RPS: Mnemotechnics and Ultima Underworld II

This is a piece I’ve written for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. I’ve reposted the whole thing below because a) my hits aren’t going to hurt them and b) it’s very personal to me. If you want more information about the game, go read it on RPS – the commenters really know their stuff about Ultima.

To The Tune of: Leon Rosselson – Palaces of Gold

This is a piece I’ve written for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. I’ve reposted the whole thing below because a) my hits aren’t going to hurt them and b) it’s very personal to me. If you want more information about the game, go read it on RPS – the commenters really know their stuff about Ultima.

Let me start in the middle; I own a palace.

My palace is strange. I mean, it’s really strange. I’ve owned it since 1990, which is over twenty years now. Bits of it are in disrepair, tattered, cobwebbed fragments of texture and space, but much of it’s intact and strangely ageless. The way in, for me, is a tiny room in the North-West corner. This room is a comfortable home-from-home, built like a sauna with wood on the floor and walls, a roaring fire, a stacked bookshelf, some food and beer on the table. There’s a secret door behind the bookshelf. Behind that door are some small runes on a table, some drinks, another secret door, and my most precious memories. They’re the only ones I’m not going to tell you about.

You knew this from the beginning but my keep is no physical palace. It’s a Memory Palace, a mental construct used before computers or even printing. Mine is based on the first floor of Lord British’s castle from Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, a game that was the peak of the Western RPG before Morrowind. In UUII, you play the Avatar, a hero trapped in a castle whilst an enemy invades his world, and who must explore the maze of the basements to find the way out. Consider this, then, a retrospective about the sadly-defunct Ultima series, a discussion of an archaic psychological technique used by mystics since the dawn of time but curiously in abeyance during the modern era, and a pyx about the potential for the things we call games to become more than the structural limitations of engine design.

Turn left out of my room, and you’re in Iolo’s chamber. He’s an old crossbow-wielding comrade, a mentor figure to the Avatar who’s stayed in Britannia since Ultima 1 and hence has aged much more rapidly than your friend. He was crudely depicted in the early games but he’s grown up as the series has gone on, until he’s key to the plot of Ultima 7 and 9. He reminds me of older friends and archery, oddly enough, but I don’t have that many memories that fit that, save for really good tutors- smelly Mr Hurst, who taught Latin and Greek, or Dr Walker, who gave us all snuff and sherry while he tried to teach us about Kant.

Memory Palaces are imaginary devices used to retain and structure memories. They’re also known as the Method of Loci. Essentially, they’re a way of using man’s over-developed spatial awareness and memory for locations as an aide memoire – you find a location that you know intimately, and lock to it important memories. It’s a bit like the tricks those chaps who memorise long strings of numbers do, but developed for the long-term retention of ideas as opposed to the short-term. However, I, in my youth, completely misappropriated it – you’re meant to use it for important facts, chunks of text and maths, and so on – using it for memories isn’t normal. I did it because I thought it sounded amazing, because I couldn’t sleep at nights and because my non-visual memory was awful. I used UUII because I knew it better than any real world location.

Down the corridor is a t-junction, with a door opposite. Inside is the warrior Dupre, another old companion, along with enough crates of beer to fill a brewery. This isn’t suspicious forethought on Dupre’s part, just a reflection of his alcoholism – he was first encountered in Ultima III in a pub where he could only say “drink up!” and throughout the series he was trekking over the increasingly-large Britannia “testing beer” for Brommer’s Britannia, a guide book a bit like a fantasy Les Routiers. Hence this room is a reflection for me of every time I’ve been pissed – and as a Brit, this room is chockablock with memories. I remember a few sneaky cans of beer on my last day of school, dancing home when Man Utd came back to win the European Cup, finding a friend passed out in the corridor and helping them home, praying to the ivory throne on so many occasions they’ve blended into one, passing out in my gown and mortarboard on a posh lawn two hours after my final exam, and many other occasions. Drinking, drinking, drinking.

