I recently played through Ultima Underworld. Ultima Underworld is one of those games from a significantly different period of game design. One of the key differences, in my opinion, between most games then and most games now, is how the game guides the player.
Ultima Underworld entirely takes place inside a giant multi-level dungeon containing both monsters and civilized colonies. It’s a truly large area, and it’s easy to get lost, especially when you first arrive on a new level. Fortunately there is an in-game map, a fairly new feature at the time, as most prior dungeon crawls made you draw your own map. However, the concessions to the player end here. There are no waypoins or arrows pointing you where to go. If you find an important location or get a piece of information, you can make a note yourself on the map.
I believe one of the ultimate marks of both humility and confidence in a developer is letting the player bypass content. Planescape: Torment did this when it said “We’ve got a big boss battle here, but if you want, you can talk your way out of it.” They had a system in place for dialogue, and even when they had a big fight planned, they didn’t let that override the consistency of that dialogue system.
When I played Ultima Underworld, I essentially missed the starting area. On the first level of the dungeon, there are three colonies: human, green goblin, and gray goblin. The human encampment contains a fair amount of introductory information on the layout of the dungeon, as well as some quest hooks. A modern game might have given you a big marker on your map to tell you where this encampment was, and possibly even forced you to go there before letting you go anywhere else.
In Ultma Underworld, not only do they not do this, but they go so far as to make the human camp hard to find. There is a character wandering around that gives you some directions on how to find it, but even with those directions, it’s easy to miss, and you have to do a bit of spacial reasoning to find it. While searching for the camp, I managed to accidentally stumble upon both Goblin camps, explore most of the level, and find the stairway to the second level.
I had made it to level 3 before deciding to look up where the human camp had been. I looked at a Let’s Play on Youtube to find out (turns out it you jump off the ledge by the guy who gave you directions, you’ll land on a ramp that will lead up to the camp).
The best part is that once I got there, I found that I hadn’t really missed much. Most of the information the NPCs there gave is stuff that I was able to figure out on my own from exploring the world.
Now, some of you reading might be thinking “I had no trouble finding that area, you, sir, are very dense.” Well, that’s beside the point. The point is that, near the very beginning of the game, they make you figure out where the closest thing to an introductory section in the game, and if you miss it, you have to figure out the game-world for yourself. Both options involve exploration and putting together clues.
The (or, rather, a) problem with modern games, as I see it, is that game developers are too proud of their best content, and are too eager to show it to you at the first available opportunity. If you use up all your best content on the primary path, exploration will only prove to be a disappointment. This is the problem with Bethesda and all their copy-and-pase dungeons. It was the problem with the first Mass Effect, where the difference between the main quest missions and the optional missions was night and day.
Ultima Underworld made you work for your content. You had to explore, make notes on your map, put together clues and remember important details to progress. If you didn’t, instead of telling you to stop, go back and play it right, it was possible to end up on the final level completely unprepared for what you were going to face, in which case you had a lot of back-tracking ahead of you.
The game used a soft hand to guide the player. It dropped clues that the player could piece together in order to find interesting or important content. You don’t have to instruct the player where to go. You can spark their curiosity and reward their efforts. This, then, gives the player a feeling of exploring a game world rather than being lead through a narrative.