed on completely?
I read an article once that every story is a deviation from reality — the key is in not drawing attention to it, or making the audience sufficiently interested to be willing to overlook it. You'd probably need a heck of a lot more balloons to lift an entire house than was shown in Up, but was it any less of a charming story for it? Sure, maybe the oxygen situation would be a lot more dramatic than Martian Dreams makes it out to be, but does that detract from one's enjoyment of the game? Britannia works because it lays out only as much as it needs to, no more and no less. It allows a player to wonder, and that's the best way to draw a player back time and time again. You don't always have to lay it all out there for a player to find — sometimes it's enough to just give them the inclination to go looking and trust they'll find their own answers.
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Where to Find Us Online:
Linguistic - Ultima Journeys
Gradilla - Twitter
Chlorthos - Aiming for Righteousness
Outtro: Ultima VI Gates of Creation by OC ReMix