The art of memory is the science of mnemotechnics. The method of loci isn’t the only traditional method for preserving memories, just the only one my ten-year old self had heard of. There isn’t any hard evidence as to where it was first used, though ancient Egyptians and Pythagoreans are the usual suspects. Francis Yates, 1960s occult and neoplatonist writer extraordinaire, wrote that “the most common account of the creation of the art of memory centers around the story of Simonides of Ceos, a famous Greek poet, who was invited to chant a lyric poem in honor of his host, a nobleman of Thessaly. While praising his host, Simonides also mentioned the twin gods Castor and Pollux. When the recital was complete, the nobleman selfishly told Simonides that he would only pay him half of the agreed upon payment for the panegyric, and that he would have to get the balance of the payment from the two gods he had mentioned. A short time later, Simonides was told that two men were waiting for him outside. He left to meet the visitors but could find no one. Then, while he was outside the banquet hall, it collapsed, crushing everyone within. The bodies were so disfigured that they could not be identified for proper burial. But, Simonides was able to remember where each of the guests had been sitting at the table, and so was able to identify them for burial. This experience suggested to Simonides the principles which were to become central to the later development of the art he reputedly invented.” This sounds like utter nonsense, but it’s a good story, and was reason enough for Middle Ages monks to use Simonides’ model.

The Library
I first found out about Memory Palaces from Umberto Eco, and his books are amongst the many I keep in Nystul’s library, way over on the other side of the Great Hall. Nystul is one of the two Beardy Men in Castle British, the other being the doomed sage Nelson. Nystul is also a powerful wizard and the spitting image of Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose, the origin of the Memory Palace idea in the first place. My memory is hazy here, so this place is oddly murky and badly imagined – there are bits of the parallel worlds you visit later in the game intermingled here, Killorn Keep and the haunting Scintilius Academy. All favourite books are here – Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Borges’ Labyrinths, etc.

Where did the Underworld games come from? Older readers, and those who’ve been messing around with DOSbox, will remind there was a profusion of 2D first-person dungeon-crawlers, like the classic Wizardry, back around when most of us were being born. Amongst these was the precursor to the Ultima series ‘Akalabeth: World of Doom’ (1979), made by the teenage Richard Garriott for the Apple II (and parodied in one of the levels of UUII). Though monochrome and line-based, Akalabeth featured the basics of most RPGS, Eastern and Western – underground first-person dungeons and a top-down map. If we’re to refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers theory, Garriott had a full 10 years of developing first-person roleplaying games, giving him a tremendous advantage in knowing what worked, what was easy and what was currently impossible when it came to making the Underworld games. That kept the Ultima series at the front of the pack until everyone else caught up – sadly, Garriot’s recent track-record indicates he wasn’t able to convert that head-start into a long-term advantage.

Love and Hate
Turn right past Dupre’s boozatorium, and you find the guest quarters – featuring Patterson, the Mayor, who (SPOILER) is a repeated traitor, loyal to the avatar’s worst enemy. Here I used to remember conmen or slimy people, like a short kid called Daniel who conned me out of my entire stack of World Cup 90 Panini swaps when I was 9 and who’s probably a lawyer now. In my head, his room is the equivalent of the Great Book of Grudges. Around the corner is Feridwyn – an innocent orphanage keeper who you can repeatedly accuse of being a traitor, and whose room houses my regrets – which I’m not going into.

Julia The Tinker and Lady Tory are also round the corner; two clever and passionate women living next to each other. Julia has been a tinker for over 200 years, though she doesn’t seem sure it’s the right job for her and she seems to have had a facelift since Ultima VI. She’s something of a love interest for the avatar so this room is where I keep all memories of, ahem, you know. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Kieron on you here and turn this into a tell-all of every relationship and this room is a mess of first-kisses and other icky stuff, so let’s move on quick.

