Twenty-five years ago, a little first-person RPG game called Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss from Looking Glass changed the world of video games forever. The early 1990s were a time when the industry was still finding its footing, offering newer and better ways to experience other worlds in the comfort of one's own home. In Underworld, players found themselves in the Stygian Abyss, an underground system of caves that once housed a now-defunct utopian society.
Filled with scary monsters, a damsel in distress, and gameplay that encouraged creative solutions to certain obstacles, the game was an instant success. A sequel, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, was released a year later, with the franchise impacting youngsters, who would go on to develop their own games. You can see the influence of Underworld in everything from Bioshock to Skyrim to Fallout.
All of these open-world RPGs owe a debt of gratitude to Underworld, and now the series is making a comeback at 505 Games. The development team contains some serious heavy hitters, like original Underworld developers Warren Spector and Paul Neurath. Neurath founded OtherSide Entertainment in 2014, which is a co-developer on Ascendant; Spector joined the company two years later as its studio director. Joe Fielder, whose previous credits include Bioshock Infinite, was brought on to help write the story for the new Underworld.
Underworld Ascendant will drop sometime this year, but SYFY WIRE caught up with the development team to learn a little bit about what it's like reviving such an influential classic. For one thing, we've got your exclusive first look at one of the game's big bad guys, Typhon.
While the setting is familiar, the franchise has come a long way since 1992, Neurath told us during a phone conversation.
"You meet some of the same characters, some of the same monsters, but the game in other ways is fairly different, partly because we’ve learned so much in the intervening years about gameplay, and the technology has moved so far that we’re able to explore things that just weren’t even possible," he said.
One of the biggest elements of the game will revolve around players coming up with creative solutions to certain obstacles. The environment is ever-changing, meaning that the gaming experience will continue to evolve and become more challenging. Spector, Neurath, and Fielder are all looking forward to solutions that even they didn't anticipate.
"A local professor from Emerson came in, and she picked up one of the glue balls off the glue plants in the game, and all of our traps are physics-based, so they’re not just playing an animation, they’re exerting force, so if the player blocks them with a heavy object or, as we soon discovered, used glue to glue the seams, you can stop them," Fielder said. "She walked over, picked up the glue ball, and threw it right along the seam of this whirring blade and it stopped. None of us had ever seen that before."
As for the "puzzles" you'll be encountering, Spector usually steers clear of the word.
"In an immersive simulation, we don’t create puzzles, we create challenges, problems for the player to solve, and then we give the players a series of tools to solve those problems however they want," he said. "The whole idea is, it’s not how clever and creative a designer is in creating a puzzle that has a single solution that you have to suss out or be clever enough to figure out, it’s that there are many, many ways to overcome the challenges that we create... Not puzzles, but problems."