There’s a great deal to be said for legacy. In gaming, the past continually informs the present and the future, with the importance and standing of beloved IPs a centre-point for the entire industry. It’s been over twenty-five years since the immersive sim-defining Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss made its way to personal computers, a fact which the team at OtherSide Entertainment were all too aware of. Underworld Ascendant is the long-awaited sequel, the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, and hopes to be the game that fans have been waiting an exceedingly long time for.
We caught up with Underworld Ascendant writer Joe Fielder recently to talk about what we can expect from the game when it launches later this year, and it’s clear that they’re hoping to evolve the genre that the original game helped to create. “Ultima Underworld is often known as the first immersive sim,” he said, “and it went on to inspire games like System Shock, Thief, Bioshock and Deus Ex, so we’re attempting to – like the games that were inspired by it – take the immersive sim to new, interesting places.”
The Stygian Abyss, the key setting for both the original game and its successor, is a place upon the border of the actual underworld. It’s a place where life should not exist, and where a bizarre ecology has come into being. Joe explained, “The walls between different dimensions are very thin, and creatures from different dimensions have seeped in so it’s become an evolutionary hotpot. It’s an incredibly dangerous place!”
You’re cast as yourself, coming from the modern day to this foreboding place, and Joe was keen to talk about what we should expect from the overarching narrative: “You quickly become embroiled in this plot full of intrigue, in this deeply immersive environment. There are several conflicting factions which are set up in this town and you learn very quickly through this character Virus, a ghost from the series’ past – played by Steven Russell who was Garet in Thief – that you have to stop this primordial nightmare that exists beneath the Stygian Abyss from waking and wiping out creation.”
With a new teaser trailer just dropping, we’ve finally been able to take a look at how the game is shaping up, and it’s clear that the art-style pays homage to the original vision for Ultima Underworld, albeit with substantial improvements. You’re also able to see some elements of the game world which are set to play a primary role in how you interact with it.
Most important to Joe is the fact that the immersive sim ecology, and its logic-based systems, will provide players with a living, breathing world, and it’s one that behaves in a coherent manner. “Physics matter,” he said, “things have weight, physical properties are important, so wood burns, water quenches fire, torches aren’t just for show. You could chop down a wooden door, but it may call attention to where you are. You could set it on fire, but be unable to lock that same door when someone comes after you. So there are all these systems in the environment that just make logical sense, and which the player can experiment with.”
You’re going to be faced with an array of challenges, and thankfully your character is going to be provided with a wide range of skills and abilities to help you tackle them. While it’s not exactly class based, you’re able to take the three key categories of combat, stealth and magic and mix and match abilities from within them, allowing you to build up a character that’s really your own and suits your playstyle.
While Underworld Ascendant is set to be an important moment for the immersive sim genre, it’s not been solely the gaming landscape that has dictated the game’s direction. Joe has turned to some real world sources for inspiration: “I’ve been really inspired by modern board games. There’s a lot of really amazing game design coming out of games like Eldritch Horror or Mansions of Madness, games that have degrading world states, games that have replayable narrative. As the writer of the game I’ve definitely looked at some of the successes of those games and tried to adapt them to Underworld Ascendant.”
As a team of just fourteen Otherside are undoubtedly a very small team, but when you’ve got the original creator of Ultima Underworld, Paul Neurath, at the helm, a number of Looking Glass Studios veterans, and Warren Spector overseeing it all, the legacy of Ultima Underworld is clearly in the right hands. “It’s great to be able to work with people who just have a lot of shared knowledge and are able to iterate really quickly” Joe said. “There’s a lot less politics involved [than in a big team], and it’s a lot more fun! It’s an opportunity to follow up on this legacy of innovation from Looking Glass, and really try to be as innovative as those original games but in different ways.”
While discussing the game with Joe it became clear that this is absolutely a passion project, but one which isn’t solely rooted in nostalgia for the original game. OtherSide are serious about not simply following the same path as Ultima Underworld, and they’re looking to introduce plenty of new aspects that fans of both immersive sims, and RPGs, are going to find hugely compelling.