The Ultima games weren’t intended to be just first-person RPGs though. The Akalabeth dual-level style had continued throughout the Ultimas but whilst developing Ultima 6 (1988) it was decided to drop their nascent 3D dungeon-crawling engine from production, as at that stage they could only do physics in 2D (or isometric 3D), and spin it off into its own series. At this stage the Ultima series divides into two, with Ultima 7, 7 1/2: Serpent Isle and 8: Pagan sticking with the isometric viewpoint that had come from the map levels, and the Underworld games plumbing the dungeons’ 3D depths, before reunifying for the awful unplayable mish-mash that was Ultima 9.

Where did the Underworlds lead to? Underworld I: The (apocalyptic, tough) Stygian Abyss was released in 1992, two years before Doom, two months before Wolfenstein 3D’s release, and managed true 3D with real-world physics four years before Duke Nukem 3D tried to make a frankly rubbish spiral staircase seem cutting edge. Of course, System Shock was built with the same engine, to take advantage of the sudden success of the FPS genre that had been. Only Underworld-tribute Arx Fatalis and Oblivion since have managed to get near Underworld’s achievement – and Arx was crippled by bugs whilst Oblivion was undermined by Bethesda’s decision to make the plot secondary to the world. That said, the obvious heirs are the Bioshock games, taking both the rich scripting, exciting action, and RPG elements.

The Rest
Lord British’s rooms are unusual in that they’re on their own floor and feature a treasure chest you have to cheat to break into; I associate them with both comfort and authority, like lying down in a mid-Winter blizzard on a mountaintop in Flims or when I was sent to the Rabbi’s office for blasphemy. The great hall with its (for the time) amazing stained glass windows, represents ceremonies, funerals and weddings. The dining hall was always packed so represented gigs and festivals. The servants quarters has no association for me and the secret passages riddling the outside of the castle are plain empty.

I stopped adding substantially to my memory palace maybe ten years ago. It’s not that there’s not lots of room to expand; Underworld II was subtitled “Labyrinth of Worlds” and featured eight other heart-breakingly strange and well-designed worlds that you had to visit, where I could have crammed in memories; no, it was just that I didn’t find myself with the time to retreat there for several years, ironically generating memories that I didn’t store and now have mostly lost.

In fact, this is where UU2 trumps even Planescape: Torment a little – you never feel forced to explore these worlds, you’re desperate to visit them because of the well-written descriptions and they’re all essential to the plot, not like the somewhat odd wandering at the end of Planescape. There’s Killorn Keep, a floating parallel to your world which the Guardian conquered years before; the desolation of the Scintillus Wizard Academy, where your hunt for survivors presages System Shock; the frozen city that has one hallucinating survivor, who you later meet in a dream world; the bizarre programmable alien world of Talorz with its floating organic robot donut things; and the sad, sad Tomb of the defeated hero Praecor Loth.

The Ruins
How does a palace fall? Normally either by siege without or betrayal within; mine fell by both storm and strife, but the starting factor was… distraction. In times of peace and happiness, I left off the palace and didn’t visit. Many of the important memories remained, but others vanished, details faded, significance forgotten and the rotten hearts falling out of the stories. Despite this rot , it lasted until recently, and I could bring up the rooms at will.

The final dissolution, however, was heartbreak. A traumatising end to a beautiful relationship, meant for a time that all attempts at recollection bounced back off the lost object of my affection. Previously, I’d slotted ex-girlfriends in amongst the doomed empath Lady Tory and the avatar’s old friend Julia – but these new memories didn’t need storage, they were strong and intrusive by themselves. It’s hard to maintain a memory palace at the best of times; much harder when every memory triggers an involuntary painful recollection of a lost love, overriding, eroding and breaking hard-made associations. I am rebuilding it, slowly, but it’s no longer a working palace; rather it’s an artefact, a memory of the memories I once held dear.

