In Retrospect: Ultima VI - The False Prophet
Ultima VI: the False Prophet was released by Origin Systems in 1990, a continuation of the compelling Ultima RPG (roleplaying game) series featuring adventures in the realm of Britannia, ruled by the enigmatic Lord British. As the hero of the game, you have been pulled from your mundane existence in the real world by a mystical power, in order to help Britannia when its need is greatest.
Ultima IV may have been the first of the games to really hit cult status (with its central quest of becoming the Avatar), but for me it is Ultima VI that became the most memorable instalment. It was also, interestingly enough, one of the first major games to be released for the PC format, directly targeted at systems with VGA graphics and mouse movement, as opposed to gaming computers such as the Amiga. It used the capabilities of VGA cards to up the quality from previous Ultima games, using a single scale and a top-down view (rather than a first person perspective).
The game starts with Lord British returning to power in Britannia and the Avatar (you) being captured and tied up on an altar by the evil gargoyles (we know they're evil because they look demonic). Previous companions from the series show up to free you and help you escape through a moongate to Britannia, pursued by your enemies. Learning that the shrines of virtue that formed the crux of Ultima IV have been tainted and taken over by gargoyles, you're launched into a quest to purge Britannia of these invaders.
At this stage, Ultima IV resembles many RPGs: you go out into the world, explore, meet companions and encourage them to quest alongside you, defeat monsters, collect treasure, have small conversations with folk you meet, and generally be a good guy and hero. It has the same quirks as previous games. Dupre, your large fighter companion, can still actually carry two boats with him instead of other items (don't ask how I know this) and Iolo the bard still sings like an X Factor contestant - but these things are what made the Ultima games into such an iconic series. They feel comfortable and easily recognisable.
What makes Ultima VI so memorable though, is that at one point in the middle of the game, when you're busy defeating gargoyles and trouncing through the countryside being Good™, there's a twist that only a really intelligent reading of the game's title may have suggested. As it turns out, the gargoyles aren't quite so evil after all; you get to speak to them, learn their language, understand their history and even their system of virtues and it's now up to you, the Avatar, to forge a peace between the denizens of Britannia and their erstwhile enemies.
Ultima VI evolved the RPG genre from a series of black & white decisions to more subtle shades of grey. Even if there's no doubt you'll follow an eventual path to peace, the player is invested with the fate of this world in an unusual manner from the start, and that's why it will always hold a special place in players' minds. So much so that you can even go and download a port of the game that uses the much newer Dungeon Siege gaming engine to breathe new life into an old classic, over at The Ultima 6 Project, as long as you have Dungeon Siege installed, of course!