How an obsession with Ultima 7 led to some of the PC's best RPGs

The player holds their bow and faces a group of enemies
(Image credit: Larian Studios)

This article originally appeared in issue 348 of our glossy magazine. You can get it delivered right to your door by grabbing a subscription, which will also net you special subscriber-only covers.  

The 1980s were a halcyon age for playground liars, yet to be thwarted by the instantaneous fact-checking power of the internet. Some claimed they had an uncle at Nintendo; Swen Vincke's friend made up a computer game where you could do anything. He spun a tale about a D&D-style adventure on which he had met an AI character who could not only speak, but respond to questions. "He was having me on," Vincke remembers, "but I believed him."

Even once the deception was revealed, Vincke couldn't let go of the game that had been planted in his head, like one of Baldur's Gate III's brain tadpoles. He clung to the dream for years, until he discovered Ultima VII.

"There was so much freedom," Vincke says. "It was non-linear, and you had to interrogate characters to know what you needed to do. You had a party that reacted to what you were doing. It pretty much fit what my friend had told me about so many years before." 

The player in a town in Divinity 2

(Image credit: Larian Studios)

The discovery defined Vincke's tastes, and set his expectations for the games of the future. As the '90s rolled on, however, Ultima VII turned out to be an evolutionary dead-end. "The interactivity of the environment, using it to solve puzzles, how it all blended with the illusion of walking around in a world," Vincke says. "It's something that didn't go forward. If you take Baldur's Gate, it had lots of dialogue reactivity, but the world was very static." 

Vincke made it his career goal to carry the baton for Ultima VII. It was to be a tough run. Larian set up shop at a time when the RPG genre was still in thrall to Diablo, and that influence was palpable in the studio's first Divinity game, which relegated its interactive world to the periphery. "The only thing you could get sold was an action-RPG," Vincke says. 

The road only got more difficult as RPGs moved into three dimensions. Systems that governed the behaviour of physics objects were prone to misbehave, and didn't suit the genre's new requirements for polish. 

"There were dynamic objects in Divinity II: Ego Draconis, but they were very limited," Vincke recalls. "We didn't have the full arsenal of tools that we needed. It was a very different direction from where all the engines were going back in the day. There was always that fight."

Lord Flemish

A screenshot from Divinity: Original Sin

(Image credit: Larian Studios)

Since kickstarting Divinity: Original Sin, however, Larian has built and expanded its own engine, enhancing its systemic capabilities with each new game. By holding up Ultima VII as a guiding light, the studio has found critical acclaim and commercial success without compromise. 

Satisfaction still eludes Vincke, though—who believes that Larian's games have yet to match his inspiration's unrestrained freedom. Even now, with Baldur's Gate III, the studio is still squeezing in features from Ultima VII—such as the stackable crates that can be climbed between different levels, like clumsy staircases. 

The studio has found critical acclaim and commercial success without compromise

"Maybe it's my imagination that exaggerates it now, but I remember scouring every single screen [of Ultima VII] trying to find clues, and often there were," he says. "Players should always be rewarded for their exploration: it's a lesson that we teach our designers today." Vincke sometimes sees those designers playing Ultima VII – a younger generation trying to understand the relic their boss never stops going on about. "I tease the programmers," he says. "'Well, you could do it in Ultima VII, I don't see why you can't do it with your team today.'" 

Crate staircases aside, though, Vincke isn't looking to recreate the mechanics of Ultima VII – rather the platonic ideal associated with it. "Ultima VII did a whole bunch of things badly," he admits. "I only remember the things it did really well. We're shooting more for the feeling. That sense of entering a world where anything is possible, limited only by my own creativity. That strong motivation to do things because there's a storyline driving me forward, and that agency to impact all the denizens of that world."

When Vincke puts it like that, it sounds less like Ultima VII, and more like the kind of perfect game a friend would make up on the playground.