Before its untimely demise at the hands of EA, Ultima had a fair claim to be the world’s number 1 RPG series. Yet, after the disaster of Ultima 9 and the defection of the key members of both the Origin and the Looking Glass teams, EA seems to have decided that the Ultima franchise can be allowed to die when the still-profitable Ultima Online finally karks it. Likewise, before personal computers, the method of loci was the premier amidst many memory techniques mankind used to fix precious ideas in our heads, trumping books for ease of access and permanence of storage. Both Ultima and The Method are now, effectively dead. The key reason both of these memes failed to propagate was a lack of care on the parts of their curators, combined with duplication of function. Mmenotechnics has been made obsolete by other sources of instant, on-demand information, specifically the internet and always-on mobile phones. No-one needs specialist knowledge any more, just a knowledge of the best methods for searching for your particular information. Even basic memory needs have weakened – how many of us know all our families phone numbers any more? If/when the internet falls over (and it will) we’re all going to be screwed. Meanwhile, EverQuest, World of Warcraft and Oblivion have undermined the need for Ultima.

If you want to play Ultima Underworld II, you can download it here. You’ll need Dosbox to run it.The excellent music is also available on Abandonia Frequency.

When I say ‘Ultima Underworld II made me who I am today’ I mean, it really did. I’ve not really talked about the game itself here, but it is a classic of pared-down storytelling and delightful secrets, just inaccessible due to its crude interface and graphics, which once upon a time were revolutionary. It shaped who I am and it let me retain it in the face of a catastrophically bad memory. That’s not something I’m ever going to forget.


Fuck Provenance

To the tune of: The Durutti Column – Trust The Art Not The Artist

Fuck provenance. The joy of many modern critics seems to lie in the attribution of intention to the auteur, or at least cause to the auteur, focusing on the backstory more than the object of study; the importance of something is thus pushed back, the homunculus raised to the point of key importance, and credit or blame ascribed to this new creation instead of the creator or the piece, and so on, ad infinitum. The homunculus is to blame, no it’s the sense of ego, no it’s the neuroticism in that ego, etc. Value drains out of the object and down this chain of blame or praise.

What does this hunting for origins add to the enjoyment of the piece? What does knowing where Jeunet grew up add to the value of Jules et Jim, or even knowing Jeunet made it? Provenance is not mandatory knowledge for the appreciation of a good. As if a single billionaire could tell the difference between a identical diamond dug out of the ground in Africa and one compressed in a Russian machine, but they pay the price for the story. It’s the placebo effect, carried over to appreciation; oh, this was Nabokov’s cap, my look at the lining, that must be his sweat staining the hat-band, my, I’m enjoying this hat so much more. This steak was cut from Wagyu beef; not grown in Japan, no, nor of the same breed, nor subject to the possibly-mythical abuse/massage, but it’s Wagyu despite the lack of relevant attributes. If the sense data is the same, what matters the origin?

Much of this painting's quality is from the canvas's texture; whether that was intended or not is unknowable and doesn't matter.

This approach is used in food, increasingly, and I was with Delia in her kickback against the snobbery of food provenance; some of the most interesting food I’ve eaten has been cheap, or canned, or frozen, (though the mediocrity of source matters as little as the quality, of course, and inverted snobbery is as bad as the original.) In the arts (movies, games, paintings), we ask what the intention of the author is, as if that’s relevant to the finished product. Yet intention does not imply result, especially where silver-tongued auteurs are involved, and correlation does not imply causation. I judge Gaugin on his skill levels and the general quality of his works (occasionally good texturing, great colour range, poor penmanship/perspective); I judge his artwork on its own merits.

Again, if you’re a subconscious determinist, you might argue for the creator’s story being important irrespective of what he actually intended, the act of creation being valuable whether or not the direction was accurate. I, personally, don’t understand this. I have no problem with you appreciating a story; but it should not impinge on the important aesthetic judgement, that comes from you irrespective of history. The way cut glass grates against your incisor; the satisfaction in the predictable kickback of Bioshock’s shotgun; the richness of colour I’m told raw meat and Van Gogh’s paintings possess; the surprising toxicity of lead-based paints eating away at your reason. These are the raw materials for your judgement, not the supposed intentions of a fellow human black box, not that the water of this distillery flows through peat bogs; I just love the scent of smoke from that glass, and I don’t need to know why it’s there to appreciate it.

