Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Developer: Blue Sky Productions
Publisher: Origin Systems
System Shock typically gets all the credit for bringing first-person role playing games closer to reality by giving you near-total control over your character, but Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss offered similarly advanced controls years earlier. The game set new standards both technically and in terms of creating a believable, interactive 3D world.
Accused of kidnapping the daughter of Baron Almric, you were dropped into the Stygian Abyss to find her and thus prove your innocence. As with all great RPGs, the main objective was just part of a much larger and more sinister plot that unfolded, as you carried out missions and interacted with the other inhabitants of the Abyss.
The argument can be made that FTL's earlier Dungeon Master was more influential than Ultima Underworld, but the latter provided an unprecedented amount of freedom and offered a plot that elevated it above the standard dungeon crawl. You could get drunk (to the point of passing out). You could fish. You could experiment by combining objects to make useful compound items. Since there was no party to worry about, it was much easier to identify with (and care about) your character as the game progressed.
Character interaction was a large part of Ultima Underworld, as the Stygian Abyss was populated with a lively assortment of NPCs. You could talk to, and trade with, them - and they did much to enhance the game's atmosphere because you weren't forced to assume that every creature encountered in the dungeon was hostile. Most of the NPCs would react if provoked, and it was possible to get into a lot of trouble if you were too aggressive.
Every square inch of the Stygian Abyss could be explored, but it required mastering running, jumping, swimming, and even flying. Other first-person RPGs had come before (like Dungeon Master), but Ultima Underworld was one of the first to let you turn smoothly through 360 degrees and move only a few pixels at a time if you wanted instead of in jerky, tile-based steps. Examining and manipulating the environment was easy thanks to the intuitive interface that accepted a combination of mouse and keyboard input. It was very easy to get sucked into Ultima Underworld's environment, and that was the game's greatest achievement. It made you forget you were playing a traditional RPG and began to feel as though you were really exploring a massive underground realm. Unfortunately the game demanded some serious hardware and a player with enough patience to master its intricate controls. The good news is that the game - and its sequel - are still available as part of Interplay's Ultimate RPG Archive, and the graphics have held up well enough that the game is still playable today.