Ultima VIII: Pagan Soundtrack, Nenad Vugrinec, 1994
In case the cover art – with its flame-engulfed pentagram – didn’t make it clear enough, Ultima VIII: Pagan was a far darker game than any of its predecessors. From Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar onward, series creator Richard Garriott had turned the Ultima games into explorations of morality. These pioneering titles didn’t reward gamers for the usual monster killing and treasure hunting that governs RPGs – instead Garriott asked players to act virtuously while pondering ethical dilemmas that had no easy answer. Pagan followed the same design philosophy, but added a grim twist. The game’s antagonist – the Guardian – transports the Avatar to his own realm Pagan – a blasted wasteland that is beyond redemption and hope.
What’s worse, winning the game – as in defeating all enemies – will inevitably bring suffering to the people of Pagan. As Garriott put it: “The challenge was that you had to stay true to your core personal beliefs without totally ransacking the place to achieve your ends and work with the system that was there.” Garriott combined this change of tone with a gameplay style previously unseen in an Ultima game. Pagan was an isometric hack-and-slash, not far removed from Diablo, released two years later. Unfortunately, all of these grand ambitions were foiled by publisher Electronic Arts (once again) imposing a punishing project deadline on developer Origin. As a result, the version of Pagan that was released was effectively incomplete. Consequently, Pagan has always been one of the Ultima franchise’s black sheep, although it’s often admired for its daring reinvention of the Ultima universe.