Fuck provenance. Fuck intention. Fuck origins. Taste is personal, value is visceral; move away from that and you’re just lying to yourself.

Veni, Vidi, Validity – Blue Monday and Valid Arguments

(This post to the tune of…)

Professional statistics-mangler Professor Cliff Arnell is conquering the news again today, for his yearly profile-raiser about this being the most depressing day of the year. As Ben Goldacre has pointed out, he was paid to produce this research by Porter Novelli, a PR firm, who pitched the idea and date out to several academics back in 2005, to persuade people to buy holidays from a client of theirs. However, as any fule logician knos, merely because something has dodgy premises, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true – and vice versa, just because something is right, doesn’t mean that it was arrived at validly.

Admittedly, Arnall’s premises are totally flawed. His first assumption is, not only that depressive the  measurable, but that it’s the same for people all around the world; his statement is so all-encompassing that the ridiculousness of the equation he came up with isn’t really undermined by his self-deprecating honesty in saying “I’m only doing this for the money” – essentially he’s renting out his qualifications to the PR firm. The travel firm had chosen this date because it was the date they wanted people to start booking their holidays, and it was a cheap way of getting lots of national newspaper coverage (compared to advertising).
There’s an argument about validity here – arguments can be valid, but not true, and statements true, but not valid. Cliff Arnall’s argument is valid like so;
1: The day that maximises this equation is the most depressing day
2: January 18th maximises the equation.
C: Therefore January 18th is the most depressing day.
Sadly, his first premise is false, as his equation is utter bollocks, but there’s a second point – it’s possible to have a true conclusion even when all the premises are false.
1: Everything that has either Perpetual Yeast or Infundibulum Baking Soda in rises every day.
2: The sun is 90% Perpetual Yeast.
C: Therefore the sun rises every day.
So this could be the most depressing day, independent of his nonsense – and it has to be admitted that this _is_ a tremendously depressing day in Britain, the day when the glow of the holidays has completely gone and the grind of the next 11 months becomes apparent. Doing a quick straw poll of Facebook and Twitter, there’s significant number of people (above the normal monday whingers) complaining about this being a rubbish day/week. I’m not going to claim that this is statistically significant – just that my experience seems to bear up Arnall’s arbitrary claim. This could, of course, be because those people have seen the Blue Monday coverage in the news, and they’re highly impressionable.
There’s also the point that even if this is the most miserable day of any year, which I doubt considering the snowbound depression many people were in early in the year, or the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, or the tube attacks of 2007, even if it was for Britain, it’s not for the rest of the world. As Goldacre has said, seasonal suicide peaks vary from country to country and there’s been no consistent findings amongst studies. Of course, again, one shouldn’t link suicide peaks to depression peaks – though our intuition is that the two should be linked, the connection isn’t necessary, especially not when talking about the population at large. Many people were depressed when, say, England lost the cricket, or the Princess of our Hearts forgot to put her seatbelt on.
Cliff Arnall is wrong on so many levels; moral, factual, mathematical; that one should really just ignore him, but the total invalidity of his premises sadly doesn’t invalidate his conclusion.

Why I am not a vegetarian (work in progress)

After a discussion with my brother as to why I still eat (free-range) meat, I came up with the following. Criticism and arguments welcome in the comments please!


  1. The most important thing in any life is to be free from pain
  2. The next most important thing in any life is to have your desires satisfied
  3. There is no life after death, for man, animals, plants, rocks or anything else
  4. All things die.
  5. As we must die, a death which the individual does not forsee and is free from pain is the best death. (From 1 & 2 3.)
  6. A life which is free from pain, involves the satisfaction of necessary desires and ends according to 5 is called humane. (From 1 & 2 & 3 & 5)
  7. The length of the life does not matter, as long as it fulfils all conditions of 6.
  8. If an animal or human is raised and dies in a humane condition, it is the best life. (From 7)
  9. Animals’ desires are simple and satisfiable.
  10. All things considered, animals desires in the wild are satisfied less and they suffer more pain than animals’ lives in humane captivity.
  11. Free range farming and the use of a regulated abattoir is more humane than a life in the wild.
  12. For an animal, a life on a free-range farm ended sharply in a professional abattoir is the best life.

Come On Nietzsche

Come on Nature by the Proclaimers.

Why did I assume they were saying “Come On Nietzsche”? Would they walk five thousand miles to see some shadows cast on a cave wall? Would they send a letter to America declaring the death of god? The only link between them and the ubermensch is twin studies…

This site is excellent: The Nietzsche Family Circus.

Apologies, I’ve been in the office too long. Rambling, dangerous rambling again. Home, Dan.

On Ambition

“If travel is searching and hope is what’s been found, I’m not stopping. I’m going hunting.”

Those are the stied lyrics from a bjork song, but they express my mood at the moment quite well. For an Oxbridge Cnut, I’m strangely unconcerned about wealth, and as for success

“Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it”

Of course, my ego still cringes at being judged for being less than I am, so my current trawl through comics troubles me. I am a reader, a hunter of knowledge: like all mankind I have an ideal, ill-defined, doubtless contradictory, of who I want to be. (I also have an ideal of who the perfect person is, but thankfully I’m excluded for contending for that role. I’ll talk of that another time.)

And comics give me two problems. First, normally they give easy answers, monochrome morals are their field of expertise, puritanically idealist they romp through the carefully constructed artifices of the liberal mind, throwing to one side or another.

Already I feel my mental weakness growing, the need to buck authority (which I’ve never needed before, seeming to have a knack in that particular field. Amazing what a loose tongue, no dress sense and touch of sociopathy can do for your anarchist credentials) flourishing in the environs so arid of common sense. I am a pluralist, and this commitment to good and bad, doesn’t fit. My only commitment is to diversity of moral opinion, which comics ultimately cannot adhere to, because there’s no sticking ground to plant your banner, because their users need rigidity and solidity of opinion to support them, make them think they’re living those right lives again.

Secondly, there’s social connotations to comics, which do seem to fit the people who read them. Strange-looking, curiously angry introverted young men. I saw a cluster of them at the comic shop, and they reminded nothing more glibly than junkies needing their fix of irreality to get through the day. They were waiting for their delivery, the shaven headed stickman, the inappropriately besuited, bespectacled youth, and the grizzled veteran of many an inconclusive inkgod battle. Put simply, I don’t want to be that sort of person, the propped man, stuck on Dali’s crutch.

I know I have to choose. I remember Sartre in the Age of Reason says as much, when Mattieu, the lifelong philosopher who refused to choose finds himself stuck in a dull limbo created by that choice not to choose. We have one life to live, and refusing to choose is refusing to live. I will not go with the flow, slide with the tide. An Oxbridge Cnut I am, I shall try to hold back the tide no more, let the sea rush in, decorate the void.

Still I feel pain at the choice. It was difficult enough choosing this job, this aim over any other, the restriction of myself slashing at my ideal of who I could be, but to choose a personality, readjust my mindset which has been bulked up against the day of choosing, grown fat on ideas in the hope that I will be a better person, a less lazy person, one halycon day.

Maybe for another day will be saved my explication of why, and who I want to be but more urgent concerns are intruding, food and the like, and while I’m sure you’ll appreciate my reaching out, you’ll also appreciate the cessation of that reach. Till tomorrow then.


A thing you might note about my diatribes is is that I am totally motivated by ideas: the real world (as you’d call it) seems to intrude little: that’s cos I too am to some extent an idealist: but not in the normal sense, in the sense that I believe the imeediate objects of our perception are so carefully refined by our automatic processes, and filtered through the rest of our biological structure, that what is left from the outside is indistinct and ultimately indeterminate.

It’s just an opinion though.